Michael Kort: Is the latest revisionist account right about Truman & Hiroshima?

Roundup: Talking About History

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University press, 2005) has received a great deal of favorable press since its publication last year. Reviewers in leading newspapers have called it “brilliant and definitive,” “a landmark book,” “the definitive analysis” of the American decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, etc. Hasegawa’s extensive use of Japanese and Russian sources has added to the book’s luster. His multilingual source base is what presumably gives his book the vital “international context” allegedly missing from earlier volumes on the American use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender that finally put an end to World War II.

Racing the Enemy is an opportune arrival for the increasingly beleaguered critics of the American use of atomic weapons against Japan, who, in the historians’ debate over the bomb, usually have been classified as “revisionists” (as opposed to “orthodox” or “traditional” historians who have evaluated the atomic bomb decision as necessary to end the war). As made by Gar Alperovitz more than forty years ago, the original revisionist argument maintained that the atomic bomb was used primarily to intimidate the Soviet Union in order to gain the upper hand in Eastern Europe and to keep Moscow out of the war in the Far East. While the whole cloth of this “atomic diplomacy” thesis was too extreme for most revisionists, they wove bits and pieces of it into their own critiques of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Revisionism’s heyday lasted until the 1990s. Then the historiographical ground began to shift. A new body of scholarly work emerged, often based on hitherto unavailable documents, which countered revisionist arguments that the atomic bomb was primarily a diplomatic weapon in 1945, that Japan would have surrendered prior to the planned U.S. invasion had the bomb not been used, and that projected casualty figures for the anticipated invasion of Japan were far lower than those cited by supporters of the decision to use the bomb. The scholars producing these books and articles provided powerful support for Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Thus Edward Drea’s MacArthur’s Ultra: Codebreaking and the War against Japan (1992) chronicled how Allied intelligence tracked the Japanese military buildup on the southernmost home island of Kyushu in the months prior to Hiroshima, a buildup that demonstrated Tokyo’s intent to fight to the bitter end and rendered all “low” casualty estimates dating from the spring and early summer of 1945––the estimates relied upon by revisionist historians––obsolete and irrelevant months before American soldiers were scheduled to land in Japan. In 1995 Robert P. Newman’s Truman and the Hiroshima Cult demolished the credibility of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey’s claim that Japan would have surrendered in the fall of 1945 absent both the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war, while Robert James Maddox’s Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later effectively dismantled what was left of the “atomic diplomacy” thesis. Two years later, in “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasion of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications” (The Journal of Military History, July 1997), D. M. Giangreco conclusively documented the existence of enormous casualty projections, some of which undeniably reached Truman and his top advisors. The next year, in “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender––A Reconsideration” (Pacific Historical Review, November 1998), Sadao Asada, relying on a thorough review of Japanese-language sources, exposed as untenable the contention that Japan was prepared to surrender before Hiroshima or that a modification of the Potsdam Declaration guaranteeing the status of the emperor would have produced a Japanese surrender.

These and other works culminated in Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, published in 1999. Frank brought together the evidence already mentioned and a great deal more, including crucial Japanese-language sources, leaving virtually every aspect of the revisionist case in tatters. It was not long before Downfall gained widespread recognition as the definitive work on the subject. Against this background, the cancellation of the Smithsonian Institution’s proposed exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which relied almost exclusively on revisionist scholarship, was only the most publicized setback suffered by proponents of the revisionist case during the 1990s.

Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy runs counter to this scholarly current. Racing the Enemy, however, is not all good news for revisionists. Hasegawa rejects some parts of the revisionist case, including the critically important thesis that Japan could have been induced to surrender prior to the events of August 6-9, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan (August 8). Instead, Hasegawa attempts to resuscitate the revisionist critique of Truman by arguing that the United States wanted to use the atomic bomb against Japan prior to the Soviet entry into the war in order to thwart Moscow’s ambitions in the Far East. This in turn created a race to use the bomb and get Tokyo to surrender before the Soviets declared war on the beleaguered empire. That race, of course, was lost, for although Hiroshima preceded the Soviet entry into the Pacific War, the Japanese surrender did not. Beyond that, Hasegawa argues, Japan surrendered not because of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki but because of the Soviet declaration of war that took place between those two dreadful nuclear explosions.

Despite Hasegawa’s sources in three languages, his evidence does not back up his claims. Furthermore, at times his methodology is faulty....
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