Truman's Atom-Bomb Dilemma
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WHEN he was an obscure county judge in Missouri, Harry Truman once made a tough call: He allowed a corrupt contractor to steal $10,000 to prevent him from stealing 10 times that amount.
Truman ''permitted evil in order to prevent a larger evil,'' says historian David McCullough.
Twenty years later, as the nation's 33rd president, Truman opted again for what he described as the lesser of evils when he ordered two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Truman later said:
''It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.''
The decision to use the atomic bomb sealed the fate of the Japanese empire and brought World War II to an end 50 years ago. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also raised a question that has bedeviled and divided historians ever since: Was dropping the A-bomb the only way to avoid an invasion of Japan that could have cost tens of thousands of American and Japanese lives?
The debate spilled over into a major controversy last year when the Smithsonian Institution announced plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bomb with an exhibit that depicted Japan as the victim of US aggression. The plans were scrapped after lawmakers and veterans groups loudly protested. A scaled-back exhibit opened earlier this month.
The first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, the second on Nagasaki Aug. 9. They caused more than 200,000 deaths and contributed to Japan's decision to surrender on Aug. 14.
Truman's defenders say the decision to use the bombs has to be judged in the context in which it was made. After nearly four years of carnage, Americans were desperate to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible. An almost unstoppable political, military, and bureaucratic momentum propelled the US toward that end, nourished by a profound antagonism toward the nation that had bombed Pearl Harbor and that stood accused of egregious wartime atrocities.
A more specific consideration was the appalling toll taken on US forces in the Pacific in the months prior to Truman's July decision to use the bomb.
Half the three-year total of American battle casualties in the Pacific were sustained during the first three months of Truman's presidency. The battle for Okinawa alone, which ended in June, resulted in 45,000 casualties - a 30 percent casualty rate and a grim preview of the losses that could be expected in the final assault on the Japanese home islands if the bomb were not used, Truman's advisers believed.
''If you're looking for an explanation for why the allies made the decision to use the bomb, the word is 'Okinawa,''' says Mr. McCullough.
The argument that the bomb was needed to forestall a costly invasion of the main islands has been challenged by a group of mostly left-of-center ''revisionist'' historians.
In a steady stream of books written since the war they have argued that Japan was so weak by July 1945 that it would have surrendered even without an invasion of the home islands and without the use of the atomic bomb.
Already on the verge of defeat and desperately short of fuel and ammunition, Japan would have collapsed as soon as Russia administered the coup de grace by opening a second front against Japanese-held territory in China.
The Soviet attack came on Aug. 8, the day before the second bomb was dropped. In addition to its crushing military implications for Japan, the attack ended Tokyo's last hope of convincing Moscow to use its good offices to secure more lenient surrender terms from the US.
The bomb was not a military necessity but was used anyway, partly because of Truman's obstinance on a technicality, the revisionists say. Against the advice of all of his senior advisers save one - Secretary of State James Byrnes - Truman was unwilling to abandon the principle of unconditional surrender by allowing the Japanese emperor to retain a symbolic constitutional role in post-war Japan.