|John M. Barr
Twentieth Century U.S.
Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb
Oscar Wilde once wrote that “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it. That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.” The majority of Americans continue to believe that the atomic bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August of 1945 were justifiably dropped in order to save American lives. Historians or “revisionists” such as Gar Alperovitz, however, have been writing – or rewriting – and challenging for decades the views of “traditionalist” history of the decision to drop the atomic bomb. In his seminal work The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, published in 1995, Alperovitz argues forcefully that President Harry S. Truman’s decision, or choice, to drop the atomic bomb was essentially a diplomatic measure (e.g. “revisionist”) designed more to intimidate and “manage” the Soviet Union, rather than a military measure (e.g. “traditionalist”) used to avoid an invasion of the Japanese homeland, save American lives, and force Japan to surrender unconditionally.
Alperovitz’s book describes and analyzes in meticulous and riveting detail the decision of the United States to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, how that decision was made, what factors were taken into consideration, and the remarkable persistence of the myth that the United States dropped the bomb in 1945 in order to save American lives. To that end, Alperovitz divides his book into two sections, the first scrutinizing how the decision was made to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whereas the second examines the myth that the dropping of the bomb occurred to preserve, not destroy, human life.
Alperovitz argues in the early chapters of the book that the Japanese were not going to fight to the death, or last man, unless the Allies forced them to do so. Alperovitz convincingly demonstrates that by the spring and summer of 1945, the Japanese empire was in decline and American officials were aware of this fact because, as Alperovitz explains, “intelligence experts had long since broken Japanese codes and were regularly reading top-secret high-level cable and radio traffic.” Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, for example, sent Truman the following assessment of Japan in a confidential memo on July 2, two weeks after the Battle of Okinawa and two weeks before the first atomic explosion (e.g. Trinity) occurred in New Mexico:
Japan has no allies.
Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface
and underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food
and supplies for her population.
She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her
crowded cities, industrial and food resources.
She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the
rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia.
We have inexhaustible and untouched industrial resources to bring
to bear against her diminishing potential.
We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her first
Likewise, and also in early July, American and British intelligence reported to the Chiefs of Staff, that “the Japanese ruling groups are aware of the desperate military situation.”1 Still, the Japanese continued to fight and resisted the idea of surrendering unconditionally to Allied forces.
The Japanese wanted assurances that their emperor, who they viewed more or less as a deity, would not be asked to abdicate his throne or be tried – and possibly hanged – as a war criminal. Acting Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew wrote in May of 1945 that in his opinion “the greatest obstacle to unconditional surrender by the Japanese is their belief that this would entail the destruction or permanent removal of the Emperor and the institution of the Throne.” Furthermore, Harry S. Truman, ascending to the Presidency after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was informed by several advisors, including important Cabinet officials, General George C. Marshall, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Republican president Herbert Hoover, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that giving the Japanese assurances that their emperor would be allowed to retain his throne – assurances that after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were given anyway – might be enough to end the war. In addition, Truman was also advised that the Emperor’s cooperation would be extremely helpful in persuading Japanese troops in outlying areas to surrender peacefully and “in maintaining internal order in postwar Japan. . . . indeed, in helping head off the possibility of chaos or even Communist-inspired revolutionary attempts.”2
Furthermore, Truman was made aware of another option that might end the war against Japan quickly and peacefully. Truman received word from top military and government officials that Soviet entry into the war against Japan, which Stalin promised three months after the Germans surrendered in Europe (e.g. May 8, 1945), would be enough to convince the Japanese to surrender. Indeed, George Marshall wrote on June 18, 1945 “that the impact of Russian entry on the already hopeless Japanese may well be the decisive action levering them into capitulation at that time or shortly thereafter if we land in Japan.” This “two-step logic,” “second-track,” or “Russian option” – involving the combination of assuring the Japanese that their emperor would be retained and the shock of Soviet entry into the war – would be enough, several if not most government officials believed, to cause the Japanese to surrender in the summer of 1945.3
