With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Truman on Trial: The Defense, Opening Argument

It now seems to be the season for identifying American war criminals. We have gone through somewhat of a national debate about whether or not Bob Kerrey committed crimes of war in Vietnam, and the journalist Christopher Hitchens has sought in a best-selling book to accuse Henry Kissinger of war crimes. Now Philip Nobile comes forth with his own ongoing campaign---to rewrite the verdict of history by forging a new consensus---one that would cast Harry S. Truman as a war criminal for giving the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The essence of Noble's case is based on a highly legalistic and a-historical citation of Article 6 of The Nuremburg Charter. Nobile takes it further, by extending the description of war criminal to Truman's entire atomic cabinet, his chain of command, the pilots on the Enola Gay, and all those politicians who through the years have praised what he calls"the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." His cast of characters is thoroughly bipartisan, exempting no one except Mr. Nobile himself---and we are never sure that as an American citizen, whether or not he is also guilty. Certainly, those historians who reach a judgment different than the one he reaches are also included---his list includes such scholars of distinction as Stephen Ambrose, Iris Chang, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., etc. etc. etc. I now give Mr. Nobile permission in advance to include my name among the above. I would welcome being among such august company---and no, I do not believe that anyone on his list is guilty of covering up actual crimes of war.

Rather than follow the technique used by Mr. Nobile, I would like to attempt to deal with the questions he raises in another way. To be guilty of a war crime, President Truman and his associates would indeed, as Nobile writes, have had to conspire"to commit two of the most fiendish slaughters in the annals of war." The purpose, in other words, would have had to be a desire to use the A-bomb in order to produce precisely such an end--"fiendish slaughter"--and not to force the Japanese military to make peace or save even more American and Japanese lives than died as a result of the bombing.

The very latest scholarship has all but demolished the revisionist accounts on which Nobile depends.

Let us first take up the question of whether or not using the A-bomb on Japan was militarily necessary. Was Japan a besieged nation yearning for peace, lying prostrate at the feet of the United States? From reading Nobile and the revisionist historians, one certainly gets this impression that the answer to the first is no, and the second yes. There are two related questions to consider in order to actually answer the question. The first is what actual amount of casualties did Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe would occur if the A-bomb was not used. The second is whether the Japanese government would have agreed to end the war if the A-bomb had not been dropped.

On both of these fundamental questions, the evidence indicates that Nobile and the revisionists have not made a strong case. Indeed, the very latest scholarship has all but demolished the revisionist accounts on which Nobile depends. Writing in the Pacific Historical Review in November 1998, Sadao Asada offered his own thoroughly researched answer in his seminal article,"The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender--A Reconsideration." His article reveals that the bomb and only the bomb galvanized Japan's peace party to take actions necessary to terminate the Pacific War. What he accomplishes in a virtual tour de force is to correlate the day by day decisions of the Japanese government from August 6th through the 14th in the context of how the use of the A-bomb worked to produce acceptance of the Potsdam terms of surrender. His criticism, that to the Japanese historians,"the sense of victimization takes precedence over historical analysis," may be extended as well to Mr. Nobile, for whom the desire to brand those who saw a need to use the bomb as a group of war criminals equally takes precedence over the task of the historian.

What Asado shows is that Prime Minister Suzuki, before being informed of Soviet entry into the Pacific War, had decided that because of the A-bomb, war between Japan and the USA could no longer be carried on. And Foreign Minister Togo added that"since the atomic bomb had made its appearance, continuation of the war had become utterly impossible." With the news of the second atomic bomb dropped at Nagasaki, Suzuki feared that rather than stage an invasion--for which Japan was prepared---the U.S. would keep on dropping atomic bombs. In other words, both bombs had the effect of jolting the peace party to move toward surrender. Asado describes what he calls the"shock effect" of the Nagasaki bomb on Japan's military and political leaders.

As Asado points out, the dropping of the two atomic bombs was the equivalent of American aid to Japan's beleaguered peace party. Thus, Kido Koichi, the emperor's main advisor, agreed that"we of the peace party were assisted by the atomic bomb in our endeavor to end the war." He agreed, in other words, with the very man Nobile attacks, Henry L. Stimson, who understood the"profound psychological shock" the bomb would have. As Asado writes:"This 'strategy of shock' worked, for it encouraged the peace party to redouble its efforts to bring about a decision for surrender." Stimson, therefore, was correct when he wrote Truman that the Japanese peace party yielded to the militarists"only at the point of the pistol." Both the Japanese peace group and the U.S. advisors accepted the atomic bomb and its use as the main instrument for ending the war, a linkage that Asado notes"rested on the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." It was, as Rear Admiral Takagi Sokichi said, one of the"gifts from Heaven," since it averted an impending and probable military revolt by the Japanese generals, and hence guaranteed acceptance of the Potsdam terms.

