The third chapter of the video documentary series can be viewed here. The series can also be viewed in its entirety on Netflix, or purchased directly at untoldhistory.com. Below is our transcribed text, written by Peter Kuznick, Matt Graham and Oliver Stone.
A televised statement by President Harry Truman on August 6th, 1945:
"A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbour - they have been paid many fold, and the end is not yet. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, their communications. Let there be no mistake, we will completely destroy Japan's power to make war. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe."
The war in Europe had ended close to three months before on May 8th...
narrated by Oliver Stone...
Looming on November 1 was Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese islands, overseen by Douglas MacArthur. Many feared a bloodbath as Americans confronted a fanatically hostile civilian population, as well as the remaining Japanese Imperial Armed Forces.
The climate for the war was shaped by the profound hatred Americans felt toward the Japanese. Pulitzer Prize winning author Allen Nevins wrote after the war:
"Probably in all our history no foe has been as detested as were the Japanese."
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Force, was notorious in this regard, urging his men to kill the "yellow monkeys". An article in Time Magazine stated: "The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing indicates it." The British embassy in Washington reported back to London that the Americans viewed the Japanese as a "nameless mass of vermin". When popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle was transferred from Europe to the Pacific in February '45 he observed:
"In Europe, we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered the Japanese were looked upon the way certain people feel about cockroaches or mice."
Some of this sentiment can be attributed certainly to racism, but American rancour toward Japan soared with the sneak attack against Pearl Harbour, and then in early 1944 the government released information about the sadistic treatment of U.S. and Filipino prisoners during the Baton Death March two years earlier - reports of unspeakable Japanese cruelty, torture, cruxifixction, castration, dismemberment, beheading, burning and burying alive flooded the media. Even Truman's bigotry long annotated reports of Japanese savagery. As a young man courting his future wife, he wrote:
"I make one man as good as another, so long as he's honest and descent and not a nigger or a chinaman. Uncle will says the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a chinaman."
To be fair, Truman was a product of his time and place. His biographer, Merle Miller, reported:
"Privately Mr. Truman always said 'nigger', at least he always did when I talked to him."
This racism prevailed when President Roosevelt in 1942 signed an Executive Order calling for the evacuation of over one hundred and ten thousand Japanese and Japanese Americans from California, Oregon and Washington on the grounds that they represented a threat to national security - 70% of them were American citizens. But with few defending these citizens constitutional rights, they were eventually placed in ten different camps, often referred to at the time as concentration camps. Conditions here were deplorable, lacking running water, bathroom facilities, descent schools, insulated cabins and proper roofs. They worked under scorching desert sun for minuscule pay. Evacuees were only allowed to bring what they could carry, and some greedy Westerners used the opportunity to seize their neighbours' property at a fraction of their real value. The Japanese lost an estimated $400 million in personal property, worth more than $5 billion today.
The Japanese resoluteness in the face of defeat was legendary. In February and March of 1945 after five weeks of combat at Iwo Jima, almost seven thousand American sailors and marines were killed and over eighteen thousand wounded. At Okinawa, the bloodiest battle of the Pacific, over twelve thousand Americans were killed or missing, and over thirty-six thousand wounded. One hundred thousand Japanese soldiers and an equivalent number of Okinawan civilians were killed, many of them committed suicide. Americans were particularly shocked by the nineteen hundred Kamikaze attacks which sank thirty and damaged some 360 naval vessels. Japanese soldiers fought for the Emperor, who many worshipped as a god, but believed that surrender would shame their families but that death on the battlefield would bring the highest honour.
All military planners agreed that an invasion would be costly. But the debate over just how costly has raged for decades. Marshall told Truman on June 18th he expected no more than thirty-one thousand casualties. America's moral ... strongly condemned Japanese bombing of Chinese cities in 1937. When the war began in '39 Roosevelt implored combatants to refrain from the inhuman barbarism involved in bombing defenceless cities. But by the mid-1940s great cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Warsaw, London,Rotterdam, Moscow, Leningrad, Budapest, Vienna, Cologne, Berlin and many others had been severely bombed.
In July of '43, British bombers destroyed Hamburg, creating fires higher than the Empire State Building - it was the beginning of a new war.
