Disputing Truman's Use of Nuclear Weapons- Again

The contentious debate over President Truman's use of nuclear weapons against Japan to end World War Two in 1945 is once again roiling academic waters. Nuclear doctrine is a question of concern far beyond the rarified circle of intellectual elites, so the dispute has profound real world implications.

The Society For Historians of American Foreign Relations recently announced that the prestigious Robert Ferrell Book Prize had been awarded to Tsuyoshi Hasegawa for his book Racing the Enemy:  Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University Press, 2005).  This comes as no surprise.  Gushing reviews have appeared in newspapers, journals, and websites proclaiming his work  'a landmark book,' 'brilliant and definitive,' and  'the definitive analysis.'  Harvard historian Ernest R. May has predicted that

'...with this book, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa will establish himself as the expert on the end of the war in the Pacific.' 

Ironically, Robert Ferrell himself is less than ecstatic about Hasegawa's book.  A distinguished historian and our leading Truman scholar, Ferrell in his own recently published Harry S. Truman and the Revisionists (University of Missouri Press, 2006) characterizes Hasegawa's work as an 'unfortunate contribution.' 

That is an understatement.  The truth is that Racing the Enemy is based upon pervasive distortions of the documents upon which it is based, and what Hasegawa presents as facts often turn out to be no more than products of his own vivid imagination.

There are several 'races' in Hasegawa's book, but the one that has received greatest attention is President Harry S. Truman's alleged race to use atomic bombs to bring about Japan's surrender before the hitherto neutral Soviets could enter the war.  His supposed goals were to gain a general diplomatic advantage over the Soviets by demonstrating the enormous power in American hands, and specifically to forestall Soviet expansion in the Far East. 

At the Yalta Conference of February 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed to a number of territorial and other concessions that would compensate the Soviet Union for its participation in the war against Japan.  Achieving Japanese surrender before Soviet entry would render this agreement inoperative.  In order to justify using the bombs, furthermore, Truman and his Secretary of State James F. Byrnes conspired to keep Japan in the war until the weapons were ready.   Even though they knew through intercepted messages that Japan was desperately seeking to end the conflict, Truman and Byrnes forestalled any such possibility by insisting on surrender terms they knew would be unacceptable to the Japanese.

The Potsdam Conference (July 17—August 2, 1945), according to Hasegawa, marked a 'turning point' in the Pacific War.  From Truman's standpoint, two developments crystallized his thinking.  The first was news from Washington on July 16 that an atomic device had been successfully tested in New Mexico.  The second was Truman's initial meeting with Generalissimo Joseph Stalin on the 17th, hours before the conference formally began.  Hasegawa's account of the session (p. 138) reads as follows: 

'Truman noted in his diary:  'I asked [Stalin] if he had the agenda for the meeting.  He said he had and that he had some more questions to present.  I told him to fire away.  He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I am not exploding now. . . He'll be in the Jap
War on August 15th.  Fini Japs when that comes about.''

On the next page Hasegawa writes: 

'Moreover, Truman took Stalin's announcement as 'dynamite.'  It is clear that he saw Stalin not as an ally committed to the common cause of defeating Japan, but as a competitor in the race to see who could force Japan to surrender.'  And on the page after that:  'The race between Soviet entry into the war and the atomic bomb now reached its climax.'

A look at what Truman actually wrote in his diary gives Hasegawa's game away:

'I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting.  He said he had and that he had some more questions to present.  I told him to fire away.  He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I  am not exploding now.  He wants to fire [Spanish dictator] Franco, to which I wouldn't object, and divide up the Italian colonies and other mandates, some no doubt the British have.  Then he got on the Chinese situation, told us what agreements had been reached and what was in abeyance.  Most of the big points are settled.'

Truman's reference to Stalin's pledge to join the war appeared after this passage.  He went on to mention their lunch together, the toasts they drank, and concluded with the remark that 'I can deal with Stalin.  He is honest—but smart as hell.'

