Harry Truman and the Atomic Bombing of Japan
Editor’s Note: 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of V-J Day (Victory Over Japan Day) in the United States on September 2, the date of Japan’s formal surrender. Other former Allied nations, Britain for example, recognize V-J Day on August 15, the date Emperor Hirohito announced his empire’s intention to surrender, and some countries refer to it as “V-P Day” (Victory in the Pacific). However, whatever date it is recognized and regardless of what it is called, it represents the final end of history’s most destructive war. Yet, despite the euphoria and sense of relief that swept through the populations of the Allied countries in the immediate wake of this final victory over the Axis powers, the manner in which the end of World War II was brought about has been a matter of controversy in the decades after the war’s end.
This article examines the fateful decision by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to employ atomic weapons to prompt Japan’s leaders to finally admit defeat and to surrender to the Allies. It places Truman’s decision within the political and military context of the time in which it was made, reveals the public pressures he was under to end the war as quickly as possible, and evaluates the various criticisms that have been raised over his decision to authorize the atomic bombings.
TO STOP THE KILLING
According to the book, A Gathering Darkness, by Haruo Tohmatsu and H. P. Willmott, during the war of aggression Imperial Japan waged in Manchuria and China between 1931 and 1945 Japanese military forces killed over 12 million Chinese civilians. Additional Chinese civilian deaths due to displacement, starvation and disease caused by the Japanese war may raise this grim total to 17-22 million. These horrific figures represent only Chinese civilian deaths and exclude the nearly two million Chinese soldiers killed in combat. In one particularly brutal six-week orgy of violence alone — the infamous 1937 Rape of Nanking — Japanese soldiers murdered, perhaps, 300,000 Chinese men, women and children. As the book’s authors note, “scenes of mass murder, torture, rape and pillage … were … the hallmarks of Japanese Army operations in China.”
Yet, the only way to stop the killing was to force Japan’s leadership to finally admit that the war was irretrievably lost and to surrender to the Allied powers.
In August 1945, the responsibility for forcing Japanese leaders to admit defeat and to surrender rested squarely on the shoulders of the Allied leader whose soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen had borne – and continued to bear — the principal burden of waging the Pacific War: U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Yet, as historian Michael D. Pearlman has perceptively revealed in his ground-breaking article, “Hiroshima Reconsidered” in the March 2009 issue of Armchair General magazine, Truman faced a serious dilemma. In the U.S. capitol that fateful summer, American public opinion was squeezing the United States’ political and military leaders between two contradictory demands: adamantly insisting upon forcing Japan’s unconditional surrender while simultaneously, and with increasing impatience after Nazi Germany surrendered in May, crying out for America’s massive military force to begin demobilization.
In public opinion polling at the time 84 percent supported the U.S. fighting until it had “completely beaten [the enemy] on the Japanese homeland.” Yet, despite this sanguine view regarding fighting on to completely beat Japan, 72 percent of those polled wanted partial demobilization beginning virtually the day Germany surrendered in May 1945 (the rest wanted something greater than “partial” demobilization). Pearlman explained Truman’s dilemma: “The Greatest Generation had blood in its eyes where Japan was concerned; yet, it maddeningly was just as adamant about ‘bringing the boys home’ – now.”
Such was the strategic setting on August 6, when science stepped in to provide Truman what the U.S. assistant secretary of war called “a bolt out of heaven” – a technological means of solving his dilemma. The B-29 bomber Enola Gay took off from the Marianas that day and dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Japanese newspapers, self-righteously ignoring their own country’s years of atrocities in China and Asia, said it “ignored basic human principles.”
On August 9, the B-29 Bock’s Car dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki, and the next day the U.S. warned Japanese leaders of “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” The Imperial Japanese Army, still ready to fight (not having suffered the massive devastation inflicted on Japan’s navy and air forces), had 2.5 million soldiers under arms in Japan. Its senior leaders had pleaded for the chance to “find life in death,” promising, “If we are prepared to sacrifice 20,000,000 Japanese lives in a special [kamikaze] effort, victory shall be ours.” Emperor Hirohito, however, came to a different conclusion, as revealed on August 15 in the first public announcement he ever made: “The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization,” meaning his Japanese subjects. The announcement meant Japan had agreed to surrender.
The formal surrender ceremony was held September 2, 1945, on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay where Japanese officials signed the Instrument of Surrender in the presence of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (representing the United States). The killing had been stopped.
However, in the decades following the end of the war, some historians and commentators have preferred to direct their moral outrage at Truman, whose fateful decision in August 1945 to use atomic weapons finally put a stop to Japanese atrocities. Seventy years later, the debate over Truman’s decision shows little sign of letting up.
