Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Information Did Truman Have?

President Harry S. Truman
The following article was written as a response to a publication by the Institute for Historical Review entitled "Was Hiroshima Necessary?" by Mark Weber. It's an interesting piece, with some well-modeled arguments condemning the use of the atomic bomb at the end of WWII. However, it's a rather one-sided viewpoint which takes certain incidents in history as well as historic quotes out of context, thereby altering those points to suit the author.

All the same, reading this "review" is recommended for it definitely stimulates thought and continues to keep this world-changing occurrence in the forefront of our minds, where it belongs. It also provides additional background to the following article, that then tries to broaden and clarify important points which shaped President Truman's decision.

Representation of the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki
Representation of the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki

History vs. Debate
The subject of this piece has become an age-old debate. Time now steers us further away from those historic events and into a new generations of opinions, while the last generation of WWII survivors, witnesses and reporters succumb to old age and death. Subsequently, new arguments, in Japan, the United States and elsewhere, continue to emerge, often times removed from the facts. Justifiably, there still exists considerable emotion regarding such instantaneous and massive loss of life. However, passion and assumption are both enemies to history and only foster seeds of prejudice. Therefore, researching these points (and providing hyperlinks to those sources) was considered critical to this essay.

Thankfully, Japan and the United States today enjoy a close relationship and share in fruits of joint diplomatic and economic partnerships. Still, to avoid repeating the mistakes of history it is best to be abreast of actual events, or as Harry Truman used to say, “The only thing new in the world is the history you haven’t read." The memories of those who sacrificed their lives, willingly or otherwise, require the most accurate rendering of facts.

Emperor Hirohito in Military Dress
Emperor Hirohito in Military Dress
Points and Politics

Japan's Internal Obstacle

It is true that Japan, a seemingly defeated nation with numerous decoded interceptions of diplomatic communications, was providing every indication of willingness to surrender. Nevertheless, two of her cities were vaporized using nuclear weapons. These are incontrovertible truths based upon historic fact. However, it is also historic record, as well as being critical to understand the complexity and failures of Japan's government during this crisis, that neither the Emperor nor the civil government of Japan was in control of its military at that time.

It was well known to American and British intelligence, by April of that year (within days of FDR's demise) that Japan's Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki had been placed in office with the prime directive of seeking peace with complete support of Emperor Hirohito. However, up to and after the dropping of both atomic devices, leaders within the Japanese Army refused to accept any terms of surrender, insisting instead Japan continue the conflict until the last Japanese man, woman or child. So strong were their convictions, they even attempted and failed in a military coup d'état aimed at dethroning the Emperor, a coup whose purpose was to wrest control of the government and prevent surrender. This coup, known today as the Kyūjō Incident, occurred the night of August 14, a full 5 days after the bombing of Nagasaki. By war's end, Japan's own military leaders had become its biggest obstacle to any earlier peace accord.

Roosevelt's Decree of Unconditional Surrender

In January of 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt startled the world with his demand for 'Unconditional Surrender' as a prerequisite for peace to wars in Europe and the Pacific. Later, privately, Churchill protested to Roosevelt emphasizing that a requirement for total capitulation would only drag out and brutalize the conflicts even further, forcing Germany and Japan into a state of Total War. Two years later, in February of 1945 Roosevelt reiterated his declaration at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, making it the key point of the meeting over the joint protests of Churchill and Stalin. However, aside from Stalin's agreement to enter the war with Japan within 90 days of Germany's defeat, the Yalta Conference was almost entirely devoted to the processing of Germany's forthcoming surrender.

Roosevelt and Churchill at Casablanca
Roosevelt and Churchill at Casablanca

Later, US Ambassador to Moscow, Charles Bohlen, guessed Roosevelt had stuck to unconditional surrender so Stalin could not cut a separate peace agreement with Germany. Bohlen also stated the "Responsibility [for Unconditional Surrender]...rests almost exclusively with President Roosevelt". Consequently, since Roosevelt died shortly after Yalta, its impossible to know if, once Germany was out of the way, he would have readily acquiesced on Japan's behalf in regard to limited provisioning for the Emperor's retention.

Ironically, retention of the Emperor, which had been the biggest substantive exception to an accord, was eventually accepted as a term of surrender. Sadly, the considerable civilian losses at Okinawa, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been averted with an earlier surrender. However, today's knowledge of the civil influence of Japan's military and existing internal divisions during that period, points to a likely inability of that government to reach the consensus required for an earlier surrender. The question as to whether Roosevelt's demand strengthened Japan's military resolve remains subject to debate.

Was the Use of the A-Bomb Inhumane? 

Charred remains of 100,000 Tokyo victims
Charred remains of 100,000 Tokyo victims
Only when questions are raised about the decision to use atomic weapons do we begin to approach the core of the issue. If General Curtis Le May's boast to "drive them [Japanese] back to the stone age" was indeed the purpose of bombing Japan's mainland, the employment of the atomic bomb was by no means required. Le May's "Operation Meetinghouse" air raid of Tokyo, on the one night of March 9 in 1945, is today recognized as the most devastating bombing raid in history. It’s combined deaths (over 125,000) and broad area of destruction (15.8 square miles) far exceeded the results of either the Hiroshima or the Nagasaki nuclear strikes.

