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Was the Hiroshima Bomb Necessary? An Exchange

In response to:

Sin and the Scientist from the July 17, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

May I first of all compliment David Joravsky on an excellent and deeply interesting essay on Robert Oppenheimer? [NYR, July 17] But may I add a protesting comment on what Joravsky has to say about Oppenheimer’s connection with the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Joravsky holds, in effect, that Robert Oppenheimer’s reluctant assent1 to the bomb’s being dropped was wrong to the point of being wicked. By now, of course, this is the universally fashionable view of the matter. The trouble is that like so many fashionable views nowadays, it will not stand up to modest testing against the historical facts.

When considering any great political-military decision, and especially any great wartime decision potentially involving countless human lives, the only rational point of departure is the nature of the data available to the man who really made the decision—in this case, President Harry S. Truman. The main datum President Truman had to consider was the intelligence estimate by General Douglas MacArthur and his staff, that landing on the Japanese islands and eliminating armed resistance thereafter would cost quite literally hundreds of thousands of American soldiers dead or disabled by wounds. If I recall correctly—such estimates were circulated in wartime to the inner staffs of other related Theaters—I first saw the estimate in China. At any rate, the total of Americans to be killed or disabled was put at half a million and, later on, I am told, even higher. Long, long before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, furthermore, the MacArthur estimate had helped to shape the Far Eastern clauses of the Yalta agreement.

Curiously enough, this MacArthur contribution to the Yalta agreement can even be checked from the Congressional record covering the period just before Yalta. General MacArthur, with his perpetual itch to make higher policy, had urged President Roosevelt to pay any price to secure Soviet participation in the final assault on Japan, thereby minimizing the expected total of American casualties2 Before President Roosevelt left for Yalta, Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin, then an important Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, made a hectoring speech loudly warning the President not to hesitate to pay the Soviets’ requested price, in order to get Soviet help and thus to spare “American boys” in the last phase of the war in the Far East.

I read a report of the Wiley speech in China, and immediately suspected that General MacArthur, in his usual way, had somehow communicated to the senator the substance of his estimate, plus a request for the kind of speech Wiley made. I checked this with Senator Wiley, a kindly, generally truthful although ferociously reactionary old gentleman, when he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after the war. He fully confirmed my wartime guess. As to the original MacArthur estimate, it can no doubt be found in the National Archives, and those who make this further search will find the estimate had not been qualified (and reportedly had been made even more unpalatable) when President Truman gave the order to drop the bomb.

Furthermore, MacArthur’s estimate of the cost of subduing the Japanese islands had an alarmingly strong chance of proving correct—and very nearly did exactly that. In order to see how this can possibly be true, however, one must first understand certain key characteristics of the Japanese polity and constitutional practice as re-organized in the nineteenth century during the early years of the Meiji Restoration. Before 1945, to begin with, what is now deplorably called “consensus decision making” had an even greater role in Japan than it does today. This is the way of reaching decisions which requires formal unanimity before national, business, or other decisions could be taken and carried out.

This way of reaching a national decision was directly enshrined in the Japanese Constitution adopted after the Meiji Restoration, which also had a strong military bias. The Constitution provided that the war and navy ministers must be drawn from the two armed services. Thus no Japanese Cabinet could be formed if either armed service refused to supply a minister, and any Japanese Cabinet could be brought down instantly, if either service withdrew its minister. In addition, time-hallowed constitutional practice forbade any Cabinet to offer advice to the divine emperor without first reaching total unanimity, and it was unheard of for the emperor to reject a Cabinet’s unanimous advice. These were the basic factors which had permitted the army to drag the Japanese government along the course which finally led to war with the United States—although the army was of course aided by occasional coups and attempted coups by leaders of its more extreme factions, by intimidating assassinations that were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, and by considerable sympathy within the Japanese navy—although the navy was always the army’s rival and thus distinctly independent.

One more feature of the former Japanese polity deserving notice, finally, was the Supreme War Council set up in wartime and composed of the prime minister, the foreign, war, and navy ministers, and the respective chiefs of staff of the two armed services. Fairly early, the real power over decisions about the conduct of the war had passed to the Supreme War Council, but the Council was again governed by the iron rule of unanimity in advising the emperor. There was only one means of escape from the rule, moreover, and it had never been used. The authorities in the two armed services had been induced, almost by a trick, to agree to a document3 permitting special meetings of the Supreme War Council to be called in cases of extreme emergency, in the presence of the emperor, and without delay for prior discussion.

