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The Trump Card

It is important to recognize that the obvious pressures to end the war and, at the same time, to avoid any act which might later be subjected to political criticism did not prevent most key officials from advocating a variety of measures. Nor did “the momentum of events,” as is sometimes claimed) inhibit the serious presentation of different opinions.

However, Secretary Byrnes and President Truman wished to end the war not just before the November landing, but immediately. They really were, as Feis observes, “in a hurry.” Why such haste with so much time available before a landing? The use of the bomb, of course, might have made concessions to the Emperor unnecessary; but few have seriously argued that atomic bombs were used merely to protect the sanctity of the unconditional surrender formula—a matter which the President had already said was not a major issue—and which after Hiroshima did not prove to be. The only other important reason for wanting an immediate surrender—as distinct from one within the period between July and November—was that the Russians were expected to declare war in early August, and an immediate surrender might have ended the war without their entry. P.M.S. Blackett, the British Nobel Prize winning physicist, pointed this out twenty years ago. Since then, Secretary Byrnes has repeatedly and openly confirmed that in July 1945, after the successful Alamogordo test, he hoped to end the war before Russia entered and gained control of Manchuria and North China. At Potsdam, Churchill was aware of Byrnes’s objective; he told Eden: “It is quite clear that the United States do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war.” Feis cites this statement but chooses not to credit Churchill’s observation.4 He also relegates to an obscure footnote an entry dated July 28, 1945, in Forrestal’s diary, in which Forrestal records that Byrnes made no bones about the fact that “he was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in….”

Feis tells us that, in a personal interview with him, President Truman did “not recall” this. But in spite of the President’s ambiguous comment, it was Byrnes—as Stimson and Grew knew—who was against testing other measures and who stood in the way of any changes in the surrender formula. The release of the full Stimson Diaries5 and the publication of the official history of the Atomic Energy Commission6 have made it abundantly clear that the rush in early August—and the unwillingness to wait until November—derived from the political desire to end the war before the Soviets gained control of Manchuria. This motive also helps to explain why such a tremendous effort was made to speed production of the bombs after Germany surrendered. And it helps to clarify why Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 (not, for instance, after the impact of the August 9 Russian attack on Manchuria could be properly assessed), as well as why the first shock was reinforced by a second bombing immediately at Nagasaki.

FEIS, IN HIS NEW BOOK, expresses a few vague doubts about Nagasaki without examining it in detail. However, he is forced to take into account the mounting evidence which shows that another primary consideration in using the bomb—whether in June or November—was that it would powerfully bolster America’s position on other political matters contested with Russia. About half of the new material in Feis’s key chapters is on this point.7 He shows that Secretary Stimson advised the President, in April 1945, that the demonstration of the new weapon would have a tremendous impact on relations with Russia. Stimson first stressed the importance of the bomb during the tense fight in April 1945 over Poland. That the President expected the bomb to give him leverage in negotiations. Feis writes, helps to explain why he was so tough in his famous first meeting with Molotov. Thereafter, Truman postponed his confrontation with Stalin at Potsdam until he had received word from the New Mexico test. (The test took place on July 16, 1945; the Potsdam Conference began July 17, 1945.) Stimson and the President counted on the new power to help in forcing Russia to accept democratic terms throughout Central and Eastern Europe. (At the same time, as the Stimson Diaries reveal—but Feis does not report—they also calculated that the bomb would help to resolve the Manchurian issue.) In general, Feis’s additions show that, by July 1945, diplomatic strategy toward Russia rested on the assumption that the combat demonstration of the new weapon would reinforce US proposals for a peace settlement around the globe.