The Japanese leaders, although some had already begun to hope for peace, did not face the reality of defeat until the Hiroshima bomb, which was needed to accelerate and indeed prevent the peace process from collapse, allowing the Emperor to override the military diehards with the acceptance of surrender.

While Nobile pines away about U.S. war crimes, to this day the Japanese authorities fail to admit their own responsibility for the war.

Nobile also raises the much discussed theory that the bomb's real purpose was to end the war before the scheduled Soviet entry---a charge that goes back to the writing of the British left-wing intellectual P.M.S. Blackett, and which, of course, became the heart of Gar Alperovitz's argument. (As usual, we have the old quotes from Admiral Leahy, Eisenhower, Stimson McGeorge Bundy and Herbert Hoover.) As for the impact of eventual Soviet entry, which was expected by the Japanese government and for which they were prepared, it paled when compared to the bomb, which was unexpected entirely and which changed the factors they had to consider.

Asado also notes that Japan was busy trying to perfect its own atomic bomb, and had it succeeded,"there is no doubt that the Japanese military would not have hesitated to use the atomic bomb." But their scientists were far behind---they, unlike the Soviets, did not have the advantage of an espionage network firmly planted within the Manhattan Project---and they were totally caught off guard, believing that no power would be able to finish constructing an A-bomb during the course of the war. What is important, however, is that no Japanese military or political leaders questioned the legitimacy of using the atomic bomb as a weapon that could win the war for their side.

Now, Nobile can quote Japanese civilians, thinkers and political leaders as much as he wants---but as Colonel Ogata Ken'ichi, a military aide to the Emperor, wrote in his diary :"Is there not somehow a way to invent a new weapon that would forestall the enemy? If we had such a weapon it would then be possible to annihilate the enemy's task force and attack the mainland of the United States, thus turning the tables and affording a golden opportunity to reverse the tide of the war." Then it might have been San Francisco or Los Angeles that was destroyed, and Japanese and German leaders might have been putting U.S. authorities on trial for the bombing of Dresden and the fire-bombing of Tokyo.

"It is fantasy, not history, to believe that the end of the war was at hand before the use of the atomic bomb."

Indeed, while Nobile pines away about U.S. war crimes, to this day the Japanese authorities fail to admit their own responsibility for the war, or indeed, to acknowledge candidly in their own nation their country's sordid history of brutality and war crimes. The fact is that without the use of the A-bomb, Japan more than likely would not have surrendered, despite all of its serious problems. Its army had built up to 900,000 soldiers ready to defend against the planned American invasion of Kyushu, and would have been able to totally crush the first wave of invaders. No wonder that grunts in the field, like the future writer Paul Fussell, cheered mightily when the word came that Japan had surrendered, and the Pacific war was over. As Asado notes, the dropping of the A-bomb"forestalled sacrifices on both sides far surpassing those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (My emphasis.)

Since the time that Sadao Asado wrote his article, his findings have been confirmed and amplified upon by Richard B. Frank, a former air platoon leader who fought in Vietnam and is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center. Writing in his magisterial book, Downfall:The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, (New York: Random House, 1999), Frank offers new research from previously unused and classified sources, along with closely detailed arguments, that Japan was nowhere near to surrendering in August of 1945, and that despite the horror of its effects, the use of the atomic bombs was superior to any other existing alternative, and saved both American and Japanese lives. As Frank writes,"it is fantasy, not history, to believe that the end of the war was at hand before the use of the atomic bomb." Moreover, Frank argues that despite the horrors resulting from use of the bomb, it is incorrect to assume that"any termination of the conflict that avoided the use of nuclear weapons would have been preferable." This point is, indeed, at the heart of the present issue. If Frank is correct, and I believe his tight analysis successfully makes the case for his argument, then the result of a battle that extended the war would have made things worse for both Americans and Japanese.

On the issue of the bomb being dropped on a civilian target, Frank notes that the accepted presumption from the start was that the bomb would be used when ready, a decision made by FDR and carried out by Truman. Indeed, to deliver the needed psychological shock, as the minutes of the Interim Committee noted, there was general agreement"that we could not give the Japanese any warning, that we could not concentrate on a civilian area, but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many Japanese as possible"; thus the desired target of a war plant" closely surrounded by workers' houses." Obviously, as Barton Bernstein has noted, the committee members knew that families lived in workers' houses.

