[This review was published in the January/February 1996 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 32-36.]


Book Review


Truman and the Hiroshima Cult

Robert P. Newman

Michigan State University Press, 1995


Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey 


            Although the crest of the recent flood of discussion of Truman’s use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has no doubt passed now that the fiftieth anniversary of their use is behind us, the argument will certainly continue.  It remains valuable, then, to review one of the main books on that subject that appeared during the anniversary year of 1995.

            Truman and the Hiroshima Cult is a welcome addition to a literature that contains, as it is bound to, both bitter argument and deep reflection.  Newman provides an excellent summary of the debate, recounting the arguments made by the critics of the bombing and supplying with both cogency and passion a rebuttal to each.  His analysis isn’t neutral, since he strongly believes the bombings were militarily and morally justified.  Accordingly, those who support President Truman’s decisions will find in it a detailed confirmation of their position.  Even those who do not will need to take this book seriously and to address the points it makes.

            That Newman categorizes much of the criticism as a “Hiroshima cult” reflects the continuing bitterness of the debate.  We live in a world of alienation and mutual recrimination, so that a major part of the argument over such a subject will inescapably take the form of bitter dispute, with sharply hostile sides.  Certainly Newman is right when he says that the criticism of the bombing has taken on the trappings of a cult.  In the midst of it all, however, there must always be another level of debate that will involve deep reflection by serious people of varied hues of persuasion, and critics among them can’t be called members of a cult. 

The Criticisms and Newman’s Responses

            The book provides a detailed discussion which a review can’t hope to capture in full.  But here is a capsule summary:

            1.  The criticism that it was unnecessary to drop the bombs because Japan was about to surrender.   Shortly after the war, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), conducted under the direction of Paul H. Nitze, concluded that it had been unnecessary to continue the mass bombing of cities, to bring the Soviet Union into the war, to plan an invasion, and to drop the atomic bombs because the blockade of the Japanese home islands and the interdiction of transport within Japan would have been enough to bring a probable surrender by November 1, 1945.

            Newman counts himself among the few who have questioned the credibility of the USSBS.  He says the Survey didn’t gather all the facts: later interrogations of leading figures within Japan, as well as the intelligence gathered during the war by the ULTRA and MAGIC decryption of Japanese messages, showed that the army was in control and was resolved to put up an Okinawa-type struggle to inflict such unacceptable losses onto an invading army that peace could eventually be made on terms favorable to Japan.  Many of the Japanese held to a “Masada complex” that relished dying in the struggle.  It is necessary to distinguish, as many authors don’t, between the army and the “peace party” that wanted surrender.  Newman says there “is no basis” for the early-surrender scenario; “no one can ever know how long the war would have gone on.”

            2.  That the demand for unconditional surrender delayed the Japanese willingness to surrender.  The critics point to Roosevelt’s demand for the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, to Truman’s continued reiteration of the demand after he became president, and to the existence of the Morgenthau Plan (later abandoned) for the deindustrialization of Germany, and say that these made the prospect of surrender unbearable to the Japanese.  They add that Truman should at the very least have made it known that he was willing to retain the emperor (as in fact Truman was after the bombs were dropped).

            Newman, to the contrary, argues that Truman had no reason to believe that offering the retention of the emperor would make any difference to the controlling faction that was committed to fighting on; and that, short of that, the terms spelled out in the Potsdam Declaration on July 26 were fair and made it clear in specific ways that “unconditional” did not mean “intolerable.”  The effect was that, after Potsdam, the demand was only rhetorically one for unconditional surrender.  Roosevelt, in his insistence on complete victory, had wanted to convince the Axis powers that they were beaten, as he felt Germany had not been convinced after World War I; he also wanted to assure Stalin of our seriousness and that we would not make a separate peace.

            Newman points out that even after the dropping of the bombs (and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war) the army faction in Japan wanted terms that were clearly unacceptable: retention of the emperor (although this was eventually granted), no occupation, the disarming of Japan by the Japanese themselves, and war crimes trials conducted only by Japanese.  He says that later interrogations showed that the generals “were not about to surrender with or without conditions.”

            3.  That Japan was conducting a just war and therefore did not deserve to be subjected to total war.  Although certainly not shared in by all who criticize the use of the bombs, an important part of the “Hiroshima cult,” a part that Newman says is strong in Japan, sees Japan as having fought a just war and as a victim of American vengeance.  This is based on four propositions that essentially accept the perspective embraced by the Japanese during the war: (a) that Japan’s attack on China was a preemptive strike to prevent the growth of Communist power on the Asian continent; (b) that Japan was fighting to free Asia from western colonialism; (c) that Japan’s own existence was threatened by American pressures and embargo; and (d) that, in any case, Japanese territorial aggrandizement was not different in kind from the aggrandizement that other nations had pursued from time immemorial.

