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The hidden history

How Truman delayed the end of the war in order to use the atomic bomb

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US president Harry S Truman (left) and secretary of state James Byrnes talk together on 28 July 1945. Photo: US National Archives

Many people justify the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago. Though brutal and indiscriminate, many people believe the atomic bombings shortened the Pacific war, and reduced the total number of lives lost.

In fact, there is a strong case that the US determination to use the bomb lengthened the war.

It is absolutely certain that the atomic bomb was not the only remaining recourse.

When judging the morality of the US-UK decision to drop the bomb, we cannot use hindsight (for example the US ‘Strategic Bombing Survey’ of 1946); we have to examine the evidence that was available to decision-makers at the time.

It is a simple historical fact that, by July 1945, US president Harry S Truman was well aware of two other game-changing tactics that were each believed by his advisors to be capable of ending the Pacific war – apart from a bloody US land invasion of Japan.

Truman deliberately chose not to use either tactic until after he had dropped the atomic bomb.

Bringing in Russia

One possible move was a Russian declaration of war.

In October 1943, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin told US secretary of state Cordell Hull that Russia would join the war against Japan after the end of the war with Germany. A year later, British prime minister Winston Churchill told the US political leadership that when Russia entered the Pacific war, Japan ‘would undoubtedly think twice about continuing the fight’. [Alperovitz, p89]

On 8 July, two months after the German surrender, the top-level US-UK combined intelligence committee stressed that: ‘An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat’. [p227]

Truman made a personal note on 17 July 1945, after meeting Stalin: ‘He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about.’ [p239]

Why did Truman therefore decide to use all the atomic bombs he possessed against Japan before 15 August? Why did he not ask Stalin to declare war in July 1945?

Sparing the emperor

It was well-known in US and British political and military circles that a key objective for the Japanese government in 1945 was to preserve the position of the emperor.

During the period April-July 1945, the US intercepted and decoded a number of secret Japanese messages indicating that political and military leaders were willing to surrender if the position of the emperor could be preserved. [pp23–29]

On 28 May 1945, former US ambassador to Japan and acting secretary of state Joseph C Grew told president Truman (as recorded in a formal memo after their meeting): ‘The greatest obstacle to unconditional surrender by the Japanese is their belief that this would entail the destruction or permanent removal of the Emperor and the institution of the Throne. If some indication can now be given the Japanese that they themselves, when once thoroughly defeated and rendered impotent to wage war in future, will be permitted to determine their own future political structure, they will be afforded a method of saving face without which surrender will be highly unlikely.’ [p55]

Grew wrote in his memorandum: ‘The President said that he was interested in what I said because his own thoughts had been following the same line.’ [p56]

During 1945, Truman was also urged to change the surrender terms to protect the Japanese emperor by:

  • British prime minister Winston Churchill – several times, first in February 1945 [p38];
  • the British joint intelligence committee on 18 April [p42];
  • the US joint staff planners on 25 April [p42];
  • the US joint chiefs of staff on 10 May [p43];
  • former US president Herbert Hoover on 28 May [p43];
  • the head of the US army, general George C Marshall on 14 June [p44];
  • the head of the US navy, admiral William D Leahy on 18 June [p64-65];
  • US assistant secretary of war John J McCloy on 18 June [p69];
  • the US state department on 30 June [p298];
  • and US secretary of war, Henry L Stimson on 2 July, 16 July and 24 July [p300-301].

This view was also reached by the British and US joint chiefs of staff at a combined meeting on 16 July [p245], when they formally minuted that the British chiefs of staff should approach Churchill to talk to Truman about exempting the emperor.

This led to Churchill approaching Truman on this subject again on 18 July 1945 [p243].

Despite all this, on 24 July 1945, Truman ordered that the Potsdam declaration published two days later reaffirm the demand for Japan’s unconditional surrender – in the face of contrary advice from all his military and civilian advisers and officials apart from US secretary of state James Byrnes [p305].

Truman did not alter his position on the emperor after the atomic bombs had been dropped.

On 15 August, after the atomic bombings, and after the Russian declaration of war, the emperor broadcast his order to surrender which ‘save[ed] and maintain[ed] the structure of the Imperial State.’

Truman then accepted this conditional surrender. 15 August was celebrated as ‘Victory over Japan Day’.

Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito, who had ascended to the throne in 1926, and presided over the conquest of much of East Asia during the Second World War, ruled until his death in 1989.

Why did Truman wait until after the bombing of Nagasaki to make this change to the surrender terms – a change that almost the entire political and military leadership of the US and Britain had urged on him for weeks if not months?

US secretary of state James Byrne told senator Warren R Austin on 20 August 1945 that he ‘had hoped we could finish up with the Japanese without participation by the Russians’. Byrne ‘was very anxious’ and had ‘hoped that the Russians could not mobilize’ against Japan before 15 August (a date Stalin had given) – ‘because he knew of the development of the atomic bomb and the probability of its being effective’ [p420].
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Timeline 1945

6 August: Hiroshima bombed – around 100,000 killed immediately.

8 August: Soviet Union declares war on Japan, shocking Japanese leadership.

9 August: Nagasaki bombed – around 70,000 killed immediately.

9 August: Soviet Union invades Manchuria.

15 August: Japan broadcasts conditional surrender.

15 August: US accepts conditional surrender.

2 September: Formal surrender ceremony.

All page references are to Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use The Atomic Bomb, London: Fontana Press 1995.

Milan Rai is editor of Peace News. 

Topics: Nuclear Weapons