Editor's note: The following is an encore presentation of David R. Henderson's
column of July 31, 2006.
Sometimes, something happens that is so awful
that we find ourselves rationalizing it, talking as if it had to happen,
to make ourselves feel better about the horrible event. For many people, I believe,
President Truman's dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and
on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, were two such events. After all, if the leader
of arguably the freest country in the world decided to drop those bombs, he
had to have a good reason, didn't he? I grew up in Canada thinking that, horrible
as it was, dropping the atomic bombs on those two cities was justified. Although
I never believed that the people those bombs killed were mainly guilty people,
I could at least tell myself that many more innocent people, including American
military conscripts, would have been killed had the bombs not been dropped.
But then I started to investigate. On the basis of that investigation, I have
concluded that dropping the bomb was not necessary and caused, on net, tens
of thousands, and possibly more than a hundred thousand, more deaths than were
What I write below will not come as a surprise to those who are particularly
well-informed about the issue: the Gar
Wainstocks, and Ralph
Raicos of the world. But it did come as a surprise to me and will surprise,
I believe, many of the people reading this article. There were four surprises:
(1) how Truman himself couldn't seem to keep his story straight about why he
dropped the bomb and even whom he dropped the first one on; (2) how strong the
opinion was among the informed, including many military and political leaders,
against dropping the bomb; (3) how strong a case can be made that the
Japanese government was about to surrender and that the U.S. insistence on unconditional
surrender had already delayed their surrender for months; and (4) how the proponents
of dropping the bomb systematically and successfully convinced Americans that
dropping the bomb saved many American lives. On the third issue, in particular,
I highlight a May 1945 memo to President Truman from former President Herbert
Hoover, the person who founded the Hoover Institution, at which I am proudly,
given his views on this, a research fellow.
Start with Truman. In a long, rambling speech
to the American people on radio on Aug. 9, three days after the Enola Gay dropped
the bomb on Hiroshima and hours after Bockscar dropped it on Nagasaki, Truman
world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military
base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible,
the killing of civilians." Actually, of course, it was not a military base,
but a city, a fact that Truman must have known before he made the decision.
And if he didn't know it, then how horrible is that? Someone who wants to drop
a nuclear bomb on a target should surely do due diligence to find out what the
target is. That seems like a minimal requirement.
Nevertheless, whatever he knew or didn't know, Truman clearly stated above
that he wanted to avoid killing civilians. But did he? In response to a clergyman
who criticized his decision, Truman wrote:
"Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but
I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl
Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem
to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to
deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but
Here, Truman sounds more like a man bent on vengeance than a man worrying about
needless loss of civilian lives.
And how regrettable was it to Truman? He later wrote, "I telephoned Byrnes
[his secretary of state] aboard ship to give him the news and then said to the
group of sailors around me, 'This is the greatest thing in history.'" In
response to a story in the Aug. 7 Oregon Journal headlined "Truman,
Jubilant Over New Bomb, Nears U.S. Port," Lew Wallace, a Democratic politician
from Portland, Oregon, telegrammed Truman:
"We on the Pacific Coast and all Americans know that no president of
the United States could ever be jubilant over any device that would kill innocent
human beings. Please make it clear that it is not destruction but the end of
destruction that is the cause of jubilation."
Truman replied on Aug. 9:
"I appreciated your telegram very much but I think if you will read
the paper again you will find that the good feeling on my part was over the
fact Russia had entered into the war with Japan and not because we had invented
a new engine of destruction."
There are two small problems with Truman's version. First, Truman wasn't jubilant
about Russia's entry. Second and more important, the timing doesn't work. When
Truman claimed to have been jubilant about Russia's entry into the war, Russia
hadn't yet entered. Russia entered the war on Aug. 8.
The Opposition to Dropping the Bomb
Start with this shocking quote – shocking because
of the source:
"Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened
over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman
administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree
on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among
scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to
end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to
the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it."
The author of the above quote: J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But what about the idea that the Japanese would fiercely resist an invasion
of their main islands? It is one of those myths that have come about with few
apparent facts to support it. The various military men who were close to the
action were quite confident that the Japanese had been so thoroughly bombed
and their infrastructure so thoroughly destroyed that there was no need for
the atom bomb. The literature is rife with quotes to that effect.
