Truman on Trial: The Prosecution, Closing Argument


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.

As Ronald Radosh's opening statement amply proves, it is not easy to defend premeditated massacres of women and children in wartime under international law. Although Radosh offered, in effect, a nolo contendere plea for his client at Nuremberg, he did make some comments on the war crimes issue in his meandering and largely smimmaterial defense. Let's take a closer look.

"The essence of Nobile's case is based on a highly legalistic and a-historical citation of Article 6 of The Nuremberg Charter."

Article 6 Paragraph b of the Nuremberg Charter, which defines war crimes per longstanding principles of international law, was used to prosecute and convict numerous German and Japanese war criminals. If it was good enough for them, why not for Allied miscreants, too?

"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."

Of course, Truman and his men intended to commit fiendish civilian slaughters in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was the whole point! Otherwise, they would have arranged a bomb demonstration or aimed at a military target. The fact that the United States wanted to shock Japan into surrender and, hypothetically, to save more lives as well does not remove the burden of criminality. There is no massacre exemption in international law for ending wars. What if Truman had decided to drop anthrax bombs to rush capitulation and prevent the bloodbath of an invasion, would that have been okay, too?

"Indeed, while Nobile pines away about US 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."

I have no sympathy for Axis gangsters and wrote that Iris Chang"rightly excoriated Japan's war criminals" in The Rape of Nanking. Radosh's sentence could be accurately transposed to read:"Indeed, while Radosh pines away about Japan's war crimes, to this day the American authorities fail to acknowledge candidly in their own nation their country's sordid history of brutality and war crimes." The difference between Radosh and me is that I advocate equal rather than selective application of the Nuremberg Charter.

"Would this [i.e., conventional bombing, blockade and invasion] 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."

All direct killing of non-combatants is against international law regardless of weapons employed. The laws and customs of war clearly distinguish between discriminate and indiscriminate military actions. The Nuremberg Charter refers specifically to"wanton destruction."

Before coming to Radosh's jumbled a-Nuremberg defense of Truman, a few points of clarification.

This is not careless writing on Radosh's part. It is a smear.

I have not attempted"to rewrite the verdict of history" casting"Truman as a war criminal." Owing to the Nuremberg Consensus, Allied historians have washed their hands of Allied criminality. As Norman Davies observed in the May 25, 1995 New York Review of Books ("The Misunderstood Victory in Europe"), the history of World War II has been distorted by victor's bias."In setting up the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1945, the Allied governments took it as axiomatic that the only crimes to be investigated were those committed by the defeated enemy," wrote Davies."By doing so, they created the popular impression that no other serious crimes need to be considered."

I did not extend the"description of war criminal" to"all those politicians who have praised ... 'the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.'" Nor is it fair to say that I exempted"no one except" myself from this description. Nor is it accurate to say that I"included" Stephen Ambrose, Iris Chang, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., etc. in the war criminal category. This is not careless writing on Radosh's part. It is a smear.

Radosh's intellectual dishonesty (the term that I did apply to the historians named above) can be tested in the following sentence:"It is not surprising that in one of his articles, Nobile finds 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."

Compare Radosh's reporting with the passage in question from a transcript of my talk at Bard College's 1998 conference on prosecuting war crimes:

There's one place in the universe where the Nuremberg consensus does not hold. I visited Hiroshima two years ago and I gave a talk at the Peace Museum. Just to test my audience--mostly Japanese intellectuals, journalists, professors, people just like you--I asked them whether they thought Harry Truman was a war criminal. Everybody at the table raised his or her hand. Then I asked a control question. I said,"Do you think that your leaders, Tojo and his men, were war criminals?" And everybody raised his or her hand again.

Radosh energetically pounced on Dwight D. Eisenhower's memory of a brief anti-bomb chat with War Secretary Henry Stimson at Potsdam because (a) Eisenhower expanded his recall in subsequent retellings and (b) Stimson did not mention the exchange in his diary."Why do Nobile and other critics assume that the Eisenhower's version is necessarily correct" and discount"postwar statements from Truman and Stimson?" Radosh wonders. In a flight of ideological frenzy, he answered his own question:"[It] is a case of history that is dictated by a contemporary left-wing and anti-American political agenda."

Poppycock. First, a swelling recollection is not necessarily a false or suspicious one. Second, I did not assume that Ike was telling the truth about 1945. I cited his 1963 anti-bomb quote to Newsweek. What is important to me is that a soldier-president went on the record, whenever, as an opponent of the bomb. Third, you don't have to be a left-winger to know that Truman and Stimson lied repeatedly about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they had good reasons to prevaricate. Ike did not.

Although Radosh endorsed the premise that the Bombs of August were a"military necessity," he did not associate a single, high-ranking World War II military man with this notion. Why not? Because virtually everybody at the top, with the waffling exception of General Marshall, did not buy it. In three exhaustive chapters in his 1995 book, The Decision To Use the Bomb, Gar Alperovitz documented the dissents of Army, Navy, and Air Force leaders. In addition to Leahy, Eisenhower, and MacArthur, Alperovitz cited chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral William"Bull" Halsey, Rear Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces Henry H."Hap" Arnold, General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers, Army Strategic Air Forces Commander Carl Spatz, and Army Air Force General Curtis E. Lemay, who directed the firebombing of Japan.

