Re: Bonnett on Alperovitz

Date: 23 Oct. 1996

From: Thad Williamson <>

In connection with the ongoing H-DIPLO discussion regarding Hiroshima,. John Bonnett writes:

I would also like to address Williamson's point that I did not address "the book's fundamental point: there were credible alternatives to the Bomb and Truman knew it." The moral power of Alperovitz's counterfactual has always rested on an essential prerequisite, namely U.S. certainty in Williamson's words "that credible alternatives with a reasonable likelihood of ending the war quickly without the use of the bomb or an invasion were available to Truman; and they were not tried." I wish he had read my piece more closely, since I raised a number of points suggesting the U.S. was anything but certain about the war's imminent conclusion.

Bonnett here misses the most important issues. Of course there was not any absolute certainty about the war's imminent conclusion; that is neither the argument of Alperovitz's book nor the argument that is relevant.

The relevant point is, even if one questions the absolute "certainty" of the war's imminent conclusion, there is no reasonable denial of the notion that making an explicit guarantee for the Emperor and/or waiting for Soviet entry had the potential--if not the "certainty"--to bring about surrender without the November invasion and without the bomb. Furthermore, withholding terms for the emperor was certain to prolong the way, which is why the U.S. military was so strongly for a clarification.

To deny the existence of plausible alternatives, further, is to depart not only from Alperovitz's view but what historian J. Samuel Walker, in a literature review for Diplomatic History, calls the scholarly "consensus" regarding the Hiroshima decision. As The Decision illustrates, these alternatives were discussed months ahead of Hiroshima; beginning as early as April 29, the Joint Intelligence Committee repeatedly stressed to the JCS that "The entry of the U.S.S.R. into the war would, together with [continued effects of blockade, bombing, and the German collapse] convince most Japanese at once of the inevitability of complete defeat"; likewise, The Decision documents some 14 distinct occasions between May and July 1945 when Truman Administration officials attempted to sway the President into modifying the policy of "unconditional surrender" in order to facilitate a Japanese surrender.

The debated question is not whether there were alternatives, but the likelihood of their success and why they were not tried. Suppose then, that one evaluates the evidence and concludes that the U.S. was merely "anything but certain" (could anyone have been totally certain?) about the likely efficacy of trying the available alternatives. The question still remains, why rush to use the bomb? Especially why rush to use the bomb just days before Soviet entry? Especially with invasion nearly 3 full months away? Why not test the alternatives? Was it unreasonable to exhibit some patience before unleashing "the second coming" (as Churchill called it)? This is the morally relevant historical point. There was, in even the most minimal assessment, some chance of the alternatives working, and plenty of time in which to try them; and yet they were not tried.

And as noted below and argued in great detail in The Decision, the thrust of the historical evidence suggests that, beyond this minimal statement, the likelihood of the alternatives' success was high. A 1955 assessment by Ernest May in relation to the impact of Soviet entry, as well as the overall Japanese position, may be instructive to briefly recall: "The Emperor's appeal [to end the war] probably resulted, therefore, from the Russian action, but it could not in any event, have been long in coming."

Bonnett also writes:

I would also take issue with Williamson's assertion that moral judgments can be reached independent of a knowledge of the actor's intent or perceptions. Some would contend that at agent's stance -- at times -- can be central to such an analysis. Killing another human being can be considered a necessary evil in one context, a deplorable act in another.

As to the last sentence, I entirely agree. And had the choice been starkly between invasion and the bomb, I would have no moral problem with the use of the bomb. As to the first two sentences, my position is not that intent and perceptions are irrelevant, but that even the actions of persons acting with sincere intent within a given frame of perception are subject to objective moral judgement.

Whether the bomb was dropped because Truman was an evil man or because he was acting within a framework of perception which gave postwar geopolitical considerations (or, by some theories, domestic political considerations) far more import than the lives of Japanese civilians does not alter my moral judgement. Indeed, this is also the position taken by Alperovitz in the book--they were not evil men. They were good Americans. (See p.637) And when they had a choice between making a reasonable (even if not absolutely certain) effort to end the war without using the bomb and pressing their cards for maximal political advantage, they chose the latter. They did so even while knowing that there were still 3 months before the invasion of Japan would begin, and that the bomb would still be there should the alternatives fail; even while knowing that no Potsdam Declaration would be accepted by Japan so long as the Emperor's position was threatened; even while fully aware that in a matter of days the Soviets would enter the war and leave Japan at a total diplomatic and military dead end.

