Gar Alperovitz

In Part I of this response, I noted that many scholars now judge the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to have been unnecessary--and that debate over this issue was once not nearly so polarized as it now is. Indeed, leading conservatives and military officials were commonly among those most adamant in their criticism of the decision. I also pointed out that the evidence now available makes it extremely difficult to believe that President Truman was advised by his top military leaders that his only choice was to use the atomic bomb or invade--and that it was time to confront, rather than evade, this evidence.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Hiroshima debate has been the failure on all sides in recent years to acknowledge --and honor--the older tradition of military professionalism which found it unworthy to attack civilians unnecessarily. Certainly not all top World War II figures were troubled by the bombings, but as we have seen, many traditionalists shared something of the depression and disgust expressed by Leahy, Eisenhower, and others.

In this Part let us turn to the options available to the President--and again, let me especially stress the difficulties which the complexities of the record present: Many of the most important conversations regarding alternatives clearly occurred privately between the President and his chief adviser, Secretary of State Byrnes. Some of these were aboard the Augusta on the Atlantic crossing to and from Potsdam: The two men shared adjoining state-rooms, and we know from several documents that numerous formal and informal discussions occurred at this time. Many other conversations undoubtedly occurred during the Potsdam Conference itself; the two old friends shared a villa, regularly ate meals together, and drove to and from the meetings together. There is also evidence of the suppression of evidence in certain possibly related instances. [For examples, see THE DECISION, pp. 97, 196, 204-205, 237, 304-306, 602.]

Given the spotty nature of the evidence concerning many important issues, the only way to proceed is to assemble whatever can be found from various diverse sources--and then to make informed judgments on the issues involved, qualifying these when appropriate, defining gaps in our knowledge when this is necessary. In this area especially, those interested are urged to consult the longer discussion in THE DECISION, and for additional detailed analyses of the evidence, the following submissions: Kai Bird, H-DIPLO, Oct. 1, 1996; Uday Mohan, H-DIPLO, Oct. 3, 1996, and H-JAPAN, Nov. 30, 1996; Thad Williamson, H-DIPLO, Oct. 3 and 23, 1996; Sanho Tree, H-DIPLO, Oct. 10, 1996; and Kathryn C. Morris, H-JAPAN, Nov. 9 and 10, 1996.


III. Alternatives. Considerable confusion is reflected in some of the postings about a second major contention of THE DECISION. It is, in fact, straightforward--namely that President Truman was advised that there were other alternatives available which seemed likely to end the war without an invasion and without having to use the atomic bomb on a largely civilian target without warning. Moreover, there were roughly three months to test this advice between early August (when the bombings actually occurred) and November 1, the first date a Kyushu invasion could begin.

(A) One strand of confusion concerns the Emperor issue: The argument of THE DECISION begins with--but does not end with--the well-known judgments of men like Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew that a change of terms assuring Japan that their Emperor would not be displaced or harmed seemed likely to end the war. The evidence on this issue is discussed at very great length. (See for example, THE DECISION, pp. 31-80; 223-238; 243-49, 297- 318.) I will not reproduce all the well-known and less well-known material here. However, let me stress a distinction between two quite separate elements of the argument which is often overlooked:

Throughout the Truman Administration there was a very clear understanding (and the President was so advised) of one major NEGATIVE point--namely that the war would go on if he did NOT alter the terms. (See below; also see Morris reference above.) The Joint Staff Planners put it this way as early as April 25, 1945:

Unless a definition of unconditional surrender can be given which is acceptable to the Japanese, there is no alternative to annihilation and no prospect that the threat of absolute defeat will bring about capitulation. [THE DECISION, p. 42.]

We also know--contrary to this judgment--that President Truman (on the advice of Secretary of State Byrnes) eliminated the recommended language of paragraph 12 of the Potsdam Proclamation which would have provided Japan assurances concerning the Emperor.

Two other important points are related to this:

  1. When he issued the Potsdam Proclamation in its final form the President's diary makes clear that he understood it was highly unlikely that it could be accepted by the Japanese. [THE DECISION, p. 303]

  2. The President is on record at several points during the summer of 1945 indicating that he did not see insuperable political obstacles to modifying the surrender terms along the proposed lines. [THE DECISION, pp. 46, 67-72, 74-5, 78, 311, 417, 649-650; see below for further discussion.]

Thus, President Truman made changes in the Proclamation which made it all but impossible for Japan to accept the surrender demand it contained--and, at the same time, the evidence is that he personally did not believe offering the requisite assurances was politically impossible.

