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Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Do Nuclear Weapons Matter? from the February 2, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Stanley Hoffmann’s recent review [“Do Nuclear Weapons Matter?” NYR, February 2] misses the extraordinary fact that McGeorge Bundy has quietly conceded the central point made by critics of the Hiroshima decision. Hoffmann also fails to point out major omissions from recently discovered Presidential diaries and other documents.

Hoffmann writes that the “conviction of virtually all officials [was] that Japan would otherwise have surrendered only after an American invasion…”; and he says Bundy “rightly dismisses as unfounded the notion that the bomb…was also aimed at affecting Soviet behavior.”

Bundy was, of course—as he now acknowledges—“scribe” for the official defense of Hiroshima put out by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. However, many scholars have documented the problems with the official argument:

Contrary to the notion that no top adviser was against the decision, for instance, Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President and presiding officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, felt (as his diaries and memoirs both show) that the “Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…”

The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan…[I]n being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children…

Leahy reports he made his views quite clear to the President. We also know from minutes of White House meetings and other documents that on the basis of intelligence assessments several advisers urged Truman to assure the Emperor a nominal postwar role to facilitate a surrender. Although he decided to use the atomic bomb first we also know the President did not object to this modification (and, of course, the terms were indeed ultimately changed).

General Eisenhower’s views are also instructive. During Secretary Stimson’s “recitation of the relevant facts,” Eisenhower reports:

I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.

Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’…,” Eisenhower believed. “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing…”

As Eisenhower indicates, it has also long since been documented that, having broken the Japanese code, American policy-makers were fully aware Japan was attempting to negotiate a surrender through Moscow. In his recently discovered diary Truman himself characterizes one of many intercepts as the “telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.”

Furthermore, the Soviet Union was expected to enter the war in early August. Intelligence estimates held this was all but certain to trigger surrender. General Ismay’s report to Churchill conveniently summarized joint American-British documents: “When Russia came into the war against Japan, the Japanese would probably wish to get out on almost any terms short of the dethronement of the Emperor.” (Ismay’s reaction to bombing an essentially civilian target in these circumstances, like Leahy’s and Eisenhower’s, was “revulsion.”)

That Truman understood a Russian declaration of war would almost certainly end the fighting is also confirmed in the Presidential diary: “He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th,” he recorded after meeting Stalin on July 17, 1945. “Fini Japs when that comes about.”

In short, at the time he chose to use the atomic bomb, the President was informed he had at least two options (modifying the surrender terms and/or awaiting a Russian declaration of war) which appeared likely to end the war. There was also plenty of time—nearly three months—to test these judgments before the November 1, 1945 planning date for a landing. (Beyond this, Admiral Leahy’s testimony is that Truman told him he would take as long as necessary if it would avoid an invasion.)

Why—given this knowledge—were the atomic bombs used? In particular, why not simply wait a few days for the Russian declaration? Historians have also long known a good deal about the answer to the latter question: Neither the President nor his advisers wanted the Russians in the war once the option of the atomic bomb was available. The most recent confirming evidence comes from the diary of Secretary Byrnes’ assistant, Warren Brown. At Potsdam, Brown notes, Byrnes was “still hoping for time, believing that after [the] atomic bomb Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill…”

The dates alone, of course, are so obvious as to demand further inquiry: Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed on August 6 and 9, 1945—only days before the target date for Soviet entry into the war.

This is where Bundy’s surprising acknowledgement of the critics’ key point occurs. He argues, correctly in my opinion, that military necessity—and speed and secrecy—guided planning until the early summer of 1945, before strong evidence of Japan’s impending collapse was in hand. Even as he attempts, vaguely and generally, to sustain his defense of the decision beyond this point, however, he offers the following specific account of thinking in July:

Byrnes was…emphatic; fearing Soviet intentions in Asia, he somewhat naively hoped that he could keep Stalin out of the war…Stimson, more realistic, saw no way to prevent Russian entry, but he now hoped for an early surrender, induced by the bomb, that would limit the weight of the Russian claim to a share in the occupation of Japan itself.

Bundy goes on to state:

These emerging opinions made it entirely natural for the Americans not to consider using the Soviet plan to attack as a means of inducing Japanese surrender. [Emphasis added.]

