Dropping the Bomb
To the Editor:
As a historian who has great respect for the conservative tradition (and who dedicated his first book to the memory of Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War under Roosevelt and Truman), I found Donald Kagan’s article, “Why America Dropped the Bomb” [September], disheartening—and not simply because it included a bitter attack on my work.
There was a time when thoughtful conservatives were willing to deal with the Hiroshima bombing with a dispassionate respect for the evidence—and, too, a profound concern for the moral and legal issues involved. Indeed, while such liberal publications as the Nation, the New Republic, and PM applauded the atomic bombings, conservatives were among the first to criticize the use of the weapon.
Two days after Hiroshima was attacked, for instance, Herbert Hoover wrote the publisher of Army and Navy Journal: “The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.” When he and General Douglas MacArthur met privately a few months later, Hoover’s diary records MacArthur’s agreement that had President Truman followed Hoover’s private May 1945 recommendation to clarify the surrender terms, “we would have avoided all of the losses, the atomic bomb, and the entry of Russia into Manchuria.”
Similarly, the editor of Human Events, Felix Morley, denounced the bombings: “If December 7, 1941, is ‘a day that will live in infamy,’ what will impartial history say of August 6, 1945?” Throughout the 50’s William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review ran numerous critical articles; a representative 1958 editorial emphasized this question
that ought to haunt Harry Truman: “was it really necessary? Might a mere demonstration of the bomb, followed by an ultimatum, have turned the trick?” If there is a satisfactory answer to that question, the people of Hiroshima and the people of the United States have a right to hear it.
The serious nature of postwar conservative criticism is reported at length in my book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb—as is the evidence upon which the early conservatives and more recent critics based their arguments. Although Mr. Kagan is extremely free with his charge that I and other historians have neglected certain points of evidence, he simply does not deal with such facts, or—to select only a few items (given space limitations)—the following judgments, some of which are widely known, some of which are newly reported in my book:
- Chief of Staff to the President, Admiral William D. Leahy’s strong declaration 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. . . .” (He had reached essentially this conclusion, his diary shows, by June 18, 1945.)
- General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s repeated public and private statements that “Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and . . . that [the weapon was] no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. . . .”
- General Curtis E. LeMay’s many statements like the following, made publicly on September 20, 1945: “The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. . . . The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”
Similarly, as is well known, just after the war the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey—guided by another conservative, Paul H. Nitze—judged that “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.”
From the content of his article it seems highly doubtful that Mr. Kagan has even bothered to read The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb; he thinks it is the “latest version” of my 1965 Atomic Diplomacy. But the new book—as numerous reviewers have observed—is very different from the work I published more than 30 years ago on the basis of a 1963 Cambridge University doctoral dissertation.
Atomic Diplomacy was primarily a study of the impact of the atomic bomb on 1945 diplomacy. It dealt only briefly with the question of why the bomb was used—and repeatedly hedged its very tentative conclusions concerning the role of diplomatic factors in the decision with (often ignored) warnings that many questions cannot be fully answered “on the basis of the presently available evidence . . .”; that “no final conclusion can be reached . . .” as yet; and that “more research and more information are needed to reach a conclusive understanding of why the atomic bomb was used.”
The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb is a full-scale analysis (780 pages of text and references) of the evidence accumulated in the last 50 years which shows the President was advised there were other ways to end the war without the atomic bomb—and plenty of time to test them between early August and a possible November landing. It also explores in detail how the modern myths surrounding the bomb were created. An Afterword takes up the now-numerous “theories” of why the bomb was used.
Mr. Kagan does not bother to cite (let alone challenge) any of the new information presented in this long text. His quite gratuitous personal attacks on me and on a very old book are hardly fitting in any serious scholarly discussion. Although Barton Bernstein, Martin Sherwin, and I disagree on certain important matters of interpretation, Mr. Kagan’s misleading characterization of how such scholars view my work is simply not in accord with their published statements. (See, for example, Bernstein’s explicit acknowledgment of my work—and his denunciation of the “questionable enterprise” of Mr. Kagan’s principal source, Robert Maddox—in International Security, Spring 1991.) Nor does Mr. Kagan seem to know that Sherwin has modified his early argument in recent articles. Mr. Kagan’s similarly reckless charge that my earlier book has been “refuted” by these and other writers is challenged by another scholar with far greater credentials in this field, his Yale colleague, the distinguished diplomatic historian Gaddis Smith: “[T]he preponderance of new evidence that has appeared since 1965 tends to sustain the original argument” of Atomic Diplomacy.