Alperovitz argues convincingly that Truman rejected this advice, or “two-step logic” at the behest of one man, his acting Secretary of State James F. Byrnes. Recently ascended to the presidency, Truman was “woefully unprepared” for the job, remembered George M. Elsey, an aide to the president. Indeed, Truman wrote that “immediately upon becoming President, I sent for him [Byrnes] because I wanted his assistance.” Left unsaid by the new president, of course, is that Truman very likely needed Byrnes’s counsel. Byrnes, a cagey and secretive politician from South Carolina, former Senate associate of Truman’s and probably resentful of Truman’s rise to the Oval Office, wanted to use the bomb as a diplomatic measure to intimidate the Soviet Union and, as he told the scientist Leo Szilard, “make the Soviet Union more manageable in Europe.”4
Alperovitz, building on his earlier work from 1965, Atomic Diplomacy, carefully and methodically documents that Byrnes – and by extension Truman – viewed the bomb not only as a military weapon but also as a diplomatic tool. For example, Truman likely delayed the Potsdam Conference in 1945 so that the bomb would have been tested – and demonstrated to have worked in the desert of New Mexico – while the Conference was taking place. Thus, Alperovitz maintains, Truman dissembled or lied, in order to have the Conference moved from June to early July, and then eventually to mid-July, so that the president would possess new and vital information regarding the atomic bomb during meetings between Churchill, Stalin, and himself.5
The result, Alperovitz contends, was that the first atomic test on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico profoundly influenced U.S. policy makers at Potsdam. Indeed, Alperovitz writes:
It would have been surprising if the news of the successful test
had not influenced American diplomatic attitudes. Just how extraordinary
the general impact was – even on the most sober and cautious
members of the U.S. delegation – is suggested by the secretary of
war’s [Henry L. Stimson] personal reaction.
Stimson, who had been worried about the dangers the atomic
bomb presented to world peace – and who was soon to urge a
direct initiative to control the new weapon in cooperation with the
Soviet Union – was momentarily so moved by the initial indications
of its power that he advised Truman the weapon might enable the
United States to force the Soviet Union to abandon or radically alter
its entire system of government. . . .
That top policy-makers early on saw the atomic bomb as central
to their diplomacy toward the Soviet Union was also obvious in the
decision to delay a meeting with Stalin [Potsdam] and to put several
matters on hold until the Alamogordo test. Many scholars now recognize
that the atomic bomb was connected to diplomacy concerning Europe
in general and Eastern Europe in particular.6 (emphasis in original)
In addition, America’s British allies noticed a change in Truman’s demeanor after the test at Alamogordo. Stimson’s diary records the following exchange with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, after Churchill read General Leslie Groves’ report about the successful atomic explosion in New Mexico:
[Churchill] told me that he had noticed at the meeting of the Three
yesterday that Truman was evidently much fortified by something
that had happened and that he stood up to the Russians in a most
emphatic and decisive manner, telling them as to certain demands
that they absolutely could not have and that the United States was
against them. He said “Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday.
I couldn’t understand it. When he got to the meeting after having
just read this report he was a changed man. He told the Russians
just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.”
Churchill said he now understood how this pepping up had taken
place and that he felt the same way. His own attitude confirmed this
admission.7 (emphasis mine)
Still, Truman received information from every branch of the armed forces – Air Force, Navy, and Army and General Dwight David Eisenhower – that dropping the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a military necessity. Furthermore, some Manhattan Project scientists were opposed to the bomb being dropped in the manner it was, although it does not appear that they ever had much say or influence in the matter. Nevertheless, the atomic bombs were dropped and “Hiroshima was destroyed at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. . . . At 5:00 p.m. Moscow time on August 8 . . . the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Units of the Red Army crossed the Manchurian border at 12:10 a.m. (local Manchurian time) on the morning of August 9. Later that morning, shortly after 11:00 a.m., Nagasaki was bombed.”8 Estimates are that nearly 300,000 people died as a result of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So why did nearly 90 % of the American people believe – and continue to believe – that dropping the bombs were justified? As Alperovitz writes:
In one sense, of course, everything was self-evident. The atomic
bombs fell; the war ended. . . .
What was there to discuss?
Moreover the boys were coming home. Millions of young men and
women were thrilled: the bomb had saved their lives. “We cried with
relief and joy. . . . We were going to grow up to adulthood after all,”
Paul Fussell later wrote. Another responded: “I did not cry when I
heard the news, I just got drunk with happiness. . . . My luck would have
run out, I am convinced, if I had been a part of the invasion of Japan. . . .”
