Alonzo Hamby considers Harry Truman's First World War experiences and explores the dilemmas that influenced his decision to drom atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Harry S. Truman had been President of the United States for less than two weeks on April 25th, 1945, when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson delivered to him a full report on the most expensive and secret American enterprise of the Second World War. The document began with the chilling words, 'Within four months, we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history'. From that point until he received word of its successful test in mid-July, the atomic bomb was at the back of Truman's mind as he attempted to cope with the manifold problems accompanying the end of the greatest war in human history.
On May 8th, Truman's sixty-first birthday, Germany surrendered unconditionally. It was still necessary to achieve final victory in the Pacific and manage a multitude of diplomatic difficulties with the Allies, especially the Soviet Union, not yet at war with Japan and (so it seemed) desperately needed for the final campaigns in the Pacific conflict.
Truman's attitude to the war was heavily motivated by his own experience as a combat artilleryman in the First World War, in his perceptions of Japanese fanaticism, and in forming his identity as a politician attempting to establish the limits of his discretion. Revisionist scholars, motivated by a pacifist revulsion against the horrors of nuclear war, have criticised his eventual use of the atomic bomb as unnecessary; some have asserted that he cynically sacrificed Japanese lives in an effort to intimidate the Soviet Union. Such charges have little merit. An examination of the available evidence, considered within the context of 1945 rather than 1995, reveals a president who made imperfect judgements and was shaken by the destruction he wrought, but who could rightly think he was acting simply to end a terrible war being fought against an implacable enemy.
Diplomatic issues stemming from the termination of the European war and the establishment of the United Nations necessarily occupied much of Truman's attention during his first three months in office, but the struggle against Japan was never far from his attention. On April 1st, just eleven days before he took office, American troops had landed on Okinawa, 400 miles from the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. Allied forces, mostly American but including a British naval contingent, had overwhelming superiority. Okinawa was smaller than Rhode Island: nevertheless, the battle that followed lasted nearly three months. More than 100,000 Japanese troops defended the island, fighting with suicidal tenacity. Waves of kamikaze planes attacked the American fleet, inflicting greater losses than the Japanese navy had managed over the past year.
As Truman read daily battle reports, he surely thought of his own combat experiences and of those of his close friends in the Argonne area and then to the east of Verdun during the Great War: finding himself in No-Man's Land while acting as a forward observer for his artillery regiment; his cousin, Captain Ralph Truman, pulling a shattered infantry force together against a German counterattack; Major John Miles, a close comrade, holding his artillery battalion firm in the same action; corpses along dusty roads; a dying freckle-faced kid with a leg blown off; the scattered remains of unknown soldiers heaved from shallow graves by German artillery shells. And he must have thought of two friends who had served under him in that war, Eddie McKim and Abie Burkhart, both of whom had already lost sons in the current war. And he surely thought of his four nephews, all of them in uniform, one of them a sailor on the USS Missouri, off Okinawa.
Despite his willingness to assume full and sole responsibility for use of the atomic bomb in later years, Truman dealt with the impending event in the fashion of a circumspect chairman of the board. He appointed a committee. Headed by Stimson and containing James Byrnes (soon to be appointed Secretary of State) as his personal representative, the Interim Committee, as it was called, saw the bomb, however terrible, as a proxy for the thousand-plane raids that had already devastated numerous German and Japanese cities. None of the committee members, scientists and politicians alike, fully understood the horrifying radioactive side-effects of nuclear warfare. On June 1st, citing all the uncertainties of employing an unprecedented (and as yet untested) weapon, the Interim Committee recommended use of the bomb against Japan without warning. No one doubted that Truman would accept the advice.
On June 18th, the president met with his top military officials to discuss the possible scenarios for ending the war against Japan. They recommended an invasion of Kyushu no later than November 1st. The operation would be enormous: 766,000 American assault troops engaging an estimated 350,000 Japanese defenders. It would be followed in 1946 by a decisive campaign near Tokyo on the main island of Honshu.
Would the Kyushu operation, Truman asked, be 'another Okinawa closer to Japan'? With questionable optimism, the military chiefs of staff predicted the casualties would be somewhat lighter. Still their estimate for the first thirty days was 31,000 casualties. Truman gave his reluctant approval, but not without saying he hoped 'there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another'.
In fact, Pentagon planners were at work on estimates that projected 132,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing) for Kyushu, another 90,000 or so for Honshu. Of these, probably a quarter would be fatalities. The figures were not wholly worked out by the June 18th meeting but they would be given to Truman in due course and would constitute the estimates upon which he acted. In later years, he exaggerated them, but they required no magnification to make the atomic bomb a compelling option.
