Truman on Trial: Not Guilty


Mr. Tenuth is Historian and Chief Artifact Cataloger, Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana.

We all wish the atomic bombings had never taken place; not only because of the resultant horrors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also because they started the nuclear arms race that have place our world in peril ever since. Having said that, it is the reality of World War II that we are dealing with, not our current opinions on the immorality of nuclear weapons. Our current opinions have no place in a trial like this.

If we look at the circumstances under which President Truman made his decision, i.e., if we place the bombings in their historical context, as the defense noted, then there is no basis for a trial. Based on the historical context and evidence of a world at war, the prosecution's case was poorly made. It presented many opinions, some after the fact and some by people not directly involved. But in either case, few legalities were presented other than the Nuremberg Charter itself. And since the Nuremberg Charter was created by the victors, I would hardly expect them to try themselves. The victors were at Nuremberg to try the Nazis for crimes against humanity on a scale that goes beyond the civilian casualties that always occur in war. Yet the prosecution does not seek to try the allies for the firebombings of Tokyo or Dresden, where the casualties were as great as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But even if they did charge the allies with crimes against humanity or against peace, it still would not have been the same as the cases against the Nazis or Japanese because of one fundamental point the prosecution did not bring up: intent.

We know from the historical record that the intent of the Nazis and the Japanese (to a lesser extent), was the extermination of certain peoples. There was no such intent on the part of President Truman. His actions were not a systematic approach to the annihilation of a whole people. His actions were, in a sense, incidental, in that they were incidents planned to end the war. There was no other intent, except possibly to stop the war before the Soviets entered, as they had promised to do at Potsdam. Whether President Truman wanted to send the Soviets a further message regarding their own expansion is unclear. The prosecution point that President Truman intended to slaughter the Japanese people was not proven and is not indicated in the historical record. It is a personal opinion, unsubstantiated by fact.

I have read some of the declassified documents outlining Operations Olympic and Coronet (the two phased invasion plan for Japan, set to begin November 1, 1945). In those documents are estimates of Japanese strengths and plans to repel the invasion. Thousands of aircraft and millions of troops were waiting for the allies. Japan had been planning its defense of the home islands for months, anticipating the invasion. The Japanese civilian population also had been preparing to defend their homeland. The defense pointed to Japanese strengths and plans in its critique of Richard Frank's book. The prosecution should have realized that an invasion larger than D-Day, would result in casualties larger then those incurred by the allies on the beaches of Normandy. This is especially true when one considers that the Japanese home islands were much more heavily defended than the limited beaches of Normandy.

No other alternatives were possible. Allowing the Japanese to view a test of the bomb was impractical because it may not have worked and there were only four bombs available after the Trinity test. Nor would a blockade have worked without inflicting severe civilian casualties. Continued firebombing of Japanese cities would have killed hundreds of thousands more and may not have forced the surrender for months or even years. Would the prosecution have tried President Truman for approving a blockade or continued firebombing ?

Since the peace faction was not yet strong enough to force an end to the War, the shock value of the bombings possibly played a role, as mentioned in Sadao Asada's article. And while it is true that the Japanese were making overtures to the Soviets, it may well have been as much to stall the Soviets as to indicate a willingness to end the war. Another factor to consider is that the European War was over and America wanted to end the Pacific War as soon as possible. America was tired of war, as was the rest of the world. These factors convinced President Truman that the bombings would save hundreds of thousands of American lives and possibly millions of Japanese lives.

In the final analysis, President Truman made the only decision he could make, given the circumstances and options available to him. It is convenient for non-historians to pass judgment now, fifty-six years later, in order to make a larger moral point about the evils of nuclear weapons. The problem with revisionist hindsight is that it relies on the power of words to make a moral judgment without placing an event in its proper historical context. Revisionism, therefore, becomes worthless because it allows any historical event to conform to whatever standard is desired. We can never know history if we follow the path of opinions and political correctness. The prosecution should have relied less on opinion and more on fact and context. Instead it referred to"wanton destruction,""terror weapon," and"final solution," a thinly veiled attempt to equate President Truman with Hitler's planned annihilation of the European Jews. These are all verbal tools used to create an effect for an audience that may not know the facts, but they are poor historical tools and do not contribute to the pursuit of truth. There is no evidence for the prosecution's case while the defense presented a much stronger case based on fact and historical context.

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