What We Can Learn from Henry L. Stimson to Avoid Another Atomic Tragedy

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Dr. Malloy is an Assistant Professor and Founding Faculty at the University of California, Merced. He is the author of Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Cornell University Press, 2008).

Over sixty years after the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the atomic bomb still casts a long shadow over the human race. While the end of the Cold War has relaxed fears of a full-scale nuclear war between the superpowers, the peril posed by the bomb remains central to contemporary debates over national and international security. Proliferation in the decades since 1945 has dramatically increased the danger that regional disputes might escalate into nuclear crises. The Middle East is the focal point of much contemporary atomic anxiety, driven in large part by fear of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And though it seems like ancient history now, the specter of a “smoking gun. . . in the form of a mushroom cloud” was central to the Bush administration’s efforts to build support for a preventive war against Iraq in 2003. Meanwhile, the Indian subcontinent and the Korean peninsula remain potential nuclear flashpoints. Recent unrest in Pakistan has raised the prospect of bombs falling into the hands of Islamic extremists, playing to growing fears of nuclear terrorism. In the United States, Congress and the Bush administration have tangled over whether to approve money for construction of a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Historians have neither a monopoly on wisdom nor any easy solutions to offer to our current nuclear dilemmas. But given the slim margin for error and potentially dire consequences of failure, coming to grips with the lessons of our nuclear past is a vital part of any sane and responsible approach to dealing with these weapons today. Particularly relevant are the events surrounding the first and thus far only combat use of nuclear weapons in August 1945. As Nobel-prize-winning British physicist P. M. S. Blackett observed, “All attempts to control atomic energy involve predications about the course of future events. . . . Inaccurate views as to the historical facts of their first use are a poor basis on which to plan for the future.”

The decision to use the bomb against Japan has been the subject of innumerable historical books and articles. Unfortunately, much of this scholarship has been bogged down in a bitter historiographical debate focused on an increasingly narrow subset of questions. On one side stand the “orthodox” defenders of President Harry S. Truman, who insist that the president confronted a choice between using the bomb and launching a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands that might have cost as many as million American casualties. As such, they assert, the use of the bomb to end the war was just and merciful, ultimately saving lives on both sides. On the other side are the “revisionists” (of whom Blackett was arguably the first), who argue that the war in the Pacific could have been ended without either the bomb or an invasion and that anti-Soviet motives played an important role in Truman’s decision.

While there is nothing wrong with a good historiographical controversy, the long-running debate over the use of the bomb has largely ceased to offer anything new in the way of either evidence or insights, at least on the American side. There is, however, another way to understand the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, one that offers both a fresh look at the event itself as well as lessons relevant to today’s nuclear dilemmas. In Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan, I used the lens of biography to try to understand the use of the bomb from the perspective of a legendary American statesman. The picture that emerged from my study was not one of omnipotent leaders who rationally calculated the military, diplomatic, and moral factors to the last decimal place. Nor was it one of cruel, emotionless men blind to the terrible power they were to inflict on Japan and the world. Rather, the decisions that shaped the use of the bomb against Japan were made by complicated and flawed human beings under the pressure of war. That American leaders made mistakes and misjudgments in handling the bomb under those circumstances is entirely understandable. We would do well to learn from those mistakes rather than simply seeking to justify or vilify the men who made them.

Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950) was one of the most celebrated statesmen of his generation: a Republican with a bipartisan commitment to service who served under six presidents in various capacities during the first half of the twentieth century. Stimson was a deeply moral man with a rigid set of ethics that reflected his Victorian-era upbringing, his deep religious convictions, and his training in the law. World War I, which he experienced first-hand as a fifty-year-old volunteer in the American Expeditionary Force, convinced him that “war, perhaps the next war, would drag down and utterly destroy our civilization.” He spent much of the 1920s and 1930s (including a stint as Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover) working to outlaw war while building trust between nations. At the very least, he sought to contain violence against civilians. Wars, he believed, were not won by killing civilians. To wage war in such a manner was not only immoral, but also counterproductive to the extent that deliberately killing civilians would undermine America’s moral claim to world leadership.

Despite his sincere commitment to limiting the violence of war against civilians, Stimson as Secretary of War during World War II presided over not only the creation of the atomic bomb, but also its use against Japanese cities and civilians in August 1945. Moreover, the use of the bomb without warning and without any prior consultation with the Soviet Union over the postwar control of atomic energy helped to fuel an arms race that threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. Stimson was not blind to the apparent contradiction between his role in the use of the bomb and his own oft-expressed convictions about war and morality. In 1946, Stimson wrote to his old friend Felix Frankfurter to express private doubts about a ghost-written article appearing under his name that justified the use of the bomb. The retired statesman worried that “the full enumeration of the steps in the tragedy will excite horror among friends who theretofore thought me a kindly-minded Christian gentleman but who will . . . feel that I am cold blooded and cruel and different from the man who labored for peace under Mr. Hoover.”

