Michael KreponVeterans Day/Armistice Day

On this Veterans/Armistice Day, I’m reprinting a post from August 24, 2010, “The Least Abhorrent Choice.”

The military cemetery at Nettuno, thirty miles south of Rome, is serene and immaculately kept. Almost as many GIs are buried there – 7,861 – as at Normandy, painful testimony of how botched the Italian campaign was. I’m named after one of the soldiers buried there, my Uncle Mickey, who died at Anzio.

Gar Alperovitz argues in Atomic Diplomacy (1965) and in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995) that the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “did not derive from overriding military considerations.” In this view, the use of A-bombs was unnecessary, since Japan was already defeated, for all intents and purposes. Instead, Alperovitz contends, President Truman and Secretary of War Stimson used nuclear weapons to keep the Kremlin in line.

While considerations of post-war geopolitics had to intrude on the thinking of Truman and Stimson, their immediate, primary objective was to end a world war in which U.S. troops had been engaged in brutal combat for three and one-half years.

Stimson signed his name to the letter of condolence sent to my grandmother and to 300,000 others. The specter of additional casualties with the invasion of the Japanese home islands had to haunt Truman and Stimson. No one could confidently predict their number. What seemed clear from the fighting at Okinawa – subsequently documented in great detail by noted historians such as John W. Dower — was that powerful military leaders in Imperial Japan were not going to go quietly into the night. This was the determining factor for Truman and Stimson.

Cities and their inhabitants were tragic casualties of warfare in World War II; other cities in Germany and Japan had earlier suffered greater losses by different means than were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I write these words not in justification for the killing of any city and its inhabitants, anywhere, by any means, but in recognition that the rules of warfare were far different back then. I have paid my respects to those who died at Hiroshima on three occasions.

Truman claimed not to have agonized over his decision to use atomic weapons against Japan, but it’s worth noting that when any of his advisers subsequently proposed the use of A-bombs to end the Korean War, he quickly showed them the door. Stimson did agonize over this decision. He writes in his memoirs, On Active Service in Peace and War (1947):

The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change that fact and I do not wish to gloss it over. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of a clash of great land armies.

I’ve read with care the arguments against the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II. But I have yet to find an adequate explanation by Alperovitz or anyone else of how Truman could have justified to himself additional losses – and Stimson could have justified signing additional letters of condolence – knowing that they had the awful means at hand to end the killing quickly.

Stimson resolved after the war ended that no other leader should be placed in the unbearable situation of authorizing the use of a nuclear weapon. He spent what remained of his life trying to eliminate the weapons he helped bring to fruition. The legacy of Hiroshima for him, and for me, is Never Again. Truman must have felt the same way during the Korean War. The legacy of Nagasaki is that, once the nuclear threshold is crossed, stopping subsequent use will require superhuman effort.


  1. Eric Means (History)

    Great summary. I have heard some say that Hiroshima was *actually* intended to be the first shot of the Cold War. But this claim does not stand up to the historical evidence such as the author described here. Well said article. And Never Again.