Even when Mr. Kagan attempts to deal with the documentary record, he is misleading. For instance, I agree that determining how many lives might have been lost if an invasion actually had to take place—or might have been “expected” to be lost—is very difficult. However, given the evidence that the President was advised that the war could almost certainly be ended by other means without an invasion, I have never made the debate over estimates central to my argument.
On the critical issue of whether the President was advised that the bomb was not necessary, Mr. Kagan changes the subject, misstates my position—and then (again) avoids the most important modern evidence. For instance, there is no disagreement that Japanese military leaders “wanted” to continue the war. They definitely did—especially as long as the U.S. demand for “unconditional surrender” threatened the emperor, and, too, especially as long as they could sustain the faint hope that the Russians might stay out of the war.
Moreover, it is not surprising that they held onto their views for a brief time even after these conditions changed. However, they quite quickly abandoned them (and a list of other items they hoped for in a surrender document) after the emperor’s intervention—even though they had full power under the Japanese Constitution to resign rather than agree to accept the U.S. terms. (And, of course, the unknown internal August debate over additional items played no part in U.S. July decision-making.)
The central question is not what Japanese leaders did given the conditions they faced or for a brief moment following the change in conditions. Nor, contrary to Mr. Kagan, is it solely a matter of the conditions regarding the emperor—as I repeatedly emphasize in my new study. As virtually everyone recognized at the time, the real questions were: what options did President Truman have available to him to alter the context in which Japanese decision-making occurred—and what was he advised would likely happen once the Japanese had adequate time to digest the changes in context?
Mr. Kagan fails to note that U.S. intelligence and other officials advised that when two fundamental conditions facing Japan were changed, the war would likely end in reasonably short order. Again, space permits only a brief sampling of the evidence:
- As early as April 29, 1945, the Joint Intelligence Committee advised: “The entry of the USSR into the war would . . . convince most japanese at once of the inevitability of complete defeat” (emphasis added). This advice was repeated regularly throughout the rest of the spring and summer.
- On July 17, 1945 at the Potsdam conference—after hearing that Russia would indeed soon enter the war—President Truman’s diary shows him writing: “Fini Japs when that comes about.”
- The next day, July 18, 1945—in an exuberant letter to his wife Bess—he happily reported: “. . . I’ve gotten what I came for—Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it. . . .” He then went on to observe: “I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed!”
- Even without assuming the Russian attack, Secretary of War Stimson advised Truman directly on July 2, 1945 that if assurances were given for the emperor, “I think the Japanese nation has the mental intelligence and versatile capacity in such a crisis to recognize the folly of a fight to the finish and to accept the proffer of what will amount to an unconditional surrender. . . .”
- Acting Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew repeatedly argued essentially the same case to Truman. Indeed, as The Decision documents at length, contrary to Mr. Kagan, President Truman was advised by every significant official with White House access other than James F. Byrnes to clarify the surrender terms. Contemporary documents also show that the President never expressed any serious political objection to doing so, was not “obdurate” about the matter (to quote from Stimson’s diary account), and expressly stated that he thought it a good idea on several occasions.
- On August 3, 1945, the diary of Byrnes’s assistant, Walter Brown, records that at a meeting on the way home from Potsdam, the President, Byrnes, and Leahy “agrred [sic] Japas [sic] looking for peace. (Leahy had another report from Pacific.) President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden.”
- A top-secret 1946 internal War Department study discovered a few years ago concluded that Russia’s early August entry into the war “. . . would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable” and that the war would likely have ended about the same time as it did had there been no atomic bomb. The War Department study judged that even an initial November 1945 landing on Kyushu was only a “remote” possibility—and that the full invasion of Japan in the spring of 1946 would not have occurred.
Given adequate space, thoughtful historians can legitimately weigh and debate the import of these and other evidentiary points. However, given what we now know, it simply will not do to continue to avoid important elements of the documentary record—and then offer such bald statements as Mr. Kagan’s unqualified claim that “any strategy other than the employment of the atomic weapons would have failed to compel a Japanese surrender short of an invasion of the home islands.” Both the importance of the issues involved—and serious scholarship—demand a higher standard.
To the Editor:
I would like to comment on Donald Kagan’s article and raise an issue which I have never seen addressed. By way of background, I was a member of the Manhattan Project and worked at the University of Chicago and at Hanford, Oregon, from early 1944 to early 1945. While at Hanford, I was part of a group that loaded the second uranium pile.
