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The Purge and the Bomb

In response to:

The Bad Old Days from the April 20, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

It is difficult to tell from H. Stuart Hughes’s review of Robert Donovan’s book about Truman (NYR, April 20) the extent to which the confusions and misstatements concerning Truman’s use of the atomic bomb originate with Hughes or with Donovan or with both. I have not seen Mr. Donovan’s book over here and so must address myself to Mr. Hughes’s quotations from the book and his own comments thereon. Both serve the myth that has been nurtured about American use of the atomic bombs over Japan—that the bombings saved US lives by shortening the war and that no “political blackmail” was involved—in short, that however immoral the use of the bombs might be thought to be it was militarily and diplomatically justified.

Thus Mr. Hughes writes that “Donovan…starts quite sensibly by informing us that a leader who reasoned as Truman did had no choice but to use the new weapon in the Pacific war: the president ‘knew instinctively what the consequences would have been for him and for the Democratic party if tens of thousands of (invading) Americans were killed or wounded in Japan while the atomic bomb lay in discard in a laboratory.’ ”

But such a statement as that, equating use of the bombs with the saving of lives, is not at all sensible, is not accurate, and, in the various versions of it that have been ground out for the past third of a century, has been disproved many times over. Moreover, it disproves itself. For no American lives were being lost in August of 1945, when the bombs were rushed into use only three weeks after the first test at Alamagordo; Japan was then almost totally defenseless against U.S. air attacks and there was no ground and virtually no sea activity going on; no invasion was under way and none was planned until November, three months later.

Why the rush, unparalleled in the whole history of arms, to get a novel, complicated, and barely tried weapon into use against such an enemy, who had, besides, already made it plain in numerous overtures that almost any rational negotiations could have produced a peace? And why twice, so close together that the effects of Hiroshima were not even assessable when Nagasaki was hit?

Nobody has answered those questions any better than the late P.M.S. Blackett, Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society, did in his little book, Fear, War and the Bomb: Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy. As he pointed out there, the Russians in May of 1945 had promised to invade Manchuria on August 8. The invasion came exactly as promised and was a military success. Politically it was altogether over-shadowed by the careful bracketing of the atomic bombings just before the invasion began (Hiroshima, August 6) and just after (Nagasaki, August 9).

So,” as Professor Blackett concluded following a fairly full account of the maneuverings of that time (and he has been fully supported by much official U.S. and British material declassified in recent years), “we may conclude that the dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the second World War as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia…. That the realistic objectives in the field of Macht-Politik, so well achieved by the timing of the bombs, did not square with the advertised objectives of saving ‘untold numbers’ [Truman’s phrase] of American lives, produced an intense inner psychological conflict in the minds of many….” But apparently not in the minds of Messrs Hughes and Donovan.

Mr. Hughes even quotes Mr. Donovan as concluding that “by the following autumn…it was becoming clear that Truman had no grand design for using possession of the atomic bombs to coerce other nations.” And so, Mr. Hughes summarizes, “we historians are left where we started—with the accusation still unproven that the president and his advisers resorted to atomic blackmail.”

But surely—even if the 200,000 or more casualties of two undefended and unwarned cities (Secretary of War Stimson specifically ruled out any warnings at the May 31, 1945 meeting of his Interim Committee) suggest nothing coercive to Messrs Hughes and Donovan—surely the bombs must have had some effect in shortening the war, must have saved some lives. But in fact there is no real evidence that they did even that. It was U.S. insistence on unconditional surrender that overrode the efforts of the Japanese to extricate themselves from the long-lost war. This insistence was modified after the bombings; the surrender came at once.

As the official U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (Japan) noted in early 1946: “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” Or, as President Eisenhower later put it more simply, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Or, as Einstein put it more philosophically, speaking to Szilard shortly after he heard about the bombings, “You see. The ancient Chinese were right. One must not ever do anything.”

At one point Mr. Hughes informs us that, concerning the “dropping of the atomic bomb,” Donovan “tells us little that we did not know before and tends to fudge on the critical issues.” Insofar as the tone and relevant text of the Hughes review reflect Mr. Donovan’s views, the indictment must be drawn far more sharply than that. And what is one to say of Mr. Hughes’s own comments as quoted here?

As a historian, reviewing a book that gets into atomic history, is he familiar with the Hyde Park Aide-Memoire of September 18, 1944 (i.e., eight months before the end of the war with Germany) that says, among other things, “when a bomb is finally available, it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese”; and also, “Enquiries should be made regarding the activities of Professor Bohr and steps taken to ensure that he is responsible for no leakage of information, particularly to the Russians.” That Aide-Memoire, initialed by F.D.R. and W.C.C. at the height of the war with Germany (although it has no word to say about Germany), does not serve the myth that Messrs Hughes and Donovan seem so casually to accept. But shouldn’t they be expected to know of its existence (they can find the text, along with numerous other illuminations, in that first-rate and myth-shattering book by the Princeton historian Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed)? Certainly Mr. Hughes at least should have known of it. But if he did why no reference to its implications? And if he didn’t, why didn’t he—or at least why was he reviewing such a book?

Dexter Masters

Totnes, Devon, England

H Stuart Hughes replies:

Two points at least in Dexter Masters’ thoughtful letter deserve a reply.

First, in my discussion of Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, the key phrase is “a leader who reasoned as Truman did.” My statement simply tries to establish the limits of what was possible at the time. It does not reflect my own sentiments, which have long been strenuously anti-nuclear.

Second, I do know about the Hyde Park Aide-Memoire, which figures prominently in Martin J. Sherwin’s admirable book. Indeed I reviewed that book for the NYR (February 19, 1976).

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