Even the government's own 1946 study--the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey--concluded that the bombs were unnecessary:

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

Oddly enough, none of this military information appeared in Truman's memoir.

Apparently conceding Truman's guilt under Nuremberg, Radosh has rested his non-legal defense on various Japanese sources and Richard B. Frank's 1999 book, Downfall: The End of the Japanese Empire. Since I am unfamiliar with Japanese scholarship on the bomb, I cannot judge Radosh's reading of the data (nor am I tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt). Nevertheless, Japanese sources--excepting those intercepted during the war--are irrelevant to Truman's situation. What he did not know cannot be held for or against him. So even if Rear Admiral Takagi Sokichi deemed the bombs"a gift from heaven," his favorable opinion in no way absolves Truman of the six-figure killings. It may well be that the bombs--not Stalin's declaration of war--were the proximate cause of Japan's surrender. Radosh's Japanese sources may be absolutely correct. But only in the mind of a criminal does might and success make right. As Hitler said,"After all, the victor will not be asked whether he spoke the truth or not. The stronger is always right."

It is hard to believe the unprecedented apocalyptic statistics linked to the invasion in Frank's book--400, 000 to 800,000 American deaths and 5 million to 10 million Japanese translating to 1.2 million to 3.2 million American wounded and 15 million to 30 million Japanese."It was in this context," concluded Radosh,"that Truman had to decide on the use of the A-bomb, a context that Nobile, of course, ignores." Radosh cannot possibly believe these crazy figures. As if Truman would have risked doubling the number of all U.S. battle deaths for the entire war (293,000) in the final assault on Japan. But in opposing counsel's kitchen-sink defense, anything went, including his aside about my ignoring the casualty context.

That last crack requires a sidebar: On the contrary, Mr. Radosh, I rolled out several of Truman's (ex post facto) invasion estimates in my cross-examination and"quoted" Truman on the dreadful dead and wounded figures from Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Let me refresh your memory with a readback from my opener in Truman's voice--"If we went through with the invasion, we were looking at an Okinawa from one end of Japan from another. I couldn't let that happen, not with the bomb in hand." It does not serve your client's interest to have your own credibility punctured.

Having addressed the defense argument, I now turn to the historians of the jury and ask you to smash the Nuremberg Consensus with a guilty verdict for the man who ordered the wanton destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulting in the killing, maiming, and poisoning of roughly 200,000 civilians, folks much like the ones in Oradour and Nanking who were ruthlessly slaughtered by our German and Japanese enemies whose leaders we prosecuted and convicted of war crimes.

I urge you to reject the sham excuse that President Harry S. Truman had no way out of the twin atomic massacres when, in fact, he was drowning in untried alternatives pressed by his closest advisers. Do not be misdirected by the fantasy casualty estimates of the far off invasion that never was and note well that Admiral Leahy and Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur bitterly rued Truman's decision.

Place yourself in Truman's shoes in August of 1945. You knew that Japan was in the final throes of defeat, that the Pacific battlefront was quiet, that Stalin was on the verge, that Hirohito had sent a peace envoy to Moscow, that an unconditional surrender seemed to be the last stumbling block to surrender, that Leahy, Stimson, Grew, McCloy, Churchill and the British and American Joint Chiefs wanted you to let Hirohito stay and that you thought this condition was a"sound idea." In this set of circumstances, would you have barged ahead with the massacres without giving Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially Nagasaki, a chance?

In his opening statement at Nuremberg, chief U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson said that the Allied tribunal was"one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason." Until history bestows similar justice on Truman and his willing executioners, Power's debt to reason remains unpaid.

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ethan Michel gwynn - 3/28/2007

I agree I mean just beacause he is a former president he does not deserv special treatment

Andrew Berenbrok - 3/28/2007

1) I was not very suprised to see a former president on trial. Though they were the face of the US at one time, that does not mean they get special treatment when it comes to the law. Just the mere fact that a president would would ever commit such a fiendish crime. It just makes me cringe.

2) In my opinion, I would most likely be in the prosecution. I believe that former president Truman knew very well what his options were. There were definitly alternatives without kill 200,000 innocent people.

Andrew Berenbrok - 3/28/2007

1) I was not very suprised to see a former president on trial. Though they were the face of the US at one time, that does not mean they get special treatment when it comes to the law. Just the mere fact that a president would would ever commit such a fiendish crime. It just makes me cringe.

2) In my opinion, I would most likely be in the prosecution. I believe that former president Truman knew very well what his options were. There were definitly alternatives without kill 200,000 innocent people.

L.L.. Hodge - 8/7/2002

The raising of this most significant subject(the dropping of the atomic bomb as a war crime)before the public, as has been done in this format,surely provides a most appetizing food for thought.
Like the death penalty-it's time to reevaluate its past, present, and future use.
Allowed(disemminated) public debate is a step in changing the status quo and wrong beliefs.