Many of us were told on Day 1 what we would be working on and we were allowed to ask questions. . . . To this day I have seen no published material indicating that the answers we were given at the time were incorrect.
Various arguments have been adduced to justify the dropping of the bomb. I wish to confine myself here to the issue of whether a “demonstration” of the power of the bomb in an uninhabited area would have been more appropriate than using it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The official position has been that a demonstration was inadvisable because we had only two bombs and could not risk a dud. This argument has several glaring weaknesses. True, prior to the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, there had been doubts about whether an explosion would occur. But the success of Trinity validated the theoretical and engineering underpinnings of the bomb and should have appreciably reduced concern about the possibility of a dud.
Much more important, however, is the matter of the bomb material:. . . how much was on hand shortly after Trinity and how much more could have been available in the immediate future? The information we had been given indicated that each pile would produce enough plutonium for a number of bombs. Since the reaction of pile No. 1 was completed by the time the second pile was loaded, it was reasonable to infer, again based on the information we had been given, that purified plutonium would be in Los Alamos probably by late spring. I note with satisfaction that this educated guess was confirmed in Richard Rhodes’s book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. According to Rhodes, “By May 31 enough plutonium had arrived at Los Alamos from Hanford to begin critical mass experiments.”
The May 31 date is highly significant since it reveals that assembling a bomb from the “raw” plutonium was a matter of only several weeks. Thus it would appear that all the plutonium generated from pile No. 1 could have been assembled into finished bombs by late August or early September. Moreover, since plutonium from pile No. 2 would have become available for Los Alamos at about the same time, there would have been more than sufficient bomb material on hand to carry out a demonstration. One could even have allowed for one or two duds since all that would have been needed was one successful explosion.
Given the foregoing analysis, the arguments against a demonstration lose their force. An opportunity existed for bringing an end to hostilities without the destruction of two cities and several hundred thousand casualties—it was an option we should have exercised. . . .
Byron H. Arison
Watchung, New Jersey
To the Editor:
I usually agree with Donald Kagan but fear that on this occasion he addresses but understates the moral argument against the bombings. They were acts of terrorism and, as such, deplorable. Terrorism in any form is brutal in its violence, indiscriminate in its targets—women, children, babies, the infirm, etc.—and cowardly in the stealth of its delivery against the vulnerable and unsuspecting.
That the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the only acts of aerial terrorism in World War II does not make them any less abhorrent. That we were following the heinous examples of our enemies does not redeem them. That the revisionist adversaries of the West, who hate our country more than any other, show bad faith in criticizing us for those actions does not make them good. And that our leaders had the cherished lives of fine young men in mind when they made their decision . . . does not obviate the fact that . . . they gave little consideration to the vicious nature of the atom bombing, so alien to the humane traditions of our nation and of our armed forces.
You reap what you sow. Thus we reap a bitter harvest when contemporary terrorists in the IRA, Hamas, etc. extend and justify—to themselves and others—their brutal, indiscriminate, and cowardly assaults by pointing to our example. . . .
No one wants to cast a shadow on the celebration of the victory the valiant men who fought the war richly deserved and stoutly achieved. But surely an occasional acknowledgment of the nature of terrorism by a thoughtful, penetrating scholar like Mr. Kagan might encourage future leaders to consider how to command in a crisis so as to preserve—even in war—our heritage of concern for the innocent and defenseless.
Paul R. McHugh
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
To the Editor:
I read Donald Kagan’s very cogent article . . . with great interest. The points he covered were treated in the manner one has come to expect from Mr. Kagan, yet, in common with almost all commentators on the use of atomic weapons against Japan, he failed to consider the viewpoint of America’s allies (with the exception, ironically, of the Soviet Union).
This is being written on Sunday, September 3, the 56th anniversary—to the day of the week—of the entry into the war of Britain and members of the British Commonwealth. Some discussions of Truman’s decision to use the bomb have referred to the exhaustion of the American people after two-and-one-half years of war. If Americans were tired, how much more exhausted were those who had been fighting for over twice as long: Australians, Britons, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders, South Africans, not to mention those from continental Europe who had thrown in their lot with Britain? . . .
War in the Pacific did not begin on Sunday, December 7, 1941: in the broadest sense it began when Japanese forces attacked Manchuria in 1930-31. Japanese civilian deaths throughout the war have been estimated at between 300,000 . . . [and] 672,000. Chinese civilian deaths have been reported as . . . up to twenty million, whereas about seven million Soviet civilians died in the war. On average, annual Chinese noncombatant deaths during the fifteen years of the conflict were between 650,000 and 1.2 million. Thus, for every month cut from the duration of the war between 50,000 and 100,000 Chinese civilians were spared.
