Harry Truman and James Byrnes
Harry Truman and James Byrnes; drawing by David Levine

Herbert Feis, who comes close to being our official national diplomatic historian, has revised Japan Subdued, his 1961 study of the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Feis has served as Special Consultant to three Secretaries of War; he has had privileged access to important sources, such as the private papers of Averell Harriman, and his books often contain vital information not available to most historians. Those familiar with recently declassified materials on the Hiroshima decision, however, will not find much new in The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. What they will find is a sober but uncertain book by a scholar who has tried to fit new material into old molds, while avoiding serious criticism of the eminent officials he has known.

As early as 1961, Feis concluded, as have most informed observers, that the bombing of Hiroshima was by no means essential. He repeats this conclusion in The Atomic Bomb:

There cannot be a well-grounded dissent from the conclusion reached as early as 1945 by members of the US Strategic Bombing Survey “…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.”

His conclusion is almost word for word the same as it was in 1961, but not quite. Then he felt there could “hardly be” dissent from the view that the bomb was unnecessary; his shift to the unequivocal “there cannot be” illustrates a slight change of opinion. For the most part, however, this book duplicates the old one, although three chapters contain significant additions dealing with the now well-known fact that, in the decision to use the bomb in 1945, the effect on Russia was an important consideration. Precisely “how important” is the remaining issue.

The common ground of both books is a description of the different courses of action open to the United States as Japanese power crumbled in June and July of 1945—as well as an account of how these courses were viewed, from day to day, by American leaders. There were many options. The first was a diplomatic one: Since intercepted Japanese cables showed that the Emperor was actively trying to open a negotiating channel through Moscow, it seemed that a minor face-saving change in the Unconditional Surrender formula could have ended the fighting. The second option was military, but did not involve invasion. The Navy and Air Force felt that a blockade alone, or a blockade combined with conventional bombardment, might have ended the war. The third possibility was to await the Russian Declaration of War, which was expected in early August. With Japan tottering, US Intelligence estimated that the shock of Russia’s shift from neutrality to full-scale war might in itself end the war unconditionally. The fourth course was to test the potency of a specific advance warning of Russia’s intention to declare war. The fifth was to demonstrate the atomic bomb in an unpopulated area. The sixth was a specific advance warning that an atomic bomb existed and would be used unless Japan surrendered. The seventh was use of the weapon on a major urban center. The eighth was a landing on Japanese soil (not a full invasion of Japan, but a shock assault on only the island of Kyushu). The ninth possibility was a full-scale invasion aimed at Tokyo plain in the main Japanese home island.

It should be noted that Feis does not dissent in either version from the conclusion that Japan would certainly have surrendered before the end of 1945, and in all probability before November 1945, without the atomic bomb, without an invasion or even a landing, and without a Soviet declaration of war. This is a view now accepted by most experts. But the dates are crucial, and should be examined carefully. The atomic bombs were used on August 6 and August 9, 1945. As Feis admits, the full invasion of Japan, which might have cost between 500,000 and a million casualties, was not scheduled until the spring of 1946. What was scheduled for November 1945 was a landing on the island of Kyushu, with an estimate of 31,000 initial casualties. Planning for the contingency of a full invasion had to go forward, of course, and statements to the press, both for reasons of morale and to keep pressure on Japan, led the public to expect a long struggle, lasting a year and a half. But as we now know, and as Feis affirms, within the US government it seemed apparent by July 1945 that other courses of action could have ended the war before the spring of 1946. Thus, at most, the atomic bomb can be credited with having made a landing on Kyushu unnecessary.

THE REAL QUESTIONS about the bomb—“a cluster of worrisome queries,” as Feis puts it—were whether there were ways other than the atomic bomb to end the war before the November landing on Kyushu. In retrospect, there undoubtedly were. The Japanese were so badly defeated, both Feis and the Strategic Bombing Survey conclude, that even without exercising the available options, the war could have been ended, as the Bombing Survey put it, “in all probability prior to 1 November 1945.” The recent release of 1945 State Department documents shows this conclusion not only seems likely in retrospect, but seemed so at the time. The Japanese code had been broken early in the war. Until June, 1945, it may have been possible to believe an invasion was inevitable. In the middle of June, however, six members of the Japanese Supreme War Council authorized Foreign Minister Togo to approach the Soviet Union “with a view to terminating the war if possible by September.” At this time the Emperor himself became personally involved in the effort, and a stream of intercepted messages revealed that he was urgently trying to open a negotiating channel through Moscow. During the last days of July, for instance, a message instructed the Japanese Ambassador in Tokyo to arrange a Moscow visit for the Emperor’s personal envoy, Prince Konoye:

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The mission…was to ask the Soviet Government to take part in mediation to end the present war and to transmit the complete Japanese case in this respect…Prince Konoe [sic] was especially charged by His Majesty the Emperor to convey to the Soviet Government that it was exclusively the desire of His Majesty to avoid more bloodshed….