This did not mean that anything remotely resembling true unanimity prevailed in the last months of the war, in the period of the final wartime Cabinet, whose prime minister was the aged Baron Suzuki Kantaro. To begin with, the emperor had grown so anxious for peace that he was already tentatively reaching out from his cloister, as it were, and the most important peace advocate was Hirohito’s chief adviser among the court officials, the lord keeper of the Privy Seal, Marquis Koichi Kido. Under the surface, moreover, the Supreme War Council itself was now evenly split. The foreign minister, Togo Shigenori, was already coming close to open advocacy of peace on any terms, with the sole proviso that the emperor remain on his immemorial throne. In agreement with Togo, but far more timid about it, were prime minister Suzuki and the navy minister, Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa. Violently opposed to the peace advocates, meanwhile, were the war minister, General Anami Korechika, and the two service chiefs of staff, General Umezu Yoshijiro and Admiral Toyoda Soemu.4

The official program of the war party was a fight to the last ditch by the entire Japanese nation, and then a fight in the last ditch with bamboo spears if need be.5 There are indications, to be sure, that War Minister Anami understood the need for peace. The principal indication was, quite simply, that he refrained from resigning and thereby bringing down the whole Suzuki Cabinet. But his minimum program was to satisfy the national honor with a gigantic final bloodbath, which would also force the US to accept retention of something resembling Japan’s prewar political system when the time came to talk peace. The dimensions of the proposed slaughter can be judged from the forces that were being mustered to resist an American landing: 2,350,000 soldiers of the regular army my backed up by 250,000 garrison troops; the entire remnants of the navy and all the airplanes in Japan, including training planes and numbering about seven thousand; 4 million civilian employees of the two services; and the whole civilian militia of 28 million men, women, and boys.6

I know of only two works, the ones already cited in my notes, which give a detailed account of the strange final crisis in Tokyo. The first is Japan’s Longest Day, compiled by a group of young Japanese researchers calling themselves “The Pacific War Research Society” under the leadership of Oya Soichi, and published in 1965 in Japanese and then in rather lame English in 1968. The second is John Toland’s The Rising Sun, an ironical title since the subject is Japan’s war effort and ultimate defeat. Toland’s book came out in 1970, and the relevant pages are 834-932 in the paperback edition. Neither book could be written today, for besides more normal research, both books are based on personal interviews with most of the surviving key actors in the events described—nearly all of whom are now dead except the emperor. Although neither book can be called a profound scholarly work, both contain great numbers of deeply significant facts, and these two quite independent accounts of the same events do not diverge from each other in any important way. I am further informed that the books main accounts and their major facts have never been controverted by any subsequent work with higher scholarly pretensions. But this may have happened without my knowledge, particularly in Japan; so I stand open to correction on this latter point.

The facts set out in these two works force the conclusion that Japanese surrender could never have been obtained, at any rate without the honor-satisfying bloodbath envisioned by War Minister Anami, if the hideous destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki7 had not finally galvanized the peace advocates into tearing up the entire Japanese book of rules. As to the previous developments, only two need mention. In June, the split at the highest level of the Japanese government, plus Japan’s gravely deteriorating situation, had led to a low-level approach to Moscow, through the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo,8 seeking Soviet mediation of a peace that would be acceptable to Japan. On July 26, the Potsdam Proclamation, demanding immediate, unconditional Japanese surrender, was then promulgated in Berlin by the US, British, and Chinese Nationalist governments. This reached Tokyo on July 27. It was publicly dismissed by Prime Minister Suzuki,9 and led only to intensification of the efforts to secure Soviet mediation, which were now being made in Moscow.10

Even the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 failed to produce any positive political result worth noting. The Supreme War Council was in fact just as far away as ever from the needed unanimity to advise peace to the emperor when the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki on the morning of August 9. The impossibility of a decision for peace under the old rules was proven that morning by a long meeting of the Supreme War Council, which received the news from Nagasaki but got nowhere. An equally fruitless and interminable Cabinet meeting was held that afternoon. With the emperor’s knowledge and approval, the special device which had been prepared in advance was therefore brought into use for the first time. In other words, a special emergency meeting of the Supreme War Council in the emperor’s presence was called for just before midnight of August 9 in the imperial air-raid bunker in the palace grounds.11

The scene must have been dramatic, despite the acute discomfort of the appallingly hot and humid bunker deep underground and barely ventilated. After the emperor had taken his place on a low dais, Prime Minister Suzuki first asked for the text of the Potsdam Proclamation to be read aloud, and then admitted with humble apologies that he had brought before the emperor a deeply divided War Council—as the emperor well knew, although this was the first time he, or his father, or his grandfather the Emperor Meiji, had ever met formally with advisers who were still in open disagreement. Individual opinions were asked for. Foreign Minister Togo, Navy Minister Yonai, and the prime minister all spoke for accepting the Potsdam terms with the sole proviso of the preservation of the imperial house. The army minister, General Anami, and the two service chiefs of staff, General Umezu and Admiral Toyoda, burst forth in bitter opposition.

