From Hiroshima’s Shadow; this post is based on the contribution by Robert L. Messer, entitled “New Evidence on Truman’s Decision.”
Once again we mark the anniversary of one of the more horrific events of a horrific war, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and, subsequently, Nagasaki. Before I come to the specific topic of what President Truman knew and when he knew it regarding the position of the Japanese toward surrender and / or imminent defeat (without invasion), I suggest it is worth considering this first-hand account, from the ground at Hiroshima, of that terrible day; as a reminder of context, this is necessary.
Messer points to information discovered when Truman’s private journals and letters became public:
The first batch of this new evidence on the bomb decision surfaced in 1979. It had been misfiled among the family records of Truman’s press secretary at the Truman presidential library.
Four years after the discovery of Truman’s Potsdam diary a second batch of new evidence of Truman’s contemporary thinking on matters relating to the use of the bomb turned up among his widows private papers.
The declassification of government documents and presidential papers, and the release of privately held manuscript sources such as Stimson’s private diary forced a revision if not total refutation of accepted orthodoxy.
From this evidence, Messer concludes that “Truman had already concluded that Japan was about to capitulate.” No bomb necessary.
Truman was not in the dark regarding the power of the bomb, as he noted: “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.” He recognized that technology was moving faster that morals: “I hope for some sort of peace – but I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it.”
So, Truman knew he was making an immoral decision.
He knew quite well Stalin’s commitment to enter the war against Japan three months after the defeat of Germany: “He’ll [Stalin] be in Jap War on August 15th…. Fini Japs when that comes about.”
From Potsdam: “I’ve gotten what I came for – Stalin goes to war on August 15 with no strings on it…. I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed.”
The war would end with Soviet entry by August 15 according to Truman, less than ten days after the bomb was unnecessarily (for this purpose) exploded over Hiroshima.
With such sentiments, you would think Truman would explore every possible avenue to avoid unleashing this hell. Needless to say, you would be wrong.
He was the only person who had the final say – not only on whether the bomb would be used at all, but when and how it would be used.
Like maybe over some uninhabited island over the Pacific, as a show of force?
“[I] believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure that will when Manhattan appears over their homeland.”
Why drop the bomb on August 6 if the end was at hand just a few days later?
As Messer notes: “The bomb would shorten the war by days rather than months.”
Others have concluded, on solid basis, that the war could have ended months before the dropping of the bomb – Japan was ready to surrender and had been making many overtures through several channels to this effect. The primary hindrance was the insistence by the United States government (first Roosevelt, then Truman) of unconditional surrender, including the dethroning of the emperor. A secondary hindrance might very well have been the desire to use the bomb.
Less than one year after the end of the war, the US Strategic Bombing Survey’s official report on the Pacific War appeared. The authors concluded that…
“the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs did not defeat Japan….certainly prior to December 31, 1945 and in all probability prior to November 1, 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.” (emphasis added)
Truman’s response to this report? He put Stimson to work to set the record straight (meaning, establish the desired narrative). Much of the propaganda associated with the official narrative can be traced to Stimson’s efforts, as documented by McGeorge Bundy.
It shouldn’t be left unsaid: Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) should not be looked at in a vacuum; these atrocities were merely continuation of the precedents set in Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo – the firebombing of civilian populations, with little or no military relevance.
What is different? Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand out as a symbol – a mushroom cloud; the inevitable use of the newest weapon:
Imagine a time when it all began
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first would be sure to do their worst
They always had before...