Truman on Trial: Not Guilty





Dr. Chamberlain is a lecturer in history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, University of Wisconsin-Barron County.

This"trial" was a deep disappointment. Each scholar brought salient facts to the table. Sadly, each also brought a pervasive contempt for anyone who could come to a different conclusion. In their contempt for each other, they showed contempt for their audience as well. As a result, neither made a compelling case. A tie goes to the defense; therefore,"not guilty" was the only possible verdict.

On a personal level, the trial did have one positive result. Critiquing the statements led me to pull my own thoughts together on paper and to create a hypothesis of my own concerning the decision to drop the Bomb. I mean"hypothesis" literally, as something to be tested and not accepted uncritically. In that spirit, I have included it below. I do think that it offers a perspective on the decision to drop the bomb that respects the good evidence on both sides while avoiding the invective.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS AND HYPOTHESIS CONCERNING THE DECISION TO DROP THE ATOMIC BOMB

I once heard a profound thought attributed to the mathematician Jacob Bronowski. He believed that the horror of Hitler was not limited to the brutal crimes of the Nazi regime. It also included the brutality necessary to defeat him. Hitler had made Western Civilization more callous and less moral, and Bronowski hated him for it.

I concur. The aggression of Germany and Japan required a brutal response. By 1945, we were committing many of the same acts of war that we had condemned a few years earlier. As a people we were more brutal than we had been a few years earlier. Our leaders, civilian and military, reflected this. The murderous logic of Total War required them to deal out horror on a staggering scale. To assume that this had no impact on their capacity for moral judgement strikes me as naive, if not delusional. To simply condemn them as criminals without reference to the context strikes me as crude, if not cruel. Much of the time our leaders tried to limit that brutality to what seemed necessary for military victory. When looking back, we, as a culture, remember the attempt to balance necessity and morality more than we remember the horror those actions still created. However, some decisions rightly provoke deep and uncomfortable thought. Foremost among them are the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That we periodically look back and reconsider the decision to bomb them is, in itself, a mark of conscience and not of contempt for the people of the time.

The degree of contempt and hostility shown by some people on both sides of this debate is something else again. What begins as sincere and strong opinion based on research all too often degenerates into grandstanding and name-calling not far removed from a grade school playground. The result creates antagonism and disgust both among other historians and the general public, and with reason. The anger that shows through in my verdict reflects my weariness at listening to people wholly uninterested in listening to each other. Sadly, I find myself fearing that this will be the state of the debate over the Atomic Bomb until my generation is dead and gone.

However, hope springs eternal, even among historians. So I will conclude these remarks with a hypothesis to the question at hand that I find promising. Its major assumptions are listed below. I do not claim that this hypothesis is correct. I think, however, that testing it might produce less strident debate and more solid scholarship. If other historians have gone before me in this, please let me know.

1. The Army Air Force shifted to fire bombing in Japan mostly because of the difficulties encountered in mounting more conventional raids.

2. Over time, the techniques for firebombing improved to the point that large sections of cities could be destroyed.

3. Although this was justified as the only way to destroy Japan's military and industrial capacity, some military and civilian leaders began to see the destruction of the civilian population by bombing as a military end in itself.

4. By the time of the March 9 Tokyo firebombing we had embraced the policy of mass slaughter of civilians as one military objective in itself, though the degree to which that is conscious varies from leader to leader.

5. The invasions of Iwo Jima and, particularly, Okinawa, encouraged mass slaughter as a military objective by increasing fear of civilian resistance to an invasion.

6. There was a largely unchallenged conclusion among military and political leaders that victory required not simply the military defeat of Japan but the occupation of Japan and the transformation of its government.

7. An occupation required either near unconditional surrender or an invasion.

8. The successful test of the Atomic Bomb suggested a possible alternative to invasion: terrifying the Japanese into surrendering by convincing them that they only had a choice between surrender and genocide from the air.

9. The growing conflict with the Soviet Union made the use of the bomb as a demonstration of its power more desirable, but that desire was probably not a significant component of Truman's decision to use it against Japan.

10. Because the mass killing of civilians had already become an end in itself, Truman and the military leaders most involved in the war against Japan had no moral difficulty in jumping from firebombing to nuclear weapons.

11. Although there was no moral distinction between fire bombing and nuclear bombing, there was a corresponding change in their purpose that can be viewed as morally different: the slaughter of civilians was no longer meant to reduce resistance to an invasion.

12. The use of the A-Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was meant to demonstrate that the United States had the capacity and the will to commit genocide from the air.

13. There was, to my knowledge, no debate over how long to keep dropping bombs on Japan if they did not surrender. The destruction of a significant percentage of the population and the reduction of the remainder to starvation levels is a distinct possibility.

14. The fact is, the Japanese did surrender.

15. Given the US insistence on occupation and transformation of Japan as conditions of surrender, the use of the Bombs may have been the least costly road to peace.

