Gar Alperovitz

In previous Parts of this response--and in a Memorandum prepared by Sanho Tree on related issues (see below)--a variety of questions concerning the Hiroshima decision have been addressed. The central issue is what can be learned about the actual process, day by day, by which the decision to use the atomic bomb was made--and, too, how American leaders came to clarify their priorities. "None of the officials who made the decision to use the atomic bomb did so out of evil intent. Their motives, broadly speaking, were good; their intentions well- meaning." [THE DECISION, p. 637.]

In this brief and final Part--and especially given the extreme nature of some of the charges put forward in the debate-- perhaps I may be permitted a word about method and style of argument, and about the new medium with which we are working.


XI. Let me begin with the medium: Self-evidently, we are dealing with a rather new process, a situation in which trial and error (and mistakes) are inevitable. I disagree with the way the H-DIPLO debate has proceeded in certain particulars. However, I also recognize that we all are on a learning curve. Allowing for the fact that the general decline of civil discourse in America is now infecting virtually all modes of communication, certain things seem clear:

In the first place, greater attention to moderating the tone of exchanges can only help build an environment in which serious professional concerns are seriously discussed. Allowing the tone to slip and slide into mud-slinging and name-calling does very little to enhance the quality of discourse needed for true learning: The sheer rudeness of some of the postings would be unacceptable in most conferences, seminars and academic discussions around the world. Surely we can do better.

At a more general level--as many have noted--one of the most frustrating aspects of the medium and process is that individuals willing to devote very large amounts of time to the effort can continuously generate broad charges and ad hominem criticism at will. In the case of certain participants in the recent dialogue, not only have false charges been made, but they have been repeated after having been shown to contain significant errors of fact. [See below; also see Thad Williamson, H-DIPLO, Oct. 23, 1996, and H-JAPAN, Nov. 5, 1996. For further detail on factual errors, see Sanho Tree, H-DIPLO, Oct. 10, 1996; Kathryn C. Morris, H-JAPAN, Nov. 9 and 10, 1996; and Uday Mohan, H-JAPAN, Nov. 30, 1996.]

The question is how to deal with this situation.

The choice is to respond endlessly to each and every charge (however distorted, erroneous, or ad hominem)--or to offer serious researchers and students an alternative. As noted at the very outset, what I have chosen to do is (1) deal with the central issues involved in the Hiroshima question in the first three Parts of this response; and (2) arrange for the ready availability of materials not posted on H-DIPLO when debate was cut off (but which have appeared on H-JAPAN); and (3) arrange to have prepared a detailed memorandum which draws on the various posts and briefly summarizes the major points of the debate for those who wish to go beyond what can fruitfully be done using the H-DIPLO format. (To recall: The various materials are available at or can be requested at: Many are also available on the new H-DIPLO web- site.)

My purpose in proceeding this way is quite straightforward: As I have indicated throughout, since many of the most important evidentiary issues are complex and difficult, I believe there is little to gain by continuing the process of back and forth charge and counter-charge. This does not mean that there may not possibly be a time and place for further comment. However, in the main I am now more than content to have the debate continue where time and thought and reflection are both possible and necessary: class-rooms, seminar rooms, scholarly studies and journal articles.

I am especially interested in those who teach diplomatic history, and the history of World War II--both to undergraduates and at the graduate level. Many will offer the option of writing a research paper on the decision to use the atomic bomb and/or on research methods (using the decision as a focal point). The various materials have been designed to help clarify the issues-- and to help students explore directly the merits of the various positions for themselves.

I might add that I also believe it would be useful for students to examine the recent H-DIPLO debate in its entirety not only in terms of the content, but as a case study in how emotionally charged issues can cloud thoughtful discussion. Here comparison with other scholarly dialogues might yield insights which are of general value in developing better methods for the management of future discussions.


XII. I would be remiss if I did not comment briefly on the argument of John Bonnett in his initiating review:

(A) Bonnett urges certain specific points which (he says) indicate that I have created a myth and (in other writing) that I have broken what he claims to be rules of historical scholarship. His argument has been dissected at length in various postings, as has his lack of familiarity with many of the key documents. [See above cited Morris and Tree references and Uday Mohan, H-DIPLO, Oct. 3, 1996.] Simply by way of illustration, Bonnett attempts to make a great deal of one of the intelligence documents we reviewed in Part II--CCS 643/3, the Combined (US/UK) Intelligence Committee's (CIC) "Estimate of the Enemy Situation" of July 8, 1945. Bonnett claims this document demonstrates that Japan would not have surrendered if it required accepting an Allied occupation. When the document in question is examined closely, however, it is obvious that Bonnett has left out the crucial phrase "if possible"--indicating the judgment that, of course, the Japanese would have liked to avoid occupation (and other things as well) "if possible." The central point of the document is that the absolutely irreducible Japanese demand concerned the fate of the Emperor. This understanding is also made clear by examining the Combined Chiefs of Staff discussion of CCS 643/3 at Potsdam on July 16. The discussion focussed particular attention on the issue of the Emperor, and as noted, at this meeting the U.S. Chiefs of Staff asked the British Chiefs to try to get Prime Minister Churchill to approach President Truman about clarifying the position of the Emperor--which Churchill did (but to no avail). Furthermore, the document in question was written in the first week of July--i.e., BEFORE new intercepts showed that the Emperor himself had personally intervened to attempt to bring an end to the war. All agreed this move represented a significant turning point--and a new factor which reinforced the intelligence document's main conclusion. [See THE DECISION, p. 233-8 on how the Emperor's intervention was regarded.] Finally--and amazingly--Bonnett neglects to mention a key judgment of CCS 643/3, namely: "An entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat." [THE DECISION, p. 227.] As I have previously noted, the best contemporary summary of the document is exactly the same as the core argument of THE DECISION. Here is how General Sir Hastings Ismay, chief of staff to the minister of defence, described CCS 643/3 to Churchill at the time he passed on the U.S. Chiefs' request that the Prime Minister speak to Truman about the Emperor issue:

"The Combined Chiefs of Staff at their first meeting had under consideration a paper prepared by the Combined Intelligence Staffs on the enemy situation, in which it was suggested that if and when 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.]