Unlike Nobile, Frank argues that Truman, like FDR and their advisers,"did not truly grasp the real horror of these weapons." But he adds that Vannevar Bush and James Conant"actually believed that unless the huge and hideous effects of the weapons were graphically demonstrated on cities, people and leaders would not accede to the surrender of national sovereignty necessary to enforce an international control system for nuclear weapons." Like Asadao, Frank writes that after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, it was still the case that even if the Emperor now wanted to terminate the war quickly, he still balked at accepting the Potsdam Declaration and doubted whether the Imperial Japanese Army would comply with a command to end the war. That result was not to occur until the second bomb was dropped at Nagasaki.

The current retroactive opposition by Americans to the A-bomb use, however, discards the possibility that the very demonstrated power of the bomb led world powers to do all possible in the future to avert its actual use again.

Hopefully, those readers interested will read Frank's last two chapters, titled"Assessing Realities" and"Alternatives and Conclusions," in which he discusses cogently what Truman's critics have argued about the supposed lack of necessity for using the A-bomb, the projected American casualties if an invasion took place without use of the bomb, and the subsequent moral issues that arrive from one's analysis of Truman's decision. Frank notes that critics have chastised the consensus view as"patriotic orthodoxy," and he writes that this held"an invulnerable hold on the generation that fought the war." Of course, it is this orthodoxy that Philip Nobile and others have fought, which reaches its epitome in the attempt to brand Truman a war criminal.

Frank writes that he seeks to"address these issues by disentangling the essential factual realities from the speculative alternatives." In an extended endnote, Frank takes up the claim that Dwight D. Eisenhower told Henry L.Stimson that the use of"that awful thing" was not necessary and that Japan was"already defeated," a quote that Nobile repeats as the truth. Frank notes that only one source exists for this, Ike's own postwar recollections, with a second variant written in 1963"that somehow gained much additional detail" from the first telling. He notes that"the strongest refutation of this recollection is Stimson's own contemporaneous account," his detailed diary that recounts all discussion of the A-bomb, and which mentions both meetings he held with Eisenhower and which" contain no hint of such an exchange," a fact also reinforced by the official and semiofficial records of the period and other diaries." He calls this a case of Eisenhower's"flawed memory." Moreover, he notes that the General had a limited knowledge of Pacific developments, and he cites a letter written by Eisenhower in July of 1945 indicating that he had not the"slightest idea of what is going to happen in the Pacific."

My question is a simple one. Why do Nobile and other critics assume that the Eisenhower version is necessarily correct? Indeed, Frank writes--and his words apply to Nobile and other critics--that revisionist historians and a-historical moralists use Eisenhower's unconfirmed recollection as"proof of an authoritative contemporary American appreciation of the military and political situation in the Pacific," when in fact Eisenhower had no"expertise on the state of war in the Pacific." Secondly, they cite Eisenhower's statement as if it is true while at the same time argue that postwar statements from Truman and Stimson have to be discounted. Both arguments are incompatible. But what they reveal is a simple case of history that is dictated by a contemporary left-wing and anti-American political agenda.

Nobile, of course, also cites the words of Admiral Leahy approvingly from his 1950 memoirs, in which Leahy spoke of the"barbarous weapon" which was of no"material assistance in our war against Japan," and in which he asserted that the U.S."had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages." Mr. Nobile concurs. Leahy's argument actually was that the bomb was immoral and unnecessary, since a blockade could have secured Japan's capitulation. Frank asks:"If one accepts his moral criteria, how can the firebombing and atomic bombs be condemned yet the blockade pass muster?" His point is that a blockade has itself always been considered a barbarous form of warfare because its effects do not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Moreover, aerial bombardment caused civilian deaths in the hundreds of thousands, and the blockade in China killed noncombatants in the millions. The institution of one in Japan would have had a similar devastating effect.

There are, as has been said, some arguments so stupid that only an intellectual could be counted on to make them.

On the question of what amount of casualties would have occurred if the A-bombs had not been dropped, Frank notes the report commissioned for Stimson by W. B. Shockley, who argued that defeating Japan by invasion would have cost five to ten million Japanese deaths and between 1.7 million and 4 million American casualties, including perhaps 400,000 to 800,000 fatalities. This report appeared precisely when Ultra information showed that Japan's defenses in Kyushu exceeded old estimates by three times in combat divisions and four times in aircraft, guaranteeing very high casualties. It was in this context that Truman had to decide on the use of the A-bomb, a context that Nobile, of course, ignores. The point, Frank writes, is that"potential ranges [of casualties] reach the large numbers cited by Truman and Stimson," and he adds that it is likely that at Potsdam on July 25, General Marshall did give the President"a basis to believe that casualties would substantially exceed earlier projections." He goes on to cite contemporary evidence that Secretary Stimson feared that an invasion would have the highest of cost, including"immense American casualty totals."