16. The reasons that US leaders could not consider surrender on lesser grounds, even after Japan's offensive power was decimated, deserve further research and consideration. If this hypothesis is correct, moral judgements would hinge largely on that point.


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Dave Livingston - 12/27/2002

Others than I in this forum may make more informed judgments concerning the political necessity of occupying Japan, but from a soldier's perspective it is evident that indeed it was necessary that we conquer and occupy Japan.

For one thing, the Japanese armed forces fought to the bitter end in nearly every engagement in which we encountered them. We dared not bypass many strongholds held by the Japanese lest they utilize them to cut our communications. The Japanese tendency not to acknowledge defeat was demonstrated by isolated instances of individual Japanese soldiers holding out for as long as thirty years after the war was over. One does not leave a fanatical enemy such as that behind one in large numbers. Unless we occupied Japan there would have remained the risk of a renewal of the war.

Had not the Emperor surrendered formally, we probably would have faced a continuing low-grade war in the Home Islands lasting several years. Having fought in Viet-Nam, Lieutenant, 1st Infantry Division, 1966-7; Captain, 101st Airborne, 1969-70, therefore having been through that dragged out sort of agony there is no question in my mind that the bomb saved lives on both sides in the long run in addition to the lives saved by the massive invasion we did not have to conduct.

If we were to occupy the Home Islands the anticipated invasion would probably have cost us anywhere between a quarter of a million and a half million in casualities and it would have cost the Japanese twice or more times that many casualities, many of them civilians. That would have been one nasty campaign. No thank you, folks. The Susan Songtags among us may think they hate war. Soldiers REALLY hate it.

What a joke! Recently an old friend sent me a copy of an essay written by Sontag for "The New Yorker." In it she whimpers about her special sensitivity to the horrors of war based upon her looking at photographs of war scenes. Well, the dumb broad doesn't know a damned thing about war. She hasn't experienced the misery, smells, gut-wrenching terror lasting for days on end, the lingering fear hanging on for weeks and months at a time. She should try sometime getting by with but two showers in a three months' stretch in a tropical environment. She should try running across an open field at night in the midst of a surprise mortar attack. She thinks some still photos are horrifying? She should try chowing down sitting on the ground among bodies & body parts. She hates war? Ah heck, give me a break.

With reason the two favorite pop songs for G.I.s in Viet-Nam were, "Homeward Bound" and "Let Me Out of This Place."

On the other hand, it is impossible for me not to resent the bomb dropped on Nagasaki because ground zero was the Catholic cathedral. That bomb killed approximately a quarter of Japan's Catholic population. One wonders, "Was the destruction of the Catholic community of Japan a deliberate policy decision made with the intention of killing Catholics as Catholics?"


Dave Livingston - 12/27/2002

Others than I in this forum may make more informed judgments concerning the political necessity of occupying Japan, but from a soldier's perspective it is evident that indeed it was necessary that we conquer and occupy Japan.

For one thing, the Japanese armed forces fought to the bitter end in nearly every engagement in which we encountered them. We dared not bypass many strongholds held by the Japanese lest they utilize them to cut our communications. The Japanese tendency not to acknowledge defeat was demonstrated by isolated instances of individual Japanese soldiers holding out for as long as thirty years after the war was over. One does not leave a fanatical enemy such as that behind one in large numbers. Unless we occupied Japan there would have remained the risk of a renewal of the war.

Had not the Emperor surrendered formally, we probably would have faced a continuing low-grade war in the Home Islands lasting several years. Having fought in Viet-Nam, Lieutenant, 1st Infantry Division, 1966-7; Captain, 101st Airborne, 1969-70 therefore having been through that sort dragged out sort of agony there is no question in my mind that the bomb saved lives on both sides in the long run in addition to the lives saved by the massive invasion we did not have to conduct.

If we were to occupy the Home Islands the anticipated invasion would probably have cost us anywhere between a quarter of a million and a half million in casualities and it would have cost the Japanese twice or more times that many casualities, many of them civilians. That would have been one nasty campaign. No thank you, folks. The Susan Songtags among us may think they hate war. Soldiers REALLY hate it.

What a joke! Recently an old friend sent me a copy of an essay Songtag written by Sontag for "The New Yorker." In it she whimpers about her special sensitivity to the horrors of war based upon her looking at photographs of war scenes. Well, the dumb broad doesn't know a damned thing about war. She hasn't experienced the misery, smells, gut-wrenching terror lasting for days on end, the lingering fear hanging on for weeks and months at a time. She should try sometime getting by with but two showers in a three months' stretch in a tropical environment. She should try running across an open field at night in the midst of a surprise mortar attack. She thinks some still photos are horrifying? She should try chowing down sitting on the ground among bodies & body parts. She hates war? Ah heck, give me a break.

On the other hand, it is impossible for me not to resent the bomb dropped on Nagasaki because ground zero was the Catholic cathedral. That bomb killed approximately a quarter of Japan's Catholic population. One wonders, "Was the destruction of the Catholic community of Japan a deliberate policy decision made with the intention of killing Catholics as Catholics?"

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