In his first book Feis concluded:

It may be also—but this is only conjecture—that Churchill and Truman and some of their colleagues conceived that besides bringing the war to a quick end, it would improve the chances of arranging a satisfactory peace. For would not the same dramatic proof of western power that shocked Japan into surrender impress the Russians also?8

Feis has revised this fuzzy wording in the second book:

It is likely that Churchill and probably also Truman, conceived that besides bringing the war to a quick end it would improve the chances of arranging a satisfactory peace both in Europe and in the Far East. Stimson and Byrnes certainly had that thought in mind. For would not the same dramatic proof of western power that shocked Japan into surrender impress the Russians also?9

But Feis’s revised wording still blurs the issue. One must read the documents of the time to understand how intimately the bomb was connected with diplomacy toward Russia. First, here is a diary entry Stimson made after a discussion of US Asian objectives almost three months before Hiroshima.

I thought it was premature to ask those questions; at least we were not yet in a position to answer them…it may be necessary to have it out with Russia on her relations to Manchuria and Port Arthur and various other parts of North China, and also the relations of China to us. Over any such tangled weave of problems [“SI,” i.e., the atomic bomb] secret would be dominant…it seems a terrible thing to gamble with such stakes in diplomacy without your master card in your hand…

Second, another passage from Stimson’s diary, written at Potsdam after the President received a report describing the successful atomic test:

[The Prime Minister] told me……”Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday. I couldn’t understand it. When he got to the meeting after having read this report he was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on and off, and generally bossed the whole meeting….”

Third, Lord Alanbrooke’s diary at Potsdam:

[The Prime Minister]…had absorbed all the minor American exaggerations and, as a result, was completely carried away…. We now had something in our hands, which would redress the balance with the Russians…(pushing out his chin and scowling); now we could say, “If you insist on doing this or that, well….” And then where are the Russians!

Fourth, from Stimson’s diary a few weeks after Hiroshima:

I took up the question…how to handle Russia with the big bomb. I found that Byrnes was very much against any attempt to cooperate with Russia. His mind is full of his problems with the coming meeting of foreign ministers and he looks to having the presence of the bomb in his pocket, so to speak, as a great weapon to get through the thing….

Truman also told Stimson during the Potsdam negotiations that the bomb gave him “an entirely new feeling of confidence,” although Feis misses the significance of this comment. Indeed the bomb served to toughen the US approach to disputed Central and Eastern European issues even before it was actually used. Few recall this murky history, but it can be shown that the President, who had already experienced difficulties in dealing with Russia, by July 1945 had derived sufficient confidence from the new weapon to attempt major reversals in negotiations over Poland, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania.10 More important for our purposes, once the bomb had become involved in diplomatic planning, this fact itself began to color the approach to its use. To understand the point, the sequence of events in 1945 must be precisely recalled: During early 1945, before the Japanese began their rather frantic efforts to open negotiations, it was assumed, quite naturally, that the bomb, like any military weapon, would be used to shorten the war. As A.H. Compton recalled, it was a “foregone conclusion that the bomb would be used,” and the scientists were asked not whether, but simply how best to use it. Having shared this natural assumption, President Truman based a new diplomatic strategy on it, deciding in late April 1945 to postpone diplomatic confrontations until the new weapon—“the master card”—had been demonstrated and had strengthened his hand against Russia. But thereafter, between mid-June and late July, mounting evidence showed that the Japanese were prepared to stop the war on acceptable terms.

It was in the early period, as Oppenheimer has recalled, that “much of the discussion revolved around the question raised by Secretary Stimson as to whether there was any hope of using the development to get less barbarous relations with Russia.” Truman has written that in April Byrnes advised the bomb would permit the US “to dictate [its] own terms at the end of the war.” Inevitably, in May and June the first military assumption became freighted with the greater issue of impressing Russia. “That bomb was developed on time…” Vannevar Bush has testified; not only did it produce an immediate surrender, but “it was also delivered on time so that there was no necessity for any concessions to Russia at the end of the war.”

