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Understanding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 73 Years Later

The mushroom cloud towers into the sky over Nagasaki as the bombers depart. (National Archives)

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the second and last time nuclear weapons were used on Earth: America’s dropping of the second atomic bomb on Japan, on the city of Nagasaki. Six days later, after an abortive military coup aimed at continuing the war, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in a public radio broadcast, ending the Second World War. Japan by that point had been at war with China for eight years, with the United States for three and a half years, and with the Soviet Union for roughly a week.

Earlier today, I came across a Twitter thread on the bombings by Stevens Institute of Technology professor Alex Wellerstein, who bills himself as a “Historian of science, secrecy, and nuclear weapons.” Given that this anniversary tends to bring out a lot of left-wing revisionist nonsense, I found Wellerstein’s thread relatively even-tempered and informative in laying out the context of Harry Truman’s decision to drop The Bombs, Japan’s decision to surrender, and the connections between the two, and I recommend it as reading to those interested in the history:

Nonetheless, while Wellerstein’s account adds to the “standard” narrative, it also leaves out some crucial context about the nature of the times and the world in which Harry Truman and other U.S. policymakers reached the fateful decision. Wellerstein acknowledges the complexity of the question, and delves into what the key policymakers on both sides of the Pacific did and did not know and believe in August of 1945. Let me add some context of my own here, about where the American insistence on “unconditional surrender” came from and why it stayed U.S. policy to the bitter end.

First of all, “unconditional surrender” wasn’t Truman’s idea; it had been Franklin D. Roosevelt’s publicly declared policy for over two years of war, announced at the January 1943 Casablanca conference with Churchill, and had been followed to the bitter end with the Germans. Truman, in August 1945, had been in office all of four months. Now, Harry Truman certainly wasn’t shy about making his own decisions — this was the man whose motto was “The Buck Stops Here” — but there was a lot of policy inertia behind unconditional surrender. FDR had seen it as important to secure Stalin’s confidence in U.S. commitment to the war effort. Fear of a separate peace has haunted wartime alliances for centuries, being famously the bane of Europe’s many coalitions against Napoleon.

FDR, in turn, had drawn “unconditional surrender” from Abraham Lincoln’s policy towards the Confederacy:

After saying rather formally that “peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power” FDR lapsed into his folksy storytelling mode. “Some of you Britishers know the old story — we had a General called U.S. Grant. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant but in my, and the Prime Minister’s, early days he was called ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant. The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy and Japan.”

As the leader of the party of the Solid South, FDR was well aware that the physical, economic, and moral crushing of the Confederacy had been key to why we never had another Civil War, the devotion of Southerners to the “Lost Cause” myth notwithstanding. The South had grasped, on a fundamental level, that the rebellion had failed and could never be repeated. For all the efforts to use Klan terrorism and political processes to regain Southern autonomy and white supremacy after the war, there was never again a question of rising against the federal government of the United States. FDR himself had addressed the 75th anniversary gathering at Gettysburg in 1938, unveiling the Eternal Light Peace Memorial before the gathered remnant of 90-something veterans of the battle, met in peace and (however grudging) reconciliation on the field of America’s bloodiest battle. The South did not, in fact, rise again after 1865, not in rebellion. And Japan and Germany did not rise again to war after 1945. That remarkable fact, so at odds with the history of war, counsels against second-guessing the victors’ relentlessness.

By contrast, the whole generation of 1945 was haunted by the fact that the charnel house of World War I had been insufficient to convince the losers to never take up arms again a little over two decades later. Nobody wanted another German or Japanese equivalent to the “Dolchstoßlegende,” the German “stab in the back” narrative (exploited to great effect by the Nazis) that Germany had lost World War I not due to defeat on the battlefield but due to betrayal by weak-kneed politicians. The ending of World War I had disregarded the stern warning in Churchill’s July 4, 1918, speech:

[T]the struggle in which we are engaged is in reality a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil . . . It is a struggle between right and wrong, and as such it is not capable of any solution which is not absolute. Germany must be beaten; Germany must know that she is beaten; Germany must feel that she is beaten. Her defeat must be expressed in terms and facts which will, for all time, deter others from emulating her crime, and will safeguard us against their repetition . . . No compromise on the main purpose; no peace till victory; no pact with unrepentant wrong.

