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This Knocks the Legs Out from Under the Atom Bomb Revisionists Who Criticize Truman for Hiroshima

The best way to get across the situation that Czarist Russia and then the Soviet Union faced in the Far East is to make it clear that the Maritime Provinces and their principal port, Vladivostok, were far, far more vulnerable than even the tenuous US position in the Philippines at the time of Pearl Harbor. The lifeline upon which so much depended for the Russians was the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the chief of the US Military Mission in Moscow, Major GeneralJohn R.Deane, did not mince words when describing the situation its limitations put the Soviets in:

"The Trans-Siberian railroad constitutes the bottleneck in the support of military operations in Siberia.  It is now double-tracked for most of its ten thousand miles, but there are still enough stretches of single track to reduce its capacity considerably. On its eastern end the roadbed is within a few miles of the northern and eastern borders of Manchuria, and it was therefore quite vulnerable to Japanese land and air attack. It has a number of bridges and tunnels the destruction of which would have indefinitely interrupted traffic between western Russia and the Maritime Provinces.  The only other source of supply was from across the Pacific, and it was reasonable to suppose that Japan would be able to blockade that route." 

It’s important to add that the Japanese did not have to limit their attacks to the most apparent spots and, as post-war studies demonstrated, they didn’t plan to. The rail line follows the giant arc of the Amur River, which forms the northern border of Manchuria, for more than 1,200 miles. Along most of this distance the tracks run a bare 30 to 35 miles from the river and as little as 10 to 15 along numerous stretches. Bridges and tunnels abound. Turning south, the railroad follows the river valley of the Ussuri 250 miles toward the Vladivostok area, all the while under easy observation --- and reach --- of the Japanese Army on the west bank.

The Soviets were painfully aware of all this and, despite great efforts, the line’s capacity, in relation to the Maritime Provinces’ increased needs, had changed only marginally in the decades since the Russo-Japanese War when it was blamed as a principal reason for the Russian defeat. Throughout the long US effort to bring the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, followed by the detailed coordination with them to ensure that they had what they needed for a full-blood offensive rather than one that was limited in nature, the Soviets repeatedly stressed the need for absolute secrecy lest the Japanese preempt everything by simply striking the rail line. At one point during an October 1944, meeting in Moscow, when rumors of the negotiations appeared in American newspapers, Stalin personally expressed his concern to USAmbassador Averell Harriman– General Deane used the word “berated” – and Harriman sent a somewhat diplomatically sanitized account to FDR:

“The need for utmost secrecy must be observed. The Marshal stated that he wished to explain why he was so insistent on security and caution. If there is any indiscretion he feared that information might leak out to the press which would cause the Japanese to embark on premature adventures as a result of which the valuable Vladivostok area might be lost. If Vladivostok were lost before major operations commenced, it would be extremely unfortunate for both countries.” 

Perhaps to soften the pummeling, Stalin added, “I am a cautious old man.”

Almost a year before at Tehran Stalin had surprised his Western allies by opening the conference with a statement that the Soviet Union would join them in their war against Japan after Germany’s capitulation. Now, during the Moscow negotiations, he reiterated that his Tehran pledge was “not empty words” and remarked that the US and Soviet strategic plans “were in coordination.” The United States would strike at “the industrial heart of Japan” while the Soviet Union would“break the Japanese spine.”

Imperial forces in Manchuria, Korea, and northern China, according to contemporary estimates, totaled 1,200,000 men and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had recently been briefed by Joint Strategic Survey chief Lieutenant GeneralStanley C. Embick that if the United States invaded Japan before a Soviet declaration of war,“a considerable part of [Japan]’s 800,000-man [Kwantung] army group would be transferred to the Home Islands and concentrated against the Americans. For obvious reasons, General Marshall was anxious to have the Soviets tie down the Kwantung before the launch of Operation Downfall and must have been relieved when informed of Stalin’s belief “that as soon as the Russians struck in the Manchurian-Mongolian regions, the Japanese would attempt to move troops [back] to Korea” and that he was determined that this retreat “must be cut off.” 

In a conference held the previous day Stalin maintained that “if stores could be built up now the attack could be made 2 or 3 months after Germany’s collapse” and stated that “planning should begin at once.” Throughout the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences as well as all the Moscow negotiations before and between them, the Soviets never deviated from this timetable which would serve as the basis for all military-to-military coordination between the two powers and an immediate jump in Lend Lease deliveries to the Soviet Union even though it would not be formally codified until months later at the Yalta Conference the following year.

