Truman and the bomb

While on a tour of Harry Truman’s old Key West presidential getaway several years ago, our guide expressed emotional gratitude

Pat Murphy, Guest Columnist – Troy Media

While on a tour of Harry Truman’s old Key West presidential getaway several years ago, our guide expressed emotional gratitude for Truman’s decision to end the war by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Apparently, his father was serving in the Pacific and was set to be part of the invasion force that would hit the Japanese homeland. Had his father been killed in the process, he would never have been born.

This view was once common. Having served as a combat soldier expecting to take part in the invasion, the late historian Paul Fussell described the “relief and joy” with which he and his comrades received the news. He put it this way: “We were going to live.”

But as is often the case, this simple view has come under attack in the ensuing decades. Broadly speaking, there are three lines of criticism. One has to do with the motivation behind Truman’s decision; another has to do with whether it was necessary to end the war; and the final one refers to the impact on Japanese civilians.

The arguments about motivation are various. There’s the claim that Truman’s real objective was to provide the Soviet Union with an intimidating demonstration of American power. There’s the allegation of American bloodlust seeking vengeance for Pearl Harbour. And so on.

However, much of this debate seems to ignore an obvious consideration. It’s completely feasible for someone to have multiple motivations for a given action. In fact, it’s commonplace.

As for the question of whether the atomic bombs were necessary to end the war, it comes down to a matter of timing. There’s no doubt but that Japan was, as Truman’s critics aver, already “beaten.” The issue is whether it was determined to fight on to the bitter end. And, if so, what the cost would be.

Certainly, some Japanese officials were interested in finding a way to bring the war to a negotiated end. But the military high command had other ideas.

Even after Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, there was no surrender. Ditto for when the Soviets finally entered the war against Japan on Aug. 8. And after Nagasaki on Aug. 9, it still took the direct intervention of the emperor to finally tilt the balance.

Perhaps more generous terms would have done the trick earlier, in which regard critics are particularly unhappy with the insistence on unconditional surrender. It was a policy that Truman inherited from his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. There was to be no ambiguity as to the war’s result, and no opportunity for Japanese militarism to regroup.

Since Truman’s decision obviated the need for an invasion of the Japanese homeland, we’ll never know what the related casualties would have been. Estimates tend to be all over the place. Truman’s memoirs quoted another 500,000 American lives, while Secretary of War Henry Stimson went to double that. Critics think these are gross exaggerations.

But the experience from earlier battles like Okinawa and Iwo Jima indicate that it would certainly have been bloody. To get a sense of the potential scale, consider that the invasion was scheduled to begin at Kyushu on Nov. 1, where it would likely pit more than 700,000 American troops against a Japanese force almost as large.

Still, we’re left with Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s enormous civilian casualties. To critics, such deaths are qualitatively different from those of men in battle.

But are they really? For the overwhelming part, the Americans who would have died in the invasion were not professional soldiers who had chosen the military as a career. Rather they were civilians who had been caught up in the events triggered by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Many had been drafted. And all they wanted was to get the war over, go home, and go back to their civilian lives.

Also take note of historian Michael Burleigh’s observation with respect to the ongoing death rate for those subject to Japanese overlordship in the summer of 1945. Between Allied prisoners of war, Asian civilians and Asian slave labourers, he estimates that it was running around 100,000 per month.

And this we do know. By ending the war, Hiroshima and Nagasaki put a stop to it.

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