The Decision to Drop the Bomb

Alonzo L. Hamby | Journal of American History, Vol. 84, no. 2 (September 1997)

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. By Gar Alperovitz. (New York: Knopf, 1995. xiv, 847 pp. $32.50, ISBN 0-679-44331-2.)

The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb. By Dennis D. Wainstock. (Westport: Praeger, 1996. x, 180 pp. $55.00, ISBN 0-275-95475-7.)

The Last Great Victory: The End of World War II, July/August 1945. By Stanley Weintraub. (New York: Dutton, 1995. xvi, 730 pp. j35.00, ISBN 0-525-93687-4.)

Harry S. Truman and the Bomb: A Documentary History. Ed. by Robert H. Ferrell. (Worland, Wyo.: High Plains, 1996. x, 125 pp. $24.50, ISBN 1-881019-12-8.)

History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past. Ed. by Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt. (New York: Metropolitan, 1996. viii, 295 pp. Cloth, $30.00, ISBN 0-8050-4386-1. Paper, $14.95, ISBN 08050-4387-X.)

American observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995 occasioned bitter controversy. An uncomfortable Clinton administration canceled a mushroom cloud postage stamp and tentatively suggested that it might be kinder to Japan to talk of V-P Day instead of V-J Day. An angry dispute over the viewpoint of the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibition culminated in a purge at the nation’s greatest cultural institution. These books all deal in one fashion or another with the Enola Gay, that mushroom cloud, and its enduring implications.

Gar Alperovitz has been a presence of major significance in the study of the bomb and the endgame of World War II for a generation. His latest project, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, has drawn wide attention. A critical review of it by John Bonnett that appeared on the H-Net diplomatic history service, H-Diplo, was followed by a protracted and tempestuous controversy (http: / h-net 2. msu. edu / – diplo / balp.htm). Alperovitz’s thesis basically repeats the one pressed in his earlier Atomic Diplomacy (1965, 1985, 1994) but is stated at much greater length, much more elaborately, and with the help of no less than seven collaborators listed under his name on the title page. Extensively researched and documented by 112 pages of endnotes, this book is the end result of a long joint effort beyond the capabilities of most scholars. Financing came from no less than ten foundations or funds and “several individuals who traditionally have preferred to remain anonymous in their various philanthropic efforts.”

Alperovitz argues that the atomic bomb was unnecessary to end World War II for the following reasons:

1. The Japanese government wanted to surrender; its leaders, military as well as civilian, rationally understood that the war was lost. But they had a determined attachment (irrational?) to the emperor. Japan would have surrendered, very possibly as early as June 1945, had its ruling establishment received guarantees of the emperor’s personal safety and continuance on the throne. This should have been the first step in an American surrender strategy.

2. Any remaining Japanese reluctance to quit the war would have been quickly overcome by the second step, entry of the Soviet Union in August 1945.

3. American failure to accept and implement this “two-step logic” for an expeditious end to World War II was largely a result of the emerging Cold War and especially American concern over Soviet ambitions in Eastern Europe and northeast Asia.

4. The American public would have accepted some modification of the unconditional surrender policy in order to avoid prolongation of the war. The Washington Post and Time magazine advocated its abandonment; so did some United States senators. Many military leaders and diplomats-British as well as Americanconcurred.

5. President Harry S. Truman seemed inclined to give assurances on the emperor, then pulled back. He did so out of concern with Soviet behavior and with increasingly firm knowledge that the United States would soon have atomic weapons available. Coming to believe that the bomb would be decisive and anxious to keep the Soviet Union out of Manchuria, he dropped modification of unconditional surrender; moreover, he sought to prevent a Soviet declaration of war against Japan by encouraging China not to yield to Soviet demands beyond those granted at Yalta. In so doing, he acted primarily at the urging of James F. Byrnes, the archvillain in the plot.

6. Truman also refused to move on Japanese peace feelers, apparently in the belief that it was necessary to prevent a Japanese surrender before the bomb could be demonstrated to the world, and especially to the Soviet Union. The result was the needless destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and many allied casualties that need not have happened.