That the atomic bombs were used, in part, precisely because American leaders were worried about the diplomatic consequences of Soviet involvement (rather than because they still believed this was the only way to avoid an invasion) is sometimes confused with a second argument—that they were also used “to impress” the Russians. On this matter presently available evidence is strongly suggestive but not (as yet) fully conclusive.

President Truman unquestionably postponed his Potsdam meeting on European issues because he wished to know if the bomb was a reality before his diplomatic encounter with Stalin: The Alamogordo atomic test took place on July 16, 1945; the Potsdam Conference began on July 17, 1945.

The attitude of the President’s two most important advisers is also increasingly clear. Space permits only a few of many illustrations:

Stimson’s diary, May 1945: “…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…Over any such tangled weave of problems the S-1 [i.e., the atomic bomb] secret would be dominant…”

Stimson’s diary, May 1945: “…The time now and the method now to deal with Russia [is] to keep our mouths shut and let our actions speak for words…[W]e have got to regain the lead and perhaps do it in a pretty rough and realistic way…They can’t get along without our help and industries and we have coming into action a weapon which will be unique.

Now the thing is not to get into unnecessary quarrels by talking too much and not to indicate any weakness by talking too much; let our actions speak for themselves.”

Reports by scientist Leo Szilard of a May 1945 meeting: “Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war…Mr. Byrnes’s…view [was] that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable…

I was completely flabbergasted by the assumption that rattling the bomb might make Russia more manageable…”

Stimson’s diary, June 1945 (after meeting with Truman): “I then said…there should be no revelation to Russia or anyone else of our work in S-1 [i.e., the atomic bomb] until the first bomb had been successfully laid on Japan…[T]he greatest complication was what might happen at the meeting of the Big Three. He told me he had postponed that until the 15th of July on purpose to give us more time.”

Ambassador Davies’ diary, Potsdam, July 1945: “[Byrnes] was having a hard time…[but the] details as to the success of the atomic bomb, which he had just received, gave him confidence that the Soviets would agree…

Byrnes’ attitude that the atomic bomb assured ultimate success in negotiations disturbed me…I told him the threat wouldn’t work, and might do irreparable harm.”

That “impressing” the Soviets was probably a consideration was suggested a quarter century ago even by so cautious an authority as the late Herbert Feis. A summary assessment based on far more extensive modern evidence is that of Gaddis Smith: “It has been demonstrated that the decision to bomb Japan was centrally connected to Truman’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union.”

Given the gaps in our knowledge, there is room for reasonable differences over how much weight to give the Soviet factor as an explicit or implicit consideration which played either an underlying or confirming role in the Hiroshima decision—questions debated for over a decade by Martin Sherwin, Robert Messer, Barton Bernstein, Greg Herken and other scholars. It is no longer possible, however, to ignore the critical texts.

Gar Alperovitz
President
National Center for Economic Alternatives
Washington, DC

Stanley Hoffmann replies:

Nothing in Mr. Alperovitz’s account contradicts McGeorge Bundy’s own analysis. On page 75 of Danger and Survival, Bundy mentions Admiral Leahy’s and General Eisenhower’s reservations about dropping the bomb. He also discusses the Truman administration’s unwillingness to modify its demands for unconditional surrender and its lack of enthusiasm for the Soviets’ entry into the war against Japan. As for the “Russian factor” in the Hiroshima decision, Bundy makes a clear distinction. It is the distinction between a purpose and a (welcome) side effect. The evidence, he says, is that “the timetable for the attack was” not “affected by anything except technical and military considerations”; neither the decision nor the timing of its execution were “governed by any consideration of its effect on the Soviet Union.” The purpose was, as he points out, forcing Japan to surrender. But “it is true—and important—…that these same decision makers were full of hope that the bomb would put new strength into the American power position.” Bundy himself mentions Byrnes in this connection. “Ending the war in complete victory just as fast as possible” was “a totally dominant motive in its own right”; but the decision makers, he says, “would have been most unusual men if they had thought” the bomb “irrelevant” to America’s relations with the USSR. Mr. Alperovitz’s own prudent conclusion to his letter narrows the gap between his well-known thesis and Bundy’s careful reconstruction of the policy.

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