Hiroshima, 70 Years Later: Did Truman Make the Right Call?

Huddle up with Teddy Roosevelt, Clausewitz, and Wylie—and then you be the judge.

Retrospectives on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki conjure up Theodore Roosevelt for me. That goes double when the anniversary is a multiple of ten—as it is today, the seventieth anniversary of Enola Gay’s strike on Hiroshima. Commentators work themselves into high moral dudgeon when that terminal zero recurs. But preening constitutes a poor substitute for dispassionate learning from contemporary or past decisionmakers. In 1910 former president Roosevelt told an audience at the Sorbonne:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood....”

One imagines TR would have even tarter words for critics writing decades after the fact. It’s easy to pass judgment with the advantage of hindsight. Think about it. Scholars typically know far more about what was happening than did historical figures making the decisions. The fog of war has cleared. Passions have evanesced. Archives have been compiled, organized, and opened for leisurely research. And scholars know what took place afterward. They can trace cause-and-effect, using data not available to the protagonists to evaluate the results of their decisions.

Experts’ verdicts, consequently, are commonly short on empathy for protagonists in world-historical affairs—protagonists like President Harry S. Truman and his lieutenants in 1945, contemplating how to put a definite end to the Pacific War at least cost to the Allies. That’s a shame: all too often, strategy is the art of choosing the least awful course of action—and doing so at times of extreme stress, rampant uncertainty, and narrowing options. The climate surrounding decision-making warrants a measure of generosity toward historical figures.

And indeed, the strategic canon cautions against retrospective sagacity. Military theorist extraordinaire Carl von Clausewitz, for one, acknowledges the hazards before decisionmakers—and urges students of military history not to render too-facile judgments on their forebears. In today’s parlance, he reprimands Monday-morning quarterbacks. Posterity, insists Clausewitz, must not “condemn a method without being able to suggest a better alternative.”

To do their intellectual work evenhandedly, analysts should undertake “critical analysis.” That means appraising past deeds using information available to commanders or officials at the time—and no more. This is elementary fairness, not to mention sound methodology. “If the critic wishes to distribute praise or blame,” continues Clausewitz, he must “put himself exactly in the position of the commander; in other words, he must assemble everything the commander knew and all the motives that affected his decision, and ignore all that he could not or did not know, especially the outcome.”

Only then is a just ruling possible. And only then can posterity learn the lessons of past successes and failures, and harness that insight to improve future decisionmaking. Which brings us back to Hiroshima. What did U.S. political and military leaders know about atomic weapons in the summer of 1945, when they were debating the endgame against imperial Japan? Did they fully grasp the import of such attacks?

Well, they certainly knew a game-changing weapon had been fielded. Mass destruction had long been possible in human conflict—witness the world wars—but the atomic bomb compressed mass destruction into an instant. Blast, heat, shock: these were familiar things. All explosives generated them, if on a infinitesimal scale by comparison. But what about the nuclear effects from a detonation? These were new, and unfamiliar.

Indeed, scientists, engineers, and warfighters were still experimenting with nuclear weapons in the mid-1950s, trying to learn their ins and outs. Experimentation involves trial and error. In Operation Castle (1954), for instance, a test thermonuclear warhead produced over twice the yield expected—and created serious diplomatic troubles for Washington when the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon No. 5 was irradiated. Lucky Dragon’s master perished afterward—helping give rise to the Japanese anti-nuclear movement and creating headaches for the U.S.-Japan alliance for decades.