Would Harry Truman Have Been Impeached If He Hadn't Dropped the Bomb?


Mr. Nobile is the author of Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics and the New York Review of Books and editor of Judgement at the Smithsonian, which reprinted the banned script of the Smithsonian's 50th anniversary exhibit of the Enola Gay.

Counterfactual history, the great what-if game, has generally skipped over the massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What If Japan Won At Midway? What If D-Day Had Failed? What If the Berlin Blockade Went Hot? These are all plausible World War II scenarios. As such, each was fleshed out in Robert Cowley's 1998 anthology, What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. But not"What If Truman Did Not Drop the Bomb?" How come this military teaser is missing from the counterfactual playbook?

The difficulty with the no-bomb theme goes to banality. Everybody knows what would have happened to Japan in August 1945, if President Harry Truman had held back the ultimate weapon. As agreed at Potsdam, Stalin declared war on Japan on August 9 and the Red Army immediately rolled over enemy forces in Manchuria. The Soviet invasion of the homeland was just around the corner. So too, the inevitable surrender of Japan.

There is nothing controversial about this speculation. Truman made the prediction himself in his Potsdam diary. Commenting on Stalin's pledge to enter the war in August, Truman wrote:"Fini Japs when that comes about." A classified 1946 War Department study examining the what-if-the-bombs-weren't-used premise concluded that it was"almost a certainty that the Japanese would have capitulated upon the entry of Russia into the war. ..."

So much for the fairy tale that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked to save"half a million American lives," as Truman claimed in his memoir, Years of Decision. (Churchill's figure was"a million American lives" in Triumph and Tragedy.)

Let's get real: putting aside the Soviet factor, D-Day in Japan was not scheduled until November 1, more than three months after Truman ordered his atomic solution. So there was plenty of time for diplomacy. Myriad peace feelers were already in the works.

The major hang-up was the demand for unconditional surrender. The Japanese feared the end of Emperor Hirohito, their Jesus Christ. When the Potsdam Declaration did not specify otherwise, the enemy dug in.

No problem. Truman was flexible behind closed doors. There was political advantage on the homefront in demonizing Hirohito, whom many Americans considered a war criminal. Yet Truman realized, with prodding from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that cutting off the Emperor's head was a dumb military move. Nobody else had the authority to quell Japanese soldiers and give surrender legs.

In late May, weeks before the successful Trinity test, the Truman okayed drawing up language guaranteeing the status of the Emperor. The suggestion came from Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew, former ambassador to Tokyo."A sound idea," recalled Truman in Years of Decision.

It follows that Truman, sans bomb, would have played the Hirohito card eventually rather than invade. How can we be sure? Truman virtually said so. If the bomb had fizzled at Trinity, he wrote in Decision,"then it would be even more important to bring about the surrender before we had to make a physical conquest of Japan."

And let's not overlook the fact that Truman accepted Japan's conditional offer of submission post-bomb after the invasion had faded from the picture. On August 10, Japan submitted to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration except"with the understanding that the said [Potsdam] Declaration does not compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as sovereign ruler."

Truman swiftly closed the deal, letting the criminal leader off the hook."[I]n a single day it proved possible to reconcile the concept of unconditional surrender with retention of the emperor," observed McGeorge Bundy cynically in Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years.

A mountain of evidence against the military necessity to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki has not deterred prominent American historians from adopting Truman's saving-the-boys line. Last week Stephen Ambrose rhapsodized the Hiroshima massacre on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. He praised Truman for pulling the nuclear trigger, thereby preventing"an American invasion of the home islands, which would have been the biggest invasion ever, and would have lead to the greatest battle that has never been fought, the Battle of Tokyo."

David McCullough expressed a similar thought in Truman, while adding a political twist:"And how could an American President ... answer to the American people if when the war was over, after the bloodbath of an invasion of Japan, it became known that a weapon of sufficient to end the war had been available by midsummer and was not used."

Arthur Schlesinger got more explicit in his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century:"And suppose Congress and the American people learned that Truman had at his command a weapon developed at tremendous cost to the American taxpayer, and he had refused to use it? Truman would have been held personally accountable for the awful waste in American lives, and he almost certainly would have been impeached."

"The Battle of Tokyo";"bloodbath";"impeachment" Who are Ambrose, McCullough, and Schlesinger kidding? Their bad faith rivals that of the Japanese historians who whitewash the Rape of Nanking.

