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Harry S. Truman’s best worst option

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and August 9 the nuclear attack on Nagasaki, at the end of World War II.

This anniversary is, of course, an occasion for somber reflection on the human suffering inflicted by the use of those two atomic bombs, and perhaps more generally upon the human suffering inflicted by war itself. But if that form of moral reflection is necessary, it is not sufficient. We must also seize the opportunity to reflect on the how and why of President Truman’s fateful decision; for, failing that, we may well condemn our children and grandchildren to commemorate other such attacks on some future anniversary. 

Why, then, did the U.S. president order atomic bombs to be dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing and maiming tens of thousands of Japanese and Koreans who had generally been spared American bombing before August 1945? For most of the past half-century, two answers to that question have dominated the debate. 

The first, or traditional, answer insists that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary if the U.S. was to defeat Japan without mounting an extremely costly invasion of the Japanese home islands. The second or revisionist answer is that Truman ordered the atomic bombings of Japan primarily to prevent the Soviet Union from seizing chunks of Japan the way they had Germany. The principal bones of contention are casualty estimates, the degree to which military necessity versus Cold War expediency shaped the U.S. decision, and the willingness of the Japanese to surrender without being nuked into submission. 

Initially, this debate served a useful purpose. As with all healthy debates, it sharpened and refined the arguments of both camps and helped develop a clearer picture of the history of Truman’s decision to use America’s new “special weapons” in the summer of 1945. 

Now, however, the debate is intellectually exhausted. Indeed, it is no longer a serious debate at all, at least in the plain sense of that word. Instead, it has degenerated into an annual occasion to signal to the world either one’s hard-headed strategic pragmatism or one’s soft-hearted moral idealism. Where once scholars and public intellectuals actually engaged one another, the “debate” today takes the form of two contending camps deploying outdated scholarship in the service of tired ideological and partisan political projects. In a very real sense, the debate was an artifact of the Cold War and the 1960s. Both have long since passed; so should this “debate.”

Besides, the question has been definitively answered. Based on the most recent scholarship, we can now put together a more or less definitive account of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb in 1945 that goes something like this.

In the summer of 1945, President Truman had a tough decision to make: how to end the Pacific war on terms most advantageous to the U.S. His options were simple. Invade the Japanese home islands, defeat the Japanese army and force the emperor to surrender. Or use atomic bombs, either tactically or strategically, to force a Japanese surrender. Or, finally, rely on the cumulative effects of conventional bombing, naval blockade and possibly even chemical warfare to starve the Japanese into submission. No other strategic options were available to the president.

In deciding among these three options, Truman was constrained by the following bedrock assumptions. First, the president and his advisers believed that knocking Japan out of the war took precedence over all other objectives. Second, they also believed that preventing the Soviet Union from enhancing its strategic position in post-war East Asia was important, though far less important than simply winning the war. Third, the Truman administration believed that any invasion of Japan would result in somewhere between the tens of thousands of battle dead predicted by the revisionists and the hundreds of thousands predicted by the traditionalists, and that as Japan reinforced prospective landing sites, these numbers were likely to get worse. Fourth, Truman had convincing intelligence that the emperor was not ready to surrender, and that his senior military advisers were too divided to convince him to do so. And, finally, the president and his senior advisers were confident that conventional bombing and naval blockade would eventually shatter both the Japanese people’s will to resist and the Japanese military’s ability to fight. But they were also aware that the human toll of such a strategy would be catastrophic, and that it might take long enough that the Soviets would be able to make inroads in the region at the expense of post-war U.S. interests.

Given all this, President Truman opted for the only course realistically open to him. One wonders what would have happened had he refused to order the use of atomic bombs against Japan in 1945. Would we celebrate his decision every year on some suitable date, even though by not dropping the bombs he prolonged the war by over a year, thereby increasing its death toll by several hundred thousand, and leading to an additional million or so deaths at the hands of the necrocracy installed by the Soviets in their occupation zone in northern Japan? 

Given the brutal nature of the war in 1945, it’s pretty clear the world would be commemorating the 75th anniversary of some sort of disastrous, world-altering event this year. The only question is: Would it be Truman’s terrible decision to use atomic weapons or his even worse decision not to?  

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Tags Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Hiroshima Hiroshima Japan Military history by country Nuclear warfare Presidency of Harry S. Truman Surrender of Japan World War II

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