POINT-COUNTERPOINT: THE DEBATE OVER THE ATOMIC BOMBINGS
Critics of Truman’s decision usually cite similar reasons they think should have swayed him against using the weapons. The bombs should not have been dropped, they argue, because:
1. Japan had already lost the war. Indeed, by any reasonable criteria, Japan had clearly been beaten by August 1945. But this argument totally misses the point. Truman’s problem that summer was not how to defeat the Japanese; it was how to get Japan’s leaders to acknowledge that defeat and surrender instead of committing national suicide. Only after suffering the shock of two atom bombings did Emperor Hirohito accept the Potsdam Declaration (the Allied ultimatum of July 26 that demanded Japan surrender immediately “or suffer prompt and utter destruction”) and agree to capitulate (although he never once mentioned the word “surrender” in his radio address announcing this decision). In fact, the atomic bombings provided the Emperor with the very leverage necessary to overcome the fanatical opposition by die-hard military members of his cabinet. In this regard, one member of Hirohito’s cabinet called the bombs “gifts from the gods.”
2. Japan was trying to surrender. Japan had more than ample opportunities to surrender at any time during the summer of 1945, but stubbornly chose not to. The Potsdam Declaration, for example, was met only by stony silence on Japan’s part. Even after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Japanese leaders callously chose not to take advantage of the opportunity to surrender at any time during the three days that elapsed between the first and second bombings. The principal evidence critics repeatedly cite that Japan was actively trying to surrender is an ambiguous message transmitted by Foreign Minister Togo to the Japanese ambassador to the Soviet Union. Since it only stated that the Emperor “desires from his heart that [the war] may be quickly terminated,” it hardly represented a serious effort to surrender. Moreover, Japan’s military leaders unrealistically would only agree to “termination of hostilities” under conditions that were totally unacceptable to the Allies, including: no Allied occupation of Japan; disarmament of its military forces under Japanese supervision; and no Allied trials of Japanese war criminals. Other “peace feelers” were floated unofficially by individual Japanese diplomats during 1945, but, like the one to the Soviets, they were all violently opposed by the cabinet’s military fanatics bent on national suicide. When, after the atomic bombings, the Japanese finally decided to surrender, they had no difficulty immediately transmitting that desire to the United States through the Swiss embassy.
3. There were other means at hand, short of an invasion, to force Japan to capitulate. U.S. Navy leaders, anxious to promote their service’s contribution to the defeat of Japan, wanted to forego using the atomic bombs and continue the naval blockade of the home islands until the Japanese finally surrendered. How long that would have taken is unknown, but certainly it would have required many more weeks, if not months, to produce a surrender. Likewise, U.S. air commanders, eager to establish their own service as the “war winner,” wanted their strategic conventional bombing campaign to be continued indefinitely until it finally forced Japan to surrender. Meanwhile, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were dying each month from combat and military accidents (almost 4,000 died in July 1945 alone) merely to maintain the blockade and prosecute the conventional bombing campaign. Truman’s objective was to end the war as soon as possible, something that neither blockade nor conventional air attack could have achieved. The final straw grasped at by the “other means” proponents is their claim that the Soviet declaration of war on Japan and its massive offensive (begun August 9) – 1.5 million Red Army troops took part – against Japanese forces in Manchuria would have forced a surrender. Although Stalin’s declaration of war shocked Japanese leaders, they were still debating how many months not days Japan might hold out in their cabinet discussions in the immediate wake of the Russian attack. While the atomic bombings combined with the Soviet offensive certainly produced a dual shock that influenced Japan’s leaders to surrender, the Russian attack alone could not have forced an expeditious, early decision. While it seems certain that the combination of these “non-invasion” actions — naval blockade, strategic bombing and Soviet attack — would have eventually forced Japan to surrender, none of them could have ended the war, as the atomic bombs did, in August 1945.
4. The bombs were only meant to intimidate the Soviet Union. Some Cold War historians, engrossed in the geopolitical maneuverings and Machiavellian intrigue of the 50-year confrontation between the superpowers, have claimed that Truman’s principal motivation in dropping the atomic bombs was to impress or even intimidate the U.S.S.R. This theory emanates from a dual premise: first, it presumes that the bombings were not necessary to secure Japan’s surrender; and, second, it endows Truman with a prescient insight through which he somehow predicted the coming half-century long Cold War and the confrontational nature of future relations with the Soviet Union. Neither the historical record of the deliberations over the use of the bombs nor Truman’s dealings with Stalin at the time support this theory. Despite his frustrations regarding Stalin’s behavior during the Potsdam Conference (July 1945), Truman remained hopeful in August 1945 that the U.S. and the Soviet Union would be able to cooperate in the post-war world. Historian J. Samuel Walker, in his insightful and influential book, Prompt & Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan, lays out the definitive case against this theory, pointing out that, although the President’s influential Secretary of State, James Byrnes expressed “hope that the bomb would provide diplomatic benefits by making the Soviets more tractable,” Truman merely saw this as a bonus. Walker concluded, “Growing differences with the Soviet Union were a factor in the thinking of American officials about the bomb but were not the main reason that they rushed to drop it on Japan.” Above all, this theory is based primarily upon perfect hindsight, not upon the knowledge and conditions that existed at the time Truman made his decision. “Truman’s foremost consideration in using the bomb,” Walker noted, “was not to frustrate Soviet ambitions…it was to end the war at the earliest possible time.”
