President Obama speaks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in March during their meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
The White House announcement Tuesday that President Obama plans to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park during his trip to Japan later this month undoubtedly will prompt much debate over President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons in August 1945.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser, wrote online Tuesday that the president will reflect on the site’s significance but “will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II.” That claim is disingenuous. To be the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima is to spark re-evaluations of Truman’s action and invite speculation that Mr. Obama will apologize, at least implicitly.
One can only hope that Mr. Obama grounds anything he might say on a sound historical knowledge of the situation Truman confronted and the basis for his decision. The president certainly should distance himself completely from the specious interpretation of the “atomic diplomacy” historians, who disgracefully allege that Truman, hoping to intimidate the Soviet Union in the already-developing Cold War, dropped two atomic bombs on a Japan that he knew was on the verge of surrender.
Mr. Obama, as well as his Japanese hosts, should appreciate that Truman authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both major military-industrial targets, to help win the gruesome Pacific War as quickly as possible and with the loss of the fewest American lives—and, as it turned out, the loss of the fewest Japanese lives.
His goal was to avoid an invasion of Japan’s home islands, which Truman knew would mean, in his words, “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” For those who need reminding, the battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest, most ferocious engagements of World War II, with Allied forces—most of them American—suffering more than 65,000 casualties, including 14,000 dead. Truman’s intentions and assumptions were legitimate.
Despite the damage inflicted on Japan by mid-1945 from conventional air attacks and a naval blockade, its leaders, and especially its military, clung fiercely to a plan called Ketsu-Go, or decisive battle. The aim was to inflict such punishment on invaders that they would sue for peace. The Japanese government had mobilized a large part of the population into a national militia to defend the home islands. The twisted samurai-types who led the Japanese military geared up with true banzai spirit to use their people in a kind of national kamikaze campaign.
Even after the atomic bombs were dropped, and following the Soviet attack in Manchuria on Aug. 8, 1945, the Japanese military leadership wanted to fight on. Yet Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Emperor Hirohito to understand clearly that defending the homeland was hopeless. It took his unprecedented intervention to break the impasse in the Japanese government and finally to order surrender.
Mr. Obama should appreciate well that all the viable alternative scenarios to secure American victory—continued conventional bombing of Japanese cities and infrastructure, a choking and lengthy naval blockade, the likely terrible invasions involving massive firepower—would have meant significantly greater casualties on both sides. They would have included thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute in the event of invasion.
American military estimates at the time were for over half a million U.S. casualties alone. And hard as it may be to accept when one sees the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses would have been far greater without the bombs.
Using these weapons also freed innocent peoples throughout Asia from Japanese oppression. Japan’s murderous rampage from Manchuria to New Guinea killed 17 million to 24 million. Estimates are that for each month of 1945 the war continued, upward of 250,000 innocents died. These facts surely shouldn’t be forgotten when President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lay their wreaths.
Truman’s authorization to use the A-bombs should be seen as his choosing the least awful of the options available. He didn’t turn his back on some obvious and feasible “moral” course of action that would have secured a Japanese surrender. Even in retrospect, far removed from the pressures that Truman faced in 1945, his critics can offer no serious and persuasive alternatives.
Harry Truman of Independence, Mo., tried to live by a moral code grounded in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Yet he also knew that statesmen must make difficult decisions in the fog of war. Perhaps Truman had the A-bomb in mind when he wrote 15 years later that “sometimes you have a choice of evils, in which case you try to take the course that is likely to bring the least harm.”
One suspects that Mr. Obama will have regular recourse to Truman’s defense when responding to the critics who blame him for the costly failure of his policy in the Syrian civil war, in which 400,000 lives have been lost, or his inability to halt the terrible genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
However that may be, when Mr. Obama visits Hiroshima on May 27 he should place no distance between himself and Harry Truman. Rather he should pay tribute to the president whose actions brought a terrible war to an end.
Father Miscamble is a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs and the Defeat of Japan” (Cambridge University Press, 2011).