excerpt from Ralph Raico’s “Harry S. Truman: Advancing the Revolution"
in John V. Denson, ed., Reassessing
the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline
of Freedom (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute,
2001), is reprinted with permission. (The notes are numbered as
they are because this is an excerpt. Read
the whole article.)
most spectacular episode of Truman’s presidency will never be forgotten,
but will be forever linked to his name: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima
on August 6, 1945, and of Nagasaki three days later. Probably around
two hundred thousand persons were killed in the attacks and through
radiation poisoning; the vast majority were civilians, including
several thousand Korean workers. Twelve U.S. Navy fliers incarcerated
in a Hiroshima jail were also among the dead.87
controversy has always surrounded the bombings. One thing Truman
insisted on from the start: The decision to use the bombs, and the
responsibility it entailed, was his. Over the years, he gave different,
and contradictory, grounds for his decision. Sometimes he implied
that he had acted simply out of revenge. To a clergyman who criticized
him, Truman responded, testily:
more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was
greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese
on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The
only language they seem to understand is the one we have been
using to bombard them.88
reasoning will not impress anyone who fails to see how the brutality
of the Japanese military could justify deadly retaliation against
innocent men, women, and children. Truman doubtless was aware of
this, so from time to time he advanced other pretexts. On August
9, 1945, he stated: "The world will note that the first atomic
bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because
we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the
killing of civilians."89
however, is absurd. Pearl Harbor was a military base. Hiroshima
was a city, inhabited by some three hundred thousand people,
which contained military elements. In any case, since the harbor
was mined and the U.S. Navy and Air Force were in control of the
waters around Japan, whatever troops were stationed in Hiroshima
had been effectively neutralized.
other occasions, Truman claimed that Hiroshima was bombed because
it was an industrial center. But, as noted in the U.S. Strategic
Bombing Survey, "all major factories in Hiroshima were on the
periphery of the city – and escaped serious damage."90
The target was the center of the city. That Truman realized the
kind of victims the bombs consumed is evident from his comment to
his cabinet on August 10, explaining his reluctance to drop a third
bomb: "The thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was
too horrible," he said; he didn’t like the idea of killing
"all those kids."91 Wiping
out another one hundred thousand people . . . all those kids.
the notion that Hiroshima was a major military or industrial center
is implausible on the face of it. The city had remained untouched
through years of devastating air attacks on the Japanese home islands,
and never figured in Bomber Command’s list of the 33 primary targets.92
the rationale for the atomic bombings has come to rest on a single
colossal fabrication, which has gained surprising currency: that
they were necessary in order to save a half-million or more American
lives. These, supposedly, are the lives that would have been lost
in the planned invasion of Kyushu in December, then in the all-out
invasion of Honshu the next year, if that was needed. But the worst-case
scenario for a full-scale invasion of the Japanese home islands
was forty-six thousand American lives lost.93
The ridiculously inflated figure of a half-million for the potential
death toll – nearly twice the total of U.S. dead in all theaters
in the Second World War – is now routinely repeated in high-school
and college textbooks and bandied about by ignorant commentators.
Unsurprisingly, the prize for sheer fatuousness on this score goes
to President George H.W. Bush, who claimed in 1991 that dropping
the bomb "spared millions of American lives."94
Truman’s multiple deceptions and self-deceptions are understandable,
considering the horror he unleashed. It is equally understandable
that the U.S. occupation authorities censored reports from the shattered
cities and did not permit films and photographs of the thousands
of corpses and the frightfully mutilated survivors to reach the
public.95 Otherwise, Americans –
and the rest of the world – might have drawn disturbing comparisons
to scenes then coming to light from the Nazi concentration camps.
bombings were condemned as barbaric and unnecessary by high American
military officers, including Eisenhower and MacArthur.96
The view of Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman’s own chief of staff,
use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of
no material assistance in our war against Japan. . . . My own
feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted
an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.
I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and wars cannot
be won by destroying women and children.97
political elite implicated in the atomic bombings feared a backlash
that would aid and abet the rebirth of horrid prewar "isolationism."
