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An Open Letter to President Obama on Hiroshima

Dear Mister President:

I have read that you will soon be visiting Hiroshima where you plan to say something about dropping the first atomic bomb. I thought you might be interested in hearing from someone who has been involved with that awful reality in several surprising ways.

I joined the U.S. Navy in the spring of 1945. After I left boot camp, I was assigned to begin training that would make me the operator of a landing craft. No doubt you’ve seen these fragile ships. The casualty rate among the crews was high. In our case it was almost certain to be extremely high. We were told that we would participate in the invasion of Japan. We had seen how fiercely the Japanese resisted seaborne assaults on various Pacific islands, especially Okinawa, where kamikaze pilots – suicide bombers with wings – also became part of their weaponry. In public most of us played tough sailors and worked hard at acquiring the necessary skills. But in private most of us knew we had received a near death sentence.

You can imagine our reaction when we awoke on the morning of August 6, and learned that the Army Air Force had dropped a bomb on Hiroshima that was so powerful, it virtually guaranteed Japan’s surrender. The celebrations in and around our barracks were wild. No one stopped to think of how many Japanese had been killed. The war had become a murderous business long before we reached this apparent climax. Almost all of us were in our teens. I was 17. Sympathy did not figure strongly in our emotions, compared to the realization that we might live, after all. With somewhat less intensity, I think this emotion was shared by the millions of American parents of the soldiers and sailors who were also preparing for the invasion.

Hiroshima did not produce a Japanese surrender. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Only then did the Japanese agree to talk peace. Nineteen years later, I was an historian with several successful books on my record. I was at West Point, writing a history of the US Military Academy. One of the first men I met was the head of the Association of Graduates, Lieutenant General Leslie Groves. During the war, he had led the Los Alamos project that built the atomic bombs. The general talked freely to me about his role in the process. Aside from keeping the whole incredibly complex operation on schedule, he was proudest of his insistence that we would have to build more than one bomb. Many of the scientists involved were so horrified by the weapon that they thought it would be immoral to make more than one. Groves calmly informed them that it would take at least two bombs to make the Japanese surrender. “Can you imagine how ruinous it would have been, if we had only made one bomb?” he asked me. “We would have looked like fools. The Japanese would have been encouraged to fight to the death.”

Fifteen years later, I was in independence, Missouri, talking to ex- President Harry S Truman, the man who made the decision to drop the bomb. I was working on his biography, in collaboration with his daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel. Mr. Truman told me the story of how he came to drop the bomb. It was much more complicated than I imagined it would be.

Not long after Franklin D Roosevelt died and Truman became president, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the United States turned its full attention to the war with Japan. Mr. Truman discussed the situation with the White House staff he had inherited from FDR. They told him that Japan was defeated, but Tokyo refused to surrender unconditionally. Mr. Truman said that did not bother him in the least. He would be happy to negotiate a reasonable peace with them. He had never approved of the doctrine of unconditional surrender, which FDR had concocted in 1942 to make us sound more formidable to the Germans. It had only intensified the Nazis’ determination to resist, even when they knew the war had been lost. Millions of men and women had died by prolonging the war.

The entire White House staff rose in fury at Mr. Truman’s statement. They told the new president that if he abandoned unconditional surrender, he would be guilty of stabbing the Democratic Party in the back. The voters would never forgive him. Meanwhile the Army and the Navy were planning the invasion of Japan. They warned the president it would be an immense bloodbath, perhaps a half million American casualties and three or four times that number of Japanese.

With great reluctance, Mr. Truman authorized the use of the bomb on Hiroshima. It seemed to him the lesser of the two evils. It would save American as well as Japanese lives. As General Groves predicted in a memorandum to the president, Japan did not surrender after Hiroshima. The president had to authorize the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki. Only then did Emperor Hirohito call on his army and navy to cease fighting. Preserving Japan was more important than victory.

In the opening negotiations the Japanese urged the United States to let them retain Hirohito as their emperor. Without his supposedly divine voice, it might be impossible to persuade a majority of their people to accept peace. Although this proposal violated the principle of unconditional surrender, President Truman agreed. On August 29, General Douglas MacArthur and his staff flew to Japan with the Eleventh Airborne Division and were received peacefully. A formal surrender took place on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri on September 2.

The American occupation that followed the surrender was unique in world history. Although a few war criminals were punished, the emphasis was on transforming Japan from a feudal oligarchy into a reasonably democratic country. It succeeded beyond almost everyone’s hopes and today remains an achievement worthy of admiration. This improbable outcome of the savage war with its atomic climax seems to me worthy of comment and even of praise.