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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

When Truman Failed to Pause in 1945--and the War Crime That Followed


By August 7, 1945, President Truman, while still at sea returning from Potsdam, had been fully briefed on the first atomic attack against a large city in Japan the day before.  In announcing it, he had labeled Hiroshima simply a "military base," but he knew better, and within hours of the blast he had been fully informed about the likely massive toll on civilians (probably 100,000), mainly women and children, as we had planned.  Despite this--and news that the Soviets, as planned, were about to enter the war against Japan--Truman did not order a delay in the use of the second atomic bomb to give Japan a chance to assess, reflect, and surrender.

After all, by this time, Truman (as recorded in his diary and by others) was well aware that the Japanese were hopelessly defeated and seeking terms of surrender--and he had, just two weeks earlier, written "Fini Japs" in his diary when he learned that the Russians would indeed attack around August 7.  Yet Truman, on this day, did nothing, and the second bomb rolled out, and would be used against Nagasaki, killing perhaps 90,000 more, only a couple hundred of them Japanese troops, on August 9.  That's why many who reluctantly support or at least are divided about the use of the bomb against Hiroshima consider Nagasaki a war crime--in fact, the worst one-day war crime in human history.

Below, a piece I wrote not long ago.  One of my books on the atomic bombings describes my visit to Nagasaki at length.
Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of only two cities in the world to "meet the atomic bomb," as some of the survivors of that experience, 68 years ago this week, put it.  It remains the Second City, and "Fat Man" the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. "We are an asterisk," Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once told me, with a bitter smile. "The inferior A-Bomb city."

Yet in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-Bomb city, the city with perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.

And then there's this. "The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable," Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, once observed, "but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki" -- which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same thing. "The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki," he once said. "Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I'm glad I'm not a scientist because I'd feel so guilty now."

A beautiful city dotted with palms largely built on terraces surrounding a deep harbor--the San Francisco of Japan -- Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country's gateway to the west. The Portuguese and Dutch settled here in the 1500s. St. Francis Xavier established the first Catholic churches in the region in 1549, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country's Catholic center. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders here, supplied the modern rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 19th century.

Glover's life served as a model for the story of Madame Butterfly, and Nagasaki is known in many parts of the world more for Butterfly than for the bomb. In Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover's home overlooking the harbor (see left), sings, "One fine day, we'll see a thread of smoke arising.... " If she could have looked north from the Glover mansion, now Nagasaki's top tourist attraction, on August 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.

By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan's increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district, the poor part of town, where a magnificent cathedral seating 6000 had been built.

At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, "Fat Man" was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession. Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.

While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The bomb's blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but didn't quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the Nakashima valley. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or more fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb's blast in Hiroshima.

If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at least one important sense, the Second City. Nothing would have escaped, perhaps not even the most untroubled conscience half a world away.

Hard evidence to support a popular theory that the chance to "experiment" with the plutonium bomb was the major reason for the bombing of Nagasaki remains sketchy but still one wonders (especially when visiting the city, as I recount in my new book) about the overwhelming, and seemingly thoughtless, impulse to automatically use a second atomic bomb even more powerful than the first.

Criticism of the attack on Nagasaki has centered on the issue of why Truman did not step in and stop the second bomb after the success of the first to allow Japan a few more days to contemplate surrender before targeting another city for extinction. In addition, the U.S. knew that its ally, the Soviet Union, would join the war within hours, as previously agreed, and that the entrance of Japan's most hated enemy, as much as the Hiroshima bomb, would likely speed the surrender ("fini Japs" when the Russians declare war, Truman had predicted in his diary). If that happened, however, it might cost the U.S. in a wider Soviet claim on former Japanese conquests in Asia. So there was much to gain by getting the war over before the Russians advanced. Some historians have gone so far as state that the Nagasaki bomb was not the last shot of World War II but the first blow of the Cold War.

Whether this is true or not, there was no presidential directive specifically related to dropping the second bomb. The atomic weapons in the U.S. arsenal, according to the July 2, 1945 order, were to be used "as soon as made ready," and the second bomb was ready within three days of Hiroshima. Nagasaki was thus the first and only victim of automated atomic warfare.

In one further irony, Nagasaki was not even on the original target list for A-bombs but was added after Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to Kyoto. He had visited Kyoto himself and felt that destroying Japan's cultural capital would turn the citizens against America in the aftermath. Just like that, tens of thousands in one city were spared and tens of thousands of others elsewhere were marked for death.

General Leslie Groves, upon learning of the Japanese surrender offer after the Nagasaki attack, decided that the "one-two" strategy had worked, but he was pleased to learn the second bomb had exploded off the mark, indicating "a smaller number of casualties than we had expected." But as historian Martin Sherwin has observed, "If Washington had maintained closer control over the scheduling of the atomic bomb raids the annihilation of Nagasaki could have been avoided." Truman and others simply did not care, or to be charitable, did not take care. That's one reason the US suppressed all film footage shot in Nagasaki and Hiroshima for decades (which I probe in my book and ebook Atomic Cover-up).

