Sunday, October 23, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox

This is a re-posting, with some modifications, of my original August 20, 2015 essay.

(NOTE: This is Part II of my three-part essay scrutinizing the Hiroshima Myth and Legacy)

Aftermath I
Hiroshima Destroyed

When Harry Truman became president on April 12, 1945, upon the death of President Roosevelt, he had little knowledge of international affairs and knew virtually nothing about the Manhattan Project that was developing an atomic bomb. On the first day of his presidency, Truman said in his memoirs, he was told by Roosevelt confidant James Byrnes that the U.S. was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.” He would be fully briefed on the bomb project on April 25 by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and General Leslie Groves, who had been put in charge of the Manhattan Project. Truman had only a rudimentary understanding of what an atomic bomb was, but what he did grasp was its potential for unlimited power. The idea of its omnipotence was engrained into his consciousness early in his presidency.

As president, Truman, who had been selected by Roosevelt as his vice-president running mate after the nominating convention was deadlocked between Henry Wallace and Byrnes, inherited issues of momentous significance-- foremost of which were to lead the victory over Japan and decide what to do with the atomic bomb, which was nearing completion.

To bring victory in the Pacific, his advisers presented him three options. The first was diplomatic: negotiate an end to the war. Truman knew Japan was trying to get out of the war because we had broken its codes and were listening in on their communications.  Tokyo had made overtures toward the Soviet Union, with whom it had signed a neutrality pact, in the hope that Moscow would help mediate an end to the war.  (Overtures were also made to neutral states Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal.)  Japanese leaders reasoned the Soviets offered the best hope for mediation since they might see this as an opportunity to limit U.S. influence in the region.

Diplomacy was the least popular option among Truman's top advisers. They knew that Japan, whose air force and navy had been destroyed, and was short on food, supplies, munitions, and men to defend the home front (they were recruiting child soldiers and airmen), was close to defeat. A military victory seemed imminent; on what terms was the question.

In striving to carry on with FDR's policies, Truman adopted the former president's call for “unconditional surrender,” which Roosevelt had mentioned for the first time at the 1943 Casablanca Conference. Unconditional surrender was a popular war aim among war-weary, revenge-thirsty Americans, but it complicated a negotiated end to the war because it was totally unacceptable to the Japanese, who were adamant about retaining their emperor, governing system and culture. Despite it being more of a slogan than a policy, Truman had little interest in revising a term so many Americans had rallied behind, especially when Japan was playing such a weak hand.

The idea of unconditional surrender had its critics. Churchill told Truman at Potsdam he thought the rhetorical term was too rigid. Forcing Japan to accept it, would extract too heavy a price on the allies. Churchill thought that in the interest of future peace and security Japan had to be left with “some show of saving their military honor and some assurance of their national existence.” Acting U.S. Secretary of State Joseph Grew, a former ambassador to Japan, was an outspoken critic of unconditional surrender. He advised Truman to modify the surrender terms to allow the emperor to remain as head of state. The highly respected Secretary of War Henry Stimson was persistent in pressing Truman to pursue surrender terms  that would not exclude a constitutional monarch under Japan's present dynasty.

Truman and Byrnes II
President Truman with James Byrnes
Although Truman gave hints he was open to the idea of modifying unconditional surrender, he was being pulled in the opposite direction by Byrnes and Grove, who had bigger plans for atomic weapons. Byrnes in particular had the ear of the president. He had vast experience in foreign affairs, full knowledge of the bomb project, and had been FDR's closest adviser. And, he was a leading figure on the Interim Committee Truman appointed to advise him on use of the bomb. Given Byrnes' pro-bomb views, and Truman's fear of being considered weak or an "appeaser,"  the diplomatic option never really had a chance. Byrnes made sure of this when he shut Stimson our of the deliberations and negotiations at Potsdam. Truman and Byrnes made sure unconditional surrender remained the key feature of the Potsdam Ultimatum.