The full entry makes clear that what Truman considered 'dynamite' referred to deposing Franco and dividing up colonies and mandates.  It had nothing at all to do with Soviet entry into the war.  There is nothing whatever in this document to indicate that he was displeased by anything Stalin said about the Far East, let alone that the Soviet leader's words set a deadline for use of the bomb. 

Hasegawa's distortion of the diary also makes it appear that Truman's mention of his own 'dynamite' referred to atomic bombs.  But that part of the conversation was about the agenda for the forthcoming conference and Truman had no intention of discussing atomic bombs at a formal meeting.  He almost certainly was referring to his proposal, which he did make during a plenary session of the conference, to internationalize certain European inland waterways and straits. 

Having presented as fact a 'race' that is entirely unsupported by the very sources he uses, Hasegawa goes on to interpret Truman's subsequent actions within this fictional context.   His account of how the alleged race ended is particularly egregious.  The Soviet declaration of war against Japan on August 8, two days after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, meant that Truman had 'lost' the contest.  Hasegawa's version of Truman's response (p. 193) reads as follows:

'A few minutes after 3:00 (August 8) Truman held an impromptu press conference.  Although he entered the Press Room with a smile on his face, he quickly assumed a solemn expression and read a statement to reporters:  'I have only a simple announcement to make.  I can't hold a regular press conference today, but this announcement is so important I thought I would call you in.  Russia has declared war on Japan.'  Then he added laconically:  'That's all.'  This was the shortest press conference on record.

This terse statement reveals the profound disappointment Truman must have felt over the news.'

Even if Hasegawa had gotten his story straight, the notion that Truman's 'solemn expression' and the fact that his statement was brief constitute evidence of the 'profound disappointment' he 'must have felt' smacks more of an exercise in mind reading than of historical analysis. 

As in the case of the mutilated Truman diary entry, Hasegawa's sources (eyewitness accounts in the Washington Post and the New York Times on August 9) actually refute rather than sustain his allegations.  The president did not walk into a room full of waiting reporters, he was seated at his desk flanked by his chief of staff Admiral William D. Leahy and James Byrnes when the newsmen were ushered in.  Both reporters stated that Truman was smiling and both commented on his uncharacteristically casual behavior.  The president sat 'with one leg thrown carelessly over the arm of his chair and his right arm stretched across the back,' according to the Times, and 'hid completely the importance of the information he was about to impart.'  His 'dramatic statement,' moreover, was 'issued with all the casualness of a routine proclamation.'    The Post did say that Truman 'assumed a solemn expression,' but only when 'he rose to make his announcement.'  The president 'rocked with laughter,' according to the Times when his concluding words sent reporters crowding the doors to file their reports.

Hasegawa's account of the press conference is grossly misleading.  Far from feeling 'profound disappointment' at the news of Soviet entry, Truman seems to have been delighted.  The mere fact that he called the conference within fifteen minutes of learning the news himself provides further indication that he was pleased.  He could have avoided what Hasegawa professes to see as an ordeal by simply issuing the information through his press secretary.  A Times reporter who had traveled to Potsdam with the presidential party pointed out that Truman had 'repeatedly' told newsman during the trip that his 'primary objective' was to secure a promise of Soviet entry into the Pacific war.  'Perhaps that was the reason,' the reporter speculated, 'Mr. Truman personally announced the war declaration in a brief news conference yesterday.'

The charge that Harry Truman was willing to condemn tens of thousands of people (including Allied servicemen and prisoners of war) to die by prolonging the war, and tens of thousands more Japanese by using the bombs merely to impress the Soviets, is one that ought not be made without substantial proof.  Tweaking mangled documents, especially in a volume published by a prestigious academic press (Harvard), utterly fails to meet this criterion and does a profound disservice to unsuspecting readers. 

Awarding the Ferrell Book Prize to Racing the Enemy also does a disservice to an individual known for his meticulous scholarship.


