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Truman and the Hiroshima Cult
By Robert P. Newman
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 1995 Robert P. Newman
All rights reserved.
Why Did Truman Drop the Bomb?
On 8 May 1945 German representatives ratified unconditional surrender of all their armies. There was much rejoicing in Washington and other Allied capitals, but it was muted by a daunting situation in the Pacific. Japan had to be brought to surrender; however, after V-E Day, every soldier in the army wanted to come home—immediately.
GIs who had escaped with their lives from North Africa, the Italian campaign, D-day, and the Battle of the Bulge dreaded the prospect of again risking everything to subdue Japan. Fifty years and several dozen crises have dulled American memories of the pressures to end the Pacific War in 1945. In addition to the soldiers and sailors, family, friends, and sweethearts were vocal about getting it over with.
The Ninety-fifth Infantry Division participated in the war against Germany for ten months, then was brought back to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to train for the invasion of Japan. The division commander said, "there was a continuing and growing opposition to being ordered to the Pacific. A very disturbing situation arose approaching open sedition and mutiny."
As early as 1943, after the exhausting battle against Gens. Rommel and von Arnim in Tunisia, rumors spread that the Americans who had participated in that campaign had "done their share" and would be sent home. Gen. Omar Bradley wrote, "When the men were told emphatically that this was not true, there was widespread rebellion.... many cases of self-maiming were reported." As casualties began to mount in the Pacific, the morale of those being sent there, and of their families, suffered. The battle for Iwo Jima captured people's imaginations, largely because of the stunning picture of the Stars and Stripes being raised on Mount Suribachi, but all was not upbeat. Geoffrey Perrett describes the trouble:
... the cost of the war was beginning to wear on people's nerves. February  brought a quarter of a million American casualties, including more than 50,000 dead. For the first time in its history the United States was in a war that would cost it more than 1,000,000 casualties. Letters and telegrams poured into government offices. One distraught woman wrote: "Please, for God's sake, stop sending our finest youth to be murdered in places like Iwo Jima. It is too much to stand, too much for mothers and homes to take. It is driving some mothers crazy.... It is most inhuman and awful—stop, stop."
In the first part of August 1945, 115,000 troops passed through the Panama Canal en route to the Pacific. Almost five million Americans were scheduled to make this trip.
They would not make it gladly. A committee of the Social Science Research Council, chaired by Frederick Osborn, made studies of the social psychology of American soldiers in World War II. Samuel A. Stouffer was the lead author of several of its reports, and among other predictions, Stouffer and his colleagues felt that morale was likely to drop precipitously after Hitler was defeated. This prediction was borne out: "In June 1945, just after VE Day, two thirds of the returnees in the United States and not eligible for discharge under the point system reported themselves as unwilling to go overseas again while another fifth asserted that they would be willing to go when needed." But even the one-fifth "willing" to go had reservations ; they did not actually believe they would be sent.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson was acutely sensitive about prospective casualties in the Pacific; he had conscripted the men whose lives were at stake. Gen. George Marshall was also worried about increasing casualties, and about the nation's will to fight; he told a biographer after the war that "A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War." Adm. Ernest King had even stronger doubts about American "stamina and commitment" for a long war. He told reporters in 1944 that "the American people will weary of it quickly, and that pressure at home will force a negotiated peace, before the Japs are really licked."
The invasion of Iwo Jima was preceded by an immense air and sea bombardment; capture of this tiny island was to take three or four days. Instead, it lasted a month, from mid-February to mid-March 1945; there were 2,500 casualties the first day. Total casualties in taking these eight square miles were 6,821 marines killed and almost 20,000 wounded. This was the first battle in the Pacific in which the Japanese had inflicted more casualties than they had suffered, and this despite overwhelming American air and sea power. The outcome sent a shudder through many a casualty-conscious army planner.