The second option was an invasion of the mainland. Given the uncertainty about the bomb’s availability, this was the option that garnered Truman’s attention. The President asked the military to estimate the number of American lives that would be lost in an assault on Japan. Barton Bernstein uncovered a declassified June 1945 Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advisory group paper that estimated the number of American lives likely lost at twenty-five to forty-six thousand. A later JCS War Plans Committee report estimated 31,000 battle casualties (dead, wounded and missing), numbers it said made an invasion “relatively inexpensive"--numbers, however, Truman still found alarming. The President had little stomach for a land invasion.  Nevertheless he ordered the JCS to proceed with planning an invasion. It was to begin on Kyushu with simultaneous landings on three fronts, commencing around November 1. The invasion of the main island of Honshu was not to take place until the spring of 1946.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson
Truman also understood that fewer American lives would be lost if the Russians joined the fight, which they had promised at Yalta to do three months after Germany's surrender. General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, had told him at a June 18 meeting of the Joint Chiefs that Japan would likely capitulate after the Russian entry. With the atomic bomb project approaching a conclusion, however, Truman and Byrnes had second thoughts about Russia's entry into the war.

A test of the Plutonium bomb was scheduled for the middle of July. Wanting the knowledge of a successful test before he met Stalin, Truman pushed the promised July 1 date for the Potsdam Conference back to July 15. It is clear he was coordinating the Potsdam meeting with the Alamogordo atomic test.

Truman, Stalin, Churchill
Stalin, Truman and Churchill at Potsdam
At Potsdam, Truman first saw Stalin on July 17 and quickly got his promise he would invade Japan as he had pledged at Yalta. In his Potsdam diary, Truman celebrated Stalin’s promise to “be in Jap war on August 15th” . . . “fini Japs when that comes about.” On July 18 he wrote to his wife: “I’ve gotten what I came for—Stalin goes to war on August 15 with no strings on it . . . I’ll say we’ll end the war sooner now, and think of the kids that won’t be killed.”

These words suggest that Truman believed Russia's intervention might not only end the war, but obviate America's invasion plan, and he therefore was motivated to encourage Soviet entry. This may have been so in the weeks leading up to Potsdam; it wasn't the case after Trinity.  In truth, at Potsdam, with a strong prodding from Byrnes, the President was thinking about how best to keep the Russians out of the war.  The challenge now was to end the war before, as Byrnes put it, the Russians could get "in on the kill?"  Truman's reflections in his diary and to his wife appear to be playing more to posterity than truth.

Truman and Byrnes returning from Potsdam
Truman and Byrnes' Triumphant Return from Europe
When Truman learned about the successful Trinity test on July 16, his demeanor at Potsdam changed. Fortified by the exciting news, his overriding focus at the conference shifted from the waning war with Japan to the looming Soviet threat. Russia's entry into the war was no longer needed to defeat Japan; it was now seen as a move that would further Stalin's grand design to extend communist control throughout the Far East. Truman’s focus abruptly shifted from military to political imagery: the bomb would give him, as he put it, “a hammer on those boys.”

Events at Potsdam pose a significant challenge to the Hiroshima Myth narrative for they make it clear Truman thought the end of the war was near, especially if the Russians joined in. The only real issue was how and on what terms. It’s pretty clear he realized that if the bomb was not used before August 15, it might not be used at all.  (For more on the Hiroshima Myth, see my earlier post: Scrutinizing the Hiroshima Myth and Its Legacy.)

To ensure that the Japanese would not fall on their sword and surrender before the bomb could be used, Byrnes insisted that the final draft of the Potsdam Ultimatum retained the demand for "unconditional surrender," which he knew was unacceptable to the Japanese, and that the Russians would not be listed as a co-sponsor.  This was intended to keep alive Japan's fantasy about Moscow mediating better surrender terms.

General Groves
General Leslie Groves
Momentum for using the bomb had been building up since General Groves was put in charge of the bomb project. Unsure of himself, Truman quickly fell under the spell of pro-bomb advocates Byrnes and Groves, who said in his memoir (Now It Can Be Told) that Truman always assumed the bomb would be used when ready. He characterized the president as being pulled along “like a little boy on a toboggan.”

