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A Guide to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Attacks

Seventy years ago, the United States committed one of the most horrific atrocities in military history. Why?

 
Jacobin   August 9, 2015
The atomic bomb exploding in Nagasaki, Japan. Corbis

The atomic bomb exploding in Nagasaki, Japan. Corbis

Seventy years ago today, the United States detonated a plutonium implosion-type atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing between 40,000 and 80,000 people.

It was only the second time an atomic weapon had been used in warfare. The first time had occurred three days before, when the United States dropped a uranium gun-type atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Between 90,000 and 170,000 people died in that attack.

It was one of the greatest wartime atrocities ever perpetrated. The United States political and military establishment unleashed all the destructive power of the most potent weapons ever created on two civilian populations of little strategic importance. It was a brutal show of force that announced the arrival of the new American superpower and helped establish the stakes of the Cold War.

As a State Department memo written during the Carter administration explained, “the Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore, they have to take this into consideration in their calculus.”

The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain two of the most shameful moments in US history. Perhaps because of this lingering shame, they are too often left understudied. Often they are dismissed as acts of simple naivety — as if President Truman were unaware of the murderous potential of his Space Age super-weapons — or alternatively as an act of wanton callousness, evacuating these events of their political content.

In this short primer, Jacobin briefly describes the attacks, their aftermath, and the continuing relevance of nuclear weapons on the global stage today.

Did the US have to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war?

No. There is no truth to the common argument that the United States military had to use nuclear bombs on Japanese civilians to end World War II.

American leaders at the time understood well that they had other options. In fact, Truman mentions this in his memoirs, recalling his worry that, should American atomic tests fail, the Soviet ground invasion of Japan would precipitate the Japanese surrender, thus amplifying Soviet influence in East Asia. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military had begun planning a detailed ground invasion of their own, a strategy deliberately developed to avoid the use of nuclear warfare in the Pacific.

But more importantly, Japan was profoundly isolated in the region and in the world following the surrender of Nazi Germany. The Japanese state had already begun to collapse, with military and executive bureaucracies in disarray. The Soviet declaration of war — which occurred on August 8, between the bombing of Hiroshima and the bombing of Nagasaki — so panicked Japanese Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki that, when he was advised not to plan a military response to the imminent invasion, he reportedly replied, “then the game is up.”

Whatever cynical agenda motivated the American leaders’ decision to annihilate hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives with new-fangled apocalypse technology, it wasn’t out of an interest in preventing further suffering. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was geopolitical posturing at its most barbaric, a catastrophic display of military capability engineered to send a message to the Soviet Union and other powers unfriendly to global US hegemony.

It wasn’t about ending the war. It was about announcing American willingness to use doomsday weapons on civilian populations. In August 1945, President Truman and the American establishment held a gun to the head of the entire world. And that gun remains in place to this day.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. Library of Congress

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. Library of Congress

What were the effects of the bombings?

At about 11:00 on the morning of August 9, Kermit Beahan — an American bombadier who would later describe the attack as “the best way out of a hell of a mess” — found a hole in the clouds above Nagasaki and dropped the atomic bomb. It took about forty-six seconds to fall. When it exploded there was an overwhelming flash of light, followed ten seconds later by a deafening roar.

Speaking to the Houston Chronicle years later, Beahan would describe the aftermath of the explosion, saying, “’I saw a mushroom cloud bubbling and flashing orange, red and green. It looked like a picture of hell. The ground itself was covered by a rolling black smoke.”

The temperature under the explosion has been estimated to exceed 3,000 degrees centigrade — hot enough to incinerate human bodies. Sharp heat rays carried enormous amounts of radiation, which were imperceptible in the moment but would have devastating health effects. The risk of developing leukemia has been estimated at 46 percent for those exposed to  atom bomb radiation.

The obscenity of the nuclear attacks is illustrated in vivid detail in the testimony of survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha.

