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In his new book about the end of World War II, “The Road to Surrender,” Evan Thomas argues that the U.S. needed to drop atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. But did we?
By Zachary Shore
Evan Thomas’ new book about the end of WWII is fortuitously timed. The blockbuster film “Oppenheimer” has reawakened interest in the decision to use the atom bomb on Japan. And while Thomas has provided a well-researched, engaging synthesis of the events surrounding Japan’s surrender, the book falls a bit short. The principal problem is that it is definitive about a subject riddled with uncertainty. As a popular history, “The Road to Surrender” reads well. The author asserts his conclusions with conviction. Unfortunately, the more we learn about the questions involving surrender, the clearer it becomes how unclear the answers are.
Thomas employs a fast-paced style, often writing in the present tense. Secretary of War Henry Stimson “tosses fitfully in his bed…” or “wants to trust the Russians but is wary of them.” The style is meant to put us in the moment, enabling us to imagine we are there with the protagonists as they struggle with the weighty matters of war. This allows for swifter pacing, but it also leads the author to breeze by crucial questions, never having time to explore them fully.
The debate over the use of the bomb has lasted this long because most people dislike moral ambiguity. When all the rhetoric is stripped away, two main camps are left. One side says the bombs were necessary to compel Japan’s surrender. These people insist that an invasion was the only realistic alternative to the atomic bombs. They choose to believe in the high casualty estimates in an invasion, rather than the low estimates, which were also offered at the time. Given these assumptions, they reason that the bombs saved more lives than they cost. The other side argues that America’s actions were inhumane, criminal or at least unnecessary. In sharp contrast to the first camp, these people assert that Japan was on the brink of collapse, and the war would have ended soon enough without an invasion or the bombs.
Both sides are deluding themselves. There was simply no way to know when or whether Japan would surrender. America’s leaders were stuck in one of the war’s worst moral dilemmas: murder unknown thousands of innocent Japanese civilians or risk the deaths of unknown thousands of Allied troops in an invasion. There were, however, other options. No one could know if they would have worked, but they should have been tried. America failed to pursue those alternatives not out of malice or incompetence, but rather from a combination of flawed thinking and bureaucratic barriers to information flow.
Thomas gives us character sketches of three important actors in this drama: the aforementioned Stimson, Army Air Forces General Carl Spaatz and Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo. Each played vital roles, and Thomas’ choice to focus on them is warranted, though naturally they were not the sole or always the most decisive figures. Too many others were just as essential, but these three men offer a window into the moral ambiguity of the world’s first nuclear strikes. Thomas’ most informed sketch is of Stimson, who left us ample records, including an almost daily diary, which he kept religiously for most of his long life.
Thomas is absolutely correct to observe that Stimson’s subordinates often kept their boss in the dark about crucial topics. They gave him the classic Washington run-around, hoarding information, ignoring his directives and selectively parceling out data on key subjects. Stimson, being old and in ill health, did his best to run a War Department that included an army of 11 million men and the multibillion-dollar top secret Manhattan Project. His efforts were gallant, his character noble and his moral dilemmas intense.
Stimson had no desire to kill unknown thousands of civilians with a new and terrible weapon. Yet he also could not stomach the idea of sending unknown thousands of American and Allied soldiers to their deaths in an invasion of the Japanese homeland. He therefore sought a third way: conditional surrender. By this solution, Japan would be permitted to retain its emperor in exchange for surrendering. Why didn’t that plan work? Because it was never tried. Why not?
The vast majority of top officials agreed with Stimson that conditional surrender made sense. Unlike with Hitler in Nazi Germany, the figure of Japan’s emperor played a unique and ancient role in Japanese society. Each emperor was seen as a divine being. The idea that the current emperor could be hanged as a war criminal was unacceptable to the key decision-makers in Japan’s regime. Everything had to be done to prevent that outcome. Grasping this fact, most American officials recognized that offering this one condition for Japan’s surrender was not an act of kindness to their enemy, but rather a self-serving act of prudent statecraft. If the offer were accepted, both the bombs and the invasion could be avoided, and the soldiers could finally come home with no more loss of life.
With the emperor still in place, the risk of ongoing resistance would be virtually eliminated because the emperor commanded his people’s obedience. If he told them to stand down and accept occupation, then U.S. occupiers would not have to contend with a protracted insurgency. For these reasons, Stimson and others wrote this condition into the Potsdam Declaration, the July 1945 agreement among the Allies that laid out the terms for Japan’s surrender. But President Harry S. Truman removed it in the end. We don’t know why exactly. Historians debate it still. Some say that newly appointed Secretary of State James Byrnes persuaded Truman against it for political reasons.
Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had pledged to pursue the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, and this was popular with the American public. Thomas adds that Truman disliked strongmen and had no fondness for the Japanese emperor. Often overlooked or discounted in the literature is Truman’s fear of unleashing a third world war. Reasoning by analogy, Truman wrote that the Allies had failed to obtain unconditional surrender of Germany after World War I, and World War II ensued. Failure to achieve unconditional surrender of Japan might, he likely believed, sow the seeds of yet another global fight, only one that would be fought with nuclear weapons. In other words, the fate of humanity itself would be at stake. He dared not get this decision wrong.
Unfortunately, the logic was flawed. Japan under the emperor was not Germany under the kaiser. The analogy did not hold. We have absolutely no way of knowing whether an offer of conditional surrender would have been accepted. The emperor and Foreign Minister Togo had been searching for a way to end the war that would preserve the throne. Joseph Grew, the acting secretary of state and former ambassador to Japan, insisted that protection of the emperor represented “irreducible terms” for Japan’s leaders. He was right. If the offer had been made, maybe the emperor would have overridden the adamant objections of the three ultra-hardliners on the six-man Supreme War Council. Thomas dismisses this as impossible. But he cannot know what would have happened. No one could then, and we cannot know now. And given that the American decision-makers could not have foreseen the outcome, it was certainly worth a try.
If the offer had been rejected, nothing would have been lost. The suggestion that this would have shown Allied weakness and led the Japanese to strengthen their resolve is absurd. They were already fighting for their survival with savage intensity, as the ferocious battle of Okinawa revealed. But if the offer had been accepted, the many people on all sides who died in the weeks before the bombs were dropped and the roughly 200,000 Japanese civilians who perished from the nuclear strikes would have been spared.
Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of conditional surrender came too late. Even after the tremendous destruction wrought by two atomic bombs, Japan’s leaders still insisted on the preservation of the emperor in exchange for their surrender. It turned out that the bombs were not enough. Whether two cities were destroyed or 200, what mattered was the protection of the emperor. Many have wondered why it took two atomic bombs, not simply one, to convince Japan to surrender. The answer is that it did not take two bombs; it took the American guarantee of the emperor’s safety.
When, after both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed, Japanese leaders still refused to surrender without assurance of the emperor’s preservation, American officials were faced with a conundrum. They had only possessed two atomic bombs. More were in the works and could be available within a few weeks or months. But no one wanted the war to drag on. Then Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal provided an elegant solution: Let Japan retain the emperor just as the advocates of conditional surrender had previously proposed, but tell them that General Douglas MacArthur would have ultimate authority.
Japanese leaders accepted this offer, as did the American people. And thus conditional surrender proved necessary in the end. If the same offer had been extended before the use of atomic bombs, maybe the emperor would have intervened sooner to end the war. But we can never know what would have happened. This must forever remain a historical might-have-been.
Thomas is equally dismissive of another alternative to the atomic bombs: the proposal to demonstrate the bomb to Japanese representatives on a deserted island. The standard line is that a demonstration would not have made a sufficient psychological impact. Again, this is unknowable. Whenever this argument is advanced, its proponents curiously fail to connect their own dots. Most authors like Thomas describe the terrifying effects of the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert. They note how the scientific and military observers reacted in stunned amazement. Structures they had erected to study the blast’s effects simply ceased to exist. Other steel and concrete structures collapsed into twisted, molten mounds of rubble.
The awesome mushroom cloud itself released a stunning spectral array of colors that kept on rising, ballooning to a height of 50,000 feet. The flash of light was so intense that even a blind woman miles away reported that she saw it. Thomas himself quotes one scientist who slapped Robert Oppenheimer on the back and declared, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” Yes, the test had a profound psychological impact on the observers. But what was the test, if not a demonstration of the bomb?
If it had a profound psychological impact on the bomb’s creators, wouldn’t it have had an even greater effect on the bomb’s expected victims? The mushroom cloud would have left Japanese officials to imagine what the bombs would do. If Emperor Hirohito had sent a personal representative to witness the demonstration, who can say how he would have reacted upon hearing the report, especially if the demonstration had been combined with the offer to preserve him on the throne? In short, because we have no idea what might have resulted from a demonstration, neither Thomas nor anyone else can assert the results with certainty.
Thomas relates another important incident regarding the key moral dilemma of saving lives, but he misses the significance of the encounter. At a White House meeting, former President Herbert Hoover told Truman to expect half a million to a million casualties in any invasion of Japan. Hoover, the engineer, usually spoke in precise figures; an estimate that was give or take half a million was highly uncharacteristic. He is believed to have obtained the figures from a group of colonels in the army, though there is no record in Hoover’s appointment book of such meetings around the time of his conversations with Truman.