Perhaps fifty million Americans – the fathers and mothers and wives
and children and brothers and sisters of the men and women in
uniform – ‘knew,’ too, that a loved one had been saved from possible
If aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and close friends were included,
virtually every individual in American society knew someone personally
whose life, it appeared, had been saved or might possibly have been
saved by the extraordinary new weapon.9
Alperovitz argues, however, that everything about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan is not “self-evident.” It is here, in the second section of his fascinating book, that Alperovitz exhibits how the history of the decision to drop the bomb was distorted or “managed” by top government officials. American leaders clearly engaged in what Holger H. Herwig labels “Clio deceived” or “patriotic self-censorship” in order to justify the use of atomic weapons on Japanese cities. Alperovitz points to several individuals in this deception, including most notably Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and President Harry S. Truman, alongside other figures such as James F. Byrnes and General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project.
Henry L. Stimson probably more than any other figure set the terms of the postwar debate over the bomb. In fact, “he was to become the spokesman for the decision.”10 (emphasis in original) In the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and increasing domestic criticism from prominent Americans, including intellectuals like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature Norman Cousins, and the eminent scientist Albert Einstein, Stimson was indirectly approached by James Conant, president of Harvard University and “one of the central figures of the Manhattan Project,” to set the record straight, regarding why and how the bomb was used against Japan. Aided by Conant and McGeorge Bundy, later John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Security Adviser, Stimson wrote an essay for Harper’s, published in February, 1947, in which he defended the American decision to drop the bomb as a military measure and argued that the bomb saved American and Japanese lives. It was in this article that Bundy and Stimson first propagated the idea that the bomb may have saved over a million casualties. Alperovitz proves that Stimson had no real source for these casualty estimates and more or less pulled the number out of thin air. The essay was, nonetheless, “an extraordinary success” and more than anything else convinced Americans in the postwar era that the use of the atomic bombs was not only justified, but saved lives.11
Harry S. Truman also contributed to the myth that dropping the atomic bomb was a military necessity and saved lives. After the war and for many years thereafter, Truman portrayed himself to the American people, in his speeches and writings, as relatively untroubled by his decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since they were military targets and the bombing was, as he told a Columbia University student in 1959, “just a military maneuver, that is all.”12 Alperovitz establishes, in contrast, that the truth is much more complicated. “Truman’s sensitivity to being asked probing questions about the decision . . . . suggests some underlying uneasiness” Alperovitz believes. “Outbursts . . . . occur in various documents, diaries, and letters. The record is also replete with efforts by Truman to explain and justify himself – sometimes in extreme ways or by reference to notions of revenge, sometimes ‘out of the blue’ without being asked.”13 In one especially revealing anecdote, Alperovitz describes an encounter Truman had in 1964 with John A. Gronouski, “a former Cabinet member and U.S. ambassador to Poland,” explaining his decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What fascinated me,” Gronouski later wrote, “. . . is the fact that he out of the blue brought up the subject in conversation with an almost total stranger.”14
Even more interesting, according to Alperovitz, is that the American people have, in a sense, cooperated in this deception. “Americans have to confront something about themselves in regard to Harry Truman,” Alperovitz argues. “They want him to be something no person could possibly have been.” More precisely and related to the decision to use the atomic bomb, “is Truman’s apparent general willingness consciously or unconsciously to bend the truth – to tell people what they wanted to hear.”15 (emphasis mine) Alperovitz gives a nuanced and balanced historical portrait of FDR’s successor, warts and all, “not because of any need to sully the president, but because we must attempt to see him as we was – a man with strengths and weaknesses, faults and virtues.”16
Near the end of the book, Alperovitz has written a brilliant chapter entitled “The Complicity of Silence,” summarizing his conclusions and evaluating the ongoing moral importance, or relevance, of the Hiroshima decision:
Over fifty years we often also seem to have felt a strong need to
justify the bombings by reference to what can only be called
notions of “revenge.” Time and again, the question of whether the
use of the atomic bomb was militarily required has become entangled
with the quite separate issue of our anger at Japan’s sneak attack
and the brutality of her military. The Japanese people have a great
deal of ugly history to confront – including not only Pearl Harbor but
the bombings of Shanghai, the rape of Nanking, the forced prostitution
of Korean women, the human experiments of the notorious Unit 731,
the horror of the Bataan death march, and the systematic torture and
murder of prisoners of war.
Even so, the question of Hiroshima remains. . . .