(B) The President was also advised--POSITIVELY--by men like Grew and Stimson of the positive significance of a change of terms. This is a slightly different but equally important point. Here is how Secretary of War Stimson put it to President Truman in a memorandum urging that a warning containing assurances for the Emperor be issued. The date is July 2, 1945, more than a month before Hiroshima was destroyed:

I believe Japan is susceptible to reason in such a crisis to a much greater extent than is indicated by our current press and other current comment. [THE DECISION, p. 77.]
I think the Japanese nation has the mental intelligence and versatile capacity in such a crisis to recognize the folly of a fight to the finish and to accept the proffer of what will amount to an unconditional surrender; . . . [THE DECISION, p. 77.]

(C) In fact, President Truman was urged to modify the surrender terms on numerous occasions during the summer of 1945-- and by numerous people. What follows is a list of some of the (known) efforts. (For a discussion of the nuances of the various positions see references provided for the summary on pp. 298-301 of THE DECISION; see also Kathryn C. Morris, H-JAPAN, Nov. 9 and 10, 1996.) Direct approaches were made:

  1. by Acting Secretary of State Grew on May 28, 1945;
  2. by former President Herbert Hoover in a May 30, 1945 memorandum;
  3. by Grew again on June 13, 1945;
  4. by Counsel to the President Samuel I. Rosenman on June 17, 1945;
  5. by Grew once more on June 18, 1945;
  6. by Assistant Secretary of War McCloy on June 18, 1945;
  7. by Admiral Leahy on June 18, 1945;
  8. by the State Department in a formal recommendation of June 30, 1945;
  9. by Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard on July 1, 1945 (it appears from certain evidence);
  10. by Secretary of War Stimson (with the support of Secretary of the Navy Forrestal and Grew) on July 2, 1945;
  11. by Stimson again on July 16, 1945;
  12. by Churchill on July 18, 1945;
  13. by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 18, 1945;
  14. by Stimson on July 24, 1945.

In addition to these direct approaches to the President, the then Secretary of State Edward Stettinius had recommended a clarification of the formula on June 15, and the Joint Chiefs had done so using a slightly different formula on June 9 (and, as we have previously noted in Part I, did so again, both directly and indirectly through the British Chiefs of Staff and Churchill in the July 16-18 time frame). [See THE DECISION, pp. 56-7, 245-48, 299-301.]


As is well known, lower level officials like Assistant Secretaries of State Acheson and MacLeish, and former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, had reservations about such assurances. However: (1) the positions taken by these men are commonly exaggerated and were far more qualified than is often understood; and--most important--(2) there is little evidence their views were communicated to the President. [THE DECISION, pp. 306-11; see also Mohan, H-JAPAN, Nov. 30, 1996 and Morris, H-JAPAN, Nov. 9, 1996.] In general, although some political considerations were undoubtedly involved, as THE DECISION shows, the evidence now available makes it clear that they were hardly decisive. [For further discussion of these issues, see THE DECISION, pp. 44-5, 46, 65-6, 67-72, 74-5, 78, 228-29, 311-14, 417, 635, 649-50; for a discussion of press opinion, see Mohan, H-DIPLO, Oct. 3, 1996.]

A related point: Some modern students of Japanese history, like 1945 American liberals, hold that the preservation of the Emperor's position had disastrous (highly conservative) postwar political implications. Some argue (or imply) that, therefore, the position of the Emperor should not have been clarified. Let me simply underscore the importance of distinguishing carefully between the question of (a) whether assurances were required to bring about an end to the fighting, and/or (b) whether this had positive or negative implications for postwar Japan. Confusing these two questions has sometimes led those who dislike the Emperor system to cross the line and imply that clarification of the Emperor's position should not have been attempted even if this meant the war would go on and bombings would go forward. (My personal sympathies are with those who oppose the Emperor system; at the same time I do not see how one can argue against a clarification of terms without simultaneously accepting that this meant the bombings would then inevitably have had to go forward.)


IV. Having noted the above, it is important to understand-- as some of last fall's postings clearly did not--that the argument of THE DECISION does not rest upon information we now have concerning advice to the President on the importance of assurances to the Emperor. Indeed, this is not its central contention. The main argument of the book is that U.S. policy- makers judged that assurances for the Emperor, when combined with the dramatic impact of the forthcoming Russian Declaration of War against Japan, would--taken together--likely bring about an end to the fighting without an invasion.

Utilizing a variety of sources and evidence developed over the last decades, THE DECISION closely analyzes the information we now have on how various officials judged the expected impact of a Russian Declaration of War (understood throughout the spring and summer as likely to occur in early August, roughly 90 days after the collapse of Germany).

(A) THE DECISION describes and delineates what I have called the "two-step" advice given at the time--namely the judgment that (1) when the massive but still neutral Red Army attacked in early August (step one), this would force Japan to realize the inevitability of defeat; and once this happened then (2) a clarification of the terms in favor of the Emperor (step two) would bring an end to the fighting.