Germany had begun with deadly raids against British cities, and the British with thousand plane formations over urban targets in Germany. When U.S. Air Force Colonel Curtis LeMay arrived in England in 1942, Air Force strategy was targeting Germany with precision bombing of key industries and transportation networks in vast daylight raids. But the crews were being shot to pieces. Terrified for their lives, many pilots simply aborted their missions and returned to base. Morale was at the point of collapse. LeMay issued a severe order to his flyers:
"Our abort rate is far too high. The cause of it is fear. Therefore, I will be on the lead plane of these missions, and any crew that takes off and doesn't get to the target will be court marshalled."
The abort rate dropped off to nothing, but even then LeMay looked to overhaul strategy, frustrated with the restrictions of conventional bombing. His inspiration came from the British, and especially the notorious Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who made no distinction between military and civilian targets.
It was Harris in February 1942 who masterminded the shift from precise but dangerous daytime bombing to notoriously imprecise nighttime area bombing raids that indiscriminately killed civilians. The U.S. in the past had balked at such slaughter. Now, round the clock bombing ensured, the British at night, the Americans by day. In July of '43, British bombers, including Harris, destroyed the city of Hamburg, creating fires higher than the Empire State Building. LeMay felt he could do even better, and in November of '43 the U.S. Air Force destroyed Munster - it was the beginning of a new war.
"Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?" "You gotta kill people. And when you kill enough, they stop fighting."
On the night of February 14th, 1945, the beautiful baroque city of Dresden on the Elb river, packed with refugees fleeing the Red Army, disappeared from the face of the Earth. Twenty-five thousand were killed by British bombers that night, followed by the U.S. Air Force the next morning. The city had little military value. The cost of Allied area bombing was vast in terms of men and materiel, representing almost a quarter of the entire British war effort, and much of the American.
But was it worth it? The bombing slowed the rate of increase in German armaments production and took its toll on civilian morale, killing more than an estimated half million German, Italian and French civilians. And it forced the Luftwaffe to divert resources to defend the mainland, making them unavailable for the Soviet front. But defending itself and repairing the damage may have cost the Germans less than the Allies spent to wreak such damage - over seventy-nine thousand American, and an equal number of British, air crew members were killed in action. Even Churchill wondered out loud in 1943:
"Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?"
By mid April there was simply nothing left to destroy in Germany. LeMay argued:
"You gotta kill people. And when you kill enough, they stop fighting.
In late 1944, the man the Japanese came to be known as "demon LeMay" was transferred to the Pacific, where he bombed Japanese civilians with a ferocity never before seen in the annals of war. More explicit than the British area bombing, LeMay called it "terror bombing". In that year the U.S. was capturing more and more Japanese occupied territories, bringing Japan itself within range of U.S. bombers, and on the night of March the 9th, 1945, LeMay sent three hundred and thirty over Tokyo, the Imperial capital. Carrying incendiary bombs, consisting of napalm, thermite, white phosphorus, and other inflammable material.
LeMay's Tokyo bombing killed up to 100,000 civilians. The stench of burning flesh was so powerful that crew members vomited in their planes.
Tokyo was a thousand year-old concentration of bamboo and wood, it was called a paper city. B-29s destroyed sixteen square miles, killing up to a hundred thousand civilians, leaving an estimated one million homeless. The scalding inferno caused canals to boil, metal to melt and people to burst spontaneously into flames. The stench of burning flesh was so powerful that crew members vomited in their planes. The Tokyo raid was to be known as 'LeMay's Masterpiece'. He said:
"To confuse morality with what we were doing - nuts!"
The American Air Force actually firebombed up to one hundred Japanese cities, some of no military significance, taking more than an estimated half million lives. Almost no one objected to the slaughter-bombing of Japanese civilians. It was, as one Brigadier General said, one of the most ruthless and barbaric killing of non-combatants in all of history. Destruction reached 99.5% in the city of Toyama. Secretary of State Stimson told Truman he did not want the U.S. to get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities.
Seen through the prism of the terrible destruction being wrought by LeMay's terror bombing, the atomic bomb can be seen as a chilling, if logical, next step. But as it crept closer, many scientists began to squirm. Leo Szilard and others understood implicitly that this bomb they were building was a primitive prototype to what was to follow. Szilard, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harold Urey and astronomer Walter Bartkey attempted to see Truman, to caution against the use of the bomb, but they were re-routed to South Caroline to speak with Byrnes, whose response appalled Szilard:
"Mr. Byrnes knew at that time, as the rest of the government knew, that Japan was essentially defeated. He was much concerned about the spreading of Russian influence in Europe, and that possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable."
