THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL DECISION:TRUMAN, THE ATOMIC BOMBS AND THE DEFEAT OF JAPAN
By Wilson D. Miscamble
Cambridge University Press, $24.99, 192 pages
Ever since the 1960s, revisionist historians and religious leaders have condemned President Harry S. Truman’s use of the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan in August 1945. However, in “The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan,” the Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, writes, “There was not an easily available and appropriate option that would have met the serious political and moral objections of many later critics of Truman’s decision.” Not only does Father Miscamble’s research exonerate Truman, but it lays a seedbed for questions about the contemporary use of nuclear weapons where, until now, even the angels have not dared to tread.
Anyone dealing with moral issues realizes that context is everything. In this groundbreaking study, Father Miscamble ably reconstructs the scenario that led Truman to authorize the use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 66 years ago. He says, if simply “evaluated in isolation, each atomic bombing assuredly was a deeply immoral act deserving of condemnation.” Realistically, however, Father Miscamble believes that efforts to “evaluate [Truman’s] actions retrospectively in explicit moral terms is insufficient.” He maintains that the political-military aspect of the situation is crucial in determining the rightness of Truman’s decision.
Father Miscamble rebuffs those revisionist historians who, years later, proposed that other less drastic measures for victory could have been used. “The on-the-ground reality of a Japanese military ‘girding for Armageddon’ and convinced ‘that it could achieve success against an invasion,’ must be well appreciated by all who genuinely seek to understand why atomic bombs were used. In short, Japan hardly stood on the verge of military defeat. The time has come at long last to explode permanently the myth of a Japan ready to surrender.”
In making his decision, Father Miscamble writes, Truman acted in concert with the best advice of his generals in the field. In evaluating the possible invasion of the Japanese home islands, it was determined that the “odds were against the invaders because the defenders would soon equal or outnumber the attackers on the beaches.”
In light of this, “In such circumstances none of the American military leaders either in the Pacific theater or in Washington cautioned Truman to reconsider his use of the atomic bomb. The reality was quite the opposite. Apprised of the bloody carnage that awaited his invading force Gen. [George C.] Marshall even asked [Manhattan Project head] Leslie Groves in late July about the feasibility of using atomic bombs as tactical weapons to diminish the Japanese resistance on Kyushu.
Truman was warned that a land invasion could cost from half a million to a million American lives.
The Japanese strategy was Ketsu-Go, or Decisive Operation. It entailed island-to-island combat designed to wear down American morale so that they could negotiate favorable terms to end the war. This would effectively nullify the Potsdam Declaration, which demanded Japan’s unconditional surrender. The fact is, Father Miscamble writes, that even after the second bomb was dropped, many high officials in the Japanese government and military wanted to continue the war. “Hard as it may be to accept when one sees the visual record of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses probably would have been substantially greater without the atomic bombs.”
Father Miscamble presents Truman as being secure with his decision to drop the bombs. But this does not mean he was not troubled by the loss of life, especially to nonmilitary personnel. In 1948 Truman stated, “I don’t think we ought to use this thing [the atomic bomb] unless we have to. … You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. … It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently.”
Father Miscamble contends that warfare had already changed before the use of nuclear weapons. Civilian populations were already seen as part of a nation’s “war machine” because they produced the materiel that supplied the war effort. The prior nonnuclear bombings of European cities, he writes, already established the precedent that included the collateral damage of noncombatants. In light of this, the question must be asked: Does this compromise the principle of the traditional just-war theory that protects civilians? And is the theory in need of updating?
Another more important question remains: May the atomic bomb be used today to prevent some greater evil to a state? Of course, certain uses of a strategic nuclear weapon would be inconceivable because the bomb would destroy countless innocents. However, might it be permissible to use a tactical nuclear weapon on a military target to stop the aggression of a rogue state or terrorist organization? For example, would Israel be justified in using such a weapon to stop Arab aggression that could destroy the Jewish state? I would suggest, as Father Miscamble proposes, that the context would be the key.
Some contend that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. However, from Father Miscamble’s analysis, it can be argued that after World War II, the possession of nuclear weapons by nations has, in fact, acted as a deterrent to their use. If all world leaders were totally rational and if fanaticism did not exist, perhaps nations could disarm. But the argument that possession of nuclear weapons is in itself immoral does not bear up under the facts. Just as war is not evil if it is fought to re-establish a just order, so too it may be argued that nuclear weapons may be kept to maintain peace.
In writing this book, Father Miscamble has done us a great service. He effectively answers uninformed historians and challenges moralists who have denounced Truman and his decision to drop the atom bombs. Citing Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Father Miscamble holds that sometimes, unfortunately, in order to preserve the state, one may be forced to use a lesser evil to combat a greater evil. It is hard to disagree with his analysis and conclusions.
The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law.