(The reverse possibility was obviously also implicit in the positions taken by Grew, Stimson and others: Early clarification of the terms, followed by the shock of the Russian declaration of war. However, since (1) some of these men thought a clarification alone might end the war--AND POSSIBLY THEREBY KEEP THE RUSSIANS OUT OF THE FIGHTING; and, since (2) their recommendation concerning an early clarification was rejected, discussion of what might be called the "reverse two-step" possibility was not extensive.)

(B) With the exception of one or two authors (see Part III), the evolution of U.S. judgments concerning the likely impact of the Russian attack has been dealt with rather superficially in much modern work. THE DECISION traces the evidence now available in order to show that the initial advice that the Red Army would be important mainly to pin down Japanese armies in Manchuria largely gave way--as the spring and summer progressed--to the strategic judgment that the shock of the Red Army attack also might very well force a surrender on its own or when combined with assurances for the Emperor.

Here is only a brief selection of some of the evidence concerning this key argument of the book which has escaped notice in the recent postings:

* As early as April 29, 1945 the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) informed the Joint Chiefs of Staff that increasing "numbers of informed Japanese, both military and civilian, already realize the inevitability of absolute defeat."

The Committee further advised that:

The increasing effects of air-sea blockade, the progressive and cumulative devastation wrought by strategic bombing, and the collapse of Germany (with its implications regarding redeployment) should make this realization widespread within the year.

HOWEVER, the JIC pointed out, a Russian decision to join with U.S. and Britain in the war against Japan would have enormous force--and would dramatically alter the equation:

The entry of the U.S.S.R. into the war would, together with the foregoing factors, convince most Japanese AT ONCE of the inevitability of complete defeat. [Emphasis added. THE DECISION, p. 113.]

It went on (step two):

If . . . the Japanese people, as well as their leaders, were persuaded both that absolute defeat was inevitable and that unconditional surrender did not imply national annihilation, surrender might follow fairly quickly. [THE DECISION, p. 114.]

The above advice, to repeat, was given in April. Intercepted messages added to this understanding in the period from May to August. Simply by way of illustration, a June 1945 intercept--"Substance of Ambassador Sato's 8 June message to Foreign Minister Togo"--contained the following passage:

[I]f Russia by some chance should suddenly decide to take advantage of our weakness and intervene against us with force of arms, we would be in a completely hopeless situation. It is clear as day that the Imperial Army in Manchukuo would be completely unable to oppose the Red Army which has just won a great victory and is superior to us on all points. [THE DECISION, pp. 121-122.]

* On June 18 General Marshall advised President Truman directly that "the impact of Russian entry [into the war] on the already hopeless Japanese may well be the decisive action levering them into capitulation at that time or shortly thereafter if we land in Japan." (Note the word "if" in this assessment--and the date: Marshall's advice was given to Truman seven weeks before the bombing--and almost a month before important news arrived of the Emperor's personal intervention to attempt to end the war, AND at a time when there were still almost four and a half months to go before the Kyushu invasion could begin. [THE DECISION, p. 123.])

Also note the words "at that time." From many documents it can be shown that this phrase refers to early August--the expected time of the Russian attack. Some writers have suggested that this passage might mean that the "levering" would only occur if a landing actually took place, an understanding which is difficult to square with a close reading of the text: Since "at that time" is early August it is logically impossible to make the "levering" dependent upon a subsequent landing which can take place only three months later in November. [For further discussion of this issue--including the known judgment and role of the Army planner, General A. Lincoln, who prepared Marshall's briefing for the President, see THE DECISION, pp. 359-60; see also Kathryn C. Morris, H-JAPAN, Nov. 9, 1996.]

* On July 8 the U.S.-British Combined Intelligence Committee completed a formal "Estimate of the Enemy Situation." This document included the following assessment:

We believe that a considerable portion of the Japanese population now consider absolute military defeat probable. The increasing effects of sea blockade and the cumulative devastation wrought by strategic bombing, which has already rendered millions homeless and has destroyed from 25% to 50% of the builtup areas of Japan's most important cities, should make this realization increasingly general.

The Committee also stressed the judgment that:

An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat. [THE DECISION, p. 227.]
* At Potsdam in mid-July Britain's General Hastings Ismay, chief of staff to the minister of defence, summarized the conclusions of the above U.S.-U.K. intelligence study for Prime Minister Churchill in this way:
. . . [W]hen Russia came into the war against Japan, the Japanese would probably wish to get out on almost any terms short of the dethronement of the Emperor. [THE DECISION, p. 246.]

(For distortions in some postings concerning the meaning of this particular document--and neglect of the difference between bottom-line considerations concerning the Emperor and "if possible" objectives the Japanese also would have liked, also see Morris posting noted above. We shall return to this issue in Part IV.)

