Gar Alperovitz

Note: Discussion this past fall of my book THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB, and of a review by John Bonnett, generated extended and often emotional comment. I was traveling during much of this period. I have waited until now for an opportunity to join the discussion in part for this reason, but mainly for another: In my judgment some of the most important issues concerning the Hiroshima decision cannot be properly addressed without confronting the complexity of the evidence problems involved--and, too, the porous nature of the available record. I had been informed that detailed discussions of certain aspects of these issues were about to be posted and could thus be referred to in my response. The unexpected cut-off of H-DIPLO debate (and the Christmas/semester break) forced a bit of delay. However, the postings have appeared on H-JAPAN (and are taken up below). Through the good offices of Doug Long they (and the earlier H- DIPLO responses) are also available at the following Home Page:

In addition, those who do not have easy access to the above may receive copies of materials referred to in the following response (and the response itself) by request at this e-mail address:

Finally, many of the materials are available on the new H-DIPLO web-site:


The following is addressed above all to scholars who wish to grapple with the difficult problems of evidence and interpretation at the heart of the Hiroshima question. Too often electronic debate becomes bogged down in quotation slinging or-- as some participants in the recent debate openly acknowledge-- moral crusading. Accordingly:

(1) I will not take up some of the more inflammatory, ad hominem or petty criticism which has appeared on H-DIPLO;

(2) A separate memorandum, by Sanho Tree (who directed the archival research for THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB) has been prepared which uses the main postings to provide a guide to many of the issues, pro and con, raised in the debate to date. This includes far more detail on certain points than is possible in this response. In addition, the memorandum takes up gross misrepresentations which some participants seem bent on repeating even after their attention has been called to errors of fact. (The memorandum is also available at the above-cited Home Page and e-mail address.)

The overall goal is to attempt to move beyond increasingly sterile and time-consuming aspects of the current discussion--and to provide sufficient information to researchers, history teachers, and graduate students and undergraduates so that they can make informed judgments on the evidentiary questions for themselves. Our hope is that the materials will be of particular use to those teaching undergraduate and graduate courses which deal with the issue.

Given the amount of space devoted to postings by various critics, and the amount of material which must be dealt with, the following response has been organized into sections which will appear during a four-day period beginning today. Parts I, II and III deal with major themes of THE DECISION and the larger historic controversy. Part IV takes up certain additional issues involved in the debate.


I: CONTEXT. The central issues raised in several postings during last fall's debate--and, indeed, in connection with the Hiroshima bombing in general--are: (1) whether there were other ways to end the war without accepting the enormous costs of an invasion; (2) whether this was understood at the time.

The tone and argument of some of last fall's postings seemed to indicate that those writing believed it outrageous to suggest the bombings were unnecessary. Some went so far as to impugn motives and professional integrity, and a level of anger and venom quite unusual in serious scholarly discussion appeared regularly in the postings of one or two participants. Some postings also betrayed a lack of information on the general state of the professional debate. This was not true of all of the contributions, of course. Indeed, many raised important and insightful points. To put the central issues in perspective at the outset, however, let me simply note the following:

(A) One of the earliest and most respected students of the issue was Herbert Feis. Not only was Feis an important scholar, but as a former Special Assistant to Secretary of War Stimson (and other Cabinet members as well), he had privileged access to inside information and opinions. Here is one critical judgment of this leading scholar's 1961 book JAPAN SUBDUED: THE ATOMIC BOMB AND THE END OF THE WAR IN THE PACIFIC:

[B]y far the easiest [question] to answer, is whether it was ESSENTIAL to use the bomb in order to compel the Japanese to surrender on our terms within a few months. It was not ... There can hardly be a well-grounded dissent from the conclusion reached by the members of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey ... "that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

Feis subsequently eliminated any shred of ambiguity from this assessment on the basis of further research and reflection. When he revised his 1961 language in his 1966 book [THE ATOMIC BOMB AND THE END OF WORLD WAR II], he made the question tougher-- and the answer more explicit. Instead of asking whether the bomb was essential to compel "surrender on our terms within a few months," he now clarified that he meant "before [Japan] was invaded." And instead of the formulation "There can hardly be," he now wrote: "There CANNOT be a well-grounded dissent from the conclusion reached as early as 1945 by members of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey ...." [Emphasis added; THE DECISION, p. 645.]