Take, for example, Curtis
E. LeMay, the Air Force general who led B-29 bombing of Japanese cities
late in the war. LeMay once said, "There are no innocent civilians, so
it doesn't bother me so much to be killing innocent bystanders." And he was
as good as his word: in one night of fire-bombing Tokyo, he and his men killed
100,000 civilians. So we can be confident that any doubts he had about dropping
the atom bomb would not be based on concern for Japanese civilians. But consider
the following dialogue between LeMay and the press.
"LeMay: The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians
entering and without the atomic bomb.
"The Press: You mean that, sir? Without the Russians and the atomic
"LeMay: Yes, with the B-29…
"The Press: General, why use the atomic bomb? Why did we use it then?
"LeMay: Well, the other people were not convinced…
"The Press: Had they not surrendered because of the atomic bomb?
"LeMay: The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at
Nor was LeMay alone. Other Air Force officers, all documented in Alperovitz,
had reached similar conclusions. And Navy admirals and Army generals also believed
that dropping the bomb was a bad idea. Fleet Admiral Leahy, for instance, the
chief of staff to the president and a friend of Truman's, thought the atom bomb
unnecessary. Furthermore, he wrote, "in being the first to use it, we had
adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."
Fleet Admiral Ernest J.
King, commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of Naval Operations,
thought the war could be ended well before a planned November 1945 naval invasion.
And in a public speech on Oct. 5, 1945, Fleet Admiral
Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, said, "The
Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced
to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry
into the war."
Many Army leaders had similar views. Author Norman Cousins writes of Gen. Douglas
"[H]e saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The
war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed,
as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor."
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower,
the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, was also against the bomb.
Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose writes:
"There was one additional matter on which Eisenhower gave Truman advice
that was ignored. It concerned the use of the atomic bomb. Eisenhower first
heard of the bomb during the Potsdam Conference; from that moment on, until
his death, it occupied, along with the Russians, a central position in his thinking.
"When [Secretary of War] Stimson said the United States proposed to
use the bomb against Japan, Eisenhower voiced '… grave misgivings….' Three days
later, on July 20, Eisenhower flew to Berlin, where he met with Truman and his
principal advisors. Again Eisenhower recommended against using the bomb, and
again was ignored."
These are a few of the many quotes in Alperovitz from military leaders who
thought the bomb's use on Japan unnecessary and/or immoral.
Much of what I've written in this section is subject to the criticism that,
of course, these leaders wanted to distance themselves from a bad decision,
but that that doesn't necessarily mean they were opposed at the time or, more
important, expressed their opposition at the time. In short, all these
people could be lying. However, Alperovitz gives enough evidence to conclude,
at the very least, that not all of them were lying. Some of the documents are
memos written well before Aug. 6, 1945.
The Weak Case for Using the Bomb
Even though it's clear that not all of these opponents
lied after the fact about their opposition, assume for a minute that they had.
There still would be no good case for using the bomb. Roosevelt and Truman had
made clear that they were seeking "unconditional surrender" from Japan.
But Truman adamantly refused to clarify what "unconditional surrender"
One of the key issues in the U.S. government's call for the Japanese government's
unconditional surrender was whether the Japanese would be able to keep their
emperor. Former President Herbert Hoover was very active in trying to end the
war with Japan. On May 16, 1945, he sent a memo to Secretary of War Henry L.
Stimson, who had been Hoover's secretary of state, outlining his views on the
war. On May 28, he met with President Truman and discussed how to end the war.