            Newman, oddly (but not surprisingly, as we will see later), is ambivalent about all this.  He argues eloquently that Japanese atrocities and imperialistic expansion showed deep contempt for the other peoples of Asia, thus belieing the assertions of noble purpose.  “Countries that initially welcomed Japanese as liberators from European colonialism soon turned against them,” and Japan’s “appetite grew after each victory.”  But he concludes by quoting with favor a 1983 statement by one of the judges at the Tokyo war crimes trial.  This accepts the Japanese view of the war but adds that the problem was that the world had evolved to a point at which “redressing the injustices of the world by war is now a thing of the past.”  By his approval of this view, Newman seems to be saying that the Japanese were in fact justified, except that they became corrupted by conquest and that they violated the post-World War I Kellogg-Briand mentality, which (incredibly naively, in the opinion of this reviewer) thought it possible to outlaw war itself.

            4.  That the use of the atomic bombs was motivated by American racism.  The charge of “racism” against of the World War II generation is an easy one to make today, and Newman says it is generally accepted in Japan.  It is gratifying to see Newman counter it with some obvious facts: that we trained two bomber groups—one for Germany, one for Japan; that Germany was spared atomic bombing only by collapsing before the bomb was ready; and that the Allies used firebombing against German cities, such as Dresden, to inflict just as severe an obliteration.  To use a current phrase, we can say it was “equal opportunity” destruction, and hence hardly “racist.”

            5.  That nuclear weapons, along with chemical and biological weapons, are so terrible that they must be considered immoral per se, without weighing of benefits and costs.  This is a proposition with which Newman agrees when it comes to hydrogen bombs and biological warfare, since they are “qualitatively different” from anything practiced before; but he considers atomic bombs “just a step up in power from explosives that had come into common use by all belligerents.”  Accordingly, he doesn’t believe the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were immoral in themselves, and in moral theory this frees him to engage in a weighing process to compare the consequences that would have flowed from the alternative courses of action.  Reviewing the carnage that had occurred at the hands of the Japanese during the war, he concludes that “it is plausible to hold that upwards of 250,000 people, mostly Asian but some Westerners, would have died each month the Japanese empire struggled in its death throes beyond July 1945.”  The alternatives to the bombs were to invade or to starve the Japanese by blockade, and each of these would have been terrible in their human cost.

            6.  That at the very least there should have been a warning or demonstration.  Before the bombs were dropped, there were many within the American government who wanted a warning given, or a demonstration, or the use of the bomb on a relatively uninhabited area or a strictly military target.  As late as May 29, General George C. Marshall told others that he wanted the bomb used first on something like a large naval installation, followed by a warning before it was used on a city.  On July 19, a petition was submitted, signed by 68 scientists, urging that a warning be given before the bomb was dropped.  Edward Teller wanted a demonstration high in the air over Tokyo Bay.

            Newman argues in rebuttal that only the shock of atomic bombs dropped on two Japanese cities was enough to force the controlling military group to acquiesce in the emperor’s eventual decision to surrender.  The main question, he says, is “whether a nonlethal demonstration could have produced the triumph of the peace and the acquiescence of the militarists.”  Even after Nagasaki, he points out, there was a seven-hour debate over what to do, and the army argued that the United States couldn’t possibly have more bombs.  A coup was attempted to reverse the emperor’s decision to surrender, including the assassination of the commander of the Palace Guard.  As to a mere warning, “maximum shock demanded maximum surprise; a specific warning would have eliminated this factor.”

            7.  That in any event the Nagasaki bombing came too soon, not allowing Japan enough time to respond to Hiroshima.  Newman says that “evidence that the emperor made his firm decision to recommend peace after the Hiroshima bombing and before the Nagasaki bombing has been available for decades.  The sticking point during this interim was not the will of the emperor; it was the refusal of Anami and the military to give up their hopes for a decisive battle of the homeland….” 

Some Additional Thoughts

            There is more to say about the book than appears in this review of the arguments:

            1.  My impression is that most patriotic Americans, which of course includes conservatives, strongly support the United States’ use of the bombs.  One of my friends, who fought in the tank corps as it went into Germany, thanks the bombs’ use for having saved him from transfer to the Far East to take part in the invasion of Japan, where he believes he almost certainly would have been killed.  (Admiral Leahy argued that an invasion wasn’t necessary, since the blockade had already effectively defeated Japan; but an invasion was planned nevertheless, and so my friend’s personalizing of it is valid.)  The American perspective has been that the United States was fighting a just war at great cost to itself, a war that Japan had started with a treacherous attack, and had every right to end the war as rapidly as it could.

