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above: ruin of the the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was destroyed by the atomic blast on Aug. 6, 1945. It is now commonly called the Genbaku Dome, and is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan (Suicasmo/Wikimedia)

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The Tragedy of the Atomic Bomb

Marching toward imperialism

Marching toward imperialism

On Oct. 5, 1946, just over one year after the deployment of two atomic bombs in Japan, Senator Robert A. Taft stood in front of an audience at Kenyon College and excoriated his country for dropping the bombs. In doing so, he issued a devastating critique of the developing disconnect between the pursuit of true justice in the American tradition and the actuality of American wartime decisions as mere expediency.

According to Taft, the decision to drop the bombs departed “from the principles of fair and equal treatment which have made America respected throughout the world before this Second World War.” The decision revealed a disturbing, developing mindset with which the United States regarded those whom it considered enemies. This attitude did not have the pursuit of peace and the attainment of a traditional meaning of justice in mind, but rather a cold-headed and bureaucratic utilitarianism that could only undermine the moral and political health of the future of American international policy. Taft argued that war:

[H]as always set back temporarily the ideals of the world. This because of the tremendous scope of the war, the increased barbarism of its methods and the general prevalence of the doctrine of force and expediency even before the war, the effect today is even worse and the duration of the post-war period of disillusionment may be longer.

In contradistinction to Taft’s moral-traditional stance, World War II and international relations historian Alan Levine notes that the death and material destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not obviously greater than in other geographical areas. Such a framing of the critique of the bomb misunderstands the actual arguments against the dropping of the bombs in their historical-political context.     

The problem of the atomic bomb and the culminating decision to use it rests in the standoff between Japan and the U.S. over the stipulations of Japanese surrender in 1945. Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime policy of unconditional surrender circumscribed the terms under which the war could end. He first began to emphasize this policy in the 1943 Casablanca Conference, where he, together with Churchill, stated formally that “peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power.” 

As the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum tells it, “FDR [then] lapsed into his folksy storytelling mode” by connecting the unconditional surrender phrase to Union Civil War General U. S. Grant and his policy against the Confederacy. Roosevelt concluded: “The elimination of German, Japanese, and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan.”

Until Roosevelt’s death, unconditional surrender became the theme by which Allied powers would approach any attempt to conclude the war. While there are many criticisms related to the arrogance and anti-realism of such a policy, especially in light of Europe’s balance-of-powers history and the apparently unlearned lessons of Versailles in 1919, such a mindset would prove tragic in the coming decision to use the atomic bomb in August 1945. 

When Harry Truman took over for Roosevelt in April, James Byrnes, an advisor very close to the mind and decisions of Roosevelt, was slated to become the new secretary of state. It was Byrnes who would be Truman’s key foreign policy advisor in the summer of 1945, and it was Byrnes who would be the leading advocate of the continuity of the unconditional surrender stance as the Truman administration took over the reins of American executive power.

But when Germany surrendered in the spring of 1945, and with Russia capable and willing to confront Japan in the east, the policy of unconditional surrender then transitioned from a controversial and unwise impulse into a strategically useless mechanism for political and military tragedy.

As Gar Alperovitz wrote for The Nation in 2015, summarizing his detailed 1995 book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, most people remain unaware that “the top American military leaders who fought World War II…were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender.” Additionally, it was American leaders like Robert Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, and Admiral William Leahy—those that might in a simplistic sense be more “conservative” in that they couldn’t be dismissed as left-wing critics of American foreign policy—that were most adamant about dropping the unconditional surrender policy and pursuing terms with Japan. That the Japanese political and military leadership were willing to surrender on the condition that they might keep their ancient monarchy is a clear and unavoidable matter of record. 

As Alperovitz reveals in his book, President Truman was aware of Japanese willingness to surrender if they could retain their religiously and culturally vital monarchy as early as May 1945, months before the Potsdam Conference and the almost immediately subsequent release of the bombs. Alperovitz’s quotes from Allen Dulles’ 1966 book The Secret Surrender, in which Dulles recollected his delivery of the message to Truman on July 20, 1945: “[the Japanese] desired to surrender if they could retain the Emperor and the constitution as a basis for maintaining discipline and order in Japan after the devastating news of surrender became known to the Japanese people.”

Despite the fact there would be certain difficulties in a proud and honorable Japanese people accepting defeat, it was precisely the maintenance of the imperial government in Japan that would counter and calm the energies of a revolt against peace terms. The desire for unconditional surrender then, which rendered the possibility of agreeable terms unobtainable, would prove to be a politically chosen path away from a meaningful and honorable peace. Far from any sort of military necessity, the dropping of the bombs, Admiral Leahy wrote in his 1950 memoir I Was There, “was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

The proof of all this lies in the tragic irony of the aftermath: the Japanese were able to keep their emperor after all, and their primary condition for surrender was met—but their cities lay in abject ruin anyway. Conditional surrender was the means toward peace. Unconditional surrender reached its tragic culmination in death and destruction for Japan, and became the first step toward a new era of American foreign policy which saw the Old Republic continue its long march toward empire.

C. Jay Engel

C. Jay Engel works as a strategic business advisor and writes from his home near the Sierra Nevadas of Northern California. He lives with his wife and their four homeschooled children.

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