The year 1995 is the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War. At this historical distance, one might assume that war’s wounds, political as well as physical, would have healed, and its controversies ameliorated–especially since World War II was a “good war.” This has not been the case. For example, take the celebration of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day this past May. The Russians wanted the anniversary to be commemorated in Moscow. This ran afoul of Western, especially American, distaste for Russia’s recent brutal suppression of a secessionist movement in Chechnya. In the end, President Clinton grudgingly came, but he insisted on attending a parade that did not feature Russian military hardware.
The end of the war with Japan has generated its share of quarrels. There was some discussion whether V-J Day, as it was known at the time, should be transformed into the more neutral term, Victory in the Pacific. (It was not.) But the greatest controversy has been over the American decision to drop the newly-developed atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9). The dispute centered around the proposed exhibition of the Enola Gay, the plane that carried the Hiroshima bomb, at the Smithsonian Institution. The original plans for the exhibition included a script that seemed to many Americans, especially veterans, to accuse the United States of perpetuating without reason or provocation an unparalleled atrocity on the helpless Japanese people. For example, horrific photographs of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to be displayed. But there were none from the rape of Nanking, or the Bataan death march. Or from Pearl Harbor.
The Enola Gay dispute continues a long-standing debate over the morality of the U.S. use of the atomic bomb. The revisionist criticism of the American decision can be summarized as follows. The dropping of the bomb was unnecessary–and therefore immoral–because the Japanese were prepared to surrender in any case, a fact of which American policy makers were supposedly well aware. The use of the bomb, say the revisionists, must therefore be explained on other grounds. First, and most importantly, it was said to be designed to intimidate the Soviets. Second, this was supposedly a manifestation of American racism; the United States would not have used the bomb against the Germans. Third, American policy makers allegedly dropped the bomb to justify enormous expenditures associated with its development and production.
Lack of space precludes us from considering these revisionist arguments in detail. But we think that there are good grounds for considering the use of nuclear weapons to have been prudent; and the reasons given by American officials for that use–to prevent further casualties, and to end the war as quickly as possible–to have been honest.
Any assessment of this sort must consider the character of the men who made the decision, and the circumstances in which they made their choice. For reasons of security, the choice involved a small group of high-ranking officials. Prominent were General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, and Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. Both men were widely admired for their integrity, their bipartisanship (or non-partisanship), and their devotion to the national service. Both had years of government experience–Stimson, a Republican, had been Secretary of State under President Hoover. Nor was theirs a peculiarly American perspective. Winston Churchill approved the action, as was Britain’s right under a wartime agreement with President Roosevelt. And Joseph Stalin, when obliquely informed of the bomb’s existence (about which he already knew through Soviet spying) at the Potsdam conference in July 1945, expressed only his wish that the Americans would make good use of the weapo
n against Japan.
Above all there was Harry Truman, with whom the buck stopped. Admiration for Truman’s statesmanship, especially in foreign policy, has grown enormously over the years, as the wisdom of his basic decisions about war and peace have largely been ratified by history. Truman made it clear in his memoirs and elsewhere that he made the choice to use the atomic bomb only after long and careful thought, that he believed this to be the right course, and that he lost no sleep over it.
To be sure, not everyone at the time agreed. Some U.S. Navy and Army Air Force officers argued that continued air attacks and a naval blockade would strangle the Japanese without the need for an invasion of the home islands. General Dwight Eisenhower told Stimson that he was against using the bomb, but admitted that “my war was over in Europe and it wasn’t up to me.” Stimson, Eisenhower recognized, had done the right thing in developing the bomb, and he agreed that it was an awful problem. Some scientists peripherally involved in the bomb’s development registered opposition, although the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, participated in the government’s deliberations and concurred in the decision.
Marshall, Stimson and others considered the issue seriously, as much as could be expected under the enormous pressure of events. These men sincerely believed that it was necessary to end the war quickly, in order to avoid an invasion of Japan that might result in tens or hundreds of thousands of American casualties. This was the lesson of the recent bloody invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa–which also suggested that Japanese casualties, military and civilian, would be equal to if not greater than those of Americans. Some evidence pointed to the possibility of an early surrender by Tokyo, but this was thought, reasonably, to be far too ambiguous to depend on. (Emperor Hirohito, who played the decisive role in settling a dispute within the Japanese government as to the surrender, cited the threat of the atomic bomb as his reason for acknowledging defeat.) As to the efficacy of bombing and sea blockades, we have the recent experience of North Vietnam and Iraq to suggest how diffi
cult it is to cause a determined adversary to change its policies without first being defeated and occupied on the ground. And in any case, further bombings and blockades would surely have their greatest impact on Japanese civilians, already in desperate shape, not on the Japanese military. Nor would American lives be immune in the meantime.
American officials did consider inviting the Japanese to witness a demonstration of the bomb. They also thought about exploding it in a remote area, away from cities, and explored the possibility of issuing a more explicit warning to the Japanese (a more general warning had been issued at Potsdam). In the end, these options were rejected. The atomic bomb was a new, technically complex weapon–what if a demonstration failed? What if an explicit warning caused the Japanese to place American prisoners of war near the bomb’s aim point? Most importantly, Americans relied on the sudden, dramatic, and unmistakably destructive appearance of the bomb to shock the Japanese–who at Okinawa and Iwo Jima had shown a willingness to fight to the death–into surrender. In General Marshall’s words: “it seemed quite necessary to shock them into action….We had to end the war; we had to save American lives.”
The bottom line for Stimson was similar: “I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”
We should not neglect Stimson’s advice, and look our countrymen in the face. Their concern in 1945 went beyond a cost-conscious accounting for the estimated $2 billion that went into the Manhattan project. Consider the opinion of the men (and women) of the American armed forces who were stationed in, or who were being shipped to, the Pacific theater. Perhaps the most frequently expressed (we cannot say unanimous) judgment was stated by the author William Manchester, a U.S. Marine who had fought in the Pacific. On the fortieth anniversary of Hiroshima, Manchester, hardly a conservative, wrote a lengthy essay in the Washington Post, whose headline summed up his views on the topic: Thank God for the Atomic Bomb. (On a personal note: my father was stationed in the Philippines in August 1945, and this was emphatically his attitude.) Looking farther afield, one sees little if any concern over the morality of the American bombing in places like China, the Philippines, Kore
a, or Australia, nations occupied or threatened by the Japanese military in World War II.
This is not to say that debate over the morality of the decision is not legitimate, or that we must accept without question the views of those with the greatest self-interest in supporting the use of the bomb. In a democratic society, such debate is legitimate and necessary. But let us give the final word to Harry Truman.
We noted earlier that Truman said he had lost no sleep over the dropping of the bomb. But he also added that, “I did not like this weapon.” And it is fair to say that Truman was bothered by having to make such a decision in the first place. He believed that American weakness and lack of resolution in the 1930s had contributed mightily to the conditions which led to World War II, and to the resulting use of ever-more destructive means of warfare, of which the atomic bomb was only the culmination. Truman was a man who looked forward, rather than back. In looking forward, he was determined that, on his watch, he would find a way both to prevent war and to prevent aggression. Nuclear weapons and the strategy of deterrence built around those weapons, as an essential element of containing the Soviet Union became part of Truman’s plan for American security. He arrived at this solution reluctantly. He had originally hoped that post-war cooperation with Moscow would prove
possible. He had also hoped that nuclear disarmament would follow. When neither occurred, he did the best that he could. And in the penultimate tribute to his statesmanship, no American president has since been faced with the moral and strategic choice that Truman did in August 1945.
Patrick J. Garrity is a Fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.