Their stated terms for accepting surrender were the opposite of unconditional—in fact they would have ensured the near-preservation of the pre-war status quo in Japan—and they could never have been accepted in Washington. As to their alternative program, should their terms not be accepted, this would have sought the desired conditions from the US, if it came to that, by what amounted to universal Götterdämmerung for the Japanese army, for the remains of the Japanese navy, and above all, for just about the entire Japanese people. Furthermore, no one present at the Imperial War Council appears to have had the slightest doubt that a fight to the last ditch would have been made by the overwhelming majority of Japanese if the imperial order were given for such a fight. Nor was any doubt felt by the young researchers of Japan’s Longest Day, who were schoolboys at the time of the surrender and would have joined the fight.12

Fortunately, however, “the Voice of the Crane”—as the Japanese then called their emperor’s voice—was heard at the end of the meeting in the first really important and direct political intervention by any Japanese emperor since the time of the ambitious Emperor Go-Daigo in the fourteenth century. Hirohito declared, in effect that he would rather give his own life forthwith than share in the responsibility for the destruction of his people, and he gave his emphatic approval to Prime Minister Suzuki, Foreign Minister Togo, and Navy Minister Yonai. The emperor had spoken, and there could be no more argument—at least in the imperial presence. The meeting broke up with great emotion.13

There were two sequels to this extraordinary special meeting of the War Council. The first, at 4:00 AM, August 10, Tokyo time, was a government cable to Switzerland and Sweden for transmission to Washington, which was required by the emperor’s decision and therefore announced acceptance of unconditional Japanese surrender on the sole condition that this should not be understood as “compromising” the emperor’s prerogatives “as Supreme Ruler.”14 Receipt of the cable precipitated a debate in Washington, which President Truman resolved by accepting the Japanese proviso.15 The chief influence behind this wise acquiescence was former Ambassador Joseph C. Grew, who had persuaded most of the members of the Truman Cabinet who were directly involved. Only Secretary of State James F. Byrnes was still dubious because of the divisions in his department, where Dean G. Acheson and others strongly opposed Grew.16 American agreement to the Japanese note was then communicated to Tokyo.

As for Tokyo, the final crisis was only just beginning, since the opponents of surrender were still determined to circumvent and reverse the emperor’s commands. What followed immediately in Tokyo was therefore an immense amount of argument, and much peril. The argument went on for several days, at several levels and in several places, the chief places being the still-divided Cabinet and the war ministry, which was all-important because it might again become all-powerful. It was fortunate that President Truman’s reply to the Japanese government message came in promptly, for both Prime Minister Suzuki and Navy Minister Yonai were committed to join the war party if the proviso preserving the imperial throne should not be agreed to.17 Thus the whole machine would have gone into reverse if this agreement had not been forthcoming.

The same reversal would have happened, too, if War Minister Anami and the two chiefs of staff had got their way in the Cabinet arguments. At the war ministry, moreover, as well as at the main air force base at Atsugi, and in certain factions of the navy, plans were already in the making among hot-headed officers for a coup d’état that would drive the “traitorous” advisers from the sacred presence of the emperor.

By the advice of Lord Privy Seal Kido, who would surely have been killed if the coup d’état had come off (for it must be remembered all the peace advocates were in constant danger of assassination with the single exception of the emperor himself), Hirohito broke the deadlock by personally commanding the Imperial War Council to reassemble with the rest of the Cabinet for another special meeting on August 14.18 Despite attempts to delay it, the War Council-Cabinet meeting occurred at 10:30 that morning, with the same arrangements as before, except that informal dress was now permitted, which perhaps made the humid heat just a little more bearable, and an enlarged group was admitted to the meeting, to listen but not speak, which presumably made the heat far worse.

