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The Bomb Was Not Necessary

With the sixty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb almost upon us, there is undoubtedly going to be a flood of commentary on the wisdom of its use by the United States during World War II. The justified scolding of Charles Pellegrino and his The Last Train From Hiroshima and Nagasaki is likely only the opening salvo.

Venturing into the arena of discussing the wisdom of the use of the atomic bomb is fraught with danger. It is somewhat akin to asking for the creation of an "impartial panel" to rationally discuss the issue of abortion, immigration reform, or the merits of the Obama health plan.

Virtually overlooked in the often heated debate is the question of whether the use of the bomb was justified from a strategic viewpoint. In other words, could we have induced Japan to surrender without the use of the bomb? This writer says yes.

For anyone looking for a recent accumulation of articles both pro and con, a useful starting point would be the 2005 essay by J. Samuel Walker in that April’s Diplomatic History. Clearly, the issue of the bomb is still an important story and will be with us for some time. Walker references a 1999 poll by Newseum, a museum of the news media, of sixty-seven American journalists who ranked the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 at the top of all the news stories of the twentieth century. It would not be surprising if the story had the same rank at the end of this century. Walker, like almost all the others who venture into this arena, concentrates on the ethics and morality of President Truman's decision to utilize the bomb. Whether it was necessary to win the war is not discussed.

Walter Trohan, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune with impeccable credentials for integrity and accuracy, reported that two days before President Roosevelt left for the Yalta conference with Churchill and Stalin in early February 1945, he was shown a forty-page memorandum drafted by General MacArthur outlining a Japanese offer for surrender almost identical with the terms subsequently concluded by his successor, President Truman. The single difference was the Japanese insistence on retention of the emperor, which was not acceptable to the American strategists at the time, though it was ultimately allowed in the final peace terms. Trohan relates that he was given a copy of this communication by Admiral Leahy who swore him to secrecy with the pledge not to release the story until the war was over. Trohan honored his pledge and reported his story in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald on August 19, 1945. According to historian Anthony Kubek, Roosevelt, in the presence of witnesses, read the memorandum and dismissed it with a curt "MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician." [1]

Specifically, the terms of the Japanese peace offers of late January 1945 were as follows:

  1. Full surrender of the Japanese forces, air, land and sea, at home and in all occupied countries.

  2. Surrender of all arms and ammunition.

  3. Agreement of the Japanese to occupation of their homeland and island possessions.

  4. Relinquishment of Manchuria, Korea and Formosa.

  5. Regulation of Japanese industry.

  6. Surrender of designated war criminals for trial.

  7. Release of all prisoners.

Other than retention of the emperor these terms were identical to the final surrender terms. Harry Elmer Barnes, in his essay “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe,” published in the May 10, 1958 issue of the National Review, tells the same story. Barnes said that the Trohan article was never challenged by the White House or the State Department, and says that after MacArthur returned from Korea in 1951, his neighbor in the Waldorf Towers, former President Hoover, took the Trohan article to General MacArthur and the latter confirmed its accuracy in every detail. The Trohan story was ignored by other news media and almost immediately dropped off the public radar.

Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias of the Office of Naval Intelligence, in his book, Secret Missions, tells how Naval Intelligence learned of the desperate condition of the Japanese and their real desire to conclude a peace. There were other "leaks" some coming through the Russians and the Chinese. But all this information made no impression on Roosevelt or Truman, and they gave it no more importance than the MacArthur memorandum. They continued to prepare for a land assault on the home islands that was obviated only by the dropping of the bomb and the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945. No historian disputes the desperate condition of Japan in the spring of 1945 or that numerous "peace feelers" were being sent out. The traditional interpretation has been that these "peace feelers" were either unauthorized or not bona fide. Would it not have been possible to at least respond to them in some formal manner acknowledging their existence and then demand a clear cut response to a definite counteroffer, instead of ignoring them completely? Any such counteroffer should have allowed for the retention of the emperor but insisted on compliance with all the other terms announced at the Potsdam conference.

The real significance of this tragic error of judgment of Roosevelt and Truman is that, in addition to the needless loss of life of innocent civilians on the Japanese homeland, two of the most vicious and costly battles of the Pacific, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, could have been avoided. In addition, the bribing of the Soviet Union to enter the war allowed them to enter Manchuria, strip that area of close to a billion dollars of industrial equipment, and capture enough Japanese arms and ammunition to supply ten divisions, equipment which they then turned over to Mao, thus contributing substantially to the defeat of the Kuomintang. The loss of China had other tragic consequences, namely the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

There is some justification for holding former President Truman less responsible for this tragic blunder. After all, he was new on the job. He was kept completely out of the loop on all important presidential decisions; he was in awe of General Marshall and the decision to go with the bomb had the unanimous support of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs and the majority of the senior presidential advisors. The same reasoning, of course, would not apply to President Roosevelt.

We are all familiar with the nursery rhyme "for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost," and so on. Was Roosevelt's curt dismissal of MacArthur's warning the "nail" that cost us the loss of not only thousands of soldiers and sailors at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but also the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, and Vietnam?

HNN Special: The Bomb

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