Truman on Trial: Not Guilty


Mr. Van de Velde, Ph.D., is a member of the United States Naval Intelligence Reserves.

The attack on the civilian-dominated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been barbarous, brutal, and perhaps even unnecessary to effect a surrender from Japan, but it is hard to argue that they were wanton, superfluous, irrelevant to the timing of surrender and apart from the war aim of shortening the war and effecting the Allied Powers' goal of unconditional surrender from Japan.

It is not enough to argue that the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary to effect a surrender. They were part of the strategic bombing campaign, conducted while Japan ignored the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, reiterated at the Potsdam Conference, and seem to have been the bare minimum necessary to have forced the Japanese Privy Council to vote into deadlock in deciding to accept the Allied surrender demand. This stalemate allowed the Emperor to inject himself politically and cast a deciding vote in favor of surrender.

The atomic bombs landed on Japan on August 6th and 9th, 1945. The ruling Japanese government polity, the Privy Council, subsequently voted evenly to accept/reject the Allied surrender demand knowing that the United States had a new weapon that destroyed entire cities. The Emperor cites the advent of the atomic bomb in his impassioned speech to the Japanese people on August 15, 1945, pleading that his subjects accept surrender peacefully. Such simple history makes it impossible to argue conclusively that the bombings were wanton or superfluous.

To single out two attacks on two Japanese cities and not include other attacks on Japanese cities suggests that these attacks were somehow unique in character and inconsistent with the death that occurred elsewhere in Japan in the overall strategic bombing campaign of the Allied Powers. Yet there is nothing unique about these attacks. It was not less barbarous to have incinerated Japanese civilians in Tokyo, Kobe, Niigata, and Osaka.

Whether the bombs saved more lives than they took is irrelevant. The issue is not a utilitarian equation. Further still, there is no historical evidence to conclude that modifying the surrender demand would have elicited a Japanese surrender quickly. It might have been used by the Privy Council as evidence that Japan's ability to forestall surrender through attrition and suicide attack was working. Fooling around with the surrender policy while winning the war might have been perceived as a mixed signal and elicited confusion, not precipitous surrender. Truman decided not to change longstanding national policy. Nobile believes that Truman should have watered down national policy to avoid using the bombs and therefore, because he didn't, he is a war criminal. Truman may still have effected unconditional surrender by choosing a demonstration of the weapon offshore or warned the cities or Privy Council of the impending attack, but the fact that he didn't does not make his act criminal.

The end of the war was near in August 1945 but not at hand. Surrender would not have occurred in August 1945 without the use of the atomic bombs. The war throughout Southeast and East Asia would have continued. The Soviets would have invaded Hokkaido and split Japan like Korea was sadly split. Korea would have fallen completely to Soviet domination. Japanese and Asian civilians throughout Asia would have died and been killed on a daily basis while surrender was postponed to some time in the late fall or winter 1945. Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been fire bombed instead of incinerated.

There is a difference between slaughter to effect a war aim and slaughter for slaughter's sake. Yes, the fact that the United States wanted to shock Japan into surrender does speak to the issue of criminality. There may be a paper-thin difference between killing civilians to effect civilian compliance with the occupiers (the German and Japanese attacks evoked terror) and killing civilians to effect political compellence (the Allied attacks evoked defeat), but there is a difference.

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katy hardy - 11/20/2002

I wanted to know exactly why the japenese didnt surender.

K. E. Sackett - 8/9/2002

Barbarous, brutal, and unecessary: that sounds like the Japanese empire.

Japan, like Germany, had an atomic bomb project during WWII. It was a ramshackle effort, like the regime that supported it, but it was sincerely aimed at building a workable nuclear weapon. Are we to condemn Harry Truman for exploiting the success of American scientists while overlooking the failure of the Japanese? The intent was the same: to prouce a war-winning weapon. Who can doubt that the military overlords of Japan -- men of far smaller caliber and far, far greater savagery than HST -- would have used such a weapon, or any weapon however frightful, against anyone they chose?

The worst that can be said of Harry Truman is that he partook of the increasing bloody-mindedness of the Second World War. This simply means that he was a man of his times, as we all are, inescapably. Who made those times so dreadful? Who created and intensified that thirst for gore? Who sowed that whirlwind of destruction? Japn, and Japan, and again Japan.