Harry Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: After 70 Years its Time to Replace Those Old Myths with Some New OnesPosted: August 6, 2015
J. Samuel Walker writes: President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan in 1945 is arguably the most contentious issue in all of American history. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have generated an acrimonious debate that has raged with exceptional intensity for five decades. The spectrum of differing views ranges from unequivocal assertions that the atomic attacks were militarily and morally justified to claims that they were unconscionable war crimes. The highly polarized nature of the controversy has obscured the reasons Truman authorized the dropping of the bomb and the historical context in which he acted.
The dispute over the atomic bomb has focused on competing myths that have received wide currency but are seriously flawed. The central question is, “was the bomb necessary to end the war as quickly as possible on terms that were acceptable to the United States and its allies?”
The “traditional” view answers the question with a resounding “Yes.” It maintains that Truman either had to use the bomb or order an invasion of Japan that would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, and that he made the only reasonable choice. This interpretation prevailed with little dissent among scholars and the public for the first two decades after the end of World War II. It still wins the support of a majority of Americans. A Pew Research Center poll published in April 2015 showed that 56% of those surveyed, including 70% aged 65 and over, agreed that “using the atomic bomb on Japanese cities in 1945 was justified,” while 34% thought it was unjustified.
The “revisionist” interpretation that rose to prominence after the mid-1960s answers the question about whether the bomb was necessary with an emphatic “No.” Revisionists contend that Japan was seeking to surrender on the sole condition that the emperor, Hirohito, be allowed to remain on his throne. They claim that Truman elected to use the bomb despite his awareness that Japan was in desperate straits and wanted to end the war. Many revisionists argue that the principal motivation was not to defeat Japan but to intimidate the Soviet Union with America’s atomic might in the emerging cold war.
It is now clear that the conflicting interpretations are unsound in their pure forms. Both are based on fallacies that have been exposed by the research of scholars who have moved away from the doctrinaire arguments at the poles of the debate.
The traditional insistence that Truman faced a stark choice between the bomb and an invasion is at once the most prevalent myth and the easiest to dismiss. U.S. officials did not regard an invasion of Japan, which was scheduled for November 1, 1945, as inevitable. They were keenly aware of other possible means of achieving a decisive victory without an invasion. Their options included allowing the emperor to remain on the throne with sharply reduced power, continuing the massive conventional bombing and naval blockade that had destroyed many cities and threatened the entire Japanese nation with mass starvation, and waiting for the Soviets to attack Japanese troops in Manchuria. Traditionalists have generally played down the full range of options for ending the war and failed to explain why Truman regarded the bomb as the best alternative.
A staple of the traditional interpretation is that an invasion of Japan would have caused hundreds of thousands of American deaths, as Truman and other officials claimed after the war. But it is not supported by contemporaneous evidence….(read more)
J. Samuel Walker is the author of Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan (University of North Carolina Press, 1997, second edition, 2004). He is now working on a third edition of the book.