Truman and the Atomic Bomb
by Ralph Raico: Liberation
from the Parasite State
The most spectacular
episode of Harry 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 US Navy fliers incarcerated
in a Hiroshima jail were also among the dead.
has always surrounded the bombings. One thing Truman insisted on
from the start was that 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
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.
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
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 US Navy and Air Force were in control of the waters
around Japan, whatever troops were stationed in Hiroshima had been
On other occasions,
Truman claimed that Hiroshima was bombed because it was an industrial
center. But, as noted in the US Strategic Bombing Survey, "all
major factories in Hiroshima were on the periphery of the city
and escaped serious damage."
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."
Wiping out another one hundred thousand people ... all those
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.
Thus, 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 had been needed. But the worst-case scenario
for a full-scale invasion of the Japanese home islands was forty-six
thousand American lives lost.
The ridiculously inflated figure of a half-million for the potential
death toll nearly twice the total of US 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."
multiple deceptions and self-deceptions are understandable, considering
the horror he unleashed. It is equally understandable that the US
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.
Otherwise, Americans and the rest of the world might
have drawn disturbing comparisons to scenes then coming to light
from the Nazi concentration camps.
were condemned as barbaric and unnecessary by high American military
officers, including Eisenhower and MacArthur.
The view of Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman's own chief of staff,
the 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.
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.
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.
Those 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
in June 1956, Truman was awarded an honorary degree by her university,
Oxford, Anscombe protested.
Truman was a war criminal, she contended, for what is the difference
between the US 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?
By 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 evil."
That 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."
To 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.
It was not, in fact, the US 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.
before, Truman had been pressed to clarify the US 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.
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 30 or 40 million deaths now attributed
to the Maoist regime would not have occurred.
But 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 'Grand 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.
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:
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.
obviously true? And isn't this the reason that rational and humane
men, over generations, developed rules of warfare in the first place?
While 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
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.
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 US News and World Report, continued
to denounce them for years.
The distinguished conservative philosopher Richard Weaver was revolted
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.
such atrocities as deeply "inimical to the foundations on which
civilization is built."
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.
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 obvious
If 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.
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.
On 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,
Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb (Westport, Conn.: Praeger,
Alperovitz, 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.
Ibid., p. 521.
Ibid., p. 523.
Barton 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 US 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, Wings
of Judgment: American
Bombing in World War 2 (New York: Oxford University Press,
1985), pp. 14748.
This is true also of Nagasaki.
See Barton J. Bernstein, "A Post-War Myth: 500,000 US Lives
Saved," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42, no.
6 (June/July 1986): pp. 3840; and idem, "Wrong Numbers,"
The Independent Monthly (July 1995): pp. 4144.
J. Samuel Walker, "History, Collective Memory, and the Decision
to Use the Bomb," Diplomatic History 19, no. 2 (Spring
1995): pp. 320, 32325. Walker details the frantic evasions
of Truman's biographer, David McCullough, when confronted with
the unambiguous record.
Paul Boyer, "Exotic Resonances: Hiroshima in American Memory,"
Diplomatic History 19, no. 2 (Spring 1995): pp.
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. 27595.
Alperovitz, Decision, pp. 32065. On MacArthur and
Eisenhower, see ibid., pp. 352 and 35556.
William 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 US Biological Warfare Program,' Preventing
a Biological Arms Race, Susan Wright, ed. (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), p. 9.
Barton 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 1993): pp. 3572.
One 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.
G.E.M. Anscombe, "Mr. Truman's Degree," in idem, Collected
Philosophical Papers, vol. 3, Ethics,
Religion and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1981), pp. 6271.
Anscombe, "Mr. Truman's Degree," p. 62.
Hans Adolf Jacobsen and Arthur S. Smith, Jr., eds., World
War II: Policy and
Strategy. Selected Documents with Commentary (Santa Barbara,
Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1979), pp. 34546.
For some 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."
Alperovitz, Decision, pp. 4445.
Cf. Bernstein, "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 key points.
J.F.C. Fuller, The
Second World War, 193945:
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.
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.
Felix 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. 27274; James
Martin Gillis, "Nothing But Nihilism," The Catholic
World, September 1945, reprinted in ibid., pp. 27880;
Alperovitz, Decision, pp. 43840.
Richard M. Weaver, "'A Dialectic on Total War," in idem,
of Order: The
Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
University Press, 1964), pp. 9899.
Wainstock, Decision, p. 122.
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. You can study the history of civilization
under his guidance here: MP3-CD
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