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  • Owen Jones
    Dear Mr. Wagner, This article, taken from the current issue of Weekly Standard, may be of interest to the group, considering recent discussions. Why Truman
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2005
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      Dear Mr. Wagner,

      This article, taken from the current issue of Weekly Standard, may be of interest to the group, considering recent discussions.

      Why Truman Dropped the Bomb

      From the August 8, 2005 issue: Sixty years after Hiroshima, we now have the
      secret intercepts that shaped his decision.

      by Richard B. Frank

      08/08/2005, Volume 010, Issue 44

      The sixtieth anniversary of Hiroshima seems to be shaping up as a subdued
      affair--though not for any lack of significance. A survey of news editors in
      1999 ranked the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, first among
      the top one hundred stories of the twentieth century. And any thoughtful
      list of controversies in American history would place it near the top again.
      It was not always so. In 1945, an overwhelming majority of Americans
      regarded as a matter of course that the United States had used atomic bombs
      to end the Pacific war. They further believed that those bombs had actually
      ended the war and saved countless lives. This set of beliefs is now
      sometimes labeled by academic historians the "traditionalist" view. One
      unkindly dubbed it the "patriotic orthodoxy."

      But in the 1960s, what were previously modest and scattered challenges of
      the decision to use the bombs began to crystallize into a rival canon. The
      challengers were branded "revisionists," but this is inapt. Any historian
      who gains possession of significant new evidence has a duty to revise his
      appreciation of the relevant events. These challengers are better termed
      critics.

      The critics share three fundamental premises. The first is that Japan's
      situation in 1945 was catastrophically hopeless. The second is that Japan's
      leaders recognized that fact and were seeking to surrender in the summer of
      1945. The third is that thanks to decoded Japanese diplomatic messages,
      American leaders knew that Japan was about to surrender when they unleashed
      needless nuclear devastation. The critics divide over what prompted the
      decision to drop the bombs in spite of the impending surrender, with the
      most provocative arguments focusing on Washington's desire to intimidate the
      Kremlin. Among an important stratum of American society--and still more
      perhaps abroad--the critics' interpretation displaced the traditionalist
      view.

      These rival narratives clashed in a major battle over the exhibition of the
      Enola Gay, the airplane from which the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, at the
      Smithsonian Institution in 1995. That confrontation froze many people's
      understanding of the competing views. Since then, however, a sheaf of new
      archival discoveries and publications has expanded our understanding of the
      events of August 1945. This new evidence requires serious revision of the
      terms of the debate. What is perhaps the most interesting feature of the new
      findings is that they make a case President Harry S. Truman deliberately
      chose not to make publicly in defense of his decision to use the bomb.

      When scholars began to examine the archival records in the 1960s, some
      intuited quite correctly that the accounts of their decision-making that
      Truman and members of his administration had offered in 1945 were at least
      incomplete. And if Truman had refused to disclose fully his thinking, these
      scholars reasoned, it must be because the real basis for his choices would
      undermine or even delegitimize his decisions. It scarcely seemed plausible
      to such critics--or to almost anyone else--that there could be any
      legitimate reason that the U.S. government would have concealed at the time,
      and would continue to conceal, powerful evidence that supported and
      explained the president's decisions.

      But beginning in the 1970s, we have acquired an array of new evidence from
      Japan and the United States. By far the most important single body of this
      new evidence consists of secret radio intelligence material, and what it
      highlights is the painful dilemma faced by Truman and his administration. In
      explaining their decisions to the public, they deliberately forfeited their
      best evidence. They did so because under the stringent security restrictions
      guarding radio intercepts, recipients of this intelligence up to and
      including the president were barred from retaining copies of briefing
      documents, from making any public reference to them whatsoever at the time
      or in their memoirs, and from retaining any record of what they had seen or
      what they had concluded from it. With a handful of exceptions, they obeyed
      these rules, both during the war and thereafter.

