WASHINGTON — 50 YEARS AGO
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.
With war-crimes trials about to begin in Germany, the Japanese had reason to believe that the emperor - a man the Japanese viewed as ''more like Jesus or the Buddha than an ordinary human being,'' notes historian Gar Alperovitz - would be hung. A concession on the point by Truman would have opened the door to an immediate surrender, he says, obviating the need for the bomb.
Revisionists say there was another motive behind the use of the atomic bomb. Once Truman was confident that the weapon would work, they say, he was eager to use it to defeat Japan to keep the Soviet army from entering the war and capturing strategic territory on the Chinese mainland.
Using the bomb would make a diplomatic point to the Soviets as well. By demonstrating its military invincibility, the US would be in a far stronger bargaining position after the war when disagreements would be certain to arise with Moscow over the political future of Europe and the Far East.
''If it explodes as I think it will I'll certainly have a hammer on those boys,'' Truman is reported to have said before the bomb was tested, apparently referring to the leaders in the Kremlin.
Revisionists take another view. They charge that the US sacrificed Japanese lives needlessly. They say Truman could have avoided this mistake by heeding the advice of his top general in the field, Dwight Eisenhower. General Eisenhower wrote later that he voiced ''grave misgivings'' about the use of the bomb because he believed that it was ''no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.''
''The most that can be said is that the atomic bombs might have saved the lives that would have been lost in the time required to arrange final surrender terms,'' concludes Mr. Alperovitz, whose latest book on the subject, ''The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,'' will be published in August.
Reports that Eisenhower or any other top echelon military or political advisers opposed using the bomb have ''no basis in fact at all,'' rejoins George Elsey, who was a young White House naval aide during the Truman administration and who was with Truman at the Potsdam conference in Germany in July 1945. It was there that the final decision to use the bomb was made. ''No one advised against its use at the time.''
Even though Japan was nearly defeated, Mr. Elsey says in an interview, there was no way of knowing when the end would finally come. Nor was it clear that the Japanese military, which was determined to fight to the finish and to whom the concept of ''surrender'' was anathema, was losing control.
He says the bomb was used to hasten the end and save American lives but also to save Japanese lives, which were being lost by the tens of thousands in daily allied air raids. In one raid alone, on the night of March 9-10, 100,000 Japanese were killed.
''A few more weeks of war would have brought on more Japanese casualties than would have been lost by using the bomb,'' Elsey says of Truman's calculation.
Grounds for impeachment
And not using the bomb could have had huge repercussions for Truman at home, as McCullough notes.
''Truman would have been impeached if it were found out later that he had sent any American soldiers to their deaths knowing he had a weapon that could have ended the war sooner,'' McCullough says.
Nor was the decision not to compromise on the issue of the emperor free of domestic political considerations in a nation where the emperor was universally regarded as a war criminal. Truman's defenders say that as a new and untried president, he would have been understandably reluctant to abandon the objective of unconditional surrender that was articulated in all the wartime pronouncements of his towering predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Another wartime leader, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill, observed later that the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan was ''no decision'' since it was the object of virtual consensus among US policymakers and within the allied high command.
''Truman could no more have stopped it than he could have stopped a speeding train,'' concludes Elsey.