Precisely the same opinions were expressed by precisely the same persons as at the previous special meeting of the War Council, and the meeting ended, as before, when the emperor spoke his will. This time, however, Hirohito spoke at much greater length, using language that is still exceedingly moving to anyone who remembers the dangers of that time, even if a foreigner and after thirty-five years. (The special meetings of the Imperial War Council were not stenographically recorded, but the reconstructions of the emperor’s speech from the memories of those who heard it are much the same in the two works being followed. These reconstructions, in turn, are also strongly supported by the language of the Imperial Rescript ending the war, which was written to follow the argument of Hirohito’s second War Council speech.)

When the emperor had made his speech, there was no more to be said, and he left the underground bunker while all the other persons there broke into tears.19 Meanwhile the all-important practical effect of this second major imperial political intervention in five centuries was to bring around the higher military officers at the War Council meeting. War Minister Anami and the service chiefs of staff, General Umezu and Admiral Toyoda, had heard the imperial will declared in terms they could no longer ignore. They neither dared nor, seemingly, even wished to try to circumvent it any longer. Hence the main task of Generals Anami and Umezu thereafter was to persuade the other officers of the army, particularly the higher officers whose help alone could be counted on to contain the intransigent younger ones.

General Anami could at any time have escaped this task and turned the balance in favor of continued war by the simple act of resigning as war minister, which would have automatically brought down the Suzuki Cabinet. But he addressed himself to his distasteful task with unyielding determination, although the influence of the intransigents reached into the highest places, including the war minister’s own family. Before the special War Council-Cabinet meeting the emperor himself had already lent his own assistance by giving an audience to Field Marshal Hata Shunroku and one or two other senior grandees of the army, telling them of his decision to have peace, and commanding their support.20

This was the real beginning of what the authors of the book call “Japan’s Longest Day,” meaning the morning of August 14 through the morning of August 15. The next event of August 14 was General Anami’s revelation of the emperor’s final decision to excited officers of the war ministry, and his further revelation of his own decision to support the emperor’s announced will with all his own authority. All sorts of maneuvers and developments followed throughout the day. The first one that needs mention here was the all but interminable Cabinet meeting, to haggle about the precise language of the Imperial Rescript formally proclaiming peace and also the language of the unprecedented imperial radio broadcast largely repeating the rescript to the nation, a broadcast which the emperor had indicated he wished to make.

The precise language of the Imperial Rescript and speech was not agreed upon even in a preliminary way until dusk had fallen, and still there were further delays. It was late in the evening when the emperor affixed his seal to the official copy of the rescript and proceeded to the Imperial Household Ministry to record his speech to the nation. He then went to bed.

Meanwhile something had to be done with the two recordings of his speech, which was composed in the antiquated court Japanese that ordinary Japanese only half understand. In the end, the recordings were confided to one of the imperial chamberlains for temporary safekeeping in the Household Ministry, because it was considered too risky to send the precious tapes out into the uncertainties of the night to the main building of the Japanese state broadcasting system.

The chosen chamberlain, somewhat ironically, was Baron Tokugawa Yoshihiro, a descendant of the long line of Tokugawa Shoguns whose rule over Japan had ended with the Meiji Restoration. Shrewdly, Baron Tokugawa placed the recording in a small but strong safe in an out-of-the-way room, and then concealed the safe behind piles of official paper.

This was just as well, for the hotheads among the army officers had already decided to proceed with their coup without any higher support. Their strongest leader was Major Hatanaka Kenji, but key lieutenant colonels and others were also involved. One was Lieutenant Colonel Takeshita Masahiko, who had close family links to the war minister. Hatanaka telephoned him to request he make one last attempt to persuade General Anami to continue the war. Instead, Lt. Colonel Takeshita found the war minister cheerfully preparing to commit seppuku, and was too polite to interrupt; so he remained with the minister, talking and drinking sake, until General Anami’s ritual suicide in the early hours after dawn of August 15.

Considerably earlier than all this, the main group of the coup-plotters had presented themselves at the headquarters of the Imperial Guards Division, in the palace grounds, from where Major Hatanaka made his call to Lieutenant Colonel Takeshita asking him to intervene with General Anami. They had asked for an interview with Lieutenant General Mori Takeshi, the divisional commander. With some delay, Lieutenant Colonels Ida Masataka and Shiizaki Jiro were admitted by General Mori, who also had with him his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Shiraishi Michinori. After again playing for time, General Mori turned his visitors down flat. The two lieutenant colonels in the plot then left.

