Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

Truman’s New World

The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan, by Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C. (Cambridge, 192 pp., $24.99)

Back when I was in graduate school at Harvard in the early 1960s, I hoped to do my doctoral thesis on Reinhold Niebuhr, so questions of morality and politics were uppermost among my interests. This led me, naturally, to wonder about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan — and the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo. At the Catholic University of America a few years earlier, a prominent moral theologian, Fr. John Ford, S.J., had condemned these bombings as immoral: They were the direct killing of civilians in crowded urban areas.

My curiosity led me to a joint study by U.S. and Japanese experts in military history, some of them in high enough positions to know the internal political struggles on their own side. Although I have not been able to locate this study since, I think its authors called themselves “The Pacific War Group.” Two of their considerations were new to me, a novice in the field: first, the pressures on Emperor Hirohito from his military command never to surrender; and second, the race by the Germans and the Russians to build the atomic bomb first.

The horror of Hiroshima gave the emperor a powerful argument in favor of a negotiated peace to spare the homeland. The bomb on Nagasaki proved that there might be a steady stream of such bombs, on city after city. I remember, too, vivid descriptions of the obscurities and uncertainties under which decision makers in Japan and the U.S. then worked: Neither could know the fierce internal arguments going on in the other’s inner circles, nor the most persuasive personalities, nor all the military intentions, nor the mysteries of the new atomic science.

I was powerfully reminded of this early study by this new book by Prof. Wilson Miscamble, making use of a scholarship far more advanced in nearly all areas than it had been in the 1960s. Miscamble produced an earlier study, From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War, focusing especially on the complexities of Truman’s personal strengths, weaknesses, hesitations, and uncertainties in the field of foreign policy. In this new book, he follows an analogous course — using all available scholarship to shed light on the human factors of decision making, but especially the internal controversies. Adm. William Leahy, for example, maintained that the atomic-bomb project was “the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” Miscamble describes an army of participants slowly assembling to make, over time, this “most controversial decision” — passionately controversial even in their own midst.

The first chapter discusses Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Manhattan Project, on which Vice President Truman was never briefed. The second takes up the steep learning curve Truman had to mount when Secretary of War Henry Stimson finally gave him his first-ever briefing on the super-secret project, on the evening of the day FDR died and Truman (within two hours) was sworn in. Less than four months later, Truman would have to make a decision no man in history had ever made.

The fourth chapter focuses on the Allied summit at Potsdam, at which Truman, now president, and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes tried to preserve decent relations with the Soviets, even as they both saw clearly enough that the USSR was veering away from its past dependence on its Western allies into a competitive, adversarial, unbelievably cynical wrestling for dominance whenever and wherever an opportunity presented itself. (A later chapter on Japan and the USSR shows how pleased Truman was when, quite hurriedly, Russia did declare war on Japan and launch a powerful attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria — two days after Hiroshima, just before Nagasaki.)

#page#Especially impressive is Miscamble’s account of the bitter Japanese arguments after Hiroshima. The emperor used the horrors of this new weapon as an honorable reason for surrender, but he did not fail to have a direct accusation delivered to the United States through the Swiss, to the effect that the huge immorality of the atomic bomb put it outside all international rules of war.

As for Truman, he never allowed himself to forget, in making his decision, the immensity of the Japanese atrocities in China, and Japan’s ferocious brutality in its losing battles of 1944–45. (Nor did he forget the Soviet brutalization of whole societies, although he also knew that success in World War II depended heavily upon the Soviets.) In other words, he put into the moral equation the character of the regimes the world then faced.

Miscamble’s discussion of the decision to drop the second bomb, to make credible the threat of further bombings, is gripping. Truman told his cabinet that the thought of wiping out another city of 100,000 civilians was “horrible,” and that the bomb must never afterwards be used again. After Hiroshima, Truman did not think of atomic weapons as just another instrument of war: They were far too indiscriminate. He summed up his view in his farewell address: “Starting an atomic war is totally unthinkable for rational men.”

For Truman had come to see graphically after Aug. 6, 1945, the moral burden he had taken on his shoulders. But he thought it unworthy to moan publicly (or privately) about the hard necessities he inherited. He continued to be confident that the bomb’s use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been necessary, the least evil of choices available to him. And Truman did not scrap the growing American line of nuclear weapons: He knew how the Soviets would use their own growing arsenal to intimidate and to extort, if not far worse. He came to think that mutual deterrence, however morally compromising, was more moral than surrender, and as a command decision had the best chance of maintaining a fragile peace, even for a long time. Immediately after Hiroshima, Washington took no steps to wind down the war economy or the war effort. The American leaders could not be sure, given strong evidence to the contrary, that the Japanese would just surrender without committing national suicide. They could hope the Japanese would avoid the carnage, but they could not be sure.

Miscamble manfully holds back from making his book polemical. His aim is to present these historical decisions, which stand under moral judgment, in the full human complexity within which the decision makers had to feel their way. His aim is to offer a more concrete and realistic framework for the moral decisions of statesmen (and their advisers and critics) in the future. Yet Miscamble does not hesitate to state succinctly where the views of Truman’s critics — Gar Alperovitz, Elizabeth Anscombe, and others — are inadequate in the face of today’s richer body of evidence.

Miscamble’s arguments are both unsettling and, overall, convincing. Unsettling, because the moral ambivalence inherent in the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki stands out so starkly in his arraying of the evidence — and Truman himself understood it both quickly and clearly. Convincing, because I know enough about my own moral decisions and others I have studied to be impressed with how Miscamble makes concrete and believable the troubled reasonings of the human participants who made this most controversial of moral decisions.

– Mr. Novak is the author of All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire and, with William E. Simon Jr., Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation. His website is

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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