No Other Choice: Why Truman Dropped the Atomic Bomb on Japan

"Truman and his advisers made the only decision they could have made; indeed, considered in the context of World War II, it wasn’t really much of a decision at all."

Imagine if Truman had decided to hold back. The war ends, with yet more massive bloodshed, probably at some point in 1946. Truman at some point reveals the existence of the bomb, and the president of the United States explains to thousands of grieving parents and wounded veterans that he did not use it because he thought it was too horrible to drop on the enemy, even after a sneak attack, a global war, hundreds of thousands of Americans killed and wounded in two theaters, and years of ghastly firebombing. Seventy years later, we would likely be writing retrospectives on “the impeachment of Harry S. Truman.”

Finally, what about the argument, imbued (wrongly) in several generations of students of international relations, that Truman only dropped the bomb in order to impress the Soviets and establish U.S. dominance in the coming Cold War?

There’s no doubt that the Americans wanted the war over before the Soviets could enter Japan—ironically, something we ourselves had asked them to do when we thought we would have to invade. From the victory at Stalingrad in 1943 onward, U.S. leaders (at least those other than the sickly Roosevelt) realized that Stalin’s Soviet Union was not interested in a peaceful world order policed by the great powers. The Americans were in a hurry to force a Japanese surrender, but they had no way of knowing whether that surrender was imminent. Ward Wilson, for one, claims that the Japanese surrendered not because of the bomb but because of the Soviet entry into the Pacific war, but only the most cold-blooded president would have counted on this and held America’s greatest weapon in reserve.

Again, consider the counterfactual. For years after World War II, the Soviets charged that the nuclear attacks on Japan were a warning to the USSR. Imagine, however, a world in which America held back the bomb, and allowed the Soviets to fight their way through Japan, taking huge casualties along the way. The speeches Stalin and his successors would have given during the Cold War write themselves: “America allowed Soviet soldiers to spill their blood on the beaches of Japan, while Truman and his criminal gang protected the secret of their ultimate weapon. We shall never forget, nor forgive, this squandering of Soviet lives…”

In reality, of course, as soon as the bomb was tested, Truman told Stalin that America had a weapon of great power nearing completion. Stalin, well informed due to his spy networks inside the U.S. nuclear effort, knew exactly what Truman meant, and he told the U.S. president to make good use of this new addition to the Allied arsenal. Both leaders were being cagey, but it was really the only conversation these two men, leading huge armies against the Axis, could have had in 1945 that would have made any sense.

In the 1995 film Crimson Tide, Gene Hackman played a Navy captain whose views are no doubt how critics see American thinking about the decision to use nuclear weapons. “If someone asked me if we should bomb Japan,” he opines while enjoying cigar in the wardroom, “a simple ‘Yes.’ By all means, sir, drop that [expletive]. Twice.”

The actual decision to drop the bomb was not nearly as casual as “a simple yes.” Critics of the decision to use the “special bomb” in 1945 are judging men born in the 19th century by the standards of the 21st. Had Truman and his commanders shrunk from doing everything possible to force the war to its end, the American people would never have forgiven them. This judgment no doubt mattered more to these leaders than the disapproval of academic historians a half century later, and rightly so.

Nuclear arms are hideous, immoral weapons whose existence continues to threaten our civilization. To say, however, that Harry Truman should have sacrificed hundreds of thousands of American lives because of what happened in the nuclear arms race decades later is not only ahistorical, it is moral arrogance enabled from the safe distance provided by time and victory.

Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter:@TheWarRoom_Tom.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain