Saturday, August 06, 2005

All over the news late this week, Japanese memorials for Hiroshima reminded the world of one country's--one man's--enormous decision to attack an enemy with nuclear power. What would inspire such a decision? I wondered. In America, we have told the story one way. In Japan, they see it differently; their history texts for children tell another story. What is the reason behind Truman's monumental attack?

In the Standard Weekly, Richard Frank tackles the study of this crucial period of time in the 20th century. Evidence drawn from intercepted and heretofore secret radio messages indicates that Japan was not about to surrender. The deaths of the Japanese in the aftermath of the bomb are more than regrettable. But the deaths of millions at the hand of the Japanese imperial government and the great possibility that they did not regret their actions and would continue to execute further brutal invasions leads to one conclusion. Truman had no choice. Frank explains:

"This brings us to another aspect of history that now very belatedly has entered the controversy. Several American historians led by Robert Newman have insisted vigorously that any assessment of the end of the Pacific war must include the horrifying consequences of each continued day of the war for the Asian populations trapped within Japanese conquests. Newman calculates that between a quarter million and 400,000 Asians, overwhelmingly noncombatants, were dying each month the war continued. Newman et al. challenge whether an assessment of Truman's decision can highlight only the deaths of noncombatant civilians in the aggressor nation while ignoring much larger death tolls among noncombatant civilians in the victim nations.

There are a good many more points that now extend our understanding beyond the debates of 1995. But it is clear that all three of the critics' central premises are wrong. The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, thanks to radio intelligence, American leaders, far from knowing that peace was at hand, understood--as one analytical piece in the "Magic" Far East Summary stated in July 1945, after a review of both the military and diplomatic intercepts--that "until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion can not be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies." This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945." [emphasis mine]

We will have to live with Truman's decision forever. What seems clear is that his decision would have saved the lives of many more Asians. Or at least that's the conclusion of one historian.

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