7. In subsequent years, the American decision makers of 1945 devoted considerable energy to the construction of a misleading “myth” that attempted to vindicate the use of the bomb by denying Japanese efforts at peace and by asserting grossly inflated estimates of American casualties that would have been sustained in an invasion of Japan.

For a “revisionist” work, this is very traditional history. Alperovitz stresses the doings of Great White Men engaged in a diplomatic chess game. He conveys no sense of the actions and passions of World War II. The battle of Okinawa dominated the first nine weeks of Truman’s presidency and eventually accounted for one-quarter of all American casualties in the Pacific War; it is mentioned in passing without a hint of the way in which it intensified expectations of fanatical Japanese resistance. One never gets a sense that a war was still raging in much of East Asia and the Pacific, producing substantial casualties each day it continued.

At times written in the tone of an expose, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb is a lawyer’s brief, repetitively citing evidence that supports its position, ignoring anything that does not. For example, its generalizations about public opinion make no mention of a Gallup poll on the future of the Japanese emperor, conducted June 1-5, 1945; 70 percent of the respondents favored either execution, trial, life imprisonment, or exile; 7 percent were willing to keep him on his throne as a figurehead. It is inconceivable that the author and his associates could have been unaware of this frequently cited survey. In the endnotes, they refer to other polls just a few pages away in the same reference volume.

At another point the book quotes as if it were accurate a passage from Newsweek (July 30, 1945): “Behind that curtain [of propaganda]Japan had put forward at least one definite offer. Fearing the results of Russian participation in the war, Tokyo transmitted to Generalissimo Joseph Stalin the broad terms on which it professed willingness to settle all scores.”

The “broad terms” are never defined. In fact, they did not exist. Japanese approaches to the Soviet Union began in mid-July with what Truman in his diary called a “telegram from [the] Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Alperovitz and other atomic revisionists have attached great importance to this communication, which did have Emperor Hirohito’s personal interest. Yet Alperovitz’s own summary and quotation shows that it contained no more than the emperor’s hope that in order to end suffering the war might “be quickly terminated.” It then went on to express Japan’s resolve “to fight on with all its strength” so long as the United States and Great Britain insisted on unconditional surrender. It concluded by asking the Soviet Union to receive Prince Fumimaro Konoye as a special envoy. Because the Japanese neither presented an agenda nor specified any basis for discussion, both Washington and Moscow dismissed the proposal as meaningless and perhaps a stalling tactic to prevent Soviet intervention.

Alperovitz refers frequently to the subsequent diplomatic correspondence between Japan’s foreign minister Shigenori Togo and his ambassador to the Soviet Union, Naotake Sato, an exchange of enormous importance because United States intelligence intercepted, decoded, and made it available to American policy makers. One would never know from this account that Sato-safe from the threat of assassination and perhaps with a more realistic perspective than his embattled superiors in Tokyo-warned Togo from the start that the initiative to the Soviet Union would be rebuffed and that unconditional surrender was Japan’s only option. On July 12, driven by a sense of urgency and foreboding, he cabled Togo:

We ourselves must firmly resolve to terminate the war…. Is there any meaning in showing that our country has reserve strength for a war of resistance, or in sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of conscripts and millions of other innocent residents of cities and metropolitan areas?

Rebuked for his insubordination, Sato was warned against giving any indication that Japan was prepared to surrender unconditionally.Just possibly, Truman and other American policy makers who read this and similar exchanges might have taken them as signals to offer some concessions, but it seems more plausible to read them as indications that Japan was determined to fight fanatically on to a bloody end.

In a communication to H-Diplo, Alperovitz has asserted that space considerations made it impossible to devote extensive attention to the Japanese side. One must note, however, that a full and accurate treatment would provide scant support for his argument.

How does one evaluate this presumably final installment of a career-long effort to argue a thesis for which the empirical evidence is at best indeterminate? Atomic Diplomacy first appeared as the United States began its massive and mistaken intervention in Vietnam. It drew an instant response from an intelligentsia increasingly alienated from American foreign policy. Its thesis probably never enjoyed majority support among American historians, but it remains accepted by many in the wider intellectual community. One suspects that scholars a generation from now will treat it as an artifact of the intellectual history of the Cold War, more significant as a project in delegitimization than as a convincing inquiry about the end of World War II.

