The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II has been marked by commemoration and controversy. In the United States, most of the controversy has centered on the act that ended the war: the dropping of atomic bombs by American bombers on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is universal agreement that the dropping of the bombs resulted in the coming of peace. Yet were these acts absolutely necessary? Was the use of these horrible weapons the only alternative to a bloody invasion of Japan or an indefinite protraction of the war? Were the Japanese ready to surrender anyway? Would the invasion have been that bloody? If the Allied governments had explicitly agreed to allow the emperor to remain on his throne (as they ultimately did allow) rather than insist on unconditional surrender, would the Japanese have given in more quickly? Does criticism by scholars of the decision to drop the bomb constitute unpatriotic blaming of the United States or imply that the critics somehow value Japanese lives over American lives?
Perhaps one indication of how controversial the issue became is the author’s biographical sketch on this book’s dust jacket. It includes the usual statements about education, current academic position, and previous publications. While acknowledging that the author has an obviously Asian name, however, the publisher felt the need to inform readers that Ronald Takaki is “a third-generation American.” This is unusual for a book written by an academic, even for a general audience. Only under such unusual circumstances would a dust jacket mention the citizenship of the author.
Takaki, who has published extensively on the history of race relations in the United States, is not an expert in either military history or diplomatic history. He has uncovered no new documents. Almost all of his citations (there is, unfortunately, no bibliography) are to the major secondary works in the field, published memoirs, or published editions of the letters and diaries of leading American figures of the period. All of his sources are familiar to historians who have previously examined this issue. He is not offering the specialist anything new. What he does offer to the general reader is a clear synthesis of previous historical research, a balanced account, and his own interpretation of the events of the spring and summer of 1945.
President Harry S Truman never publicly admitted to having second thoughts about ordering the destruction of Hiroshima. His public reason for using the atomic bomb, given in 1955, was to avoid an invasion of Japan and thus to save the lives of up to five hundred thousand Americans. This argument has been widely accepted by the general public, and in particular by those who might have been part of the invasion force in the fall of 1945 and their families. Yet there is no contemporary evidence that the majority of military planners thought that the invasion would be as costly as Truman stated. A more reasonable estimate by the Joint War Plans Committee in June, 1945, was perhaps one-tenth of that.
Granted, such estimates are guesses, and furthermore, even the lower number of American deaths might be thought of as too many, both by the military and by political leaders. The need for an invasion, however, was itself not a foregone conclusion. Both General Dwight Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur (the latter was the supreme commander of Allied forces in the Pacific) believed that Japan would surrender without either an invasion of the home islands or the use of the atomic bomb. So did other American military leaders. Some thought that an offer of minor concessions would induce the surrender. Others believed that simply continuing the naval blockade and conventional air assaults would be enough to convince the leaders of the Japanese military that they had been beaten.
Failing to see a clear military necessity, some historians, usually labeled “revisionists,” have argued that Truman was at least as interested in impressing the Russians as he was in defeating the Japanese. The Soviet Union was about to enter World War II against the Japanese. Already in the summer of 1945, relations among the Allies were strained. The Soviet Union was not living up to its agreements in Eastern Europe. In the revisionist interpretation, the dropping of the atomic bomb was among the first acts of the Cold War as well as among the last acts of World War II.
Takaki rejects any simplistic explanation, whether it be Truman’s claim of saving...
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