Quite simply, it is not true that the atomic bomb was used because it
was the only way to save the “hundreds of thousands” or “millions” of
lives as was subsequently claimed. The readily available options were
to modify the surrender terms and/or await the shock of the Russian
attack. Three months remained before a November Kyushu landing could
take place even in theory; there were six to seven months before the
spring invasion of Honshu could begin under the existing planning
assumptions. . . .
Modern evidence . . . . suggests not only that the president and Byrnes
knew Japan was on the verge of surrender, but that once the new weapon
had been successfully tested, rushing to end the war before an expected
mid-August Red Army attack was indisputably a major concern.17
It is Alperovitz’s contention that Americans can learn from the Hiroshima decision, but “not if we accept a distorted, overly idealized image of ourselves and of our society.” In fact, such attitudes, Alperovitz believes, are the source of many our current problems, including violence in “our communities,” the implications of the Hiroshima decision for our democratic system of government “if one person literally has the power to order the destruction of the entire planet,” and the problem “secrecy and public deception” on the part of government officials. “Perhaps one day we Americans will come to terms with Hiroshima,” Alperovitz hopes. If not, then we must remain silent about happened on that terrible August day, and to be silent, in Alperovitz’s view, “is to be acquiescent.”18
Work on the decision to drop the bomb continues to spark controversy and debate as Japanese and Russian archives are opened up and more material from the United States is declassified and made available to scholars. In 1999, Richard Frank, for example, published Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, basing his thesis to some extent on newly available “intercepts of Japanese diplomatic messages,” and concluding that the Japanese were not on the verge of surrender before the atomic bomb was used. “It is fantasy,” Frank writes, “not history, to believe that the end of the war was at hand before the use of the atomic bomb.”19 J. Samuel Walker, the chief historian of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, concurred with Frank in his 2004 edition of Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bombs Against Japan, writing that in his view “it required both the atomic bomb and Soviet entry to force a prompt Japanese surrender.”20 Walker also contends that if Truman had altered the demand for unconditional surrender, thereby giving assurances to the Japanese that Emperor Hirohito would remain on his throne, it would have been “counterproductive, by strengthening the hand of the die-hard military faction in the Japanese government. . . . an offer by the United States to modify its policy could backfire by making it even more difficult to secure a surrender.”21
Nevertheless and despite all the arguments and counterarguments between traditionalists and revisionists, some broad scholarly consensus has been reached on several matters, most of which vindicates Alperovitz’s arguments. As J. Samuel Walker writes of this consensus:
One point of agreement was that Truman and his advisers were
well aware of alternatives to the bomb that seemed likely, but not
certain, to end the war within a relatively short time. Another was that
an invasion of Japan would probably not have been necessary to
achieve victory. A third point of general agreement in the scholarly
literature on the decision to use the bomb was the postwar claims that
the bomb prevented hundreds of thousands of American combat deaths
could not be sustained with the available evidence. Most students of
the subject also concurred that political considerations figured in the
deliberations about the implications of the bomb and the end of the war
with Japan. On all of those points, the scholarly consensus rejected the
traditional view that the bomb was the only alternative to an invasion of
Japan that would have cost a huge number or American casualties.
At the same time, most scholars supported the claim of Truman and
his advisers that the primary motivation for dropping atomic bombs
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to end the war at the earliest possible
moment – that is, for military reasons.22 (emphasis mine)
Gar Alperovitz’s books Atomic Diplomacy and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb have altered the historiographical landscape regarding all issues related to the use of the atomic bomb. No longer can historians, or the American public, believe with sufficient evidence that the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki strictly for military reasons. Clearly other factors, diplomatic, political, and perhaps racial, were involved. Furthermore, because of Alperovitz and the work of other revisionists, we now know that Truman and his advisers had other options, which to the detriment of the country they declined to choose, available to them as alternatives to use of the bomb. These included, according to the historian John W. Dower, “modifying or clarifying ‘unconditional surrender’ in order to assure the Japanese that this would not imperil the emperor or the imperial institution. . . . Delaying use of the bombs until the impact of the impending Soviet entry into the war could be assessed. . . . Laying the ground for the international control of nuclear weapons before the bombs were actually used. . . . Demonstrating the bomb at a test site, dropping it on a target other than a predominantly civilian population, or dropping with adequate prior warning,” and, finally, “delaying the second bomb.”23 All civilized people owe a debt of gratitude to Alperovitz for his scholarship in this important historical and moral debate and for once again proving William Faulkner’s dictum that “the past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.”