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July 30, 2005

The Atomic Bomb -- Sixty Years Later

As we approach the sixtieth anniversaray of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I suspect we will see more articles discussing the decision to use the weapon. This morning I've come across two that strike me as grist for the mill.

"Why Truman Dropped the Bomb" author Richard B. Frank offers a persuasive rebuttal of those historians who take a critical or revisionist view of Truman's decision to drop the bomb. In it, he argues that the traditionalist view of the decision is more accurate and better explains why Truman used the bomb.

There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics' central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood--as one analytical piece in the "Magic" Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts--that "until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies." This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.

The displacement of the so-called traditionalist view within important segments of American opinion took several decades to accomplish. It will take a similar span of time to displace the critical orthodoxy that arose in the 1960s and prevailed roughly through the 1980s, and replace it with a richer appreciation for the realities of 1945. But the clock is ticking.

In "What would you have done? ", Max Hastings argues that a decision that may be easy to question in hindsight was the one which seemed most reasonable to those charged with making the decisionin 1945.

The decision-makers were men who had grown accustomed to the necessity for cruel judgments. There was overwhelming technological momentum: a titanic effort had been made to create a weapon for which the allies saw themselves as competing with their foes.

After Hiroshima, General Leslie Groves, chief of the Manhattan Project, was almost the only man to succumb to triumphalism. He said: "We have spent $2bn on the greatest scientific gamble in history - we won." Having devoted such resources to the bomb, an extraordinary initiative would have been needed from Truman to arrest its employment.

Those who today find it easy to condemn the architects of Hiroshima sometimes seem to lack humility in recognising the frailties of the decision-makers, mortal men grappling with dilemmas of a magnitude our own generation has been spared.

In August 1945, amid a world sick of death in the cause of defeating evil, allied lives seemed very precious, while the enemy appeared to value neither his own nor those of the innocent. Truman's Hiroshima judgment may seem wrong in the eyes of posterity, but it is easy to understand why it seemed right to most of his contemporaries.

I raise a question with my students each year, one which brings out the stark calculus Truman faced.

"You are the president duing time of war. Your military advisors present you with a weapon that could end the war at the cost of a few hundred thousand enemy civilian lives. Failure to use this weapon will likely cost the lives of up to a million American troops and at least an equal number of enemy lives, both military and civilian. What do you do?"

I've had only one student ever argue against dropping the bomb -- and even then, she questioned how she would be able to justify that decision to the families of a million dead American soldiers.

That is why I really think the question is not "How could Truman justify dropping the bomb?" Rather, the appropriate question is "How could Truman justify NOT dropping the bomb?" And i think the answer is that he could not have justified a negative decision, regardless of what evidence there was of Japanese disarray. He had a primary responsibility to safeguard the lives of American soldiers.





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