Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

This is the title of a book by Gar Alperovitz. The version I have is almost 700 pages, with an additional 100+ pages of end notes. I point this out to indicate that it is a well-researched and documented volume on this subject.

Admiral Wlliam 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...”

The subject is, of course, Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. The author breaks the book into two major sections: 1) the decision, and 2) the myth.

The Decision

Regarding the decision, Alperovitz is quite clear that the dropping of the bomb was not necessary to end the war, was not necessary to save countless (up to one million is a widely quoted number) American lives, and was not necessary to get Japan to surrender.

During 1945, and especially after Germany was defeated, Japan made many overtures looking for a path to surrender. Japan did this directly to the U.S., and also through various other diplomatic channels. Additionally, the U.S., due to interception of Japanese transmissions, understood well the situation and desires of the Japanese government and Emperor.

An end of the war was desired. Japan’s primary (and substantially only) concern was with the continued insistence by the Americans of the idea of “unconditional surrender.” To Japan, this meant risking the life and government of the Emperor – a possibility that was beyond consideration. Japan seemed quite prepared for a complete surrender of all military activity and assets, but as the Emperor was in a manner considered a “god”, the idea of his embarrassment and dethroning – let alone the risk of standing for war crimes –was unthinkable.

Further, most U.S. military leaders made quite clear to the political leaders that the best hope for a surrender of Japanese military forces was for those forces to get the word from the Emperor – in other words, the maintenance of the Emperor was a necessity if there was to be hope of avoiding a devastating and continuing fight to the finish with Japan.

Alperovitz offers much discussion about other considerations that were the actual reasons for the dropping of the two bombs. The one that resonates quite well is the future (post-war) relationship of the U.S. with the Soviet Union. James F. Byrnes is a major character influencing Truman on this issue during this time.

Before it was clear that the bomb would work, the U.S. was continually pressing Stalin to enter strongly in the Asian war. The U.S. felt that, with this additional Soviet force, Japan would certainly surrender as opposed to continue the fight. Stalin committed to enter the Asian war after the defeat of Germany.

As progress on the bomb technology was made, Truman felt less inclined to utilize the Soviets in this manner – for one reason, to minimize any Soviet claim to territory in Asia. Of course, in general post-war diplomacy, the Soviet’s would be less aggressive knowing the U.S. had and would use this weapon in combat.

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.

It seems clear that the desire to use the bomb actually COST the U.S. lives. Japan, as mentioned earlier, was ready to surrender even in the spring. The U.S. postponed and delayed discussion toward this objective – both discussion with Japan and discussion with its allies – while awaiting the developments of the technology. As opposed to saving American lives (a dubious claim from the beginning, as Alperovitz documents well) the delays likely cost many American lives while hopping island to island in the spring and summer.

The Myth

Despite the public statements from military leaders (see the quotes from Leahy and Eisenhower above), the discussions in the newspapers, Congressional commissions, etc., the myth of the necessity of the bomb has not only been maintained, it has grown.

Most Americans operate under the belief that the bomb was necessary to save American lives and end the war. Despite significant evidence and statements to the contrary, this belief in the myth continues. Many people played a role in creating and institutionalizing the myth, including Henry Stimson, Byrnes, and of course Truman himself.

On the one hand, it is a simple story: Americans dropped the bomb. The war ended. Millions of Americans came home from the war, and tens of millions of fathers, mothers, wives and girlfriends saw this. It is not a stretch to suggest that virtually everyone living in America knew someone who came home safely at the end of the war.

In this regard, it is not difficult to see why the myth became reality. The event of the bomb and the end of the war were coincident. Family members came home. Emotions were high.

On the other hand, it would be surprising to conclude that what the American people ended up believing merely came about by accident.

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 Wllard 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.

The protection of this myth continues today.


  1. I am wondering why the huge difference in the designs, shapes and sizes of the two atomic bombs supposedly dropped in Japan. Neither were fully tested before the dropping in Japan.

    Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki:

    Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima:

    1. I have not read anything on why the two designs, so I only speculate:

      1) They weren't sure which design (if either) would work.
      2) They wanted to test both.

    2. The Hiroshima bomb used uranium-235, which had to be separated from uranium-238 using a couple of different processes. Uranium-235 is less than 1% of the contents of uranium as it is found naturally occurring. The separation process was slow and difficult, and they were only able to produce enough U-235 for one bomb. The Nagasaki bomb used plutonium, which could be produced faster, and if a third bomb had been dropped, it would have also been one of these types. The difference of the shapes of the actual bombs was due to the difference in how the critical masses of the uranium-235 vs. plutonium were assembled. There have been several books written which explain all this.

    3. The difference in design and shape of the 2 bombs was due to the different methods required to assemble the critical masses of the nuclear material, which was uranium-235 in the Hiroshima bomb, and plutonium in the Nagasaki bomb.

  2. I suggest that you read 'Wars End' by Major Charles W Sweeney. He was there.

  3. Being on the mission to drop the bombs does not give him any special insight into Truman's and his administration's actions, does it?

    Was he in the meetings? Perhaps cc'd on the snail mails? Listening in on the phone calls?

  4. I am curious whether you can document any covert or overt attempt by Japan to negotiate a surrender. I have not studied the history of the Japanese side of World War 2 in great depth, so I am genuinely curious.

    also, I wonder what effect the penetration of the Manhattan project specifically, and the general subversion of the US Government generally by the Soviets (per West) had on Truman's advisors and his decision

  5. Truman learned during the Potsdam Conference that Japan had asked for Swedish mediation in working out surrender terms. They also sought Soviet help in working out surrender –but were rebuffed. Prime Minister Suzuki also issued a muddled “no comment” that was interpreted as refusal to surrender. Much failure to communicate.
    You might also review the mafia-like action of junior officers in the Imperial Japanese Army during the mid-1930s. These led to some confusion as to who was in authority, perhaps with some cause in view of the attempted palace revolt when the Emperor decided to accept the unconditional surrender terms.

    I generally consult Total War by Calvocoressi and Wint, but there are many references and viewpoints.


  6. It seems a better question to pursue is Who might Benefit? or What are the possible political benefits? IF the use of the A-bombs were not really necessary to the conclusion of the war. Possiblity: setting up the basic narrative for the coming Cold War with Russia? Who would benefit? The financial-military-corporate industrial complex maybe? Or the continual bleeding of the American system? War is THE racket.