            But there is a surprise in store for conservatives about Newman’s book.  He agrees with them on the specific issue of whether the bombs should have been dropped, but here’s the stinger: he is otherwise quite contemptuous of them and of what he supposes to be their reasons for supporting Truman’s decision.   He speaks of “right-wing Japanophobes motivated primarily by racism.”  Looking back to the end of World War II, he lumps Sen. Richard Russell, Rep. Roy O. Woodruff, and the Chicago Tribune into this category.  (This explains, parenthetically, why he expresses his odd agreement with Japan’s original anti-“western colonialism” objective; Newman is not really pro-Western.)

            The fact is that Newman is a person of the Left, and that his book represents a split within the Left over Hiroshima.  There are many on the Left who delight intensely in “blaming American” at every opportunity, and accordingly are enthusiastic about joining in the denunciations of Hiroshima.  Newman, on the other hand, is an admirer and biographer of Owen Lattimore, the “expert on China” who among intellectuals was perhaps the person most responsible for the Roosevelt-Truman policies that undercut Chiang Kai-shek and led to the subjugation of China to the butcheries of the Communist regime that holds power to this day.  Newman is author of Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China.  In that book, Newman tells how Lattimore was concerned that the Truman administration might follow the advice of a group that Lattimore and Newman have labeled “the Japanophiles.”  It was a group that, “mostly conservative, felt that… Japan was the most plausible bulwark against the spread of Communism in Asia.”

            That is worth pondering.  Lattimore welcomed Stalin’s entry into the war and resulting hegemony over Manchuria, which led ultimately to military disaster for Chiang Kai-shek; and he opposed American strategists who wanted to maintain enough Japanese presence to prevent a Communist conquest of Asia.  Newman agrees, and it is in that context that he developed his perspective that supports Truman’s decision to use the bombs.  Thus, he arrives at that support from a diametrically opposite direction than the conservatives whom he excoriates, at every opportunity, as “racist” and as “fanatically anti-Communist.”

            This does not affect the merits of Newman’s arguments on the specific points summarized above, but it does mean that American conservatives will be mistaken if they consider him one of their champions.

            2.  Newman makes a telling point when he says that the Japanese lack moral standing to feel victimized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He points out that they themselves had an atomic bomb project, with the intent to use the atom on the Americans.  He tells how they used captives to experiment with biological weapons and in 1300 instances used germ warfare against the Chinese.  He recounts how between 1931 and 1945 a total of 17 million people died as a result of Japanese aggression.  Included in these deaths were the 340,000 killed in the Rape of Nanking, and the 100,000 who died when Manila was put to the torch.  He describes how ceremonial head-chopping was even a part of Japanese training; and he refers to the extremely high death rate in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

            None of this should be forgotten in assessing the relative moral standing of the parties.  This does not mean, though, that the world in general is estopped from continuing to ponder Truman’s use of the bombs.  The world of the future is not tainted by Japan’s derelictions.  Newman argues that the bombs did in fact bring the war to a quick end and that it is purely speculative when the war would have ended if they had not been used.  But there remains Hanson Baldwin’s point, in his excellent little book Great Mistakes of the War, about the possibilities that might have flowed from a demonstration or a warning: “The truth is we did not try.”

            Baldwin’s book was first published in 1949, and in it he said that our use of the bombs has “sowed a whirlwind of hate which we shall someday reap.”  He knew, as Newman does not, that the world sees nuclear weapons as much more than a mere “step up from conventional bombs.”

            This reviewer has written several articles defending this country from the attacks of those who hate us.  We are justified in seeing as totally destructive anyone’s attempt to use Hiroshima as a lever for alienation against the United States.  But we should differentiate from this any serious effort, made not out of animus but out of scholarly and humane concern, to evaluate the use of the bombs.

            This scholarly and humane inquiry should, in my opinion, treat Hiroshima and Nagasaki as just part of a much larger issue: that of total war, conducted without limited objectives and unreservedly against the enemy’s civilian population.  This is a subject discussed with great profundity in F. J. P. Veale’s Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare from Sarajevo to Hiroshima.  An irony is that it is almost certainly due to the nuclear umbrella—made especially compelling by the stark fact that atomic bombs were actually used and not just threatened—that World War III was avoided during the decades of the Cold War.  It is also due, perhaps, to that same umbrella that mankind has, since World War II, in the many “limited wars” that have taken place, backed off from “total war.”  I was critical of the way the Bush administration ended the Gulf War, leaving Saddam in power; but we can at least see in this a salutary reluctance to fight a war of unlimited objectives.

