Remembering the Bomb, Forgetting Why

The decision to drop the bomb will always be controversial because the answer to that question is yes, there were other ways we could have ended the war with Japan. Some would almost certainly have cost more lives than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Army Air Force Commander of Strategic Forces in the Pacific Curtis LeMay believed if given six months and freedom to target whatever he wished, he could bring Japan to its knees by completely destroying its ability to feed itself. Victory assured -- at the cost of several million starved Japanese.

The navy thought a blockade would do the trick. Starving the Japanese war machine of raw materials and the people of food they were importing from occupied China would have the Japanese government begging for peace in a matter of six months to a year. Again, visions of millions of dead from starvation came with the plan.

The army saw invasion as the only option. A landing on the southernmost main island of Kyushu followed up by an attack on the Kanto plain near Tokyo on the island of Honshu. Dubbed Operation Downfall, the plan called for the first phase to be carried out in October of 1945, with the main battle for Japan taking place in the spring of 1946. Casualty estimates have been hotly debated over the years, but it seems reasonable to assume that many hundreds of thousands of Americans would have been killed or wounded while, depending on how fiercely civilians resisted, perhaps several million Japanese would have died in the assault.

But there were other plans to end the war as well. Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard sat in the meeting room where the Interim Committee was meeting on June 1, 1945 to decide on where the atomic bombs should be used and how. And from his vantage point, he did not agree with the main conclusions of the committee to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without warning. Later that month, he wrote a memo to his boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, where he tried to make the case for not using the device.

Ever since I have been in touch with this program I have had a feeling that before the bomb is actually used against Japan that Japan should have some preliminary warning for say two or three days in advance of use. The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of our people generally is responsible in the main for this feeling.

During recent weeks I have also had the feeling very definitely that the Japanese government may be searching for some opportunity which they could use as a medium of surrender. Following the three-power conference emissaries from this country could contact representatives from Japan somewhere on the China Coast and make representations with regard to Russia's position and at the same time give them some information regarding the proposed use of atomic power, together with whatever assurances the President might care to make with regard to the Emperor of Japan and the treatment of the Japanese nation following unconditional surrender. It seems quite possible to me that this presents the opportunity which the Japanese are looking for.

I don't see that we have anything in particular to lose in following such a program. The stakes are so tremendous that it is my opinion very real consideration should be given to some plan of this kind. I do not believe under present circumstances existing that there is anyone in this country whose evaluation of the chances of the success of such a program is worth a great deal. The only way to find out is to try it out.

Was Japan ready to surrender in June? The cabinet had been wanting to give up at least since April. They had extended feelers to the Russians in hopes of using Stalin as a go-between in negotiations. But intercepts by our codebreakers released unredacted in 1995 clearly show that in addition to a demand to maintain the Emperor's position, the Japanese would only settle for a "negotiated" peace with the army command structure still intact and no occupation. In short, an invitation to another war as soon as the Japanese recovered. Even that proved too much for many in the military who saw surrender as the ultimate disgrace according to bushido, their code of honor. When Stalin stalled the Japanese peace delegation, the military killed the tentative outreach completely.

Would warning the Japanese of the existence of the bomb have done any good? It may have. But the Interim Committee came to the conclusion that the Japanese were just as likely to move thousands of American prisoners of war to the target area. And a demonstration of what the bomb could do was out of the question. There was enough plutonium for two devices -- the Trinity test "gadget" and Fat Man. After that, the supply was a question mark because of manufacturing problems at the Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion plant in Tennessee and Hanford reactor in Washington state.

Besides, after 82 days of the most brutal combat in any theater of the war, the battle for Okinawa was finally winding down. It is hard to grasp the wave of helplessness that descended on many in the civilian and military leadership as they watched the Japanese on Okinawa fight so fanatically and to the death. The prospect of invasion and continued combat throughout the Pacific was frightening. The gruesome toll of 100,000 Japanese soldiers dead and 50,000 American casualties weighed heavily on the Interim Committee in making their recommendations to President Truman.

