H-JAPAN (E): Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

Author: Uday Mohan
Date: Sat, 30 Nov 1996 15:28:17 -0500

 			      November 30, 1996
 I'd like to thank the H-Japan moderators for keeping open the thread on
 responses to the review of _The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb_.  The
 H-Diplo coeditors decided without warning some time ago to end the
 discussion that was taking place.  Rather disturbingly, H-Diplo refused
 the post I had prepared (a slightly shorter version of the one below)
 because it reached them an hour after the decision to terminate the
 exchanges went out to the list (along with two more attacks on
 Alperovitz).  (H-Diplo says it will open that thread only when Gar
 Alperovitz responds.)  Here then is a response I had prepared some time
 ago, with additional material on some issues Professor Villa has since
 raised.  I'm also grateful to find the H-Japan moderators much more
 concerned than the H-Diplo coeditors and moderators about toning down ad
 hominem attacks.
 I wish, quite frankly, that Professor Villa was as careful as he is
 energetic in replying to a-bomb posts.  In his continuing effort to
 construct his version of Gar Alperovitz, he has recently resorted to
 using an article by Stephen Shalom, who we are told by Professor Villa
 is both a lefty and ruthlessly honest, unlike ... Alperovitz.  I invite
 H-Japan readers to read Shalom's fine article and compare it to all of
 Professor Villa's descriptions of it.  (The article is available at
 Professor Shalom's home page:
 I think they will find the following:
 --Professor Villa says that Shalom, in "The Obliteration of Hiroshima,"
 _New Politics_, No. 21, 1996, "notes, obliquely, Alperovitz's reluctance
 to fully concede that left ideologues in the Washington bureaucracy
 blocked a formal concession on the retention of the Emperor."  Professor
 Shalom says nothing of the sort.  Nor does he take issue with
 Alperovitz's claim that Acheson and MacLeish (Professor Villa's left-
 wing ideologues) were not influential in the State Department.
 Professor Shalom appears to be making a different point: That Acheson
 and MacLeish held a view that was a majority view at State.  Moreover,
 one would not know from Professor Villa's writing that in agreeing with
 Professor Shalom, Professor Villa is really only agreeing with himself.
 To make his point, Professor Shalom gives Professor Villa's 1976 article
 as a source, and Professor Villa takes the opportunity to complete a
 --Professor Villa then makes this incorrect statement: "In an extended
 note on page 175 Shalom notes that Alperovitz mentions some of this left
 ideological opposition but gives it less than fulsome treatment."
 Professor Shalom says _nothing_ of the kind.  In his footnote Professor
 Shalom quotes substantially from material cited in Alperovitz, as well
 as, more briefly, Takaki, Lifton/Mitchell, and Yavenditti (a cite, not
 a quote).  He says or implies _absolutely nothing_ about adequacy of
 --Professor Villa:  Shalom, with obvious left sympathies "does not
 hesitate to speak of the 'flawed political reasoning on the left [that]
 led directly to horrendous moral positions.'"  What Professor Shalom is
 speaking about when he says this is that the "liberal press favored
 unconditional surrender and was willing to sanction conventional
 obliteration and atomic bombings to achieve this objective."  As
 Professor Villa notes, Professor Shalom adds that there were "noble
 exceptions: among them Dwight MacDonald, Norman Thomas, the anti-
 Stalinist socialist left, and the pacifist and religious press."
 Frankly I don't know what Professor Villa is getting at here when he
 quotes Professor Shalom approvingly.  If he's finally coming around to
 a position that Alperovitz endorses--that inflexibility on unconditional
 surrender could lead to sanctioning of the atomic bomb--I'm glad to hear
 --Professor Villa appears to like Shalom the writer and the article.  I
 wonder how this squares with an exceptionally clear position that
 Professor Shalom takes in his article:  "Aside from the question of why
 U.S. leaders used the bomb, there are other historical controversies:
 for example, why did Japanese leaders surrender when they did and would
 they have done so in the absence of the bomb?  These are interesting and
 significant questions, but it is important to see that these are not
 directly relevant to answering either the moral/political question of
 the bomb's justifications or the historical questions of why the bomb
 was dropped. ...  [W]hat went on in Tokyo is strictly irrelevant to what
 Truman and his advisers knew (or, more accurately, what they believed).