The June 18th meeting also explored ways in which the war might be concluded without either the Kyushu invasion or the atomic bomb. Should the United States, could it, accept less than unconditional surrender from Japan? The president's personal military chief of staff, Admiral William D. Leahy, was most emphatic in asserting that it should. Transfixed by the fanaticism of Japanese resistance, fearful that American losses would exceed Pentagon estimates, doubtful that the bomb would ever work, Leahy declared that Japan could not menace the United States in the foreseeable future. Stimson and Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy favoured giving the Japanese guarantees that they could keep the emperor.
Truman appeared somewhat sympathetic, said he had left the door open for Congress to alter the unconditional surrender policy, but felt he could not take action to change public opinion. He apparently did not believe that an utterly defeated Japan might be allowed to retain the emperor under terms that still could be called 'unconditional surrender' and that the American people would prefer so minor a compromise to another year of war.
Should the United States warn the Japanese of its atomic capability, perhaps even arrange some sort of demonstration? McCloy alone argued for doing so. Other military leaders argued the shock value of surprise. The Interim Committee had explicitly rejected such proposals. Byrnes, who was formally named Secretary of State on July 3rd, strongly favoured both rigid unconditional surrender and total surprise.
Truman had been presented with a wide consensus from an interlocking directorate composed of the men who had won the war: the Interim Committee, his top military leaders, and his most important Cabinet members. He would feel a need to talk of using the atomic bomb against strictly military targets, but that, which he probably realised was not realistic, was his only inhibition.
The four weeks after June 18th were intensely busy for the new president. In addition to a budget message for Congress, he faced a wide range of military and diplomatic matters - the San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations, myriad conflicts with the Soviet Union in occupied Germany and Eastern Europe, numerous squabbles with the French and British, the shape of the post-war Far East. Above all, so long as the atomic bomb remained a prospect, rather than an accomplished reality, he had to nail down Soviet participation in the war against Japan.
Many of these issues came to a head when he met at Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill. (Near the end of the conference, after the Conservative election defeat, Clement Attlee replaced Churchill). Truman arrived on July 15th: the conference would last until August 2nd. During his time away from the negotiations - his spare time, astonishingly - he would grapple with the bomb as an actuality and make the final decisions required.
On July 15th, Truman toured the rubble of Berlin. 'What a pity that the human animal is not able to put his moral thinking into practice!' he mused. 'I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries'. Perhaps thinking of the bomb, he added, 'we are only termites on a planet and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there'll be a reckoning - who knows?'
He may well have written those lines after meeting between 7.30 and 8.00 pm with Secretary Stimson, who presented him with a top secret message he had just received from his closest aide, George Harrison. Tersely and obliquely, it indicated that the first atomic test, near Alamogordo in the New Mexico desert, had been a great success. On the morning of July 18th, Stimson gave Truman another message from Harrison in Washington: the flash of the explosion had been visible for 250 miles, the sound of the blast had carried 50 miles. Truman, Stimson wrote in his diary, was 'highly delighted ... evidently very greatly reinforced'.
Truman confided some thoughts to his own diary that day. Since they have been badly distorted by at least one writer, they are worth quoting in full:
Discussed Manhattan (it is a success). Decided to tell Stalin about it. Stalin had told PM [Churchill] of telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace. Stalin also read his answer to me. It was satisfactory. Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in.
I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland. I shall inform Stalin about it at an opportune time.
Truman clearly assumed that the bomb would be used, that it would compel Japan to surrender, and that Soviet participation might not be necessary after all. But what of the emperor's telegram 'asking for peace'? Were the Japanese ready to surrender? And if so, why was the war permitted to continue for another month? The 'emperor's telegram', drafted by the Japanese Foreign Office, asked Stalin to receive Prince Fumimaro Konoye on an unspecified mission related to the termination of the war. The nature of the petition reflected gridlock in Tokyo. The Japanese military bitterly opposed surrender. Civilian officials who talked about it risked assassination. In the absence of an agenda or a basis for discussion, the request was meaningless. The Konoye mission never materialised.
US Intelligence was intercepting and decoding diplomatic transmissions between Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo and Ambassador Naotake Sato in Moscow; they revealed the unreal hopes in Tokyo. Truman was briefed on and probably saw copies of Sato's telegram to Togo, dated July 12th. With a bold directness and despairing eloquence, Sato declared that the time was past for negotiation, that the Japanese homeland was in peril, that the Soviets would be of no help. 'We ourselves must firmly resolve to terminate the war', he declared:
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?