Thus it appears that the natural military assumption that the bomb would be used became intermeshed with diplomatic strategy in a way so subtle it was probably not completely understood by the participants themselves. Using the bomb became so deep an assumption that, as Churchill reminds us, “the historical fact remains, and must be judged in the after time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb…was never even an issue.” After July, when it became apparent the bomb was no longer militarily essential, the evidence shows that, although other choices were offered, Secretary of State Byrnes and President Truman were unable or unwilling to test them—and they never challenged the basic assumption as did some military men (such as Eisenhower) who were not involved in diplomacy. It seems that they were either blinded to the implications of the changed military situation, or, more explicitly (as Leo Szilard reported after a conversation in May 1945 with Byrnes), that Byrnes at least understood Japan was ready to end the war, but wanted the bomb anyway to make the Russians more “manageable.”11 Either possibility leads to the conclusion that the over-riding reason for the use of the bomb was that (implicitly or explicitly) it was judged necessary to strengthen the US hand against Russia.

WE DO NOT as yet have all the evidence, but the fundamental question is an extremely subtle one: Why did men whose ultimate motives are not in doubt come to ignore information? Why did they blot out other possibilities? And why did they consciously or unconsciously refuse to consider different approaches. It is not why they cruelly “decided” to destroy large numbers of Japanese civilians, but why they never even thought this was an issue.

Feis undoubtedly pondered this disturbing point when he wrote his first book. At that time, however, he held that it could be “only conjecture” that considerations related to Russia were important. He has been forced to reconsider—not so much by new evidence, for much of what he now cites was available to him in 1961—but by critical scholarship based on the original evidence. He tells us that “the lapse of time has revealed more clearly the significance of the events recounted.” Apparently with great reluctance, Feis has come to realize that “certainly” Byrnes and Stimson and “probably” Truman thought of the bomb as a way to impress Russia. But he does not like to dwell on the matter. “The decision to drop the bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he says in summary, “ought not to be censured.”

One must sympathize with an author who has been a consultant to three Secretaries of War. One would also like to believe that the sole motive of the eminent men he knew was to save lives. It is not pleasant to think that they were so fascinated by their new “master card” of diplomacy that they scarcely considered the moral implications of their act when they used it.12 That, however, is precisely what the evidence now available strongly suggests.


Diplomatic Historian August 3, 1967

  1. 4

    However at one point, quite contradictorily, he says: “probably so”—a change from his 1961 “maybe so.”

  2. 5

    Available at the Yale University Library. On Active Service in Peace and War, the previously published version of the Stimson Diaries omits much significant material on the relationship of the bomb to diplomacy.

  3. 6

    Hewlitt and Anderson, The New World.

  4. 7

    The other new information recapitulates the known story of the efforts of Neils Bohr and the American scientists to try to set the framework for international atomic control before the bomb was used. These efforts, of course, failed: first, when it was decided not to approach the Russians about control schemes until after the bomb was used; second, when it was decided, in any event, to push production and stay ahead; and third, when it was decided not to tell Stalin explicitly about the bomb before it was used. (At Potsdam, Truman told him only that a powerful new weapon had been developed.)

  5. 8

    Italics added.

  6. 9

    Italics added.

  7. 10

    See my Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, which also contains citations for facts and quotations presented without specific documentation elsewhere in this review.

  8. 11

    Feis does not cite this evidence. See University of Chicago Roundtable, No. 601 (September 25, 1949).

  9. 12

    Nor is one reassured by the key Presidential adviser’s approach to other matters. What we know is only too consistent with the view that James F. Byrnes urged the use of the bomb explicitly to impress the Russians. In 1964, Byrnes’s interest in a “tough” foreign policy led him to support the Presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. It is often forgotten that twenty years earlier a similar interest made Byrnes one of the most highly placed advocates of a preventive war to bring Russia to terms. Truman’s personal representative for atomic matters and his Secretary of State—the forgotten man of Cold War history—almost always urged the hard line: in April 1945, his recommendation that the bomb would permit America “to dictate our own terms”; in May 1945, his view that the bomb would make Russia more “manageable”; in July-August 1945, his hope that it would keep Russia out of Manchuria; his need, in September 1945, to have the weapon “in his pocket” to impress Molotov; his complaint to Forrestal, early in 1947, that the Russians “don’t scare”; and finally his demand, in mid-1947, for “measures of the last resort” to force Russia to yield in European negotiations.

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