One may disagree with such judgments, of course, or with the conclusions of the Strategic Bombing Survey itself; and, in the end, Feis came to feel that the decision made by the men he was so close to should nonetheless not be criticized. However, Feis's judgment on the central issue has for decades helped serious scholars establish some of the lines of legitimate debate (and, implicitly, of informed and uninformed criticism as well). Moreover, as we shall see in PART II, Feis's ultimate position on the most important issue of interpretation came extremely close to that of THE DECISION.

(B) A full-scale review of the modern literature concerning the central issues was published in DIPLOMATIC HISTORY in early 1990. Here is its conclusion:

Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. IT IS CLEAR THAT ALTERNATIVES TO THE BOMB EXISTED AND THAT TRUMAN AND HIS ADVISERS KNEW IT. [Emphasis added; DIPLOMATIC HISTORY, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 110.]

The writer is not a revisionist; he is J. Samuel Walker, Chief Historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Again, one may challenge Walker's reading of the literature as of that date, but the notion that to argue the bomb was not needed and that this was understood at the time is somehow outrageous--as some of the postings angrily suggest--is simply not in keeping with the conclusions of many, many studies.

(C) Related to the problem of tone is the fact that historically this issue was not always so polarized, nor was it always seen as a liberal-versus-conservative matter--and in my view it should not be seen as such now. Indeed, an important point underscored in THE DECISION is that early on many leading American conservatives were more concerned about the ethical issues involved than liberals. Again, simply to put the matter in perspective at the outset, we may note President Herbert Hoover's comment on hearing news of the bombings: "the use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul." [THE DECISION, p. 459.]

Similarly, ten days after the bombing David Lawrence, the conservative owner and editor of the UNITED STATES NEWS (soon to change its name to U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT) published a strongly worded two-page editorial:

Military necessity will be our constant cry in answer to criticism, but it will never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations, though hesitating to use poison gas, did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children. [THE DECISION, p. 438.]

Again, William Buckley's NATIONAL REVIEW--commenting on a statement by President Truman in 1958--observed:

... the question that must be at the back of the minds of the people of Hiroshima, and that ought to haunt Harry Truman: "Was it REALLY necessary? Might a mere demonstration of the bomb, followed by an ultimatum, have turned the trick?"
If there is a satisfactory answer to that question, the people of Hiroshima AND the people of the United States have a right to hear it. [THE DECISION, p. 566.]

One could easily go on. (See, for instance, Uday Mohan, H- DIPLO, Oct. 3, 1996.)

II: MILITARY NECESSITY. Centrally related to all of this is information we now have concerning the views of top World War II American military leaders. In this connection it is also important to note at the outset that the recent debate, like much traditional literature, has been characterized by a continued unwillingness to confront some of the most significant modern evidence.

The issue of what U.S. military leaders felt and advised occupies four chapters of THE DECISION. A fundamental claim of those who reject views like those cited above is that the use of the atomic bomb was a matter of military necessity. President Truman himself repeatedly stated that he made the atomic bomb decision because his military advisers told him it was absolutely essential to do so. [THE DECISION, pp. 516-8, 521.]

If so, one would expect to find evidence of this--both at the time and after-the-fact.

(A) The rather stark truth, however, is that with one very "iffy" exception [THE DECISION, pp. 358-65] virtually all the important high-level World War II military leaders who had access to the relevant top secret information are on record as stating that the use of the atomic bomb was not a matter of military necessity. Indeed, many repeatedly, forcefully and consistently stated positions which in today's parlance would be termed strongly "revisionist."

