The Worst Decision Ever Made

(On the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.)

Fifty-eight years ago a man who seems to have been a decent person in most respects made the worst decision in history: President Harry Truman decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Despite what Truman said at the time, this was not necessary. It did not reduce the number of deaths. It did not encourage the Japanese to surrender. It was not a military act, but a political one. It was not aimed at Japan; it was an attempt to shock and awe the Soviet Union. As with most such ill-conceived projects, it failed.

Of course this is not what most Americans believe. But most Americans believe lots of things that aren't true: that the death penalty has a deterrent effect, say, or that Iraq was involved in 9/11, or that socialism is about central control while capitalism is inherently democratic. All these beliefs are contradicted by the facts. But as Americans, we have the right to believe whatever our favorite newscaster tells us to believe.

That's why we find it so irritating when people point out that we're wrong, especially when those people actually know what they're talking about. Gar Alperovitz has been studying and writing about the bombing of Hiroshima and the decision-making process that preceded it for decades, and has published books such as Atomic Diplomacy and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb about this topic. In addition, he's a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland (College Park). So the people who want to retain the belief that Truman wasn't lying are particularly upset with him when he lists the military men who told Truman not to do it:

Adm. William D. Leahy, President Truman's chief of staff[...;] commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Henry H. "Hap" Arnold; Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet; Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., commander of the U.S. Third Fleet; and the famous "hawk" who commanded the 21st Bomber Command, Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall[...;] [Gen.] Dwight D. Eisenhower [commander-in-chief of Allied forces in Europe...]

These men voiced different kinds of negatives, but all recommended against the decision Truman made. So why did he make it? Well, the bomb was not dropped to end the war sooner; in fact, the war was prolonged to create an opportunity to drop the bomb. Alperovitz presents plenty of damning evidence in his books to support this seemingly outrageous claim (which, to my knowledge, he does not make in so many words; he's writing political history, not psychoanalyzing dead Presidents).

For instance, everyone now knows that the US broke many Japanese codes early in the war, and was therefore able to determine what the Japanese leaders were saying among themselves. As a result, we now know that Japan was making overtures through the Soviet Union in the first half of 1945. They had only one condition: that they be allowed to keep the Emperor. Truman's expressed view was “No conditions”. In the end, they were allowed to keep the Emperor.

Truman appears to me to have had something of the Quayle/Dubya mentality; not, in other words, the sharpest knife in the drawer. He apparently thought the Soviets would be so intimidated by the atomic bomb that they would acquiesce in our permanent military superiority, a position reminiscent of the Bush Administration's plans in the present day. He intimidated them, all right, so much so that Stalin immediately started a crash program to build, buy, or steal whatever was necessary to create his own bomb. And what has the invasion of Iraq done, if not encourage any country unwilling to kowtow to the US to go nuclear?

Issues of intelligence explain in part Truman's famous statement about the bomb: “This is the greatest thing in history” (apparently there's disagreement about when he said this, so it may be apocryphal). A certain amount of swagger combined with a very superficial understanding, plus some moral certainty for good measure; sound familiar?

Mickey Z (Michael Zezima), writing for Disinfo, passes on the wisdom of Studs Terkel:

"Why did we drop [the bomb]?" pondered Studs Terkel at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. "So little Harry could show Molotov and Stalin we've got the cards," he explained.

"That was the phrase Truman used. We showed the goddamned Russians we've got something and they'd better behave themselves in Europe. That's why it was dropped. The evidence is overwhelming. And yet you tell that to 99 percent of Americans and they'll spit in your eye."

Again, sound familiar? Today, three days after Saddam's capture, many Americans seem rather self-satisfied about the situation, much like the attitude of the US after the Second World War, but with less reason.

Some people believe it's possible to hit your opponent hard enough to win. One thing you learn from Roman history, though, is that this is so difficult that success by this strategy is extremely rare. No matter how hard you hit your opponent, he'll come back at you. If you kill him, his family will come back at you. If you kill them, their families and friends will come back at you. If you kill them, you might be okay, but that's a big circle, and it's easy to miss someone. Whoever you miss will seek revenge, and often find it.

In general, you can't count on hitting people so hard they go away. It's easier to learn to live with them.

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