The bottom line is that Frank argues that use of the atomic bomb saved more lives--Japanese included--than would have been the case had the A-bomb not been used. Nuclear weapons did indeed cost the lives of between 100,000 and 200,000 Japanese noncombatants at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as thousands more who died from incendiary raids. But as Frank puts it,"those Japanese noncombatants held no stronger right not to be slaughtered than did the vast number of Chinese and other Asian noncombatants, the Japanese noncombatants in Soviet captivity in Asia, or the Japanese noncombatants (not to mention Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees) who would have perished of starvation and disease in the final agony of the blockade." Only the bomb forced the Emperor to accept surrender, and alternatives would not have ended the war or reduced human suffering.

Of course, revisionists like Nobile argue that a demonstration could have been held, and actual use of the A-bomb on a target was not needed. But even J.Robert Oppenheimer retorted that no display would be impressive enough to shock the Japanese into surrender, assuming that the two available bombs would have worked---and even if it had, that would have left but one to use. In fact, no one at the time argued that the A-bomb should not be used on a city in which non-combatants lived.

The current retroactive opposition by Americans to the A-bomb use, however, discards the possibility that the very demonstrated power of the bomb led world powers to do all possible in the future to avert its actual use again. Moreover, the difference between nuclear and regular weapons is not as large as it seems. Incendiary bombs killed almost 100,000 Japanese--as many as were killed at Hiroshima--and destroyed 250,000 buildings, leaving scores of Japanese homeless. Such bombing would have been continued, intensified and advanced along with a blockade and invasion. Would this have been a moral improvement over Hiroshima, and would Philip Nobile decades later be writing to accuse the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President of committing war crimes by fighting with traditional means?

Indeed, in arguing that Truman is a war criminal, Philip Nobile and others really are saying that any war that harms noncombatants is criminal. I'm sorry to say, but that is the nature of warfare. Does Nobile want to go back and accuse General Sherman of war crimes for the burning of Georgia in the Civil War? Bombing did indeed hurt enemy morale, and the American actions--horrible as they were- were taken in the context of the Bataan death march, the rape of Nanking, the bombing by Japan of Shanghai, the forced prostitution of Korean women and the torture of prisoners of war. For these violations of the Geneva Convention and human rights, the Japanese, of course, have not only not apologized, but have hidden the reality of their nation's actions from its contemporary citizens. It is not surprising that in one of his articles, Nobile finds that his Japanese audiences all vote to condemn the U.S. and Truman for war crimes, while at the same time managing to see their own nation as purely a victim.

The A-bomb saved American and Japanese lives, ended the war quickly, forced a Japanese surrender, and precluded an invasion of the home islands. As Robert J. Maddox has written, referring to the planned invasion of the islands and a low estimate of 193,500 casualties,"only an intellectual could assert that 193,500 casualties were too insignificant to have caused Truman to use the atomic bombs." As a former chief of the Japanese Medical Association has said,"When one considers the possibility that the Japanese military would have sacrificed the entire nation if it were not for the atomic bomb attack, then this bomb might be described as having saved Japan." Is it too much to ask that Philip Nobile and the revisionist historians understand this?

We are to be thankful, however, that armchair accusatory writers like Philip Nobile are working journalists living in a free country, and were not policy makers serving an American administration engaged in a life and death struggle with a vicious enemy, and thereby forced to make tough and sometimes awful decisions that meant the taking of human lives. There are, as has been said, some arguments so stupid that only an intellectual could be counted on to make them. We have seen some of these arguments in the brief accusing Harry S. Truman of war crimes written by Philip Nobile. Our nation and its citizens should be proud of the leadership exercised by Harry S. Truman in August of 1945. Nothing Philip Nobile has written will change the judgment of history that paints Harry S. Truman as an outstanding President. As Donald Kagan has written in his essay"Why America Dropped the Bomb," (Commentary, Sept.1995)"Americans may look back on that decision [to use the A-bomb] with sadness, but without shame." One cannot, however, say the same about those who try posthumously to paint our leaders--when faced with tragic decisions--as war criminals.