This suggests that Truman was not exposed to alternatives. This isn’t true. Six of the seven five-star generals and admirals at the time, including Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe and General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, and Fleet Admiral William "Bull" Halsey believed use of the atomic bomb was “completely unnecessary:” Japan was already defeated, realized it, and were likely to surrender even before any American invasion could be launched.

General George C. Marshall also had serious reservations. If the bomb were to be used, he though it should be dropped on a purely military target; if this didn't induce surrender, then the Japanese should be warned before a second bombing. Believing Japan’s defeat was imminent Navy Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy insisted that even an invasion of Japan was not necessary to end the war. He urged altering the surrender terms to allow Japan to keep their emperor.

There is no evidence Truman gave serious consideration to any of these alternative views. The power surge he got from Trinity led him to shift priorities. Already inclined to heed the advice of Byrnes, whom he had named Secretary of State, he now listened more intently to the Secretary's urging that we should think beyond the war—to the rivalry that was sure to develop with the Soviet Union. If the Russians invaded Japan and were instrumental in forcing Tokyo’s surrender, then they would be in a position after the war to not only extend communist control in the Far East, including in China and Manchuria, but also in Eastern Europe where Red Army troops were still stationed. General Groves echoed Byrnes' concerns about Soviet expansionism, which to him was always the main reason why the bomb's creation was necessary.

Byrnes believed the display of awesome American power would make the Russians more "manageable" on critical issues involving the independence of Poland and other East European states. Enamored with the bomb’s omnipotence, he thought it would enable the U.S. to pretty much dictate terms after the war, as he put it, enable us to control events both large and small. The desire to showcase the bomb’s destructiveness lay behind the decision to spare a few Japanese cities from the fire bombings, so as to provide “virgin targets” where the effects of the bomb could be clearly seen (and studied). It also led the Interim Committee to reject recommendations to demonstrate the bomb, drop it on a sparsely-populated area, or warn the Japanese in advance. The goal was to maximize its shock value.

So once he has his "master card" in his hands, Russian entry no longer looked so good to the President. Neither did recommendations he was getting from Stimson and others to share bomb knowledge with Stalin in order to make international control of the weapon after the war more feasible. Truman wasn't interested in such a sharing. At Potsdam, he only casually mentioned to Stalin that the U.S. had a "new weapon of unusual destructive force." Stalin responded that he was glad and hoped the U.S. would make "good use of it against the Japanese." (Stalin, of course, already knew about the bomb from his spies at Los Alamos.)

Truman and Sailors on the Augusta
Telling Sailors on the Augusta about "The Greatest Thing in History"
The availability of the bomb and concern about Soviet expansionism led Truman to instruct the Target Committee to use it as soon as it could be made ready. General Groves, the head of the Committee, was determined to use it before the Russians entered the war. Truman said he ordered its use on July 25 while still in Potsdam, though he has also claimed he gave the final order while at sea returning from Europe, which would have made it on or after August 2. Historian Barton Bernstein, the foremost expert on the bomb decision, concludes that Truman decided the July 25 order would stand unless Japan made a satisfactory response to the Potsdam Ultimatum. This was probably "an informal but clearly understood arrangement" that was later transformed by Truman and his ghost writers into a "firm order."  The evidence suggests that Truman had no hand in the written directive to use the bomb nor did he issue an official instruction to drop it (the only written direction to use the bomb came from General Marshall).

The Target Committee selected four cities: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Niigata. None of these were of much military significance. Operational control was given to Groves who made the actual decision to drop the "Little Boy" on Hiroshima on August 6. In a rush to drop the second bomb, Groves pushed up the date to August 9. Despite a fuel pump problem that should have delayed the mission, Bock's Car took off in the morning of the 9th. The "Fat Man" bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, instead of the intended target, Kokura, which was heavily clouded over. This was just one day after the Russians had entered the war.

