Posts Tagged ‘Harry S. Truman’

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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Why Americans Have Been Duped over the Use of the Atomic Bomb

Paul Ham

HNN   November 9, 2014

One day somebody in high office in Washington will have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge, if not apologise for, a grotesque distortion of the truth that the Truman Administration visited on the American people in the pages of Harper’s Magazine in 1947.

In an article bearing the name of Henry Stimson, the then octogenarian former War Secretary, and written by Truman fixers, the American government invented the notion that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ‘our least abhorrent choice’, avoided a land invasion of Japan and saved hundreds of thousands of American lives (a figure the media rounded off to ‘a million’ soon after publication).

This line of thinking has since insinuated itself into the public consciousness as the official version of the history of the nuclear destruction of two cities, in which 100,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed instantly and hundreds of thousands have since succumbed to cancers linked to radiation poisoning.

Yet, the Harper’s defense of the bomb was a gross political deception. It recast the story of the use of the weapon in soothing phrases the American public wanted to hear, and which have, for 70 years, been accepted as the atomic gospel, or, as historians like to say, the orthodox version of history (as distinct from revisionist versions that post-date Stimson’s original deception).

In fact, the Harper’s article was itself the first revision of history. It has since been replayed in thousands of news articles, history texts and online commentary, by a thoroughly gulled media and mainstream America, who have gorged themselves on this Hollywood ending to the war, the atomic slam dunk that avenged Pearl Harbor.

They all repeat, more or less, the Truman Administration’s original lie: that the atomic bombs forced Japan to surrender unconditionally, ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands if not a million American lives. So entrenched is this line of thinking in America that any deviation is branded ‘revisionist’ and hence inadmissible, perversely ignoring the fact that the ‘orthodox’ line grotesquely revises the facts and is the original travesty of the truth.

To demonstrate how far that travesty plays out, we need to compare the actual narrative of the last days of the war with Stimson’s 1947 reconstruction. In so doing, we do not expect to change the minds of the present and older generation, who will admit no deviation from their line on the bomb whatever evidence is thrown in their path. We hope merely to enlighten younger and/or future generations of Americans who are less susceptible to the lies of politicians and the compassionless hatred of the post-war generation.

In 1947, President Truman and members of his administration were concerned at the cumulative voices of churches, scientists, a few prominent journalists and the embryonic anti-nuclear movement, who felt they had been misled over what actually happened to the people of Hiroshima on 6th August and Nagasaki on 9th August, 1945, and were concerned at the alarming evidence of radiation sickness in the cities’ populations two years after the end of the war (cases of lymphoma linked to the bombs would peak in the early 1950s).

The Truman administration, on the suggestion of James B. Conant, a Harvard professor who had been closely involved in the bomb’s development, decided to try to quell these concerns by commissioning a long article, in Stimson’s redoubtable name, sourced to a memorandum from his assistant, Harvey Bundy, and written largely by Harvey’s precociously clever son, McGeorge. General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project (which built the bomb) and several senior officials edited the draft. The article, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” first appeared in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s, was reprinted in major newspapers and magazines, and aired on mainstream radio. It purported to be a straight statement of the facts, and quickly gained legitimacy as the official, ‘orthodox’ case for the weapon.

The Harper’s article (and a parallel piece in the Atlantic Monthly by Karl Compton) introduced the American public to the tendentious idea that the atomic bomb ‘saved’ hundreds of thousands (perhaps “several millions,” Compton claimed) of American lives by preventing an invasion of Japan. The article’s central plank was that America had had no choice other than to use the weapon. There was no way to force the Japanese to surrender other than to drop atomic bombs on them. By this argument, the atomic bombings were not only a patriotic duty but also a moral expedient:

“In the light of the alternatives which, upon a fair estimate, were open to us,” Stimson/Truman wrote, “I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face. The decision to use the atomic bomb brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change that fact and I do not wish to gloss over it. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of the clash of great land armies.”

Editors and the public warmly approved: here, they felt, was an honest justification for this horrific weapon: the A-Bomb did good, in the end. The Harper’s article put the American mind at ease, slipped into national folklore, and the Stimsonian spell appeared to tranquillize the nation’s critical faculties on the subject.

