11. Alternatives to the atomic bombs, and moral objections to attacking civilians

None of this is to say that there were not, in some metahistorical sense, possible alternatives to using the atomic bombs. Barton Bernstein has laid them out and assessed their likely efficacy. There was the ‘noncombat demonstration’ of the bomb, endorsed in the Franck Report of June 1945 (unlikely, in Bernstein’s view, to have achieved Japan’s surrender). Alternative II was to modify or redefine the demand for unconditional surrender, as Grew and Stimson wanted to do, by guaranteeing the position of the emperor (‘quite unlikely—but not impossible ... [to] have produced a Japanese surrender before 1 November on terms acceptable to the United States’). Another possibility was to follow up the Japanese ‘peace feelers’, extended by some Japanese officials through intermediaries in Switzerland that summer, and apparently indicating that peace might come about if (again) the United States offered to preserve the imperial system (only a ‘slim hope’ of success, in Bernstein’s view). Alternative IV was to rely on Soviet intervention to push Tokyo to its breaking point—but no American decisionmaker believed Soviet entry alone would quickly finish the job, and none in any case desired it. A final option was to continue the bombing of Japan’s cities and the naval blockade of the home islands. Bernstein thinks this alternative the most likely to have produced surrender by 1 November, the chances of success being ‘maybe 25-30 percent’. Bernstein does say that some combination of these alternatives might ‘very likely’ have done the job. And yet, as Bernstein recognizes, his analysis is doubly counterfactual: one cannot know what the divided Japanese war cabinet would have done had the Americans pursued one or several of these courses instead of dropping the bombs, and, more significantly, it is difficult to imagine the Truman administration deciding to depart from the course established by Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Manhattan Project in the first place. Why not drop the atomic bombs?63

There were a few men and women, at the time, who remonstrated against what was, after the Nazi genocide, the crucial moral enormity of the war: bombing civilians. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain made the utilitarian argument that attacking cities from the air increased popular anger and resistance and thus, immorally, prolonged the conflict. In March 1944 an obscure American religious magazine called Fellowship ran an article by the English pacifist Vera Brittain condemning urban bombing. Pacifists A. J. Muste and Mohandas Gandhi criticized the atomic bomb as the worst excess of a war they had opposed more generally. But the vast majority, of officials and citizens, military men and civilians, in the United States and everywhere else, had by 1945 undergone a profound eclipse of conscience. They knew that the atomic bombing was by itself unprecedentedly powerful, yet even after the Trinity test they could not imagine destruction and horror beyond what they had already witnessed, and perpetrated. Most did not accept Maritain’s argument that mass bombing would prolong the war; instead they felt, as the air theorists had felt during the 1920s, that by increasing the horror they were shortening the war and therefore finally saving lives. Harry Truman was interested in saving American lives, and believed that by using the bomb he had done so. ‘It was a terrible decision,’ he wrote to his sister Mary. ‘But I made it. And I made it to save 250,000 boys from the United States and I’d make it again under similar circumstances. It stopped the Jap war.’ Six years after the bombing, Truman recalled for an interviewer that he had been told that the population of Hiroshima in 1945 was 60,000—an underestimate of some 200,000—and that he thought it ‘far better to kill 60,000 Japanese than to have 250,000 Americans killed’. ‘No one at the time regarded the bomb’s use as an open question,’ according to Michael Sherry. The atomic bomb may have been ‘a transcendent form of power’, but it would be ‘conceived and used in the familiar ways’. Nor were the Americans alone in imagining without compunction the use of the weapon. ‘Indeed,’ writes Bernstein, ‘it is difficult to believe that any major World War II nation that had the bomb would have chosen not to use it in 1945 against the enemy.’ This is surely true. Had the British, Germans, Russians, or Japanese developed the bomb first—and that they did not had nothing to do with any ethical impediment to doing so—they would have dropped it on civilians with no more hesitation than the Americans showed.64

Like his boss, Truman aide George Elsey was interviewed years after the bombs had fallen and the war ended. Elsey understood that Truman had inherited the bomb from Roosevelt, and that the bomb had developed a logic and momentum of its own. ‘Truman made no decision because there was no decision to be made,’ Elsey said. ‘He could no more have stopped it than a train moving down a track. It’s all well and good to come along later and say the bomb was a horrible thing. The whole goddamn war was a horrible thing.’65

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