Dennis D. Wainstock’s The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb seems a modest effort indeed when placed against Alperovitz’s thick, well-financed, heavily researched group project. Less than a quarter the size of the Alperovitz book, it reads rather like a dissertation that needed tighter supervision. The author has done earnest research in important primary sources (especially the Strategic Bombing Survey interrogations of leading Japanese officials). But he is either unaware of or uninterested in such influential secondary works as Leon Sigal’s Fighting to a Finish (1988) and Robert Messer’s End of an Alliance (1982). He also is quite uncritical in his use of sources. Occasional bloopers damage his overall credibility. Perhaps the biggest is his assertion that after the bombing of Nagasaki, “On Tinian, two more atomic bombs were ready for drops, tentatively scheduled for August 13 and 16.” In fact, the next atomic bomb would not have been ready until about August 21, and Truman, hoping for a Japanese surrender, had ordered it kept in the United States. Wainstock’s conclusions are mildly revisionist:

If the United States had given Japan conditional surrender terms, including retention of the emperor, at the war’s outset [!], Japan would probably have surrendered sometime in the spring or early summer of 1945, if not sooner. . . . As it was, the dropping of the atomic bombs only hastened the surrender of an already defeated enemy.

Having failed to secure a constructive critical reading that would have made this study stronger, the publisher also has eschewed such frills as a dust jacket and competent copy editing.

Yet Wainstock deals with the Japanese side of the final months of the war more thoroughly and competently than does Alperovitz. He persuasively depicts a Japanese regime always a step or two behind the curve of the war, denying the certainty of defeat and unwilling or unable to state peace terms that might have been compatible with the American demand for unconditional surrender. At no point before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the Japanese government prepared to surrender on the sole basis of the personal safety and nominal continuance of the emperor. (Who can doubt that had such terms been offered by the Japanese before August 6 they would have been accepted?) For many Japanese leaders, preservation of the emperor meant preservation of the imperial system, and with it their own positions. After the destruction of Hiroshima, the military leaders still rejected an American military occupation, disarmament, and war crimes trials conducted by the victors. News of the Nagasaki bomb was decisive, not in changing their minds, but in motivating the civilian leaders and Emperor Hirohito to face reality.

Stanley Weintraub’s immensely readable The Last Great Victory is the sort of book that most scholars scorn publicly and wish secretly that they were capable of writing. An accomplished and energetic literary historian with more than twenty authored books to his credit, Weintraub has written on subjects that range from Queen Victoria to the attack on Pearl Harbor. His attitude toward documentation is maddeningly cavalier-brief source essays for each of his thirty-five chapters, and no bibliography or general bibliographic essay. The research design, an epic day-by-day history of the last month of World War II, moving back and forth among Europe, America, and Asia, shifting between the decisions of great men and the tribulations of ordinary people, precludes a systematic statement of a problem to be investigated or a strong declaration of a thesis. The book’s dust jacket with its large red V superimposed on a photo of B-29s flying in formation will put off those who recoil from the specter of “American triumphalism.”

Nonetheless, the book has more than its quota of ideas and arguments, clearly presented for those who want to ponder them. Weintraub does not shrink from describing the agony of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but neither does he doubt that use of the bomb was the product of dithering Japanese statesmanship and the long, awful legacy of the years of war that had preceded it. Far more successful than Alperovitz or Wainstock at providing a sense of context for the bomb, he graphically details Japanese ruthlessness, clearly explains the extensiveness of American preparations for the invasion, and effectively reminds the reader of the continuing British war in the Far East. Moreover, he demonstrates that Japanese civilian leaders were well aware that American statements on unconditional surrender contained possibilities for the survival of the emperor as a constitutional monarch.

Robert H. Ferrell’s useful, but much too slim, collection of documents begins with a very brief introduction that supports Weintraub. Ferrell points out that American casualty estimates for the invasion of Japan-minimized by Alperovitz and the Smithsonian scholars-could reasonably be projected at 250,000 or more. “American officials, from the president on down, sought single-mindedly to save the lives of U.S. soldiers and sailors,” he asserts. That determination sufficiently explains the use of the bomb.