 Suppose Truman believed that the Japanese were prepared to surrender but
 decided to drop the bombs anyway.  If ... Japanese leaders were not in
 fact prepared to surrender ... this has no bearing on our moral judgment
 of Truman's action nor on our understanding of why he did it."  (155-6)
 And again: "the real question is not whether the Japanese would have
 accepted particular terms but whether U.S. officials thought they
 would." (168)  Professor Villa has been continuously berating Gar
 Alperovitz (quite wrongly--I believe--as the quotes above from Professor
 Shalom would indicate) for emphasizing American perceptions over after-
 the-fact information about Japanese intentions.  But he offers not so
 much as a peep of criticism about this with Professor Shalom.  Why the
 double standard?
 I don't know what to chalk all these problems up to, but these sorts of
 problems seem to recur in Professor Villa's posts, as I note below.  But
 first let me address some left over issues with John Bonnett's review.
 In John Bonnett's review and reply he cautions against the notion that
 documents speak for themselves.(1)  And yet in these posts he takes
 issue with Alperovitz largely through the authority of documents,
 without checking them against his proposed analogies-and-schemas frame
 of reference, the very thing he cautions Alperovitz and others against
 doing.  More important, Bonnett's use of evidence in these documents--in
 the form of a few brief quotes from Harvey Bundy, Byrnes, Grew,
 Forrestal, and the CCS--is highly problematic, because he misrepresents
 Alperovitz's book and contradicts his own injunction against the
 selective use of evidence.
 I pointed out in my original response, for example, that despite Grew's
 public denial of serious peace feelers Grew privately urged that there
 was a substantial likelihood for early surrender if assurances were
 given for the Emperor.  Bonnett notes only Grew's public denial, but
 this hardly helps one understand Grew's belief that diplomacy was
 reasonably likely to bring about Japanese surrender.  Alperovitz notes
 both Grew's public denial but also his consistent desire--e.g., in late
 May, mid June, late June, and mid July--to provide assurances for the
 Emperor to help clear the way for Japanese surrender.
 I also pointed out that in offering the CCS study Bonnett omits to note
 that Alperovitz cites the study's point about occupation, but shows the
 singularity of the unconditional surrender issue for both sides.
 Bonnett replied that "contrary to Mohan, Alperovitz _did not_ state all
 the points made in CCS 643/3."  But Alperovitz _does_, on p. 227 (the
 index easily leads us to this page).  More important, though, are the
 issues that Sanho Tree and Katie Morris have raised in their posts about
 Bonnett's specific use of the CCS study.  Bonnett misses the CCS study's
 emphasis on the status of the Emperor rather than occupation, and the
 way the CCS study was used by planners.  And thus Bonnett's use of the
 CCS study as a critical piece of evidence for his argument is
 To be sure, the Japanese wanted to concede the minimum to end the war;
 what losing nation doesn't?  But the issue here is what American leaders
 understood as the main sticking point to Japanese surrender.  And from
 May onward the answer is clear: assurances for the emperor.  This is
 hardly a novel position.  Many scholars have made this point, for
 example, Leon Sigal: "one point was clear to senior U.S. officials
 regardless of where they stood on war termination.... U.S. senior
 officials knew that the critical condition for Japan's surrender was the
 assurance that the throne would be preserved." (quoted in Alperovitz, p.
 301)  And most of the top leaders were willing to offer assurances as
 Alperovitz shows in his book.  (Katie Morris also convincingly pointed
 this out in her posts.  She shows the flaws in, e.g., the arguments put
 forward by Professor Villa and others about Marshall moving toward
 Byrnes's inflexibility regarding unconditional surrender.  And as she
 says, "it is no less than misrepresentation to suggest that MacLeish,
 Acheson, Hopkins, Bohlen, Harriman, and Hull held more weight than
 Marshall, Leahy, the Joint Chiefs as a body, Stimson, Forrestal, Grew,
 [and] even McCloy who basically ran the war department for Stimson ...")
 It bears repeating, though, that the language Professor Villa finds so
 troubling--that key Truman advisers except Byrnes were willing to
 clarify terms by offering assurances for the emperor--is accurate.  To
 try to rebut this by misinterpreting Marshall or providing a list of
 second echelon voices, some of whom _may_ have wanted to go another way
 does not do justice to the debate.  Hull, for example, did not object to
 issuing assurances; he was more concerned about the _timing_ of
 assurances, wanting to link them to a blow such as Russian entry.  And
 to Byrnes, Hull was not a central figure.  (Alperovitz, 307-8)
 Bonnett's wholesale and rather outrageous charge about Alperovitz's
 selective use of memoirs also misses the mark.  Clear reasons are given
 in _The Decision_ about why the memoirs of Truman, Stimson, and Byrnes
 should be treated with skepticism.  And the book also provides evidence,
 wartime and after, to help corroborate the postwar judgments of many
 military leaders that the bomb was not necessary.  One may disagree with
 the arguments laid out, but to suggest that Alperovitz dismisses or
 accepts postwar memoirs without evidentiary reason is grossly
 inaccurate.  Nor is it clear how Bonnett escapes the problem he imputes
 to Alperovitz.  Bonnett doesn't say, for example, why he prefers Harvey
 Bundy's postwar recollections to, say, Joseph Grew's, or those of many
 others with memories that challenge the necessity of the bomb, and whose
 judgments occupy several chapters in the book. Given these problems, how
 exactly is Bonnett's review a useful reconsideration of _The Decision_?
 The significant question for Bonnett in his review was What were the
 perceptions of American policymakers?  In his reply and that of
 Professor Villa's, the question suddenly shifts to What were _Japanese_
 leaders perceiving?  This is another important question, but the two
 issues should not be confused as Stephen Shalom, for example, has
 written in the article Professor Villa has found so useful.
 >From various sources--such as Truman's diary ("telegram from Jap Emperor
 asking for peace," p. 238) and Walter Brown's diary ("Aboard Augusta/
 President, Leahy, JFB [Byrnes] agrred [sic] Japas [sic] looking for
 peace.... President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia
 instead of some country like Sweden," p. 415)--it seems clear that
 Truman thought that Japanese leaders were asking for, or looking for, or
 perhaps getting ready to sue for peace.  And there were three months
 still available before an invasion in November could begin.  Taken with
 all the other evidence presented in _The Decision_, including the
 perceived importance of offering assurances for the Emperor and the
 devastating impact on Japan of impending Russian entry, it seems most
 logical to suggest that to Truman it appeared that the bomb was not the
 only reasonable option for bringing about Japanese surrender, but that
 he chose this option nonetheless.  This is obvious logic, but apparently
 not to the bomb-was-necessary school.  But how else can these writers
 explain the significant postwar dissent of several top military leaders-
 -both in private and in public, in memoirs and in internal military-
 historical interviews--except in this context of reasonable options?
 These leaders doubted the unique, necessary efficacy of the bomb.  As
 Alperovitz says, "if America's top military leaders either recommended
 or supported the use of the atomic bomb as militarily necessary [and we
 have no evidence of this], they gave very little evidence of such
 convictions in almost everything most were to say thereafter, both
 publicly and privately." (p. 324)
 And though there is no direct contemporaneous evidence that military
 leaders advised Truman not to use the bomb, there is also no direct
 contemporaneous evidence that they advised him to use it--a point often
 lost by critics of "revisionist" scholarship.  Significant evidence
 points in the direction that what military leaders probably felt--as
 they so often said--was that it was not necessary.
 Although Alperovitz in fact allows that interservice rivalry might be
 involved in some statements (p. 367), interservice rivalry as an
 explanation for the depth and frequency of the challenge to the notion
 of military necessity isn't satisfactory.  Many of the key military
 dissents cited in _The Decision_ were made publicly while Truman was
 still in office.  It's hardly politic to try to obtain funding for your
 service by suggesting that your commander-in-chief unnecessarily wiped
 out two cities.  Take, e.g., Halsey: "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? ... [the
 scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped
 it.... It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace
 feelers through Russia long before." [p. 331]  This strong anti-bomb
 comment hardly seems motivated by interservice rivalry; moreover it was
 partly responsible for the effort to quell postwar anti-bomb dissent
 with the publication of Stimson's apologia in _Harper's_ in 1947.
 That Truman avoided available diplomatic options partly for strategic
 reasons is suggested even by scholars who focus mainly on the question
 of Japanese intent.  Herbert Bix says:  "neither a) American
 unwillingness to make a firm, timely statement assuring continuation of
 the throne, as Grew had argued for, nor b) the last-minute anti-Soviet
 strategic stance of Truman and Byrnes, who probably wanted use of the
 atomic bomb rather than diplomatic negotiation, are sufficient, in and
 of themselves, to account for use of the bomb, or for Japan's delay in
 ending the suicidal conflict.  Rather, Emperor Hirohito's reluctance to
 face the fait accompli of defeat, and then to act, positively and
 energetically, to end hostilities, plus certain official acts and
 policies of his government, are what mainly prolonged the war, though
 they were not sufficient cause for use of the bomb.  In the last
 analysis, what counted, on the one hand, was not only the transcendent
 influence of the throne, but the power, authority, and unique
 personality of its occupant, and on the other, the power, determination,
 and unique character of Harry Truman." (Diplomatic History, 1995, 223)
 Bix's portrait in his article of a callous Japanese leadership certainly
 elicits my anger at that leadership's decision to waste human life
 because it wanted to preserve the kokutai.  But that portrait doesn't
 explain what would have happened if the shock (Bix's word) of Russian
 entry had been accompanied by a change in terms (Bix does not address
 Alperovitz's two-step argument); neither does it get at Truman's
 perception of the endgame; nor does it get at the options that were
 available short of taking out an entire city--e.g., a demonstration on
 a military installation as General Marshall had suggested.
 Furthermore, there is the issue of counterfactuals.  To use Bix or
 various Japanese sources to say that the Japanese would not have
 surrendered before an invasion if Truman had chosen the available
 alternatives to bombing Hiroshima, is to make a counterfactual claim.
 This, too, is rather obvious, though Professor Villa in his response to
 Katie Morris and Thad Williamson somehow seems to believe he is the one
 not making counterfactual claims.
 If the general recommendation is that all sides of this debate have to
 talk more concretely to each other, I couldn't agree more.  But then
 let's have fair characterizations and full consideration of the work
 with which you disagree.  It is frustrating to have to repeat
 continually the evidence in Alperovitz's book and refer list readers
 back to it (and no doubt it gets wearisome to read it).
 Professor Villa's mischaracterizations, unfortunately, are quite
 substantial, as Thad Williamson and Katie Morris have pointed out.  Even
 his description of the NBC documentary as demolishing Alperovitz's
 thesis is misleading.  The conclusions and tone of the documentary are
 much more complex than Professor Villa lets on, for the show mentions
 Leo Szilard's opposition, the Franck report, Asst. Secretary of the Navy
 Ralph Bard's counsel about a demonstration or warning, McCloy's
 prescription of terms, Byrnes's anti-Soviet strategizing, and the
 Potsdam proclamation's lack of clarity about surrender terms.  These
 issues inform the overall picture that emerges of the decision, and they
 are _not_ simply dismissed, as Professor Villa's characterization would
 imply.  On the contrary, the 1965 show begins to move public knowledge
 in the direction of the Alperovitz argument.
 Professor Villa also harks back to conversations he heard twenty and
 thirty years ago--perhaps a problematic venture given his misremembering
 of the NBC documentary, his attributing one statement to two different
 persons in two versions of the same post (on H-Japan and H-Diplo), his
 mishandling of Shalom, and his serious misquoting of Alperovitz while
 making one of his central points (see Williamson's post)--to suggest
 that Alperovitz has known since the early 1960s that the Japanese
 evidence disproved his interpretation of why Truman used the bomb.  Let
 me say once again--and I don't know how to say this any more plainly--
 that, logically, however one reads the Japanese evidence, it _cannot_
 prove or disprove an interpretation of Truman's motives in dropping the
 Professor Villa refers to Gaddis Smith as presiding over these academic
 conversations two and three decades ago.  I presume Professor Villa
 mentions Gaddis Smith by name because he wants to imply that Professor
 Smith, perhaps simply by presiding, endorsed the view that Alperovitz's
 thesis was unpersuasive because of the Japanese evidence.  In any case,
 when Gaddis Smith reviewed the updated version of Alperovitz's _Atomic
 Diplomacy_ in 1985 in the _New York Times_ he, to quote Marilyn Young,
 "pointed to a number of flaws in the book but concluded that, in the
 years since its original publication, 'the preponderance of new evidence
 ... tends to sustain the original argument' that the decision to use
 nuclear weapons was 'centrally connected to Truman's confrontational
 approach to the Soviet Union.'" (Gaddis Smith, cited in Marilyn Young's
 review; see below)
 Professor Villa's policing tone is equally troubling.  How is it
 possible to square his denunciations with the respectful exchanges
 others have had with Alperovitz?  Barton Bernstein, for example, has
 said:  "My criticisms of _Atomic Diplomacy_ emerge from respect for both
 Alperovitz and his work ..." (_International Security_, Spring 1991, fn
 70)   In her featured review of Alperovitz's new book Marilyn Young
 states, "Few historians I know have taken the central ethical and
 historical issues surrounding the first, and thus far only, use of
 nuclear bombs as seriously as Alperovitz." (_American Historical
 Review_, Dec. 1995, p. 1516)  It's easy to pump up language into verbal
 overdrive as Professor Villa has done; and given Professor Villa's large
 and small misrepresentations and misquoting of Alperovitz that Thad
 Williamson, Katie Morris, and I have pointed out, one could characterize
 his posts by also going over the top:  "Professor Villa's communications
 amount to a sea of error that has neither bottom nor shore, and his
 evasion when confronted with evidence of serious misquotation merely
 adds to already unpleasant brine."  But to me this would simply be a way
 to use hyperbolic language as a substitute for engagement.  Sure the
 Japanese side is important, even though Alperovitz's book, as Bonnett
 admits, is not primarily about that.  Sure one can disagree about where
 exactly U.S. leaders stood on offering assurances for the emperor.  But
 these issues hardly warrant the dismissive tone offered so far.  Clearly
 Alperovitz has gotten under Professor Villa's skin.  Unfortunately,
 personal animosity appears, at times, to have adversely affected
 Professor Villa's professional judgment.
 Uday Mohan  American University
   Bonnett recommends a research agenda based on cognitive structures to
 help remedy the problem of bias.  The cognitive structures approach
 sounds quite reasonable and interesting.  In my original response,
 however, I noted that this approach did not guarantee less biased
 readings of documents or historical decisionmaking, because a historian
 looking at cognitive structures might define the set of problems a
 policymaker was dealing with too narrowly.  As well, I noted specific
 objections to Bonnett's examples of cognitive-based readings of Stimson.
 It appears that a cognitive structures approach would have little use
 for a genealogy of ruptures or for subtle evidence of dividedness in the
 thinking of policymakers.  Or for evaluating the willful absurdity of
 applying lessons from the past--viz., the Bush administration's
 resurrection of WW II in reaction to Saddam Hussein's actions.