            3.  The world needs to rethink the main moral premise advanced by Newman: that some of the more terrible weapons are below the threshold of what is per se morally unacceptable, and are therefore justifiable through a calculus of weighing costs and benefits.  During World War II, the Allies came to accept the massed firebombing of cities and the atomic bomb.  Newman agrees.  But the problem with that is that there will be innumerable circumstances where the differing sides in a war, if they calculate the costs versus the benefit of avoiding what is intolerable to themselves, will rationally conclude that the mass slaughter of enemy civilians is justifiable.  It is a calculus anybody can, and will, use.  Because of this, it would be far better for the world to cultivate, if it can, a moral consensus that such means are themselves intolerable.  (It will take such a consensus, since a national will not be able to refrain from their use unless it feels a moral certainty that the opposing side will do the same.)

            4.  Equally significant is the fact that almost all of the discussion of Truman’s decision overlooks a dimension of the utmost importance.  It is, as Baldwin said, that the United States fought both Germany and Japan without long-term geopolitical objectives that would cause it to be concerned about what the world would be like at the end of the war.  Baldwin blames this on American naivete and errors of perception.  Those played a role, certainly; but it is also true that we (and, through us, the world) were victims of a monstrous ideological skewing.  Profoundly affected by our intellectual culture’s 1917-1947 enthusiasm for Soviet Russia’s “Communist experiment,” we chose to fight to the death against the dictatorships of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, seeing them as the epitome of evil, while we allied ourselves with yet another totalitarian power (Stalin’s) that had a far bloodier record than any of the others!  And, having done so, we persuaded ourselves that we were dealing with “good old Joe” and took no precautions to see to it that Communism came out of the war with the most minimal possible position.  Instead, within five years after the end of the war, 600 million people succumbed to Communist tyranny, which need not have happened if it had not been for Roosevelt and Truman’s insistent lack of strategic concern during the war.  That insouciance was a direct result of the anti-anti-Communist fixation of our dominant intellectual community and of the millions of semi-educated trucklers who throughout most the twentieth century have prided themselves on sharing its worldview.

            In preference to the invasion of Normandy, the British wanted to attack Germany by going up through the Balkans.  When that was turned down by Roosevelt and Stalin, the British proposed another sort of southern attack, up through Italy and Austria, getting to central Europe ahead of the Red Army.  That, too, was turned down; and American forces were even held back in northern Europe in the closing days of the war to allow the Red Army to reach areas that we could have taken instead.  With the Red Army in place, the Soviet hegemony over central Europe and the Balkans was established until finally it crumbled in 1989.

            In Asia, we had promised Chiang Kai-shek that Manchuria would be restored to China.  But at Yalta in early 1945, without consulting or informing Chiang, Roosevelt gave Stalin control over Manchuria in exchange for, what?—the Red Army’s coming into the war against Japan.   With no strategic concern about blocking the advance of Communism, Roosevelt and then Truman pressed on as though immediate victory over Japan were their only concern.  In doing so, they set the stage for the Communization of China and of North Korea, which must be understood also as essential conditions precedent to the Korean and Vietnam wars.

            There were Americans who understood these things, and they are precisely the Americans whom Lattimore (and Newman) opposed.  They knew that our objectives must not be limited to defeating Japan, but must include the blocking of Stalin and Mao.

            What specifically does all this have to do with the decision to drop the bombs?  The answer lies in the fact that the same rationale lay behind bringing the Soviet Union into the war as lay behind the use of the bombs—the perceived need for a rapid defeat of the Japanese to the exclusion of other vastly important objectives.  And it lies, too, in issues relating to a vacuum of power into which Stalin and Mao were able to move.

            From all this, we see that there were overarching issues at stake that transcend the usual debate and that go far beyond the pros and cons argued in Truman and the Hiroshima Cult.

            5.  A point of much lesser importance remains, but should be made because it goes to the heart of Newman’s thesis.  His central argument is that the emperor, who was a member of the “peace party” even before Hiroshima, needed the shock of the bombs to prevail over the fanaticism of the army.  It is surprising, then, that the book contains no depth of analysis of the emperor’s position in Japanese life.  A premise of Newman’s argument is that the emperor was, under the circumstances of the time, almost a titular figure.  For us to judge that premise we would need to know a lot more than most of us do about whether the emperor would at some point have been willing to order surrender and about the willingness or unwillingness of patriotic Japanese to conform to a decision of the emperor.

            Associated with this is the question of whether it would necessarily have been a bad thing for the United States if there had been civil war within Japan, which almost certainly would have followed a coup against the emperor.  This is so closely connected to Newman’s main point that it is odd that he doesn’t consider it.