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The New War Over Hiroshima’: An Exchange

In response to:

The War Over The Bomb from the September 21, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

The first questions about the Hiroshima decision are:

(1) Was President Truman advised before the atomic bomb was used that other options were available which appeared likely to end the war without an invasion?

(2) Did the President understand such advice?

As I show in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, after fifty years of scholarly archival digging the answer to both questions is: “Yes.” Here is a brief sampling of the evidence Ian Buruma did not mention in his review [NYR, September 21]—especially in connection with the now available documentary record concerning the expected impact of the Russian Declaration of War set for the beginning of August 1945:

  • As early as April 29, 1945, the Joint Intelligence Committee advised: “The entry of the USSR into the war would…convince most Japanese at once of the inevitability of complete defeat.” [Emphasis added.] The same advice was offered repeatedly throughout the remainder of the spring and summer.

  • On June 18, 1945, General Marshall personally advised President Truman that “the impact of Russian entry [into the war] on the already hopeless Japanese may well be the decisive action levering them into capitulation at that time or shortly thereafter if we land in Japan.” [Emphasis added.]

  • By July 8, 1945, when the US–British Combined Intelligence Committee completed its formal “Estimate of the Enemy Situation,” it, too, concluded:

An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat.

  • At Potsdam in mid-July Britain’s General Hastings Ismay—Chief of Staff to the Minister of Defence—summarized the latest US-British intelligence studies for Prime Minister Churchill as follows:

…[W]hen 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.

  • On numerous occasions President Truman stated that he went to Potsdam to meet Stalin primarily to make sure the Russians would, in fact, enter the war. The reason, as he later put it, was:

If the test [of the atomic bomb] should fail, then it would be even more important to us to bring about a surrender before we had to make a physical conquest of Japan.

  • On July 17, 1945—after receiving explicit confirmation that Russia would enter the war—the President’s diary reveals him writing: “Fini Japs when that comes about.”

  • And in an exuberant letter to his wife Bess the next day, July 18, 1945, Truman happily reported: “…I’ve gotten what I came for—Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it….” He went on: “I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed!”

  • On August 3, 1945, the diary of Secretary of State Byrnes’ assistant Walter Brown records that at a meeting on the way back from Potsdam the President, Byrnes, and Admiral William D. Leahy “agrred [sic] Japas [sic] looking for peace. (Leahy had another report from Pacific). President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden.”

Contrary to Buruma, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb does not contend that simply altering the unconditional surrender formula to safeguard the Emperor would indisputably have ended the war. (However, Truman was indeed advised by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Acting Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew that this was likely.) What the book does is trace the documentary finds which allow us to follow the development of a “two-step” US strategy as it gathered force at the highest level of the US government during the spring and summer of 1945: first a Russian attack would end all Japanese hope; second, a clarification of terms would bring surrender.

This was the fundamental US strategic concept before the atomic bomb was tested and (as many sources indicate) would almost certainly have been implemented had the atomic test failed. Once the bomb was shown to work, however, the strategy was abandoned. Indeed, US policy now tried to stall a Russian attack—and, too, put off clarification of the surrender terms. The bomb (as Martin Sherwin has written) was “preferred” to other options—even though recent research has shown Republican political leaders also to have been publicly demanding a clarification of terms to end the war.

Buruma overstates and misrepresents my views on what we know about the reasons the basic strategy was abandoned. In my book I emphasize that despite a good deal of evidence strongly suggesting a desire to impress Stalin and make Russia more “manageable” (as Secretary Byrnes argued to Leo Szilard and other scientists), at this stage of our knowledge it is still an “unanswerable question” whether diplomatic considerations related to the Soviet Union were, in fact, the reason the bomb was used. Buruma ignores repeated caveats in my earlier work and several explicit warnings in The Decision that it is absolutely essential to discriminate carefully between what is known and provable and what is strongly suggested but still open to further debate and research.

Buruma’s notion that the brief moment of frenzied Japanese debate between August 11 (when President Truman allowed that the Emperor could remain) and August 14 (when the Japanese military accepted surrender) tells us a great deal about the decision to use the atomic bomb is also extremely dubious. To emphasize this brief frame in a rapidly changing story is to ignore or radically downplay the advice given to the President in the preceding months when he formed his policy. It is also to ignore or downplay the fact (as Robert A. Pape has stressed) that the Japanese military leaders quickly abandoned their arguments and wish-list of additional terms after the Emperor’s intervention even though they had the full power under the Japanese Constitution to resign rather than consent to surrender. (And, of course, the brief—and unknown—early August Japanese internal debate played no part in the US decisions made in July.)