These facts should give pause to the revisionists who make an issue of racism. Those who accuse American leaders of acting as though the lives of American (Allied?) soldiers were important while those of a few Asian (i.e., Japanese) civilians were not, should ponder the fate of Chinese, Burmese, Filipinos, Malays, et al., tortured and killed by the Japanese occupiers. Would these civilians have criticized, on grounds of racism, the decision to drop atomic bombs to end the death and destruction wreaked by Japanese forces? . . .
To the Editor:
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to COMMENTARY for printing Donald Kagan’s incisive article . . . The only amendments that can be made to his argument are ones that strengthen it. Aside from American battle casualties that were prevented by the use of the bomb, thousands of other Allied lives were also saved. As Frederick Bauer and Bruce Lee point out, 300,000 civilian and military prisoners held on Java were saved from massacre only when the emperor intervened, which he did after the bomb was dropped. In addition, the liberation of Malaya was scheduled to begin on September 9, 1945. The beaches selected for the landing were poorly reconnoitered and an invasion would have led to devastating casualties. . . .
Clearly the decision to use the atomic bomb saved far more lives than it took. . . .
Dundee, New York
To the Editor:
Donald Kagan mentions an often overlooked aspect of the debate about dropping the atomic bomb: saving Japanese lives. The key to understanding the extent of possible Japanese casualties lies in the Okinawa campaign, where 110,000 Japanese died. . . . The two-part invasion of Japan the U.S. was planning . . . would have resulted in far heavier Japanese losses, in all probability exceeding the final death count of 340,000 for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Robert J. Maddox, whom Mr. Kagan acknowledges as a source for much of his data, has recently written that the Japanese had more than two million troops stationed on the home islands, “were training millions of irregulars, and had aircraft that might have been used to protect Japanese cities against American bombers” (American Heritage, May/June 1995). . . .
Given the high casualty rate for both Americans and Japanese which would have resulted from an invasion, Truman might well have been accused by historians of criminal negligence if he had failed to use the bomb.
John C. Zimmerman
University of Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada
To the Editor:
. . . In the ideal world, acts are judged against an absolute view of morality. In the real world, however, we usually lack the luxury of being able to make such absolute moral judgments. We have to maintain the perspective to recognize and regret the cost of otherwise bad actions in a good cause. . . .
It is a proper and legitimate part of life in a democracy to ask if Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary in order to minimize American, Allied, and even Japanese casualties. Did the chance of saving American lives—forgetting about precise casualty estimates—not only justify but require Truman’s decision to drop the bombs? I agree with Donald Kagan, and think the answer is yes, the bombings were necessary and therefore proper. . . .
Another point missing from much of the recent debate but not from Mr. Kagan’s article, is that the bombings taught a vivid lesson in the horror of these weapons, and helped prevent nuclear war in the tense years which followed. . . .
To the Editor:
May I add a clarification to Donald Kagan’s devastating refutation of the revisionist position on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? He writes that a Soviet declaration of war on Japan was “scheduled for August 15” and then “hastened by the use of the bomb [was] moved up to August 8.” In fact, the Soviets were never firmly committed to declaring war on any specific date. Soviet promises to enter the war, whether at Yalta or Potsdam, were always contingent on reaching agreement with China on Soviet territorial and economic demands in Manchuria. Those negotiations had not been concluded as of August 8.
According to David Holloway’s recent book, Stalin and the Bomb, Stalin did not issue the order to attack Japan until after Hiroshima. Thus the USSR’s hurried decision was plainly an effort to reap a share of the spoils attendant on Japan’s imminent surrender, but whether, or when, Soviet forces would have entered the war in the absence of Hiroshima cannot be stated with certainty. . . .
That a Soviet entry into the war would have obviated use of the bomb—a linchpin of revisionist thinking—is sheer speculation, and at odds with the actual chronology of events.
Henry D. Fetter
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
Though I find myself largely in agreement with Donald Kagan, . . . I wonder why all critics, whether they accept Truman’s good faith or not, and whether they deem his decision correct or not, seem to be fixated on a “single-motive” explanation for his decision to use the atomic bomb.
