The Specter of Hiroshima in an Age of "Virtual Nuclear States"

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Mr. Gellately’s most recent book is Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe, published by Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage Books. He teaches history at Florida State University.

The UN-backed discussions on nuclear non-proliferation held recently in New York ended without producing an agreement. The head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei warned that beyond Iran there could soon be “another 10 or 20 virtual nuclear states.” They could produce plutonium, have the wherewithal to make warheads, and be able to create weapons on short notice.

The real and present danger is that the Taliban are inexorably closing in on Islamabad. It won’t surprise anyone if they succeed in overthrowing the government. Since Pakistan’s sheer size puts an invasion out of the question, what can be done? Our use of drones may eliminate militants, but an informed op-ed in the New York Times suggests that the long-distance strikes kill more innocents and work to recruit terrorists.

There has been much talk regarding how far we should go to protect security and save lives. Of particular note is the controversy swirling about President Harry Truman and Hiroshima. Jon Stewart labeled him a war criminal for using the atomic bomb. That assertion, which was subsequently retracted, was not made during calm reflection on the past, but in an emotional exchange about “enhanced interrogation techniques” under the presidency of George W. Bush. Whether or not to use such methods confronts us with the question of how far our President should go to prevent an attack that could cost many lives.  

Even now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is contemplating steps against Iran. Mohamed ElBaradei just told Der Spiegel Magazine that such actions would be “insane,” for they “would trigger an explosion across the whole region and the Iranians would immediately start to construct a (nuclear) bomb and would be assured the support of the entire Muslim world.”

It is worth reviewing what happened on the road to Hiroshima to suggest that the options at that time – and for us – are anything but simple. In discussing Hiroshima I will focus on American decision-making and leave aside the role of the Soviet Union.

When President Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Vice President Truman knew nothing about the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. He inherited from FDR the assumption that the bombs would be used when and if they were ready.

On June 16 a Scientific Panel, including Robert Oppenheimer, reported that some “scientific colleagues” wanted to show the enemy the bomb’s might. But the Panel concluded: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no alternative to direct military use.”  

Dropping the bomb was not inevitable. It was the unwillingness of the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender that made using it ever more likely.

On July 17 Truman was informed of the first successful detonation of the bomb, and soon was told that one could be deployed against the enemy any time between August 1 and 10. He asked about the alternative of invading Japan. (He had already authorized one million American troops in preparation for such a possibility.) Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall cautioned the President that the ensuing battle would likely cost the U.S. “half a million American lives.”

Yes, the Japanese were already using suicide bombers. In the battle for Okinawa soldiers strapped on explosive charges and threw themselves against on-coming tanks. Kamikaze pilots were flying missions against the United States navy. At home 2.5 million Japanese troops were armed and waiting, so the casualties to an invading force would have skyrocketed.

We can ask a counterfactual question that resonates to this day to highlight the choices President Truman faced. How would the American people have reacted if they later learned that he had had the atomic bomb but refused to use it? Would not dropping it on Japan have saved countless American soldiers’ lives? As it happened, because the Japanese gave no indication of surrendering, the clock kept ticking.

On July 25 Acting Army Chief of Staff Thomas Handy sent orders to Commanding General Carl Spaatz, Army Strategic Air Forces, to “deliver [the] first special bomb as soon as weather will permit . . . after about 3 August 1945.”  Although the order was backed by the authority of the President, he issued no special instructions but permitted the process to unfold.

On July 26 the United States, Britain and China issued a formal declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender. The enemy was threatened with “utter devastation.” The response was complete silence, so “Little Boy” was finally dropped on August 6. The White House issued a further threat, (correctly) stating that “the bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.”

The first bomb was not enough to bring capitulation and “Fat Man” was used against Nagasaki on August 9. The United States intercepted a radio message next day in which the Japanese offered to stop the war, but on condition that the Emperor would retain the “prerogatives of His Majesty as a sovereign ruler.” It was true that the Emperor was perceived as a god-like figure but a government’s first responsibility should have been to stop the killing.

Truman had been shaken by how many people were killed in the bombings, and on August 10 called a moratorium. Yet he authorized resumption of conventional bombing to urge the enemy to seek peace.

On that same day Secretary of State James Byrnes formulated a note saying the Emperor could remain, but with the proviso that he would be under the authority of a new Supreme Allied Commander. When that note arrived in Tokyo on August 12, the Army General Staff “resolutely” rejected the “enemy’s conditions.” Commanders in China and Burma wrote the General Staff “to fight to the end” and “to die an honorable death.” Finally breaking with precedent, the Emperor summoned officials on August 13 and ordered them to prepare imperial documents to terminate the war.

Japanese army officers, far from bowing to authority, attempted a coup late on August 14 and occupied the Imperial Palace. Given the army’s esprit, the wonder is not that they attempted to overthrow the government but that the rebellion petered out quickly. At noon on August 15 the Emperor went on radio to accept surrender. He said he yielded because “the enemy had recently used a cruel explosive,” and because continued fighting would mean the “annihilation of our nation.” When word reached President Truman at 7 p.m. on August 14, he accepted the unconditional surrender and ordered the immediate cessation of all offensive operations.