I do not disagree that Japanese military leaders “wanted” to continue the war (partly, I also agree, to preserve their own positions). They definitely did—especially so long as the US demand for “unconditional surrender” threatened the Emperor, and too, especially so long as they held onto the faint hope the Russians might stay out of the war. It also is not very surprising that for a very brief time after the first week of August they continued to press views they had formed and fervently urged throughout the spring and summer.

But changing the conditions which encouraged the Japanese military was at the very heart of the advice given to President Truman. And, to repeat, US intelligence judged that when this was done there were good reasons to believe the war would likely end—undoubtedly after a round of inevitable internal debate. (It is also important to note that such advice was given before it was learned on July 12–13 that the Japanese Emperor had personally intervened to attempt to bring an end to the war—a step all understood to be a major turning point.)

A top secret War Department assessment completed a few months after the fighting stopped concluded that Russia’s early August entry into the war on its own “…would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable.” It noted the Emperor had, in fact, decided to end the war in late June. Without even taking into account a clarification of the terms, it judged that a surrender would have occurred at just about the same time, that an initial November 1945 landing on Kyushu had been only a “remote” possibility—and that the full invasion of Japan would not have taken place.

Similarly, the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey judged—also without considering a clarification of terms—that “certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

In The Decision I report on literally dozens of similar assessments by military and other experts close to the events in question (including variations by, among others, Generals Arnold, Marshall, LeMay, MacArthur, and Eisenhower; and Admirals Leahy, King, Nimitz, and Halsey—i.e., each member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Commanders in Europe and Asia, and numerous top supporting staff). Furthermore, the most recent “literature review” of expert studies reports as a “consensus” among knowledgeable specialists in the field the judgment that the bomb was “not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.” [Emphasis added.]

One need not accept such assessments at face value. However, given the now available documents which have led so many to such conclusions, it simply will not do for Buruma to blithely claim that “there is no evidence Japan would have surrendered” without the atomic bomb. The historic question demands more specific evidentiary care than that exhibited in his review.

Gar Alperovitz

Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

Ian Buruma’s sprawling essay “The War Over the Bomb” [NYR, September 21] distorts and misrepresents our book, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, to the point of absurdity.

One would never know from his article, for example, that the vast majority of our book is not about Truman’s decision in 1945 but the legacy of Hiroshima ever since. This includes government suppression of evidence about the effects of the bomb; the public, cultural and media resistance to Hiroshima over many years; the hidden impact of the atomic bombings (in patterns of secrecy, numbing, and exposing our own people to harmful levels of radiation, for example); and the elaborate strands of the recent Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian.

Crucial to the Hiroshima legacy is what we call nuclearism, the exaggerated dependency on nuclear weapons and frequent embrace of them to the point of nearworship. Buruma rather bizarrely claims that this is “close to the religious position” of Dr. Nagai Takashi, a Nagasaki Catholic, who viewed the atomic bombing as supernatural, “propelled by a force beyond human reason” (as Buruma puts it), an act of Divine Providence meant to purify the city. Our view could not be more different: nuclear weapons are material, technological entities—developed and used by human beings—which can create in their possessors a sense of omnipotent power. Nuclearism is an important concept to us because it led to America’s entrapment by the weapons following Hiroshima.

In focusing on the section of our book that does examine Truman’s decision, Buruma wrongly asserts that we ignore political and historical issues in a rush to making psychological observations. In fact, our examination of the political and military aspects of that decision predominates in that discussion, based on extensive visits to the Truman Library, careful analysis of dozens of histories of that decision, and much other research. In any case, our entire approach is to blend historical and political influences with psychological observations.

Buruma is right in saying that we view the bomb’s use as morally repugnant but we do not, as he claims, limit ourselves to this ethical judgment. Far from it. We clearly place Truman’s decision in the wartime context of what we call an “atrocity producing situation”—one in which most presidents would have done what Truman did. Nor do we “take it for granted” that the atomic bombing did not hasten the end of the war. We acknowledge that it probably did help spur the Japanese surrender—but that other US actions might have produced the same result in the same time period.