Yet the article’s case for the use of the weapon was profoundly flawed. Most erroneously it argued that a land invasion of Japan and the atomic weapons were mutually exclusive – a case of either-or. This nexus was made up after the war. In 1945, it was never a case of “either the bomb or the invasion.” The question did not arise. The facts show that in early July 1945, about two weeks before the bomb was tested, Truman and senior military advisers abandoned plans to invade Japan. The success of the atomic test had no bearing on this decision. In fact, Truman had already decided that it made no sense to risk American lives invading a nation that was already comprehensively defeated, ringed by the US navy blockade, possessed few supplies or raw materials, and was being daily flattened by General Curtis LeMay’s conventional firebombing air raids, which had already burnt down 66 Japanese cities (including the air strike on Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945, which incinerated more than 100,000 civilians in a single night and is today remembered as the single most deadly bombing raid in history).

Basic errors of fact and sins of omission compounded this monstrous deception. The article was plain wrong, for example, to claim that the ‘direct military use’ of the bomb had destroyed ‘active working parts of the Japanese war effort’. This was post-facto propaganda. Nobody on the powerful Target Committee (set up in early 1945 to decide which cities to target with the first nuclear weapons) pretended that Hiroshima was a military target of any significance: its barracks were barely functioning in 1945 and more than 90 per cent of Hiroshima’s war-related factories were on the city’s periphery. Hiroshima was shortlisted for nuclear destruction for very different reasons: in mid-1945 it remained a pristine city, full of ‘working men’s homes’ as yet undisturbed by LeMay’s conventional air raids. Its annihilation would thus show off the weapon’s destructive force, and supposedly ‘shock Japan into submission’. The Harper’s article made no mention of this, peddling the notion that ‘workers’ homes’ could somehow be construed as legitimate military targets.

As to Stimson’s claim that America used the bomb reluctantly – ‘our least abhorrent choice’ – suggesting that Washington and the Pentagon had wrestled painfully with alternatives, the facts demonstrate precisely the opposite. Everyone involved in making the bomb wanted, indeed hoped, to use the weapon as soon as possible, and gave no serious consideration to any other course of action. The Target and Interim Committees (the latter set up to examine the control of nuclear weapons after the war) swiftly dispensed with alternatives – for example, a warning, a demonstration, or attacking a genuine military target. In fact, Secretary of State James Byrnes rejected most of these possibilities in a few minutes over lunch in the Pentagon. No doubt they were fraught with risks, and possibly unworkable, but if Truman was serious about considering alternatives to the bomb, he might have more closely examined them.

Byrnes argued that a prior demonstration of the bomb would imperil the lives of Allied POWs whom the Japanese would move to the target area (the US Air Force had shown no such restraint during the conventional air war, which daily endangered POWs); that a demonstration may be a dud (unlikely, given the successful test of the plutonium weapon near Alamogordo, and the fact that Manhattan scientists saw no need even to test the gun-type uranium bomb used on Hiroshima); they had only two bombs so had to use them (untrue – at least three were prepared for August, and several in line for September through to November); and that there were no military targets big enough to contain the bomb (Truk Naval Base was considered and rejected; no other military target was seriously examined except Kokura, a city containing a large arsenal. The attempt to bomb it was abandoned due to bad weather, and Bockscar, the delivery plane, dropped the weapon on Nagasaki instead). In short, the use of the bomb was an active choice, a desirable outcome, not a regrettable or painful last resort, as Truman insisted. Every high office-holder believed, and supported, its use at the time: ‘I never had any doubt it should be used,’ Truman said on many occasions. The Harper’s phrase ‘our least abhorrent choice’ thus grossly misrepresents a gung-ho, diabolically zealous, enterprise.

Stimson’s least persuasive claim was that the atomic bombs prevented hundreds of thousands of American casualties (dead, wounded and missing). This number has since been rounded up to 1 million or ‘millions’, and has become a particularly stubborn zombie. Yet a school child’s arithmetic is enough to do the job of killing it: in 1945, the number of American (and allied) combat troops earmarked for the planned (but never approved) invasion of Japan numbered about 750,000. That is well short of a million, of course. Yet for the sake of clarity, let’s believe the post-war consensus of a million casualties. If true, that means every American soldier would have been killed, wounded, or MIA during the land invasion of Japan. The notion is absurd, of course, and hardly reflects well on the fighting ability of the US armed forces, who would have confronted a hungry and demoralized nation whose airforce and navy had been destroyed, and whose skies were totally controlled by American bombers and fighters. Yes, Japan retained substantial ground forces, as well as the fierce loyalty of its people, but they were undersupplied, ill-equipped and lacked artillery and air cover: sitting ducks, in other words, to US strafing raids.