Major Hatanaka and a sympathizing air officer, Captain Uehara Shigetaro, however, soon penetrated General Mori’s office again, where Hatanaka shot General Mori through the head and Captain Uehara all but beheaded the attendant brother-in-law with his sword. Major Hatanaka then used the dead general’s official seal to issue forged orders in due form to the Imperial Guards Division, and the division credited and obeyed the forged orders, moving out to occupy the whole palace grounds, all the palace gates, and the headquarters of the state broadcasting system in Tokyo City. All the significant buildings of the palace complex were also occupied except two. The first of these was the imperial library or Obunko (the English version of Japan’s Longest Day transliterates this as “Gobunko”) where the emperor and empress had lived since the imperial palace had been burned in one of the Tokyo fire storms caused by American incendiary bombs. The second significant building was the crucial headquarters of General Tanaka Shizuichi, commander of the Eastern District Army, who had automatically acquired command of the Imperial Guards Division by the murder of General Mori.

During the night, Hatanaka’s allies vainly ransacked the Imperial Household Ministry seeking the vital tapes of the emperor’s surrender broadcast, and Baron Tokugawa was at length found and threatened with death if he did not reveal the two recordings’ where abouts. He replied disdainfully, “You can kill me if you choose, but I do not see what good it will do you”—and so he escaped alive. So did Lord Privy Seal Kido, who was on the plotters’ list of doomed men. He and one or two other endangered men were shown to a safe hiding place in the labyrinthine palace complex by lesser palace people. The end came at last when word reached General Tanaka Shizuichi of what was afoot, whereupon he sallied forth in fury into the palace grounds, quickly brought under control the Imperial Guards Division, and thus ended the attempted coup—except for such sequels as Major Hatanaka’s vain attempt to make a broadcast to the nation on his own, and his subsequent suicide. But the main sequel was the emperor’s broadcast speech, listened to by the entire Japanese nation standing respectfully, heads bowed, and soon in tears.21

All the same, it had been an uncomfortably near thing, although probably not because of the attempted last minute military coup. There were, instead, two other real keys to what finally happened. The first was President Truman’s wise decision to agree to preserve the imperial house as part of a surrender otherwise unconditional. If Truman had chosen the other course, the entire peace faction in Tokyo would have collapsed automatically. As to the second key, it was the emperor’s success in imposing obedience at the second special War Council meeting on War Minister Anami and the two chiefs of staff of the armed services. General Anami’s subsequent success in bringing around all other higher army officers, including Lieutenant General Mori and General Tanaka, was the essential factor which ensured the coup’s defeat.

In short, this complex historical episode is well worth pondering by all those who hold the common view, by now hardly challenged by anyone, that the decision to drop the two bombs on Japan was wicked in itself, and that President Truman and all others who joined in making or assented to this decision shared in the wickedness. The most usual suggestion, that the president could have persuaded the Japanese by organizing a demonstration of the bomb for them in some uninhabited place, can be seen to be wholly without foundation by anyone who studies the events in Japan leading up to the decision to surrender. Both bombs were in fact needed to get action. The terrible destruction of Hiroshima was grossly misrepresented, by the orders of the authorities, to the Japanese people, and even those in charge at the war ministry refused to believe the reports from the scene until Field Marshal Hata, accompanied by scientists, had gone to Hiroshima to see what had really happened.22 Furthermore, the true, climactic, and successful effort of the Japanese peace advocates, although they were headed by the emperor himself, did not begin in deadly earnest until after the second bomb had destroyed Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb was thus the trigger to all the developments that led to peace.

To these facts, those who still doubt ought to add the blood-chilling evidence of the islands with Japanese populations, such as Saipan, which were conquered before Japan proper could be attacked. This evidence strongly suggests that the Japanese people were entirely ready to choose death rather than surrender—hundreds of school girls on the islands even ceremonially committed mass suicide together—as long as the orders were to die rather than surrender. Yet when the emperor’s broadcast changed the orders, General MacArthur was able to land in Japan unarmed and unguarded, as he shrewdly decided to do.

The inescapable lesson of the historical facts is that President Truman literally had no choice but to do what he did. Or rather, he might perhaps have made far more cruel choices. For example, the president might have ordered continuing conventional bombing and the naval blockade of the Japanese islands, as the commander of the US Air Corps, General H.H. Arnold, in fact wished at the time.23 In that case, many more Japanese would have perished than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either by starvation (for food stocks were already appallingly low) or by the effects of additional fire storms at Kyoto and elsewhere. Or the president might have ordered the planned landing, which called for an initial force of over 750,000 US troops. In that case General MacArthur’s grim estimate of US casualties would have been fulfilled and perhaps over-fulfilled, and incalculable numbers of additional Japanese would also have died resisting the landing force. In short, any president of the United States would have been wholly false to his oath of office, who preferred the needless sacrifice of something like half a million American soldiers, not to mention vast numbers of further Japanese, to the admittedly horrifying sacrifice of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—in which the Japanese losses were also horrifyingly high, yet very much smaller than the number of Americans at risk, not to mention hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of other still-living Japanese.

