Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From Roosevelt to Truman: A Revolutionary Change in Policy?


Freedom Betrayed, by Herbert Hoover

With the change in Presidents, there came a departure from the Roosevelt policies that amounted almost to a revolution.

So begins Hoover’s reflections regarding Harry Truman.  I readily admit I am no expert on every action taken by either Roosevelt or Truman, but nothing I am aware of in the decisions and choices made by these two would cause me to make such a statement.  I am hopeful that Hoover will shed some light on his claim.

Hoover begins his explanation by outlining the different paths these two men took to power: Roosevelt was born to a wealthy New York family, attended exclusive private schools, and entered political life at the early age of 28; Truman was born in the “village” of Lamar, Missouri, educated in public schools, took on his own living at age seventeen, and enlisted in the army in WWI.  Hoover describes their outlooks on American life as “fundamentally different” due to these different upbringings.

The first policy contrast identified by Hoover involves the different outlook these two men had regarding “relief of the women and children of the German-occupied small democracies during the whole Second World War.”  Given the evidence Hoover offers in this regard, his statement seems accurate.  However, this doesn’t strike me as tremendously important within the context of the major abuses of power each of the two presidents took during this time. 

That Hoover offers this as the first contrast offers a clue, perhaps, of the reason behind Hoover’s apparent bias toward Truman.  Hoover enjoyed an internationally prominent role in foreign food relief when performing a similar function after World War I. 

It will be recalled that after the First World War Hoover was responsible to bring food aid and other relief to Europe.  He was quite well regarded in Europe for this.  In the late 1930s, Hoover approached Roosevelt about doing the same but was rebuffed for various reasons.  Hoover spends a good amount of time in earlier chapters discussing his attempts at securing such a position through Roosevelt, and is open about his negative feelings toward Roosevelt on this matter.  In contrast, shortly after the end of the war Truman has Roosevelt coordinate aid for many of the war-torn regions.  This is likely the main reason Hoover spares Truman.

As will be clear throughout his narrative, I believe, Hoover virtually white-washes many of Truman’s actions – certainly as compared to Hoover’s treatment of Roosevelt.  Where Hoover does point out decisions that Truman might have made differently, he absolves Truman of this by blaming his subordinates, or “confusion” among Truman’s advisors.  While Hoover treats Truman more kindly, it is difficult for me to find any action or decisions of consequence where the paths of these two presidents would have diverged significantly.

Truman calls Hoover in for advice about the world situation shortly after taking office.  Hoover indicates that in their discussion the two covered many subjects

…the most important being a statement from me that I believed an early surrender could be had from Japan.  I based this belief upon the Emperor’s shift from the militarists’ Ministry to a civilian Ministry under “Elder Statesman” Kantaro Suzuki.

Suzuki’s new cabinet included Shigenori Togo (not to be confused with General Tojo) as Foreign Minister.  Togo had tried to make peace with the Anglo-Saxons in 1941.  It seemed to me that Japan was signaling for peace.

[Hoover suggested] saying we had no wish to disturb the Imperial House since the Emperor was the spiritual as well as the secular head of the nation, but otherwise the terms could be tough.  I said that whether the Japanese kept the Emperor or not made not an atom of difference to the American people as obviously we could completely demilitarize the Japanese.

Brigadier General Bonner Fellers in 1947 confirmed this change in position by the Japanese as a signal:

Hirohito believed that appointment of such a well-known opponent [Suzuki] of the militarists would be regarded by the Allies as a clear signal that Japan desired peace….  To Hirohito’s and Suzuki’s amazement, no offer to negotiate came from the Allies….

Others advised Truman likewise.  Joseph Grew, then Under Secretary of State, also recommended to the President that he include a statement in a forthcoming speech indicating the preservation of the Imperial House.  According to Grew, Marshall, Forrestal and Stimson supported him.  However, no such statement was made.

This advice by many of the President’s advisors – both civilian and military – was not heeded by the President.  On July 2, 1945, in a memorandum outlining the stiff peace terms for Japan from Secretary Stimson to Truman, it was again recommended

…if in saying this we should add that we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance.

