In response to:

Was the Hiroshima Bomb Necessary? An Exchange from the October 23, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Alsop and Mr. Joravsky, in their recent “exchange” on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki [NYR, October 23], seem to have made a gentleman’s agreement not to clutter up their debate with the bare bones of the subject. Mr. Alsop is interesting and informative about the Japanese state of mind at the war’s end but almost to the exclusion of anything meaningful about the US state of mind. Mr. Joravsky knows the latter and sets it forth basically, without bothering, however, to consider the specifics that alone can explain the myths that have grown up to hide it. Mr. Joravsky prevails in this gloved encounter, but why the gloves?

These are or should be the bare bones of any such encounter at this late date, not one of which is set forth straight out in your exchange:

  1. The Japanese bombings saved no US lives. Mr. Alsop belittles this and Mr. Joravsky, who plainly knows it, doesn’t bother to say it. But one of the great American complacencies is that the bombings did save US lives, and the truth, if it is ever to prevail, must be stated flatly. An invasion of Japan had been planned for November 1945. But the bombs were dropped in early August, when Japan was virtually defenseless against air attacks and there was no ground and almost no sea activity. US lives were certainly not being lost in early August. And, as the official US Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 noted, “it is this Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to December 31, 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.”
  2. The bombings did not end the war. The war ended with US withdrawal of its demand for unconditional surrender. This demand had undercut all of a number of Japanese efforts to extricate themselves from the war. And it was not withdrawn until five days after the bombing of Nagasaki. The surrender came when that happened and it came for that reason. Mr. Joravsky allows this, all right, but only inferentially. Since the warshortening justification for the bombs has become a triple-riveted myth it needs head-on exposure.
  3. Why those dates so close together—August 6 for Hiroshima, August 9 for Nagasaki? Why such a rush, unparalleled in the history of arms, to get an untried weapon into use? Why no warnings to the largely civilian population about to be exterminated? There are answers to such questions (and a good many more like them could be put if space permitted). Since your debaters didn’t go into them let us turn to the late Professor P.M.S. Blackett, who did go into them in his book Fear, War and the Bomb (McGrawHill). Professor Blackett was no “fashionable” revisionist, to use Mr. Alsop’s word for those who (like Mr. Joravsky) deplore the “wickedness” of the bombings. His book came out only three years after the bombings, in 1948, at which time he was a member of the British Advisory Committee on Atomic Energy and had just been given the Medal for Merit by the US government and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. But his book isn’t quoted much in the US and was passed by in your exchange. Let me very briefly pass on Blackett’s exercise in logic, which hasn’t been faulted, so far as I am aware, to this day.

The Russians had promised to invade Manchuria three months after the end of the war in Europe; V-E Day was May 8 and the invasion of Manchuria came as promised on August 8 and was a military success from the start. But politically it was altogether overshadowed by the bracketing of the atomic bombings two days before the invasion began and one day after. “If the bombs had not been dropped,” Professor Blackett observed, “America would have seen the Soviet armies overrunning Manchuria and taking half a million prisoners…all while American land forces would have been no nearer Japan than Iwo Jima and Okinawa…. One can imagine the hurry with which the two bombs…were whisked across the Pacific….”

Professor Blackett then proceeded to a discussion of possible explanations of the decision to drop the bombs and of the timing: “The first, that it was a clever and highly successful move in the field of power politics, is almost certainly correct; the second, that the timing was coincidental, convicts the American government of a hardly credible tactlessness; and the third, the Roman holiday theory, convicts them of an equally incredible irresponsibility. The prevalence in some circles of the last two theories seems to originate in a curious preference to be considered irresponsible, tactless, even brutal, but at all costs not clever.”

The only possible conclusion, as Professor Blackett stated it very flatly, is that “the dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the Second World War as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.”

The question with which you titled your exchange—“Was Hiroshima Necessary?”—needs an extension—“Necessary for What?”

Dexter Masters

Totnes, Devon, England

To the Editors:

I enjoyed the recent eloquent debate between Joseph Alsop and David Joravsky over the strategic necessity of dropping the Hiroshima bomb. A new piece of documentary evidence appears to undermine one of Mr. Joravsky’s more important arguments. He asserts that “…US leaders had no wish to avoid using the A-bomb on Japanese cities; they gave no serious thought to alternatives.”

But President Harry Truman himself seems to have had precisely that wish; to have considered seriously just such an alternative. The evidence lies in Truman’s Potsdam Conference diary, recently discovered by Professor Robert H. Ferrell of Indiana University and published for the first time in its entirety in the June/July 1980 issue of American Heritage magazine. Here are the relevant portions of the entry for July 25, 1945:

“We met at 11 A.M. today. That is Stalin, Churchill and the U.S. President. But I had a most important session with Lord [Louis] Mountbatten & General [George C.] Marshall before that. We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.

“Anyway we ‘think’ we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexican desert was startling—to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away, and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles or more.

“This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. [Henry] Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old Capitol [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo].

“He & I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.”


Geoffrey C. Ward

Editor, American Heritage, New York City

Joseph Alsop replies:

A short answer will suffice for Mr. Masters’s letter. His quotation for the US Strategic Bombing survey of 1945 in fact concerns the predictable results of the policy then advocated by General H.H. Arnold, as outlined in my previous communication. This policy called for no American landing or use of nuclear weapons but for continuing “conventional” fire-bombing until there was hardly a trace of urban life in Japan, plus leaving the Japanese people to starve meanwhile. The former leader of the strategic bombing survey, Mr. Paul H. Nitze, informs me: “The cost in human life would probably have been five to ten times as great” as the cost of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

In any case, all the postwar surveys of the Japanese surrender including the US Strategic Bombing survey published in 1946 must clearly be regarded as entirely superseded by the Japanese evidence first published in 1965, and based on extensive consultation with the same government leaders who had to make the fateful decision about how Japan should end the war. All these surveys were partly or entirely based on what the surveyors felt Japan ought to have done, namely surrender immediately. The Japanese evidence tells us an utterly different story. As the Pearl Harbor disaster showed, there is no worse error than judging the behavior of other people by what you yourself think they ought to do.

