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Weekly Standard: Why Truman Dropped the Bomb


Click here to download an August 6, 2005 press release from the surviving crew members of the Enola Gay

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
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
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 
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‚s 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 
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 
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.
© Copyright 2005, , Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved.                                       











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