In 2009, twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Japanese citizens celebrated re-unification. And yet the anniversary reopened an old debate. Should President Harry S. Truman have prevented the Soviet invasion of the north island by ordering unrestricted civilian - or even atomic - bombing in the summer of 1945?
This Awful ThingTruman had been vice president for just eighty-two days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. And so Truman was unexpectedly propelled into the Presidency less than three months into Roosevelt's fourth term, telling reporters "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me".
"Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations. Local press release necessary as interest extends great distance. Dr. Groves pleased. He returns tomorrow. I will keep you posted". ~ Secretary of War's Fateful telegramAnd at the Potsdam Conference which ran from July 16 to August 2, 1945 events began to move fast, too fast for a President who had not even been taken into his predecessor's confidence. Because even as Truman and Churchill argued with Stalin over the joint occupation of Germany, it occured to Truman that a similiar argument over Japan was over the horizon. Perhaps it no longer made sense to encourage the Soviet Union to declare war on Japan, surely, there would be a heavy price to pay. And then a historic opportunity arrived in the form of a telegram from Secretary of War Henry Stimson ~ "Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations. Local press release necessary as interest extends great distance. Dr. Groves pleased. He returns tomorrow. I will keep you posted". The Trinity Test had been successful, and suddenly America had the capability to detonate an atomic bomb and potentially bring the war in the Far East to an early conclusion, perhaps on exclusively American terms. The capability, but not the desire. Because resistance would arrive from an unexpected quarter, the American military.
Probably the person closest to Truman, from the military standpoint, was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, who deplored the use of the bomb and strongly advised Truman not to use it, "Mr President, we will regret this day. The United States will suffer, for war is not to be waged on women and children". Due to Leahy's intervention, the advice of service chiefs was sought in utmost secrecy, and their judgement was universally against dropping the bomb. Chief of the U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, Ernest J. King, stated that the naval blockade and prior bombing of Japan in March of 1945, had rendered the Japanese helpless and that the use of the atomic bomb would have been both unnecessary and immoral. Also, the opinion of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was that "The Admiral took the opportunity of adding his voice to those insisting that Japan had been defeated before the Trinity Test". General Eisenhower urged Truman, in a personal visit, not to use the atomic bomb. Eisenhower's assessment was "Its not necessary to hit them with this awful thing . . . to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], would be a double crime".
And so the Manhattan project, staffed by 200,000 scientists and engineers, and secretly financed to the tune of $2bn without congressional oversight, was a white elephant. Operation Downfall proceeded with the invasion of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyushu, with the recently captured island of Okinawa used as a staging area. And the direst warnings of the "pro-bomb" faction led by Churchill and Truman proved untrue. Far from the 1,200,000 casualties predicted by Churchill, in fact less than 50,000 Americans died in the invasion of Japan. And yet there was a price to pay. The Allied invasion could not begin before October / November, and by then the Soviets were ready too. As Truman had predicted, the Soviet Union required a quid-pro-quo, the "temporary" occupation of the northern island.