Asking Togo's pardon and begging for his understanding, Sato concluded, 'in international relations there is no mercy, and facing reality is unavoidable'. Togo responded curtly and specifically warned Sato against giving the impression that Japan was ready to surrender unconditionally. After reading such an exchange, Truman and those around him had to think that Japan planned to fight to the end.
On July 21st, a much fuller report of the Alamogordo test by General Leslie Groves arrived at Potsdam. It contained specific data on the explosion: a force of 15-20,000 tons of TNT, a fireball lasting several seconds and shining as brightly as several midday suns, a mushroom cloud rising to 41,000 feet above sea level, secondary explosions within it, a 1,200-foot crater, the evaporation of the 100-ft tower from which the bomb had been suspended, the destruction of a 70-ft steel tower a half-mile away. General Thomas Farrell wrote of the blast's 'strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty'.
Stimson read the report to Truman and Byrnes. 'They were immensely pleased', he wrote shortly afterwards:
The president was tremendously pepped up by it and spoke to me of it again and again when I saw him. He said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence and he thanked me for having come to the Conference and being present to help him in this way.
Because the British had been partners in the Manhattan Project, Churchill was fully informed. Gunpowder, the prime minister declared, had become trivial and electricity meaningless; the bomb was 'the Second Coming in Wrath'. Truman told himself: 'It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era after Noah and his fabulous Ark'.
The bomb had given Truman a sense of enormous power. At a stroke, it had changed his position from that of a supplicant in quest of an ally against Japan to a more-than-equal partner now able to be indifferent. Churchill had observed on July 21st that the president was markedly more assertive and considerably firmer in rejecting Soviet demands. Now he understood why. A consensus quickly developed among the British and Americans that the USSR should be told as little as possible. On July 24th, at the conclusion of the day's negotiations, Truman walked over to Stalin and, as he later would tell it, 'casually mentioned ... that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force'.
Stalin, poker-faced, said that he hoped the United States would make good use of it, asked no questions, and made no further comments. Of course, thanks to his espionage ring at Los Alamos, he was actually well-informed about the Manhattan Project, although he may not yet have learned of the successful test. The Americans, many of them puzzled at his lack of interest, did not realise that they had witnessed the first display of an interim Soviet strategy for dealing with the bomb - to behave as if it were irrelevant - until the USSR could produce one of its own.
As Truman remembered it in 1952, he asked his top advisers once again about likely casualties in the planned invasions of Kyushu and Honshu and received from General George Marshall an estimate of about 250,000 Americans and at least an equal number of Japanese. Of those with whom he talked, no one was more important than Stimson, who had his total respect and was directly responsible for the atomic project.
When Stimson insisted on dropping Kyoto from the target list, Truman concurred (in Stimson's words) 'with the utmost emphasis'. The military saw Kyoto as a prime industrial target; Stimson saw it as a city of shrines and cultural centres that could not be destroyed without alienating the Japanese population. Stimson was probably also the key figure, if only through his silence, in leading Truman to accept a strategy of dropping the first two bombs in rapid succession. The idea was to convince the Japanese that the United States had a large stockpile.
As to use of the bomb, there was no dissent among the primary advisers. On July 25th, Truman gave the final go-ahead. Sometime during the first ten days of August, the bomb would be used against Hiroshima, Kokura, or Nigata in that order of choice - unless Japan surrendered unconditionally.
On July 26th, the United States, Great Britain and China issued a proclamation from Potsdam demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. The alternative would be 'the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and ... the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland'. Following the decisions already made in Washington, the ultimatum did not mention an atomic bomb. Nor did it specifically state that Japan would be allowed to retain the emperor; instead, it promised to recognise 'in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government'.
On July 28th, Japan rejected the proclamation with a verb that could be translated as 'treat with silent contempt' or 'ignore entirely'. The government, Prime Minister Suzuki asserted, would 'resolutely fight for the successful conclusion of this war'.
For most Americans, 'unconditional surrender' had become a wartime objective carved in stone; having obtained it from Germany, no American president could appear to negotiate anything less with Japan, which in turn surely bore the burden of responsibility for ending a war it had started. Still, the United States could have made it clear, either publicly or through diplomatic backchannels, that unconditional surrender would not mean removal of the emperor. Whether Japan would have responded to such an initiative cannot be known, but one can only regret that it did not crystallise in Truman's mind before the obliteration of two cities.
As it was, the president allowed things to go forward, buoyed by a belief that the war would soon be ended without a massive invasion, yet not entirely comfortable with what he had done. Writing in his diary, he portrayed his orders to Stimson in terms that in his heart he had to know were unrealistic:
I have told the Sec. of War, Mr 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 ...
