”Five Days in August” is a serious and fresh examination of how the decision to drop the first nuclear bomb was made, and of the bomb’s role in ending World War II. Its novel thesis is that President Harry Truman’s decision to drop Little Boy on Hiroshima was not rooted in detailed and careful calculation, but rather was the result of a series of not fully examined assumptions and faulty technical information about the impact of the bomb. Truman and his closest advisers suffered from these miscalculations.
To put it starkly, the sheer speed of technical atomic development and the uncertainty of how the bomb would work made rational and deliberate decision-making difficult.
The conventional wisdom among historians and other scholars is that Truman quickly made the decision to drop the bomb (originally intended for Nazi Germany) primarily to provoke Japan’s surrender so that the massive American forces poised to invade would be spared the expected bloodbath of perhaps a million-plus people, mostly Japanese civilians but including thousands of U.S. and British POWs in Japan.
A second and not fully examined reason for dropping the bomb was to prevent the Russians, who joined the Pacific war at the last minute, from gaining territorial concessions and political prestige as spoils of war.
The author, Michael D. Gordin, who teaches the history of science at Princeton University, is a meticulous scholar who writes with rare clarity and precision, a virtue also evident in his index and detailed footnotes that together total 64 pages.
Mr. Gordin’s almost breathtaking thesis is that there was widespread confusion among Truman’s top advisers about what military and political effects the first atomic bomb might have, if it worked at all. They feared that neither it nor a second bomb would explode as planned. Some anticipated the need for a third bomb. They were confused about the nature of the atom bomb, and they could not agree on whether it was a unique weapon or only a dramatic extension of conventional explosives.
Mr. Gordin also argues that neither Truman nor his advisers fully comprehended the probable military and political impact. Washington and its key allies were stunned by the quick surrender of Tokyo. Following the Hiroshima attack on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki three days later, Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, called them the essential “one-two punch.”
In his concluding “Coda: On the Scholarly Literature,” Mr. Gordin defines how his approach differs from that of previous scholars who have delved into the vast accumulation of documents on events and intentions surrounding Hiroshima. In his own words, two key questions remain unanswered. “What was President Harry S. Truman’s intent in using the bomb? And what ended World War II? … We simply have too few reliable contemporary reports to assess Truman’s decision-making process fully.”
The intentions of top Japanese leaders are even less ascertainable. We know Tokyo had ended the war, writes Mr. Gordin, but we don’t know the full intentions of Tokyo’s top officials because “before U.S. troops arrived to begin the occupation, all Japanese government and military records, including files on Japanese-held POWs, were ‘burned in anticipation of future war crimes trials.’”
Such uncertainties are of interest to scholars and historians, but less so to laymen. Yet at the very least, there is one lesson for future scholars attempting to get at the heart of how statesmen make the fateful decisions of war and peace. Mr. Gordin’s painstaking work suggests that both the present and future will be better served by providing more information to policymakers, a goal already partly achieved by the near ubiquity of computerized records.
In any event we do know with certainty what Emperor Hirohito said the day after Nagasaki was obliterated. Siding with the Japanese government’s “peace faction,” he said with exquisite understatement that the war had “developed in ways not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
In the final analysis this provocative book is about history and how those in the present can learn from the past. As George Orwell once said, “History is written by winners.” He was too cynical, because losers also have futures, and even remarkable ones, which Japan has amply demonstrated.
Ernest W. Lefever, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is author of “America’s Imperial Burden: Is the Past Prologue?”
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