top of page

Despite moral qualms, President Harry Truman made the correct decision about Hiroshima


... how I changed my mind about this decision because of history



Reprint from 2019: President Harry Truman made the correct decision to use atomic weapons on Japan in 1945 — and though I vehemently opposed it in 1967, this is why I changed my mind about that historical event


Nuclear arms are hideous, immoral weapons whose existence continues to threaten civilization. To say, however, that Harry Truman should have sacrificed hundreds of thousands of American lives because of what happened in the nuclear arms race decades later is not only ahistorical, it is moral arrogance enabled from the safe distance provided by time and victory.

Tom Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War

College, National Interest.org, August 5, 2018

When I entered Penn State in the mid-1960s, the university required us to read some books prior to starting our freshman year at the school. One of them was John Hershey’s “Hiroshima,” which convinced me of how immoral, horrific, and un-Christian nuclear weapons were.


They are still immoral, hideous, horrific, and un-Christian, but by the time that I had graduated from Penn State four years later, I was looking at President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a different light.


Then, in a lecture in 1991, a best-selling author who had just completed what is now the definitive biography of Truman, convinced me that the president had made the correct choice.


So, while today I realize that nuclear weapons can ultimately bring about the destruction of civilization, obliterating the world because the U.S. and Russia have significant amounts of “overkill,” Truman’s decision was based upon a quandary that military leaders had given him.


In short, it was this: If the U.S. attacked the island of Japan conventionally, it would lead to the loss of between 250,000 and a million American lives.


The decision came down to this: it may have been the only way in which Japan would have surrendered.


As Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, argued last year,


Truman, for his part, thought he was bringing the war to a swift close. Taken in its time, the decision was the right one. As historian David McCullough has been known to say, “people living ‘back then’ didn’t know they were living ‘back then’,” and to judge the decisions of people in 1945 by the standards of 2015 is not only ahistorical, it is pointless. Truman and his advisers made the only decision they could have made; indeed, considered in the context of World War II, it wasn’t really much of a decision at all.


“No Choice: Why Harry Truman Dropped the Atomic Bomb on

Japan,” National Security.org, August 5, 2018

Years later, Truman made a succinct explanation of his rationale,

''It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood were worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were and are.''


Harry S. Truman, quoted in Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 1995


The choice


Truman’s decision was made just four months after he had become president of the United States because of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. Truman was not the VP for Roosevelt’s first three terms. He became the choice based on his performance as a U.S. senator from Missouri that had investigated the corruption in the awarding of contracts during the war.

Despite FDR’s respect for him, the president never told his new VP about the Manhattan Project that was designing and producing the atomic bomb. Truman never learned of that until July 1945 when advisers briefed him on the project. So, he had little time to make a decision on whether or not to use it.


Truman had tremendous respect for the military. He had become a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I, an experience that demonstrated his innate capacity for leadership. As such, he realized that he would have to rely on the advice of these leaders.


Today, some revisionist historians and other Americans are arguing that it was the incorrect decision. However, McCullough, Nichols, and others argue that his decision has to be evaluated in the context of the times,


Truman's defenders say the decision to use the bombs has to be judged in the context in which it was made. After nearly four years of carnage, Americans were desperate to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible. An almost unstoppable political, military, and bureaucratic momentum propelled the US toward that end, nourished by a profound antagonism toward the nation that had bombed Pearl Harbor and that stood accused of egregious wartime atrocities.


George Moffett, “Truman’s Atom-Bomb Dilemma,”

Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 1995


Americans were sick of war, and they wanted it to end quickly and get back to a normal life again. That is not a justification for using the bomb, and that is not the rationale on which Truman based his decision, but it provides context for the decision. The generals and military fighters were exhausted, and a battle to defeat Japan by taking their country in a conventional manner would be long and bloody.


So, while Truman’s statement about saving American lives and seemingly dismissing the 200,000 who were killed in the Japanese bombings may seem callous when regarded from the perspective of the 21st Century, the truth is that his goal was to end the war.

Hitler had already fallen, V-E Day was declared a few months earlier, and the only remaining enemy was the Japanese.


Japanese today claim racism


It is understandable that the Japanese today are upset that the only two bombs ever used were those against Hiroshima on Aug. 5 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9. However, they have to remember a few things.


First, even after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, which killed approximately 80,000 people, the Japanese still did not surrender. That happened only after the dropping of the second — and the last — bomb on Nagasaki four days later.

Second, the Japanese were very brutal people. As the Christian Science Monitor noted,


A more specific consideration was the appalling toll taken on US forces in the Pacific in the months prior to Truman's July decision to use the bomb.