(Related to this: it may be worth noting in passing that, contrary to some postings, the idea of "shock" did not depend on surprise. As the above evidence suggests, it was simply that it was obvious that when the massive but still neutral Red Army joined the fray, this fact could not help but have enormous political-military implications.)

* It is now also clear that on several occasions President Truman made it abundantly clear that the main reason he went to Potsdam to meet Stalin was to make sure the Russians would, in fact, enter the war. As he later stated:

If the test [of the atomic bomb] should fail, then it would be even more important to us to bring about a surrender before we had to make a physical conquest of Japan. [THE DECISION, p. 124.]

* After Stalin confirmed that the Red Army would in fact enter the war (with roughly a one week delay), the President's diary shows him writing:

Most of the big points are settled. He'll be in the Jap War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.

The next day--in an exuberant letter to his wife --Truman wrote that with the Russian declaration of war:

. . . I've gotten what I came for--Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it. . . . I'll say that we'll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won't be killed! [THE DECISION, p. 241-2.]

(C) Other important evidence cited in THE DECISION adds to the picture of a President fully aware that Japan was trying to get out of the war. For instance, on July 18 the President referred to the latest intercepted message in his diary, characterizing it as the "telegram from Jap [sic] Emperor asking for peace. . ." [THE DECISION, p. 244.] Even more revealing is a diary entry by Walter Brown (assistant to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes). The entry reports on a meeting aboard the Augusta concerning new intelligence information received just after the close of the Potsdam Conference. It offers the following insight into how President Truman, Secretary James F. Byrnes, and Admiral Leahy viewed the situation three days before Hiroshima was bombed:

Aboard Augusta/ President, Leahy, JFB agrred [SIC] Japas [SIC] looking for peace. (Leahy had another report from Pacific) President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden. [THE DECISION, p. 415.]

(Virtually all of the postings have so far continued to ignore this important document.)

(D) Let me note a related point which has also been overlooked: Since it was fully understood that Japan was attempting to approach Moscow to negotiate an end to the war-- that, indeed, keeping Russia neutral represented Japan's last frail hope--it was obvious that once Russia simply made its position known this ALONE would have enormous impact. A mere signal of Russia's intent--even before Moscow actually entered the war--would shatter the basis of the theory that Japan could continue fighting without having to face the Red Army. It would confront the already tottering Japanese with the prospect of now having to deal with the reality that the third major ally--fresh from its victory over Hitler's Germany--was about to add its power to that of the U.S. and Britain.

Indeed, AS EARLY AS SEPTEMBER 1944, Prime Minister Churchill, argued that once the Russians merely declared their intentions, this ALONE might well be decisive. [THE DECISION, p. 89.]

It also is often overlooked that one of the reasons the Potsdam Proclamation was issued from the meeting of the Big Three, was precisely because it was understood that this would present Japan with a powerful indication of Russia's intention-- no matter what was formally said.

Moreover, before the atomic bomb was tested, the draft Potsdam Proclamation included Russia as one of the signatories-- which, of course, would have made the situation facing Japan crystal clear.

However, at Potsdam--after news arrived of the successful atomic test--it was decided (on the advice of Byrnes it appears clear) to eliminate Russia as one of the signatories of the Potsdam Proclamation, thus eliminating the force of this important "signal" (and, incidentally, greatly confusing Japan as to Russia's intentions). [On the above points, see THE DECISION, pp. 267-77, 377-81, 405, 413-15.]

V. Given all of the above--the previously cited evidence concerning military views, the evidence concerning options, and the evidence concerning the President's own understanding--and with still some three months to go--and despite the many gaps in the evidence--it is now extremely difficult to believe it was judged that using the atomic bomb against a largely civilian target without warning was seen as the only alternative to an invasion which could only begin in November.

Moreover, we also now know that AFTER the bomb was successfully tested, the United States actively attempted to stall--rather than encourage--the Russian attack. (Although this point is widely acknowledged by specialists in the field, some participants in the recent debate seem not to have kept up with the literature in this connection):

JFB still hoping for time, believing after atomic bomb Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill, thereby being in a position to press for claims against China. [THE DECISION, p. 268.]

Byrnes said he was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over before the Russians got in, with particular reference to Dairen and Port Arthur. Once in there, he felt, it would not be easy to get them out. [THE DECISION, p. 274.]

The method for attempting to delay the Red Army involved a manipulation of the so-called Soong negotiations. [THE DECISION, pp. 267-73.] The following representative statements by important modern scholars bespeak a now well-understood consensus:

In other words, even though it was understood that the Russian attack would have a devastating impact on the Japanese, at the last minute U.S. policy-makers attempted to hold this action back. As noted, they also had previously stricken the other main element of the two-step strategy from the Potsdam Proclamation (assurances for the Emperor). As Martin Sherwin has written, the use of the atomic bomb was "preferred." [THE DECISION, p. 662.]


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