Liveblogging World War II: August 19, 1945: Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma: The New War Over Hiroshima:

Gar Alperovitz has a touching confidence in ‘top-secret’ assessments, ‘expert’ studies, and ‘knowledgeable specialists.’ The world according to Alperovitz is full of great buried truths that only experts and specialists can unearth once the right spoor through top-secret documents has been found. After fifty years, no less, of ‘scholarly’ archival ‘digging,’ the great hidden jigsaw puzzle emerges with every piece neatly in place. The problem with these ingenious jigsaws is the problem of conspiracy theories in general: they make perfect logical sense, and they are usually wrong.
Yes, Truman was offered all kinds of advice on how to end the war. As one might expect, the bombers (Curtis LeMay, ‘Hap’ Arnold) wanted to go on bombing, the Navy (Admiral Leahy) wanted a blockade, the Army (Douglas MacArthur) wanted to invade, and the Japan ‘experts’ (Ambassador Joseph Grew) wanted to water down the terms of Japanese surrender. The policy was to be a combination of these methods: blocking and bombing, while planning for an invasion, and inviting the Soviets to come into the war.
True, the surrender terms remained unconditional. But since the Allied aim was to replace Japanese military authoritarianism with a civilian democracy, it would hardly have done to accept the demands of the Japanese die-hards, which were not only that the Emperor’s authority remain unchallenged, but also that there should be no Allied occupation, no Allied war crime tribunals, and no disarmament of Japanese troops by the Allied victors. The single promise to leave the Emperor on his throne, even with a Soviet war declaration, was unlikely to have broken the deadlock in the Japanese government.
All this advice — about bombing, starving, and asking for Stalin’s help — was given to Truman before the bomb was tested, however, and none of it guaranteed a speedy end to the war. Before July 1945 the bomb was not openly discussed. The fact that the Joint Intelligence Committee thought in April 1945 that the entry of the USSR would do the trick does not mean they were right. Note that General Marshall’s advice, also quoted by Alperovitz, linked the effect of a Soviet war declaration to an Allied invasion (‘if we land in Japan’).
As for the Japanese peace feelers, which Alperovitz trots out once again, they still fail to help his case against the bomb. Truman, Byrnes, and Leahy were wrong on August 3 to think that Tokyo was serious about negotiating peace terms, and right to assume otherwise later. Some Japanese were making peaceful overtures in various places, including Moscow, but they did so without government authority or concrete proposals.
After the successful test in New Mexico in July, Truman believed the bomb would enable him to end the war quickly, without Soviet participation and without an Allied invasion. None of Truman’s advisers, whatever their other differences, told the president not to drop the bomb, for ethical or any other reasons. Alperovitz, in his books and his letter, quotes instances of ethical and strategic doubts about the bomb, but these were expressed only after the war was over. Of course LeMay, Leahy, and MacArthur were against the bomb in hindsight: they had wanted to win the war with their methods and their boys.
The War Department Assessment may have said, in hindsight, that a Soviet entry alone would have ended the war in August, but this doesn’t mean it is true. The point of the ‘frenzied Japanese debate’ (which was not all that frenzied) is that the dominant military members of the Japanese government continued to argue against surrender after the Soviets entered the war. And they did so after the Emperor had intervened, not once but twice. Sure, they could have resigned, but then they would have had to back a military coup against the Emperor.
Like all revisionists Alperovitz relies heavily on the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey. It is possible that conventional bombing would have forced a Japanese surrender by the end of 1945, but not without, in ‘Hap’ Arnold’s happy phrase, reducing Japan to ‘a nation without cities.’ In any case, Truman did not want to wait until the end of 1945. And even if he had, it might not have worked. Japanese hard-liners wanted to fight on when most Japanese cities already had been reduced to rubble by the spring of 1945. So why should they have been impressed with more of the same later? The Japanese prime minister, Suzuki Kantaro, told American interrogators that the Supreme War Council planned to fight a decisive battle when the Allies landed, and ‘proceeded with that plan until the atomic bomb was dropped.’
I did not overstate or misrepresent Alperovitz’s view on the Soviet factor. It certainly is his view that the bomb was dropped to scare the Russians. His point here seems to be that he could not prove it. It is a disappointing point to have to make after writing an 843-page book, but he is right: he did not prove it.
It would indeed have been odd for Lifton and Mitchell to deny that the A-bomb was a ‘material entity.’ Not even the devout Dr. Nagai would have said that. But the authors do imbue the weapon with magical powers normally associated with religious cults. The attraction of the bomb, they say, especially for males, is ‘one of merging with a source of power rivalling that of any deity.’ Nuclearism, they say, is ‘a spiritual faith.’ The bomb, they say, gave Secretary of State Henry Stimson the experience of extraordinary power, ‘a new and transcendent blending of self and weapon based no longer on its mysterious potential but on its actual manifestation of a realm of force so vast as to seem more than natural.’
Now Lifton and Mitchell may not call this Divine Providence, but it does remove the material entity an awfully long way from mother earth, let alone human reason. In their account, the A-bomb was not a horrible weapon that persuaded Truman, not unreasonably, that he had found the means to end a horrible war quickly, on his terms; no, it was a religious experience. Well, maybe for some people it was. Even so, this does not explain the political and historical reasons why the bomb was dropped.
That is the problem with blending psychology with history and politics. The authors tend to slip from psychology to politics and back again in a manner designed to produce intellectual confusion. A ‘flow of feeling’ is rather hard to pin down. If their concern is to analyze the political reasons for Truman’s decision, and if it is assumed that neither Truman nor his advisers were acting irrationally, why then are we told Truman and Stimson suffered ‘a numbed folie à deux, a mutually reinforcing pattern of extreme dissociation, self deception, and illusion.’ If this is not ‘clinical labelling,’ what is?
Like many ‘knowledgeable specialists,’ such as Gar Alperovitz, psychologists tend to eschew straightforward or commonsensical explanations. They are in the business of revealing secrets, in documents, or in the mind. If Truman’s decisions were reasonable, there would be no psychological mysteries to unveil.
Lifton and Mitchell now appear to agree that the bomb helped to hasten the Japanese surrender. But in their book they quote with evident approval the opinions of historians who say the opposite. In summing up the views of Martin Sherwin, for example, the authors conclude that ‘if the US had not been so determined to complete, test, and finally use the bomb, it might have arranged the Japanese surrender weeks earlier, preventing much bloodshed on Okinawa.’ Never mind that the Battle of Okinawa took place months earlier, and was fought on the insistence of the Emperor himself, against the advice of his relative, and former prime minister, Prince Konoe, who warned that the Soviet Union was likely to declare war on Japan. Everyone can confuse dates. In my own article I carelessly set the March bombing of Tokyo in July. But if Lifton and Mitchell really think the bomb prolonged the war, why do they not say so in their letter?
Again, Lifton and Mitchell have to take it for granted that Truman was wrong, otherwise there would be no need to examine his ‘self deception.’ There is a revealing aside on the Korean War, following Lifton’s remarks about Truman’s fear of being a ‘sissy.’ To keep ‘the self functional,’ the authors explain, ‘a man like Truman needs power surges.’ Truman took decisions too quickly, so he could feel like a man. And ‘there is no doubt,’ therefore, ‘that his exaggerated boldness and ‘celerity’ in decision making contributed to the American plunge into what General Omar Bradley was later to call ‘frankly a great military disaster’ and ‘the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.’’ No doubt Omar Bradley said that, but does that make it true? Aren’t the authors a little too bold, not to say swift, to take it for granted that it was the wrong war, etc.?

Originally published at