In regards to the shear inhumanity of killing civilians, the Allies had crossed that line with the massive blanket and incendiary bombings of Berlin and especially Dresden. Dresden had become a milestone in the highly developed technique of 'firebombing', where the strategic placement of incendiaries with roadway crosswinds create tornado-like columns of fire to ravish entire cities.  Le May's bombing of Tokyo employed this technique, which was supported by the great quantities of flammable paper used within Tokyo's housing designs.

The results of Dresden and Tokyo were similar to those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The survivors of those bomb blasts were either boiled alive upon jumping into superheated rivers and ponds or would later die of burns. By war's end, the Germans and Japanese were both found guilty of genocide, while the Allies had become immune to civilian bombing casualties. Consequently, the line at inhumanity had been crossed long before the dropping of the first atomic weapons. Subsequently, the decision to continue with any type of bombing, nuclear or conventional, was simply about finalizing the war. Safety for civilian lives was by then no longer a consideration.

Successful Trinity test of July 16, 1945
Successful Trinity Test of July 16, 1945 
Political Theatrics

Truman was informed of the successful testing of the atomic bomb at the beginning of the Potsdam Conference. He shared the information with Churchill but the two agreed it would be best not to inform Stalin until the end of the Conference, as there was the consideration he would accererate the USSR timetable and enter the war with Japan earlier than desired. Even, when Molotov requested Truman reiterate the earlier Yalta request and publicly invite the USSR to the conflict, Truman found excuses to delay stating later "I [Truman] was not willing to let Russia reap the fruits of a long and gallant effort in which she had had no part".

Long before the Yalta Conference, concerns began to grow over Stalin's aggression (political purges, arrests and executions) in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and other eastern European countries. On March 21, a little more than a month after Yalta, Averell Harriman cabled Roosevelt about Stalin's intentions of an "establishment of totalitarianism" in Europe. Two days later, Roosevelt finally admitted his own views of Stalin had been overly optimistic and that "Averell is right".

By the time Truman and Churchill became knowledgeable of the successful testing of the atomic bomb, guarded acceptance of their communist partner had turned to distrust and contempt. Truman was even reported to have stated during the earlier Battle of Berlin " did not matter if a German or a Russian soldier died so long as either side is losing" (Time Magazine, July 2, 1951). Clearly, Truman did not share FDR's enthusiasm to work with the Soviets after the war, or even trust them pursuing a Japanese settlement.

To reinforce these views, by the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin was no longer in agreement with the Yalta or Potsdam accords. In Harry Truman's own words "...We made 48 agreements all together, 32 at Potsdam, and 16 at Yalta" "...and they [USSR] broke every one of them." This may be somewhat an exaggeration but the sentiment is clear. Consequently, when the Soviets finally entered the war with Japan in August after the bombings, Truman would not allow their participation in the peace negotiations but instead provided them only one delegate seat at the surrender signing. He also refused to involve The USSR as an occupational force. Later Truman stated, "If the Russians had been able to get in there, they would have caused us as much trouble with Japan as they did with Europe".

Why Not Wait Out the Japanese Blockade? 

By war's end, Japan was cut off from all external resources and her population was approaching starvation conditions. The Allied blockade of the Japanese mainland was working. However, starvation conditions were not know outside of Japan until after her surrender. Consequently, in August of 1945 it remained unclear just how long the Japanese could or would hold out.

Stalin and Truman at Potsdam Conference
While America waited on the blockade of Japan, tensions continued to mount in occupied Germany. According to the Allied Zones dictated in the Potsdam Agreement (initiated at the Yalta Conference) post-war Berlin was located deep within the Soviet zone. However, the Soviets would not let Allied troops move in and out of Berlin until July of 1945. Berlin was to be zoned into US, British, French as well as Russian sub-zones. Since the Western Allies had to travel through Soviet occupied territory on a regular basis, using railways and trolleys controlled by the Soviets, the Soviets would often restrict that travel when disagreements between the occupying forces occurred.

Any discords between Truman and Stalin would then be amplified within Berlin. As a result, Berlin became the focal point for east/west post-war division early on. Consequently, Western Allied troops passing through the Soviet zone would become familiar with first-hand reports of pillaging, rape and purges of the occupied residents, which continued after Germany's surrender up until July when joint Allied occupation of the city occurred.

During this same period (June 15, 1945) Stalin had also released a communiqué informing Communist leaders in Germany of his plan to undermine British occupational forces and eventually absorb US occupation zones once America withdrew from Europe.

To further complicate matters for Truman, on July 26 1945, less than two weeks before the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, Winston Churchill had been ousted and the new British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee was elected in England. Attlee did not share Churchill's (or Truman's) distrust of Stalin's post-war expansion in Asia and Europe.

American GIs heading home from Europe
American GIs heading home from Europe
As early as May of 1945, American forces in Europe were receiving discharges to return home. Meanwhile, the bulk of Stalin's forces, now the world's largest standing army, were stationed in Europe. Anxious over European developments, Truman wanted an end to the war with Japan at the earliest opportunity to have access to troops then stationed in the Pacific for possible reassignment to Europe. By August, possibility had changed to likelihood in regards to Stalin staking a claim for the whole of Berlin.