Bard almost certainly discussed his memo with both Stimson and Truman. Stimson, an old world, old fashioned diplomat who said when disbanding the code breakers after World War I "Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail," was impressed by the arguments and even shared some of Bard's sentiments but felt he had an obligation to abide by the Committee's majority findings.

Truman, president for less than 3 months and in the dark about the Manhattan Project during his entire vice presidency, was being given advice from every corner on how to end the war. The decision to drop the bomb did not, he claims, initiate a great moral conflict within him. He accepted the recommendation of the Interim Committee and went off to Potsdam where the allies issued an ultimatum to Japan: surrender or suffer the consequences. The die was cast and the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was sealed.

With no good plan to end the war without massive death and suffering, an intransigent Japanese government insisting on fighting to the bitter end, mounting casualties in the Philippines and Okinawa, a war weary public, the prospects of transferring millions of men who had just survived the horrors of the European battlefields to the Pacific, and his own belief that using the bombs would end the war quickly, Truman gave the go ahead in a handwritten note on the back of a July 31, 1945 memo from Stimson regarding the statement to be released following the bombing.

"Reply to your suggestions approved. Release when ready but not before August 2.

In the end, there were probably many calculations that went into the decision by Truman to drop the bomb. Other considerations probably included the effect it might have on the Soviets. For many years, this reason was considered by several historians to be the primary concern of Truman when he gave the go-ahead to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While it no doubt was one factor in Truman's decision, it appears now, thanks to publication of radio intercepts from the time, that the president's primary focus was using a weapon he felt could end the war in days and not months.

Another factor was the advice given him by his good friend and confidante Jimmy Byrne, former senator from South Carolina. Byrne pointed out that spending $2 billion for a bomb that was never used, not to mention the chance that it could end the war and save lives, would anger the American people -- especially those who lost loved ones because the bomb had not been tried. Some historians have pointed to this factor as an overriding one, but that almost certainly isn't the case. Byrne's political instincts were solid, but Truman would hardly have based his decision on what the voters would have thought after the war.

If all of this is went into deciding to use the bomb, why then does most of the rest of the world criticize us for using it?

The stories of survivors are harrowing -- flames everywhere, people walking by whose flesh had been ripped off their bodies by heat and the blast, the inability to find loved ones. All the ghastliness of Dante's Hell and a Gothic horror novel rolled into one. We pity them and ache for what they went through that horrible day.

But once --just once-- I would like to hear the horror stories of the men and women of Pearl Harbor as counterpoint to the suffering of the Japanese and a reminder of who started the war and how they did it. I want to hear from those who can tell equally horrific tales of death and destruction. How Japanese aircraft strafed our men with machine gun fire while they were swimming for their lives through flaming oil spills, the result of a surprise attack against a nation with whom they were at peace. Or how the hundreds of men trapped in the USS Arizona slowly suffocated over 10 days as divers frantically tried to cut through the superstructure and rescue their comrades.

Perhaps we might even ask surviving POWs to bear witness to their ordeal in Japanese prison camps -- surely as brutal, inhuman, and gruesome an atrocity as has ever been inflicted on enemy soldiers.

While we're at it, I am sure there are thousands of witnesses who would want to testify about how the Japanese army raped its way across Asia. This little discussed aspect of the war is a non-event for the most part in Japanese histories. But the millions of women who suffered unspeakable mistreatment by the Japanese army deserve a hearing whenever the tragedy of Hiroshima is remembered.

Yes, no more Hiroshimas. But to take the atomic bombing of Japan totally out of context and use it to highlight one nation or one city's suffering is morally offensive. The war with Japan, with its racial overtones on both sides as well as the undeniable cruelty and barbarity by the Japanese military, should have been ended the second it was possible to do so. Anything less makes the moral arguments surrounding the use of the atomic bomb an exercise in sophistry.