      Collectively, the missing information is known as The Ultra Secret of World
      War II (after the title of a breakthrough book by Frederick William
      Winterbotham published in 1974). Ultra was the name given to what became a
      vast and enormously efficient Allied radio intelligence organization, which
      secretly unveiled masses of information for senior policymakers. Careful
      listening posts snatched copies of millions of cryptograms from the air.
      Code breakers then extracted the true text. The extent of the effort is
      staggering. By the summer of 1945, Allied radio intelligence was breaking
      into a million messages a month from the Japanese Imperial Army alone, and
      many thousands from the Imperial Navy and Japanese diplomats.

      All of this effort and expertise would be squandered if the raw intercepts
      were not properly translated and analyzed and their disclosures distributed
      to those who needed to know. This is where Pearl Harbor played a role. In
      the aftermath of that disastrous surprise attack, Secretary of War Henry
      Stimson recognized that the fruits of radio intelligence were not being
      properly exploited. He set Alfred McCormack, a top-drawer lawyer with
      experience in handling complex cases, to the task of formulating a way to
      manage the distribution of information from Ultra. The system McCormack
      devised called for funneling all radio intelligence to a handful of
      extremely bright individuals who would evaluate the flood of messages,
      correlate them with all other sources, and then write daily summaries for
      policymakers.

      By mid-1942, McCormack's scheme had evolved into a daily ritual that
      continued to the end of the war--and is in essence the system still in
      effect today. Every day, analysts prepared three mimeographed newsletters.
      Official couriers toting locked pouches delivered one copy of each summary
      to a tiny list of authorized recipients around the Washington area. (They
      also retrieved the previous day's distribution, which was then destroyed
      except for a file copy.) Two copies of each summary went to the White House,
      for the president and his chief of staff. Other copies went to a very select
      group of officers and civilian officials in the War and Navy Departments,
      the British Staff Mission, and the State Department. What is almost as
      interesting is the list of those not entitled to these top-level summaries:
      the vice president, any cabinet official outside the select few in the War,
      Navy, and State Departments, anyone in the Office of Strategic Services or
      the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or anyone in the Manhattan Project
      building the atomic bomb, from Major General Leslie Groves on down.

      The three daily summaries were called the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary, the
      "Magic" Far East Summary, and the European Summary. ("Magic" was a code word
      coined by the U.S. Army's chief signal officer, who called his code breakers
      "magicians" and their product "Magic." The term "Ultra" came from the
      British and has generally prevailed as the preferred term among historians,
      but in 1945 "Magic" remained the American designation for radio
      intelligence, particularly that concerning the Japanese.) The "Magic"
      Diplomatic Summary covered intercepts from foreign diplomats all over the
      world. The "Magic" Far East Summary presented information on Japan's
      military, naval, and air situation. The European Summary paralleled the Far
      East summary in coverage and need not detain us. Each summary read like a
      newsmagazine. There were headlines and brief articles usually containing
      extended quotations from intercepts and commentary. The commentary was
      critical: Since no recipient retained any back issues, it was up to the
      editors to explain how each day's developments fitted into the broader
      picture.

      When a complete set of the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary for the war years was
      first made public in 1978, the text contained a large number of redacted
      (literally whited out) passages. The critics reasonably asked whether the
      blanks concealed devastating revelations. Release of a nonredacted complete
      set in 1995 disclosed that the redacted areas had indeed contained a
      devastating revelation--but not about the use of the atomic bombs. Instead,
      the redacted areas concealed the embarrassing fact that Allied radio
      intelligence was reading the codes not just of the Axis powers, but also of
      some 30 other governments, including allies like France.

      The diplomatic intercepts included, for example, those of neutral diplomats
      or attach├ęs stationed in Japan. Critics highlighted a few nuggets from this
      trove in the 1978 releases, but with the complete release, we learned that
      there were only 3 or 4 messages suggesting the possibility of a compromise
      peace, while no fewer than 13 affirmed that Japan fully intended to fight to
      the bitter end. Another page in the critics' canon emphasized a squad of
      Japanese diplomats in Europe, from Sweden to the Vatican, who attempted to
      become peace entrepreneurs in their contacts with American officials. As the
      editors of the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary correctly made clear to American
      policymakers during the war, however, not a single one of these men (save
      one we will address shortly) possessed actual authority to act for the
      Japanese government.