The story of Hiroshima illustrates the determination of a government and people to fight on. Intuitively one might expect that they would give up immediately after Hiroshima. They did not, even though the explosion was unlike anything before. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated, an estimated 110,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel were killed immediately in the combined attacks. Nevertheless, Japanese leaders were ready to go down fighting, even after the second bomb and threat of invasion by the United States and the Soviet Union.

We can see what stakes were involved up to and after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is easy to overestimate the power of even the deadliest threats to make our enemies “see the light.” Back in 1945 President Truman hardly acted as a war criminal. In the context of those times he determined that he had no choice but to use the atomic bomb. Any other course of action would have resulted in a longer war and even more deaths.

Let us hope that President Barack Obama never has to decide what to do should the Taliban get hold of Pakistan’s arsenal of 80 to 100 nuclear weapons. In the Middle East, which ElBaradei himself called a “ticking bomb,” the road ahead looks perilous. Should the Iranians or other “virtual nuclear states” there come into possession of these weapons they will not easily renounce them. Now is the time to reflect on the options we face and their moral and political implications.

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    More Comments:

    Arnold Shcherban - 6/10/2009

    It's hardly coincidental that Japan capitulated right after the Chief of Staff of Khvantun's Army arrived to Tokyo with the sad news that the 1 million Army ceased to exist under the devastating attacks of Red Army.
    Some recent very well documented and detailed works of Japanese researchers on the issue of Japan's capitulation point at the latter fact as the last straw that broke Japanese resilience.

    Lisa Ciambella - 5/27/2009

    Nope, Mr.Dresner I do not agree with you. IMHO, Russia entering the war was not pivotal to the Japanese surrender and the beginnings of the war are not relevant to Truman's decision to use nuclear bombs. Japan surrendered because of the nuclear bomb. Period. Full stop. More specifically, it took TWO nuclear bombs before the Japanese Emperor could convince/supersede the Japanese military extremists to agree to surrender.

    The way I understand it, Japan's WWII military leadership, very effectively, employed two unconventional military strategies which added new and extreme dimensions to 20th century warfare and would be the beginning of the end of the "rules of war". (Vietnam would introduce guerilla warfare and "conventional warfare" would become military history.). First, there were the Kamikazes. In the Middle East they are called "suicide bombers." Second,the military leadership's policy of NO surrender. Japan's employment of soldiers as weapons as well as combatants, and, their call for all Japanese citizens to fight to their death if US soldiers landed on Japanese soil was effectively a policy of Japanese genocide.

    President Truman responded to Japan's strategies with another new and extreme military tactic. He had to. It was either let the Japanese kill as many Americans as they can before they destroy themselves so they could say they died with honor or do something else.

    What I believe is historically relevant are the similarities I see between the "extreme nationalism" of Japanese military leaders/citizens of WWII and the Islamic ultra-fundamental/Jihad mentality and tactics of the Taliban, bin laden and their followers, today. The Middle East fundamentalists are exhibiting the same 20th century military genocide fervor and tactics as the WWII Japanese military leaders.

    IMHO, President Obama and current world leaders are in the same predicament as President Truman - "What measures are required to stop attacks by ideological extremist of exclusive principles with weapon capabilities, using guerilla tactics and genocidal tendencies?"

    Is it, let the followers of the Taliban/bin laden kill as many Americans/Westerners as they can before they destroy themselves so they can receive their heavenly reward, or do something else.

    Donald E. Staringer - 5/25/2009

    It is easy to understand the disappointment of Mr Dresner and agree that the issues facing Truman were trivial compared to decisions to use atomic weapons in future situations. Truman had many options open to him which he never effectively considered. The Russian entrance, the issue of the Emperor's status, the Nov 1 invasion date, Marshall's order to have many more bombs available prior to the proposed invasion, the blockade and destruction of so much of Japan,failure to break the secret of the bomb before its use, recognition of a need to bolster the peace advocates among Japanese leadership, and one could go on ... The tragedy of Hiroshima was our failure to really consider possibilities beyond the immediate use of the of the bomb in a "war without mercy." Next time will be much more complex and one can only hope more consideration is used.

    Jonathan Dresner - 5/24/2009

    I'm deeply disappointed to see a scholar who is clearly aware of Stalin's role in WWII recount a Japanese surrender narrative that ignores the pivotal role of the Soviet entry into the war against Japan between the two bombs.

    More to the point, I don't see an historical analogy being used effectively here: The questions Truman faced were comparatively trivial compared to the issues raised by nuclear proliferation in South and Central Asia. The more appropriate analogies would be the ones having to do with the Beginnings of wars: what is the threshold of threat which justifies war, and its attendant moral and social disasters?