The San Francisco Examiner, among other papers, took a dim view of the cost of taking Iwo Jima. In an editorial on 27 February, the paper said American forces were paying too heavily for the island, and that they were "in danger of being worn out before they ever reach the really critical Japanese areas." John Toland writes that after Iwo Jima:
The War Department itself was searching for ways to reduce casualties on all fronts. The most controversial had already been suggested to Admiral Nimitz by General Marshall's office, which had previously had similar recommendations for the European Theater of Operations: the use of poison gas. There were large quantities on hand. Nimitz pondered its employment on Iwo Jima but concluded that "the United States should not be the first to violate the Geneva Convention."
Also after Iwo Jima the U.S. Office of War Information warned that the public was uneasy about casualties in the Pacific War. Marshall took this to heart. In a speech to the Academy of Political Sciences in April, he warned that "we are approaching one of the most difficult periods of the war" when the "great impatience" of Americans to return to normalcy would interfere with maximum efforts against the Japanese.
Marshall, and army planners generally, had no hope that navy blockades and air force bombardment would bring surrender before disillusionment set in. Germany had been bombed and blockaded and had held out to the bitter end, showing that despite claims of air strategy theorists, only the seizure of the enemy's territory forced capitulation. And as the spring of 1945 developed, seizing Japanese territory became increasingly painful. There was trauma upon trauma. Iwo Jima was barely secure when American forces invaded Okinawa, and it became clear that Japanese forces were fighting more fiercely as the fighting got closer to the home islands. Of the Okinawa battle, lasting from 1 April to 2 July, Hanson Baldwin's apocalyptic description is appropriate:
In size, scope and ferocity it dwarfed the Battle of Britain. Never before had there been, probably never again will there be, such a vicious, sprawling struggle of planes against planes, of ships against planes. Never before, in so short a space, had the Navy lost so many ships; never before in land fighting had so much American blood been shed in so short a time in so small an area.... There have been larger land battles, more protracted air campaigns, but Okinawa was the largest combined operation, a "no-quarter" struggle fought on, under and over the sea and the land.
American forces recorded 12,520 killed or missing, 36,631 wounded, and 93 missing in taking an area half the size of Rhode Island that the Japanese could not resupply or reinforce. The Japanese air force and navy were in tatters, but the Okinawa defenders had superbly dug-in defenses and hundreds of kamikaze volunteers ; the latter sunk 36 American ships and damaged 368 more.
Not just Okinawa, but all the battles of the Pacific War had shown the Japanese to be in the grips of a Masada complex. Like the Jewish Zealots defending that mountain fortress from Rome's tenth legion in A.D. 73, they would fight to the bitter end, and when fighting was no longer possible, they would kill themselves. Only one organized Japanese unit surrendered during the entire Pacific War.
On Okinawa, approximately 70,000 Japanese lost their lives, and 80,000 Okinawans, most of them civilians, many by a kind of "poor man's harakiri"—holding a grenade against their stomachs and blowing themselves to pieces. Only 7,000 surrendered to American forces when the battle was clearly over, and the Americans used some effective propaganda to get at least a few captives. It was that bad, or worse, in every other battle. On Attu, of some 3,000 Japanese defenders, 29 surrendered; the rest were killed in battle or killed themselves. On Tarawa, of 5,000 Japanese defenders, only 150 were taken prisoner. On Saipan, of 30,000 Japanese soldiers, fewer than 1,000 allowed themselves to be captured; more than 1,000 civilian workers committed suicide. On Iwo Jima, of 23,000 men, only 216 surrendered.
The Japanese code required victory or death. Ruth Benedict in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword explains this commitment in anthropological terms, but her account lacks the immediacy and color of the best participant-observer narrative. Westerners cannot understand the vitality of the Japanese spirit. After detailing the outcomes of various battles, Tsurumi Shunsuke tells us:
This action [suicide] was seen by the Japanese on the main islands as a proper model for their own behavior should the U.S.A. prove victorious and land in Japan. The Government declared that loyal subjects of the Emperor must prepare themselves for glorious self-destruction for the sake of preserving the national structure. The tenet was that even when all the Japanese, including the Emperor himself, had perished this structure would remain.... Very few people in Japan doubted this line of reasoning, and virtually no one, not even social scientists or members of the various religious sects, ventured to criticize it.