History Wars speaks to these issues only tangentially. Its main concerns involve other ramifications from the Smithsonian controversy. Although the tenor and quality of their contributions vary considerably, the authors all concur that “history” was dealt a setback by the final outcome, which they depict as the triumph of an unenlightened political right over the results of rational scholarship. Many of the issues they cover are complicated. What are the appropriate limits for a national museum whose exhibits inevitably have a quasi-official imprimatur? Do museum curators as exhibit developers have the same leeway customarily granted to academic lecturers and authors? How does the controversy relate to the wider “culture wars” of our time? (The contributors deplore the latter phenomenon, although a couple of them seem to be enthusiastic participants in it. ) Space precludes a discussion of these topics.

What does emerge, especially from Edward T. Linenthal’s useful introductory essay, is a picture of a Smithsonian leadership determined to break away from the neutral-to-celebratory stance that had previously characterized the institution’s exhibitions. The new purpose would be to provoke thought by displaying complexity and highlighting scholarship that dissented from prevailing national myths. In the case of the National Air and Space Museum, this involved a difficult dance around a congressional mandate that prescribed patriotic inspiration. It also meant predictable difficulties in dealing with well-established veteran constituencies that expected meaningful input and respect. The curatorial team that developed the exhibit script consisted of scholars too young to remember World War II; its members chose to depict the bombing of Hiroshima not simply as the last act in a long and savage war that had consumed millions of lives but also as the beginning of a nuclear age that threatened the survival of humanity, a point that could be demonstrated only by devoting considerable attention to the horrors of Hiroshima.

The Air Force Association, the American Legion, and other veterans groups reacted with outrage, quickly concluding that they were the victims of a group of condescending eggheads; many other observers, including the editorial board of the Washington Post, joined in the criticism. The Smithsonian response was somehow always too little, too late; the unhappy results included the departure of the institution’s head, the resignation of the Air and Space Museum’s director, the cancellation of the exhibit, and numerous damaged careers. The final precipitating incident was the curatorial insistence on placing in the final draft of the script the assertion that the cost of not using the bomb would have been 63,000 American casualties. The figure, drawn from an unclear reference in Adm. William Leahy’s diary, had little evidentiary basis; it was less than half that projected in Joint Chiefs of Staff planning documents, which were themselves based on unrealistically low estimates of Japanese defenders. It was also irrelevant; no conceivable American president would have withheld the bomb for so large a cost. The exhibition was at least in some respects not very good history.

Some defenders of the exhibit asserted that the cancellation was reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). The simile is surely inaccurate. On Orwell’s Airstrip One, an authoritative government dictated historical memory to a passive population. In the Smithsonian controversy, a broad segment of public opinion rejected an interpretation of history advanced by scholars mustering the authority of both an official institution and their own academic credentials. Nor was the episode a defeat for “history”; an equally prominent, equally credentialed group of historians could easily have produced a far different interpretation. Rather it was a sobering reminder that professional historians face a skeptical public inclined to discard their assertions if these challenge widely held beliefs without convincing evidence. Such is the price of living in a pluralist democracy.

The major questions about the events of the summer of 1945 are for the most part moral, or at least nonempirical. Who can disprove a belief that any resolution of World War II would have been preferable to the atomic solution? Who can say with absolute assurance that the second bomb was necessary? Who can prove that it was necessary to drop the second bomb just three days after the first? Who will ever know for certain that Japan would not have been forced by hunger, fuel shortages, and infrastructure collapse to surrender before an invasion?

But most of us also have talked to veterans, British as well as Americans, recounting their roles in the planned invasion of Malaya or Japan and ending with the conclusion, “The atomic bomb saved my life.” Such beliefs, reflecting the sentiments of men who lived and breathed a desperate situation that we can scarcely comprehend, were also part of the historical reality of 1945. The documents do not refute them, and historical method does not require us to ignore them.

Alonzo L. Hamby

Ohio University

Athens, Ohio

Copyright Organization of American Historians Sep 1997

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