When Harry S Truman heard of the first test explosion of the atomic bomb he described it as, 'the most terrible thing ever discovered'. Yet he had no hesitation in using the weapon against Japan and having taken the decision to bomb Hiroshima retired to bed and slept soundly. Truman's main political adviser about the bomb was Secretary of War Henry Stimson who told a bemused Truman on April 25, 1945, that within four months the United States would have 'the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city'. It could mean the end of civilisation or provide an opportunity to save civilisation itself.
Truman had assumed the presidency following Roosevelt's death on 12 April 1945. Roosevelt did not consult his Vice-President (VP) on any matters of consequence, causing John Nance Garner, his first VP, to describe the office as, 'not worth a bucket of warm spit' although the final word was more earthy. Thus, through no fault of his own, Truman came to office 'ill-informed and poorly prepared for the responsibilities he assumed'. He pursued his predecessor's policy of winning the war with the minimum of American casualties and, having served in the First World War, knew the meaning of war personally. He was willing to delegate (something Roosevelt rarely did) which led to his setting up of a Committee to consider the implications of the new weapon.
The Committee did not question the assumption that the bomb should be used without advance warning 'to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible'. They considered there was no reasonable alternative to using the bomb if the war was to end without the massive casualties which could be incurred by invading Japan itself. These assumptions have been questioned in recent years and Walker examines the reasons for the dropping of the bomb and asks whether it was necessary. The bomb had been developed out of fear that Nazi Germany might develop it first and use it to achieve world domination. However, the Nazi regime collapsed shortly before the first atomic test took place which caused some scientists and government officials to question whether it should be dropped at all.
The questions raised were ethical, political and diplomatic. Whereas Roosevelt was all smoke and mirrors Truman was upfront. Roosevelt trusted the Russians to permit free elections in Poland, Truman was affronted by Stalin's imperialistic policies in Eastern Europe. Possession of the bomb would give the United States a valuable edge against possible Soviet aggression. It was not a view shared by fellow travellers amongst the scientists who provided the Soviets with information enabling them to build their own bomb. The decision cannot be divorced from American perceptions of the Japanese. Pearl Harbour had provoked the popular internment of many Japanese-Americans, not all of whom were sympathetic to Japan. Evidence about the 'Bataan death march' of 1942, photographs showing the executions of American soldiers added to an existing stereotype
These were reinforced by Japanese resistance to American advances at Guardacanal, Iwo Jima, Saipan and other outposts which took the form of banzai attacks and refusals to surrender in face of overwhelming odds in fulfilment of the samurai code, devotion to the Emperor and death before dishonour. The latter resulted in civilian suicides and Japanese soldiers firing on non-combatants as a consequence of myths about 'the cruelty and bestial behaviour of American soldiers'. The United States military saw no reason to distinguish between military and civilian populations and launched a firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 which claimed almost 90,000 lives. The idea was to shorten the war but neither this, nor raids on other cities, produced the desired effect. Meanwhile, American casualties at sea increased as a result of kamikaze attacks.
By 1945 members of the Japanese government accepted Japan was on the verge of defeat. However, the Japanese military were not prepared to surrender while both government and military would not surrender unless assured Emperor Hirohito would be allowed to remain on his throne. This would require a departure from the previous American policy of unconditional surrender. The problem was that the Japanese government was divided on ending the war while the Americans were uncertain as to whether they should continue with invasion plans or rely on air power and naval blockade. Truman, however, was convinced that the successful testing of the bomb meant the United States could and should defeat Japan without Russian help while demonstrating American strength vis-a-vis its Soviet enemy. The uranium 235 bomb killed 80,000 in Hiroshima on 6 August, a plutonium bomb 70,000 at Nagasaki three days later. Whether they were used for comparative purposes, as one of my university lecturers suggested, is a matter of conjecture.
Truman never hesitated to authorise use of the bomb because his intention was to end the war at the earliest possible moment and thus save American lives. He considered he had no choice but to follow that course of action. An invasion was already in preparation for November 1945 but the political impact of the bomb, particularly that dropped on Nagasaki, resulted in Hirohito breaking the impasse in the Japanese government by declaring in favour of peace which overcame the die-hard militarists' opposition. Walker suggests dropping the bomb helped justify the costs of the Manhattan Project and was used to impress the Soviet Union who had recently changed from being an ally to being considered an enemy. In addition, it was payback time for Pearl Harbour and Japanese war time atrocities against Americans. Revisionist historians using hindsight often fail to understand the historical context of policy-making. What is abundantly clear is that nations in possession of nuclear weapons never used them after 1945. The threat of using nuclear power maintained the peace through mutually assured destruction. Whether 'rogue states' have forgotten the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is moot. Good book with extensive notes. Five stars.
on 8 May 1998
I was confronted in a class with the claim that we dropped the bomb for the purpose of intimidating Russia. Not so, I exclaimed, we did it to prevent massive casualties from a land invasion of Japan! Well, this book was a real eye-opener. The book showed that neither viewpoint was accurate, but I came away yet confident that the terrible decision had not been irresponsibly nor immorally made.
on 8 August 2004
Walker, in this wonderful book, makes clear that the consensus of scholarly study is that the bomb was known to Truman, and to decision-makers, AT THE TIME, to be UNCECSSARY.
The book then goes on to, as other reviewers have made clear, roll out the totality of reasoning behind the eventual - and only - employment of high-casuality atomic weapons in history.
But to leave out the fact that Walker, a conservative, official government historian, leaves out the possibility that the Truman decision-makers did NOT know that the bomb wasn't needed is to continue to construct what's commonly called "Hiroshima myth."