Surely we know enough about human decision-making even in trivial matters to realize that decisions almost always have more than one motive. Consider, instead, the scenario whereby Truman’s primary—call it even overwhelming—consideration was the saving of lives, and . . . not only American lives. But would his decision have been less valid if he and his advisers had at least considered the effects of the atomic explosions on Stalin? After all, the Russian people had unquestionably suffered horrendous hardships and engaged in outstanding heroism during the war, so that even a more humane leader than Stalin might have deemed himself justified in seeking a large portion of Europe (not only Eastern Europe) as compensation. Add to that the centuries-old Russian urge to expand, and one need have been neither paranoid nor a rabid anti-Communist to dread—and therefore to forestall—such demands, which would of course have been backed by a tremendous war machine. Indeed, then and even more so in retrospect, it would have stamped American leadership as either incompetent or downright treasonable if no such considerations had ever entered into the decision to drop the bomb.
New York City
To the Editor:
Donald Kagan, in his excellent article, is too kind to ABC’s documentary on Hiroshima. . . . He says that the program, in common with other journalistic accounts, offered a “distilled version” of . . . the post-revisionist scholarly consensus that President Truman was mistaken in using the bomb—it was not needed to end the war and its use was immoral. But, still according to Mr. Kagan, this consensus now rejects the earlier revisionist view that we used the bomb not to end the war but to intimidate the Soviet Union. In truth, however, ABC and Peter Jennings, the host and co-writer of the show, did present the earlier revisionist position, one which had developed during the radical . . . 1960’s. . . .
In producing a documentary on a controversial topic, a television network has a responsibility to explain to viewers, who have at best a modest knowledge of the matter, the complexity of the issue and report on the diversity of opinions on the subject. But it became clear in the first five minutes of the ABC show that this would be a narrow, highly tendentious presentation. . . . The opening set the tone for the entire program; it was a naked appeal to raw emotion: . . . a montage of President Truman, the Enola Gay B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and the charred victims of the attack. . . .
Mr. Kagan effectively recounts the true facts about such things as the Japanese unwillingness to surrender and the evidence supporting President Truman’s assertion that the bombing would save 500,000 or one million American lives (not mentioned in the show).
I find it absolutely despicable of ABC to join with left-wing historians in smearing Harry Truman’s memory. . . . He is no longer with us to defend his actions, but those of us who have life today thanks to him, to the crews who dropped the bombs, and to all the men who made the Manhattan Project a success do have a responsibility to speak out.
Falls Church, Virginia
To the Editor:
Donald Kagan’s timely and cogent article raised my blood pressure when I thought of the revisionists, or should I say apologists, who would pan the mountain stream of history for even the tiniest nuggets of fool’s gold to support their claim that dropping the atomic bomb was unwarranted.
My father, who was a sailor aboard a destroyer in the Pacific throughout the war with Japan, has spoken many times of the orders he received for the invasion of the Japanese homeland, which was scheduled to begin in the fall and winter of 1945.
This is evidence to me of the task that faced our wartime leaders. They perceived, correctly, that it would take huge numbers of men to end the war and would mean the reassignment of untrained personnel and probably would have involved all able-bodied men available. What responsible leader would not use the atomic bomb to avert, using conservative estimates, several hundred thousand casualties? . . .
The only conclusion anyone who had lived through Okinawa, Luzon, Tarawa, etc. could have reached was that the scheduled invasion of Japan was going to turn into a bloodbath of unprecedented proportions. . . .
Alan S. Weisz
To the Editor:
I would like to add to the discussion of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the voice of one with a special memory of those events, a memory that remains clear to this day.
On July 28, 1945, I boarded a U.S. troop ship, the USS General Aloysius Greeley, in New York harbor along with 29 army friends and a total of 3,000 troops. My group had been trained as Chinese interpreters, and we were headed, presumably, for the land war in China. As we crossed into the Mediterranean, we learned of the Hiroshima bomb, then of the Russian declaration of war against the Japanese, and finally of the Nagasaki bomb. Of course we had no radio, no newspapers, no commentators to explain any of this to us, but we were certain that it meant the end of the war.
While we were tied up for 24 hours in Port Said, some of the Navy crew who had been on shore liberty came back aboard at midnight on August 8 or 9 and told us they had heard a radio report from New York that the war was over. None of us slept that night. In the morning, we continued south through the Suez Canal. Then, after five days and nights in the Red Sea and two days out into the Arabian Sea, the captain announced that the war was indeed over.
All these years I have felt that the atomic bomb saved my life and the lives of all my friends. None of the latter-day reevaluations and rewritings of history has made me change my mind. . . .