Robert James Maddox is Professor of History Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University, and author of Weapons for Victory:  The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later

The contentious debate over President Truman's use of nuclear weapons against Japan to end World War Two in 1945 is once again roiling academic waters. Nuclear doctrine is a question of concern far beyond the rarified circle of intellectual elites, so the dispute has profound real world implications.

The Society For Historians of American Foreign Relations recently announced that the prestigious Robert Ferrell Book Prize had been awarded to Tsuyoshi Hasegawa for his book Racing the Enemy:  Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University Press, 2005).  This comes as no surprise.  Gushing reviews have appeared in newspapers, journals, and websites proclaiming his work  'a landmark book,' 'brilliant and definitive,' and  'the definitive analysis.'  Harvard historian Ernest R. May has predicted that

'...with this book, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa will establish himself as the expert on the end of the war in the Pacific.' 

Ironically, Robert Ferrell himself is less than ecstatic about Hasegawa's book.  A distinguished historian and our leading Truman scholar, Ferrell in his own recently published Harry S. Truman and the Revisionists (University of Missouri Press, 2006) characterizes Hasegawa's work as an 'unfortunate contribution.' 

That is an understatement.  The truth is that Racing the Enemy is based upon pervasive distortions of the documents upon which it is based, and what Hasegawa presents as facts often turn out to be no more than products of his own vivid imagination.

There are several 'races' in Hasegawa's book, but the one that has received greatest attention is President Harry S. Truman's alleged race to use atomic bombs to bring about Japan's surrender before the hitherto neutral Soviets could enter the war.  His supposed goals were to gain a general diplomatic advantage over the Soviets by demonstrating the enormous power in American hands, and specifically to forestall Soviet expansion in the Far East. 

At the Yalta Conference of February 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed to a number of territorial and other concessions that would compensate the Soviet Union for its participation in the war against Japan.  Achieving Japanese surrender before Soviet entry would render this agreement inoperative.  In order to justify using the bombs, furthermore, Truman and his Secretary of State James F. Byrnes conspired to keep Japan in the war until the weapons were ready.   Even though they knew through intercepted messages that Japan was desperately seeking to end the conflict, Truman and Byrnes forestalled any such possibility by insisting on surrender terms they knew would be unacceptable to the Japanese.

The Potsdam Conference (July 17—August 2, 1945), according to Hasegawa, marked a 'turning point' in the Pacific War.  From Truman's standpoint, two developments crystallized his thinking.  The first was news from Washington on July 16 that an atomic device had been successfully tested in New Mexico.  The second was Truman's initial meeting with Generalissimo Joseph Stalin on the 17th, hours before the conference formally began.  Hasegawa's account of the session (p. 138) reads as follows: 

'Truman noted in his diary:  'I asked [Stalin] if he had the agenda for the meeting.  He said he had and that he had some more questions to present.  I told him to fire away.  He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I am not exploding now. . . He'll be in the Jap
War on August 15th.  Fini Japs when that comes about.''

On the next page Hasegawa writes: 

'Moreover, Truman took Stalin's announcement as 'dynamite.'  It is clear that he saw Stalin not as an ally committed to the common cause of defeating Japan, but as a competitor in the race to see who could force Japan to surrender.'  And on the page after that:  'The race between Soviet entry into the war and the atomic bomb now reached its climax.'

A look at what Truman actually wrote in his diary gives Hasegawa's game away:

'I asked him if he had the agenda for the meeting.  He said he had and that he had some more questions to present.  I told him to fire away.  He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I  am not exploding now.  He wants to fire [Spanish dictator] Franco, to which I wouldn't object, and divide up the Italian colonies and other mandates, some no doubt the British have.  Then he got on the Chinese situation, told us what agreements had been reached and what was in abeyance.  Most of the big points are settled.'

Truman's reference to Stalin's pledge to join the war appeared after this passage.  He went on to mention their lunch together, the toasts they drank, and concluded with the remark that 'I can deal with Stalin.  He is honest—but smart as hell.'

The full entry makes clear that what Truman considered 'dynamite' referred to deposing Franco and dividing up colonies and mandates.  It had nothing at all to do with Soviet entry into the war.  There is nothing whatever in this document to indicate that he was displeased by anything Stalin said about the Far East, let alone that the Soviet leader's words set a deadline for use of the bomb. 

Hasegawa's distortion of the diary also makes it appear that Truman's mention of his own 'dynamite' referred to atomic bombs.  But that part of the conversation was about the agenda for the forthcoming conference and Truman had no intention of discussing atomic bombs at a formal meeting.  He almost certainly was referring to his proposal, which he did make during a plenary session of the conference, to internationalize certain European inland waterways and straits. 

Having presented as fact a 'race' that is entirely unsupported by the very sources he uses, Hasegawa goes on to interpret Truman's subsequent actions within this fictional context.   His account of how the alleged race ended is particularly egregious.  The Soviet declaration of war against Japan on August 8, two days after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, meant that Truman had 'lost' the contest.  Hasegawa's version of Truman's response (p. 193) reads as follows:

'A few minutes after 3:00 (August 8) Truman held an impromptu press conference.  Although he entered the Press Room with a smile on his face, he quickly assumed a solemn expression and read a statement to reporters:  'I have only a simple announcement to make.  I can't hold a regular press conference today, but this announcement is so important I thought I would call you in.  Russia has declared war on Japan.'  Then he added laconically:  'That's all.'  This was the shortest press conference on record.

This terse statement reveals the profound disappointment Truman must have felt over the news.'

Even if Hasegawa had gotten his story straight, the notion that Truman's 'solemn expression' and the fact that his statement was brief constitute evidence of the 'profound disappointment' he 'must have felt' smacks more of an exercise in mind reading than of historical analysis. 

As in the case of the mutilated Truman diary entry, Hasegawa's sources (eyewitness accounts in the Washington Post and the New York Times on August 9) actually refute rather than sustain his allegations.  The president did not walk into a room full of waiting reporters, he was seated at his desk flanked by his chief of staff Admiral William D. Leahy and James Byrnes when the newsmen were ushered in.  Both reporters stated that Truman was smiling and both commented on his uncharacteristically casual behavior.  The president sat 'with one leg thrown carelessly over the arm of his chair and his right arm stretched across the back,' according to the Times, and 'hid completely the importance of the information he was about to impart.'  His 'dramatic statement,' moreover, was 'issued with all the casualness of a routine proclamation.'    The Post did say that Truman 'assumed a solemn expression,' but only when 'he rose to make his announcement.'  The president 'rocked with laughter,' according to the Times when his concluding words sent reporters crowding the doors to file their reports.

Hasegawa's account of the press conference is grossly misleading.  Far from feeling 'profound disappointment' at the news of Soviet entry, Truman seems to have been delighted.  The mere fact that he called the conference within fifteen minutes of learning the news himself provides further indication that he was pleased.  He could have avoided what Hasegawa professes to see as an ordeal by simply issuing the information through his press secretary.  A Times reporter who had traveled to Potsdam with the presidential party pointed out that Truman had 'repeatedly' told newsman during the trip that his 'primary objective' was to secure a promise of Soviet entry into the Pacific war.  'Perhaps that was the reason,' the reporter speculated, 'Mr. Truman personally announced the war declaration in a brief news conference yesterday.'

The charge that Harry Truman was willing to condemn tens of thousands of people (including Allied servicemen and prisoners of war) to die by prolonging the war, and tens of thousands more Japanese by using the bombs merely to impress the Soviets, is one that ought not be made without substantial proof.  Tweaking mangled documents, especially in a volume published by a prestigious academic press (Harvard), utterly fails to meet this criterion and does a profound disservice to unsuspecting readers. 

Awarding the Ferrell Book Prize to Racing the Enemy also does a disservice to an individual known for his meticulous scholarship.


Robert James Maddox is Professor of History Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University, and author of Weapons for Victory:  The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later