ANDREW ROBERTS: IN DEFENSE OF HIROSHIMA
In the last few weeks of the Truman administration in 1953, the president attended a dinner at the British embassy in Washington in honor of Winston Churchill, who had recently been returned to the prime minister’s post. At one point in the dinner, Churchill posed a question to Truman: Would he have an answer ready when the two men stood before Saint Peter and had to account for their role in dropping atomic bombs on Japan? The scene is described in “The Most Controversial Decision” by the Rev. Wilson Miscamble, who notes that President Truman understandably didn’t much appreciate this line of conversation. The subject was swiftly changed, but if Truman ever did have to offer up an explanation at the Heavenly Gates, it could hardly have been more persuasive or succinct than the one rendered in this quite superb little book.
At the time when the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945, Truman’s decision was anything but controversial—it was supported by almost everyone on the Allied side, since the attacks had brought to an immediate end a war that had cost the lives of more than 50 million people. It was only after the war was safely won that the morality of killing 140,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and a further 74,000 in Nagasaki started to be questioned. An article in the New Yorker in 1946 touched off the second-guessing, followed by an avalanche of criticism in the 1960s. The “it wasn’t necessary” crowd has kept up a steady drumbeat ever since—notably in the mid-1990s with Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist book, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth” (which actually created more myths than it dispelled), and with the Smithsonian Institution’s plans for a tendentious exhibition of the Enola Gay for the 50th anniversary of the B-29′s dropping of the “Little Boy” uranium bomb on Hiroshima.
Father Miscamble is a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and thus is at home with the theological and moral aspects surrounding the decision to unleash the world’s first atomic bombs. He is also familiar with the political and military exigencies of the decision. He takes the reader carefully through the genesis of the bomb-building Manhattan Project, as planned by Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt originally for the bomb’s use against Nazi Germany, and through the calculations of the key Allied decision makers, including Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, and Adm. William Leahy, the head of the Joint Chiefs.
By Wilson D. Miscamble
Cambridge University Press, 174 pages, $24.99
Most tellingly, the author reminds us of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who had died in the conventional bombings of places like Tokyo and Kyoto while Roosevelt was president, but with relatively little opprobrium attaching to FDR. Father Miscamble cites as well the horrific massacre of innocents for which the Japanese were responsible, a savagery still being unleashed in the summer of 1945, and the awful cost of battle in the Pacific, including 6,000 American dead and 20,000 wounded at Iwo Jima and 70,000 casualties suffered while capturing Okinawa. With these precedents, Herbert Hoover warned Truman that an invasion of the Japanese home islands could result in the loss of between half a million and a million American lives. Marshall, Leahy and Gen. Douglas MacArthur each had his own projected figures, none of them wildly different from Hoover’s.
Under these circumstances, it was inconceivable that Truman would not have ordered the use of a potentially war-winning weapon the moment it could be deployed. It is impossible to imagine the depth of the public’s fury if after the war Americans had discovered that their president, out of concern for his own conscience, had not used the weapons but instead condemned hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to certain death on the beaches and in the cities of mainland Japan.
No one denies the horror of the weapons themselves. At the International Center of Photography in New York there is presently a fascinating exhibition of the original photos taken in October 1945 by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey for its three-volume secret report to Truman titled “Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.” In the report, the survey’s Physical Damage Division noted that Hiroshima had been the ideal target, providing almost laboratory conditions for studying the blast. The city was more densely populated than New York City’s five boroughs; there had been little prior bombing damage; it had nearly flat terrain; the 6,000-foot radius of the target was a perfect size; and there were “enough substantially constructed multistory commercial buildings of representative types to allow comparative study of the effects, numerous bridges of various materials, and an extensive public utility system.”
As a result of the bombs’ dropping, these terrible weapons were never used again, which they doubtless otherwise would have been at some stage in the Cold War. The day after giving the order to destroy Nagasaki—which had to happen, since the fanatical Japanese government refused to surrender even after Hiroshima—Truman told his cabinet that “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people is horrible” and that “he didn’t like the idea of killing all those kids.” Father Miscamble rightly lays the blame on “the twisted neo-samurai who led the Japanese military geared up with true banzai spirit to engage the whole population in a kind of kamikaze campaign. Their stupidity and perfidy in perpetuating and prolonging the struggle should not be ignored.”
Mr. Roberts’s “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War” has just been published by HarperCollins.
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