Stimson was neither cold blooded nor cruel. The failure of such a thoughtful, moral man to control the power of the bomb in accord with his own convictions offers humbling lessons as we confront today’s nuclear dilemmas. Most obviously, it reminds us that decisions about these weapons were -- and will continue to be – made by fallible human beings, often under intense pressure. To offer one example, during spring-summer 1945 Stimson and other American policymakers failed to integrate the bomb into a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at ending the war in the Pacific. They allowed the escalating conventional and eventual nuclear bombardment of Japan to take place with little consideration of how it might bring about an American victory or even what minimum diplomatic terms they would accept as a definition of victory. Obviously Japanese leaders must bear the bulk of the blame for choosing to continue a hopeless war. But the American failure to coordinate force and diplomacy is a reminder that such calculations, difficult under the best of circumstances, often confound the wisest and most well-meaning leaders in times of crisis. While mistakes are an inevitable part of policy making, the stakes with nuclear weapons are so high that we can ill afford to learn through trial and error. The most effective way to reduce the danger of another atomic tragedy is thus to build structures to control if not eliminate nuclear weapons before we find ourselves caught in a high-stakes crisis.

Stimson’s struggles offer a number of potential lessons as we look for ways to control the bomb. Perhaps the most relevant today is the importance of a truly international approach to the problem. Stimson vacillated on this issue during World War II, unable to decide between advocating a unilateral, bilateral (with Great Britain), or multilateral approach to the postwar control of the bomb. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he regretted his failure to consistently champion an international solution. In September 1945, on his last day in office as Secretary of War, Stimson presented a plan that called for immediate negotiations with the Soviet Union aimed at the international control of atomic energy. As part of these talks, he suggested the United States should be willing to halt all further development of nuclear weapons, impound its existing bombs, and delegate substantial decision-making powers to a new international body charged with controlling atomic energy. Stimson’s plea for international control foundered as it met opposition from within the Truman administration and suspicion from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Today, international efforts to control the bomb, as represented by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Atomic Energy Agency are certainly not a panacea. But the manifest failure of unilateral approaches to the bomb, from the Cold War arms race to the invasion of Iraq, underlines Stimson’s September 1945 insistence that an international approach remains our best hope for “saving civilization not for five or for twenty years, but forever.”

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/13/2008

Comments are redundant.

Hugh Louis Nini, Sr - 7/2/2008

when Ogg picked up he first rock and threw it at Thog because he flipped Ogg the bird - man's search for the Blue Bird of Happiness began - how to prevent Thog from responding by picking up the six foot pole, laying next to his rock, and wacking Ogg up side the head, which would require a response on the part of Ogg and cause a leap in technology on Ogg's part by his placing a larger rock in the strip of tiger skin that girded his loins, swinging it in a circle over his head, therby gaining volicity and distance, hence bouncng one off of Thog's skull out of reach of his 6 foot pole.

The result isn't what's imporant. What's imporant is that man continue to make the journey, and his search for the Blue Bird of Happiness.

D. M. Giangreco - 6/27/2008

In "What We Can Learn from Henry L. Stimson to Avoid Another Atomic Tragedy," Sean L. Malloy says:

"During spring-summer 1945 Stimson and other American policymakers failed to integrate the bomb into a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at ending the war in the Pacific. They allowed the escalating conventional and eventual nuclear bombardment of Japan to take place with little consideration of how it might bring about an American victory or even what minimum diplomatic terms they would accept as a definition of victory."

What a curious thing to say. There was no "diplomatic strategy" -- for example, to achieve an armistice of some sort -- "aimed at ending the war." The strategy agreed upon by the United States, Great Britain, and Soviet Union was to force the Axis powers to agree to their terms. This was publicly and unambiguously called "unconditional surrender." If Malloy thinks that it would have been better for the United States to have broken numerous Three-Power agreements made with Churchill and Stalin, he should say so.

As for the subject of Malloy's book, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, he was equally unambiguous when he outlined that the purpose of the Manhattan Project (which developed the atom bomb) was "to bring the war to a successful end more quickly than otherwise would be the case and thus save American lives." It was also the recommendation of his Interim Committee that the bomb be used to shock Japan into an early surrender. And this is what was done.

scott p ryan - 6/23/2008

after ww2, America should of just droped 1 nuclear bomb on russia, just like winston Churchill wonted to, just like he said, they would be a big problem for the free world in years to come.
well he is right, russia would of helped china, red army, then china helped north korea. winston Churchill was right, if russia got taken out and democracy was force, there would not be 1 problem today in this world.
if ww3 ever came, and it was agenst russia china north korea, and say america won, they better do it right this time, and if ww3 did come like that, and there was say still iran left with nuclear weapons, but they did not start or have anythink to do with that war, that america better take out that country with nuclear weapons once and for all even if they did not start war.