Re: Bonnett on Alperovitz

Date: 3 Oct. 1996

From: Thad Williamson <>

As a contributing researcher to Gar Alperovitz's The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, I am compelled to draw attention to the thorough inadequacy of John Bonnett's review as a fair representation of the evidence and argumentation presented in that book. While critical engagement with the text by informed scholars is heartily welcomed, the book deserves the respect of having the evidence it presents taken seriously by reviewers.

Unfortunately, Bonnett's review simply does not engage the evidence forwarded in The Decision, and in fact stands as simply another addition to a long line of ad hominem attacks on revisionist scholars which has marred rational historical debate of the Hiroshima question over the past 30 years.

For purposes of illustration, I will flesh out in detail one important source of evidence--fleshed out in some 50 pages of text in The Decision--which essentially refutes Bonnett's suggestion that Alperovitz has simply read back into Truman's decision his own mindset and prejudices, or "drawn a face in the mirror that bears a striking resemblance to [his] own." The source of evidence I refer to consists of the views of a wide variety of top-level military leaders who, both in 1945 and afterwards, stated explicitly and repeatedly that using atomic bombs against Japan was not a military necessity in 1945. Strangely, Bonnett neither discusses nor acknowledges any of this evidence (some of which is well-known, other parts brought to historical attention for the first time in The Decision)

I quote at length here:

*Admiral William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1945 and a close personal friend of Truman, wrote in his 1950 memoir "It is my opinion that the 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." (p.3, The Decision) Leahy had urged Truman on June 18 to clarify the terms of unconditional surrender so as to provide an Emperor guarantee, and on July 16 had urged the British Chiefs of Staff to get the prime minister to push the issue with Truman.

*Writing in the third person, U.S. Fleet commander in chief Ernest J. King stated in his 1952 memoir the belief that regarding the choice of the bomb or invasion, "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." (p.327)

*Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz in September 1945, according to The New York Times, "took the opportunity of adding his voice to those insisting that Japan had been defeated before the atomic bombings and Russia's entry into the war." In October, Nimitz 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 war." Nimitz's widow later recalled that he "always felt badly over the dropping of that bomb because he said we had Japan beaten already." She recalled direct statement by Nimitz that "I felt that that was an unnecessary loss of civilian life...We had them beaten. They hadn't enough food, they couldn't do anything." (pp.329-330)

*In 1946, Third Fleet commander Admiral William Halsey also came forward, stating "The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment...It was a mistake to ever drop it. Why reveal a weapon like that to the world when it wasn't necessary?...It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before." (p.331)

*The commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Hap Arnold, stated in his 1949 memoir that "it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse." Arnold's deputy, Lt. General Ira Eaker, later stated that "Arnold's view was that it 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." Eaker added that Arnold had told him that while the Air Force under his command would not oppose the bomb's use, "it is not necessary to use it in order to conquer the Japanese without the necessity of a land invasion." (p.335)

*General Carl Spaatz also recalled in interviews given in the 1960s his unease with the use of the bomb in 1945, stating "That was purely a political decision, wasn't a military decision. The military man carries out the orders of his political bosses." Spaatz recalled his view that a demonstration of the bomb over Tokyo Bay would have been appropriate as opposed to dropping the bombs directly on a city (as well as the view that even the continued threat of conventional bombing might well have been enough to induce surrender). Spaatz's 1945 recommendation of a demonstration drop is corroborated by an interview with associate Glen Martin. (pp.343-345)

*Brigadier General Carter W. Clarke, the army officer in charge of preparing the MAGIC summaries in 1945, stated in a 1959 interview, that "we brought [the Japanese] down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and then when we didn't need to do it, and we knew we didn't need to do it, and they knew we knew we didn't need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs." (p.359)

*Although Air Force General Curtis LeMay later bobbed and weaved quite a bit on his stated opinion of Hiroshima in subsequent years, in September 1945 LeMay publicly declared that the bomb "had nothing to do with the end of the war" and that "The war would have been over without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb." In November 1945, LeMay added that it was "obvious that the atomic bomb did not end the war against Japan. Japan was finished long before either one of the two atomic bombs were dropped..." (p.336)

*On August 15, 1945, Major General Claire Chennault, founder of the Flying Tigers and former Army Air Forces commander in China, told The New York Times "Russia's entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped..." (pp.335-336)

These judgements also were shared by the two supreme military heroes of World War Two-- Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. While there is continued debate as to whether Eisenhower, as he claimed, actually advised Truman and Stimson in July 1945 not to use the bomb, it is nonetheless notable that greatest American military leader of the twentieth century and a two-term President of the United States consistently condemned the Hiroshima decision, from 1963 until his death, stating that "[T]he Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing." Even if the meetings with Truman and Stimson of 1945 remain historically uncertain, there is little doubt that Eisenhower's doubts about the bomb dated back to that period. Eisenhower's son John on two occasions has corroborated Eisenhower's "depression" upon learning of the bomb and its impending use. According to the younger Eisenhower, the General stated "Well, again, it's none of my business, but I'd sure hate to see it used, because Japan's licked anyway, and they know it." (pp.352-358)