Hoover likely offered those imprecise figures for several reasons. First, at that time, he held Truman in such low regard that he spoke to him in simple, one-syllable words and large, round numbers, as Hoover noted in his diary. Second, he wanted to scare Truman away from what Hoover saw as a pointless invasion and move him instead toward a compromise agreement with Japan, which he then proposed in a memo to Truman. But it is also possible that Stimson, who met with Hoover two weeks prior to the White House visit, hoped to use Hoover to advance his own agenda.
Stimson, as we know, wanted Truman to offer conditional surrender to the Japanese in order that both the invasion and the atomic bombs could be avoided. It was Stimson who persuaded Truman to invite Hoover to the White House, which was not an easy sell. FDR had kept Hoover in political purgatory for 12 long years, refusing ever to meet with him. Truman knew that his own aides, most of whom he inherited from FDR, would try to sabotage a meeting with Hoover. Once persuaded to send the invitation, Truman wrote it out by hand and placed it in the mailbox himself.
Stimson surely knew that Hoover would present Truman with those shockingly high casualty estimates. With luck, this would help push Truman closer to conditional surrender, which Stimson favored. Hoover provided a convenient back-door to Truman, who neither sought nor took Stimson’s counsel. This episode reveals how Stimson had to play the Washington game of bureaucratic intrigue, but it also matters because Hoover’s casualty figures did have consequences. They spooked Truman away from an invasion, as intended, but they failed to move him toward conditional surrender, instead pushing him toward the atom bomb.
Once Truman had decided against conditional surrender and an invasion, were the bombs ultimately necessary to compel Japan’s surrender? Thomas asserts unequivocally that they were. Thomas is most influenced by the historian Richard Frank, and while Frank’s work is impressive, it contains a flaw in logic. Frank asserts, and Thomas agrees, that the atomic bombs were necessary to persuade Japan’s three hard-liners in the Supreme War Council to surrender. This argument rests on the fact that these three men were expecting an Allied invasion. They were massing troops in Kyushu, preparing for the assault. They hoped that if they could bloody the Americans enough in one final battle, then they could wrest better terms from them. Once the first bomb was dropped, the three hard-liners realized that no invasion would be forthcoming. The Allies did not need to invade; they would use the bomb instead.
Frank and Thomas (and no doubt many others) conclude that only the bombs could have had this effect. The flaw in Frank’s logic is that if the bomb broke their will by convincing them that no invasion would occur, that their hopes of dealing the enemy one last, bloody blow were dashed, then it was not the use of the bomb that convinced these three men, but merely its existence. A demonstration would have had the same effect. It would have shown the hard-liners that no invasion was imminent—the Allies would be using the atomic bomb instead. Frank inadvertently provides an argument against his primary claim that the bombs were necessary to compel Japan’s surrender. Their existence might have been—but not their use on thousands of human beings. By Frank’s logic, Japan’s hard-liners required only the knowledge of the bomb’s existence and its power.
Like Frank, Thomas maintains that any delay in the dropping of the second bomb would have strengthened the hand of the hard-liners. This argument, too, seems doubtful. The Soviets declared war on Japan the same day that the Americans dropped the second bomb, Aug. 9. The historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has argued that it was the Soviet entry that actually produced Japan’s surrender, as it made the prospect of winning the war or even gaining better terms implausible. Whether Hasegawa is correct or not, the Americans could have waited a few more days after Hiroshima to see if the Soviet entry led to surrender. Of course, Truman did not determine when to drop the second bomb. This power had previously been granted to the military, which decided when exactly to use the two atomic bombs in their arsenal.
At the book’s close, Thomas tells us about his grandfather, a young soldier in the Pacific who likely would have been part of an invasion force sent to Japan. The atomic bombs, it is believed, spared him and unknown thousands more from a bloody battle. “Thank God for the atom bomb” became the cry of the day. Thomas freely admits that the truth is more complex, yet his conviction that the bombs, both of them, were necessary remains unshaken.
Nearly 80 years since the war ended, with all the documents and debates that followed, we still cannot answer definitively the three most important questions about Japan’s surrender: Were the atomic bombs ethical, necessary or wise? The more one knows about the issues, the less clear-cut they appear. Logic requires us to conclude that we do not know the answers, but uncertainty is deeply unsatisfying. It is also not a position likely to garner attention or fame, or place one in the midst of polarized debates. It is, however, the intellectually honest answer to a morally muddled moment in our troubled modern age.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.