      An inner cabinet in Tokyo authorized Japan's only officially sanctioned
      diplomatic initiative. The Japanese dubbed this inner cabinet the Big Six
      because it comprised just six men: Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, Foreign
      Minister Shigenori Togo, Army Minister Korechika Anami, Navy Minister
      Mitsumasa Yonai, and the chiefs of staff of the Imperial Army (General
      Yoshijiro Umezu) and Imperial Navy (Admiral Soemu Toyoda). In complete
      secrecy, the Big Six agreed on an approach to the Soviet Union in June 1945.
      This was not to ask the Soviets to deliver a "We surrender" note; rather, it
      aimed to enlist the Soviets as mediators to negotiate an end to the war
      satisfactory to the Big Six--in other words, a peace on terms satisfactory
      to the dominant militarists. Their minimal goal was not confined to
      guaranteed retention of the Imperial Institution; they also insisted on
      preservation of the old militaristic order in Japan, the one in which they
      ruled.

      The conduit for this initiative was Japan's ambassador in Moscow, Naotake
      Sato. He communicated with Foreign Minister Togo--and, thanks to code
      breaking, with American policymakers. Ambassador Sato emerges in the
      intercepts as a devastating cross-examiner ruthlessly unmasking for history
      the feebleness of the whole enterprise. Sato immediately told Togo that the
      Soviets would never bestir themselves on behalf of Japan. The foreign
      minister could only insist that Sato follow his instructions. Sato demanded
      to know whether the government and the military supported the overture and
      what its legal basis was--after all, the official Japanese position, adopted
      in an Imperial Conference in June 1945 with the emperor's sanction, was a
      fight to the finish. The ambassador also demanded that Japan state concrete
      terms to end the war, otherwise the effort could not be taken seriously.
      Togo responded evasively that the "directing powers" and the government had
      authorized the effort--he did not and could not claim that the military in
      general supported it or that the fight-to-the-end policy had been replaced.
      Indeed, Togo added: "Please bear particularly in mind, however, that we are
      not seeking the Russians' mediation for anything like an unconditional
      surrender."

      This last comment triggered a fateful exchange. Critics have pointed out
      correctly that both Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew (the former U.S.
      ambassador to Japan and the leading expert on that nation within the
      government) and Secretary of War Henry Stimson advised Truman that a
      guarantee that the Imperial Institution would not be eliminated could prove
      essential to obtaining Japan's surrender. The critics further have argued
      that if only the United States had made such a guarantee, Japan would have
      surrendered. But when Foreign Minister Togo informed Ambassador Sato that
      Japan was not looking for anything like unconditional surrender, Sato
      promptly wired back a cable that the editors of the "Magic" Diplomatic
      Summary made clear to American policymakers "advocate[s] unconditional
      surrender provided the Imperial House is preserved." Togo's reply, quoted in
      the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary of July 22, 1945, was adamant: American
      policymakers could read for themselves Togo's rejection of Sato's
      proposal--with not even a hint that a guarantee of the Imperial House would
      be a step in the right direction. Any rational person following this
      exchange would conclude that modifying the demand for unconditional
      surrender to include a promise to preserve the Imperial House would not
      secure Japan's surrender.

      Togo's initial messages--indicating that the emperor himself endorsed the
      effort to secure Soviet mediation and was prepared to send his own special
      envoy--elicited immediate attention from the editors of the "Magic"
      Diplomatic Summary, as well as Under Secretary of State Grew. Because of
      Grew's documented advice to Truman on the importance of the Imperial
      Institution, critics feature him in the role of the sage counsel. What the
      intercept evidence discloses is that Grew reviewed the Japanese effort and
      concurred with the U.S. Army's chief of intelligence, Major General Clayton
      Bissell, that the effort most likely represented a ploy to play on American
      war weariness. They deemed the possibility that it manifested a serious
      effort by the emperor to end the war "remote." Lest there be any doubt about
      Grew's mindset, as late as August 7, the day after Hiroshima, Grew drafted a
      memorandum with an oblique reference to radio intelligence again affirming
      his view that Tokyo still was not close to peace.

