Re: Bonnett on Alperovitz

Date: 3 Oct. 1996

From: Uday Mohan <>

John Bonnett, having transcended the logic of narcissism, the weight of his own personal experience, the Lessons of History he has learned as a student of Brian Villa's and others, and the conservative tenor of the historical period in which he has grown up and come to understand Truman's decision, criticizes the received wisdom of folks who challenge Truman's use of the A-bomb. He can do this, apparently, because those who see Truman as having clearer alternatives to the bomb than Bonnett have failed to check their personal experiences of the 1960s at the door of historical interpretation or extricate themselves from a radical poetic going back to the English Civil War.

This framing of the issue would have surprised all the mainstream and conservative individuals who publicly claimed that the bomb was unnecessary--for example, James Reston, Henry Luce, David Lawrence (the conservative editor of _U.S. News & World Report_), Herb Elliston (the editor of the _Washington Post_ in the 1940s and early 1950s), key military leaders, including Admirals Leahy and Nimitz (in addition to what Nimitz has said, Nimitz's son recently recalled on CBS that his father always regretted the use of the bomb because Japan had already been beaten), conservative writers in William F. Buckley's _National Review_ and elsewhere, and many others. Conservative criticism of Truman's decision was, in fact, widespread enough in the 1950s that one writer began his 1959 _defense_ of the bomb in _National Review_ by stating that "The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming part of the national conservative creed . . ." A rich sampling of this material is laid out in Alperovitz's book, but it seems to have escaped Bonnett's attention.

My own work focuses on the media and Hiroshima and I will draw from it below. It should be made clear, though, that Bonnett has not really engaged Alperovitz. Throughout his review, Bonnett states the overall argument Alperovitz makes, but ignores the massive amount of evidence Alperovitz produces. One would never know from Bonnett, for example, that Alperovitz shows in abundance, e.g., in chaps. 3,4, 19, 23, and elsewhere that Truman, top British officials, and every key Truman adviser--except Byrnes--were on board to clarify surrender terms to the Japanese, because they knew that the Japanese would fight on otherwise.

Rather than dealing with this evidence, Bonnett offers up supposed objections, for example, in the form of a CCS study, omitting to note that Alperovitz has already cited its points and also shown the singularity of the unconditional surrender issue for both sides. It should be up to Bonnett to demonstrate why he prefers his scraps of evidence to the vast documentation Alperovitz provides, but he never does so (even given the space limitations of a review).

Bonnett, for example, notes Grew's July 10 statement that some Japanese peace initiatives during the summer "were designed to weaken American commitment to the war." This was a public statement Grew made to quell growing rumors about peace in the press. Bonnett does not mention that privately Grew again counseled qualifying unconditional surrender so that "the door may well be opened to an early surrender." (Alperovitz 232) Nor does Bonnett mention that Grew clearly understood that there were peace-minded elements in Japan. (474)

It is important to note too, especially when trying to determine the understanding of policymakers, that the media at the time had a clear grasp of the importance for ending the war of Russian entry, peace feelers, and qualification of surrender terms. The media, moreover, were in close contact with, and commonly reflected, official views.

Despite Grew's public denial of the seriousness of peace feelers, calls for clarification of surrender terms multiplied, in _Time_, _Newsweek_, the _Washington Post_, and elsewhere. On July 13, the _Washington Post_ editorialized: ". . . the main question . . . is whether we should make known not merely to Japan but also to ourselves, and particularly to the men who are bearing the greatest pain and burden of the battles, precisely what are our purposes in continuing them.

. . . If these purposes are clear in the minds of our statesmen, they are nevertheless masked under the purely rhetorical and meaningless phrase, 'unconditional surrender.'"

The _Post_ was being consistent with its earlier editorials arguing strongly for terms for Japan. Just a month earlier an editorial had said: ". . . the same two words ['unconditional surrender'] remain a great stumbling block to any [U.S.] propaganda effort and the perpetual trump card of the Japanese die-hards for their game of national suicide. Let us amend them; let us give Japan conditions, harsh conditions certainly, and conditions that will render her diplomatically and militarily impotent for generations. But also let us somehow assure those Japanese who are ready to plead for peace that, even on our terms, life and peace will be better than war and annihilation."