Apologias were rushed into print, lest public disgust at the sickening
war crime result in erosion of enthusiasm for the globalist project.98
No need to worry. A sea-change had taken place in the attitudes
of the American people. Then and ever after, all surveys have shown
that the great majority supported Truman, believing that the bombs
were required to end the war and save hundreds of thousands of American
lives, or more likely, not really caring one way or the other.
who may still be troubled by such a grisly exercise in cost-benefit
analysis – innocent Japanese lives balanced against the lives
of Allied servicemen – might reflect on the judgment of the
Catholic philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe, who insisted on the supremacy
of moral rules.99 When, in June 1956,
Truman was awarded an honorary degree by her university, Oxford,
Anscombe protested.100 Truman was
a war criminal, she contended, for what is the difference between
the U.S. government massacring civilians from the air, as at Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, and the Nazis wiping out the inhabitants of some Czech
or Polish village?
point is worth following up. Suppose that, when we invaded Germany
in early 1945, our leaders had believed that executing all the inhabitants
of Aachen, or Trier, or some other Rhineland city would finally
break the will of the Germans and lead them to surrender. In this
way, the war might have ended quickly, saving the lives of many
Allied soldiers. Would that then have justified shooting tens of
thousands of German civilians, including women and children? Yet
how is that different from the atomic bombings?
early summer 1945, the Japanese fully realized that they were beaten.
Why did they nonetheless fight on? As Anscombe wrote: "It was
the insistence on unconditional surrender that was the root of all
mad formula was coined by Roosevelt at the Casablanca conference,
and, with Churchill’s enthusiastic concurrence, it became the Allied
shibboleth. After prolonging the war in Europe, it did its work
in the Pacific. At the Potsdam conference, in July 1945, Truman
issued a proclamation to the Japanese, threatening them with the
"utter devastation" of their homeland unless they surrendered
unconditionally. Among the Allied terms, to which "there are
no alternatives," was that there be "eliminated for all
time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and
misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest [sic]."
"Stern justice," the proclamation warned, "would
be meted out to all war criminals."102
the Japanese, this meant that the emperor – regarded by them
to be divine, the direct descendent of the goddess of the sun –
would certainly be dethroned and probably put on trial as a war
criminal and hanged, perhaps in front of his palace.103
It was not, in fact, the U.S. intention to dethrone or punish the
emperor. But this implicit modification of unconditional surrender
was never communicated to the Japanese. In the end, after Nagasaki,
Washington acceded to the Japanese desire to keep the dynasty and
even to retain Hirohito as emperor.
months before, Truman had been pressed to clarify the U.S. position
by many high officials within the administration, and outside of
it, as well. In May 1945, at the president’s request, Herbert Hoover
prepared a memorandum stressing the urgent need to end the war as
soon as possible. The Japanese should be informed that we would
in no way interfere with the emperor or their chosen form of government.
He even raised the possibility that, as part of the terms, Japan
might be allowed to hold on to Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea. After
meeting with Truman, Hoover dined with Taft and other Republican
leaders, and outlined his proposals.104
writers on World War II often like to deal in lurid speculations.
For instance: if the United States had not entered the war, then
Hitler would have "conquered the world" (a sad undervaluation
of the Red Army, it would appear; moreover, wasn’t it Japan that
was trying to "conquer the world"?) and killed untold
millions. Now, applying conjectural history in this case: assume
that the Pacific war had ended in the way wars customarily do –
through negotiation of the terms of surrender. And assume the worst
– that the Japanese had adamantly insisted on preserving part
of their empire, say, Korea and Formosa, even Manchuria. In that
event, it is quite possible that Japan would have been in a position
to prevent the Communists from coming to power in China. And that
could have meant that the thirty or forty million deaths now attributed
to the Maoist regime would not have occurred.
even remaining within the limits of feasible diplomacy in 1945,
it is clear that Truman in no way exhausted the possibilities of
ending the war without recourse to the atomic bomb. The Japanese
were not informed that they would be the victims of by far the most
lethal weapon ever invented (one with "more than two thousand
times the blast power of the British u2018Grand Slam,’ which is the
largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare," as Truman
boasted in his announcement of the Hiroshima attack). Nor were they
told that the Soviet Union was set to declare war on Japan, an event
that shocked some in Tokyo more than the bombings.105
Pleas by some of the scientists involved in the project to demonstrate
the power of the bomb in some uninhabited or evacuated area were
rebuffed. All that mattered was to formally preserve the unconditional
surrender formula and save the servicemen’s lives that might have
been lost in the effort to enforce it. Yet, as Major General J.F.C.