      Starting with the publication of excerpts from the diaries of James
      Forrestal in 1951, the contents of a few of the diplomatic intercepts were
      revealed, and for decades the critics focused on these. But the release of
      the complete (unredacted) "Magic" Far East Summary, supplementing the
      Diplomatic Summary, in the 1990s revealed that the diplomatic messages
      amounted to a mere trickle by comparison with the torrent of military
      intercepts. The intercepts of Japanese Imperial Army and Navy messages
      disclosed without exception that Japan's armed forces were determined to
      fight a final Armageddon battle in the homeland against an Allied invasion.
      The Japanese called this strategy Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive). It was
      founded on the premise that American morale was brittle and could be
      shattered by heavy losses in the initial invasion. American politicians
      would then gladly negotiate an end to the war far more generous than
      unconditional surrender. Ultra was even more alarming in what it revealed
      about Japanese knowledge of American military plans. Intercepts demonstrated
      that the Japanese had correctly anticipated precisely where U.S. forces
      intended to land on Southern Kyushu in November 1945 (Operation Olympic).
      American planning for the Kyushu assault reflected adherence to the military
      rule of thumb that the attacker should outnumber the defender at least three
      to one to assure success at a reasonable cost. American estimates projected
      that on the date of the landings, the Japanese would have only three of
      their six field divisions on all of Kyushu in the southern target area where
      nine American divisions would push ashore. The estimates allowed that the
      Japanese would possess just 2,500 to 3,000 planes total throughout Japan to
      face Olympic. American aerial strength would be over four times greater.

      From mid-July onwards, Ultra intercepts exposed a huge military buildup on
      Kyushu. Japanese ground forces exceeded prior estimates by a factor of four.
      Instead of 3 Japanese field divisions deployed in southern Kyushu to meet
      the 9 U.S. divisions, there were 10 Imperial Army divisions plus additional
      brigades. Japanese air forces exceeded prior estimates by a factor of two to
      four. Instead of 2,500 to 3,000 Japanese aircraft, estimates varied between
      about 6,000 and 10,000. One intelligence officer commented that the Japanese
      defenses threatened "to grow to [the] point where we attack on a ratio of
      one (1) to one (1) which is not the recipe for victory."

      Concurrent with the publication of the radio intelligence material,
      additional papers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been released in the
      last decade. From these, it is clear that there was no true consensus among
      the Joint Chiefs of Staff about an invasion of Japan. The Army, led by
      General George C. Marshall, believed that the critical factor in achieving
      American war aims was time. Thus, Marshall and the Army advocated an
      invasion of the Home Islands as the fastest way to end the war. But the
      long-held Navy view was that the critical factor in achieving American war
      aims was casualties. The Navy was convinced that an invasion would be far
      too costly to sustain the support of the American people, and hence believed
      that blockade and bombardment were the sound course.

      The picture becomes even more complex than previously understood because it
      emerged that the Navy chose to postpone a final showdown over these two
      strategies. The commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, Admiral Ernest King,
      informed his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in April 1945 that he
      did not agree that Japan should be invaded. He concurred only that the Joint
      Chiefs must issue an invasion order immediately to create that option for
      the fall. But King predicted that the Joint Chiefs would revisit the issue
      of whether an invasion was wise in August or September. Meanwhile, two
      months of horrendous fighting ashore on Okinawa under skies filled with
      kamikazes convinced the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral
      Chester Nimitz, that he should withdraw his prior support for at least the
      invasion of Kyushu. Nimitz informed King of this change in his views in
      strict confidence.

      In August, the Ultra revelations propelled the Army and Navy towards a
      showdown over the invasion. On August 7 (the day after Hiroshima, which no
      one expected to prompt a quick surrender), General Marshall reacted to weeks
      of gathering gloom in the Ultra evidence by asking General Douglas
      MacArthur, who was to command what promised to be the greatest invasion in
      history, whether invading Kyushu in November as planned still looked
      sensible. MacArthur replied, amazingly, that he did not believe the radio
      intelligence! He vehemently urged the invasion should go forward as planned.
      (This, incidentally, demolishes later claims that MacArthur thought the
      Japanese were about to surrender at the time of Hiroshima.) On August 9 (the
      day the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki), King gathered the two
      messages in the exchange between Marshall and MacArthur and sent them to
      Nimitz. King told Nimitz to provide his views on the viability of invading
      Kyushu, with a copy to MacArthur. Clearly, nothing that had transpired since
      May would have altered Nimitz's view that Olympic was unwise. Ultra now made
      the invasion appear foolhardy to everyone but MacArthur. But King had not
      placed a deadline on Nimitz's response, and the Japanese surrender on August
      15 allowed Nimitz to avoid starting what was certain to be one of the most
      tumultuous interservice battles of the whole war.