At Truman's request, Hoover wrote a memo in which he urged that the terms of
Japan's surrender be clarified. He emphasized that the U.S. government should
make clear to Japan's government that "the Allies have no desire to destroy
either the Japanese people or their government, or to interference [sic] in
the Japanese way of life." Truman gave the Hoover
memo to Stimson and undersecretary of state Joseph
Grew for comments. On June 14, fully seven weeks before the bomb was dropped,
Stimson's staff gave its assessment:
"The proposal of a public declaration of war aims, in effect giving
definition to 'unconditional surrender,' has definite merit if it is carefully
There is ample evidence that the Japanese government was willing to surrender
months before Aug. 6 if only it could keep its emperor. Much of this evidence
is given in Alperovitz's book and much in Dennis D. Wainstock, The Decision
to Drop the Atomic Bomb (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996). Wainstock (pp. 22-23)
tells of many attempts by the Japanese to clarify the terms and to make clear
their willingness to surrender if they could only keep their emperor untouched.
For example, on April 7, 1945, acting Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru asked
Swedish Ambassador Widon Bagge in Tokyo "to ascertain what peace terms
the United States and Britain had in mind." Shigemitsu emphasized that
"the Emperor must not be touched." Bagge passed the message on to
the U.S. government, but Secretary of State Edward Stettinius told the U.S.
ambassador in Sweden to "show no interest or take any initiative in pursuit
of this matter."
So the Japanese government tried another route. On May 7, 1945, Masutard Inoue,
counselor of the Japanese legation in Portugal, approached an agent of the Office
of Strategic Services (OSS). Inoue asked the agent to contact the U.S. embassy
and "find out exactly what they plan to do in the Far East." He expressed
his fear that Japan would be smashed, and he emphasized, "there can be
no unconditional surrender." The agent passed the message on, but nothing
came of it.
Three times is a charm, goes the saying. But not for the hapless Japanese.
On May 10, 1945, Gen. Onodera, Japan's military representative in Sweden, tried
to get a member of Sweden's royal family to approach the Allies for a settlement.
He emphasized also that Japan's government would not accept unconditional surrender
and must be allowed to "save face." The U.S. government urged Sweden's
government to let the matter drop.
But if you can't at first surrender, try, try again. On July 12, with almost
four weeks to go before the horrible blast, Kojiro Kitamura, a representative
of the Yokohama Specie Bank in Switzerland, told Per Jacobson, a Swedish adviser
to the Bank for International Settlements, that he wanted to contact U.S. representatives
and that the only condition Japan insisted on was that it keep its emperor.
"He was acting with the consent of Shunichi Kase, the Japanese minister
to Switzerland, and General Kiyotomi Okamoto, chief of Japanese European intelligence,
and they were in direct contact with Tokyo." On
July 14, Jacobson met in Wiesbaden, Germany with OSS representative Allen Dulles
(later head of the CIA) and relayed the message that Japan's main demand was
"retention of the Emperor." Dulles passed the information to Stimson,
but Stimson refused to act on it.
Interestingly, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy drafted a proposed
surrender demand for the Committee of Three (Grew, Stimson, and Navy Secretary
James Forrestal.) Their draft was part of Article 12 of the Potsdam
Declaration, in which the Allies specified the conditions for Japan's surrender.
Under their wording, Japan's government would have been allowed to keep its
emperor as part of a "constitutional monarchy." Truman, though, who
was influenced by his newly appointed Secretary of State James Byrnes on the
ship over to the Potsdam Conference, changed the language of the surrender demand
to drop the reference to keeping the emperor.
The bitter irony, of course, is that Truman ultimately allowed Japan to
keep its emperor. Had this condition been dropped earlier, there would have
been no need for the atom bomb. Rather than let Japan's government "save
face," Truman destroyed almost 200,000 faces.
Why did this happen? Why did Truman persist in refusing to clarify what unconditional
surrender meant? Alperovitz speculates, with evidence that some will find convincing
and others won't, that the reason was to send a signal to Joseph Stalin that
the U.S. government was willing to use some pretty vicious methods to dominate
in the postwar world. My own view is that Truman and Byrnes wanted vengeance,
plain and simple, and cared little about the loss of innocent lives. Let's face
it: dropping an atom bomb on two non-militarily strategic cities was not different
in principle from fire-bombing Tokyo or Dresden.
Why is it that when people talk Hiroshima and
Nagasaki today, the standard response from defenders of the decision is that
dropping these bombs saved hundreds of thousands and, in some versions, millions,
of American lives? The reason is that some of those who had most favored using
the bomb, or who had gone along with the decision, participated in a highly
successful attempt to craft history.
