Truman and the Bomb
December 23, 2013
Of late, I have been reading a book entitled The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, by Gar Alperovitz. It makes for fascinating reading although it is a bit too detailed and repetitive for my tastes. Of course, Alperovitz’s argument is that the idea that using the atomic bomb against Japan was a “military necessity” is a myth, one created by those who controlled the bomb and decided to use it against two Japanese cities.
It is, Alperovitz makes clear, to almost everyone now and was clear to almost everyone in 1945, including those most responsible for using the bomb, Harry Truman and James F. Byrnes, that Japan was on the brink of surrender, was looking for a way to surrender, and would have surrendered in a few months after the Russians had entered the war against Japan or the United States had agreed to “clarify” what “unconditional surrender” meant. The Japanese were holding out for reassurances that the Emperor would be preserved and would not be charged with war crimes. And Truman, for a while after becoming president, was moving in this direction but then changed course and this despite the fact that almost all of his advisors were in favor of such a clarification. Even the higher ranking members of the military branches did not think using the bomb was militarily necessary, but, most strangely, they were not consulted for their opinions.
So why did Truman decide to use the bomb? Interestingly, Alperovitz concludes that there is no really clear answer to this question and that several proposed answers are not persuasive. For example, some have argued that Truman was afraid of a political, read popular, backlash were he to appear to compromise with the Japs, as all officials called them then. But this argument is a stretch, to say the least. Moreover, as noted above, Truman knew that the Japanese were on the brink of surrender and probably would have if only he had been willing to protect the Emperor.
So, why did Truman use the bomb? Apparently, it had something to do with post war concerns, especially concerns about the Soviet Union and how it would be possible to deal with it in order to prevent the spread of communism, especially throughout Europe. But even this reasoning is less than explanatory insofar as there were other ways to impress upon the Russians the power of this “new explosive,” as it was called.
I am tempted to speculate that there is something about government, as we moderns know it, or something about what we call “executive power” that facilitated Truman’s decision to use the bomb. What this “something” is, however, I cannot say but suspect that “government” masks and, hence, facilitates extremism, especially an extremism in the use of power. As Alperovitz points out, basing his observations on the reports of those who were in contact with Truman on the day and in the days following the successful testing of “S1”, as it was labeled, there was a kind of giddiness in Truman’s manner, almost as if Truman was using drugs.
From the diary of Stimson, the Secretary of War: “I then went to the “Little White House” [used during the Potsdam Conference] and saw President Truman. I asked him to call in Secretary [of State] Byrnes and then I read the report [from General Groves of the successful test] in its entirety and we then discussed it. They were immensely pleased. The President was tremendously pepped up by it and spoke to me of it again and again when I saw him.” [p. 250]
And then this from Truman’s journal for July 25th: “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.” [ibid.] And from Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell: “The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying….” And from physicist Ernest O. Lawrence: “The grand, indeed almost cataclysmic proportion of the explosion produced a kind of solemnity in everyone’s behavior immediately afterwards. There was restrained applause, but more a hushed murmuring bordering on reverence in manner as the event was commented upon….” [p. 251]
An event of biblical proportions, as it were, left those witnessing it feeling reverence and awe, while it left Truman, who would wield this new power, “the most terrible bomb in the history of the world,” feeling “pepped up.” Even Winston Churchill noticed, without yet knowing why as he had not been informed of the successful test, a change in Truman’s behavior at the conference.
Again, to Stimson’s diary: “He [Churchill] told me that he had noticed at the meeting of the Three [Stalin, Churchill and Truman] yesterday that Truman was evidently much fortified by something that had happened and that he stood up to the Russians in a most emphatic and decisive manner…..Now I know what happened to Truman yesterday.” [p. 260] And in fact, according to the diary of Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the British General Imperial Staff, Churchill succumbed to the same feelings: “[The Prime Minister] had absorbed all the minor American exaggerations….and, as a result, was completely carried away….The secret of this explosive and the power to use it would completely alter the diplomatic equilibrium which was adrift since the defeat of Germany….” [p. 260]
Let me add what I think is important: The “new explosive” did not create the feelings that Truman and Churchill displayed here. Rather, it gave them what they thought would be the opportunity to satisfy those feelings. That is, if given the opportunity, Truman and Churchill wanted to and would “lord it over” the Russians – and any other nation, by the way. And it is this feeling, this desire that “government” reveals in the souls of human beings: The feeling, the desire to rule others, to lord it over others, by exercising “governmental power.” “Government” legitimizes those who seek to lord it over others.