Emiko Fukahori was only seven-years-old at the time of the bombing, which occurred as she played in a shady bamboo grove close to Nagasaki:

I was totally absorbed in playing when I heard the sound of an airplane (a B-29). I somehow immediately knew it was an enemy aircraft. … When the bomb exploded, the first one into the shelter was Sumi-chan, then me, and then a third child. The last girl was incinerated and died on the spot. When I was going into the shelter, I felt the heat on my back, so I escaped the fate of the third child by just a hair’s breadth.

When I left the shelter, the adults had been burnt all over their bodies, and were gasping for breath. The surrounding area had completely changed– all the large moso bamboo trees had been knocked down. A woman covered in blood was calling for help as she came up from below, which frightened me. …

Fukahori’s older brother also survived the explosion. But, like many who experienced the bomb’s lethal radiation, his health began to deteriorate soon afterward.

He started suffering nosebleeds about a week after the bombing. They called a doctor, and my aunt put a wash basin by his side and stayed up all night taking care of him. But the bleeding from his gums and nose grew worse, and he finally died on the 22nd.

Before he breathed his last, he complained that his stomach and legs hurt very much. I was sleeping next to him, and he told me to bring a knife because an atomic bomb was lodged in his stomach. I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer, so I got up to get him a knife, but my uncle scolded me.

My brother’s corpse had no blood at all. It was as white as a wax dummy. My mother died in Nagasaki at about the same time, and my sister and younger brother died weeping over her body. I was told they held the funeral for all three on the same day.

Horrific symptoms of this kind were widespread.

Tatsuichiro Akizuki was a young doctor at a Nagasaki medical center 1.4 kilometers from the explosion’s epicenter. At the time of the explosion he was working at the hospital, and recalls yellow smoke billowing in through the building’s collapsed stories. It didn’t take long for the wounded to begin approaching the hospital.

About 10 or 15 minutes later, throngs of wounded people streamed up the hill to the hospital. The people in the nearby fields and streets looked as if they had all been burned white, and they had somehow lost their clothes. They staggered towards us, heads in their hands, calling for help. The people who came later were different. Their faces were blackish and had swollen like pumpkins. You couldn’t tell the men from the women. They all stopped to wash off in the river, started walking again, and then stopped to wash off again. Then they all fell flat on their faces and stopped walking. There were a lot of blackened corpses by the river’s edge. …

There were corpses in which the heads had been split open, and intestines were spilling from their abdomens. Most of the others had burns–on their face and back, their legs and calves, or their chest and abdomen. The people who were in the fields and paddies turned around to look behind them when the flash from the bomb came, and they were burned on their face and back at the same time

He provided round-the-clock treatment to thousands of bomb victims, encountering symptoms he had never seen before and that he was entirely unprepared to treat.

Starting about the third day, patients turned black and had diarrhea. They told me that blood had come from their mouths, which had turned purplish. By the fourth or fifth day, I thought this might have been dysentery or peliosis. But some of those people had not been wounded in the bombing, and I began to get suspicious and had a sense of foreboding.

The effects of the bombing lingered long after the morning of the August 9, 1945. Amnesty International estimates that by the end of 1945, 70,000 people had died in Nagasaki as a result of the bombing. In the 40 years that followed, 24,000 more would perish as a result of radiation toxicity and burning.

On November 2, Japan signed the instruments of surrender, effectively surrendering control of the Japanese state and economy to the American establishment.

What did the American public think?

The unprecedented horror of nuclear warfare — so recklessly unleashed by the American executive without so much as a pale imitation of democratic decision-making or regard for human life — managed to cut through even the patriotic bravado of the World War II homefront. Though conservative elements of the public — and most of the military establishment — welcomed the use of the bombs and praised Truman’s choice to deploy such novel killing instruments, Americans were overwhelmingly disquieted by the attacks.

Even Truman felt the need to backpedal a little bit when the extent of the devastation became clear. Instead of the chest-pounding typical of wartime presidents, he offered a lukewarm statement that approaches, but stops short, of an apology — the political equivalent of a grimace and a shrug:

I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb … It is an awful responsibility which has come to us … We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.