That was, of course, not how the Germans saw the end of the war.

The need to batter the enemy into abject and total submission seems to us today something like barbarism. To the men of 1945, with barbarism before them on a daily basis, that animal spirit was in fact a coldly rational reading of very recent history and enduring human nature.

Then there is the question of “fanatical” Japanese defense of the homeland. The Germans had fought with cornered ferocity to the end on their soil in April 1945 (casualty rates in the Battle of Berlin were even higher than at Stalingrad), and the Japanese were not the Germans: They had no cultural precedent for surrender in war, and nobody in or out of Japan truly knew what it would take to get Japan to surrender. The experience of Iwo Jima and Okinawa had seen Japanese casualty rates (especially men killed in action) exceeding 90 percent, figures nearly unprecedented in the history of war. If anything, this represented an escalation from the desperate fighting the U.S. had faced earlier in the war, and convinced American planners that every day of the fighting until the end would be savage beyond anything seen in human history.

Moreover, as Victor Davis Hanson’s account of Okinawa in Ripples of Battle dramatically illustrates, the kamikaze barrage during the battle of Okinawa was shocking to Americans at every level, and entirely alien to the American experience of war. Okinawa was subdued only six weeks before Hiroshima. U.S. military planners had hopes of a Japanese surrender, but in the meantime they had the reality of Japanese suicide attacks and the prospect of an invasion of the home islands of unimaginable brutality.

An invasion would have been staggeringly costly in lives, as Paul Fussel detailed in a 1981 New Republic essay on The Bomb. It’s easy now to say that an invasion would not have been needed, but the Second World War was full of events that moved swiftly from the unthinkable to the commonplace. The determination to bull through until the enemy submits had sustained Americans that far, and abandoning that mindset on the basis of unproven hopes was unrealistic. Dropping atomic bombs seemed less shocking to people who had witnessed the atrocities on all sides of that war and ordered the incendiary bombing of Japan’s major cities.

The atmosphere of the time, too, was one in which U.S. leaders defaulted to “whatever ends the war fastest is the most humane.” That Shermanesque view, too, was both traditionally American and a rational response to those conditions. There would always be fresh horrors until it was over. The ongoing atrocities the Japanese were committing in China all the way to the war’s end had to be taken into account.

Also, no American president — perhaps not even Washington or Grant — had seen worse ground combat up close in his life than Harry Truman, an artillery officer in the ghastly six-week Meuse-Argonne offensive (the second bloodiest battle in U.S. history) that ended World War I. Truman’s sense of war was visceral; he knew its horrors well, and knew there was no substitute for ending it.

It’s sometimes suggested that it was illegitimate for Americans to drop The Bomb just to accelerate the war’s end before Russia could get into the fight and claim territory in Japan. But as to wanting to head off the Soviets, given their train of atrocities in Europe and the history of Communism, it’s hard to fault Truman for wanting both to forestall the Soviet advance and overawe them with American power. See, again, the specter of 1918. By some counts, the Red Army raped about 2 million women in Germany and triggered a colossal refugee crisis through pervasive ethnic cleansing along their line of march. It’s not an inconsiderable humanitarian thought to avoid a replay of that in the East.

Finally, histories that focus narrowly on what was said in the high chambers of U.S. and Japanese policymakers take an unduly cramped view, especially given American democracy. Truman didn’t just have strategic decisions to make, he had life and death choices to justify. If Truman was harsh with the Japanese, he had a nation of grieving families behind him. Public opinion in late 1945 showed many Americans wished we had dropped more bombs. This is an easy thing to deride cheaply from the distance of 2018.

Harry Truman did what the righteous fury of four years of the bitterest war demanded, and made a lasting peace. You could say that of precious few of our wars since 1945. That suggests that maybe Truman knew something we have forgotten about man and war.

Dan McLaughlin — Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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