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the most controversial decision

10 november 2011

The Most Controversial Decision is the latest contribution to the substantial historical literature surrounding President Harry Truman's decision to use atomic weapons in the war against Japan. There are several other books just on the decision itself, and it has been treated before in focussed studies like Richard Frank's excellent Downfall (1999) and Miscamble's own From Roosevelt to Truman (2007). One line of thought, argued by historian Gar Alperovitz, has become a revisionist meme. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was superfluous and vicious, the meme goes. Japan was fixing to surrender anyway; the real motive behind Truman's actions was to fire the first warning shot of World War Three across the bows of the Soviet Union's war machine.

Miscamble, though he insists that he has "not sought to engage in any detailed refutation of the work of other historians" (3), certainly takes sides against the Alperovitz meme, and for the more canonical view that the use of the bomb was justified in military and grand-strategic terms. He takes a more Machiavellian sense of whether it was justified in moral terms; war is inherently immoral, and it may be necessary to do immoral things to reach moral ends.

The not-uncynical view that Truman was menacing Stalin with the bomb, without regard for Japanese lives, isn't absurd on the face of it. Just a few months later, every decision made by the American or Soviet governments, even many domestic decisions, were made in the context of how the opposing superpower would react. The wartime alliance between the US, UK, and USSR was vigorous but tenuous. I remember an SPI boardgame from the 1970s that presented the hypothesis that the end of the Second World War was the beginning of the Cold War with an eye toward the Third, and in dramatic game-theory fashion. One side in the game controlled the Western Allies and the German armies of the Eastern Front; the other controlled the Soviets and the Western-Front Germans. The game was won by the player occupying more of Germany than the other. Indeed, Stalin went to Potsdam after the ceasefire with the carving-up of Europe much on his mind, and he wanted a role in the occupation of Japan too. What better way to slap him on the nose than to show off the doomsday weapon?

There are two troubles with that cynical hypothesis. It asks us to believe that Truman would incinerate thousands of Japanese civilians in order to annoy Stalin. It also doesn't seem to match the evidence.

Miscamble assembles the evidence carefully to show that Truman wielded the atomic bomb as he would and did any other military weapon. Japan was intransigently against surrender. Truman wanted the Soviets to join the war effort, and didn't make any diplomatic use of his trump card at Potsdam or subsequently. The bomb was a huge factor in precipitating the Japanese surrender. When the Soviets did ask for a role in postwar Japan, based on having joined the Pacific war two days before it was over, Truman dissuaded them in very strong terms – but such dissuasion would have been exerted, and would have worked, with or without atomic weapons.

Miscamble's case is convincing. And he is humanist enough to realize that people don't object to Truman's decision on strategic terms alone. In fact, strategic critiques grow out of a deep moral discomfort with the use of atomic weapons at all. The Japanese government, on the day Nagasaki was bombed, protested that "a belligerent does not enjoy an unrestricted right in the choice of methods of attack" (95). U.S. Admiral William Leahy would say that "in being the first to use [the atomic bomb] we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages" (115). Neither Leahy nor the Japanese felt it was ethical to use the bomb even as a straightforward tool to bring about surrender. One could absolve Truman of anti-Communist ulterior motives while still condemning his choice of weapons in a single-minded fight.

Also in the 1970s, I thought of Truman as one of history's greatest monsters. One has to remember the context. I grew up with, and lived well into my thirties with, the everyday imminence of the end of the world. We all did. Life before 1989, and even for a few roller-coaster years after that, was surreal in ways impossible to describe to a generation of young adults who haven't experienced superpower brinksmanship. Obviously in a post-9/11 world we live with the threat of terror destroying many lives at once in a major city. But we no longer live with the very real terror of everything disappearing at once.

In that high-nuclear age, the world of Doctor Strangelove and Don DeLillo's End Zone, it was understandable, if not entirely rational, to condemn the man who let the atomic genie out of the bottle. And for me (and many like me), that man was more Truman than Oppenheimer. We didn't see that the bomb was just as surreal unused as used. To us the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was different in kind to that of Tokyo or Dresden – not just in degree. (As Miscamble and many other historians have pointed out, the degree of destruction visited on Tokyo was worse.)

I tend to be convinced by Miscamble's evidence and arguments. It's rather easier to be so now that the nuclear nightmare has receded into relative absurdity, instead of being the defining absurdity of our lives.

Miscamble, Wilson D, C.S.C. The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the atomic bombs, and the defeat of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.