Herbert H. Paper
Hebrew Union College/
Jewish Institute of Religion
To the Editor:
Fifty years ago, my father, Irving Winkler, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed on Tinian island in the Northern Marianas, . . . the base from which Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets and the crew of the Enola Gay took off.
Many who today question the decision to drop the bomb maintain that we should face the truth of our actions; namely, that Americans are a violent, racist, unjust people. They would also like to wish away a few inconvenient facts. . . .
Let us forget for a moment Lieutenant Winkler and his fellow Americans who might have been killed or injured in the huge conventional invasion of Japan that would have been necessary if we had not dropped the bomb. After all, they were combatants. (Forget also that most members of our armed forces were in a “citizens’ army”) But what about the Japanese? What about innocent Japanese citizens who would otherwise have died had we not dropped the bomb?
With the speedy end to the war brought about by the bombing, General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Japan as Supreme Commander of the occupation and found many communities threatened with starvation. He issued an order forbidding the consumption of local food supplies by occupation forces, set up Army kitchens to help feed the populace, and immediately imported 3,500,000 tons of food from U.S. Army supplies. He explained his actions to Congress:
Under the responsibilities of victory, the Japanese people are now our prisoners, no less than did the starving men on Bataan become their prisoners when the peninsula fell. As a consequence of the ill treatment, including starvation, of Allied prisoners in Japanese hands, we have tried and executed the Japanese officers upon proof of responsibility. Can we justify such punitive action if we ourselves, in reversed circumstances but with hostilities at an end, fail to provide the food to sustain life among the Japanese people . . .?
Does this express the attitude of a violent, racist people?
By the end of the war, smallpox was rampant in Japan. The Americans administered smallpox vaccinations to 70 million Japanese in three years, and curbed the disease. . . . Through inoculation and education, typhoid, paratyphoid, cholera, and dysentery were substantially reduced or eradicated. MacArthur wrote in his Reminiscences that his medical officers estimated these health measures saved two million lives in the first two years of occupation.
Yet all the facts Mr. Kagan or I can muster are of no use to those whose minds are set on seeing America as evil. . . .
Henry B. Winkler
Santa Rosa, California
To the Editor:
In his article, Donald Kagan quotes Paul Fussell, who was on a Navy ship in August 1945 expecting to take part in an invasion of Japan: “[When we learned of the bomb] we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live.” As a contemporary of Fussell’s, I can attest to the accuracy of this statement.
I have never in the subsequent 50 years felt the need to apologize for the unadulterated feeling of relief we experienced on hearing the news. My thanks to Mr. Kagan for so effectively explaining the sound basis for our very human reaction.
David E. Golay
To the Editor:
I wish to commend Donald Kagan for his excellent and informative article. I particularly enjoyed his in-depth analysis, since I had been appalled and outraged at the distorted views expounded by the news media in late July and early August. . . . All of this second-guessing some 50 years later . . . left me with a sense of despair and revulsion. . . .
Nathaniel H. Goldman
Donald Kagan writes:
The essence of Gar Alperovitz’s complaint is that I did not take account of statements by American officials that using the bomb was unnecessary and/or wicked. This is not a new argument, and Robert J. Maddox has taken it on directly and in detail in his new book, Weapons for Victory. Pace Mr. Alperovitz’s assertion, Maddox, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, is a highly respected scholar who was one of the first to raise objections to excesses of American cold-war revisionism. It is easier to cast aspersions on his reputation than to meet his arguments.
From Maddox we learn that the statements by Leahy, Eisenhower, and LeMay that Mr. Alperovitz cites in his letter were all made after the fact. The Leahy quotation is taken from his memoirs, published in 1950. Whatever Leahy might have said in his diary, Maddox denies there is evidence that he expressed such views before the bomb was used. As an advocate of the Navy’s role, Leahy argued for a continuation of the siege of Japan, but he did not claim it would bring a surrender before the scheduled invasion of Kyushu in November. To be sure, Leahy was a longstanding enemy of the bomb who had insisted it would not work. Even after Hiroshima, Truman remarked that “the admiral [Leahy] said up to the last that it wouldn’t go off.” There is no contemporary record, however, of Leahy telling the President that an invasion of Japan could have been avoided without resort to the bomb.
Eisenhower’s remarks, too, were made several years after the event. But he also came to insist that in a meeting with Stimson before the bomb was dropped, he had opposed its use. Once again, Maddox’s detailed examination of the evidence shows no independent corroboration that Eisenhower told Stimson he was against using the bomb. But more important, as Maddox points out, is the fact that
even if the general had expressed disapproval at this meeting, Truman could not have learned of it because Stimson left [Europe] for the United States later that day. He did not see the President again until after the first bomb had been dropped.