Fuller, one of the century’s great military historians, wrote in
connection with the atomic bombings:
to save life is laudable, it in no way justifies the employment
of means which run counter to every precept of humanity and the
customs of war. Should it do so, then, on the pretext of shortening
a war and of saving lives, every imaginable atrocity can be justified.106
this obviously true? And isn’t this the reason that rational and
humane men, over generations, developed rules of warfare in the
the mass media parroted the government line in praising the atomic
incinerations, prominent conservatives denounced them as unspeakable
war crimes. Felix Morley, constitutional scholar and one of the
founders of Human Events, drew attention to the horror of
Hiroshima, including the "thousands of children trapped in
the thirty-three schools that were destroyed." He called on
his compatriots to atone for what had been done in their name, and
proposed that groups of Americans be sent to Hiroshima, as Germans
were sent to witness what had been done in the Nazi camps. The Paulist
priest, Father James Gillis, editor of The Catholic World
and another stalwart of the Old Right, castigated the bombings as
"the most powerful blow ever delivered against Christian civilization
and the moral law." David Lawrence, conservative owner of U.S.
News and World Report, continued to denounce them for years.107
The distinguished conservative philosopher Richard Weaver was revolted
spectacle of young boys fresh out of Kansas and Texas turning
nonmilitary Dresden into a holocaust . . . pulverizing ancient
shrines like Monte Cassino and Nuremberg, and bringing atomic
annihilation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
considered such atrocities as deeply "inimical to the foundations
on which civilization is built."108
self-styled conservatives slander as "anti-American" anyone
who is in the least troubled by Truman’s massacre of so many tens
of thousands of Japanese innocents from the air. This shows as well
as anything the difference between today’s "conservatives"
and those who once deserved the name.
Szilard was the world-renowned physicist who drafted the original
letter to Roosevelt that Einstein signed, instigating the Manhattan
Project. In 1960, shortly before his death, Szilard stated another
the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us,
we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as
a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were
guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.109
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime worse than
any that Japanese generals were executed for in Tokyo and Manila.
If Harry Truman was not a war criminal, then no one ever was.
the atomic bombings, see Gar Alperovitz, The
Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American
Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995); and idem, "Was Harry
Truman a Revisionist on Hiroshima?" Society for Historians
of American Foreign Relations Newsletter 29, no. 2 (June
1998); also Martin J. Sherwin, A
World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance
(New York: Vintage, 1977); and Dennis D. Wainstock, The
Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb (Westport, Conn.: Praeger,
Decision, p. 563. Truman added: "When you deal with
a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable
but nevertheless true." For similar statements by Truman,
see ibid., p. 564. Alperovitz’s monumental work is the end-product
of four decades of study of the atomic bombings and is indispensable
for comprehending the often complex argumentation on the issue.
J. Bernstein, "Understanding the Atomic Bomb and the Japanese
Surrender: Missed Opportunities, Little-Known Near Disasters,
and Modern Memory," Diplomatic History 19, no. 2
(Spring 1995): 257. General Carl Spaatz, commander of U.S. strategic
bombing operations in the Pacific, was so shaken by the destruction
at Hiroshima that he telephoned his superiors in Washington,
proposing that the next bomb be dropped on a less populated
area, so that it "would not be as devastating to the city
and the people." His suggestion was rejected. Ronald Schaffer,
of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 147–48.
Barton J. Bernstein, "A Post-War Myth: 500,000 U.S. Lives
Saved," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42, no.
6 (June–July 1986): 38–40; and idem, "Wrong Numbers,"
The Independent Monthly (July 1995): 41–44.