Now Stalin, as noted earlier, was not advocating a spoiling attack to force the Japanese off balance but a knockout blow which would require a vastly larger level of support. To launch a crushing, multi-front offensive of this type so quickly after their forces defeated the Nazis in Europe, the Red Army would have to depend on the Americans to secretly supply much, and on some combat fronts, most of the food, fuel, war supplies, and even the trucks to move them both before and during the offensive. 

Russian cavalry pass a line of Lend Lease supplied M4A2 Sherman tanks during Soviet operations near Kharkov, 1943. After defeating the Nazis, hundreds of Shermans were shipped east for the invasion of Manchuria while others arrived factory fresh at the port of Vladivostok. (U.S. Army in Giangreco, Hell to Pay)

At an October 17 meeting in Moscow, Harriman and Deane were presented with a breathtakingly huge wish list which the United States moved immediately to fill under a secret expansion of the Lend Lease program. The program’s Fourth Protocol as written was essentially jettisoned in mid stream and its massive expansion geared toward offensive operations against Japan was codenamed “Milepost.” By this point in the war, material destined for the final battles with the Nazis and to support the Russian population was already ordered or in the pipeline. 

Jake Kipp and General Makhmut Akhmetevich Gareev outlined the opening request to support operations specifically against Japan: “The General Staff was particularly concerned with building up sufficient stockpiles to sustain combat operations in the Far East should the Maritime Provinces be cut off by Japanese surface, air, and submarine operations against the sea lines of communications with Vladivostok or by ground and air operations against the Trans-Siberian Railroad.”

To this end General Antonov handed to Deane a list of supplies and equipment that the Soviet Union wished to receive from the United States in order to support a theater offensive of 1,500,000 men, 3,000 tanks, 75,000 motor vehicles and 5,000 aircraft. The Soviet General Staff placed the total tonnage of this initial order to be moved by sea at 1,056,000 tons, which would require a sea lift of 96 merchant freighters and 14 tankers. And this was only the US down payment on the Soviet offensive.

Soviet participation in the war was now linked to the Western Allies vision of the end game’s attrition phase and the first ships with Milepost cargos arrived via the Crimean Lend Lease pipeline before the end of 1944. Soviet requirements escalated over the next few months and the United States put as much into motion as it could without compromising its own Pacific operations. Of incalculable value during the multi-front offensive into Manchuria were the more than 42,500 US trucks (including DUKWs), 1,100 tractor prime movers, 89 field repair trucks, 2,400 jeeps, 1,115 motorcycles, 336 C-47s, and 50 PBY Catalina flying boats. American tanks also played a prominent role in the offensive and supplementing the M4A2 Shermans on flatcar-loads from the European front were 92 shipped directly to Vladivostok aboard Liberty ships reflagged with Soviet colors to protect the fig leaf of continued Soviet neutrality. 

Said Kipp and Gareev: “These deliveries were the result of intense negotiations in which Stalin sought to guarantee the success of Soviet arms and the political recognition of his intended gains in the Far East. For the Americans these negotiations were matters of changing military priorities, dominated by the military demands of prosecuting the war against Japan to a speedy and less costly conclusion. Japanese intelligence, while aware of the trans-Pacific ship bridge to the Soviet Far East, did not note the increased volume of those ships in the last month of the War in Europe or in the months following the end of the war.”


Revelations of direct US support to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria are only the most recent blow to Revisionist contentions about the end of World War II, not that it matters much to these fellows. Some scholars have for years — indeed, decades — picked over the bones of every decision relating to the use of nuclear weapons against Imperial Japan. Every nuance of Truman’s most casual asides has been examined, parsed, and psychoanalyzed as critics of the decision have tried to prove that the president lied when he stated that the atom bombs were dropped in the hope that they would induce a defeated Japan to surrender before US forces — being gathered in the Pacific from as far away as the battlefields of Germany — were forced into a prolonged, bloody ground invasion. 

In 1945, however, Truman and his senior military and civilian advisors had no such luxury. The clock was ticking on the invasion countdown, and George M.Elsey, who handled the atomic bomb message traffic at Potsdam and worked closely with Truman throughout his presidency, later remarked: “You don’t sit down and take time to think through and debate ad nauseam all the points. You don’t have time. Later somebody can sit around for days and weeks and figure out how things might have been done differently. This is all very well and very interesting and quite irrelevant.”

The later examination of Truman’s decisions was further complicated because his critics had little knowledge of military historiography and even less of the language and assumptions that are standard features of what is produced by planning staffs. For example, some have promoted the idea that General Marshall’s staff believed an invasion of Japan essentially would have been a walk-over. To bolster their argument, they point to highly qualified — and limited — casualty projections in a variety of briefing documents produced in May and June 1945, roughly half a year before the invasion’s initial operation, Olympic, was to commence. The numbers in these documents, however, were not recognized for what they are, estimates of only the first thirty days of fighting. Consequently, they were grossly misrepresented by individuals with little understanding of how the estimates were made and exactly what they represented.