That Truman and Byrnes may have acted consistently within a given framework of perception that prioritized political considerations above Japanese lives does not let them off the hook. That is the profound point about the Hiroshima question-- not to demonize Truman, but to understand the real human consequences of the use of unchecked disproportionate power--even when or if that use seems perfectly reasonable and legitimate to the persons carrying it out.

Of course, I disagree with Bonnett's historical assessment of the likelihood of the alternatives working, and of what Truman himself understood. It should be understood that my brief response, focussed on the repeated refusal of top military leaders to declare Hiroshima and Nagasaki "military necessities", made no attempt to convey the mass of evidence regarding the larger question of Truman's understanding of the available alternatives presented in The Decision. If the readers of H-DIPLO take anything away from this discussion I hope it is that it takes reading the book, not these online characterizations of it, to make an informed judgement of Alperovitz's case.

I did briefly reference a few key pieces of evidence regarding what Truman knew presented in The Decision; I will succinctly expand on them here, both to convey what I believe is the evidentiary strength of the book and because I find it frankly shocking that a reviewer of the book could assess the argumentation without reference to these key points.

1.Any notion that Hiroshima absolutely had to be bombed on August 6, and not a day or week later, is called into question by the obvious eagerness of Truman and especially Byrnes to end the war before the Soviets made headway in Asia. As Forrestal's diary of July 28 reports, "Byrnes said he was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in, with particular reference to Dairen and Port Arthur." (p.413) Byrnes special assistant Walter Brown on July 24 noted in his diary that "JFB still hoping for time, believing that 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." (p.274) Six additional references, including from Churchill, postwar interviews with Byrnes, and the memoirs of both Truman and Byrnes, are presented to illustrate this point in The Decision. (See pp.274-275)

2. Bonnett stresses MAGIC intercepts stating that Japan still held out the goal of avoiding foreign occupation (albeit in the context of the hope of eliciting an agreement with Russia) as evidence that Japan needed more than an Emperor guarantee to surrender. Sanho Tree has pointed out that Bonnett omits to note that this was judged to be one of their goals "if possible"-- the bottom line, Intelligence noted, was the Emperor. Bonnett also totally ignores the significant evidence The Decision presents regarding Navy Capt. Ellis M. Zacharias's July 21 broadcast to Japan of an offer to surrender on the basis of the Atlantic Charter. This offer was met with, according to MAGIC intercepts, quite favorably by Japanese officials--Foreign Minister Togo cabled Ambassador Soto in Moscow that "there is no objection to the restoration of peace on the basis of the Atlantic Charter". Privately, however, the Japanese were confused as to whether this was an official offer--Zacharias was an "official spokesman" for the U.S. government-- and further confused still after the issuance of the rather different Potsdam Declaration. The Atlantic Charter, of course, specifically guaranteed the right of choosing their own form of government to all peoples--that is to say, it would have allowed Japan to choose to keep its imperial system after the war. Significant space (pp. 390-402) is devoted to this episode in The Decision, yet it entirely escapes Bonnett's notice.

3. Any purported understanding of Truman's view of Japan's situation in August 1945 has to be evaluated in light of the major new evidence reported in The Decision from Byrnes special assistant Walter Brown's diary entry of August 3 (as the President and Byrnes were returning from Potsdam.) As reported on p. 415 of The Decision, Brown noted that "Aboard Augusta/President, Leahy, JFB [Byrnes] 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."

Bonnett somehow fails to acknowledge this piece of evidence, even though it comes at the climax of Alperovitz's entire argument regarding Truman's view, and is deliberately highlighted as a critical piece of (new) evidence.

None of these points, while powerful, are on their own definitive (nor are they represented as such.) But taken together, along with much additional evidence presented in The Decision detailing the complex, emerging situation regarding Japan's stance, these points forcefully contradict the notion that there was no plausible alternative to the bomb. As Alperovitz concludes--not in a bombastic claim to absolute certainty, but in measured tones--"It is commonly held that Truman simply had no choice except to use the atomic bomb--or that he did not understand the emerging reality [regarding the Japanese position]. This contemporaneous diary report [from Walter Brown]--together with the wide range of other evidence this and numerous other studies have reviewed--strongly suggests otherwise."

In closing, let me sincerely say that I appreciate Bonnett's second statement for being free of patronizing language and a tone of condescension in reference to the replies of Uday Mohan, Sanho Tree, and myself--in marked contrast to some of Bonnett's online defenders. At this point I do find it more amusing than depressing that some historians continue to believe that the best way to respond to "revisionist" scholarship is to rhetorically call for its banishment from the field of diplomatic history.