An important contention of THE DECISION is that this fact can no longer be ignored or swept under the rug on the basis of one or another speculative theory as to why all these men would say what they did--and say it so regularly and so often, both privately and publicly, even while President Truman held office and was in position to decide issues of great importance to the various services:

Earlier in the postwar era most of the military statements were derived from various memoir accounts. However, we now have information from many, many sources, both private and public, which corroborates the fact that such military leaders simply did not agree with the official rationale for the bombings. Among the sources are internal military history interviews, letters, public interviews, diaries, speeches, statements by family members, statements by staff members, etc. Some of the evidence is familiar to many; some is less well known. Since the issue is so important and so poorly understood, let me reproduce a sampling of the (old and new) material presented in THE DECISION:

* In his memoirs Admiral William D. Leahy, the President's Chief of Staff--and the top official who presided over meetings of both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined U.S.-U.K. Chiefs of Staff--minced few words:

[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . .
[I]n being the first to use it, we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. [THE DECISION, p. 3.]

* The commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, gave a strong indication of his views in a public statement only eleven days after Hiroshima was attacked. Asked on August 17 by a NEW YORK TIMES reporter whether the atomic bomb caused Japan to surrender, Arnold said:

The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air. [THE DECISION, p. 334.]

In his 1949 memoirs Arnold observed that "it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse." [THE DECISION, p. 334.]

* Arnold's deputy, Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, summed up his understanding this way in an internal military history interview:

Arnold's view was that it [the dropping of the atomic bomb] was unnecessary. He said that he knew the Japanese wanted peace. There were political implications in the decision and Arnold did not feel it was the military's job to question it. [THE DECISION, p. 335.]

Eaker reported that Arnold told him:

When the question comes up of whether we use the atomic bomb or not, my view is that the Air Force will not oppose the use of the bomb, and they will deliver it effectively if the Commander in Chief decides to use it. But it is not necessary to use it in order to conquer the Japanese without the necessity of a land invasion. [THE DECISION, p. 335.]

* On September 20, 1945 the famous "hawk" who commanded the Twenty-First Bomber Command, Major General Curtis E. LeMay (as reported in THE NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE):

said flatly at one press conference that the atomic bomb "had nothing to do with the end of the war." He said the war would have been over in two weeks without the use of the atomic bomb or the Russian entry into the war. [THE DECISION, p. 336.]

The text of the press conference provides these details:

LEMAY: The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb.
THE PRESS: You mean that, sir? Without the Russians and the atomic bomb?
. . .
LEMAY: The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all. [THE DECISION, p. 336.]

* Personally dictated notes found in the papers of former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman describe a private 1965 dinner with General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, who in July 1945 commanded the U.S. Army Strategic Air Force (USASTAF) and was subsequently chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force. Also with them at dinner was Spaatz's one-time deputy commanding general at USASTAF, Frederick L. Anderson. Harriman PRIVATELY noted:

Both men . . . felt Japan would surrender without use of the bomb, and neither knew why the second bomb was used. [THE DECISION, p. 337.]

Harriman's private notes also recall his own understanding:

I know this attitude is correctly described, because I had it from the Air Force when I was in Washington in April '45. [THE DECISION, p. 337.]

* On the 40th Anniversary of the bombing former President Richard M. Nixon reported that:

[General Douglas] MacArthur once spoke to me very eloquently about it, pacing the floor of his apartment in the Waldorf. He thought it a tragedy that the Bomb was ever exploded. MacArthur believed that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should always be limited damage to noncombatants. . . . MacArthur, you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned him off. . . . [THE DECISION, p. 352.]

* The day after Hiroshima was bombed MacArthur's pilot, Weldon E. Rhoades, noted in his diary:

General MacArthur definitely is appalled and depressed by this Frankenstein monster [the bomb]. I had a long talk with him today, necessitated by the impending trip to Okinawa. . . . [THE DECISION, p. 350.]

* Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, in a public address at the Washington Monument two months after the bombings stated:

The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war. . . .The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan. . . . [THE DECISION, p. 329; see additionally THE NEW YORK TIMES, October 6, 1945.]

* Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander U.S. Third Fleet, stated publicly in 1946:

The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it. . . . [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. . . . It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before. [THE DECISION, p. 331.]

* In his "third person" autobiography (co-authored with Walter Muir Whitehill) the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and chief of Naval Operations, Ernest J. King, stated:

The President in giving his approval for these [atomic] attacks appeared to believe that many thousands of American troops would be killed in invading Japan, and in this he was entirely correct; but King felt, as he had pointed out many times, that the dilemma was an unnecessary one, for had we been willing to wait, the effective naval blockade would, in the course of time, have starved the Japanese into submission through lack of oil, rice, medicines, and other essential materials. [THE DECISION, p. 327.]