In effect, it is as if someone during World War II had come across casualty estimates for the invasion of Sicily and then declared that the numbers would represent losses from the entire Italian campaign — and then, having gone that far, announced with complete certitude that the numbers actually would represent likely casualties for the balance of the war with Germany. Of course, back then such a notion would be dismissed as laughably absurd, and the flow of battle would speedily move beyond the single event the original estimates — be they good or bad — were for.

And then there was the idea that the Japanese were just itching to surrender. Yes, some civilian elements within Japan’s ruling circle were determined to try to find a way to end the war before the US invasion was launched. Unfortunately, the militarists were in firm control of the government, and Japanese moderates had to tread gingerly for fear of arrest or assassination. 

In the summer of 1945, Emperor Hirohito requested that the Soviets accept Prince Konoye as a special envoy to discuss ways in which the war might be “quickly terminated.” But far from a coherent plea to the Soviets to help negotiate a surrender, the proposals were hopelessly vague and viewed by both Washington and Moscow as little more than a stalling tactic ahead of the Potsdam Conference to prevent Soviet military intervention, an intervention that Japanese leaders had known was coming ever since the Soviets’ recent cancellation of their Neutrality Pact with Japan and expected to occur the following year, 1946.

The subsequent exchange of diplomatic communications between Japan’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the Soviet Union has been characterized by some as evidence that the country was on the brink of calling it quits. However, American officials reading the secretly intercepted messages between Moscow and Tokyo could clearly see that the “defeatist” ideas of the ambassador received nothing more than stinging rebukes from his superior. The fanatical Japanese militarists retained their grip on the decision-making process until the simultaneous shocks of the atom bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August 1945 stampeded Japan’s leaders into an early capitulation.

Max Hastings has pointed out, "The myth that the Japanese were going to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing that some writers continue to give it credence." And former Air Force chief historian Stanley Falk is amazed that the authors of the award winning American Prometheus,Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin,“keep beating this dead horse.” Well, Bird and Sherwin and their ilk are confident that, except in rare instances, they won't have to address the fact that the horse is dead.

There is such a vast amount of material out there on this general subject area that they know most people will never be able to read it all and will functionally depend on "acknowledged experts" such as themselves. They believe --- with some justification --- that all they have to do is firmly maintain something and it will tend to be accepted at face value and made available to students by like thinkers and the lazy. That is also much of the reason that they attempt to ignore works like Hell to Pay. They try to deny their foes visibility in the hope that they will be marginalized and will either fade from view or, better yet, not be seen and considered in the first place. If the target audience doesn't actually know that the horse is dead, they will more readily take the word of the "award winning" Bird, Sherwin, Hasegawa, etc. It’s far harder for these fellows to pull this off in recent years than it was in, say, the '70s through about the mid-'90s, and their efforts are increasingly reminiscent of the old Monte Python skit where the store clerk tries to sell John Cleese a dead parrot. 

But back to the book’s newSoviet chapters. Barely a week goes by without someone asking incredulously: “How is it that this level of US-Soviet cooperation has remained unknown for so long?” And recently, Jim Hornfischer, author of The Fleet at Flood Tide, wrote to me about how easy it is to swerve into writing history “from a 1980s lens.” But in this particular case, the enormity of the US assistance to the invasion of Manchuria didn’t really become a part of history in the first place. Unlike Lend-Lease in the war against the Nazis, which was given great visibility and trumpeted throughout the war — convoys above the Arctic Circle valiantly fighting their way to Murmansk; trains festooned with American and Soviet flags rumbling across Iran to the Caucasus; and so on — Lend-Lease aid on reflagged Liberty ships to prepare the Russians for their coming war with Japan was a closely guarded secret because of the extreme vulnerability to preemptive action by even a weakened Japan against both their land and sea lines of communication. 

Immediately after war the secrecy surrounding America’s part in the Manchurian operation retained its own momentum. And besides, we had plenty to crow about that wasn’t secret. The Soviets themselves made absolutely zero mention of it as they wanted nothing to distract from the image of a magnificent achievement of Soviet arms. Yet, within a relatively short period of time, knowledge of the massive US effort would have grown on its own. For example, General Deane’s book, The Strange Alliance: The Story of Our Efforts at Wartime Cooperation with Russia, was cleared in ‘46 and published the following year. But increasing tensions with the Soviets were already giving more and more credence to the criticism of Yalta and Potsdam, which had begun in earnest as soon as the shooting stopped. Even before the communist victory in China and tensions had developed into a full-blown Cold War — and long before the “hot war” of Korea — our direct aid in the seizure of Manchuria by Red armies was not something that anyone in either the US or Soviet governments, each for their own reasons, wanted to draw any attention to. Down the “memory hole” it went.