Joseph Alsop

David Joravsky replies:

Mr. Alsop’s fascinating letter tells us a great deal about Japanese politics at the bitter end, but it has only a hypothetical connection with the US decision to explode its first two A-bombs. on the Japanese. If, Mr. Alsop argues, US leaders had known all that he has learned about the innermost politics of Japan, they would have had to reach the same decision as they did without such knowledge. The obvious retort is that such well-informed and well-intentioned leaders would have jumped at the first Japanese peace feelers, agreed right away to keep the Emperor, on the hope of precipitating the Japanese political crisis and the surrender in July, before the A-bombs were ready. In fact, the Potsdam Declaration deliberately ignored the Japanese plea for retention of the Emperor. After the A-bombs had been dropped, and the renewed Japanese peace offer repeated the condition of keeping the Emperor, only then did the US concede the point.

Another obvious retort is prompted by Mr. Alsop’s insistence that two cities had to be A-bombed, since “the true, climactic, and successful effort of the Japanese peace advocates” occurred “after the second bomb had destroyed Nagasaki.” By such experimental reasoning the ancient Chinese convinced themselves that the sun would return from an eclipse only after the proper amount of fireworks were exploded. Fortunately they did not try their never failing explosions on people. I can put this retort in literal fashion: Was the three-day interval between the two bombings (August 6 to August 9) sufficient to test the political effect of the first alone? Hardly, especially in view of Mr. Alsop’s statement that the Japanese war ministry did not fully appreciate the effects of the strange new weapon on Hiroshima until Field Marshal Hata visited that city with a group of scientists and came back to report on August 14.

Nor can logical dissection of Mr. Alsop’s vehement intuition stop at that point. If watchful waiting by the US government for a few more days might have shown that the A-bombing of a single city would suffice, might not such a government have tried a non-lethal demonstration and discovered that that was enough? Concerned US scientists proposed, for example, the A-bombing of an uninhabited Japanese forest, where Marshal Hata and his scientists could have learned the same appalling lessons they read in vaporized buildings and irradiated flesh in Hiroshima—if the US government had been willing to take a few more days and to be a bit more thoughtful in opening the age of nuclear warfare. Even a great shock to the big shots in Tokyo, which Mr. Alsop considers indispensable, might have been delivered in a spectacular but non-lethal form. The physicist Edward Teller has suggested that

A nighttime atomic explosion high over Tokyo, in full sight of Emperor Hirohito and his Cabinet, would have been just as terrifying as Hiroshima. And it would have frightened the right people.

After the Tokyo demonstration, we could have delivered an ultimatum for Japan’s surrender. The ultimatum, I believe, would have been met, and the atomic bomb could have been used more humanely but just as effectively to bring a quick end to the war.24

Of course that is retrospective play with contrary-to-fact assumptions, but Mr. Alsop invites such a game, and plays it with one-sided assumptions that vindicate US wisdom and compassion in advance, avoiding the most painful questions and the most damaging evidence.

A more serious reply to Mr. Alsop is that the US leaders had no wish to avoid using the A-bomb on Japanese cities; they gave no serious thought to alternatives. Winston Churchill was categorical on that point: “…There never was a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not. …There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise.”25

Industrious historians have offered only slight amendments to Churchill’s memory. Down below his level Secretary Stimson appointed an Interim Committee on atomic policy, which went through “a symbolic act” of bestowing “ordered form, some corporate structure,” upon “attitudes already developed.”26 In May, 1945, the Committee quickly endorsed the “foregone conclusion”27 that the bomb would be used on cities, without warning or prior demonstration. Down below that bureaucratic level Oppenheimer presided over an Advisory Panel of scientists, which submitted its blessing on the foregone conclusion two weeks after the Interim Committee had sent its report to the president. Up on the level of cabinet members, chiefs of staff, and ambassadors some Navy brass expressed some reservations about the use of the A-bomb—they did not like to see a rival service steal the show—and some individuals occasionally suggested that the final assault, whether by invasion or A-bombs or both, might prove unnecessary if the Japanese offers of surrender were seriously explored. They were not explored until the US had dropped the only two A-bombs it had, acting on “the unquestioned overriding commitment that the bomb was a weapon of war to be used as quickly as possible in war.”28