As to Professor Blackett’s speculation, the fact is that the same meeting of the Japanese War Council received all but simultaneously the news of the Nagasaki bomb and of the collapse of the Japanese armed forces in Manchuria under Soviet attack. The War Council made no discernible response to either report.

A further word also needs to be said about the “moral choice” inherent in the Hiroshima decision. Besides the hideous Arnold policy above outlined, the Japanese evidence indicates there were in fact three choices open to President Truman, as follows:

A. To give the Japanese army peace on its own terms. This would have meant indefinite continuation, postwar, of substantially the prewar Japanese political system dominated by the military. No one can suppose this would have been acceptable in the US.

Or B. To drop the Hiroshima bomb, and perhaps the Nagasaki bomb, too. This meant approximately 300,000 Japanese casualties. (One can argue about the timing of the Nagasaki bomb; but that involves somewhat different issues.)

Or C. To continue the war by conventional means, proceeding with the planned American landing and then overcoming last-ditch Japanese resistance. This would have meant 500,000 to 750,000 American casualties, plus Japanese casualties which cannot be given an estimated limit but would surely have numbered a rock-bottom minimum of 1,500,000 Japanese troops and hastily armed civilians.

I am not entirely clear about the nature of “moral choices” in the midst of war. But surely it is clear that it was a better choice, even for the Japanese, to impose the casualties listed in B above, than to plunge into the bloodbath defined in choice C.

David Joravsky replies:

Mr. Ward and Mr. Alsop are by no means the first to endow Truman with a finely calculating mind and a sensitive soul, struggling to avoid what he just had to do. The brutally simple man in question kept telling such Samaritans that they had him wrong. “Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the [atomic] bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.” (Memoirs, I, p. 419.) “I never lost any sleep over my decision.” “I would do it again.” (Quoted in Bert Cochran, Harry Truman and the Crisis Presidency, p. 175.) “The atom bomb was no ‘great decision’…. It was merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.” (Quoted in John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, p. 862.)

To be sure, those were all public statements after the event. Mr. Ward might argue that they were the macho mask of the public HST, concealing the torment of a finely reasoning private HST, who carefully weighed his real choices in the summer of 1945 and found himself obliged to start the nuclear arms race with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I find it quite fantastical to put such an interpretation on the diary excerpt quoted by Mr. Ward. If it is read in historical context, Truman’s mention of a “warning statement” to “the Japs” refers to the Potsdam Declaration, which deliberately omitted any warning of the A-bomb and any hint that “unconditional surrender” might allow the Japanese to retain their emperor, the minimum condition of the Japanese peace party.


Evidently Mr. Alsop takes it for granted that those deliberate omissions were necessary, lest the US seem to be offering “indefinite continuation, postwar, of substantially the prewar Japanese political system dominated by the military.” I take the opposite for granted: a specific warning of the A-bomb coupled with an offer of a constitutional monarchy would have led to the same terms of surrender that the Japanese accepted after the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I take that for granted because the Japanese had been trying to negotiate a surrender since the spring of 1945. Everything hinged on what the US and Britain meant by “unconditional surrender,” and they simply refused to tell the Japanese what they meant—until they had exploded their A-bombs on Japanese cities. Then they told, and got the surrender they might have got without the A-bombing.

Nobody can test my might-have-been. Truman and the others casually threw away the chance to test it, because they took it for granted that “the most terrible thing ever discovered…can be made the most useful,” since “we” who had it were “the leader of the world for the common welfare.” They did not canvass the alternatives as Mr. Alsop lays them out. Once “the ultimate weapon” was in their “arsenal of righteousness,” they “were no longer capable of considering negotiations even as the most peace-minded Japanese saw them.” (I quote the judgment of one of Mr. Alsop’s favorite authorities: John Toland, The Rising Sun, p. 866.)

To explain why Truman and the others so eagerly precipitated the nuclear arms race, Mr. Masters recalls P.M.S. Blackett’s landmark book. More than anyone else Blackett started serious thought about the long-term significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he had one major flaw in his argument, as many commentators have pointed out. He attributed far too much rationality to the A-bombing of Japan. Certainly Truman and the other Western leaders were delighted by the chance to show Soviet leaders what they had to fear from “the leader of the world for the common welfare.” Memoirs and diaries published after Blackett’s book make that delight overwhelmingly plain. But that was not a reason, not part of a careful calculation that might have gone otherwise, as Blackett assumed. The urge to show the Russians who was boss was an additional impulse to do what was going to be done anyhow, no matter what.

As Freud would have said, the A-bombing of Japan was overdetermined. Reason would have told the Western leaders—indeed, Bohr, Franck, and Szilard did tell them—that they were challenging the Soviet government to a nuclear arms race, with inconceivably monstrous consequences. They could not hear the voice of reason; it asked them to recognize the limits imposed on their political power by possession of a weapon that is limitless in its destructive power. That paradox is still unthinkable to our rulers, and to their loyal subjects. We—the real we of common humanity who will be incinerated, not the mad “we” who struggle with “them” to be “the leader of the world”—are still governed by people who can see no way out of a nuclear arms race except trying to win it.

A final word for Mr. Masters: Macho imagery of boxing, with or without gloves, is grotesquely out of place in discussions of nuclear weapons.

This Issue

February 19, 1981