Truman's Choice on Hiroshima... [ cf. ... and on Israel ]

Forty-five years after the Hiroshima atomic bombing, it may seem pointless to bring up the decision to use the bomb, but new facts keep coming up. Millions of Americans remember the relief they felt when Harry Truman told of the use of the weapon on Hiroshima. The bomb meant, as Truman said, that an invasion of Japan would not be necessary. Hundreds of thousands of lives would not be at risk. We all knew someone who would be part of the invasion.

But data keep mounting that show the use of the bomb was not military but political. We now know the leading military figures at the time were opposed to using it. In July, 1945, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower sent a message to the president through Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson that he was opposed to the decision to drop the bomb on military and moral grounds. In his book ``Mandate for Change,'' Eisenhower wrote he was ``horrified'' when he learned the president was considering dropping the bomb on a live target. He knew the bomb was ``completely unnecessary.'' He felt strongly that ``our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment I thought to be no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. Japan was ... seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.''

Emphatic opposition to the bomb came from the president's military aide, Admiral William Leahy. Leahy later wrote that the evidence in August, 1945, suggested Japan was ready to surrender. Its reason for continuing the war was to keep the institution of the Emperor. Truman wouldn't comply. He opposed any concession to the Japanese with respect to the Emperor, demanding unconditional surrender. He later agreed the Emperor was needed.

``It is my opinion,'' Admiral Leahy wrote, ``that the use of this barbarous weapon was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.... in being the first to use it (an atomic bomb), we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarisms of the Dark Ages.'' Leahy added he ``was not taught to make war in that fashion'' - killing women and children.

Gen. George Marshall, chief of staff, informed the President that, since it was not necessary to use the bomb, it would be advisable to demonstrate the power of the bomb. Japan could then decide whether to keep fighting. This advice was supported by Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard.

A similar position was taken by scientists working on the bomb, led by Univ. of Chicago's James Frank. They felt not just that the bomb wasn't needed; they looked to the development of nuclear weapons by other nations. No-use might stop an atomic arms race.

More evidence US military leaders knew Japan was on the ropes before the bomb was dropped is found in a US Defense document dated September, 1955. The report refers to a message from the Joint Chiefs to Pacific commanders on June 14, 1945, instructing them to prepare for early Japanese surrender - in contrast to a directive saying Nov. 1 was the Japanese invasion date.

The best evidence Truman knew the war could be ended without invasion - despite public statements - is found in his own diary. The notes were found in 1979, having been misfiled. The key entries described the Potsdam Conference in July, 1945.

The Conference brought Truman together with Churchill and Stalin. Truman, as he wrote, wanted assurances from Stalin that the USSR would join the war against Japan. Like Roosevelt, his predecessor, Truman was under pressure from Congress to persuade the Soviets to join in a two-front war. At Yalta in February, 1945, Stalin argued it would be too risky to divide Russian forces. Roosevelt extracted a promise from Stalin to send his troops east 90 days after victory in Europe.

At Potsdam, Truman pressed Stalin and wrote that Stalin assured him Soviet troops in transit and would be in combat August 8. In order to remove doubts about the Soviet entry into the war against Japan, Truman extended the date to August 15, 1945. Jubilantly, Truman wrote that when the Russian bear showed up, Japan would surrender. ``Fini Japs,'' was the pithy way he put it. He went further the next day: ``Believe Japs will fold before Russians come in.'' Then an entry on July 16, 1945 has Truman hearing of the successful test of the atomic device in New Mexico. Everything changed, as Robert Donovan wrote in ``Conflict and Crisis.'' Truman knew he could end the war without the Russians. Donovan quoted Stimson as saying the report from New Mexico ``made it clear to the Americans that further diplomatic efforts to bring the Russians in the Pacific war were largely pointless.''

An entry in Truman's notebook showed he was aware of the moral liability the US would incur if we dropped the bomb. He wrote he directed Stimson to confine bombing to ``military objectives.'' He ordered a warning to be issued, notifying the Japanese government of the bomb's existence. These orders then changed.

Why? Why did Truman act against his convictions about the moral issue? Why did he decide to drop the bomb? How do we deal with the fact that Truman's public statements were opposed to what he knew to be true?

The decision to drop the bomb was made in the context of the entry of the USSR. The deadline for this entry - August 15, 1945 - explains not just why the atomic bomb was used on Hiroshima but why a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. We were racing against the clock. We didn't want to get involved in talks with Japan past August 15. Hence the ultimatum after Hiroshima and Nagasaki for immediate surrender.

The diary of James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy, underlines the change of strategy: ``Talked with Byrnes, now at Potsdam. Byrnes said he was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.''

A reference to Sec. of State Byrnes' position came from physicist Leo Szilard who, with Albert Einstein, called Roosevelt's attention to the Nazi's efforts to make an atomic bomb. Byrnes told Szilard the bomb would make the USSR ``more manageable.''

The most serious issue in dropping the bomb is noted by Truman in his diary as the US moral responsibility not to drop ``the terrible bomb'' on civilians. In reversing himself, Truman was spurred by Byrnes. Truman allowed himself to be swept up in realpolitik - plot and counterplot. The president used a weapon he knew had no military justification. Having made a decision difficult to defend, he created a rationale for public consumption.

Some may say it's unpatriotic to review these facts 50 years later. Yet we are in a bad way if we have to rely on distorted history to uphold our view of ourselves. The misrepresentation to Americans in 1945 may not have started a trend. But it illustrates an ominous practice, increasingly accepted by officials, of telling people what they think we ought to know rather than what we are entitled to know. No one's suggesting there's not a time when government has to conduct affairs privately. What's equally clear is that this legitimate need is too easily invoked and becomes a means by which politicians shield themselves from their errors.

On August 6, 1990, it may be useful to ask if public misunderstanding of a key event in our history should be allowed to stand uncorrected. If we can't stand the truth, we don't stand for much.

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