"The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth." – President Harry S. Truman, Excerpt from public statement, August 6, 1945.
We have reached the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki, Japan (August 9th, 1945) with nuclear weapons; the first and last time such weapons have been used against an enemy during wartime.
Over those 70 years, the debate about whether President Truman should have authorized the use of such horrific ordnance has been almost constant. Many of the arguments center around the events themselves and the cruel and heinous impact they had on the men, women and children living in and around the drop zones. It is a condemnation of some racist, immoral, inhumane acts against tens of thousands of defenseless people.
But Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be judged in isolation. There were a host of other existential issues that loomed large and hung, like Damocles sword, over his head.
Japan had been defeated long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki,. She had already lost an estimated 315,000 lives from the fire bombings on Japanese cites by the U.S. and its allies. It’s military industrial complex was almost totally destroyed. Japan did sue for peace, however. The problem was that they would not agree to the unconditional surrender that Truman, Clement Attlee (who replaced Churchill,) and Stalin had agreed to in the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945.
After the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, Truman released a statement for the press, which reads, in part:
“The 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. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost.
“Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.
“We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us.”
One of the major problems, I think, was that the Western allies did not understand Japan’s culture. To them, surrender was dishonorable and cowardly. The only acceptable alternative was to fight to the death. Drawing on this ethic, it was easy to get Kamikaze pilots to fly suicide missions. Likewise, the Air Force Association website states that “Millions of women, old men, and boys and girls had been trained to resist by such means as attacking with bamboo spears and strapping explosives to their bodies and throwing themselves under advancing tanks”
Even the Japanese soldiers that hid out on islands that were liberated by the Allies refused to surrender or accept that Japan had capitulated. (The last to “surrender” was Hiroo Onoda who stayed on Lubang Island in the Philippines until 1974!)
In a letter to Senator Richard Russell on August 9th, Truman writes:
“For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation and, for your information, I am not going to do it until it is absolutely necessary. My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan.”
So, given the Japanese culture at the time, plus the fact that they had an estimated two million soldiers ready to fight to the death when the invasion came, the projection at the time that one million would die if we did invade the Japanese mainland may not have been exaggerated.
In the meantime, the Soviet Union was closing in. As agreed to under the Potsdam Declaration, on August 8th, two days after Hiroshima, the Soviets sent a million-man army into Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Although they lacked a navy sufficient to invade the mainland, their presence in the area still posed another threat that Truman would have to deal with unless the war ended as soon as possible.
Meanwhile on the home front, everybody was tired of war. Nazi Germany had been defeated. Certain goods were still being rationed like gasoline and sugar. (Rationing did not end until 1946.) U.S. war bonds became harder and harder to sell. And military planners advised that it would take another six months to invade Japan and force surrender. Those issues no doubt weighed heavily on Truman.
Then there was the potential fallout (no pun intended) resulting from the use of nuclear weapons to be considered. Nazi Germany had started a program in the 1930’s to investigate the possibility of using nuclear fission. Even though that program never made much progress, there was still the concern that they might make a nuclear weapon before we could.
On that point, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, wrote In August 1943,
“It is possible that the Germans will have, by the end of this year, enough material accumulated to make a large number of gadgets (meaning atomic bombs) which they will release at the same time on England, Russia, and this country”
At the end of the war, the U.S. and its allies were trying to recruit the scientists working on Germany’s nuclear program, but they had to complete with the Soviet Union, which was also after them. In any case, the genie was out of the bottle. The race was on. The cold war had begun long before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In the face of all these circumstances, I believe President Truman made the right decision. We’ll never know whether more lives would have been lost without using such terrible weapons. But after the bombs were dropped and we learned of the devastation, Truman’s famous epithet, “give ‘em hell” took on a whole new meaning.
This is a revised version of an Op-Ed by the Author that appeared in the Joplin Globe on August 9, 2015.