But even American Christian organizations — hardly known for their willingness to contradict the president or criticize the military — weren’t willing to concede this faux-theological justification for such careless destruction of human life. In 1946, the Federal Council of Churches issued a strongly-worded statement that read:

As American Christians, we are deeply penitent for the irresponsible use already made of the atomic bomb. We are agreed that, whatever be one’s judgment of the war in principle, the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible.

Internationally, the response was even graver. Unsurprisingly, the bombings found little support among the millions of people living in Third World nations who now witnessed the scale of US cruelty during wartime, and who imagined their own hamlets, ports, and cities in the place of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And a war-weary Europe was largely unimpressed with the careless savagery of the American military, having recently seen their own cities demolished by bombs while the United States mainland remained entirely untouched.

The human effects of the bombings were so shocking that almost no one could celebrate them uncritically without inviting criticism from the Left, Right, and center.

But, true to form, the jingoistic American enchantment with US military capacity proved strong enough to make hometown heroes out of some participants in the nuclear attacks, including the navigator of the Hiroshima bomber Enola Gay, who was uncritically celebrated in his small Pennsylvania town’s local paper as recently as last year.

Ground Zero in Hiroshima, Japan. US Army

Ground Zero in Hiroshima, Japan. US Army.

What effects have the bombings had on global politics?

Following the introduction of nuclear weapons to the arsenals of the world’s largest military powers, a strong international movement for nuclear disarmament emerged, lambasting global leaders as careless cynics who had put humanity on the path towards annihilation. With the horror witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki fresh in the minds of many, the movement quickly gained traction and became a real force in international politics, helping to encourage the passage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970 and contributing the commonly-used peace sign to the lexicon of popular political symbols.

In 1982, one million people demonstrated in New York City’s Central Park, demanding a bilateral end to nuclear arms testing in an effort to de-escalate the Cold War. It has been celebrated as the largest political demonstration in American history.

But despite this pushback, nuclear capability continues to be a potent bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations. The United States occupies the ironic position of self-appointed moral gatekeeper of nuclear technology worldwide — as if the country’s spectacular demonstration of the bomb’s destructive potential in 1945 granted the US an historical right to determine who gets to have it and who doesn’t. And this has served to obscure the United States’ continued interest in developing increased nuclear capability and repeated flouting of its own treaties limiting nuclear weapons manufacturing.

Most recently, the international community has witnessed American saber-rattling in response to Iranian nuclear ambitions, and the specter of nuclear warfare has been used twice to justify US military interventions in Iraq.

How should we remember the bombings?

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offer a powerful reminder of the savagery of war. And the unilateral decision of the military and executive branches to develop nuclear weapons and launch the devastating attack offers insight into the power mechanics of the US state.

But despite the richness of these political conclusions — and the vital importance of building towards a world free of the possibility of nuclear war — there are moments when all we can do is mourn.

We mourn the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as socialists and as human beings.

Jonah Walters is a researcher at Jacobin.

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“We Have Passed the Stage of Amateur Evil:” Scientists respond to the Atomic Bomb, August 6, 1945

A mother fled the flames with her child in her arms.

A mother fled the flames with her child in her arms. Yamada Ikue. Age at blast: 12, Image created at: 41(Photo: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, MIT Visualizing Cultures)

On August 6, 1945, Eugene Cotton, a Lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps, wrote to his fiancée from his posting in California.

Dearest Mary,This morning I opened my eyes about 4 a.m. and found myself wide awake for no apparent reason. An odd feeling overcame me that something terrible had happened, and yet it seemed foolish to think so. Finally I went back to sleep and convinced myself that all was well. Then, when the news was broadcast at noon, I knew I had been right. The announcement of the new atomic bomb, and its use without warning, made me realize that we have passed beyond the stage of amateur evil. Man has openly begun to lay plans for his own destruction.

Cotton was one of hundreds of thousands who, having left service in the European theater of the war, were slated to take part in a massive invasion of the Japanese islands in late 1945 and early 1946. He was 23 years old, a recent college graduate with a degree in physics, and had undergone training at both MIT and Berkeley before joining the Army to do meteorological work in the Atlantic. The atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 may have saved his life, but as a scientist, he was horrified by what he saw.

