Truman’s Hiroshima dilema rumbles down the decades

Future generations will judge these dire decisions

WASHINGTON – Military masterstroke or crime against humanity? President Harry S. Truman’s decision to unleash the horror of nuclear war on Japan in 1945 sparked one of history’s most fierce debates. Now, as the 60th anniversary nears of the twin atomic bomb strikes in the final days of World War II, there is new scrutiny of the reasoning that led to the first, and only use in anger of the ultimate weapon.

The human carnage alone demands historical re-examination: 140,000 were killed after Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, and 70,000 at Nagasaki three days later. Thousands more died from the after-effects of radiation in subsequent years. The conventional view has been that once Truman had the bomb, (after a successful test in July 1945) he had no option but to drop it to forestall what was predicted to be a bloody and prolonged invasion of Japan.

“We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans,” Truman told Americans in a radio address on August 9, 1945.

Contemporary military estimates suggest that at least a quarter of a million allied soldiers might have died in an invasion and prolonged battle for Japan — a steep price after six years of total war.

British prime minister Winston Churchill made his case for posterity, and to parliament on August 16, 1945, rebuking those who said “rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American, and a quarter of a million British lives.”

“Future generations will judge these dire decisions, and I believe … they will not condemn those who struggled for their benefit amid the horrors and miseries of this gruesome and ferocious epoch.”

A suspicion of revenge also emerges in papers from the period, and the idea that Japanese imperial rulers, who attacked Pearl Harbor without warning, understood nothing but the brutal language of force. “When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast,” Truman wrote in August 1945 in a blunt letter to Samuel Calvert, a Christian religious leader who had complained about the human toll of the atom bomb.

Nevertheless, Truman’s correspondence does reveal concern about the plight of civilians caught in the bomb’s terrible path: Truman often refers to Hiroshima as a “military base” though whether he truly believed it to be so, or was trying to placate his own conscience has always been in debate.

Modern day critics of Truman’s decision have often been depicted as taking events surrounding Hiroshima out of context, of disregarding the fatigue and desperation of people willing an end to the most terrible conflict in history.

But even at the time of the atom bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was clear dissention in the United States over the bomb’s use.