One of the great historical arguments of the late-20th century was whether the decision to use the atomic bomb was justified or not, and what the real goals of its use were. I’ve sometimes seen this dismissed by partisans (usually in favor of the use of the bomb) as being a recent sort of argument, only made by people who were well distanced from World War II, but this isn’t the case. People were arguing loudly about this almost immediately. The ambivalence about the use of the bomb was nearly immediate, and even the Japanese were aware of such discussions taking place in the United States a month later.
This was why, in 1947, Secretary of War Henry Stimson put his name on an article in Harpers that February 1947 titled “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” — it was meant to be the “official” response to the on-going debates and speculation. General Groves, of course, had a heavy role in the composition of the article, not only because he was the guy who had all of the documents at hand, but because it was his legacy on the line, too. In fact, Groves seems to have been fairly responsible for pushing Stimson to publishing something on the subject, even offering up multiple pre-fab drafts drafts for Stimson in November 1946:1
Personally, I don’t wade into these questions much, professionally, or even here on the blog. They honestly don’t interest me very much. Maybe it’s a sign of how post-post-Cold War I am? I don’t know. To me it has always seemed like splitting very fine hairs, trying to make distinctions without much difference. In my mind, the atomic bombings were plainly not ethically very different than the previous firebombings of Japan or Germany. To argue about whether they were justified or not seems to me to be the wrong question — a question that misleads us into mistaking what the core issue was.
For me, the better question is, under what circumstances do we believe the use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians is justified? That gets one into much more interesting ethical territory, in my opinion, than asking why the bombs were used, a question that seems to presume that the motivations are somehow the most important thing to ask about. It also keeps us from having the same old discussion that people have been having for nearly 70 years. Maybe it’s my post-postness talking, here, but whether people in the past had better or worse intentions before setting a hundred thousand people on fire seems like the least interesting historical question to pose in the face of such actions.
Nevertheless, I do pay some attention to these arguments, mostly because I get asked about this sort of thing from time to time (one of the hazards of being an historian of such matters) and it helps to have a snappy answer or two. So I was really interested to hear, at a workshop in DC a few weeks ago convened by the Atomic Heritage Foundation (more on the workshop and its purpose in a later post), the retired NRC historian J. Samuel Walker give a brief talk on the current state of the historiography over the “decision to use the bomb.” Walker wrote an article on this subject in 1990, a book in 1997, and another historiographical review in 2005.
I hadn’t met Walker before this, but I’ve reviewed two of his books (one on Three Mile Island, another on US nuclear waste policy), and had appreciated and drawn upon his work as an historian. Walker is, as he put it, “a flaming moderate,” and it comes out in his work. Both of those books are great — for TMI, he has a nice balance of technical detail with political/bureaucratic considerations (and a great chapter on the long-term effects on the nuclear industry); for nuclear waste, he does a great job of being strictly factual while pointing out exactly where he saw the US government underestimating the problem and failing to appreciate how much they were losing public faith. As with all moderates, he runs the risk of disappointing partisans of all sides, but that’s the nature of it.
Walker mapped out two major poles on the “decision to use the bomb” question. (I should say up front that this is my synthesis of Walker’s synthesis, re-written from memory. So it’s possible I may be inadvertently mangling this a bit, though I don’t think I am. There are other sub-arguments to this debate, of course, but to me this boils it down to the really crucial bits nicely.) The first is the “traditional” argument, which roughly follows the position put forward by Stimson in 1947. At its core, it argues, in brief:
- that Truman made a decision to use the bomb on the basis of ending the war quickly;
- the as far as the US was concerned, Japan would not surrender on acceptable terms without either the bomb or invasion;
- and that of those two options, the bomb was the option that would cost the least number of American and Japanese lives;
- and, as the Japanese Emperor acknowledged in his surrender statement, the bomb did in fact end the war promptly.
This is, of course, the argument that most people are familiar with. The other pole, according to Walker, is what is often called the “revisionist” take, a term acknowledged as potentially disparaging, and is expressed most forcefully in the work of Gar Alperovitz. At its core, it argues, in brief:
- that Japan was already defeated at the time the decision to use the bomb was made, and that US intelligence already knew this;
- that Japan had been suing for peace and was ready to surrender without an invasion;
- that the real reason the bomb was used was so to demonstrate its power to the Soviet Union, in an attempt to exert more influence on them in the postwar;
- and that Japanese Emperor’s surrender statement invoked the bomb only as a politically-acceptable “excuse” for his people, when actually he surrendered primarily because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
There are, of course, more details that people have hashed out over the years, including the infamous “how many casualties in an invasion” question. In the 1990s in particular, these were fiercely debated. It was, of course, the immediate post-Cold War, and everybody was still in a mood of assessment of trying to make out what the Cold War’s legacy actually was.
