Clouded judgement?

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb
January 26, 1996

This massive volume is both fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because it covers a vital piece of modern history, frustrating not only because of the persistent harping on the author's declared thesis, but also because essential pieces of information are either buried in a welter of detail or simply absent. For example, while a great deal is said about how the wording of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration was debated beforehand, the actual text of the declaration is not to be found.

The author's thesis is, first, that the decision to drop the two bombs on Japanese cities was not taken to avoid the need for a necessarily very bloody invasion of Japan, and, second, that this argument was a later deliberately manufactured myth to justify the decision. It is a tribute to the fairness with which the author presents his information that the perusal of the book gives me serious doubts on the very essence of his first point, while the "myth generation" seems based more on commonality of outlook among those concerned than on a deliberate conspiracy. Throughout the first half of the volume the cardinal importance is well brought out of President Truman having to decide in the spring and early summer of 1945 whether or not to modify the request for "unconditional surrender" that had ruled policy since Roosevelt and Churchill had pronounced this formula in 1943. The president's advisers were clear and united that with an explicit acceptance that the emperor could continue to remain the sovereign of Japan, surrender would follow speedily, but that without such an assurance every Japanese would fight to the death. Moreover, the military advisers thought that without the continued authority of the emperor a command to surrender would not be obeyed in outlying areas, leading to further lengthy bloodshed. Yet until the last moment, in August 1945, Truman refused to give such an assurance (essentially under the influence of James Byrnes, regarded by Alperovitz as the president's evil genius). It is this refusal, throughout June and July, regarded as wickedly wrong by the author, that led to the use of the atom bomb on August 6 and 10, and to the Soviet Union entering the war against Japan on August 8. But I am not so sure one can now say, with our present knowledge, this refusal was unreasonable, even if in the end it could not be maintained.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8. Its whole governmental apparatus was destroyed. The vast majority of Germans now think of the Nazi period with shame and contrition. Japan was, in the end, allowed to keep its emperor (and his divinity). Perhaps as a result, there is little, if any such shame and contrition in Japan. This may or may not become a serious disadvantage for the world. Was Truman so wrong to try to achieve truly unconditional surrender, while he still had two shots in the locker (the atom bombs and Soviet entry into the war)? When even after these two cards had been played it became plain that a Japanese surrender could not be achieved on unmodified "unconditional surrender" terms without a horrendous invasion of its home islands, he accepted that the assurance requested about the emperor had to be given. Nothing I have read in the book seems to me to rule out this interpretation of events. The author claims that what ended the war was not the use of atomic weapons nor the entry of the Soviet Union, but the amelioration of the surrender demand. This may well be the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth.

The author describes in detail the tangled relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, and how the power balance between them was instantly affected by the successful test of the first atom bomb in New Mexico. This change could not save the eastern half of Europe from four and a half decades of communist domination, but the ensuing four and a half years of United States nuclear hegemony allowed Western Europe to be spared this agony. Yet the success of the atomic test instantly affected Truman's attitude to Stalin, as is very clearly documented: before the successful test he wanted him in the war against Japan as soon as possible; by July 18 delay was the order of the day. It is of course quite right to say that with hindsight it would have been much better if Truman had modified the surrender formula earlier, avoiding presumably not only the use of the atomic weapons, but Soviet entry into the war (and thus probably the Korean war of 195053 and the continuing misery of the division of Korea). But clairvoyance can scarcely be demanded of statesmen.

Curiously, while there is so much discussion of how easily an earlier surrender of Japan could have been achieved, little space is devoted to discussing whether with the decision to continue the war until truly unconditional surrender was achieved, the atomic bombing was militarily justified. On the other hand, a good deal is said about how abhorrent it was to have attacked the civil population in this manner. This ignores the practice and the mood of the day. Civilians were in the front line as became evident first during the German bombing of the United Kingdom in 1940/41. This naturally led to merciless British bombing of Germany as the Royal Air Force grew in strength. (Though much has been said about the military ineffectiveness of this blanket bombing, I am unconvinced. It severely limited the number of V1 and V2 rockets that could be used against the UK and effectively stopped the use of the potentially disastrously effective snorkel submarine.) When the US entered the war, its air force readily joined in. Though there now is, rightly, a particular horror about the use of nuclear weapons, it was not obvious at the time that the human catastrophe of Hiroshima exceeded that of Hamburg in 1943 or of Dresden and Tokyo in 1945. While the Germans were engaged in mass murder and Japanese prisoners of war died in large numbers, the use of any weapon was considered acceptable, if it gave any prospect of bringing nearer a successful conclusion of the war.

Later, when the full enormity of the use of nuclear weapons became widely appreciated, those involved in the decision in 1945 had to defend it to themselves and to others. Alperovitz claims that it was an intentionally fabricated myth that this decision led to the surrender and so saved innumerable lives. This seems to me to a judgement born of hindsight. Of course, as the author makes very clear, there would have been a chance to end the war earlier had the modification of the "unconditional surrender" formula been conceded sooner. But that is no truer than the statement that if there had been a vigorous military response to Hitler's remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, the whole of the second world war would have been avoided. That the decision to use the bombs was taken (with reasonable justification) under a policy that was abandoned within a few days is what this book is about. To shorten the presentation of this complex web of decision-taking by saying that the bomb shortened the war rather than that its use arose naturally under a policy soon abandoned is probably best characterised as being a little economical with the truth rather than as the purposeful manufacture of a myth, as the author claims.

Sir Hermann Bondi was chief scientific adviser, Ministry of Defence, 1971-1977.

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

Author - Gar Alperovitz
ISBN - 0 00 255614 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 847

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