Nonetheless, anyone concerned with basic norms of intellectual exchange ought to be deeply disturbed by this kind of charge, especially when it is coupled with a grossly inaccurate characterization of another scholar's work. At the end of his long ad hominem diatribe against Gar Alperovitz, Brian Villa wants to know, for instance, why The Decision misrepresents the Japanese governments view of surrender in the "Alperovitzian sentence" that "the Japanese leaders were united in their determination to surrender"; and why there is a "failure to report that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Soviet entry into the war the Japanese military at the imperial war council cast their votes for continuance of the war."

As to the first point, let me be quite clear: The sentence attributed to Alperovitz by Villa does not exist in the book, not on p.651 (as Villa cites) or anywhere else. Alperovitz does, on p.651, write "Furthermore, the August intercepts which now showed 'unanimous determination' to seek surrender through Moscow was an important new signal of the army's position..." The 'unanimous determination' language is directly derived from Foreign Minister Togo's MAGIC cable of August 2 that "At present, in accordance with the Imperial will, there is a unanimous determination to seek the good offices of the Russian in ending the war..." Of course, this statement in no way implies unanimity as to the terms of surrender; nor is the quote used in The Decision to connote such a conclusion.

The quote is first cited in the text as follows on p.406, within the context of a detailed discussion of the evolving Japanese position in late July and early August: "On August 2, Togo cabled Sato that although it was `difficult to decide on concrete peace conditions here at home all at once....At present, in accordance with the Imperial will, there is a unanimous determination to seek the good offices of the Russians in ending the war, to make concrete terms a matter between Japan and Russia, and to send Prince Konoye, who has the deep trust of the Emperor, to carry on discussions...

The cable stressed, finally, that `we are exerting ourselves to collect the views of all quarters on the matter of concrete terms; hence Whatever happens, if we should let one day slip by, that might have ----[word uncertain probably "results"] (sic) lasting for thousands of years. Consequently, if the Soviet Government should reply in the negative....I urge you to do everything possible to arrange another interview with Molotov at once. [End quote]

Alperovitz refers to this same cable again on p. 412: "We noted above that the August 2 MAGIC report suggested the `unanimous determination' of top leaders in Tokyo that Japan should seek peace." Alperovitz additionally quotes the following material from the August 2 cable: "`Under the circumstances there is a disposition to make the Potsdam Three Power Proclamation the basis of our study concerning terms.'"

Had Villa not provided a page reference to his misquote, I might have dismissed this error as simple sloppiness. Since he did provide a page citation, it is difficult not to suspect malicious intent in Villa's gross distortion of Alperovitz's position. There can be no quibbling in this matter. The "unanimous determination" phrase is explicitly attributed to the Japanese and is so cited. For Villa then to reattribute these words to Alperovitz, as if Alperovitz were claiming that there was unanimous agreement in Japan upon the terms of peace, is simply outrageous and unscholarly. I urge all interested readers to compare the actual text and Villa's characterization of it--there is no resemblance.

As to the second point, on p.651 of the Afterword, the continued intransigence of the Japanese military after Nagasaki and Soviet entry is directly addressed in a section reviewing some of the expert literature on this point, starting with the following sentences: "Some feel that what Japanese military leaders said they wanted in internal discussions after August 9 also makes it difficult to believe a surrender could have been achieved on terms acceptable to the United States. The Japanese military wish-list included preservation of the imperial system, no postwar occupation, self-disarmament, and self-management of war-crime trials. The question is what weight to assign the wish-list in after-the-fact assertions."

This is followed by further argumentation to the effect that when push came to shove and the Emperor directly intervened, the military representatives on the Big Six accepted the Emperor's decision to accept peace (contingent on protection of the Emperor), even though they had the constitutional power to block this decision.

Whatever one thinks of these complex issues, it is simply untrue to state, as Villa does, that the book fails to address the question of the continued hold-out of the Big Six's military representatives on August 9. The most charitable interpretation that one can give Mr. Villa's accusations (accompanied by a blatant misquotation) is that perhaps he has not read the book; unfortunately, given the fact that Villa cites the very page in which the August 9 Japanese military stance is discussed, this charitable interpretation is a very difficult one to sustain.

Thad Williamson

National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives (Washington)/ Union Theological Seminary (New York)