The significance of this, lost on many Allied authorities, was that only the emperor could cancel the obligation of every Japanese citizen to give his life for the eternal kingdom. For westerners who find this Masada complex baffling, there are two accounts of revolts of Japanese prisoners of war in Australian and New Zealand camps that convey the Japanese ethos better than any historian's explanation. Both revolts were caused by the unwillingness of the prisoners to continue to live, since they had disgraced themselves, their families, and the emperor by allowing themselves to be taken into custody in the first place; they had failed to commit suicide in a POW camp, and believed (in many cases correctly) that with a mass outbreak, their Australian and New Zealand captors would necessarily turn the machine guns on them. Charlotte Carr-Gregg, an Australian sociologist, in Japanese Prisoners of War in Revolt, looks at the suicide wish in the outbreaks at Featherstone and Cowra. Asada Teruhiko, who was a prisoner of war, tells the story of a Cowra prisoner, from capture while unconscious to return to a Japan that would not claim him, in a compelling book, The Night of a Thousand Suicides.
These accounts are definitive. The Japanese threat to fight to the last man, woman, and child, with bamboo spears if necessary, should the emperor demand it, was serious.
Some Allied sources could not believe it. Such commitment was not human. A source relied on by Gar Alperovitz, a Combined Chiefs of Staff "Estimate of the Enemy Situation" as of 6 July 1945, says, "Although individual Japanese willingly sacrifice themselves in the service of the nation, we doubt that the nation as a whole is predisposed toward national suicide." Michael Sherry likewise accepts a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) study in April 1945 that states: "There are no indications that the Japanese as a whole share the fanatical Nazi psychology of committing national suicide."
It is difficult to know what sources informed the military researchers. On Saipan, on Okinawa, on every Pacific island soldiers and civilians alike had committed suicide en masse when the battle was hopeless. The Chinese, who know something about Japanese motivation and culture, took the prospect of last-ditch fighting, even to massive civilian casualties, seriously. Historian Tien-wei Wu, in a 1994 analysis of the proposed Enola Gay exhibit, discussed this matter : "By all accounts, the Japanese were determined to fight the Americans to the end, if they invaded the homeland. That 'one hundred million die together' was not merely a slogan but a true possibility in a country like Japan."
Nakamura Masanori, in his Japanese Monarchy, cites with approval Joseph Grew's wartime contention that only orders from the emperor to cease and desist would bring far-flung Japanese armies to lay down their arms. Without those orders, they would fight to extermination.
No one doubted the ferocity of Japanese resistance, increasing as the fighting got closer to the homeland. This ferocity would likely be intensified on 1 November 1945, when U.S. troops in Operation OLYMPIC were due to land on the southernmost Japanese island, Kyushu. This landing, if it did not trigger surrender, was to be followed by CORONET in early 1946 to take the Tokyo area.
In addition to the intensity of fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, other events in 1945 made the invasion of Japan loom as horrendous. The morale problem was highlighted in a front-page New York Times story in January 1945 when 6,300 Canadian conscripts, out of a total of 15,600 drafted for overseas duty, went AWOL. Canadians were thought to be as patriotic and battle-ready as Americans, but Canada had been at war two years longer than the United States. Was a similar situation in store when the U.S. Army started heavy postings to the Pacific?
February and March were good months in Europe, but the intensity of the Pacific War increased. Hanson Baldwin discussed the "Let-Down Problem" and the necessity for a conclusive victory over Japan in the New York Times. Here was
... one of the greatest problems the country ever has faced.... The Army itself will have to cope with a psychological problem of first magnitude, which may complicate the prodigious military and logistical problem of "redeploying" our forces for the war in the Orient.... To Americans, tired like all peoples of bloodletting ... it might appear the best and easiest course to make a compromise peace with Japan.