(B) Bonnett, however, is clearly after bigger game--and this takes us beyond point-by-point examinations of the evidence: Bonnett holds that he has developed a method which allows us to better understand what was going on than nitty-gritty documentary work. He would like us to accept what he believes to be the determining role of "cognitive structures" and frameworks of analysis which embody "lessons of history" that have been internalized by specific historical actors. These, he holds, determine how decision-makers understand specific facts and choices.

One can hardly disagree with the idea that understanding the mind-set of the individuals involved is important. The question of interest, however, is not whether general understanding is helpful, but whether--as Bonnett wishes to argue--he has provided a new and superior method. Unfortunately for his argument, the case he has selected to illustrate his method--that of Secretary of War Stimson--turns out to demonstrate not its strength, but its weakness. Here is Bonnett:

The Secretary of War's diaries, and the testimony of his colleagues, suggest that Stimson's conduct throughout the war was guided by a schema he labelled the "Psychology of Combat" in 1930. Stimson's doctrine embodied two fundamental principles: one, a nation's success in conflict is predicated on its readiness to apply unremitting pressure at the heart of enemy territory until the enemy is persuaded to concede; two, war must be conducted on the psyche of the enemy. Winning a conflict was not only contingent on removing the opponent's material capacity to resist, but also its psychological capacity to resist. [John Bonnett, H- DIPLO, Sept. 26, 1996.]

Bonnett argues that the "schema" is consistent with Stimson's postwar claim that he was "not amenable to proposals that mitigated -- even slightly -- the potential shock value of the bomb, since therein lay his traditional prescription for ending a conflict." He urges that for this reason Stimson would have been opposed to a mere "demonstration" of the bomb.

But if we are to accept Bonnett's argument that an understanding of Stimson's (proposed) "cognitive structure" explains his decision-making in connection with the bombing of Hiroshima, we must obviously go beyond the "demonstration" issue to the bombing decision itself. This is especially so since, as students of the problem know only too well, there is virtually no direct contemporaneous evidence of Stimson's views on the "demonstration" issue (and precious little contemporaneous direct information on the views of anyone else, for that matter).

Perhaps it is not surprising that Bonnett does not attempt to apply his "cognitive structures" theory to the central issue, for to do so is to confront the fact that where we do have direct contemporaneous evidence, his theory collapses entirely. Indeed, what the documentary record shows concerning Stimson's role in the decision is just the opposite of Bonnett's basic conclusion-- and opposite, too, from the direction one would expect from his proposed new framework of analysis. Thus, to recall:

On July 2 Stimson personally urged President Truman to attempt to end the war by issuing a warning statement which included as a major element a modification of the surrender terms (especially giving Japan assurances regarding the Emperor). This, he argued, should be attempted at an early point "in ample time to permit a national reaction to set in. . . ."

"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.]

On July 16 Stimson urged that "we are at the psychological moment" to issue the warning. The key factors which made the timing propitious were the favorable military situation, "the impending threat of Russia's participation," and "news of attempted approaches on the part of Japan to Russia. . ." Now Stimson recommended that "if the Japanese persist" after the warning was issued--and, it appears, only in that event--"the full force of our newer weapons should be brought to bear." But in this case, he now also suggested an intervening step--"a renewed and even heavier warning. . ." The proposal amounted to a double warning, the first of which he thought might well bring surrender; the second would follow if it did not. [THE DECISION, pp. 235-36.]

On July 24 Stimson met again with Truman (and Byrnes) and, as his diary indicates, he once more urged the importance of assurances to Japan concerning "the continuance of their dynasty" and that the "insertion of that in the formal warning was important and might be just the thing which would make or mar their acceptance. . ." [THE DECISION, p. 311 n.]

Stimson lost these battles, of course, and with McGeorge Bundy's help, later wrote a famous (and by now much dissected) defense of the decision to use the atomic bomb. However, as many historians have long understood, Stimson was one of the most important of the top U.S. officials who actively urged views diametrically opposed to Bonnett's fundamental conclusion. In these and other instances Stimson's "psychological schema" can hardly be characterized as "not amenable to proposals that mitigated -- even slightly -- the potential shock value of the bomb. . ." Indeed, in several instances he led the fight for modifications which could only suggest a very new and different degree of U.S. flexibility.


XIII. I believe enough has been said here in and Parts I, II and III of this response to indicate the rather extraordinary nature of some of the arguments presented by some participants in the recent debate. Let me close by simply pointing out that scholars with far greater knowledge of the subject than several who have submitted comments have dealt with the issues involved (and with my work) at a more elevated and informed level. [Teachers of diplomatic history and others who wish to put some of the more extreme charges in perspective may wish to consult Gaddis Smith, THE NEW YORK TIMES, August 18, 1985; Barton Bernstein, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY, Spring 1991, Winter 1991/92; J. Samuel Walker, DIPLOMATIC HISTORY, Winter 1990; Michael R. Beschloss, THE NEW YORK TIMES, July 30, 1995; and Marilyn Young, AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW, December 1995.)]

Finally, let me once more note that various materials cited in this response are available either on H-JAPAN at:

or by request at

or at:

Many are also now available on the new H-DIPLO web-site at:

Gar Alperovitz

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