The mother of all difficult foreign policy decisions
The most momentous foreign policy decision made by an American president — Harry Truman’s to drop atomic bombs on Japan — remains controversial more than three quarters of a century later.
The Japanese surrendered less than a week after the Aug. 9 bombing of Nagasaki. This avoided the planned American invasion of Japan, which was to commence in two and half months and envisioned fighting through the following spring.
There are a number of historians who believe, in retrospect, that President Truman’s decision was morally and strategically indefensible. Over 200,000 Japanese were killed, most of them civilians, many children. The radiation fallout lasted for decades. At the time, some leading Americans, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the European forces, expressed reservations.
One argument is that war-ravaged Japan — with no allies, short on supplies and suffering from the devastating conventional bombing of Tokyo — was on the verge of surrender before Aug. 6. The Pacific war, for them, clearly was unwinnable.
The final straw, revisionists argue, was less Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it was the Soviet Union’s Aug. 8 entry into the war.
Ultimately, in what was one of the world’s most momentous and difficult decisions, the evidence is more compelling that Truman was right. The alternatives would have been more disastrous.
The allied forces had demanded unconditional Japanese surrender. There was little indication that Tokyo would have acquiesced; Craig Symonds, the foremost expert on the Pacific War, says this was a society where “death was preferable to defeat,” noting that “the word surrender wasn’t in the Japanese Army or Naval military manual.”
The prelude in the spring of 1945 was the battle for the Japanese outlying island of Okinawa, the bloodiest of the Pacific war. It lasted almost three months, with American casualties of almost 50,000, with 12,000 deaths. There were over 100,000 Japanese deaths; fewer than 8,000 surrendered.
As the Americans moved closer to the mainland, Japanese pilots stepped up their kamikaze suicide missions; almost 2,000 were launched at Okinawa.
Joseph Stalin declared war on Japan right after Hiroshima. The Red army rolled into Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
But if the Japanese were prepared for a fight to the death, the numbers of the opposition wouldn’t have been a factor.
Moreover, if the Soviets had participated at the end, credited with the surrender, Moscow would have played a role in post-war Japan. That would have been catastrophic: witness Korea.
The chief alternative to the bombing was an invasion of the mainland. Allied forces had carefully planned “Operation Downfall” with the first invasion in November and the other carrying well into the following spring.
The estimated carnage would have been horrendous.
Intelligence estimated there would have been hundreds of thousands of American casualties and far more Japanese.
“We knew the ferocity which the Japanese would defend every square yard of territory,” recalled George Elsey, who was the president’s naval attache and deeply involved assistant in 1945, during an oral interview for the Truman Library. “While the bomb was a horrible thing, the number of lives lost by dropping these two bombs was a fraction of the number of lives that would have been lost” in an invasion.
If Truman had taken the invasion course instead, imagine the later reaction of Americans and Congress upon learning that the president had decided not to use the new weapon in his arsenal, while many American lives were lost.
Even after the second bomb, the emperor overruled the Japanese military to surrender.
Moreover, after more than three quarters of a century, while nine nations now have acquired nuclear weapons, they never have been used after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Joseph Nye, the eminent Harvard national security expert, notes that Truman, in the Korean War, refused Gen. Douglas McArthur’s recommendation to drop dozens of atomic bombs on China: “That moral decision prevented nuclear weapons from becoming normal weapons.”
Barack Obama got it right when, five years ago as the first American President to visit Hiroshima, he paid tribute to the victims and called for it to serve as a “moral awakening” for the world. He did not apologize.
I wrote about Truman’s decision once before — 26 years ago, noting that, for me, there’s a personal element: That summer of 1945, Navy Lt. Commander Albert R. Hunt, my Dad, having spent much of the war in the Pacific, was in Manila awaiting assignment. He came home months later.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.