He was not alone. Much has been written about the political decisions made in those fateful days between the successful Trinity nuclear test in July 1945 and its deployment in early August, though it is clear that Truman himself was never particularly in doubt about what he would do. But the scientific community was split by the bomb. Even many of those physicists who had helped conceive and design it eventually came to oppose its use. Physicists like Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Leo Szilard – among many others – found their own beliefs challenged by the awesome responsibility of the bomb and its implications for future generations.

In August of 1939, Albert Einstein – acting on prompting from fellow physicist Leo Szilard – wrote a letter urging US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to consider the creation of a bomb based on the principle of nuclear fission. Einstein was a pacifist by nature, but feared that Hitler’s Germany, with its access to skilled physicists and intent on expanding its natural resources, would develop a fission bomb. Roosevelt largely ignored the letter until just before the country’s entry into the war in 1941, when he created an organization to attempt development of an atomic weapon. Einstein himself was too high profile to take part in the top secret Manhattan Project, however, and grew increasingly wary of it, especially after the bomb’s use in August 1945. In 1952, Einstein spoke out strongly against the arms race that his work helped precipitate, asserting that “[nations] feel moreover compelled to prepare the most abominable means, in order not to be left behind in the general armaments race. Such procedure leads inevitably to war, which, in turn, under today’s conditions, spells universal destruction.” Einstein later called his involvement in the Manhattan Project his life’s biggest regret.

Einstein was not the only major figure to turn away from what he created. Few were more intimately involved with the creation of the first atomic bomb than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the lab that actually created and tested it. Oppenheimer’s involvement during the program itself was energetic and enthusiastic; his fellow project members were often in awe of his work ethic and mastery of the project’s many details. He was an unabashed champion of the bomb.

And then he saw it go off.

Oppenheimer told different versions of what went through his head when he saw the first nuclear explosion, but in the mid-1950s he often claimed that a line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” summed up his reaction to the sight. Over the five years after the Trinity test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer began to shift his support, pushing for international control over atomic weaponry, especially after fellow Manhattan Project member Edward Teller helped create a working theory for a hydrogen bomb. Indeed, Teller attempted to have Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked in the 1950s because of his opposition to the hydrogen bomb project and the development of thermonuclear weapons. In later life, Oppenheimer tried to direct scientific inquiry away from the development of ever more advanced weapons and toward a more creative, productive nuclear science.

Of those who worked on the Manhattan Project, the one who most completely reversed his support for the atomic bomb was, ironically, the man who had first conceived of the concept of a nuclear chain reaction, Dr. Leo Szilard. Szilard was a Hungarian Jew and a refugee from the increasingly hostile atmosphere in Europe in the 1930s. Terrified of a bomb in the hands of Hitler’s Germany, Szilard was the one who pushed Einstein to write his fateful letter. Unlike Einstein, though, Szilard took part in the work at Los Alamos. There, he was generally seen as a disruptive influence, often at odds with the Project’s military head, General Leslie Groves. By the end of the war, Szilard was questioning whether the bomb should be used at all. He attempted to convince President Roosevelt that using the bomb would be a moral failing and might unleash an uncontrollable nuclear arms race, but Roosevelt died, leaving the decision to Truman. Following the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Szilard wrote extensively against the bomb. In a 1947 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists entitled “Calling for a Crusade,” Szilard called science in general into question for pursuing “progress” without ethics. In 1949, he wrote a short story in which he imagined himself a war criminal in a future destroyed by atomic weapons.

Eugene Cotton, too, feared this in 1945. He worried that with the bomb, the country had set “a horrible pattern for the next half-century.” He blamed not science itself, but the scientists who took part in the project: “What makes me most fearful and ashamed is that highly regarded physicists have developed this thing, using the highest forms of our science. I can think of no greater disgrace than to have made possible such a weapon.” He called the scientists on the project “unaffected and unmoved” – an opinion formed from immediacy and youth, but not unsupported by evidence. He saw the events of that morning as the worst possible outcome of science: destruction in the place of progress, hubris over morality, technology as God.

