Historians have neither a monopoly on wisdom nor any easy solutions to offer to our current nuclear dilemmas. But given the slim margin for error and potentially dire consequences of failure, coming to grips with the lessons of our nuclear past is a vital part of any sane and responsible approach to dealing with these weapons today. Particularly relevant are the events surrounding the first and thus far only combat use of nuclear weapons in August 1945. As Nobel-prize-winning British physicist P. M. S. Blackett observed, “All attempts to control atomic energy involve predications about the course of future events. . . . Inaccurate views as to the historical facts of their first use are a poor basis on which to plan for the future.”
The decision to use the bomb against Japan has been the subject of innumerable historical books and articles. Unfortunately, much of this scholarship has been bogged down in a bitter historiographical debate focused on an increasingly narrow subset of questions. On one side stand the “orthodox” defenders of President Harry S. Truman, who insist that the president confronted a choice between using the bomb and launching a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands that might have cost as many as million American casualties. As such, they assert, the use of the bomb to end the war was just and merciful, ultimately saving lives on both sides. On the other side are the “revisionists” (of whom Blackett was arguably the first), who argue that the war in the Pacific could have been ended without either the bomb or an invasion and that anti-Soviet motives played an important role in Truman’s decision.
While there is nothing wrong with a good historiographical controversy, the long-running debate over the use of the bomb has largely ceased to offer anything new in the way of either evidence or insights, at least on the American side. There is, however, another way to understand the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, one that offers both a fresh look at the event itself as well as lessons relevant to today’s nuclear dilemmas. In Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan, I used the lens of biography to try to understand the use of the bomb from the perspective of a legendary American statesman. The picture that emerged from my study was not one of omnipotent leaders who rationally calculated the military, diplomatic, and moral factors to the last decimal place. Nor was it one of cruel, emotionless men blind to the terrible power they were to inflict on Japan and the world. Rather, the decisions that shaped the use of the bomb against Japan were made by complicated and flawed human beings under the pressure of war. That American leaders made mistakes and misjudgments in handling the bomb under those circumstances is entirely understandable. We would do well to learn from those mistakes rather than simply seeking to justify or vilify the men who made them.
Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950) was one of the most celebrated statesmen of his generation: a Republican with a bipartisan commitment to service who served under six presidents in various capacities during the first half of the twentieth century. Stimson was a deeply moral man with a rigid set of ethics that reflected his Victorian-era upbringing, his deep religious convictions, and his training in the law. World War I, which he experienced first-hand as a fifty-year-old volunteer in the American Expeditionary Force, convinced him that “war, perhaps the next war, would drag down and utterly destroy our civilization.” He spent much of the 1920s and 1930s (including a stint as Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover) working to outlaw war while building trust between nations. At the very least, he sought to contain violence against civilians. Wars, he believed, were not won by killing civilians. To wage war in such a manner was not only immoral, but also counterproductive to the extent that deliberately killing civilians would undermine America’s moral claim to world leadership.
Despite his sincere commitment to limiting the violence of war against civilians, Stimson as Secretary of War during World War II presided over not only the creation of the atomic bomb, but also its use against Japanese cities and civilians in August 1945. Moreover, the use of the bomb without warning and without any prior consultation with the Soviet Union over the postwar control of atomic energy helped to fuel an arms race that threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. Stimson was not blind to the apparent contradiction between his role in the use of the bomb and his own oft-expressed convictions about war and morality. In 1946, Stimson wrote to his old friend Felix Frankfurter to express private doubts about a ghost-written article appearing under his name that justified the use of the bomb. The retired statesman worried that “the full enumeration of the steps in the tragedy will excite horror among friends who theretofore thought me a kindly-minded Christian gentleman but who will . . . feel that I am cold blooded and cruel and different from the man who labored for peace under Mr. Hoover.”
Stimson was neither cold blooded nor cruel. The failure of such a thoughtful, moral man to control the power of the bomb in accord with his own convictions offers humbling lessons as we confront today’s nuclear dilemmas. Most obviously, it reminds us that decisions about these weapons were -- and will continue to be – made by fallible human beings, often under intense pressure. To offer one example, during spring-summer 1945 Stimson and other American policymakers failed to integrate the bomb into a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at ending the war in the Pacific. They allowed the escalating conventional and eventual nuclear bombardment of Japan to take place with little consideration of how it might bring about an American victory or even what minimum diplomatic terms they would accept as a definition of victory. Obviously Japanese leaders must bear the bulk of the blame for choosing to continue a hopeless war. But the American failure to coordinate force and diplomacy is a reminder that such calculations, difficult under the best of circumstances, often confound the wisest and most well-meaning leaders in times of crisis. While mistakes are an inevitable part of policy making, the stakes with nuclear weapons are so high that we can ill afford to learn through trial and error. The most effective way to reduce the danger of another atomic tragedy is thus to build structures to control if not eliminate nuclear weapons before we find ourselves caught in a high-stakes crisis.
Stimson’s struggles offer a number of potential lessons as we look for ways to control the bomb. Perhaps the most relevant today is the importance of a truly international approach to the problem. Stimson vacillated on this issue during World War II, unable to decide between advocating a unilateral, bilateral (with Great Britain), or multilateral approach to the postwar control of the bomb. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he regretted his failure to consistently champion an international solution. In September 1945, on his last day in office as Secretary of War, Stimson presented a plan that called for immediate negotiations with the Soviet Union aimed at the international control of atomic energy. As part of these talks, he suggested the United States should be willing to halt all further development of nuclear weapons, impound its existing bombs, and delegate substantial decision-making powers to a new international body charged with controlling atomic energy. Stimson’s plea for international control foundered as it met opposition from within the Truman administration and suspicion from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Today, international efforts to control the bomb, as represented by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Atomic Energy Agency are certainly not a panacea. But the manifest failure of unilateral approaches to the bomb, from the Cold War arms race to the invasion of Iraq, underlines Stimson’s September 1945 insistence that an international approach remains our best hope for “saving civilization not for five or for twenty years, but forever.”