Even Jimmy Byrnes, the aforementioned secretary of state and one of the strongest
advocates of using the bomb, claimed in his memoirs only the following: "Certainly,
by bringing the war to an end, the atomic bomb saved the lives of thousands
of American boys." But, by 1991, President George
H.W. Bush was claiming that the decision to use the bomb "spared millions
[emphasis mine] of American lives." What happened that made Americans take
this kind of claim seriously?
Within a year of the war's end, articles started appearing in the U.S. that
questioned the need for dropping the bomb or that simply laid out, in very human
terms, its devastating consequences. In a June 1946 article in Saturday Review,
for example, editor Norman Cousins and co-author Thomas K. Finletter, a former
assistant secretary of state and, later, secretary of the Air Force, raised
the question of why the bomb was dropped. They speculated:
"Can it be that we were more anxious to prevent Russia from establishing
a claim for full participation in the occupation against Japan than we were
to think through the implications of unleashing atomic warfare?"
Other popular articles followed. On Aug. 19, 1946, the New York Times
reported that Albert Einstein deplored the use of the bomb and speculated that
it was a way of getting to Japan before the Russians did. On Aug. 31, The
New Yorker devoted its entire issue to John Hersey's Hiroshima, which
laid out the horrible human tragedy. It didn't help the proponents' case that
in July 1946, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey's book, Japan's Struggle
to End the War, was published. It concluded that Japan would have surrendered
without the bomb, without the Soviet declaration of war, and without even a
In the minds of proponents of using the bomb, something had to be done. James
B. Conant, for example, Harvard University's president and one of the leading
advocates of the bomb's use, concluded that an article was needed to counter
this growing wave of criticism. The best candidate for the job, he concluded,
was Henry Stimson. Stimson had been in both Hoover's and Truman's administrations
and was highly respected. Conant suggested to Harvey Bundy, who had been one
of the main overseers of the Manhattan Project that had developed the bomb,
that he draft an article for Stimson's signature. The actual author of the article
was Harvey Bundy's young son, McGeorge Bundy, who later figured so prominently
as a Kennedy administration official in favor of the Vietnam war. Alperovitz
tells the story so well (pp. 448-497) that I can't do justice to it here. But
here are two highlights of the points the article was to make:
- That if the bomb hadn't been used, "thousands and perhaps hundreds
of thousands of American soldiers might be [sic] killed or permanently
- That "nobody in authority in Potsdam was satisfied that the Japanese
would surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies without further bitter
As we have seen, both of these claims were false. Conant, moreover, successfully
persuaded Bundy to drop mention of the issue of "unconditional surrender."
This is like asking a sports writer writing about football player Terrell Owens'
conflicts to drop any mention of his criticism of Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback
Donovan McNabb. Why confuse readers with the facts?
The final draft was published in the February 1947 Harper's and widely
reprinted. It silenced all but the most-independent critics. If you find yourself
making claims about all the American lives saved and about the Japanese intransigence
in the face of certain defeat, as I used to, you can probably thank McGeorge
Bundy, Henry Stimson, and James B. Conant. But if you want the facts, read pp.
448-497 of Alperovitz.
1. Quoted in Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic
Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1995, p. 563.
2. J. Samuel Walker, "The Decision to Use the Bomb:
A Historiographical Update," Diplomatic History, Vol. 14, No. 1
(Winter 1990), pp. 97-114. (Quoted in Alperovitz, 1995.)
3. Quoted in Alperovitz, 1995, p. 336.
4. William D. Leahy, I Was There, pg. 441, quoted
5. Alperowitz, p. 329.
6. Cousins, Pathology of Power, 1987, p. 71, quoted
in Alperovitz, 1995.
7. Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower, Vol I: Soldier, General
of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 (New York, 1983), pp. 425-426, quoted
in Alperovitz, p. 358.
8. Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 44.
9. Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 44.
10. Quoted in Wainstock, p. 22.
11. Wainstock, p. 23.
12. James F. Byrnes, Speaking Frankly, New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1947, p. 264.
13. Quoted in Alperovitz, p. 443.
Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.