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August 07, 2005

Hiroshima

Kevin Drum actually finds something well worth reading in the Weekly Standard:

Why Truman Dropped the Bomb: Sixty years after Hiroshima, we now have the secret intercepts that shaped his decision: ...The critics [of Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb] 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.... These rival narratives clashed in a major battle over the exhibition of the Enola Gay.... Since then, however, a sheaf of new archival discoveries and publications has expanded our understanding of the events of August 1945....

By far the most important single body of this new evidence consists of secret radio intelligence material.... In the aftermath of [the] disastrous surprise attack [on Pearl Harbor], 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.... 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.)... 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 "Magic" Far East Summary presented information on Japan's military, naval, and air situation.... [A] page in the critics' canon emphasized a squad of Japanese diplomats in Europe, from Sweden to the Vatican, who attempted to become peace entrepreneurs.... 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... 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... to enlist the Soviets as mediators to negotiate an end to the war satisfactory to the Big Six.... 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... 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....

[T]he release of the complete (unredacted) "Magic" Far East Summary... 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... 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....

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....

[I]t is now clear that the long-held belief that Operation Olympic loomed as a certainty is mistaken.... 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... 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....

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 [ruling elite] 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.... 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.

Posted by DeLong at August 7, 2005 07:45 PM