After hearing of Nagasaki, however, Truman quickly ordered that no further bombs be used without his express permission, to give Japan a reasonable chance to surrender--one bomb, one city, and seventy thousand deaths too late. When they'd learned of the Hiroshima attack, the scientists at Los Alamos generally expressed satisfaction that their work had paid off. But many of them took Nagasaki quite badly. Some would later use the words "sick" or "nausea" to describe their reaction.

As months and then years passed, few Americans denounced as a moral wrong the targeting of entire cities for extermination. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, declared that we never should have hit Japan "with that awful thing." The left-wing writer Dwight MacDonald cited America's "decline to barbarism" for dropping "half-understood poisons" on a civilian population. His conservative counterpart, columnist and magazine editor David Lawrence, lashed out at the "so-called civilized side" in the war for dropping bombs on cities that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians.

However much we rejoice in victory, he wrote, "we shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt which prevails among us.... What a precedent for the future we have furnished to other nations even less concerned than we with scruples or ideals! Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it."

Greg Mitchell's books and ebooks include "Hollywood Bomb" and "Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made." Email: epic1934@aol.com


DarkHorseSki said...

Simply wrong. As any historian should know, there were still great parts of the military that wanted to fight on even after TWO bombs were dropped and there is plenty of evidence that the second bomb was the one that finally pushed them to get their act together and surrender.

Anonymous said...

DarkHorseSki blithely and blindly ignores our history of mass killing - we started with the Native Americans and Japan would not be our last episode. One only has to look at Iraq to know that we will continue on this path until we disappear into history.

Anonymous said...

I'm a historian, DarkHorseSki. You are completely ignoring the key point of this article, mentioned several times. The real issue is why the Japanese were not given more time than three days to figure out what had destroyed Hiroshima and what could be used again by the U. S.--should the Japanese not surrender--over any Japanese city that the U.S. should choose.

Anonymous said...

Nothing surprises me about the deeds of the so called american white men knowing what they were like ever since they landed on this continent.

Anonymous said...

Both of my grandfathers saw combat in WWII - one a combat Marine in the Pacific, and the other a US Army medic who participated in in the Normandy invasion. The atrocities they saw and experienced were horrendous by any measure. Lets not forget who the aggressors were in WWII, and which side refused to surrender even though the writing was clearly on the wall.

Nuclear weapons are horrible, but I wont be made to feel guilty about their use to bring a final end to to one of the darkest chapters of world history.

Anonymous said...

So just to be clear; American lives weren't being lost fighting against the Japanese immediately after the Hiroshima bomb exploded? If we're gonna operate in hind sight then might we consider the moral and ethical decisions of a Japanese leadership that refused to immediately surrender(when losing the war was probably quite obvious at that point) after the kind of devastation that occurred in Hiroshima? Does it really not matter to you people(the liberal press establishment) who started this war, who fired the first shot over Pearl Harbor, who geared up for war secretly with ruthless efficiency? If your gonna make a movie out of real historical film footage of the atomic blasts in Japan could you also make a historically and visually accurate movie of the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers before and during World War II so that the American people can have a better idea of what the world was dealing with previous to dropping two atomic bombs?

Anonymous said...

Given more time....B-29 bombing started Nov 1944 till Aug 1945. Operation Meetinghouse (firebombing Tokyo) was Mar 1945. It was the single most destructive bombing raid in history. Killed more then Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. So how much time did they need...

Anonymous said...

So just to be clear: It was WAR. American lives saved is all that mattered.

Anonymous said...

There is plenty of convincing evidence as to why Truman didn't pause. It was the only way to convince Japanese leaders that this wasn't a fluke. The -only- way to convince them that we -could- do it again.

It was clear then, and history has shown this to be true, that Japanese leadership was still very divided after Hiroshima. If we had waited a week or a month, the opposition to surrender could have, and probably would have, consolidated, and our use of atomic weapons might have been higher, or, because we only had a half dozen or so, might have been negated.

Calling Truman's actions a "war crime" is stupid and just plain bad history.

Anonymous said...

Damn, the comments on here really show me just how much some of our "progressive" citizens really hate this country and nothing we have done in the past is ever the right thing.

Anonymous said...

