• Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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    This
    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
    .)

    The
    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

    Great
    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:

    Nobody is
    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

    Such
    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

    This,
    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.

    On
    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.

    Moreover,
    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

    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 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

    Still,
    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.

    The
    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,
    was typical:

    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.97

    The
    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.

    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 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?

    Anscombe’s
    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."101

    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."102

    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.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.

    For
    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

    Establishment
    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.

    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 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:

    Though
    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

    Isn’t
    this 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 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
    by

    the
    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.

    Weaver
    considered such atrocities as deeply "inimical to the foundations
    on which civilization is built."108

    Today,
    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.

    Leo
    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
    obvious truth:

    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.109

    The
    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.

    Notes

    1. 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, The
      Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
      (Westport, Conn.: Praeger,
      1996).

    2. 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.

    3. Ibid.,
      p. 521.

    4. Ibid.,
      p. 523.

    5. 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 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,
      Wings
      of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II
      (New York:
      Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 147–48.

    6. This
      is true also of Nagasaki.

    7. See
      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.

    8. J.
      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.

    9. Paul
      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.

    10. Alperovitz,
      Decision, pp. 320–65. On MacArthur and Eisenhower,
      see ibid., pp. 352 and 355–56.

    11. 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 U.S. Biological Warfare
      Program," Preventing
      a Biological Arms Race
      , Susan Wright, ed. (Cambridge,
      Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), p. 9.

    12. 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): 35–72.

    13. 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.

    14. 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. 62–71.

    15. Anscombe,
      "Mr. Truman’s Degree," p. 62.

    16. 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. 345–46.

    17. 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."

    18. Alperovitz,
      Decision, pp. 44–45.

    19. 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.

    20. J.F.C.
      Fuller, The
      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:

    In 1945,
    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.

    1. 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. 272–74; James
      Martin Gillis, "Nothing But Nihilism," The Catholic
      World, September 1945, reprinted in ibid., pp. 278–80;
      Alperovitz, Decision, pp. 438–40.

    2. Richard
      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.

    3. Wainstock,
      Decision, p. 122.

    Reprinted
    from Mises.org.

    August
    6, 2004

    Ralph
    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
    and Audio
    Tape
    .

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    Raico Archives

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