In one example of Hoover giving Truman a mulligan, Hoover explains away Truman not taking advantage of this opportunity for immediate peace by explaining that the opportunity was “lost by confusion among the President’s advisors.”

It is true: Truman also had advisors that pressured him to stick to the most pure definition of the term “unconditional surrender.”  That a leader – in business or politics – receives conflicting advice is not unheard of.  In fact it is normal.  The issue comes down to the decision ultimately made by the leader.  In this case, Truman had the role of making that decision. And Hoover gives Truman a pass on his decision – a decision with horrific consequences.

What appeared to many at the time (and to many more as further evidence has come out since the war), Truman had the opportunity for “immediate peace” as early as April 1945 – almost four months before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan.  An opportunity to save four months of island to island fighting for the American military; an opportunity to end the death and starvation of countless civilians; and opportunity to end the cost in both lives and treasure; and never even getting to the decision about the atomic bomb.  Hoover suggests an opportunity of such import was lost simply due to “confusion.”  Hoover is too kind, I believe.

Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam in July, 1945.  Eight days into the conference, Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee, the new Prime Minister for Great Britain.  Hoover does not mention the purposeful delays required by Truman before attending to this conference, instead focusing on further concessions made to Stalin.  I have written about Truman’s delays previously, when reviewing The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, by Gar Alperovitz:


Truman postponed the meeting in Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill until July, 1945 – despite the desire by the other participants to have the meeting much sooner. As the excuse, Truman said he could not come due to the pressing budget issues of the government. In reality, he was waiting for news of the progress of the bomb. He was able to postpone the meeting for over a month.

While in Potsdam, he received news of the successful test. This completely changed his mood and demeanor at the meetings. He was quite clear that the U.S. had a means to go it alone. Churchill, when told later of the reasons behind this changed, was quite pleased.

Truman delayed the meeting for over a month – despite being implored by his counterparts to join sooner, and despite the situation in the Pacific and Japan.  He delayed the meeting for as long as possible in order to have news of the bomb tests.  The bomb tests would only matter if something other than a quick end to the war was desired.  He had many advisors telling him Japan was ready to surrender.  His military was clear on this.  How many lives were lost on both sides because of this delay, a delay not necessary for military means?

Hoover outlines the many opportunities for peace that were raised by Japan – well in advance of Potsdam – and ignored by the United States.  In February, 1945, Roosevelt received a long dispatch from MacArthur outlining the terms of peace that could be made with Japan.  These terms amounted to unconditional surrender except for maintaining the position of the Emperor; MacArthur further urged that no concessions be made to Russia in order to entice Russia to fight against Japan.

In March, Japan reached out to Sweden to intervene for peace.  Nothing came from this gesture other than to demonstrate the various avenues that Japan took in an attempt to end the war. 

As mentioned earlier, in April a civilian cabinet was installed in Japan, led by a Prime Minister known for his desire for peace.

In July, several urgent messages were sent between Prime Minister Togo and the Japanese Ambassador in Moscow, conveying a strong desire for peace.  These messages were all intercepted and deciphered in Washington.  These peace feelers only had one requirement – leave the Emperor under a Constitutional Monarchy.  This idea was supported by Allied military leaders, as they knew that the Japanese military would only stop the fight on orders from the Emperor.

In all, Hoover recounts six full months prior to Potsdam of attempts by Japan to sue for peace.  These were all ignored.  Instead, Potsdam resulted in an ultimatum to Japan, one that allowed no recognition of the Emperor, and therefore no opportunity for peace: In other words, “unconditional surrender,” that horrendous term first employed by Roosevelt – supposedly off-the-cuff.

Following are our terms.  We will not deviate from them.  There are no alternatives.  We shall brook no delay.

Given what Japan witnessed as to the result in Germany, it was not possible that Japan and the Emperor would have agreed to such terms.  The Germans did not, and the Germans didn’t view Hitler as a deity on earth as the Japanese did their Emperor.

Instead, Truman decided to continue the war, costing lives on all sides and ending only with the horrific destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Immediately after Japan surrendered, MacArthur announced that the Emperor would be retained.  Why this couldn’t have been allowed one week prior is a mystery, unless Truman had a hidden reason for wanting to drop the two bombs.