In truth, the actual estimate of likely casualties of a land invasion, drawn up by the Joint Chiefs in a meeting with Truman in July 1945, was 31,000. The count was later lifted to between 60,000-90,000, nowhere near the post-war estimate of up to one million, which can now be seen for what it was: a post-facto justification for the bomb, conjured by Washington out of thin air, to ease America’s troubled conscience.

The Harper’s article also claimed, wrongly, that the atomic bombs had forced Japan to ‘unconditional surrender’. While the bombs obviously contributed to Japan’s general sense of defeat, not a shred of evidence supports the contention that the Japanese leadership surrendered in direct response to the atomic attacks. On the contrary, when they heard of the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s hardline militarists shrugged off the news – that a ‘special bomb’ had destroyed two more cities – and vowed to continue fighting.

If you disbelieve this, read the Minutes of the epic meetings of the samurai leadership in August 1945. The ‘Big Six’, the ministers who ran Japan from a bunker beneath Tokyo at the time, barely acknowledged Nagasaki’s destruction when a messenger arrived with the news on 9th August. The messenger, who had interrupted their meeting to discuss Russia’s invasion of Japanese occupied territory the day before, was abruptly dismissed. The loss of another city of civilians was hardly of interest. In fact, state propaganda responded to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by girding the nation for a continuing war – against a nuclear-armed America.

Nor would a nuclear-battered Japan consider modifying its terms of ‘conditional surrender’. The Big Six clung stubbornly to their last condition – the retention of the Emperor – to the bitter end. A regime that cared so little for its people except insofar as they served as cannon fodder in a last, miserable act of national seppuku; a nation so fearful of the Soviet Union that it sent message after message to Moscow imploring it to intervene and start peace negotiations (on Japan’s terms, of course, which Truman rightly rejected); a people so steadfast in their refusal to yield that they were preparing to defend their cities against further atomic bombs – this was not a country easily ‘shocked into submission’ by the sight of a mushroom cloud in the sky (and it is worth remembering that, the day after, Tokyo had no film or photographs of the bomb; only US pamphlets and military reports claiming it had been used).

A greater threat – in Tokyo’s eyes – than nuclear weapons drove Japan finally to contemplate a (conditional) surrender: the regime’s suffocating fear of Russia. The Soviet invasion on 8 August crushed the Kwantung Army’s frontline units within days, and sent a crippling loss of confidence across Tokyo. The Japanese warlords despaired; Russia, their erstwhile ‘neutral’ partner, had turned into their worst nightmare: the invasion invoked the spectre of a Communist Japan, no less. Russia matched iron with iron, battalion with battalion. This was a war that Tokyo’s samurai leaders understood, a clash they respected – in stark contrast to America’s incendiary and atomic raids, which they saw as cowardly attacks on defenceless civilians.

In the end, Japan surrendered conditionally, on 14th August, after Washington had agreed to Tokyo’s final terms: that Emperor Hirohito would be allowed to live, and the Imperial Dynasty, to continue. This condition the US government effectively met in the Byrnes Note, sent on 11th August, two days after Nagasaki’s destruction. In sum, the atomic bombs had had no direct influence on Tokyo’s decision, despite Hirohito citing the ‘cruel weapon’ in his surrender speech (one of the more grotesque pieces of propaganda in this sorry episode).

In the end, what are we left with? America used the bomb, without warning, in an attempt to extract ‘unconditional surrender’ from a defeated foe, ‘manage’ (ie draw a line against) Russian aggression in Europe and Asia, and avenge Pearl Harbor, as Truman and Byrnes later said. The bomb achieved none of those goals (unless the neutron saturation of two cities is accepted as proportionate punishment for Pearl Harbor). In fact, Tokyo surrendered with its sole condition intact; and Russia, unperturbed by the first use of atomic weapons in anger, continued to stamp and snort and foment communist revolution around the world, before rushing to join the nuclear arms race.

In short, the Truman administration’s attempt, in Harper’s magazine, to justify the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has no basis in fact, and was merely a post-facto piece of propaganda. Yet it has been accepted as ‘orthodox’ history. Let us call it by its correct name: a ‘revision’ of the truth, which is a polite way of saying it was a pack of lies. This article asks the reader do reconsider the source of those lies. Nothing, no twisted logic or ethical somersault or infantile ‘they started it’ etc can justify the massacre of innocent civilians. We debase ourselves, and the history of civilisation, if we accept that Japanese atrocities warranted an American atrocity in reply.

