Truman on Trial: Undecided


Mr. Offner is Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History at Lafayette College and past president, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

Alas, I must insist that I be counted as a"hung juror." I believe that Philip Nobile's prosecutor's argument is too weak to allow for conviction of President Truman for war crimes, while Ronald Radosh's defense arguments are weaker still, combining flimsy arguments and evidence with ad hominem attacks on"revisionist" historians.

Nobile's arguments are too literal and sweeping: Truman and all those around him are guilty of war crimes for causing wanton destruction of cities and villages (and people) without military necessity. But so then must we convict the Germans for bombing the east end of London and Coventry and London, the British and U.S. for fire-bombing Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo...albeit with conventional bombs not atomic ones. (But that makes the issue the weapon not the deed.)

Use of the bomb also rested on fact that Truman and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes did fear a) the Japanese might fight to the last soldier alive; b) the U.S. Congress and public would be enraged at the failure to use weapons after expending $2.7 billion, while also allowing"unnecessary" lost U.S. lives; c) Russians might advance in Manchuria and North China, and in Japan and claim the right of occupation governance, a la Germany; d) no official or group officials made a concerted argument not to use atomic bombs; e) no one--save a handful of scientists--grasped the quantum leap atomic weapons represented; f) after almost a decade of warfare--from Japan's attack on China 1937 to 1945, politicians like HST and Byrnes did not believe bombing was wanton destruction so much as forcing the other side to quit an indescribably horrible war. Hence, for many reasons that blended together--and prevented serious discussion of NOT using A-Bombs--HST and Byrnes acted, neither as saints nor sinners, nor as war criminals. Hence, I cannot convict them of war crimes unless I convict everyone who ordered any bombing that was not a military-industrial target exclusively.

Defense lawyer Radosh does not seem acquainted with the vast body of literature that shows many political reasons that pushed HST in the direction of use of the bomb. For example:

1) Stimson-HST discussions May 1945 about bomb being a"master card" and"royal straight flush" that would allow US to leverage USSR in negotiations; 2) Byrnes's belief that the bomb would allow the US to"out maneuver" the USSR in North China-Manchuria and Japan; and in Potsdam negotiations in general, including those concerning Germany. (See diary of Walter Brown, Byrnes's administrative aide). 3)HST himself saw the bomb as an"ace in the hole" --said it repeatedly--that would allow him to defeat Stalin in negotiations; 4) HST refused to weigh requests of Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, Assistant Navy Secretary Ralph Bard, and former Ambassador to Japan Joseph C. Grew, and then STIMSON at POTSDAM to modify the demand for unconditional surrender to allow the emperor to remain on the throne; 5) the Potsdam Declaration deliberately left out: a)mention of the A Bomb; b) mention of the USSR coming into the war; c) no modifications to the demand for unconditional surrender. All this was designed to allow use of the A Bomb to end the war before the USSR joined (thus forestalling the USSR claims in China, Japan and Germany! ).

Finally, Radosh and others' casualty-death figures running to hundreds thousands are all poppycock. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the maximum would be 31,000 in the first 30 days after the invasion of Kyushu--and they did NOT expect it to last that long. Japan was on its last military legs, the U.S. knew it, and while young Japanese officers wanted to fight--they could not hold out once the USSR entered the war.

In fact, Robert Pape's article,"Why Japan Surrendered," (1993) documents the profound impact Russia's entry on August 8 had on the Japanese decision to surrender--fear not just of military destruction but of communism!

Finally, while Radosh talks abut Hiroshima etc, no historian--including those who say HST had little choice regarding Hiroshima--who knows the field suggests that the Nagasaki bombing was militarily necessary. So stop beating on"intellectuals" and those who do not share the bitter right-wing persuasion of Radosh et al. and try reading a few documents...

That's it friends, except to say that this kind of"trial" does not allow for the best historical judgment....There's a reason historians weigh all sides of a case, and render humane judgments, while prosecutors and defense lawyers tend to seek conviction or acquittal at all costs.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Chelsea Nicole Boucher - 2/28/2011

I agree with you in the fact that both cases were weak in evidence and had no real value to hold up in a true court of law, however, by saying there is not enough evidence, Truman is assumed innocent because no one has proved otherwise and there will never be a way to prove that theory. The reason for this is because we cannot say there was not a necessity for the bombs because we didn't use anything else and the bombs had been proven effective when the result was an unconditional surrender from Japan and if we flip that sentence around there was also no way of knowing how many lives would have been saved if we had not used the bomb. By that logic, I have concluded that Truman is not guilty on the basis of insufficient evidence.