* Private interview notes taken by Walter Whitehill summarize King's feelings quite simply as: "I didn't like the atom bomb or any part of it." [THE DECISION, p. 329; see also pp. 327-329. See below for more on King's view.]

* In a 1985 letter recalling the views of Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, former Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy elaborated on an incident that was

very vivid in my mind. . . . I can recall as if it were yesterday, [Marshall's] insistence to me that whether we should drop an atomic bomb on Japan was a matter for the President to decide, not the Chief of Staff since it was not a military question . . . the question of whether we should drop this new bomb on Japan, in his judgment, involved such imponderable considerations as to remove it from the field of a military decision. [THE DECISION, p. 364.]

* In a separate memorandum written the same year McCloy recalled: "General Marshall was right when he said you must not ask me to declare that a surprise nuclear attack on Japan is a military necessity. It is not a military problem." [THE DECISION, p. 364.]

There is a long-standing debate about whether or not General Eisenhower--as he repeatedly claimed--urged Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (and possibly President Truman) not to use the atomic bomb. In interviews with his biographer, Stephen Ambrose, he was insistent that he urged his views to one or another of these men at the time. [THE DECISION, p. 358 n.] Quite apart from what he said at the time, there is no doubt, however, about his own repeatedly stated opinion on the central question:

* In his memoirs Eisenhower reported the following reaction when Secretary of War Stimson informed him the atomic bomb would be used:

During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. . . . [THE DECISION, p. 4.]

* Eisenhower made similar public and private statements on numerous occasions. He put it bluntly in a 1963 interview, stating quite simply: ". . . it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing." [THE DECISION, p. 356.] (Several of the occasions during which Eisenhower offered similar judgments are discussed at length in THE DECISION [pp. 352-358].)

(B) It is sometimes urged that there is no record of any of the military men directly advising President Truman not to use the atomic bomb--and that this must mean that they felt its use was justified at the time. However, this is speculation. The fact is there is also no record of military leaders advising President Truman TO USE THE BOMB:

We simply have little solid information one way or the other on what was said by top military leaders on the key question at the time: There are very few direct contemporaneous records on this subject. And there is certainly no formal recommendation that the atomic bomb be used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On the other hand, what little contemporaneous evidence we do have strongly suggests that BEFORE the atomic bomb was used at least two of the four members of the Joint Chiefs did not believe that military considerations required the destruction of Japanese cities without advance warning. Here, for instance, is how General George C. Marshall put it in a discussion more than two months before Hiroshima was destroyed (McCloy memo, May 29, 1945):

... he thought these weapons might first be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that, he thought we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which the people would be warned to leave--telling the Japanese that we intend to destroy such centers.... Every effort should be made to keep our record of warning clear. We must offset by such warning methods the opprobrium which might follow from an ill-considered employment of such force. [THE DECISION, p. 53.]

The President's Chief of Staff, Admiral Leahy--the man who presided over meetings of the Joint Chiefs--noted in his diary of June 18, 1945 (seven weeks PRIOR TO the bombing of Hiroshima):

It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan and that will make fully satisfactory provisions for America's defense against future trans-Pacific aggression. [THE DECISION, p. 324.]

(Leahy also stated subsequently something which should be obvious--namely that the Chief of Staff regularly made his views known to the President. His well-documented comments in a meeting with the President urging assurances for the Emperor this same day--June 18--are only one indication of this. Although we have no records of their private conversations, we know that the two men met to discuss matters of state every morning at 9:45 a.m. [THE DECISION, pp. 324-6.])

There is also substantial, but less direct evidence (including some which seems to have come from President Truman himself) that General Arnold argued explicitly that the atomic bomb was not needed [THE DECISION, pp. 322-4; 335-7]--and as noted above, that Arnold instructed his deputy Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker that although he did not wish to press the point, he did not believe the bomb was needed. As also noted above, in his memoirs Arnold stated that "it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse." [THE DECISION, p. 334.] (In this connection, as we shall discuss in Part III, it is commonly forgotten that by the time Hiroshima was bombed orders had already been given to alter targeting priorities so as to down-play city bombing. Although there were some difficulties in the field, the new priorities were on the verge of being moved into implementation as the war ended. [THE DECISION, p. 342-3.])

