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Did Truman Really Oppose the Soviet Union's Decision to Enter the War Against Japan?

The following letter was sent to the Journal of Military History, which published a shortened version.

To the Editor:

The old saying tells us that “you’re never too old to learn” --- and it’s true! Reading David T. Fuhrmann’s review of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (JMH 69, October 2005), I realized that my first impressions of the book were all wrong. Although the reviewer found Racing the Enemy “balanced and thoroughly documented,” I’d originally been appalled at the unnerving regularity with which Hasegawa’s copious footnotes implied that something exists in a document when it simply did not --- but that has all changed.

What I now realize is that I was expecting too much when I assumed that Hasegawa would actually produce real evidence that President Truman had embarked on a desperate race to defeat Japan with nuclear weapons before the Soviet Union could enter the Pacific War. Being overly picky, I was put off by what appeared to be gross misrepresentations of Truman’s words through use of ellipsis in accounts like the following of Truman’s first meeting with Stalin at Potsdam:

Truman noted in his diary: ‘I asked [Stalin] if he had the agenda for the meeting. He said that he had and that he had more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite --- but I have some dynamite too which I am not exploding now. . . . He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about.

Hasegawa goes on to explain that “Truman took Stalin’s announcement as ‘dynamite.’ It is clear that he saw Stalin not as an ally committed to the common cause of defeating Japan, but as a competitor in the race to see who could force Japan to surrender.”

How could I have been so obtuse? I’d thought that the 50 or so words replaced by the ellipsis implied that the president was talking about something completely different. The excised portion of the diary entry read:

He wants to fire Franco. To which I wouldn’t object, and divide up the Italian colonies and other mandates, some no doubt that the British have. Then he got on the Chinese situation, told us what agreements had been reached and what was in abeyance. Most of the big points are settled. [Emphasis added.]

It is here that Hasegawa picks up the comments on Stalin entering the war. Now, while it is true that ellipsis are often a revisionist’s best friend, perhaps Hasegawa just didn’t notice that he had utterly changed the meaning of Truman’s diary entry. In another passage, Hasegawa’s gives this account of Truman’s “laconic” response on 8 August to the news that the Soviets had entered the war:

A few minutes after 3:00, Truman held an impromptu press conference. Although he entered the Press Room with a smile on his face, he quickly assumed a solemn expression and read a statement to reporters: “I have only a simple announcement to make. I can’t hold a regular press conference today, but this announcement is so important I thought I would call you in. Russia has declared war on Japan.” Then he added laconically: “That’s all.” This was the shortest White House press conference on record.

This terse statement reveals the profound disappointment Truman must have felt over the news.

Foolishly, I had thought that the very sources Hasegawa’s cites, widely known eyewitness accounts by the New York Timess Felix Belair, Jr, and Washington Post’s Edward T. Folliard that appeared on 9 August, directly refuted his depiction of Truman’s mood. The president did not walk into a room full of waiting reporters, he was seated at his desk flanked by Admiral Leahy and Jimmy Byrnes when the White House press corps was ushered in. Both reporters stated that Truman was smiling and both commented on his uncharacteristically casual behavior.

The president sat “with one leg thrown carelessly over the arm of his chair and his right arm stretched across the back,” according to the Times’s Belair, and “hid completely the importance of the information he was about to impart.” His “dramatic statement,” moreover, was “issued with all the casualness of a routine proclamation.” Folliard of the Post did say that Truman “assumed a solemn expression,” but only when “he rose to make his announcement.” The president then “rocked with laughter,” according to the Belair, when his concluding words sent reporters crowding the doors to file their reports.

While it may at first appear that even the most casual reading of these articles reveals that Hasegawa’s account might be construed as pure fiction, it seems more fair for me to admit that Hasegawa clearly displays a much better ability to read Truman’s mind than I. In fact, now that I have recognized my error, it is obvious that the president was determined to personally share his mortification --- what Hasegawa describes as his “profound disappointment” --- instead of taking the easy out by having press secretary Charley Ross routinely read a statement to the reporters.

In any event, I now have not the slightest idea what I was thinking when, before reading Fuhrmann’s review, I concluded that a close examination of Hasegawa’s own sources throughout the book either don’t support --- or in some cases, utterly demolish --- his contention that Truman had been “racing the enemy” and was crushed when he found out he had “lost” to Joe Stalin. But most fundamentally, I was wrong about how and why the war began. Thanks to Hasegawa, I have been forced to concede that the war did not begin until April 1945.

Hasegawa’s closing paragraph sets me straight that we are looking at simply “a story with no heroes but no real villains either --- just men. The ending of the Pacific war was in the last analysis a human drama whose dynamics were determined by the very human characteristics of those involved: fear, vanity, anger, and prejudice.”

It is now perfectly clear that any examination of these acts committed in the name of the Greater East Asian Coprosperity Sphere --- Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March; the 10 to 25 million Chinese who died between the Marco Polo Bridge incident and 1946; the death (according to the UN) of hundreds of thousands of Asian slave laborers and Allied POWs along the Burma Railway and in mines and factories scattered from Java to Hokkaido; the grisly biological warfare experiments of “Unit 731” in Manchuria --- any examination of these acts is nothing more than a cynical attempt to deflect guilt from the Allies in general, and America in particular.

No, Fuhrmann is quite right that Hasegawa deserves praise for “providing an international perspective lacking in previous studies,” and far be it from me to suggest that Racing the Enemy offers an extraordinarily biased and rather dishonest perspective that may appeal to neonationalists in Japan, but will not be useful to many others.


D.M. Giangreco

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas