10. Why the bombs were dropped

How had it come to this? In the months and years after Hiroshima, historians and other commentators offered a variety of explanations for the US decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. One of them, heard increasingly in recent years, is that white American racism caused, or at minimum enabled, the United States to use a devastating weapon on the Japanese, brown people whom they considered inferior to themselves, barbaric in their conduct of war, and finally subhuman—‘a beast’, as Truman put it. It is certainly true, as John Dower, Ronald Takaki, and others have demonstrated, that the Pacific War was fought with a savagery unfamiliar to those who had engaged each other in Europe, where enmities were bitter but vitiated by the fact that the adversaries were white. On the west coast of the United States, beginning in 1942, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps. There was no means test given for loyalty: ‘a Jap is a Jap’, insisted General John L. DeWitt, head of the US Western Defense Command, and all ‘Japs’ were potentially treacherous. Or, as the Los Angeles Times had it: ‘A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, grows up to be a Japanese not an American.’ Home front officials and publications depictedJapanese andJapanese-Americans as insects, vermin, rodents, and apes, and in this way inspired exterminationist fantasies, for who could object to the eradication of lice, spiders, or rats? Marshall Fields department stores in Chicago bought a two-page newspaper ad depicting a simian-like Japanese soldier cringing beneath the shadow of a bomber; the caption asked, ‘Little men, what now?’ The Elks Lodge in Harrisburg, Illinois, promised ‘to knock out Hirohito but it won’t be easy... Rats are dangerous to the last corner.’ Even more sophisticated publications erased the distinction between soldiers and civilians in Japan. According to the New Republic: ‘The natural enemy of every American man, woman and child is the Japanese man, woman and child.’ It was race that mattered, blood that told; no Japanese, anywhere, could or should be spared.54

The Americans who fought Japanese in the Pacific theater were, if anything, even more scathing in their characterizations of them. Admiral William F. (‘Bull’) Halsey, commander of the US South Pacific Force, told reporters that ‘the only good Jap is aJap who’s been dead six months’. Not to be outdone, Halsey’s Atlantic counterpart, Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, explained that, ‘if it is necessary to win the war, we shall leave no man, woman, or child alive in Japan and shall erase that country from the map’. ‘When you see the little stinking rats with buck teeth and bowlegs dead alongside an American, you wonder why we have to fight them and who started this war,’ said Lieutenant General Holland M. (‘Howlin’ Mad’) Smith. ‘The Japanese smell,’ he added. ‘They don’t even bleed when they die.’ Soldiers took their cues from their officers, whose views in any case reinforced their own about the kind of enemy they were fighting. Robert Scott Jr., author of the bestseller God Is My Co-Pilot, relished combat in Southeast Asia. ‘Personally,’ he wrote, ‘every time I cut Japanese columns to pieces... strafed Japs swimming from boats we were sinking, or blew a Jap pilot to hell out of the sky, I just laughed in my heart and knew that I had stepped on another black-widow spider or scorpion.’ E. B. Sledge, island hopping with the marines in the South Pacific, marveled at the refusal of Japanese soldiers to surrender and noted many examples of ‘trophy-taking’ by his fellow marines—the result, he thought, of a ‘particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese’. Marines prized enemy ears, fingers, hands, and, most often, gold teeth:

The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his [American] captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly.

Compassion for Japanese was rare, Sledge noted, and scorned by most American soldiers as ‘going Asiatic’.55

The men who made the decision to drop atomic bombs and decided where to drop them shared the sharply racialized sentiments of their officers and fighting men. ‘Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time,’ recalled Curtis LeMay. ‘So I wasn’t worried particularly about how many people we killed in getting the job done.’ The South Carolinian Byrnes routinely referred to ‘niggers’ and ‘Japs’. Discussing the Hiroshima bombing with Leslie Groves on the day after it had happened, Chief of Staff George Marshall cautioned against ‘too much gratification’ because the attack ‘undoubtedly involved a large number of Japanese casualties’.

Groves replied that he was not thinking about the Japanese but about those Americans who had suffered on the Bataan ‘Death March’. Truman himself was a casual user of racial epithets for African Americans, Jews, and Asians. The Japanese, in his lexicon, were ‘beasts’, ‘savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic’.56

While there is no question that white Americans, at least, exhibited anti-Japanese racism, it is unlikely that racism explains why the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though perhaps it helped policymakers justify the decision to themselves after it had been made. The coarsening of ethical standards concerning who got bombed and how was virtually universal by 1945. Americans hated Japanese more than they hated Germans, but that did not prevent them from attacking Hamburg and Dresden with firebombs, targeting the citizens of these cities just as surely and coldly as those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targeted— or, for that matter, the citizens of London and Shanghai. There is no evidence to suggest that the Americans would have foregone use of the atomic bomb on Germany had the weapon been ready before V-E Day. If Berlin or Bonn or Stuttgart had been the a-bomb’s target, Groves could not have satisfied himself afterwards that Bataan had been avenged, but he might instead have mentioned Rotterdam, the Battle of the Bulge, or even Auschwitz, as he put aside all possible remorse. Or he and the others could have said that the atomic bomb had ended the European war more quickly and thus saved lives, American and enemy, as they would say about the atomic bombings of Japan. The war on both fronts had by 1945 reached a level of savagery that matched even the poison of anti-Asian racism.

A rather stronger case can be made for the American use of atomic bombs as a way of compelling the Soviets to behave more cooperatively in negotiations concerning especially Eastern and Central Europe, and as a way of ending the war quickly and thus foreclosing a major role for the Soviets in the occupation of Japan. The argument for ‘atomic diplomacy’, as this is called, has been made most forcefully down the years by Gar Alperovitz, though others have put forward their own versions of it. The case made by these ‘revisionists’ relies on establishing that Japan was militarily defeated by the summer of 1945, that the ‘peace faction’ of the Japanese government was assertively pursuing terms of surrender by then—chiefly a guarantee of the emperor—and that US policymakers knew that Japan was beaten and that the peace faction’s exploration of terms had imperial backing, were specific and sincere, and thus worthy of taking seriously.

(This explains the revisionists’ use of the 1963 Eisenhower quotation: ‘It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.’) The Americans also knew that a Soviet invasion of Manchuria and north China, promised by Stalin for August, would destroy what remained of Japan’s will to fight on and in this way allow the Soviets to help shape the postwar Japanese political economy. Rather than permit this, and in the hopes of making the Russians more agreeable in negotiations elsewhere, the Americans dropped the atomic bombs, needlessly and perforce cruelly, on a prostrate nation.57

There is plenty of evidence that key US decisionmakers linked the bomb to their effort to intimidate the Soviet Union. Stimson, like Truman and Byrnes, thought of diplomacy as a poker game, in which the atomic bomb would prove part of‘a royal straight flush’ or the ‘master card’, and in midMay Stimson told Truman, regarding the proposed (and delayed) summit at Potsdam, that, when it finally convened, ‘we shall probably hold more cards in our hands... than now’, meaning a successfully tested bomb. Byrnes was troubled at the thought of the Russians ‘get[ting] in so much on the kill’, as he put it. He told Navy Secretary James Forrestal that he ‘was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in, with particular reference to Dairen and Port Arthur. Once in there, he felt, it would not be easy to get them out.’ Byrnes later recalled wanting ‘to get through with the Japanese phase of the war before the Russians came in’. He also assured Special Ambassador Joseph Davies at Potsdam ‘that the atomic bomb assured ultimate success in negotiations’ with the Russians, over German reparations and presumably other things. And Truman’s sense of heightened confidence on learning of the Alamogordo test, his new assertiveness with Stalin, and his desire to rethink the matter of Soviet involvement in the war against Japan, all indicate the extent to which the bomb made an impression on the President and planted it firmly in the diplomatic realm.58

When they thought about the bomb, then, Truman and his advisers thought about what it might suggest for relations with the Soviets. But that does not mean that policymakers used the bombs primarily because they wished to manipulate the Russians. They did not know for certain that the Japanese were close to surrender before 6 August, that the addition to the battle of Soviet divisions, the withering American firebombings coupled with the strangling naval blockade, or even the threat of American invasion of the Japanese home islands, would bring speedy capitulation. They did want to end the Pacific War at the soonest possible moment, and one of the reasons they wished to do so was to keep Russian soldiers out of China and Soviet officials out of Japan once the war was over. All this was, however, best described, as Barton Bernstein has put it, as a ‘bonus’ added to the central reason why the Americans dropped the bombs. ‘It seems likely’, writes Michael Sherry, ‘that even had Russian entry been greeted with open arms, rather than accepted as a painful aid and inevitability, the bomb would have been used on the same timetable.’ As much as it mattered to US decisionmakers that the Russians be impressed and even cowed by the use of atomic bombs against cities, that the Russians become more tractable in negotiations, something else mattered more.59

