[Editor's Note: I'm beyond delighted to introduce Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., who we've asked to join us as one of Ricochet's resident historians. Professor of History at Notre Dame University, Fr. Bill's expertise lies in the subject of American foreign policy since World War II. You can find a full listing of the books he's authored on his profile page.]
If the past is any guide the upcoming anniversaries of the use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945, will prompt the publication of a range of opinion pieces fiercely critical of the American actions. It will be alleged that the Japanese really were right on the verge of surrender before the atomic bombs were used, and that President Harry Truman and his associates knew this. Further, it will be argued that the atomic bombings should be understood less as a means to bring World War II to an end by forcing Japan’s surrender and more as the opening salvo in the Cold War and intended primarily to influence and to intimidate the Soviet Union.
In anticipation of such flawed arguments let me offer to Ricochet readers the essential conclusions of my recent study: The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs and the Defeat of Japan (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Firstly, the principal motive for the American use of the devastating new weapon lay in a potent mix of desire to force Japan’s surrender and to save American lives. Secondly, the atomic bombs contributed decisively in forcing that eventual surrender and in bringing the brutal war to an end prior to any costly invasion of the Japanese home islands. Furthermore, while the A-Bomb was never entirely separated from considerations of postwar international politics, the decision to use the weapon was not driven by these concerns. The atomic bombs were used primarily for a military purpose, and they proved effective in inflicting defeat on the Japanese.
We must be clear that Truman and his associates did not seek “alternatives” to using the atomic bombs, but viable and less costly options that might have proved successful cannot be identified with any certainty--even in retrospect and when far removed from the pressures Truman was under in 1945. This is largely the position that Truman held from 1945 onwards. Ultimately, he proved far more reliable than the host of his subsequent revisionist critics.
(In a subsequent post I will address issues surrounding the morality of using the atomic bombs.)