And why not? What we now call “conventional bombing” had prepared everyone but a few “concerned scientists” for an unquestioning transition to nuclear bombing. Daily news of firestorms killing hundreds of thousands had extinguished any feeling for “the enemy” as human beings, along with the memory of the revulsion we had expressed when the Japanese and Germans made the first experiments in the mechanized slaughter of civilians en masse, a habit of war we thought the race had overcome. Americans were not ashamed, they were proud to go vastly further than any other nation in the efficient destruction of entire cities. Their reputation of technological mastery was enhanced once again. Secretary Stimson was unusual in worrying that the United States might lose its other reputation, for “fair play and humanitarianism,”29 that it might “get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”30 He therefore urged some restraint on the firebomb raids, adding this gruesomely inconsistent reason: if firebombs destroyed Japanese cities too thoroughly, the A-bomb “would not have a fair background to show its strength.”31

Obviously I do, as Mr. Alsop noted, consider all that “wrong to the point of being wicked.” I regret Oppenheimer’s failure to offer either a moral or a practical warning to his wildly impulsive masters in June, 1945, as he did in 1949 when they plunged into a crash program for the H-bomb. The central point of such scientists’ warnings, which Niels Bohr and James Franck were already expressing in 1944-1945, was not the moral wrong of killing civilians en masse. It was the factual error of assuming that the US could start and win a nuclear arms race at one stroke. The central concern of the “concerned scientists” was to prevent a nuclear arms race, which would fatally jeopardize the security of the United States. They saw that negotiations with the Soviet Union had only a small chance of heading off that race, but they also saw that the small chance would be thrown away by a rush to explode the first US bombs on a virtually defeated nation. Some dramatic demonstration of self-restraint, such as an explosion of the bomb on an uninhabited Japanese forest, would have been a vivid signal of US seriousness in the effort to exclude nuclear weapons from warfare. Of course that argument can be contested; the appalling fact is that US and British leaders gave it almost no consideration at all. Intoxicated with delusions of omnipotence, they could not hear pleas for reason and self-restraint, whether on long-run issues of nuclear policy or on the immediate issue of the Japanese offer to surrender before the A-bombs were ready.

I wish Mr. Alsop were right in his observation that the bad conscience I feel is “the universally fashionable view.” My intuitive reading of the public mind finds much more fatalistic resignation than bad conscience, whether in relation to the decisions made during World War II or to the nuclear arms race that has followed from them. Currently fashionable histories exude such fatalism no less than the current leaders who insist that the only way out of the nuclear arms race is to go on trying to win it.

Mr. Alsop shares the mood of resignation to supposed inevitability, but he tries to back it up with an exercise in contrary-to-fact speculation: Would our leaders have acted better if they had known better? I like that kind of exercise, for I think it might break the spell of fatalism if it were pursued with self-critical thoroughness. I am not urging a revival of the shouting match between Jeremiahs and jingoists that characterized historical discussions of the cold war in the late Sixties and early Seventies. I am suggesting that historians who want to talk of tragic inevitability are not entitled to do so until they have struggled with what-if speculation, trying to discover the deepest reasons why our leaders scorned the paths not taken.

It is a good start to argue that those particular men in that network of institutions and crush of circumstance could not have acted otherwise than to revive the mass slaughter of civilians as a major strategy of war, culminating in nuclear annihilation. But such a demonstration is still a chronicle of historical contingency, not a genuinely tragic confrontation with human inevitability. The historians has a right to speak in such grandiose terms only if he follows Mr. Alsop’s effort to prove that the wisest and most humane leaders could not have acted otherwise. I trust that such a glorification of our leaders will never succeed, lest mass murder (and mass suicide to come) win a justification I cannot concede to them. I confess that bias.

  1. 1

    Report of the Scientific Panel on use of the bomb, on which Oppenheimer served. Quoted in John Toland, The Rising Sun (Random House, 1970; Bantam Books in paperback), p. 858 of paperback edition—the one cited hereafter.

  2. 2

    This recommendation by MacArthur accompanied the original intelligence estimate.

  3. 3

    This document was initiated in June, 1944, by the then foreign minister, Shigemitsu Mamoru, and by Marquis Koichi Kido (see below) to be ready in case of need. The war ministry seems to have approved the document because a future breach of the sacred rule of unanimity still appeared unimaginable. See p. 29, Japan’s Longest Day, compiled by the Pacific War Research Society and published in English by Kodansha in 1968. First published in Japanese in 1965 by Bungei Shunju Ltd.