This message was given directly to President Truman by the Russians. (The President has confirmed that at the time he also saw it and other key cables in intercepted form.) Although it was impossible to know precisely whether the messages meant what they said, they were significant evidence of the willingness of the “other side” to negotiate. Furthermore they showed that although the Japanese sought assurances that “our form of government” would be preserved, they were prepared to surrender on the basis of the Atlantic Charter. The “difficult point,” as the Japanese Foreign Minister stated in one intercepted cable, was the “formality of unconditional surrender.” 1

Feis reports on these messages in both books without adequately highlighting two crucial facts: President Truman, as the papers of both Acting Secretary of State Grew and Secretary of War Stimson show, had told both men even before the July messages that he had no serious objection to making the alterations in favor of the Japanese Imperial “form of government,” which the messages revealed were the only serious obstacle to surrender. Thus the two governments had by July apparently arrived at a basis for ending the war—and the President knew it. Feis also fails to stress the fact that Truman had several months before a landing to find out if the Japanese position was really as close to his own as the messages suggested. Instead of exploring why the obvious possibilities of this diplomatic option were passed up, Feis emphasizes an issue that is beside the point. Even if the US had altered the “formula of unconditional surrender,” he writes, the change would not have caused the Japanese to surrender before July 1945. On the vital issue of whether this alteration would have caused a surrender before the relatively small November landing, he is vague; and on the publicly debated issue of whether it would have ended the war before the full invasion (in 1946), he is noncommittal. In one of many strange contradictory asides, however, he does conclude that a surrender might have been arranged. Had the US made known its willingness to offer assurances for the Emperor and had both the US and the USSR warned that the Soviet Union would enter the war, Feis writes, an “earlier bid for surrender [might well have been] effective.”

This is a significant observation, but unfortunately Feis obscures it by quickly adding, “it is improbable that the Soviet Government could have been prevailed on to reveal its intentions….” The comment is odd. The Soviet Union had already given public notice of its intention to terminate its neutrality pact with Japan. Throughout May, June, and July, the US had no doubt that Russia intended to attack, and Japanese intelligence, as Stalin himself pointed out, could hardly miss the huge Soviet troop shipments to the Far East and the massing of the Red Army across the Manchurian border. In fact, Secretary of State Stettinius suggested at the time that the Russians be included in the warning to Japan, and, until the last minute, the Soviet Union appeared both in the text and as a signatory of the draft of the Potsdam Proclamation which warned Japan to surrender. At the last minute, the Russians were left out, but it was the US which decided to omit them.2

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Even if Feis’s view is correct that the Russians may not have joined in a warning—although this is not suggested in the documents of the time—it is irrelevant. Feis stops his line of inquiry just when it gets interesting. By July 1945 there was little doubt within the US government that Russia would attack Japan in early or mid-August. If a warning and a modest change in the surrender terms “might well” have ended the war, the Russian Declaration of War itself—as US experts advised—would obviously have been much more potent. Could this declaration have ended the war before the atomic bombs were used? Feis knows of the experts’ advice, but does not pursue the issue. Could it have produced surrender before a November landing? Again, Feis is silent. Would it have stopped the fighting before the 1946 invasion? This is not discussed.

Such speculation is not just a matter of hindsight. The atomic bombs could easily have been held off while other courses were attempted. It was known at the time that the Japanese were desperately trying to keep the Russians neutral. US officials knew that when the Red Army marched across the Manchurian border, it would drive home—especially to the Japanese military—that Japan was defeated. Even without a modification in the surrender terms, the Joint Chiefs believed in early May 1945 that the mere threat of Soviet entry might produce surrender; on May 21, 1945, Secretary Stimson advised of the “profound military effect” of the Soviet Declaration; and by early June the War Department Operations Division judged that a Russian Declaration of War would produce unconditional surrender, either alone or when combined with a landing or “imminent threat of a landing.” In mid-June, General Marshall offered this advice directly to the President. By mid-July the Joint Intelligence Committee stated explicitly: “An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat.”