Paul Ham is an Australian historian who specialises in the 20th century history of war, politics and diplomacy. His latest book is “Hiroshima Nagasaki” (Thomas Dunne, 2014).

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Mark Byrnes
HNN   September 10, 2014

Truman with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, 1945

Historians try to do the impossible: recreate and preserve the past. We do so knowing that the product, even at its most encyclopedic, will inevitably be imperfect and incomplete. The resultant telescoping of events can have the effect of robbing the past of its fullness and complexity.

In diplomatic history, what is sometimes lost in the retelling is the deliberative part of policy-making. That is certainly true in popular versions of history. In our haste, we too often cut to the chase: the decision. In memory, we see decision rather than deliberation. The danger is that it then becomes easy to forget the deliberation ever happened.

When this tendency infects politics and punditry at a tumultuous time, we get the kind of excitable hand-wringing that has dominated both fields for the last several weeks. John McCain and Lindsey Graham fret in the New York Times that President Obama is “dithering” on ISIS. The second ISIS video showing the beheading of an American journalist adds to the sense of urgency that something—and one suspects, in the minds of some people, anything—must be done. Maureen Dowd blasts Obama’s deliberations and absurdly asserts that “panic is a sign of clear thinking.” David Brooks longs for the post-World War II visionary decisiveness of Harry Truman, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson.

Brooks, with his “the sky is falling” alarmism about the state of the world, makes some truly astounding statements.  Incredibly, he asserts: “There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can.”

Centuries? Does Brooks not know that the 19th century saw the western states “gobble up” much of the rest of the world? Does he think that doesn’t count because their empires were not often immediately “around them”? Did the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 not count simply because the U.S. didn’t annex the country?

That absurdity aside, his main point is that “Putin and ISIS … are threats to our civilizational order.” He longs for “a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.” That, he argues, is what Truman, Marshall, and Acheson did after World War II.

Brooks is guilty of the kind of telescoping I mentioned above. With the Truman Doctrine, he says, those leaders were “establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.”

What Brooks does not mention is that the policy of containment was not fully formed or articulated until nearly two years after the defeat of Hitler. As Alonzo Hamby puts it in Man of the People, his biography of Truman, “[a]s late as the fall of 1946, [Truman] presided over a foreign policy that was more a response to disparate crises than a strategically unified whole.” Sounds familiar.

While there were voices in his administration calling for a tougher line on the Soviet Union, Truman himself was often seen by critics as vacillating between a soft and hard approach. According to Hamby, the Truman Doctrine speech—seen by Brooks as emblematic of a clear vision of the rules of civilization—was “[l]ess the product of a consciously formulated strategy than of a rush of events that demanded a decision.” Again, sounds familiar.

Brooks says: “People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era.” Perhaps, but that is only because, in retrospect, we can conveniently forget the nearly two years of indecision that preceded the Truman Doctrine speech. That shadow is cast primarily by a romanticized notion of the past that emerges out of ignorance of its complexity.

It also seems worth noting that the proposals Truman made in that March 1947 speech were fairly modest. There was no call for American military intervention, no boots on the ground, no air strikes–just a statement of political support for the Greek government and a fairly modest proposal to increase financial aid to it. In short, it was not at all unlike the statements of support for Ukraine and Iraq that Obama has made.

No doubt Brooks would object that it was the principle Truman announced, not the specific proposals, that mattered: “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” Truman said.

Any student of the cold war knows, however, that the stark universalism of that statement, its refusal to distinguish carefully between vital and peripheral issues, led to disasters like the American war in Vietnam, and led the “father of containment,” George Kennan, to decry what his idea became in practice.

In addition, when Truman prudently recognized the limits of American power in China, he was savagely lambasted by reactionary politicians who blamed him for “losing” China, and not living up to the universalism of his own doctrine. Rep. Richard Nixon denounced Dean Acheson as an appeaser, referring sneeringly to “Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” Sen. William Jenner said that Gen. George Marshall was “a living lie” who was “eager to play the role of a front man for traitors.” Joe McCarthy accused Marshall of being part of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Such are the political costs of recognizing the limits of American power.

Despite all of the carping of the critics, Obama’s deliberations, his refusal to engage in dramatic, impulsive gestures that may do more harm than good, his desire to line up allies for a concerted, considered, long-term response to the challenges represented by Putin and ISIS represent the historical policy-making norm, not dangerous “dithering.”

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

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Hiroshima: What People Think Now

HNN  August 8, 2010

Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the A-Bomb Dome. The atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima detonated almost precisely above the building. Credit: Wikipedia

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