The Final Decision
Ultimately, on August 6 and again on August 9 of 1945, President Harry S. Truman decided to release the atomic fury of the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The key points covered within the article, which lead to that decision, amounted to the following decision scenario:

  • Even with intercepted diplomatic messages, which clearly indicated a level of interest to capitulate, Japan remained, by all appearances, reluctant or spurning acceptance to dictated terms of an Unconditional Surrender. 
    • Japan's partner and ally, Germany, had agreed to an unconditional surrender just three months earlier (May 7, 1945), resulting in Allied occupation of German territories. 
  • Because of daily escalating developments in occupied Europe, the US had to consider the need for Pacific troops in Europe to counter an increased possibility of aggressive Soviet actions.
    • Most issues with Soviet held Berlin, including enforced restriction of Allied troop movements in and out of the city, civilian arrests and unsettling communiqués from Stalin occurred after US troops in Europe had begun to depart for home.
  • A land war with Japan would have cost the lives of a considerable number of American troops, again reducing the size of the American armed forces and further weakening its position against a growing Soviet threat in occupied Europe.
    • US armed forces continued to shrink due to military discharges in Europe while the Red Army, the world's largest standing army, was holding firm in Europe.
  • Continued use of a blockade siege approach on Japan was too time intense when considering the needs of occupied Europe. 
    • Japan was making no effort to bypass the blockade (and had no navy or air force to do so) and appeared instead to give every indication of preparing for a long siege.
  • Although the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been done with conventional weapons, a show of force in the form of new technology, would send Joseph Stalin and the USSR Central Committee a message to pause and give serious consideration before moving more aggressively in Europe.
    • During the Potsdam Conference, Truman's announcement of the bomb to Stalin appeared to yielded little reaction. Consequently, US leadership did not believed Stalin fully appreciated the destructive power of the weapon and therefore viewed the use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be preferable to conventional bombs.
  • Loss of civilian life was no longer a consideration. The humanitarian measuring stick had been discarded earlier on, during the much greater destruction of Tokyo. 
    • After the defeat of Japan's naval and land forces, the target had moved directly onto the civilian population in regards to defeat or surrender. 
      • After the horrific Tokyo bombing and the invasion of the inhabited island of Okinawa, and civilian losses there, the US military had by then accepted any additional force to translate to considerable civilian casualties, which would have also been the result of a prolonged siege (i.e.: naval blockade). 

Bottom line, a land assault of Japan was by then out of the question and the situation in occupied Europe demanded more attention. Even starvation of the Japan's mainland population was considered too longterm. Failure to end the war with Japan was viewed by US leadership as an invitation for further Soviet aggression in Europe, and the possibility of an eventual two-front war with a reduced US military.


Did it work? 

In regard to ending the war and freeing up American troops, it definitely contributed. Subsequently, America had no need to invade Japan and considerably more lives were spared than lost. As to a lasting world peace, its hard to imaged it worked. The Cold War then ensued, which placed all of the earth's inhabitants at risk for decades. However, the alternate may have been an all-out war with the Soviet Union. There were those in both the Soviet Union and the United States who may have preferred the latter.

Was it criminal? 

Depending on your views or side on which you fought, the answer would range from yes, no, irrelevant to indifferent. Nazi and Japanese war crimes were pursued after the war with executions and prison terms handed down. However, Stalin's European purges, along with US General Curtis Le May and British RAF Air Commander Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris' indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, never came before a tribunal. So it follows, Truman's use of atomic weapons upon an apparently defeated nation, pending surrender, was also overlooked. As history continually confirms, those who triumph decide upon the criminality of the vanquished.

Was it necessary? 

Again, the answer depends upon your position. From a Western point of view, the Soviet threat in Europe proved to be as great as Churchill and later Truman had anticipated. Also, its clear today that members of the Japanese military as well as a number of its civilians would have fought until no one was left standing. The mass suicide of women and children during the earlier Battle of Okinawa was a clear indication of what would result had any land assault been perpetrated upon the mainland. From a Soviet view, it became the basis for an imperialist argument piece for ongoing propaganda and provided the USSR with an excuse to build its own nuclear arsenal, a substantial nuclear cache, which in combination with the US nuclear stockpile, placed and continues to hold all of civilization in peril.

Was it worth it? 
Based upon gathered intelligence along with factual and military (possibly bias) information on hand, much of President Truman's decision making process was conditionally speculative. Consequently, no one will ever be able to prove the decision to have been correct. However, as to whether it was 'worth it' continues to be a matter of reflection. From a military point of view, and this was war, worse case scenarios have to be considered and there were plenty of those. From a civilian/intellectual or generally pragmatic view, there remains a countless number of possibilities. Subsequently, the debate continues.

Still, based upon impending events, it's fairly clear President Truman did not have the luxury of time to entertained an extended debate. Therefore, the question and title of this article remains "If you were Harry Truman would you have dropped the bomb"?

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