NOR IS IT A MATTER of hindsight that a change in the surrender terms alone might have produced surrender. Faint Japanese peace feelers appeared as early as September 1944—almost a year before the bombing of Hiroshima. In April 1945 the Joint Staff Planners advised that an invasion “threat in itself” might bring about unconditional surrender. And even before the intercepted July messages indicating that the only difficult point was the “formality” of conditional surrender, Acting Secretary of State Grew, Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, and Secretary of War Stimson all urged the President to modify the surrender terms. Again, the President chose not to test whether, as seemed likely, this would end the war.

Feis also discusses other possibilities which recent research has disclosed were offered at the time. Until early April 1945, Russian entry into the war was viewed primarily in military terms—as a way to pin down the Japanese army in Manchuria; by July, however, Japanese morale had so deteriorated that a Russian Declaration was considered useful psychologically—as the shock which by itself was likely to produce surrender. Similarly, the atomic bomb at first had also been regarded from the strictly military point of view—to be used in conjunction with an invasion. But, again, Japanese morale had fallen so quickly that the bomb’s role came to be seen as primarily psychological—as a “terrific shock” which would precipitate surrender before an invasion. Feis has shown strong leanings toward other available “shock options.” In 1961 he thought a technical demonstration of the bomb, together with other measures, might have been tried. Now he “cannot refrain from remarking” that little would have been lost had the US demonstrated the bomb in an unpopulated area. (This course was also recommended, at the time, by the Franck Committee, by Lewis Strauss, then Special Assistant to the Secretary of Navy, and by Edward Teller.) But, again, Feis does not carry his point far enough. Indeed, he notes that direct bombing seemed the most likely way to end the war “quickly and surely” and thus seems to approve the official decision against demonstration.

In support of the official decision, Feis notes that the Interim Committee’s Scientific Panel in June 1945 believed that a technical demonstration would not end the war. Feis also recalls, however, that, according to the drafter of the Panel report, Robert Oppenheimer, the Panel

didn’t know beans about the military situation in Japan. We didn’t know whether they could be caused to surrender by other means or whether the invasion was really inevitable. But in the back of our minds was the notion that the invasion was inevitable because we had been told that…

What the scientists were told was, of course, not the same as what the highest US officials knew at the time. And it was certainly different from what these officials knew a month later, in July, when the Japanese messages were pouring in—with three and a half months still remaining to test the consequences of a technical demonstration before the Kyushu landing.3

That there was no over-riding need for immediate use of the bomb undoubtedly underlies the one serious doubt Feis raises about the decision. In the earlier book he concluded that on one point the American government could be “fairly criticized”: It did not specifically tell the Japanese the nature of the destructive power of the new weapon before it was used. This is the sixth of the options I have listed, which was advocated at the time by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, among others. In the new book, Feis comments that the risk of explicitly informing the Japanese about the atomic bomb “should have been taken…” for “we might have been spared the need to introduce atomic weapons into the war.” But, this remark is made almost casually, and he hastens to add that it probably wouldn’t have worked.

THERE IS a strange ambivalence in Feis’s work. In 1961 he gave considerable attention to the variety of “shock” options available to the President in 1945. He pointed out that a specific warning about Russia’s entry into the war and a change in the surrender terms might have ended the war before November, and that we could also have tried a sequence of “shocks”—a warning containing specific details about the new weapon, followed by a demonstration, followed by the Russian declaration of war. He then felt it was not only “possible” but “probable” that this sequence would have ended the war “almost as soon as it did.” (Had it failed, of course, there would still have been plenty of time to use the bomb.)

Feis does not recall this Judgment in his new book, although he notes in passing that advice on other possibilities was available in 1945. Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard suggested a course combining with assurances for the Emperor a warning about both the bomb and the entry of the Russians. But Feis does not now stress this fact, nor does he remind us that, unless President Truman was blind or stupid, he must have been able to make his own combinations out of the choices offered him at the time. Indeed, had the President really wished to exhaust all possibilities to save lives, he might have tried an impressive number of combinations of the first six options in the period between the July messages and November, without risking the life of one American serviceman in a landing.