Similar sentiments were expressed in other publications. _Time_, for instance, noted on July 16 that "unconditional surrender" had yet to be clarified. "Or, if it has," the newsweekly noted, "it is still a deep secret. U.S. military policy is clear: blow upon blow until all resistance is crushed. But the application of shrewd statesmanship might save the final enforcement of that policy--and countless U.S. lives."

Russian entry as a possible final blow to Japan also got significant play in the media. An April 16, 1945, _Newsweek_ headline is telling: "Lost Battles, Slap From Moscow Shake Props of Jap Ruling Clique: Shift in Tokyo Government Smoothes Way for Peace Feelers, Cuts Power of Army Group." Even at this early date Newsweek noted that the Russian denunciation of the Russian-Japanese neutrality pact spelled "pure disaster" for Japan. A month later, _Newsweek_ mentioned reports of "at least one peace feeler" from Japan, adding confirmation to its earlier picture of Japan's hopelessness.

The possibility of Russian entry and Japanese desire to seek an end to the war were linked propositions on other occasions as well. A July 30 _Newsweek_ headline read, "Heavy Allied Blows, Fear of Reds Make Jap Leaders Seek Way Out." The article noted that Japan, fearing Russian entry and hoping to negotiate an end to the war before the Russians came in, had sent the Soviets a peace feeler. Top-secret documents do shed light on the importance of Russian entry, but it was also regarded as common sense in the public discourse.

These media assessments and commentaries provide context for the perceptions of U.S. leaders seeking an end to the war. The media coverage in the spring and summer of 1945 recalls Martin Sherwin's formulation, made almost a decade ago: "The choice in the summer of 1945 was not between a conventional invasion or a nuclear war. It was a choice between various forms of diplomacy and warfare." (_A World Destroyed_, Vintage ed., 1987, p. xxiv).

In the second part of his review, Bonnett believes he can come closer to what Truman and his advisers really believed about peace feelers, Russian entry, Japan, and the bomb by studying the schemas and analogies these individuals found especially compelling. I look forward to that study because it will provide some useful interpretations, but how will that kind of study be any less given to authorial bias? This question arises from Bonnett's own examples. Bonnett says that Truman justified his decision to resist North Korea's invasion of the South by invoking the schema that "unchecked aggression ... leads to war." Well, why wasn't unchecked, ongoing colonial aggression such a problem for Truman? Presumably this latter aggression fit better with Truman's conception of a proper global order. Potential bias and narrowness of the schemas/analogies approach is also apparent for the bomb question if one sees the bomb as just another weapon the U.S. could use for winning the war, rather than as a weapon that would also play a significant role in the postwar world, as Byrnes, Stimson, Truman, and others understood. This was, after all, a weapon that Truman described in his diary as the "fire of destruction" prophesied in the Bible.

Postwar concerns about the bomb are clear from Stimson's efforts to link the bomb to U.S.-Soviet relations and desperately think through the postwar implications of the bomb (Alperovitz 431-35), and from a variety of statements of other officials. James Byrnes, for example, asked by _U.S. News_ in 1960 if the U.S. dropped the bomb to end the war before Russian entry, said, "Of course, we were anxious to get the war over as soon as possible." The questioner asked further, "Was there a feeling of urgency to end the war in the Pacific before the Russians became too deeply involved?" Byrnes answered, "There certainly was on my part, and I'm sure what, whatever views President Truman may have had of it earlier in the year, that in the days immediately preceding the dropping of that bomb his views were the same as mine--we wanted to get through with the Japanese phase of the war before the Russians came in." (Alperovitz 583)

At Potsdam, Truman, Byrnes, and Stimson continually linked the bomb to the Soviets (see, e.g., Alperovitz, chaps. 20-21). The psychology of power--the bomb and the postwar world--appears to be much more central here than Bonnett's psychology of combat--the bomb simply as a means to end the war.

Moreover, the psychology of combat framework doesn't appear to make room for concern over the means by which a war can be ended. Stimson, we are told, wanted to apply unremitting military and psychological pressure to the enemy. How then to explain his objection to the unrestrained bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and even to A-bomb targeting that would kill women and children? (Alperovitz 527; Lifton and Mitchell, _Hiroshima in America_ 130-31) Perhaps there is more flexibility to supposedly ruling schemas--and therefore, in this case, to exploration of alternatives to the bomb--than Bonnett lets on.

Uday Mohan American University