Half the three-year total of American battle casualties in the Pacific were sustained during the first three months of Truman's presidency. The battle for Okinawa alone, which ended in June, resulted in 45,000 casualties - a 30 percent casualty rate and a grim preview of the losses that could be expected in the final assault on the Japanese home islands if the bomb were not used, Truman's advisers believed.


''If you're looking for an explanation for why the allies made the decision to use the bomb, the word is 'Okinawa,''' says Mr. McCullough.

George Moffett, Christian Science Monitor, July 31, 1995


Think of it: 45,000 had lost their lives on Okinawa. Imagine what would have happened if the Japanese were defending their homeland.

However, the claims by historians and others today that the U.S. made a decision that was racist against Japan is ridiculous. As Nichols writes,


There are three arguments usually marshaled against the use of the bomb in 1945. First, that to use the bomb only against Japan was racist; second, that it was pointless; and third, that it was done purely for political effect that had more to do with the Soviet Union than with the war in the Pacific. These objections make little sense when weighed against counterfactual thinking about American alternatives.


Nichols, National Security.org, Aug. 5, 2018


The racist argument is made by Japanese who assert that the U.S. would not have used it against another Caucasian country, Germany, but did against an Asian one.


First, when Truman became president, Germany was defeated and was in retreat. So, saying that he would not have used one against Hitler is problematic. The Japanese point to the internment of those of their nationality by FDR but Germans were not interned.


The internment was FDR’s most egregious mistake, but it was taken on the advice of his military personnel who argued that Japan was eying an attack on California, which was not out of the realm of possibility.


Second, there was not a similar concern about Americans of German descent, though there were some cases in which some Hitler-sympathizers were discovered. It was not considered to be a real danger, though. [I previously wrote about a concern that German-sympathizers were plotting to bomb the Gallitzin railroad tunnels during WWII, which would have been a major blow to American commerce and transportation for the war effort.”]


The racism argument is lame.


Was Japan already defeated?


Nichols notes that perhaps some revisionist historians do have a point that perhaps Japan had already lost the war and was on the brink of surrender and that we had only to be patient. Then he destroys that argument, too, by pointing out what the Japanese would have done to protect themselves from being overthrown by America,


But what about a stronger objection, that Truman should have realized that Japan was beaten? This is one of those arguments that assumes modern-day omniscience on the part of historical figures. The fact of the matter is that Japan was not preparing to surrender; it was preparing to fight to the death. The invasion of the Japanese home islands was not going to look like the invasion of Germany, where the Nazi armies were crushed between advancing U.S. and British forces on one side and an avalanche of enraged Soviet troops on the other. The Japanese invasion, on the other hand was likely to cost a half-million Allied and Japanese lives— all in what should have been the last months of the war.

Nichols, National Security.org, Aug. 5, 2018


I will defer to when I finally made my decision about Truman’s decision in July 1992.


David McCullough convinced me


In July 1992, David McCullough, the acclaimed author who was a native of Pittsburgh, was the keynote speaker at the Ligonier Valley Writers Conference. He spoke at the town hall in Ligonier to a large, well-educated crowd, and for an hour, he dazzled us with his recollections about the writing of “Truman,” which had then reached number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

In that address, McCullough spent a great deal of time elaborating on Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. He said that the decision for Truman was simple, based on the data that the military researchers had provided for him. According to the author, Truman believed that between 250,000 and a million Americans would be lost in a conventional battle.


As McCullough noted, that made it an easy decision. Truman never backed down, and Americans overwhelmingly agreed with his decision after the fact. Today, they are split on the decision.


Americans should not be split on this choice. Nuclear weapons are horrific, immoral, un-Christian today, as they were then. However, sometimes, a balance must be made between what is expedient and what is moral. In this case, the dropping of the bomb won the war, and without it, it may have lasted another year or longer. Perhaps as many as a million people would have died, both Americans and Japanese.


The first person who made that argument to me, and made a point that indeed Truman was right, was my American history professor at Penn State, Robert Murray, in 1971. He forced me to rethink my reading of John Hershey.

McCulloch sealed that deal in my mind.


So, that is why I believe in what Truman did while being fully cognizant that we should never allow another nuclear weapon to be used at any level.


Conclusion


I understand the angst of the Japanese people today, but I do not feel sorry for those who fought against us in WWII. They brutally killed 35,000 of our soldiers on Okinawa, and remember, they were the ones who started the war with their attack on Pearl Harbor. They engaged in kamikaze attacks, suicidal missions, in their quest to dominate the world.


Truman made the right choice in August 1945. It ended the bloodiest war in history and allowed Americans to return home and resume their lives. Hitler and Hirohito were terrible dictators bent on world domination, and they deserved their final destination.

Nuclear weapons should be outlawed morally, but as a deterrent, they will never ben. However, they may ultimately destroy mankind. I hope that I am gone by then.

34 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page