After Nagasaki, to give Japan a reasonable amount of time to surrender, and restore his control over the bombing process, Truman ordered that no additional bombs would be dropped without his expressed permission. He was reportedly deeply troubled by visuals of the two devastated cities and had little stomach for another bomb. This may be the great irony of the Hiroshima narrative.  The atomic bomb may in fact have been instrumental in ending the war, not by shocking the Japanese into surrendering, however, but by shocking Truman into modifying the surrender terms to allow Japan to keep its emperor.

The evidence is thus clear that main motive in Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan was not primarily to avoid a bloody land invasion, and hence save lives—i.e., the Hiroshima Myth--but to contain and intimidate the Soviet Union. In this, it's more correct to think of its use not so much as the last act of World War II, but the first act of the cold war.

The Cold War

There has been much speculation as to why President Truman fell in line so easily with the pro-bomb advocates. Some, like General Groves, point to bomb-use momentum he inherited. Others believe he misunderstood the nature of the bombing, believing, based on comments he made, that Japan would be given advanced warning and the bomb would be dropped only on a military target, hence minimizing the loss of civilian lives. Some histories emphasize that with so much money invested in producing the bomb, and all the use machinery in place, the American people would fully expect that the bomb would be used, if for no other reason than to justify the expenditure.

A number of historians have focused on Truman’s alleged racist views toward the Japanese. The president seemed to have been swept into the anti-Japanese maelstrom of race hate and revenge. To most Americans, the Japanese were “subhuman,” or as Truman put it in his diary, “savages--ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.” (Magazines and newspapers routinely depicted Japanese as apes, insects and vermin—“the only good Jap is a dead Jap” was a common refrain.) They were a people so loyal to the emperor that they would fight to the bitter end. Besides, this was “total war.” The line between combatants and civilians had long been broached. Given the prevailing image of the Japanese, it was easy to believe that nothing short of near extermination could force their surrender. These sub-humans deserved the worst.

In their book Hiroshima in America, Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist, and Greg Mitchell illuminate elements of Truman’s personality they believe made him willing to go in the atomic direction Byrnes was taking him. The insecure Truman had long tried to counter perceptions of him as weak-- a "sissy" he was often called in school-- with displays of toughness. They argue that Truman’s insecure psychological style lent itself to a considerable capacity for numbing and denial of death. They say he tended toward premature decisiveness when under stress, which would block our remorseful reflections of any kind. So constituted, he was disinclined to probe his advisers for latent disagreement. He lacked the self-confidence needed to resist the pressures of assertive men like Byrnes and Groves.

So President Truman plunged into his decision with little reflection on troubling details and larger consequences. Given all the momentum built up to use the bomb, Truman would have to have been a man of iron will to say no.  This he wasn't.  He went to his grave insisting he never had a single regret or a moment’s doubt about his decision.

The decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan thus played more to Moscow than to the widely-held belief in the U.S. that it was used to end the war before a bloody land invasion that would have resulted in a heavy loss of lives--a mercy killing that prevented even greater suffering. This, of course, does not mean Truman was not concerned about the loss of American lives. In his view, the bomb decision served both purposes. In the end, like so many others, Harry Truman was drawn to the bomb’s ultimate power and feared the consequences of not using it.

Next, in Part III, the legacy of the "winning weapon." (The Legacy of the Hiroshima Myth.)

*It is important to note that the expected loss of American lives was far less than the inflated numbers tossed around after the war. In a widely read intimate history of the bomb decision, published by Secretary of War Stimson in the February 1947 issue of Harper's Magazine, the War Secretary wrote he was informed the invasion would cost "over a million American casualties." The New York Times bought into Stimson's projection and atomic bombing justification, observing that "by sacrificing thousands of lives" the atomic bomb "saved millions." In his 1955 memoir, Truman put the number of American lives that would have been lost at “half a million.” Most Americans believe the  highly inflated numbers brandished around after the war.  Clearly the lives-saved numerology game plays well to the claim that the bomb’s use was necessary and morally justified.  The "million lives saved" myth is a key component of the official Hiroshima narrative.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting!