Dropping the Bomb

DROPPING THE BOMB….Richard Frank has an interesting cover story in the current issue of the Weekly Standard titled “Why Truman Dropped the Bomb.” He contrasts two competing theories about why Truman decided to use atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945:

In 1945, an overwhelming majority of Americans regarded as a matter of course that the United States had used atomic bombs to end the Pacific war. They further believed that those bombs had actually ended the war and saved countless lives. This set of beliefs is now sometimes labeled by academic historians the “traditionalist” view.

….But in the 1960s, what were previously modest and scattered challenges of the decision to use the bombs began to crystallize into a rival canon….The critics share three fundamental premises. The first is that Japan’s situation in 1945 was catastrophically hopeless. The second is that Japan’s leaders recognized that fact and were seeking to surrender in the summer of 1945. The third is that thanks to decoded Japanese diplomatic messages, American leaders knew that Japan was about to surrender when they unleashed needless nuclear devastation.

Using evidence from top secret “Magic” intelligence summaries ? declassified in their entirety in 1995 ? Franks makes the case that the traditionalist view has turned out to be the correct one. He argues persuasively that the intelligence intercepts make it clear that Japan wasn’t ready to surrender on terms acceptable to the Allies and that the Japanese military was fully ready to fight to the bloody end against an expected American invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The article is well worth reading, even though I’ve always considered this an odd debate. It’s certainly possible to take either side of the moral argument for using atomic weapons, but on the question of whether or not Japan was prepared to fight to the end, one piece of evidence has always struck me as conclusive: the fact that we had to drop two bombs. If Japan had really been prepared to give up on terms close to unconditional surrender ? which, for better or worse, was what the Allies demanded ? surely the demonstration of American power at Hiroshima would have been more than enough to tip them over? The fact that there was still debate within the inner cabinet even after Hiroshima makes it seem vanishingly unlikely that there was anything resembling a consensus for surrender before that. In fact, Frank suggests it was even worse than that:

Japanese historians uncovered another key element of the story. After Hiroshima (August 6), Soviet entry into the war against Japan (August 8), and Nagasaki (August 9), the emperor intervened to break a deadlock within the government and decide that Japan must surrender in the early hours of August 10. The Japanese Foreign Ministry dispatched a message to the United States that day stating that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration, “with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.” This was not, as critics later asserted, merely a humble request that the emperor retain a modest figurehead role. As Japanese historians writing decades after the war emphasized, the demand that there be no compromise of the “prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler” as a precondition for the surrender was a demand that the United States grant the emperor veto power over occupation reforms and continue the rule of the old order in Japan….The maneuver further underscores the fact that right to the very end, the Japanese pursued twin goals: not only the preservation of the imperial system, but also preservation of the old order in Japan that had launched a war of aggression that killed 17 million.

Fascinating stuff. Read the whole thing.