General LeMay’s comment was also made only well after the decision to drop the bomb had been taken. LeMay had always believed that conventional strategic bombing could win the war, so his claim that the new superweapon was unnecessary is not surprising. But there is no record of his having told this to Truman before the bomb was dropped.
From his research, Maddox concludes:
There is no reliable evidence that any high-ranking officer expressed moral objections about the bomb to Truman or gave him reason to believe that the military situation had changed appreciably—except that the Japanese defenses were daily growing more formidable—since he had approved the Kyushu operation during his meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on June 18.
Opinions after the fact, even by such wise men as Paul Nitze, are not to the point. There is no reason to believe that they had a better understanding of the problem at the time than the President and his advisers did, and they also did not share his responsibility. Eisenhower in 1948 had the grace to admit that “My views were merely personal and subjective; they were not based on any analysis of the subject.” The men who did have the responsibility for ending the Pacific war, as I made clear in my article, expected that they would have to invade Japan even after the atomic bomb and the Soviet Union’s entry into the war. They had information about Japanese internal affairs and military movements not available to others, and what they knew made them fear the most determined Japanese resistance, regardless of its apparent hopelessness.
Stimson, morally alert to the issues, nevertheless helped select the target for the bomb, hoping that its use would provide the psychological shock that would make the Japanese accept defeat before an invasion was necessary. George C. Marshall, General of the Army, did not believe anything short of an invasion would do the trick, and even after both bombs had exploded and the Soviets had entered the war, considered using atomic bombs as tactical weapons to aid the invasion. The Navy’s chief of staff, Admiral Ernest King, the Air Force chief, General “Hap” Arnold, and his representative, General Ira Eaker, all had the same expectations. There is no evidence that they opposed the use of the bomb. As for LeMay, he claimed that conventional bombing would drive the Japanese back into the stone age and destroy Japanese morale before the invasion date; but Marshall remembered hearing the same things about the air war in Germany and was not impressed.
The highest American commanders in the Pacific, Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas Mac-Arthur, supported both the invasion and the use of the bomb. Nimitz knew of the bomb well in advance. MacArthur learned of it only on August 1, 1945. In Maddox’s account, he
responded with an hour-long lecture on the future of atomic warfare, not with any criticism of existing plans. He continued to urge that preparations for the invasion go forward even after the first bomb was dropped.
Mr. Alperovitz continues to cite the opinions of U.S. officials that the entry of the Soviets into the war would have made an invasion unnecessary even as he continues to ignore the overwhelming Japanese evidence to the contrary After my article was published, I received a communication from Sadao Asada, professor of international history at Doshisha University in Kyoto, which included an essay in English, not yet published, called “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender.”
In this essay, Asada demonstrates that the shock effect of the bomb was what enabled the peace faction in Tokyo to force a surrender on those who were determined to carry on the war. The contemporary evidence I cited in my article makes the same point, and it is now reinforced by the postwar recollections of Japanese leaders Asada has assembled. For example, Kido Koichi, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and the man closest to Emperor Hirohito, recalls that, with the bombing, he and the emperor felt that
the psychological moment we had long waited for had finally arrived to resolutely carry out the termination of the war. . . . There is no doubt that the military leaders were overwhelmed by the enemy’s scientific prowess. We felt that if we took the occasion and utilized the psychological shock [emphasis added] of the bomb to carry through, we might perhaps succeed in ending the war. . . . It might be said that we of the peace party were assisted by the atomic bomb in our endeavor to end the war.
Asada addresses the question of how important the USSR’s joining the war was to the Japanese. He quotes Kido as follows: “I believe that with the atomic bomb alone we could have brought the war to an end. But the Soviet entry into the war made it much easier.” On the other hand, Sakomizu Hisatsune, chief cabinet secretary, is quoted as saying: “I am sure we could have ended the war in a similar way if the Russian declaration of war had not taken place at all.”
Hisatsune’s opinion is supported by the fact that, unlike the bomb, Russian entry was no surprise and had already been discounted by Japanese military leaders. At the time it occurred, General Anami, the army minister, said: “The inevitable has come at last.” Also at the time, Kawabe Torashiro, vice chief of the general staff, noted: “We have long worried about the question of Soviet entry, but a surprise attack with this new weapon was beyond our wildest dreams.” And the diary of Oki Misao, chief secretary of the Japanese House of Representatives, contains this entry: “There is nothing we can do about the appearance of the atomic bomb. That nullifies everything. All our efforts until now have come to naught.”