Nonetheless, the latter pair were right in one sense. Bracketing the all-important Russian factor, Truman would have had a hard time explaining why he sent"a half million" soldiers into Japan's valley of death--period. Remember, the Bombs of August were not the only options facing Truman in the summer of 1945. If he were impeached, he would have to testify why he rejected peaceful alternatives (e.g., demonstration, strict military target, and changing surrender terms) urged by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard, and FDR's and his White House Chief of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy.

A note to the reader: If you are inclined toward Truman's side, ask yourself two questions: (1) What high-ranking World War II generals and/or admirals have recorded support for the obliteration of Hisoshima and Nagasaki? (2) What Churches or moralist or ethicist has ever blessed the same?

A note to the reader: If you are inclined toward Truman's side, ask yourself two questions: (1) What high-ranking World War II generals and/or admirals have recorded support for the obliteration of HIROSHIMA and Nagasaki? (2) What CHURCH or moralist or ethicist has ever blessed the same?

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Dominic Eisenhower Jermano - 2/19/2008

If Harry was so afraid the Russians were going to invade Japan, why didn't he use the bomb on Russia?

Very simple, because Russians were Jews, and Communists. Many Russians were migrating to Israel. Hitlers Jews were exterminated, as he carried his war further into Russian territory.

How would it look to have Harry killing Jews and helping Hitlers effort? Many Jews were planning the Statehood of Israel, and it was going to be the USA to be the condoning principle, because they now had the bomb as its signatory of authority.

The Japanese had surrendered months earlier before the two Atomic Bombs were dropped. But they;.. meaning the Republican body wanted the bomb used to assure the creation of Israel. All the other arguments and notions about why Harry did it are sideshows to the real goal. That goal was Israel's Statehood.

So Harry targeted innocent Japanese Civilians, not one bomb but 2. I just don't accept Trumans actions. He committed war crimes. Japan did not have any nuclear weapons, and the lying excuse that thousands of US soldiers would have died and is the reason he used the bomb to end the war is about as childish as you can get by reading 6th grade history.

Harry could have easily used the same methods as they used in Dresden, using conventional phosphorus bombs to bring an end to the War. And he could have targeted military targets instead of civilians.

But no he was arm twisted by the CIA which he created and became a terrorist by killing innocent people.

His prodigy has been handed down and America keeps following the road deeper into Hell; instead of real scholars in government putting a halt to it and agree to chastise Truman's historical calamity.

We under GW Bush suffer still from acts of terror, he has committed and refuses to accept, making the world hate our form of government.

And rightly so it should be, that when we neglect the process of Impeachment and its real core principle by skirting around obvious acts of guilt, America will continue to be on the road toward Romes destiny. A distant memory.

America's problem? The inability to use the Constitution's Impeachment process. Without a conviction throughout it's history of War upon war upon war, America is a nation that has NO LAW!

Kirby L. Wallace - 3/4/2005

There are always a certain number of people who will insist upon diplomacy even when the opponent has repeatedly, and unambiguously demonstrated that they have no interest in political discourse. In fact, some brutal regimes have taken advantage of this "weakness" in their opponents. A "You talk, I'll reload" attitude.

People who think diplomacy has any place in a conflict AFTER the fight has already begun are real simpletons. The sort of poeple who will sit and sing "give peace a chance" to a guy screwing on a bayonet.

Diplomacy's arena is the PRE-WAR theatre. Once the fighting begins, diplomacy then only serves to weaken the diplomatic side, which the non-diplomatic side will capitalize on - with inevitable loss of life. Sometimes on a huge scale.

Perhaps what bothers me most about this article is the author's callous disregard for the lives of our friends and allies. He mentions the inevitable invasion of Japan by the Russian Army - an ally of the US at that time.

The truth is, hundreds of thousands were about to die. No question of it. The only question is WHO gets to die? Should we die? We didn't create this mess. Should our allies and friends die? They didn't start it either.

His take is, basically, "we needn't let hundreds of thousands of OUR men die invading Japan... let's let hundreds of thousands of our allies die instead!"

There really is such a thing as cowardice, Mr. Nobile.

Alex Bensky - 4/27/2003

No sense in my going into detail to refute the professor allegations about Truman, which show more about academic fashions than anything else.