      What this evidence illuminates is that one central tenet of the
      traditionalist view is wrong--but with a twist. Even with the full ration of
      caution that any historian should apply anytime he ventures comments on
      paths history did not take, in this instance it is now clear that the
      long-held belief that Operation Olympic loomed as a certainty is mistaken.
      Truman's reluctant endorsement of the Olympic invasion at a meeting in June
      1945 was based in key part on the fact that the Joint Chiefs had presented
      it as their unanimous recommendation. (King went along with Marshall at the
      meeting, presumably because he deemed it premature to wage a showdown fight.
      He did comment to Truman that, of course, any invasion authorized then could
      be canceled later.) With the Navy's withdrawal of support, the terrible
      casualties in Okinawa, and the appalling radio-intelligence picture of the
      Japanese buildup on Kyushu, Olympic was not going forward as planned and
      authorized--period. But this evidence also shows that the demise of Olympic
      came not because it was deemed unnecessary, but because it had become
      unthinkable. It is hard to imagine anyone who could have been president at
      the time (a spectrum that includes FDR, Henry Wallace, William O. Douglas,
      Harry Truman, and Thomas Dewey) failing to authorize use of the atomic bombs
      in this circumstance. Japanese historians uncovered another key element of
      the story. After Hiroshima (August 6), Soviet entry into the war against
      Japan (August 8), and Nagasaki (August 9), the emperor intervened to break a
      deadlock within the government and decide that Japan must surrender in the
      early hours of August 10. The Japanese Foreign Ministry dispatched a message
      to the United States that day stating that Japan would accept the Potsdam
      Declaration, "with the understanding that the said declaration does not
      comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a
      Sovereign Ruler." This was not, as critics later asserted, merely a humble
      request that the emperor retain a modest figurehead role. As Japanese
      historians writing decades after the war emphasized, the demand that there
      be no compromise of the "prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler"
      as a precondition for the surrender was a demand that the United States
      grant the emperor veto power over occupation reforms and continue the rule
      of the old order in Japan. Fortunately, Japan specialists in the State
      Department immediately realized the actual purpose of this language and
      briefed Secretary of State James Byrnes, who insisted properly that this
      maneuver must be defeated. The maneuver further underscores the fact that
      right to the very end, the Japanese pursued twin goals: not only the
      preservation of the imperial system, but also preservation of the old order
      in Japan that had launched a war of aggression that killed 17 million.

      This brings us to another aspect of history that now very belatedly has
      entered the controversy. Several American historians led by Robert Newman
      have insisted vigorously that any assessment of the end of the Pacific war
      must include the horrifying consequences of each continued day of the war
      for the Asian populations trapped within Japan's conquests. Newman
      calculates that between a quarter million and 400,000 Asians, overwhelmingly
      noncombatants, were dying each month the war continued. Newman et al.
      challenge whether an assessment of Truman's decision can highlight only the
      deaths of noncombatant civilians in the aggressor nation while ignoring much
      larger death tolls among noncombatant civilians in the victim nations.

      There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond
      the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics' central
      premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as
      catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing
      a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just
      a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American
      leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood--as one
      analytical piece in the "Magic" Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after
      a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts--that "until the
      Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is
      little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the
      Allies." This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of
      the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.

      The displacement of the so-called traditionalist view within important
      segments of American opinion took several decades to accomplish. It will
      take a similar span of time to displace the critical orthodoxy that arose in
      the 1960s and prevailed roughly through the 1980s, and replace it with a
      richer appreciation for the realities of 1945. But the clock is ticking.

      Richard B. Frank, a historian of World War II, is the author of Downfall:
      The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.

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