Cotton concluded his letter to his wife, promising that he still had “much hope, for us and our generation.” In the end, he and men like him helped to provide that hope. Though the world certainly felt the weight of a looming nuclear war for the next half-century, it never did experience one, thanks in part to the regrets and warnings of Cotton and his fellow scientists.

Andrew Lipsett

Andrew Lipsett teaches United States History at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA. His interests include race, identity, and membership, and he blogs about history, memory, and memorialization at Graves of Note.

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Harry Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: After 70 Years We Need to Get Beyond the Myths 

HNN August 2, 2015

President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945 is arguably the most contentious issue in all of American history. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have generated an acrimonious debate that has raged with exceptional intensity for five decades. The spectrum of differing views ranges from unequivocal assertions that the atomic attacks were militarily and morally justified to claims that they were unconscionable war crimes. The highly polarized nature of the controversy has obscured the reasons Truman authorized the dropping of the bomb and the historical context in which he acted.

The dispute over the atomic bomb has focused on competing myths that have received wide currency but are seriously flawed. The central question is, “was the bomb necessary to end the war as quickly as possible on terms that were acceptable to the United States and its allies?”

The “traditional” view answers the question with a resounding “Yes.” It maintains that Truman either had to use the bomb or order an invasion of Japan that would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, and that he made the only reasonable choice. This interpretation prevailed with little dissent among scholars and the public for the first two decades after the end of World War II. It still wins the support of a majority of Americans. A Pew Research Center poll published in April 2015 showed that 56% of those surveyed, including 70% aged 65 and over, agreed that “using the atomic bomb on Japanese cities in 1945 was justified,” while 34% thought it was unjustified.

The “revisionist” interpretation that rose to prominence after the mid-1960s answers the question about whether the bomb was necessary with an emphatic “No.” Revisionists contend that Japan was seeking to surrender on the sole condition that the emperor, Hirohito, be allowed to remain on his throne. They claim that Truman elected to use the bomb despite his awareness that Japan was in desperate straits and wanted to end the war. Many revisionists argue that the principal motivation was not to defeat Japan but to intimidate the Soviet Union with America’s atomic might in the emerging cold war.

It is now clear that the conflicting interpretations are unsound in their pure forms. Both are based on fallacies that have been exposed by the research of scholars who have moved away from the doctrinaire arguments at the poles of the debate.

The traditional insistence that Truman faced a stark choice between the bomb and an invasion is at once the most prevalent myth and the easiest to dismiss. U.S. officials did not regard an invasion of Japan, which was scheduled for November 1, 1945, as inevitable. They were keenly aware of other possible means of achieving a decisive victory without an invasion. Their options included allowing the emperor to remain on the throne with sharply reduced power, continuing the massive conventional bombing and naval blockade that had destroyed many cities and threatened the entire Japanese nation with mass starvation, and waiting for the Soviets to attack Japanese troops in Manchuria. Traditionalists have generally played down the full range of options for ending the war and failed to explain why Truman regarded the bomb as the best alternative.

A staple of the traditional interpretation is that an invasion of Japan would have caused hundreds of thousands of American deaths, as Truman and other officials claimed after the war. But it is not supported by contemporaneous evidence. Military chiefs did not provide estimates in the summer of 1945 that approached numbers of that magnitude. When Truman asked high-level administration officials to comment on former president Herbert Hoover’s claim that an invasion would cost 500,000 to 1,000,000 American lives, General Thomas T. Handy, General Marshall’s deputy chief of staff, reported that those estimates were “entirely too high.” Hoover apparently based his projections on an invasion of the entire Japanese mainland, but military planners were convinced that landings on southern Kyushu and perhaps later on Honshu, if they became necessary, would force a Japanese surrender.