While Eisenhower's outspoken displeasure with the Hiroshima decision is well-known among historians, perhaps more surprising is that Douglas MacArthur too refused to endorse the atomic bombings as militarily necessary. While MacArthur is another figure who changed his public statements over time regarding wartime issues, he remained relatively consistent regarding the bomb. The diary of MacArthur's pilot, Weldon Rhoades, from August 7, 1945 states that "General MacArthur definitely is appalled and depressed by this Frankenstein monster [the bomb]." Herbert Hoover's diary regarding a May 1946 meeting with MacArthur states "I told MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would be accomplished.

MacArthur said that was correct and that we have avoided all of the losses, the Atomic bomb, and the entry of Russia into Manchuria." In a postwar interview with journalist Norman Cousins, MacArthur expressed the view that there was "no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier...if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor." (pp.350-352)

These quotations (including the views of additional leaders not noted here), their subtleties, and the variation and shifts which take place over time with different leaders (with particular attention to the view of George Marshall) occupy four chapters at the very heart of the book, yet Bonnett's review does not even acknowledge them. Surely the idea that the military leaders of 1945 did not see the bomb as necessary--and what this might say about the on-the-ground reality of 1945--is worthy of some consideration, some analysis. Surely this is data that historians cannot responsibly ignore--and it might be added here that the material becomes even more striking when one notes that most of these military figures did not take into account the potential effects of a guarantee for the Emperor in making their judgements as to whether Japan could be brought to surrender without the bomb or an invasion.

Indeed, the cumulative impact of this evidence is to illustrate that, within the mindset of people actually on the scene in 1945, there was felt no military urgency to use the bomb to accomplish the end of the war. It is not revisionist historians who read back into the evidence notions of morality alien to 1945 or assumptions that the atomic bomb decision was contestable. On the contrary, it is the traditional view which has forgotten that voices of doubt and unease regarding the use of atomic bombs on Japan without warning and without exploring other options were prevalent in 1945, even (and especially) in the military.

There are many other critical points which might be made regarding Bonnett's review and his refusal to engage many of the key evidentiary points concerning the decision forwarded by Alperovitz (such as the Zacharias radio broadcast of July 21 and Walter Brown's diary entry of August 3 regarding Truman and Byrnes' assessment of the Japanese position.) I will here simply make the observation that Bonnett's review, while critical, still does not deny the book's fundamental point: There were credible alternatives to the bomb and Truman knew it.

At most, Bonnett has tried to show that Truman could have been less certain about the likely success of these alternatives than Alperovitz suggests. Yet Bonnett comes nowhere near (even in intent) of upholding the traditional view that the bomb or the November invasion were the only choices in bringing about a satisfactory end to the war. Again, from an ethical standpoint, even if one believes the combination of a guarantee to the Emperor and Russian entry would have been less certain to induce surrender than in Alperovitz's account, the fact remains that credible alternatives with a reasonable likelihood of ending the war quickly without use of the bomb or an invasion were available to Truman; and they were not tried. From a moral standpoint, this is the fundamental factually relevant point regarding the Hiroshima decision.

In a similar vein, while I find Bonnett's thoughts on trying to understand how experience and prior history helped shape the perceptions of decisionmakers in the second part of his review interesting, I think there is a danger of eliding ethical judgements--which we all must make--with historical reconstruction. While moral judgements are informed by historical understanding, it is a mistake to think that moral judgements can be evaded by better understanding of an actor's perceptions--or to put it another way, that sin can be explained away by showing how the presumptions, culture, or personal history of the sinner may have inclined him to the action in question. Thus, while we may strive to understand Hitler, Stalin or nineteenth century slave owners and their mindset and cultural norms as accurately as possible for historical reasons, this does not mean we let them off the hook morally. This also applies to Truman, Byrnes, and the Hiroshima decision.

Finally, the charge of "demonstrable selectivity" in the use of evidence in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb made by Bonnett should not go unremarked. All historians use evidence selectively, of necessity. The question is not whether one selects and weighs evidence, but whether one is honest in doing so. I can personally attest that The Decision went to great lengths to engage every objection to the book's thesis that had appeared in public discussion as of spring 1995 and to take account of facts and arguments regarded by other writers as tantamount to a different view.

While one may disagree with the weight given various pieces of evidence, to simply tar Alperovitz with the brush of "selectivity" is to blame for Alperovitz for having any view at all. Indeed, the charge seems particularly curious in light of the "demonstrable selectivity" of Bonnett's own review, and his unwillingness to engage much of the most important evidence forwarded in The Decision -- including, as I have emphasized here, the remarkable degree to which the key American military leaders of 1945 refused to ratify the notion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military necessities.

Thad Williamson

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