Although Feis understands the possible variations, and although he knows that there was plenty of time to test them, he fails to explore with any vigor why they were not tested. He allows the major conclusions of the old book to stand. The men who used the atomic bomb were right to do so; they felt that by using the bomb “the agony of the war might be ended most quickly and lives be saved.” This seems a strange conclusion in view of Feis’s report that other choices were available without a landing.

Feis shows his own doubts, although again in a contradictory way, in his handling of new materials. In the new book, he probes a little deeper to look for the initiators of the decision. If it was a matter of over-riding necessity, as some claim, who in the US Government not only went along with the decision, but actively pushed for it? Who insisted that none of the options be tested? Certainly not the Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius. Stettinius urged that the Russians be included in the warning Proclamation. The Acting Secretary of State for much of the period, Joseph Grew, urged specific assurances for the Emperor. So did Secretary of War Stimson-up to the very last minute before the President issued the potsdam Proclamation. The Navy Department—both the Secretary and the Under Secretary—either seconded Grew or suggested both a compound warning and a change in the surrender formula.

As for the military, the Air Force, as Feis reports, did not feel that the bomb was vital. Feis cites General Spaatz, Commander of the Strategic Air Force, and General Arnold, Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces. (Elsewhere General Curtis LeMay is reported to have felt that “even without the atomic bomb and the Russian entry into the war, Japan would have surrendered in two weeks.” “…the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war.”) Feis also acknowledges that Admiral King did not think it essential. The President’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Leahy (the McGeorge Bundy of the period), wrote after the war:

In my opinion the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.

Thus, of the key diplomatic and military departments involved, all but one can be eliminated as prime movers inflexibly unwilling to test other possibilities. The situation, then, was hardly one in which Cabinet members and Joint Chiefs were lined up, shoulder to shoulder, unanimously demanding that the bomb be used without considering the alternatives. Feis says that the only place in the normal bureaucratic chain where the bomb seemed especially important was the Army. This is emphasized in the new book’s conclusion. Strangely, although Feis also made this point in the first book, he did not then stress it. In fact, he even noted that a key Army general—Eisenhower—advised against it. Here is Eisenhower’s pre-Hiroshima response when Stimson told him that the bomb would be used:

During his recitation of the relevant facts, 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.

“It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing,” he later recalled. For some reason, Feis leaves the Eisenhower material out of the new book. He notes, however, that the Army general most concerned, MacArthur, was not asked if the bomb was necessary, but was merely informed it would be used. MacArthur later expressed the judgment that the bomb was unnecessary.

The other key Army figure was General Marshall. How strongly did he urge it? Clearly Marshall wished to prevent an invasion if possible. But he was also one of the men who advised the President as early as mid-June that a Russian declaration of war in itself might bring unconditional surrender. At other times, too, he reminded Stimson of the importance of a Russian entry, although he differed as to the timing. Marshall is on record as having favored in May a change in the unconditional surrender formula. It seems clear that he understood that a Russian declaration combined with a modification of the surrender formula was likely to end the war not only before the invasion itself, but even before the November landing on Kyushu. Marshall hinted as much in the one important interview he gave on this subject before his death: he remarked in passing that the bombs shortened the war only “by months.” Where then was the source of the powerful, over-riding military judgment that the bomb simply had to be used, that there was no time to test the options?

THE JUDGEMENT did not come from the normal chain of agency command nor was it primarily military. Throughout the war the secret Manhattan Project functioned in such a way as to bypass for the most part the usual chain of command. In fact, the prime movers were very few. They included Henry L. Stimson, James F. Byrnes, and, of course, the President. Secretary of War Stimson must be included as a member of the inside group, but as his effort to clarify the position of the Emperor indicates, he was not the source of over-riding haste or inflexibility. Nor, as the failure of his effort shows, did he have central influence with the President. The key Presidential adviser was not Stimson, but Byrnes, the man Truman picked, immediately after taking office, to succeed Stettinius as Secretary of State. Although Byrnes was not formally sworn in until early July 1945, from the beginning of May he served as the President’s personal representative on the Interim Committee and was Truman’s closest confidant on the role of the new weapon.

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.

This Issue

June 15, 1967