The revisionist interpretation suffers from even more grievous flaws. Japanese sources opened in the past few years have shown beyond reasonable doubt that Japan had not decided to surrender before Hiroshima. It is also clear from an abundance of evidence that U.S. officials were deeply concerned about how to end the war and how long it would take. The arguments that Japan was seeking to surrender on reasonable terms and that Truman knew it are cornerstones of the revisionist thesis. They have been refuted by recent scholarship, though impressing the Soviets was a secondary incentive for using the bomb.

The answer to the question about whether the bomb was necessary is “Yes”. . . and “No.” Yes, it was necessary to end the war at the earliest possible moment, and that was Truman’s primary concern. Without the bomb, the war would have lasted longer than it did. Nobody in a position of authority told Truman that the bomb would save hundreds of thousands of American lives, but saving a far smaller number was ample reason for him to use it. He hoped that the bomb would end the war quickly and in that way reduce American casualties to zero.

No, the bomb was not necessary to avoid an invasion of Japan. The war would almost certainly have ended before the scheduled invasion. A combination of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, the effects of conventional bombing and the blockade, the steady deterioration of conditions in Japan, and growing concerns among the emperor’s advisers about domestic unrest would probably have brought about a Japanese surrender before November 1. And no, the bomb was not necessary to save hundreds of thousands of American lives.

The controversy over Truman’s decision seems certain to continue. The use of a bomb that killed tens of thousands instantaneously needs to be constantly re-examined and re-evaluated. This process should be carried out on the basis of documentary evidence and not on the basis of myths that have taken hold and dominated the discussion for 70 years.

J. Samuel Walker is the author of Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan (University of North Carolina Press, 1997, second edition, 2004). He is now working on a third edition of the book.

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President Truman and the Atom Bomb Decision: “Preventing an Okinawa from One End of Japan to Another” 

HNN    August 3, 2015

What did President Harry S. Truman and his senior advisers believe an invasion of Japan would cost in American dead? For many years this has been a matter of heated historical controversy, with Truman’s critics maintaining that the huge casualty estimates he later cited were a “postwar creation” designed to justify his use of nuclear weapons against a beaten nation already on the verge of suing for peace. The real reasons, they maintain, range from a desire to intimidate the Russians to sheer bloodlust. One historian wrote in the New York Times: “No scholar of the war has ever found archival evidence to substantiate claims that Truman expected anything close to a million casualties, or even that such large numbers were conceivable.” Another skeptic insisted on the total absence of “any high-level supporting archival documents from the Truman administration in the months before Hiroshima that, in unalloyed form, provides even an explicit estimate of 500,000 casualties, let alone a million or more.”

A series of documents discovered at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, and described by this author in an article in the Pacific Historical Review, tell a different story.

In the midst of the bloody fighting on Okinawa, which began in April 1945, President Truman received a warning that the invasion could cost as many as 500,000 to 1,000,000 American lives. The document containing this estimate, “Memorandum on Ending the Japanese War,” was one of a series of papers written by former President Herbert Hoover at Truman’s request in May 1945.

The Hoover memorandum is well known to students of the era, but they have generally assumed that Truman solicited it purely as a courtesy to Hoover and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had been Hoover’s Secretary of State. What had lain buried in the Truman Library archives, however, was Harry Truman’s reaction to Hoover’s memoranda and the “Truman-Grew-Hull-Stimson-Vinson exchange” that it prompted.

Truman reviewed the material from the former president and after writing “From Herbert Hoover” across the top of its memo 4, “Memorandum on Ending the Japanese War,” he forwarded the original copy to his manpower czar, Fred M. Vinson on or about Monday, June 4. The War Mobilization and Reconversion director had no quarrel with the casualty estimate when he responded on Thursday, 7 June, suggesting that Hoover’s paper be sent to Secretary Stimson and Acting Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew, as well as former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was currently a patient at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