We have very little direct evidence concerning the contemporaneous views of the fourth member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral King. As noted, in his postwar memoirs King said the bomb was unnecessary because he believed a blockade strategy would have ended the war without an invasion. Although at the June 18 meeting King did not argue against the invasion, evidence from King's deputy chief of staff, Rear Admiral Bernhard H. Bieri, suggests that prior to the bombing King and his staff seemed to believe the war could be ended before Russia entered in August; and the well-informed and well-connected naval historian E.B. Potter explains the brevity of a 1945 planning meeting in San Francisco between King and Nimitz in this way: It may well have "reflected the near-conviction in the minds of both Nimitz and King [even before the atomic test] that neither Olympic nor Coronet would ever take place." [THE DECISION, pp. 328-9.]

Such indirect information suggests it is not unreasonable to think that King's judgment prior to the bombings may well also have been that the war could be ended early on without an invasion and without the atomic bomb. As noted, interview notes taken by Walter Whitehill summarize King's feelings quite simply as: "I didn't like the atom bomb or any part of it." Such a judgment is reinforced when other aspects of the problem are considered: So far as I am aware King never publicly addressed the central question of whether the war could be ended by changing the terms and/or awaiting the Russian attack. It was well understood, of course, that both a modification of terms and the shock of the Russian attack would greatly add to the factors which would help produce a Japanese surrender. (See Part II; on the views of the military in general, see also Thad Williamson, H-DIPLO, Oct. 3 and Oct. 23, 1996; and Kathryn C. Morris, H- JAPAN, Nov. 9, 1996.)

(C) All of the above--and detailed information presented in THE DECISION [pp. 319-70] on the views of staff assistants, deputies and others working closely with the Joint Chiefs--makes it extremely difficult to believe that the advice given to the President by his top military leaders at the time was that he had no alternative but to use the atomic bomb.

Moreover--and this is crucial--as noted in connection with our limited information regarding King's views, the question does not turn on the traditional debate between blockade versus strategic bombing versus invasion. Although debate over such issues was important earlier in the war, BY JULY 1945 the terms of the debate at the very highest level were quite different; they involved whether the war could be ended through a combination of assurances for the Emperor and the impact of the Russian attack--a matter we shall shortly take up at some length.

(D) It is possible that all of these men were simply taking positions which reflected their own service's interests, as so many critics would apparently like to believe. Contrary to some of the postings, THE DECISION takes up this possibility [pp. 366- 69]. However, consider the implications: What is being claimed is that for narrow service interests these leading World War II military figures all were willing to state publicly (and privately) that their nation and their President unnecessarily killed very, very large numbers of civilians. Moreover, some of the severest challenges to the Hiroshima decision were made while Truman was still in office--hardly a politic way of gaining additional funds or credit for a particular branch of service.

Consider also that one of these leading military figures was also President of the United States--and that Eisenhower made his public statements at the height of the Cold War.

Consider further that those who urge various theories of why the military leaders said what they said are for the most part simply speculating as to motives: There is no direct evidence that the top military leaders were not telling the truth.

I noted above that judgments must be made about complex matters of evidence in situations where there are significant gaps in the record. This is one such case. The most reasonable interpretation of these various statements, I submit, is that the military leaders simply meant what they said.

Moreover, given that there is again no solid evidence--only speculation--to the contrary, it is also not unreasonable to assume that such repeatedly stated views were close to what they felt at the time (or, minimally, not bald-faced lies in direct contradiction to what they had privately advised the President of the United States on so important a matter).

At the outset, however, a simple contention: It is time to get beyond easy dismissals of military views on the basis of speculation which favors critics but disregards the frequency, depth, and consistency of the statements--and, one might add, the honor and integrity of the men involved as well.

(E) Two final points in this regard:

To more fully evaluate the position of the military-- especially given the challenges presented by the incomplete record--we must consider other alternatives being considered at the level of the President, a subject we turn to in the next Part.

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