We do not dwell on the “irrational behavior” of Truman and others involved with the weapon, as Buruma asserts. Indeed, the struggles of our leaders to make difficult decisions cannot be labeled simply rational or irrational, but become part of a flow of feeling that combines the political and the psychological. Our approach, therefore, is the very opposite of treating Truman (and others) like “a mental patient…touched with madness.” In fact, we oppose any such clinical labeling and avoid it throughout the book. Rather we see those involved in the Hiroshima decision as functional, mostly decent men caught up in powerful historical and political pressures and temptations. Indeed, we stress as a major factor in the Hiroshima decision Truman’s fear not to use the weapon—which was derived almost entirely from perceived political repercussions.

Buruma also accuses us of rendering Truman “irrational” by referring to his childhood struggles with being bad at sports and considering himself a “sissy.” In fact, we mention these factors only briefly, and in a supplementary manner near the very end of an eighty-five-page profile of Truman. Our primary concerns are Truman’s struggles with his presidential duties, with his advisers, and with the momentum of the bomb project—and with his need to defend the use of the bomb for the rest of his life.

Buruma is generally dismissive of psychological probings concerning the many aspects of the bomb. But much of the inspiration for our book came from dialogues with leading atomic bomb and Cold War historians who repeatedly expressed a profound need for a psychological perspective on the still-unsettled reasons for the Hiroshima decision and the costly arms race that followed—and on the key decision-makers involved in each. In this matter, as in our larger treatment of American society, we see historical and political details as crucial to any psychological interpretation, and a psychological approach useful in shedding light on confusing or contradictory factual evidence. The entire issue of nuclear weapons is too important to be treated in a narrow, misleading, and arbitrary fashion.

Robert Jay Lifton
Greg Mitchell

New York City

Ian Buruma replies:

Gar Alperovitz has a touching confidence in “top-secret” assessments, “expert” studies, and “knowledgeable specialists.” The world according to Alperovitz is full of great buried truths that only experts and specialists can unearth once the right spoor through top-secret documents has been found. After fifty years, no less, of “scholarly” archival “digging,” the great hidden jigsaw puzzle emerges with every piece neatly in place. The problem with these ingenious jigsaws is the problem of conspiracy theories in general: they make perfect logical sense, and they are usually wrong.

Yes, Truman was offered all kinds of advice on how to end the war. As one might expect, the bombers (Curtis LeMay, “Hap” Arnold) wanted to go on bombing, the Navy (Admiral Leahy) wanted a blockade, the Army (Douglas MacArthur) wanted to invade, and the Japan “experts” (Ambassador Joseph Grew) wanted to water down the terms of Japanese surrender. The policy was to be a combination of these methods: blocking and bombing, while planning for an invasion, and inviting the Soviets to come into the war.

True, the surrender terms remained unconditional. But since the Allied aim was to replace Japanese military authoritarianism with a civilian democracy, it would hardly have done to accept the demands of the Japanese die-hards, which were not only that the Emperor’s authority remain unchallenged, but also that there should be no Allied occupation, no Allied war crime tribunals, and no disarmament of Japanese troops by the Allied victors. The single promise to leave the Emperor on his throne, even with a Soviet war declaration, was unlikely to have broken the deadlock in the Japanese government.

All this advice—about bombing, starving, and asking for Stalin’s help—was given to Truman before the bomb was tested, however, and none of it guaranteed a speedy end to the war. Before July 1945 the bomb was not openly discussed. The fact that the Joint Intelligence Committee thought in April 1945 that the entry of the USSR would do the trick does not mean they were right. Note that General Marshall’s advice, also quoted by Alperovitz, linked the effect of a Soviet war declaration to an Allied invasion (“if we land in Japan”).

As for the Japanese peace feelers, which Alperovitz trots out once again, they still fail to help his case against the bomb. Truman, Byrnes, and Leahy were wrong on August 3 to think that Tokyo was serious about negotiating peace terms, and right to assume otherwise later. Some Japanese were making peaceful overtures in various places, including Moscow, but they did so without government authority or concrete proposals.

After the successful test in New Mexico in July, Truman believed the bomb would enable him to end the war quickly, without Soviet participation and without an Allied invasion. None of Truman’s advisers, whatever their other differences, told the president not to drop the bomb, for ethical or any other reasons. Alperovitz, in his books and his letter, quotes instances of ethical and strategic doubts about the bomb, but these were expressed only after the war was over. Of course LeMay, Leahy, and MacArthur were against the bomb in hindsight: they had wanted to win the war with their methods and their boys.