Truman agreed and had his staff type up additional copies of memo 4 on Saturday, June 9 and sent them to Stimson, Grew, and Hull asking each for a written analysis and telling both Grew and Stimson that he wished to discuss their individual analyses personally — eye to eye — after they submitted their responses. Stimson subsequently sent his copy to the Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Thomas J. Handy because he wanted to get “the reaction of the Operations Division Staff to it” and mentioned in his diary that he “had a talk both with Handy and [General George C.] Marshall on the subject.” Handy’s staff then produced a briefing paper for Stimson which drew attention to the fact that memo 4’s figure of potentially 1,000,000 American dead was fully double the Army’s estimates.  It was “entirely too high under the present plan of campaign” which entailed only the seizure of southern Kyushu, the Tokyo region, and several key coastal areas.  The pointed disclaimer “under the present plan of campaign” was, however, literally the only part of the 550-word analysis, excluding headlines, that carried a typed underline and was an ominous reminder that the battle then raging on Okinawa was itself not playing out as planned.

Hull was the first to respond directly to Truman. He branded memo 4 Hoover’s “appeasement proposal” in his June 12 letter because it suggested that the Japanese be offered lenient terms to entice them to a negotiating table. Hull did not take issue with the casualty estimate. Grew also did not take issue with the casualty estimate in his June 13 memorandum and confirmed that the Japanese “are prepared for prolonged resistance” and that “prolongation of the war will cost a large number of human lives.”

Grew’s opinion would not have come as any surprise to the president since he had told Truman, ironically just hours after the meeting with Hoover, that “The Japanese are a fanatical people capable of fighting to the last man. If they do this, the cost in American lives will be unpredictable.” One can readily surmise that Hoover and Grew’s statements, hitting virtually back-to-back in the midst of America’s costliest campaign of the Pacific war on Okinawa, were not of much comfort to the new commander in chief.

Grew’s memorandum, messengered by government courier, and Hull’s letter both arrived on Wednesday, June 13, and Truman subsequently met with Admiral William D. Leahy on the matter. Leahy, who was the president’s personal representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and acted as unofficial chairman at their meetings, sent a memorandum, stamped “URGENT” in capital letters, to the other JCS members as well as Secretary of War Stimson and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. The president wanted a meeting the following Monday afternoon, June 18, 1945, to discuss, “the losses in dead and wounded that will result from an invasion of Japan proper,” and Leahy stated unequivocally that “It is his intention to make his decision on the campaign with the purpose of economizing to the maximum extent possible in the loss of American lives. Economy in the use of time and in money cost is comparatively unimportant.” The night before the momentous meeting, Truman wrote in his diary that the decision whether to “invade Japan [or] bomb and blockade” would be his “hardest decision to date.”

The “Truman-Grew-Hull-Stimson-Vinson exchange” not only places the very high casualty numbers squarely on the President’s desk long before Hiroshima, but, says Robert Ferrell, editor of Truman’s private papers, it demonstrates that Truman “was exercised about the 500,000 figure, no doubt about that.” Ferrell adds that the exchange answers the question of why Truman called the June 18 meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Navy Secretary Forrestal, and Stimson. Said the senior archivist at the Truman Library, Dennis Bilger, when shown the documents: “This is as close to a one-to-one relationship as I have ever seen in the historical record.” Yet another discovery, by the Hoover Presidential Library’s former senior archivist, Dwight M. Miller, indicates that the huge casualty estimate likely originated during Hoover’s regular briefings by Pentagon intelligence officers.

The possible cost in American blood was of paramount importance. Entering the war “late” –and because of its sheer distance from Europe and the western Pacific – the United States did not begin to experience casualties comparable to those of the other belligerents until the conflict’s final year. By then the U.S. Army alone was losing soldiers at a rate that Americans today would find astounding, suffering an average of 65,000 killed, wounded, and missing each and every month during the “casualty surge” of 1944-45, with the November, December, and January figures standing at 72,000, 88,000 and 79,000 respectively in postwar tabulations.

Most of these young men were lost battling the Nazis, but Truman was greatly disturbed by the casualty figures from the ongoing Okinawa Campaign and the Marines’ recent battle on Iwo Jima. Even though the United States was by now several months into the steep increase in draft calls implemented under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to produce a 140,000-men-per-month “replacement stream” for the now one-front war, Truman wanted to directly address this matter with his most senior advisors.