What mattered more was the assumption, inherited by Truman from Roosevelt and never fundamentally questioned after 1942, that the atomic bomb was a weapon of war, built, at considerable expense, to be used against a fanatical Axis enemy. This was ‘a foregone conclusion’, as Leon Sigal has put it, ‘unanimous’ among those most intimately involved in wartime decisionmaking. ‘As far as I was concerned,’ wrote Groves, Truman’s ‘decision was one of non-interference—basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans.’ Groves would subsequently liken Truman’s role to that of ‘a surgeon who comes in after the patient has been all opened up and the appendix is exposed and half cut off and he says, “yes I think he ought to have out the appendix—that’s my decision”.’ A kind of bureaucratic momentum impelled the bomb forward, from imagining to designing to building and then to using. It would have taken a president far more confident, far less in awe of his office and his predecessor, to reflect on the matter of whether the atomic bomb should be used. Even then, it is difficult to picture how the momentum toward dropping the bomb would have been stopped. Truman and his advisers saw no reason not to drop the bomb.60

That they did not had to do with their self-deception—the bomb would be used only on a military target, Stimson and Truman assured themselves—and much to do with the belief, by now hardened into assumption, that non-combatants were unfortunate but nevertheless legitimate targets of bombs. From the first decision by an Italian pilot to aim recklessly at a Turkish camp in Africa, through the clumsy zeppelin bombings and British retaliation for them in the First World War, the ‘air policing’ of British colonies during the 1920s, and the ever more deadly and indiscriminate attacks by the Germans, Japanese, British, and Americans, ethical erosion had long collapsed the once-narrow ledge that had prevented men from plunging into the abyss of heinous conduct during war. Civilians could and would be killed by bombs. To shift the analogy slightly, and, as Richard Frank has written: ‘The men who unanimously concurred with the description of the [atomic bombs’] target experienced no sensation that their choice vaulted over a great divide.’ Indeed, their ‘choice’ was only which Japanese cities should be struck, not whether any of them should be. Once heralded as ‘knights of the air’, American pilots and their crews were now more often regarded as ‘hooligans’, or worse. Still, they were doing their nation’s bidding: three days after Pearl Harbor, two-thirds of Americans polled said they supported the indiscriminate bombing ofcities in Japan, a sentiment sustained throughout the war. There was equally little compunction about civilians in Germany, where estimates showed that by 1945 Allied bombers had killed between 300,000 and nearly twice that many. Psychologically, yes, there was something horribly different about the atomic bomb, a single bomb, with what Oppenheimer called its ‘brilliant luminescence’ and its capacity to create such destruction by itself. Functionally, it was merely another step on a continuum of increasingly awful weapons delivered by airplanes.61

US policymakers believed that killing Japanese as quickly and efficiently as possible would save American lives. They were never sure how many, of course. An invasion of Kyushu was scheduled for 1 November 1945. Policymakers estimated how many Americans might be wounded or die in the invasion by extrapolating from losses sustained during recent campaigns in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. They concluded that US losses ‘should not exceed the price we have paid for Luzon’—31,000 killed, wounded, and missing—during the first thirty days of the invasion of Kyushu. The figures were mentioned at the meeting between the Joint Chiefs, Stimson, Truman, and several others on 18 June 1945.

An acrimonious debate rages among historians over the extent to which policymakers made more precise estimates of possible American invasion casualties during the summer of 1945. In the end, it is unlikely that estimates, whatever they said and whoever made them, made much difference to Truman; he surely would be scornful of the debate over them were he alive now. For, if the President could save even a handful of American lives, he would not have hesitated to allow atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan. Intelligence indicated that Japanese plans for Ketsu-Go, the defence of the homeland, were well advanced by that summer. They included the use of as many suicide kamikazes in the first three hours of the invasion as had been deployed in Okinawa over three months. Two Japanese divisions and a smattering of other units had bled the Americans at Okinawa. Fourteen or more divisions, well dug into caves and bunkers, were expected to oppose the invaders on mountainous Kyushu. Near the end of the 18 June meeting, Truman told the Joint Chiefs to ‘proceed with the Kyushu operation’— after saying, recall, that he ‘hoped there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another’. Victory without an invasion at all remained a wish to be cherished.62

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