The War Department Assessment may have said, in hindsight, that a Soviet entry alone would have ended the war in August, but this doesn’t mean it is true. The point of the “frenzied Japanese debate” (which was not all that frenzied) is that the dominant military members of the Japanese government continued to argue against surrender after the Soviets entered the war. And they did so after the Emperor had intervened, not once but twice. Sure, they could have resigned, but then they would have had to back a military coup against the Emperor.

Like all revisionists Alperovitz relies heavily on the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey. It is possible that conventional bombing would have forced a Japanese surrender by the end of 1945, but not without, in “Hap” Arnold’s happy phrase, reducing Japan to “a nation without cities.” In any case, Truman did not want to wait until the end of 1945. And even if he had, it might not have worked. Japanese hard-liners wanted to fight on when most Japanese cities already had been reduced to rubble by the spring of 1945. So why should they have been impressed with more of the same later? The Japanese prime minister, Suzuki Kantaro, told American interrogators that the Supreme War Council planned to fight a decisive battle when the Allies landed, and “proceeded with that plan until the atomic bomb was dropped.”

I did not overstate or misrepresent Alperovitz’s view on the Soviet factor. It certainly is his view that the bomb was dropped to scare the Russians. His point here seems to be that he could not prove it. It is a disappointing point to have to make after writing an 843-page book, but he is right: he did not prove it.

It would indeed have been odd for Lifton and Mitchell to deny that the A-bomb was a “material entity.” Not even the devout Dr. Nagai would have said that. But the authors do imbue the weapon with magical powers normally associated with religious cults. The attraction of the bomb, they say, especially for males, is “one of merging with a source of power rivalling that of any deity.” Nuclearism, they say, is “a spiritual faith.” The bomb, they say, gave Secretary of State Henry Stimson the experience of extraordinary power, “a new and transcendent blending of self and weapon based no longer on its mysterious potential but on its actual manifestation of a realm of force so vast as to seem more than natural.”

Now Lifton and Mitchell may not call this Divine Providence, but it does remove the material entity an awfully long way from mother earth, let alone human reason. In their account, the A-bomb was not a horrible weapon that persuaded Truman, not unreasonably, that he had found the means to end a horrible war quickly, on his terms; no, it was a religious experience. Well, maybe for some people it was. Even so, this does not explain the political and historical reasons why the bomb was dropped.

That is the problem with blending psychology with history and politics. The authors tend to slip from psychology to politics and back again in a manner designed to produce intellectual confusion. A “flow of feeling” is rather hard to pin down. If their concern is to analyze the political reasons for Truman’s decision, and if it is assumed that neither Truman nor his advisers were acting irrationally, why then are we told Truman and Stimson suffered “a numbed folie à deux, a mutually reinforcing pattern of extreme dissociation, self deception, and illusion.” If this is not “clinical labelling,” what is?

Like many “knowledgeable specialists,” such as Gar Alperovitz, psychologists tend to eschew straightforward or commonsensical explanations. They are in the business of revealing secrets, in documents, or in the mind. If Truman’s decisions were reasonable, there would be no psychological mysteries to unveil.

Lifton and Mitchell now appear to agree that the bomb helped to hasten the Japanese surrender. But in their book they quote with evident approval the opinions of historians who say the opposite. In summing up the views of Martin Sherwin, for example, the authors conclude that “if the US had not been so determined to complete, test, and finally use the bomb, it might have arranged the Japanese surrender weeks earlier, preventing much bloodshed on Okinawa.” Never mind that the Battle of Okinawa took place months earlier, and was fought on the insistence of the Emperor himself, against the advice of his relative, and former prime minister, Prince Konoe, who warned that the Soviet Union was likely to declare war on Japan. Everyone can confuse dates. In my own article I carelessly set the March bombing of Tokyo in July. But if Lifton and Mitchell really think the bomb prolonged the war, why do they not say so in their letter?

Again, Lifton and Mitchell have to take it for granted that Truman was wrong, otherwise there would be no need to examine his “self deception.” There is a revealing aside on the Korean War, following Lifton’s remarks about Truman’s fear of being a “sissy.” To keep “the self functional,” the authors explain, “a man like Truman needs power surges.” Truman took decisions too quickly, so he could feel like a man. And “there is no doubt,” therefore, “that his exaggerated boldness and ‘celerity’ in decision making contributed to the American plunge into what General Omar Bradley was later to call ‘frankly a great military disaster’ and ‘the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.”’ No doubt Omar Bradley said that, but does that make it true? Aren’t the authors a little too bold, not to say swift, to take it for granted that it was the wrong war, etc.?

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