The bombs were indeed controversial. As I have read in a few books, it was known that both cities had small military population and were chosen as they were untouched by the fire-bombing that Lemay was executing, this way the scientists could see the full-scale of the attacks. I think Americans also should note some other things regarding the bombing of Japan - mostly the fact that Curtis Lemay had been carrying out one of the most extensive fire bombing campaigns in history. He ordered the bombers fly lower and stripped the planes of all interior items to fit more bombs so they would have more devastation. He also switched the bombs to incinderary because Japanese structures were made of wood. Historical numbers say that roughly 40% of all of Japan cities were destroyed and killed an estimated 333,000-900,000 people (125,000 in Tokyo alone), mainly women and children. This also led to the great rice famine in 1946 which killed many more Japanese due to starvation. All this was in addition to the A Bombs. Last item to note here - The A Bombs were actually brought up as war crimes during the Tokyo War Crimes trials. Some of the judges flat out refused to vote on war crimes of the Japanese army due to the fact that the US was not included in the war crimes trial for dropping the Atomic Bombs. While other Japanese officials were pardoned as they provided US officials with chemical warfare secrets. Therefore many feel that the results of the Tokyo Tribunal are questionable and part of the reason that makes the Yasukuni Shrine so controversial.

As a last last note - fast forward to 1950 and the Korean war, Macarthur and Lemay's solution to end China's help in the Korean war was to drop a number of Atomic Bombs at the North Korea/China border creating a 30-40 mile stretch of land that was so radioactive it would kill anyone who attempted to enter for the next 60-70 years. This was very close to being approved by President Truman. Eventually he was talked out of it and it led to the re-assignment (Firing) of Macarthur and Lemay.

War is ugly and the Japanese were guilty of their fair share of atrocities too, however I don't think most Americans realize the extent of destruction and killing that was carried out prior to the bombs.

Anonymous said...

One million American lives was the casualty estimate for an invasion on Japan itself. Hindsight may find the actions of one country atrocious, but open the other eye and you'll see that it goes both ways. War is hell. You have to make a choice and live/die with the consequences. But make no mistake - I would have dropped them too, because in war American lives mean more than the enemies lives.

Wrangler Wayne said...

If you read the Imperial Diet Proceedings in Japan after Hiroshima, the atomic bombing did not matter much in terms of surrender. What they were really worried about was the invasion of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. This fear of the Russian onslaught into Hokkaido was for them an insufferable suffering. The Imperial Diet vote for surrender passed. The 2nd bomb used on Nagasaki most certainly could have been avoided. It should be noted that around 24,000 Koreans and 3 American prisoners died in the bombings.

Conium said...

President Truman was a great man. More lives were saved by ending the war. Hopefully, the world will eventually learn the lesson. No more wars!

Unknown said...

Dear Greg,

Keep up the good work have two youtube videos for you to see regarding Paul Tibbets and the Enola Gay.

Made a video describing God's Righteous Judgment against Paul Warfield Tibbets the pilot of the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and all the other war mongers out there.


Praise I AM,
Michael Idarecis

Anonymous said...

Only somebody with a clear anti-American agenda could write this totally dishonest BS.
How about crime and punishment issue here? How about looking into the issue of saved American (and Japanese) lives (estimated 500,000 - 1,500,000)? How about comparing stop shitting on your own country? Oh, I see, it is not your country. So, go chase yourself, POS.

Unknown said...

What a load of manure.

Unknown said...

Anonymous stop drinking what the media is feeding you. If you believe we were justified in dropping the second bomb literally 3 days later you must be a tool or a fool. The bomb on Hiroshima was a war crime in itself.. Russia declared war on the 8th of August. The united states dropped that bomb on the 9th in a hurry and had a lot of technical difficulties hampered that mission because they rushed to drop to have their prize.

Only an ignorant fool can hold your position about saving american lives... Only someone who still believes in santa clause can say that. Just remember the liar and those who love the lie fall into the ditch...

Praise I AM,
Michael Idarecis

Scott said...

I'm sorry Greg, having never written anything to any writer in my LIFE I had to after reading this revisionist crap. You don't complain about Japanese war crimes to P.O.W.s nor what it takes to make a decision that will crush the enemy's will to fight. War is never ever supposed to be easy. Greg, if your father was next in-line to hit the beach in Japan would you dare write this. If it saves ONE American or 1,000's so be it. War's are meant to be won.
Look, even I am a partial ex-pat, but reading this made me sad and angry. I served in the Marines, did I agree with everything, of course not. Greg, you really need to think before you turn in something like this to your editor.
I'm sorry, you have disrespected not just history, but those who would have died.

RRLingeman said...

I visited Nagasaki in the 50s. Still a stunned city. Also a beautiful city.
My comment is Arguably the most important peace offer by US was to allow Japan to keep the emperor on t˙e throne. If that promise hadn't been made, probably the people would have resisted many more A-bombs.
Again, peace could have been negotiated peaceably, six "unconditional Surender was completely droped.
Gen. MacArthur knew that the Occupation would have been far more difficult if the Emperor had been deposed.

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