5. The estimates of U.S. casualties resulting from an invasion are inflated. This is, perhaps, the most outrageous criticism of all, since it is promulgated upon the argument that not enough American troops would have died in an invasion of Japan to “justify” the bombings. Since Truman, in the years following the war, used what now seem (arguably) to be exaggerated U.S. casualty estimates to subsequently justify his atomic bomb decision, critics have used these figures as a basis to attack the bombings. Certainly, Truman’s oft-quoted figure that the bombings avoided 1,000,000 American combat deaths that would have resulted from an invasion of Japan seem difficult to justify (a common rebuttal figure claims that “only” about 46,000 invading U.S. troops would have been killed). Yet, reducing the debate over the use of the atomic bombs to, essentially, a squabble over potential “body count” numbers obscures any real analysis of all the other major issues that influenced Truman’s decision. In one way, this “numbers game” is somewhat analogous to the strategy employed by the lawyer representing the woman who sued McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee on herself. Once her lawyer had reduced the court case to an argument over how hot the coffee was, he had it won. Similarly, critics who can show that Truman’s casualty numbers are demonstrably imprecise, attempt to turn that “Gotcha!” into “proof” that the bombs were unnecessary. Not even Truman’s critics dispute the fact that the bombings saved substantial numbers of American and Japanese lives; but the question their criticism logically leads to becomes, “How many dead Americans (and Japanese for that matter) would it take to make Truman’s critics feel better about his atomic bomb decision?” The only sensible answer to that question seems to be the one provided in an editorial in the Washington Post (February 10, 1995) by Yale University’s James R. Van de Velde who wrote, “Did the bombs save lives? Absolutely yes … the two atomic bombs helped hasten this terrible war’s end — period. And that was unambiguously good.” Continuing to criticize Truman’s decision by impugning the estimated casualty figures is simply quibbling over “the temperature of the coffee” and represents merely a “red herring” in the atomic bomb debate.
6. The second atomic bombing was totally unnecessary. The final major criticism of Truman’s decision claims that the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9 was totally unnecessary and represented an act of American vengeance motivated by racism and hatred of the Japanese people. The purveyors of this criticism, however, ignore the actual situation that existed within Hirohito’s wartime cabinet in the wake of the Hiroshima bombing. Walker wrote that, even after the extent of the destruction of the first bombing was realized, Japan’s Supreme Council for the Direction of the War could not reach a consensus on surrender and “were hopelessly deadlocked.” The fanatical militarists in the council continued to hold out for a bloody campaign of national suicide and had “dismissed the reality that the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was an atomic explosive and that the United States had more weapons of equal power.” It took the dropping of the second atomic bomb to “demolish the argument of the die-hards” and provide the cabinet’s surrender proponents with the ammunition they needed to finally convince the Emperor to intervene. While it is undeniable that most Americans in 1945 harbored a visceral hated of the Japanese people and it is also true that, as John Dower showed in his excellent book, War Without Mercy, racism on both sides made the Pacific war particularly brutal, neither hatred nor racism was Truman’s primary motivation in his authorization of the Nagasaki bombing. Indeed, even more than the first atomic bombing, it was the second bomb that proved to be most necessary to influence Japan’s surrender decision.
LEGACY OF THE ATOMIC BOMBINGS
The criticisms and second-guessing of Truman’s decision that have come up over the decades since the war ended were never present in 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war. In Gallup polls taken in the fall of 1945, for example, 85 percent endorsed the atomic attacks while the percentage of those opposed to their use was less than 5 percent. Nearly one-quarter of respondents in one of the polls even wished that the U.S. had dropped “many more” atomic bombs on Japan before it surrendered. The sentiment expressed by one Marine preparing for the bloody invasion of Japan likely represents a common feeling of relief among American troops when they got the word: “Thank God for the Atom Bomb!” he wrote.
The tenor of moral outrage that taints much of the criticism seems more a product of the Cold War’s anti-nuclear movement than any supposed qualms held by the Greatest Generation. Likewise, recent critics’ overriding concern over safeguarding the lives of enemy civilians smacks more of idealistic late–20th century hand-wringing than realistic mid-century warfighting between nations waging total war. As Walker rightly points out, “In the summer of 1945, the Truman administration was not looking for ways to avoid using the bomb. It was seeking ways to end the war.” Moreover, if unnecessary civilian deaths — the 130,000 to 250,000 who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — have provoked the critics’ outrage, where is their anger over the 12 million slaughtered Chinese innocents? One legacy of the atomic bombings, however, may be laced with historical irony — subsequent generations of Japanese have been able to use their status as the initial “victims” of atomic warfare as a moral fig leaf behind which to hide their nation’s war crimes against the conquered peoples of Asia.
Click here to see an article on how V-J Day was celebrated around the world in 1945.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, HISTORYNET Editor at Large.