Magazine article Insight on the News

Question: Was Truman Right to Drop the Bomb?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Question: Was Truman Right to Drop the Bomb?

Article excerpt

Postwar historians have challenged President Harry Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb to shorten World War II and save American lives. Some claim that the Allies could have ended the war by negotiating with the Japanese; others contend dropping the bombs was patent racism and that atomic bombs never would have been dropped on the Germans. Still others have called the atomic bombings a cynical demonstration of U.S. power -- making Hiroshima and Nagasaki not the last targets of World War II but rather the first targets of the Cold War.

In reality, anyone who examines the last weeks of the war closely and dispassionately would conclude that Truman was looking for ways to end the conflict honorably and at the lowest possible cost in American and Japanese lives. He had seen the summaries of decrypted Japanese diplomatic communications (code-named Magic) that revealed the Japanese turning to the Soviet Union, not the United States, in a search not for peace but for negotiations. Because secrecy shrouded the Magic decryptions for decades after the war, neither Truman nor any other U.S. decisionmaker could include the disclosures in their postwar memoirs. Indeed not even the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which examined the causes of Japan's defeat, had access to code-breaking intelligence. As for the use of the atomic bomb as an implied threat to the Soviet Union, geopolitics may have been on the minds of some of Truman's advisers, but the war and American lives were on his mind. Preparations for the massive amphibious assault on Japan (code-named Downfall) were under way and Truman went to Potsdam in July 1945 seeking assurance that Stalin would enter the war against Japan. Truman learned on July 16 that the atomic bomb would work and he ordered it used. It was a weapon that might end the war without an invasion.

But as an attempted coup five days after the Nagasaki bombing showed clearly, the war was not yet over. Even with Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed and a "rain of ruin" threatened, many senior Japanese army and navy officers still wanted a massive confrontation with U.S. forces on the beaches, a strategy they called The Decisive Battle. Had the military coup succeeded the war would have gone on, the Decisive Battle would have been fought and hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost on both sides.

How many lives? That is another question raised by the critics of Truman. They seize, for example upon Truman's recollection that Gen. George C. Marshall had told him an invasion of Japan "would cost at a minimum one-quarter of a million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy." Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson made a similar estimate in his postwar memoirs. These numbers were exaggerated intentionally, critics argue, to justify dropping the bomb.

Searching for sources for those numbers, they cite the estimates that Gen. Douglas MacArthur submitted to Marshall for the crucial June 18 White House meeting at which Truman approved plans for the invasion. MacArthur's figures were well below Truman's recollection of Marshall's estimates. For whatever reason, MacArthur's figures were unreatistic. But far more important is what MacArthur's own intelligence officers discovered after the war. From interrogations of high-ranking Japanese staff officers, MacArthur's staff reported as follows:

"The strategists at Imperial General Headquarters believed that, if they could succeed in inflicting unacceptable losses on the United States in the Kyushu operation, convince the American people of the huge sacrifices involved in an amphibious invasion of Japan, and make them aware of the determined fighting spirit of the Japanese army and civilian population, they might be able to postpone, if not escape altogether, a crucial battle in the Kanto [Tokyo] area. In this way, they hoped to gain time and grasp an opportunity which would lead to the termination of hostility on more favorable terms than those which unconditional surrender offered. …

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