At approximately 8.11 am on August 6th, a B-29, the Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets, dropped an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima from an altitude of 31,600 feet. The explosion occurred at 2,000 feet. Observers in a trailing B-29 witnessed the blinding fireball, the shock wave, the mushroom cloud rising miles into the sky'. The central city, built on a level plain, was instantly in flames; almost nothing remained standing within a one-mile radius of 'ground zero'. Perhaps 75,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed at once; more tens of thousands would eventually die from the effects of radiation. No single device in the history of warfare had killed so many people so indiscriminately.
The news reached Truman as he was returning from Potsdam aboard the cruiser Augusta. Elated, convinced that the war would soon be over, and cognisant of the unprecedented military and scientific implications, he declared: 'This is the greatest thing in history'. Some would criticise the statement as callous, but Truman was celebrating the end of a war; and, if by 'greatest', he meant 'most important', who will say he was wrong?
The Augusta docked at Newport News on August 7th. The next day, Truman conferred with Stimson, who showed him photographs detailing the damage at Hiroshima. After examining them thoroughly, he remarked that the destruction placed a terrible responsibility upon himself and the War Department. Stimson expressed his hope that the United States would make it as easy as possible for Japan to surrender and would treat the defeated enemy with tact and leniency. That afternoon, Truman announced to White House reporters that the USSR had declared war on Japan. With no surrender offer, no word at all, coming from Tokyo, he did not interfere with the use of the second bomb. On August 9th, at 11.00 am, it hit Nagasaki, a tertiary target selected because of bad weather and poor observation conditions at Kokura and Nigata. The death and devastation was perhaps half that at Hiroshima; yet it was still beyond imagination.
Would the Japanese have surrendered had they been given more time to contemplate the totality of Hiroshima? Or conversely were they more impressed by the Soviet declaration of war than by the bombs? No one can say. We know they realised an event of unique horror had occurred at Hiroshima and that the United States had announced the use of an atomic bomb. We know that civilian officials wanted to surrender but that the military leaders found the prospect unbearable. Just before midnight on August 9th, the civilian-military Supreme War Council met in the presence of the emperor. After each side made its presentation, Hirohito declared emotionally and firmly, ‘I swallow my own tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamation'.
The Allies gave their approval to American terms. Japan remained silent. On August 13th, Truman authorised one last terrible 1,000-plane raid on Tokyo. Presiding over a final meeting of his War Council, Hirohito demanded acceptance of the United States offer. Within twenty-four hours die-hard army officers attempted a coup d'etat that was barely suppressed. On August 14th, late in the afternoon, the United States received Japanese acceptance of American surrender terms. That evening, Truman announced that the Second World War was over and declared a two-day holiday. For a moment it was possible to hope that the destruction of the enemy meant the birth of a hopeful new world.
At the August 10th cabinet meeting, Truman declared ('most fiercely', according to Wallace) that he expected the Russians to stall on the surrender in order to grab as much of Manchuria as possible, and that if China and Britain agreed to the American terms, he would not wait for the Russians. Scholars of the Left invoke such bits and pieces of anti-Soviet rhetoric as proof that the bombs were dropped not to compel a Japanese surrender but to intimidate the USSR. Yet there is no credible evidence in Truman's personal contemporary writings or his later accounts that he saw the use of the bomb as a way of making a point to the Russians - although he clearly thought its existence would strengthen the hand of the United States.
Truman acted on the certainty that the longer the war lasted, the more American fatalities would occur. Some critics have suggested that he should have engaged in a grim calculus, that he should have accepted an additional 45-50,000 American deaths rather than kill many more Japanese with the bomb. But no conceivable US president in the summer of 1945 would have done that. The critics also believe that Japan, hammered by cumulative defeats, facing an unbreakable naval blockade, and shocked by Soviet intervention, would have shortly surrendered anyway. But a brute certainty remains. Japan did not muster the will to surrender until two atomic bombs had been dropped.
Most veterans of the Pacific war felt a sense of physical salvation. One of them was Army Second Lieutenant Francis Heller, a young man whose parents had fled Austria a decade earlier. Assigned to the first wave of the invasion of Honshu, Heller instead found himself wading ashore with his men on a quiet beach. 'I thought this is where I would have been killed if not for the atomic bomb,' he recalls. The thought must have entered his mind many times nine years later when he helped Harry Truman write his memoirs.
Truman, the old artilleryman who had seen the horrors of the 1914-18 War close-up, understood from his own experience the hopes and fears of the Francis Hellers of the world - young combat officers dreaming of families and futures, just as he had done a generation earlier. They were the ultimate vindication of his decision.