The president’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries took place before one of the recipients of Truman directive, Stimson, had submitted a written response. It was not until after the meeting and several drafts that Stimson wrote: “The terrain, much of which I have visited several times, has left the impression on my memory of being one which would be susceptible to a last ditch defense such as has been made on Iwo Jima and Okinawa and which of course is very much larger than either of those two areas. . . . We shall in my opinion have to go through a more bitter finish fight than in Germany [and] we shall incur the losses incident to such a war.”

At the Monday meeting, all the participants agreed that an invasion of the Home Islands would be extremely costly, but that it was essential for the defeat of Imperial Japan. Said Marshall: “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory.” There was also considerable discussion of the tactical and operational aspects surrounding the opening invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s Home Islands, with the emphasis on their effects on American casualties. The meeting transcript says that: “Admiral Leahy recalled that the President had been interested in knowing what the price in casualties for Kyushu would be and whether or not that price could be paid. He pointed out that the troops on Okinawa had lost 35 percent in casualties.”

Leahy noted that “If this percentage were applied to the number of troops to be employed in Kyushu, he thought from the similarity of the fighting to be expected, that this would give a good estimate of the casualties to be expected. He was interested therefore in finding out how many troops are to be used in Kyushu.”

Leahy did not believe that the dated and narrowly constructed figure of 34,000 ground force battle casualties in a ratio table accompanying General Marshal’s opening presentation offered a true picture of losses on Okinawa which, depending on the accounting method used, actually ran from 65,631 to 72,000 partially because of extreme exhaustion and combat-related psychosis. He used the total number of Army-Marine casualties to formulate the 35 percent figure, a figure which excluded the U.S. Navy’s brutal losses to Japanese Kamikaze suicide aircraft. Since Leahy, as well as the other participants including Truman, already knew that ground force casualties on Okinawa were far higher than 34,000 and approximately how many men were to be committed to the Kyushu fight, he was obviously making an effort — commonly done in such meetings — to focus the participants’ attention on the statistical consequences of the disparity. General Marshall presented the most recent figure for the troop commitment in this first (and smaller) operation of the two-phase invasion, 766,700, and allowed those around the table, including Leahy, to draw their own conclusions as to long-term implications.

A discussion then ensued on the sizes of the opposing Japanese and American forces which was fundamental to understanding how Leahy’s 35 percent might play out. Finally, Truman, who was continuing to monitor the rising casualty figures from Okinawa on a daily basis cut to the bottom line since the initial assault, Operation Olympic against the Island of Kyushu, would in fact be dwarfed by the Spring 1946 strike directly at Tokyo, Operation Coronet: “The President expressed the view that it was practically creating another Okinawa“ to which “the Chiefs of Staff agreed.”

More discussion ensued and Truman asked “if the invasion of Japan by white men would not have the effect of more closely uniting the Japanese?” Stimson stated that “there was every prospect of this.” He added that he “agreed with the plan proposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as being the best thing to do, but he still hoped for some fruitful accomplishment through other means.” The “other means” included a range of measures from increased political pressure brought to bear through a display of Allied unanimity at the upcoming conference in Potsdam to the as yet untested atomic weapons that it was hoped would “shock” the Japanese into surrender.

Continued discussion touched on military considerations and the merits of unconditional surrender, and the president moved to wrap up the meeting: “The President reiterated that his main reason for this conference with the Chiefs of Staff was his desire to know definitely how far we could afford to go in the Japanese campaign. He was clear on the situation now and was quite sure that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should proceed with the Kyushu operation” and expressed the hope that “there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
Other HNN articles by D. M. Giangreco relating to President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb: 

D. M. Giangreco is the author of Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 (Naval Institute Press, 2009) and his Journal of Military History article “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasions of Japan: Planning and Policy Implications” was awarded the Society for Military History’s Moncado Prize in 1998. The following article is abridged from his Pacific Historical Review article, “ ‘A Score of Bloody Okinawas and Iwo Jimas’: President Truman and Casualty Estimates for the Invasion of Japan” which is available from the University of California Press. 

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