EDITOR’S NOTE: A tough-guy stance by an insecure president, racist rhetoric and a refusal to compromise led to a nuclear attack that was initially criticized by U.S. editors and generals alike. August 6, 2005, is the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
By Ronald Takaki
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
During the days before that fateful August 6, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur learned that Japan had asked Russia to negotiate a surrender. “We expected acceptance of the Japanese surrender daily,” one of his staff members recalled. When he was notified that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, the general was “livid.” MacArthur declared that the atomic attack on Hiroshima was “completely unnecessary from a military point of view.”
Why then did the president make the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?
Harry S. Truman was an accidental president. He had been sworn into office only months earlier, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12. Truman admitted to his wife that he had little knowledge of foreign policy. Feeling inadequate to fill the shoes of the great F.D.R., he had to face indignities and sarcasm. In the streets, people asked, “Harry who?” and mocked him as “the little man in the White House.” But Truman hid his insecurity behind a façade of toughness. Publicly, he presented himself as a man of the frontier. He blustered: “The buck stops here.”
Like many Americans, the president was also swept into a rage for revenge for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This rage had been racialized. Truman repeatedly blasted the enemy as the “Japs.” This racist term identified the enemy as the Japanese people, a contrast to the term “Nazis,” which refers only to the followers of Hitler. Truman also dehumanized the enemy in the Pacific war. Disturbed by Pearl Harbor and the Bataan death march, Truman argued: “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”
These dynamics drove Truman to rigidly insist on unconditional surrender, a demand he had inherited from Roosevelt. But for Roosevelt, it had been only a slogan to help rally the war effort.
Truman made the demand a policy. In July, he refused to heed the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that the president negotiate a peace by allowing Japan to continue the emperor system. News of the successful test of the atomic bomb boosted Truman’s confidence that he could bully Japan. In the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, Truman issued a fierce ultimatum: Japan must accept “unconditional surrender” or face “utter devastation.”
Japan refused, and Truman ordered the atomic attack. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. It was 8:15 in the morning, and Naoko Masuoka was on a school trip. She and her friends were singing about the cherry blossoms when she heard someone cry out: “A B-29!”
“Even as this shout rang out in our ears,” she recalled, “there was a blinding flash and I lost consciousness.” Some 70,000 people were instantly incinerated to death. Most of them were women and children. Three days later, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
But the Japanese government still refused to surrender unconditionally. At that point, Truman decided to allow Japan to keep the emperor. Had he made such an offer earlier, he might have been able to end the war before dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The atomic bombings were not widely accepted in the United States. A poll conducted by Fortune magazine in December 1945 found that only 54 percent of the respondents approved of the atomic bombings. The major news media also voiced apprehension and disquietude. Time magazine wrote that “the demonstration of power against living creatures instead of dead matter created a bottomless wound in the living conscience.” The New York Times issued a sobering message: “We have been the first to introduce a new weapon of unknowable effects which may bring us victory quickly but which will sow the seeds of hate more widely than ever. We may yet reap the whirlwind.”
The day after the devastation of Nagasaki, Truman privately told a cabinet member that “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible,” and that he did not like “the idea of killing all those kids.” His anguish revealed a conflicted self. The Japanese were not simply an enemy race; they were human beings. Beneath Truman’s toughness was also a thoughtful and sensitive individual who saw the world hurtling toward an uncertain and fearful future.
On July 16, while waiting for the news of the atomic test, he reflected in his diary on the “absolute ruin” of Berlin and the long history of warfare, including Carthage and Rome. Turning to the war before him, he ruminated: “I hope for some sort of peace but I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries, and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it. I hope not. But we are only termites on a planet and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there’ll [be] a reckoning who knows?”
Ronald Takaki, professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb” (Little, Brown and Company, 1995). The book is based on primary documents, including de-classified reports of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, official and personal letters of Harry S. Truman, the president’s private Potsdam diary and the personal diary of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.