  4. 4

    For the complex and deepening division of the Supreme War Council and the opening moves of the emperor and Marquis Kido, see Japan’s Longest Day, pp. 12-25.

  5. 5

    For summaries of the positions of the war minister and chief of staff, see Japan’s Longest Day, pp. 33-34. For other data on War Minister Anami’s views, see Toland, Rising Sun, pp. 910-914.

  6. 6

    See Toland, Rising Sun, p. 851. The militia were chiefly armed with muzzle-loading rifles and sharpened bamboo sticks—but these can also kill in the hands of fanatics.

  7. 7

    Toland, Rising Sun, also gives great weight to the impact of the Soviet declaration of war, which was Moscow’s answer, immediately after the Hiroshima bomb, to the Japanese pleas for mediation. The August 9 morning meeting of the Supreme War Council received news of the complete Soviet occupation of Manchuria along with the news from Nagasaki. The rapid destruction of the Japanese forces in Manchuria undoubtedly affected the thinking of the war ministry—but there appears to be no evidence that this event had much effect on the emperor or the other peace advocates, and no real weight is given to it by the authors of Japan’s Longest Day. War Minister Anami, moreover, did not change his position until August 14.

  8. 8

    Toland, Rising Sun, pp. 840-842.

  9. 9

    Press conference of the prime minister about how the Japanese government would respond to the Potsdam Proclamation. He used the word “mokusatsu,” which means “kill with silence.” See Japan’s Longest Day, p. 16.

  10. 10

    Toland, Rising Sun, pp. 871-873.

  11. 11

    For the account of these events in Japan’s Longest Day, see pp. 23-30. For the Toland account, see Rising Sun, pp. 908-910; pp. 912-913. Toland is more sketchy but adds the detail that the service chiefs of staff bodily threatened Cabinet Secretary Sakomizu Hisatsune when they learned of the call for the night meeting of the War Council.

  12. 12

    See Foreword, Japan’s Longest Day, by Hando Kazutoshi, the oldest member of the Japanese group.

  13. 13

    For the Japanese account of the first special meeting of the War Council, see Japan’s Longest Day, pp. 31-35. For Toland’s account, see Rising Sun, pp. 913-915.

  14. 14

    Toland, Rising Sun, pp. 916-917; Japan’s Longest Day, p. 35. The Cabinet meeting which drafted the first surrender message lasted until nearly 4:00 AM, August 10 (Japanese account).

  15. 15

    Toland, Rising Sun, pp. 920-921.

  16. 16

    Acheson, Present at the Creation (Norton, 1969) pp. 112-113; Acheson, Among Friends (Personal Letters), p. 330.

  17. 17

    Japanese account, Japan’s Longest Day, pp. 35-36.

  18. 18

    Japanese account of these developments, Japan’s Longest Day, p. 36; 38-77. It should be noted that Tokyo was once heavily bombed while the maneuvering continued. See also Toland, Rising Sun, pp. 917-936. But Toland says the “Cabinet” was called to meet in the emperor’s presence; and this is not quite correct. The armed service chiefs of staff attended the meeting as members of the War Council, and only the War Council members spoke before the emperor gave his final decision.

  19. 19

    Japanese account, Japan’s Longest Day, pp. 77-83.

  20. 20

    Japan’s Longest Day, p. 78.

  21. 21

    The foregoing account of the events beginning with the special meeting of the War Council Cabinet on the morning of August 14, through the Emperor’s surrender broadcast on August 15, is based on both of the Japanese American works followed herein. Japan’s Longest Day is far more detailed, running from p. 78 through the end of the book on p. 328. The account of how the Japanese listened to the broadcasts also comes from this book’s introduction. The account in Toland, The Rising Sun, pp. 936-961, though far briefer, fully supports the Japanese account and adds a few interesting details.

  22. 22

    Japan’s Longest Day, p. 76.

  23. 23

    Toland, Rising Sun, p. 866.

  24. 24

    Edward Teller with Allen Brown, The Legacy of Hiroshima (Doubleday, 1962), p. 14.

  25. 25

    Triumph and Tragedy (Houghton Mifflin, 1953), p. 639.

  26. 26

    Elting Morison, Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 630.

  27. 27

    Karl T. Compton, as quoted by Morison, p. 626.

  28. 28

    Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 433, indicating his agreement with previous historians, most notably Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed (Knopf, 1975).

  29. 29

    Quoted in Morison, p. 633.

  30. 30

    Quoted in L. Giovannitti and F. Freed, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (Coward-McCann, 1965), p. 110.

  31. 31

    Ibid.

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