But if we do, our sons and our sons' sons will live to regret it ... as surely as the sun sets, twenty, thirty, fifty years from now, a rearmed and perhaps far more powerful Japan—bent on bloody revenge for her present defeats—will war upon us again.
By March Gen. LeMay was well into his incendiary bombing, and Japanese cities were going up in flames. The 9-10 March assault on Tokyo, which brought more destruction than either of the atomic bombs, gave the Japanese their first serious exposure to terror bombing. But American authorities did not assume that Japan could be bombed into submission; Adm. Chester Nimitz ordered 75 percent of XXI Bomber Command's effort to be directed against airfields of Kyushu and neighboring Shikoku between 17 April and 11 May. This was undertaken not only to hinder the destructive kamikaze attacks on American forces at Okinawa, but also to begin softening up Kyushu for OLYMPIC.
The U.S. Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) delivered its major analysis of the problem of defeating Japan by blockade and bombardment on 18 April. JIC concluded, as a concession to navy and air force opinion, that air and sea attack would "reduce progressively Japanese will to resist" Allied forces, and would break the Japanese will to continue the war. But while this would inevitably force surrender, the army point of view won out: surrender by siege and bombardment would not happen "within a reasonable length of time." Some JIC analysts estimated that victory by siege and bombardment might take "a great many years."
On 25 April the Joint Chiefs of Staff reviewed a planning document on Pacific strategy that incorporated all intelligence and planning work up to that time. This document endorsed the strategy of early invasion, but tiptoed around the touchy issue of probable casualties. The planning staff stated with some precision that the "average casualty rate per thousand per day for operations in Guadalcanal, Leyte, Attu ... all of which were amphibious assaults" was 7.45. (This rate was three and one-half times the rate for land warfare in Europe.) But the planners did not multiply the average Pacific casualty rate by the number of troops scheduled for OLYMPIC, no doubt because the result was frightening: 101,750 casualties in the first month.
At the same time the JCS was evading this depressing forecast, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters was beginning to hear chilling information about Japan's ability to fortify Kyushu despite the decimation of its navy and the pounding of LeMay's B-29s. ULTRA decrypts from the Allied military code-breaking operation in Australia on 25 April furnished Gen. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur's intelligence chief, with a first estimate of Japanese strength on Kyushu by the time of the scheduled invasion: ten combat divisions. The Japanese had correctly calculated American invasion plans, which was not difficult: there were only three plausible landing sites on Kyushu, and these sites had top priority in Japanese preparations. From then until August, despite the B-29s and naval encirclement, Kyushu reinforcements grew rapidly. As Edward Drea summarizes the ULTRA findings:
Japanese reinforcements seemed to blossom with the warm May weather in Kyushu.... ULTRA highlighted underground aircraft hangar construction and new, concealed dispersal airfields on Kyushu designed for such operations (June 6/7, 8/9). ULTRA exposed daily the high command's efforts to transform Kyushu into a mighty stronghold. Nowhere could one detect pessimism or defeatism. According to ULTRA, Japan's military leaders were determined to go down fighting.
Excerpted from Truman and the Hiroshima Cult by Robert P. Newman. Copyright © 1995 Robert P. Newman. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - Why Did Truman Drop the Bomb?,
Chapter 2 - Was Japan Ready to Surrender?,
Chapter 3 - Was the Policy of Unconditional Surrender Justified?,
Chapter 4 - Why No Warning or Demonstration?,
Chapter 5 - Was a Second Bomb Necessary to End the War?,
Chapter 6 - Was Dropping These Bombs Morally Justified?,
Chapter 7 - Why Has the "Japan as Victim" Myth Been So Attractive?,
Chapter 8 - What if the Bomb Had Not Been Used?,
Chronology through 1946,
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