Was Hiroshima Needed to End the War?
New evidence suggests that the bombing, rather than saving `500,000' US lives, was a warning to Moscow
`IT is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were almost defeated and ready to surrender.... [I]n being the first to use it, we ... adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages."
Are these the words of a "rank revisionist," as George Bush recently complained about those who wanted an American apology for Hiroshima, where nearly 100,000 Japanese were killed 47 years ago this month? On the contrary, they are the publicly stated judgment of the eminent conservative admiral who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II, William D. Leahy.
The public has forgotten, but such military figures as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Fleet Adm. William Halsey, and Gen. Curtis LeMay also felt, as Ike put it, that it wasn't necessary "to hit them with that awful thing."
The fate of Hiroshima remains a powerful - and contentious - symbol of the dawning of the American century. And yet probably on no other issue are the views of most experts who study this question in depth further afield from the public's perception of what happened.
Most Americans and many general historians still believe that the first atomic bombing of a city was done to save hundreds of thousands of American lives by making an invasion of Japan unnecessary. Consider, however, the conclusions of J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after surveying the modern expert literature in the respected academic journal Diplomatic History: "Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few yea rs has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan.... The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.... The hoary claim that the bomb prevented 500,000 American combat deaths is unsupportable."
Though there are still important dissenting voices, this modern expert judgment rests on three major conclusions derived from a mountain of recently declassified archival evidence:
First, intelligence and other advice to President Truman, in significant part based on intercepted and secretly decoded Japanese cable traffic, indicated that from at least May 1945 on, Japan wished to end the war and seemed likely to do so if assurances were given that the emperor would not be eliminated. Second, similar advice to the president suggested that the shock of Soviet entry into the war (expected in early August) would likely tip the balance, almost certainly if combined with assurances conce rning the emperor. Third, Truman was advised by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, Admiral Leahy, the acting Secretary of State Joseph E. Grew, and others to let Japan know that the emperor would not be eliminated; contrary to the claims of some historians, Truman made clear that he had no serious objection to offering such assurances.
Documentary "finds" in recent years include Truman's "misplaced" diary and a series of revealing letters to his wife Bess, which record Truman's personal belief that the war would likely end soon after the Russians attacked Japanese forces. After receiving the specific date for the Soviet attack (Aug. 15), for instance, he wrote in his diary, "Fini Japs when that comes about." In another diary entry the president refers to one of the intercepted Japanese cables as the "telegram from [the] Jap emperor ask ing for peace."
Robert Messer, author of "The End of the Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Origins of the Cold War," characterizes the Truman diary revelations and other recent discoveries as "devastating" to the conventional wisdom that use of the bomb was necessary to avoid an invasion. Other respected scholars, such as Rufus E. Miles Jr. and Stanford University's Barton Bernstein, have refuted Truman's public claim that the bomb saved 500,000 American lives. Citing declassified military planning e stimates, Professor Bernstein could not find a worst-case prediction of deaths higher than 46,000 - even if an invasion had taken place. "The myth of the 500,000 American lives saved," Bernstein concludes, "thus seems to have no basis in fact."
Another previously top secret War Department intelligence study - written in 1946 but withheld from the public for roughly four decades - flatly concludes that the Japanese were in such dire straits in the summer of 1945 that even a preliminary November landing on Kyushu island was only a "remote" possibility and that a full assault on the Japanese main home islands in the spring of 1946 "would not have been necessary." This report echoes the official 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey, which concluded Jap an would likely have surrendered "even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped...."
After the successful atomic test on July 16, 1945, Truman lost his interest in a major Red Army attack to jolt Japan into surrender. A diary entry by Walter Brown, an assistant to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, suggests why Truman and Byrnes changed their minds. The secretary, Brown noted, was now "hoping for time, believing that after [the] atomic bomb Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill, thereby being in a position to press claims against China."
Most experts now accept the once controversial view that geopolitical and diplomatic concerns about the Soviet Union influenced Truman, Stimson, and Byrnes, consciously or unconsciously, when they chose what Stimson called the "master card" (the atomic bomb) over other readily available ways to end the war.
Scholars differ in the precise weight to accord this motive in the thinking of each policymaker, and some specialists like Bernstein continue to hold that military factors were paramount, or that the weapon's use was "inevitable" because of technological or bureaucratic momentum (and infighting) built up during the war. Gregg Herken, the author of "The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950," observes, however, that "responsible traditional as well as revisionist accounts of the decisi on to drop the bomb now recognize that the act had behind it both an immediate military rationale regarding Japan and a possible diplomatic advantage concerning Russia." Yale Prof. Gaddis Smith writes: "It has been demonstrated that the decision to bomb Japan was centrally connected to Truman's confrontational approach to the Soviet Union."
Most Americans will probably be even more startled by the suggestion of specialists like Martin Sherwin, author of the critically acclaimed, "A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance," that the atomic bomb may actually have cost American lives by delaying the end of the war. On the advice of Byrnes, Truman decided to wait until after the atomic bomb was tested and, in the end, used to obliterate two cities, before telling the Japanese they could keep their emperor. In doing so he rejecte d the advice of those, like Joseph Grew, who argued starting in May that all that was needed to end the war was to explain "what we meant by unconditional surrender...."
Mr. Sherwin observes: "Many more American soldiers and Japanese of all types might have had the opportunity to grow old if Truman had accepted Grew's advice." And even Stimson later publicly allowed that "history might find that the US, by its delay in stating its position [on surrender terms], had prolonged the war."
To many historians, the striking thing about the Hiroshima decision is that with the passage of time it has become more of a puzzle, not less. Forty-seven years after the event, the full record is still not available. We especially lack knowledge of many private discussions between Byrnes and Truman. We know almost nothing about the critical planning sessions the two men had during their eight-day Atlantic crossing on their way to Potsdam. Though there cannot possibly be any genuine security threat, many
official documents are still classified, including hundreds of pages of Japanese MAGIC intercept summaries which the National Security Agency refuses to release.
Almost certainly, further historical research and the slow but regular discovery of new sources will cast light upon a tragic event that many scholars now believe had as much to do with the origins of the cold war as with the end of World War II.