Top U.S. Officials Caved on Hiroshima as Well as H-bomb

Not only did Russia respond to American development of the H-bomb by developing its own, so did other countries. Pictured: British thermonuclear bomb test. (Photo: RAF)

Not only did Russia respond to American development of the H-bomb by developing its own, so did other countries. Pictured: British thermonuclear bomb test. (Photo: RAF)

Increasingly it looks as if the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not critical to Japan’s surrender in World War II. Revisionist history is slowly becoming conventional wisdom. It seems as if the Japanese command, inured to all the bombing it had already received by the United States before Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, instead, prompted to surrender because Russia invaded Manchuria, China, not far from Japan.

Controversy has also arisen about exactly what the United States hoped to accomplish by dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The conventional wisdom is that it was to summarily bring the curtain down on the Japanese war effort,  thus sparing vast numbers of allied soldiers whose lives would have been lost in the other alternative, invading Japan.

In Arms Control Today, Barton Bernstein writes that the United States, aware that Japan was bomb-hardened (or, as previously alluded to, the command was hard-hearted) and unlikely to cave in to more bombing, however sensational, was expecting instead to use nuclear weapons in conjunction with an invasion. More to the point, contends Bernstein, the whole shameful chapter in U.S. history could have been avoided. He writes that, before Trinity, the first atomic bomb test, at a meeting with his close colleagues Secretary and Assistant Secretary of War Henry Stimson and John McCloy, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall

… argued generally for not using the weapon on Japanese cities but on a “straight military [target] such as a naval installation,” in the words of the meeting minutes. If a city was chosen, it should be a “large manufacturing” area, he urged.

… The issue that troubled Marshall, as he made clear to Stimson and McCloy at their meeting, was that these new, massively powerful bombs, if used on a city, would kill many noncombatants. To Marshall, that type of killing apparently constituted a dangerous and dramatic crossing of an important moral and ethical threshold by slaying innocent men, women, and children.

In fact, Allied fire-bombing of cities such as Dresden in the European Theatre and bombing dozens of cities in Japan, including Tokyo, where 80,000 were killed

… had greatly upset Stimson. He had worried on ethical grounds about the killing of noncombatants in such attacks, and he wished that such killing could be avoided or minimized by “precision” bombing.

But Marshall …

Before, during, and after the May 29 meeting … apparently never expressed, even in secret, governmental inner circles, such worries or doubts about massive conventional bombing of enemy cities.

But, when it came to nukes,

… even in prospect, the atomic bomb in May 1945 seemed markedly different to [Marshall], raising unsettling ethical and moral issues. Apparently troubled by the thought of targeting a city with that weapon, Marshall feared that moral opprobrium might be heaped on the United States in the aftermath. Thus, he offered a proposal for alternatives — bombing a military installation or bombing a large manufacturing area with a prior warning.

However …

Marshall’s pleas on May 29 did not seem to gain support from Stimson or McCloy. Two days later, Stimson helped shape the nuclear targeting policy by outlining with a secret blue-ribbon panel, the Interim Committee, that the weapon should be used without any warning to Japan and on a military-industrial target surrounded by workers’ houses.

So Marshall was more opposed to nukes than massive amounts of conventional bombing; Stimson was more opposed to massive amounts of conventional area bombing than nukes. And, apparently never the twain met. Bernstein continues:

Having been quietly defeated in the small meeting on May 29, Marshall raised no objections about that targeting and no-warning policy on May 31 in the larger meeting [and] quite likely missed an opportunity to establish an alliance with the president on redefining the targeting. Marshall did not know that Truman [in] what was most likely self-deception. … had chosen to believe that the bombs’ targets would be truly of a military nature.

… Marshall apparently never said to anyone that he had regretted not seeking before the Hiroshima bombing to make common cause with Truman on the targeting policy.


Had Marshall risked going outside the chain of command and bypassing Stimson, the general might well have been successful in July 1945 and thereby have helped to redefine the targeting policy for the atomic bomb to avoid killing and injuring noncombatants.

This kind of acquiescence that places comity with one’s peers, and a reluctance to resist momentum, above policies that can kill dozens of thousands parallels the controversy over the development of the next weapon of mass destruction, the hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bombs, the deployment of which could kill millions. I’m currently reading The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race by Priscilla J. McMillan (Penguin Books, 2005). Along with other scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, for which he directed scientific operations, Oppenheimer opposed development of the hydrogen bomb — besides vastly raising the stakes in the arms race, they recoiled at the new depths of inhumanity down to which it would drag the human race. Meanwhile, the military, including Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, as well as influential members of the corporate world, sought to greenlight the new nuclear-weapons project.

McMillan writes that in the “final meeting of the special committee that was to advise the president [Truman] on the Super [infamous nuclear scientist Edward Teller’s conception of hydrogen bomb],” Secretary of State Dean Acheson, also opposed to it, tried to use a stalling tactic. He “read a recommendation that the president direct the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] to determine whether a thermonuclear weapon was technically feasible, while deferring a decision to produce the weapons pending reconsideration by State and Defense of overall U.S. plans and objectives.”

For his part,  Johnson “objected to the proviso that a decision to produce be deferred, and,” — emphasis added — “even though they realized that the defense secretary was trying to accelerate building of the bomb, Lilienthal [David, first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission] and Acheson yielded.”

Still Lilienthal “wanted to present his objections.”

Instead of building a new bomb, why not spend a few months on “an intensive … re-examination of the worsening of our position as a result of our preoccupation with nuclear weapons?”

But Acheson and Lilienthal had begun to grown faint of heart.

Acheson agreed with most of what Lilienthal had said. But without an alternative — and in his view Lilienthal had not suggested one — the pressures for a decision had reached such a point that he did not feel he could recommend delay. To Acheson’s surprise, Lilienthal agreed to join in and make their recommendation to the president unanimous, provided he [Lilienthal] be give a chance to express his objections to the president in person.

The two of them met with the president.

Truman said he hoped we would never have to use these new weapons, but in view of the way the Russian were behaving, we had no choice but to go ahead. Lilienthal objected that he did not agree with the course the country was about to take. It would magnify our reliance on nuclear weapons and mislead the nation into thinking there was no other way.

Truman replied that, were it not for a leak to the public about the H-bomb decision, “calmer deliberation might have been possible. Now, however, so much excitement had built up that he had no alternative.” McMillan writes:

Lilienthal later wrote that speaking up in the Oval Office had been one of the hardest acts of his life, “saying No to a steamroller.”

Aww, poor baby. But maybe we should have some pity on the guy.

If Lilienthal had had anything but “the most unbounded admiration” for Acheson, “the deepest loyalty and fealty for the President,” and compassion for the load each man had to carry, he would not have found his dissent so painful.

Compassion? What about for the millions who would die in an exchange of H-bombs? Weren’t they worth chancing some enmity from the president and your colleagues? Still Truman deserves the lion’s share of the blame for using the atomic bombs and allowing the development of the H-bomb to proceed.

Had he been willing to brave the political fallout, Truman could have omitted any public announcement and left the scientists to continue secretly to investigate the bomb’s feasibility. Meanwhile he could quietly have felt out Soviet willingness to make a deal. … Once Stalin was gone. … Khrushchev and Eisenhower might by the mid- to late-91502 have reached agreement to end the fateful competition.

In the end

The outcome was a disaster for everyone. It marked a lost opportunity for the president to level with the American people on a life-or-death decision. … And it failed to buy security for the United States. … The decision to produce the H-bomb enshrined secrecy and made the cold war a way of life for both countries.

The history of nuclear weapons has been a cavalcade of cowards.