Several excellent and detailed correctives are available. Bruce Lee's "Marching Orders" analyzes the MAGIC intercepts, declassified in the early nineties, which show that even before the Potsdam declaration the Japanese had reason to believe that the subject of the Emperor was negotiable, and didn't pursue it. There's a lot more there.

Robert P. Newman's "Truman and the Hiroshima Cult" is worth reading for a number of reasons. Most sources quote the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey that Japan would have surrendered by December 1 in any event. The USSBS was intended to show the need for an independent air force. Newman went into the complete records and found that the overwhelming consensus of Japanese leaders was that they would not have surrendered prior to an invasion. The survey picked the one response they wanted.

A good general overview is Richard Franks' "Downfall." By the way, if the Soviet invasion of Manchuria was the last straw, isn't it odd that neither the Emperor nor other high leaders referred to it as a major factor in the decision to surrender?

Incidentally, projected casualities figures were always presented as guesses, and prior to mid-July none of these estimates take into account the major intelligence failure that underestimated by about half the actual number of Japanese forces available on Kyushu. Nor did they take into account the shift in kamikaze tactics, from the carriers to troop ships and landing craft.

garry - 4/10/2003

I am researching the following question,
Is the U.S. culpable of letting off bloody dictators, as an example, emperor hirohito of Japan, for political expediancy, allowing them to bargain their way out. Any incidence of this specifically by the u.s. government is of interest to me and i would appreciate any information that you guys and girls out their might be privy to.

Andrew Douglass - 11/14/2002

Nobile's assessment of Truman's weighty decision is naive if, as I hope he is sincere. For he breezily ignores literal mountain of information that belies his claim Japanese surrender was imminent. He also advances weak circumstantial inferences in the style of a conspiracy theorist (Q: "What high-ranking World War II generals and/or admirals have recorded support for the obliteration of Hisoshima and Nagasaki?" A: Virtually all of them.).

I don't have time to write the book here that would be required to enumerate every reason he is wrong, but here are a few central points. First, our intelligence (we had long since broken their diplomatic and military codes) provided extensive proof that the Japanese "peace feelers" were insincere at best; they hoped to retain some of their illegitimate gains in Asia and salvage as much of their government as possible. This was a military government, not a theocracy centered on the Emperor. None was eager to be tried as a war criminal, and several committed suicide upon the surrender's announcement. Also, the Emperor was not merely some beloved figurehead; he was an active participant in Japanese government with considerable influence, should he choose to exercise it. Note that it was his vote and not the generals that decided the surrender, and that it was he who announced it.

Moreover, our plans to invade were not for show. For whatever conviction a couple of isolated comments might have had as to Japanese surrender upon Soviet invasion, the generals felt otherwise and planned the invasion with deadly certainty, down to ordering hundreds of thousands of body bags and Purple Hearts. That resistance would have been fierce is hard to deny given the bloody fights on Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other islands, and the Japanese pride that their home islands were supposedly impregnable. They named their suicide attacks Kamikaze ("Diving Wind") after the wind that destroyed Genghis Khan's attempted invasion hundreds of years earlier.

Finally, and this is far from the last point against Nobile's revisionist nonsense, the Japanese would have suffered far worse had the Soviet invasion proceeded any farther than it did. As Eastern Europe illustrated, the Soviets tended to keep whatever they held. Stalin desperately wanted his trops to go to Hokkaido to "accept the Japanese surrender" and we all but threatened to shoot them if they tried it. Japan under the Soviet thumb would have been a stark contrast to the Japan carefully reconstructed under MacArthur and the Marshall Plan.

A book I would recommend is "Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire" by Richard Frank, which relies in part on recently declassified intelligence data. The passage of time has only yielded more reasons that dropping the bomb, while a horrible event that killed perhas 300,000 Japanese civilians, was a critical part of ending the war.

Clyde Howard - 10/12/2002

I was born in 1943. My father and two uncles were on Okinawa in 1945. I know what their position (and that of my mother) on the issue was, and (for Mom and Dad, both of the uncles having died in teh past few years) is - because I have discussed it with them. Wonderful idea, great decision, Truman should have been impeached (or worse) if he hadn't.

James Barnett - 9/1/2002

The Hiroshima bomb accomplished was to preempt General Marshall's plan to defeat Japan: an island by island invasion at a projected cost of half - million American lives. The bomb saved those lives, as well as those of about 400,000 Allied prisoners of war and civilian detainees whom the Japanese had planned tp execute in the event of an American invasion. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima meant difference between life and death to thousands of men.

Gus Moner - 9/1/2002

If Japan had tested the bomb first, it would have been nearly useless for them without the ability to deliver it to the USA, which they did not have in 1945.

Notwithstanding the above, there is one scenario that is chilling. They may have attempted to drop it at sea on an invasion fleet. The resultant destruction of the naval fleet and the soldiers ferried would have been catastrophic, considering the numbers used in the planning.

It would have been a hell of a victory for the Japanese and made the war very hard to win for the USA if they would have pulled that one off.

Gus Moner - 9/1/2002

Mr. D'Amato,
The answer to your question is that it was so probably because he hadn't expected the swift Japanese collapse in Manchuria on the one hand, and he needed to show no signs by ommission of the US potential for the A-weapon.

Stalin delayed until he felt sure Japan would collapse, and got in the fray to reap spoils, a la Mussolini in 1940.

Anthony D'Amato - 8/20/2002

This is addressed to Mr. Nobile. It is my understanding that the United States put pressure on Stalin to get into the war against Japan, that Stalin delayed, but eventually declared war. If this is correct, then why was Truman so fearful about Soviet gains against Japan that he had to use the atomic bomb to end the war precipitously?

Anthony D'Amato
Leighton Professor of Law
Northwestern University

Marc D. Kamin - 8/14/2002

The issue of whether President Truman should have used the atomic bomb has been portrayed as a military issue and a political issue. But it is a moral issue, because it involves a moral question: In August 1945, whose lives were worth more, Japanese or American? At that time, Truman had two choices, use the bombs, or continue fighting a conventional war. If he did the latter, more Americans would die. Some say 500,000, some say 50,000. While the difference between those two numbers is huge, what matters is that more than, say, 15,000 Americans were expected to die, or 10,000, or 5000, or 5. By using the atomic bombs, Truman had a means to end the war without more American casualites. Yet, of course, by using the bombs, hundreds of thousands of Japanese would die terrible deaths. So, either Truman uses the bomb and kills 200,000 Japanese, or he doesn't, and permits, say, 50,000 Americans deaths. Who deserves to die more? This may be a philosophical question. We may choose to believe that all lives are equally precious, regardless of nationality. Yet, Truman believed that, indeed, American lives were more valuable than Japanese ones. He believed that the lives of the people he helped govern, the people whom he lead, his countrymen, were more important than Japanese ones. He made a choice: Let the Japanese die rather than the Americans. As president of the United States, he would have been criminal to value Japanese lives more than American ones. Everyone knows that senior military officers didn't advocate use of the bomb. Every knows that one reason Truman used them was to impress the Russians. Everyone knows that contemporary estimate of 500,000 Americans being killed in an invasion of Japan may have been exaggerated. Yet, none of these address the issue of why Truman ought to have permitted ONE more American death, after 330,000 others, to save Japanese lives from the bombs. Using the bomb promised a quicker end to the war than could be attained by not using it. Using the bomb meant that there would not be massive - or any - American battle deaths after bomb usage. What other plan existed that would have spared so many young American lives? None.

Don B. Kates - 8/8/2002

The relevant question is what info Truman had when he dropped the bomb. The answer is that, while there were some optimistic estim- ates, the overwhelming majority of military prognoses were that Japan would not surrender and that invasion would kill millions of people, including perhap a million American soldiers. Truman had special reason to distrust optomistic estimates in the wake of Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa where bloodbaths occurred after pre-invasion optimism. (Incidentally, the Iwo Jima Japanese com- mander deliberately produced this bloodbath calculating that it would show the U.S.If there is a basis for criticizing Truman it relates to dropping the Nagasaki bomb w/o waiting long enough for reaction after Hiroshima.
People who never have to decide any momentous matter should be wary of Monday morning quarterbacking of those who do.

Barrett Archer - 8/7/2002

According to The Independent, Japan may have been very close to a bomb of it's own when the war ended. If Japan sucessfully tests their own bomb, then the "what if" scenarios get even more interesting. Is Truman justified in dropping the bomb if Japan tests one first?

Anyway, here is the Independent article: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/pacific_rim/story.jsp?story=321619