The Trump Card

The Atomic Bomb and The End of World War II

by Herbert Feis
Princeton, 213 pp., $5.00

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…

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