Interestingly, the Defense Department produced out-of-the-blue for public release an extremely carefully crafted, 107-page white paper on the joint effort in 1955.

So why then?Well,Senator Joe McCarthy had already been savaging George C. Marshall for years as supposedly being responsible for the fall of China to the communists, and McCarthy’s hearings on subversives in the US Army had only recently concluded, so the timing seems to suggest that perhaps this was done to get out ahead of even more mischief by the senator. I hope I put enough qualifiers in that sentence. 

Anyway, vague references to the US aid from the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences periodically showed up in a small number of works, but it was more than ten long Cold War years before the State Department provided various relevant documents hinting at its scale in a 1966 edition of the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Other stuff was buried throughout the mass of Army documents declassified in the early and mid ’70s, and some made available in the relevant presidential libraries, but by that time the narrative on the war had been long established.

It’s too bad really, because while it was a political hot potato that undoubtedly would have caused enormous grief to the Truman Administration, the Army – and to George Marshall in particular – a fuller understanding of the depth of US-Soviet cooperation would have effectively undercut the nonsense on President Truman’s atom bomb decision and endgame in the Pacific put forth by Gar Alperovitz during the Vietnam period and more recently by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in his Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan.

Today, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed by the immediate surrender of Japan continues to overshadow the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria but does not negate the fact that the United States fully accepted the political gains in the Far East that Stalin had sought at Yalta and locked in at Potsdam. As noted earlier, after the war, the results of those two conferences increasingly became a matter of grave concern, and little to no effort was made by either the Defense or State Departments to publicize the extent of direct US aid in support of Soviet military operations against their old Japanese enemy. And one fundamentally important point struck me only recently, well after Hell to Pay's re-publication. It's the fact that the US keeping mum on this matter is, in itself, what opened the door to the all the later nonsense that was spread regarding Truman and endgame in the Pacific. A void was created and you know the rest. The ramifications have been far-reaching; negatively influencing scholarly opinion and public perception; and ultimately how we view ourselves as a nation.

During the war itself, this secrecy was of the greatest importance. The Soviet armies in the Far East were at the end of a vulnerable, continent-long supply line, and without this dramatic increase in Lend-Lease deliveries, code-named Milepost, the massive, multi-front offensive against Japan’s Army in Manchuria would not have been possible. It is noteworthy that Lend-Lease supplies to support the Soviet’s Manchurian campaign were actually scheduled to increase even further after their declaration of war.

One last point. Beyond the continued secrecy of US support long after the war, a better understanding of US-Soviet cooperation has also been undermined by the fact that scholars have failed to understand the implications of a key military accord at Potsdam because the war’s early termination rendered its implementation unnecessary. The United States agreed to put the lives of its own sailors and airmen on the line to directly support continuing Soviet operations by forcing supply convoys through the dangerous Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan when the marginally safer supply route above Hokkaido became closed by winter ice in October. 

In the meantime, the conference still had more than a week to go when the US Navy issued orders to send six escort carriers to the northern Pacific to form the nucleus of Task Force 49. Its mission: To protect shipping along the northern supply route from Japanese aircraft and still-potent submarine fleet when the Soviets declared war. When TF49 received its operational orders just two weeks later on August 8, 1945, to “maintain a line of communications from the Aleutians across the Sea of Okhotsk” to the Russian port of Vladivostok, an additional battle group of cruisers and destroyers, Task Force 92, was already clearing the northern Kuriles of enemy shipping and conducting naval bombardments at Shumshu-Paramushiro across from the southern tip of the Soviet’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

Now all of this I’ve run by you this evening flies in the face of the notion of a so-called “race” by Truman to drop atomic bombs on Japan before Stalin could enter the Pacific war. In reality, though, there really was a race of sorts involving the United States and Soviet Union in the Far East. It was a race by both allies to get Red armies into the war against Japan as quickly as possible. 

Other HNN articles by D. M. Giangreco relating to President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb:

● “Was Dwindling US Army Manpower a Factor in the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima?”

● “Did Truman Really Oppose the Soviet Union's Decision to Enter the War Against Japan?”

● "60 Years Ago: Spinning the Casualties After D-Day”

● "Why are World War II-Era Purple Hearts Still Awarded?"

● "Are New Purple Hearts Being Manufactured to Meet the Demand?"

“President Truman and the Atom Bomb Decision: ‘Preventing an Okinawa From One End of Japan to Another’ ”

●  “How ‘Five Old Men’ Started the Roll-Back of Hiroshima Revisionism”