Samuel Walker, "History, Collective Memory, and the Decision
to Use the Bomb," Diplomatic History 19, no. 2 (Spring
1995): 320, 323–25. Walker details the frantic evasions
of Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, when confronted with
the unambiguous record.
Boyer, "Exotic Resonances: Hiroshima in American Memory,"
Diplomatic History 19, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 299. On the
fate of the bombings’ victims and the public’s restricted knowledge
of them, see John W. Dower, "The Bombed: Hiroshimas and
Nagasakis in Japanese Memory," in ibid., pp. 275–95.
D. Leahy, I
Was There (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), p. 441. Leahy
compared the use of the atomic bomb to the treatment of civilians
by Genghis Khan, and termed it "not worthy of Christian
man." Ibid., p. 442. Curiously, Truman himself supplied
the foreword to Leahy’s book. In a private letter written just
before he left the White House, Truman referred to the use of
the atomic bomb as "murder," stating that the bomb
"is far worse than gas and biological warfare because it
affects the civilian population and murders them wholesale."
Barton J. Bernstein, "Origins of the U.S. Biological Warfare
a Biological Arms Race, Susan Wright, ed. (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), p. 9.
J. Bernstein, "Seizing the Contested Terrain of Early Nuclear
History: Stimson, Conant, and Their Allies Explain the Decision
to Use the Bomb," Diplomatic History 17, no. 1 (Winter
writer in no way troubled by the sacrifice of innocent Japanese
to save Allied servicemen – indeed, just to save him –
is Paul Fussell; see his Thank
God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Summit,
1988). The reason for Fussell’s little Te Deum is, as
he states, that he was among those scheduled to take part in
the invasion of Japan, and might very well have been killed.
It is a mystery why Fussell takes out his easily understandable
terror, rather unchivalrously, on Japanese women and children
instead of on the men in Washington who conscripted him to fight
in the Pacific in the first place.
Anscombe, "Mr. Truman’s Degree," in idem, Collected
Philosophical Papers, vol. 3, Ethics, Religion and
Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981),
Jacobsen and Arthur S. Smith, Jr., eds., World
War II: Policy and Strategy. Selected Documents with Commentary
(Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1979), pp. 345–46.
Japanese leaders, another reason for keeping the emperor was
as a bulwark against a possible postwar communist takeover.
See also Sherwin, A World Destroyed, p. 236: "the
[Potsdam] proclamation offered the military die-hards in the
Japanese government more ammunition to continue the war than
it offered their opponents to end it."
"Understanding the Atomic Bomb," p. 254: "it
does seem very likely, though certainly not definite, that a
synergistic combination of guaranteeing the emperor, awaiting
Soviet entry, and continuing the siege strategy would have ended
the war in time to avoid the November invasion." Bernstein,
an excellent and scrupulously objective scholar, nonetheless
disagrees with Alperovitz and the revisionist school on several
Second World War, 1939–45: A Strategical and Tactical History
(London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1948), p. 392. Fuller, who was
similarly scathing on the terror-bombing of the German cities,
characterized the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as "a
type of war that would have disgraced Tamerlane." Cf. Barton
J. Bernstein, who concludes, in "Understanding the Atomic
Bomb," p. 235:
American leaders were not seeking to avoid the use of the A-bomb.
Its use did not create ethical or political problems for them.
Thus, they easily rejected or never considered most of the so-called
alternatives to the bomb.
Morley, "The Return to Nothingness," Human Events
(August 29, 1945) reprinted in Hiroshima’s
Shadow, Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds. (Stony
Creek, Conn.: Pamphleteer’s Press, 1998), pp. 272–74; James
Martin Gillis, "Nothing But Nihilism," The Catholic
World, September 1945, reprinted in ibid., pp. 278–80;
Alperovitz, Decision, pp. 438–40.
M. Weaver, "A Dialectic on Total War," in idem, Visions
of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 1964), pp. 98–99.
Raico [send him mail] is Professor
Emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College is a senior
fellow of the Mises Institute. He is a specialist on the history
of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship
between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The
Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville,
and Lord Acton. His latest book is Great
Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal. You can study
the history of civilization under his guidance here: MP3-CD