So where are we now, firmly in the 2010s? Walker reported that in his assessment, the scholarly debate had cooled down quite a bit, and that a new consensus was emerging, something that could be visualized firmly in between the two poles. There were problems, he argued, with both the “traditional” and the “revisionist” views. Specifically:
- It’s not really clear that Truman ever made much of a “decision,” or regarded the bomb/invasion issue as being mutually exclusive. Truman didn’t know if the bomb would end the war; he hoped, but he didn’t know, couldn’t know. The US was still planning to invade in November 1945. They were planning to drop as many atomic bombs as necessary. There is no contemporary evidence that suggests Truman was ever told that the causalities would be X if the bomb was dropped, and Y if it was not. There is no evidence that, prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Truman was particularly concerned with Japanese causalities, radiation effects, or whether the bombs were ethical or not. The entire framing of the issue is ahistorical, after-the-fact, here. It was war; Truman had atomic bombs; it was taken for granted, at that point, that they were going to be used.
- Defeat is not surrender. Japan was certainly defeated by August 1945, in the sense that there was no way for them to win; the US knew that. But they hadn’t surrendered, and the peace balloons they had put out would have assumed not that the Emperor would have stayed on as some sort of benign constitutional monarch (much less a symbolic monarch), but would still be the god-head of the entire Japanese country, and still preserve the overall Japanese state. This was unacceptable to the US, and arguably not for bad reasons. Japanese sources show that the Japanese military was willing to bleed out the country to exact this sort of concession from the US.
- American sources show that the primary reason for using the bomb was to aid in the war against Japan. However, the fact that such weapons would be important in the postwar period, in particular vis-à-vis the USSR, was not lost on American policymakers. It is fair to say that there were multiple motivations for dropping the bomb, and specifically that it looks like there was a primary motivation (end the war) and many other “derivative” benefits that came from that (postwar power).
- Japanese sources, especially those unearthed and written about by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, make it clear that prior to the use of the atomic bombs, the Japanese cabinet was still planning on fighting a long battle against invasion, that they were hoping to exact the aforementioned concessions from the United States, and that they were aware (and did not care) that such an approach would cost the lives of huge numbers of Japanese civilians. It is also clear that the two atomic bombs did shock them immensely, and did help break the stalemate in the cabinet — but that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria also shocked them immensely, perhaps equally, maybe even more (if you have a choice between being occupied by Truman or occupied by Stalin, the decision is an easy one). But there is no easy way to disentangle the effects of the bombs or the Soviet invasion, in this sense — they were both immensely influential on the final decision. That being said, using the bomb as an “excuse” (as opposed to “we are afraid of Russians”) did play well with the Japanese public and made surrender appear to be a sensible, viable option in a culture where surrender was seen as a complete loss of honor.
So what we’re left with is something that, in my view, looks a lot more plausible than either the “traditional” or “revisionist” options, both of which assume way more prescience than actual historical actors usually have. (Much less Truman, of all people. In my view, even wondering what Truman thought about this is the wrong question to ask — Truman was many things, but he was not a thoughtful guy. He makes Eisenhower look like a French philosopher by comparison.)
The are genres of historical explanation that people find compelling. This is something that goes a bit beyond the historical facts themselves: it is the superstructure in which we interpret the facts, or, to put it another way, it is how we think about everything that’s going on that doesn’t end up in the archival record.
What I find compelling about Walker’s “consensus” view is that it is much more of a muddle than either the “traditional” view or the “revisionist” view. The “traditional” view makes it look like Truman et al. were making carefully reasoned decisions based on an ethics of the bomb that had not developed, based on questions that were not yet being asked. I don’t really believe for a minute that Truman worried much about the first use of the atomic bomb. But the “revisionist” view makes him still look too clever by half — too scheming, too anticipatory, too prescient about both the Japanese war and the Cold War. That’s not the Truman I know. The “consensus” view is much more human looking: the people in it are half-way acting consciously, half-way caught up in things that had been going on for a long time and were by then out of their active control. Of course, in retrospect, everyone wants to re-write history to make them look better, especially when they’re being criticized for past actions. That’s part of being human, too.
Walker also posited that along with this emerging consensus, there was also a cooling in the tone of the debate. This was immediately proved to be somewhat premature, as Peter Kuznik, another attendee to the workshop (who I consider a friend), vigorously defended the “revisionist” point of view. Well, so it goes — there’s no better way to prove an argument among scholars than to propose that there really isn’t much of an argument anymore. Still, I found Walker’s synthesis a useful way of framing the field of historical argumentation, summing up a number of disparate positions (each with books and books of documents and footnotes debating each tiny point) in a fairly convenient format. And what can I say — I’m a sucker for moderate, synthetic arguments.
- Citation: Leslie R. Groves to Harvey H. Bundy, drafts of “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” (6 November 1945), Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 5, Folder 20, “Miscellaneous.” [↩]