In light of all this, Asada asserts that “if there had been no bomb and only the Soviet entry into the war, Japan would not have surrendered when it did.”
Yet even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion, influential members of the Japanese military would not accept defeat. Rather than having to face the disgrace of surrender, they planned a coup that would have permitted continued resistance. As General Anami put it, “The appearance of the atomic bomb does not spell the end of the war. We are confident about the decisive battle in the homeland against American forces.” And this attitude did not represent merely the feelings of such people during what Mr. Alperovitz calls “the brief moment following the change in conditions.” Since he pays so little attention to Japanese evidence, I do not know how he knows what “would likely happen once the Japanese had adequate time to digest the changes in context.”
Asada, for his part, believes that the Japanese peace faction feared a coup by young army officers, like the one that had been staged in 1936, if the government had tried to surrender; this view is shared by Kido.
A successful coup would surely have meant continued Japanese resistance and forced an invasion. High Japanese officials in 1945 and since have believed that the bomb prevented such a coup and allowed the war to end without an invasion.
Asada also points out the irrelevance of the claim that Japan was already defeated in August 1945, making the use of the atomic bomb unnecessary. Such arguments, he says, “confuse ‘defeat’ with ‘surrender’: ‘defeat’ is a military reality, whereas ‘surrender’ is a matter of political decision-making.” Without the bomb, the political conditions for surrender would not have existed, the war would have continued, and the invasion would have occurred.
Assessing all the evidence, Asada concludes that “the atomic bomb did indeed prompt Japan’s decision to surrender.” Consequently, “Japan’s surrender on August 15, averted an apocalyptic battle with unprecedented carnage that would have rendered Hiroshima and Nagasaki mere footnotes in history.”
I am sorry Mr. Alperovitz thinks I attacked him personally. Readers will look in vain in my article for anything beyond challenges to his arguments. His “very old book,” whose central point is that the bomb was used primarily to cow and influence the Soviet Union, not to bring the war to a swifter end, has since been battered by revisionists and others, but he has never backed away from this thesis. It was cited approvingly, with quotations from others and restated in his own voice, in his article in Foreign Policy which appeared as recently as the summer of 1995. If he is now embarrassed by it, he should publicly renounce it.
I thank Byron H. Arison for his interesting information about the availability of material for making more bombs in 1945. The argument against making a demonstration explosion in an unpopulated area was not merely that one of the two extant bombs might be a dud and could not be readily replaced. The question was discussed in May 1945 in the scientific advisory panel to the interim committee that had been established to advise on future atomic policy. Here is an account of the commission’s deliberations by Arthur Compton, one of the panel members:
For perhaps ten minutes, the proposition was the subject of general discussion. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer could think of no demonstration sufficiently spectacular to convince the Japanese that further resistance was futile. Other objections came to mind. The bomb might be a dud. The Japanese might shoot down the delivery plane or bring American prisoners into the test area. If the demonstration failed to bring surrender, the chance of administering the maximum surprise shock would be lost. Besides, would the bomb cause any greater loss of life than the fire raids that had burned out Tokyo?
There were clearly difficulties in staging an effective demonstration. Leo Szilard, its most vigorous proponent at the time, saw this years later:
I think it is clear that you can’t demonstrate a bomb over an uninhabited island. You have to demolish a city. So a demonstration would have meant approaching Japan through a diplomatic channel, proposing a demonstration, say, over, Hiroshima with the inhabitants removed from Hiroshima.
I agree with Paul R. McHugh that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible acts against unarmed civilians which should be avoided whenever possible. So was the fire-bombing of Tokyo and all the bombings of cities during the war. Unfortunately, condemning such acts will not stop them. As Thucydides, who reported many horrible atrocities against civilians himself, said some 25 centuries ago, “War is a violent teacher.” The longer it grinds on, the more violent and brutal it becomes. Sometimes it compels the combatants to choose one horrible act in order to avoid others that are worse. The only practical response is to work intelligently and conscientiously to prevent war.
I thank Paul Gilmour, Steven Schwamenfeld, John C. Zimmerman, Bruce Brager, Henry D. Fetter, Harry Kaufmann, Spencer Warren, Alan S. Weisz, Herbert H. Paper, Henry B. Winkler, David E. Golay, and Nathaniel H. Goldman for their valuable comments.