After the war, in correspondence with Douglas MacArthur, the General wrote to Hoover in regards to Hoover’s written proposal to Truman to take advantage of the Japanese signals for peace:

It was a wise and statesmanlike document, and had it been put into effect would have obviated the slaughter at Hiroshima and Nagasaki….  That the Japanese would have accepted it and gladly I have no doubt.

MacArthur was not the only military leader holding this view.

Admiral William D. Leahy:

It is my opinion that 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 because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.


General Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. ...the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.

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 was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face'. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude...


Despite many statements by military and other leaders – even at the time or shortly after the time of the atomic bombings on the Japanese cities – that such a terrible weapon did not need to be deployed for the purpose of ending the war or ending it sooner, the myth of the benefits of dropping these two horrendous bombs remains.  Alperovitz also discusses the myth in his above-referenced book.  I excerpt from my earlier review of this book:

There was a concerted effort to hide the facts of the decision both from the public and from the record. However, instead of going through this in detail, I will only offer some quotes:

Navy Chaplain Willard Reeves:

There was an air of sadness at the thought of Hiroshima’s needless destruction….When I returned home and told my story, people would look at me in complete disbelief. They all seemed convinced by the media and the governmental pronouncements that the dropping of the bomb was absolutely essential to ending the war.

McGeorge Bundy (authored Stimson’s official recollections of the decision regarding the bomb):

…I think we deserve some sort of medal for reducing these particular chatterers to silence.

George F. Kennan to McGeorge Bundy:

I am afraid that if these statements were now to appear in an official biography of Mr. Stimson, a part of the reading public might conclude that the hope of influencing Russia by the threat of atomic attack had been, and probably remained, one of the permanent motivating elements of our foreign policy.

Harry Truman:

The dropping of the bombs stopped the war, saved millions of lives….

Richard Miller, author of Truman: The Rise to Power:

At the start of this research project I shared the popular perception of Truman as a down-home sort of character with a refreshing honesty that seems absent from politics today. After going into the matter thoroughly I now view him as a professional big-city machine politician, involved in shady personal and political dealings.

Memo from General George Lincoln to General Dwight Eisenhower:

The implication that the atomic bombs were dropped on a people who had already sued for peace should not be included in a paper prepared for release to the public.

It is clear that there was a concerted effort to make the story fit an appropriate narrative. In addition to the quoted items above, Alperovitz makes clear that much of the record remained (and remains) hidden from the view of independent researchers and historians.

Hoover is unequivocal when it comes to understanding how to make peace, and what proper justice for enemy leaders is:

…The leaders of the nations who brought this situation upon the world must be made to realize the enormity of their acts.  There can be no moral distinction and there should be no legal distinction between such men and common criminals conspiring to commit murder.

There should be no question of indiscriminate and wholesale punishment of whole nations, for that merely lays the foundation for future conflicts….

It is easy for the victor of war to hold the defeated to such standards.  Who holds the victor to such a standard?  Nowhere does Hoover apply this standard to Roosevelt, despite all of the evidence Hoover presents regarding Roosevelt’s purposeful actions to get the United States into the war, and further actions to aid communists and communism.  Certainly as Hoover does not apply this to Roosevelt, there is no such damnation for Truman – despite Hoover’s view and the view of many others that the further military actions against Japan in the Spring and Summer of 1941 could have been avoided – including the fact that there was no military reason to drop the two atomic bombs.

Finally, despite the fact that Japan was already defeated in military terms well before the Russians joined the fight, Truman continued to support all of Stalin’s demands regarding the Far East.  Hoover mutters not one word against Truman regarding his acquiescence to Stalin, whereas when Roosevelt did the same Hoover wrote countless pages on the “betrayal.”

Hoover’s whitewashing of Truman’s actions is not surprising to me, and does nothing to diminish his observations about Roosevelt.  The whitewash is to be expected from one political leader to another.  The surprise is in Hoover’s frank discussion regarding Roosevelt that makes this book refreshing, while always keeping in mind that Hoover is also a political man in the utmost sense.

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