Leslie Groves also admitted that in his mind, Russia had always been the enemy:
"There was never, from about two weeks, from the time I took charge of this project, any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and the project was conducted on that basis."
In June, scientists at Chicago's MET Lab, drafted a report warning that a nuclear attack on Japan would not only destroy America's moral position but would instigate a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. The report also noted that because there was no secret to the bomb, the Soviet Union would soon catch up. When security officers banned its circulation, Szilard drafted a petition to Truman, signed by 155 of the project's scientists [see The Franck Report, of June 11, 1945], but Robert Oppenheimer barred it circulation at Los Alamos, and alerted Groves who made sure the petition did not reach Truman. Groves' security agents had been conducting extensive surveillance of Szilard throughout the war, and at one point Groves had labelled an enemy alien, and requested that he be interred for the duration of the war.
In May '45 General Marshall supported Oppenheimer's suggestion to share information with Soviet scientists, if not his proposal to invite Soviet observers to the test, but Byrnes in any case vetoed the whole idea. The Bomb's use now seemed inexorable, unstoppable, and it came to apocalyptic head in Potsdam in July, where the Big Three were discussing the shape of the post-war world. It was the perfect place to reveal the existence of the bomb.
The Conference setting was strange and other-worldly. Soviet troops occupied the wrecked capital of Berlin. Truman had said his primary reason for going was to ensure the Soviet entry into the Pacific war, an assurance Stalin was ready to give again. Truman wrote in his diary:
"He'll be in the Jap war on August 15 - finis Japs when that comes about."
Allied intelligence concurred, reporting:
"An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat."
"Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace." They all knew the Japanese were finished.
Yet, it was clear to most that the Japanese were already finished. By the end of 1944 the Japanese Navy had been decimated, the Air Force badly weekend, the railroad transit system in tatters, the food supply shrunk, public morale plummeting. Upon Germany's defeat the Russian army began gathering in Siberia in enormous numbers preparing to invade Japanese occupied Manchuria in early August of 1945.
In February of that year, Prince Konoe, the former Prime Minister, had written to the Emperor:
"I regret to say that Japan's defeat is inevitable."
In May, Japan's Supreme War Council decided to feel out the Soviets for peace terms. They wanted, not only to keep the USSR out of their war, but also to see if the Soviets could help secure better surrender terms from the Americans. This was a delicate negation, but American Intelligence had been intercepting Japanese cables since the start of the war, and a July 18 cable from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow seeking surrender terms said, unequivocally, "Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace". Truman unambiguously characterized this as the telegram from "the Jap Emperor asking for peace". Forrestal noted evidence of a Japanese "desire to get out the war"; Stimson described Japanese "maneuverings for peace"; Byrnes pointed to "Japanese peace feelers". THEY ALL KNEW THE JAPANESE WERE FINISHED.
The end was near, and several of Truman's close advisors urged him to modify the unconditional surrender to signal that Japan could keep its Emperor and speed the end of the war. To the people, the Emperor was a sacred figure and the centre of their Shinto religion. To see him hanged like Mussolini in Italy or humiliated in a war trial would be more than they could bear. MacArthur's command reported "the hanging of the Emperor to them would be comparable to the cruxifixction of Christ to us - all would fight to die like ants."
But, Jimmy Byrnes told Truman that he would crucified politically if the Imperial system was retained. Once again, his advice prevailed. Truman and Byrnes believed they had a way to speed Japanese surrender on American terms without Soviet help, thereby denying the USSR the territorial and economic concessions promised by Roosevelt.
Truman had delayed the start of Potsdam two weeks, giving the scientists time to ready the bomb test. It worked. Stimson gave him the news.
The conference began the very next day. Truman later read the full report; the test was terrifying, almost beyond comprehension. Truman's demeanour changed completely - Churchill was stunned by the transformation:
"I couldn't understand it. He was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on, and where they got off, and generally bossed the whole meeting."
On the 24th of July Truman informed Stalin the United States was in possession of a new weapon of unusual destructive force.
"I don't think he quite understood what I was talking about. I told him we had discovered a tremendously powerful explosive and that we proposed to use it to end the war with Japan. And he smiled and said he was very happy to hear it and then the conversation ended and I went my way and he went his."
But Truman was naive in this matter. Klaus Fuchs, a man of ideological conviction, who was part of the British scientific mission at Alamogordo, had delivered technical information relating to the bomb to his Soviet handlers. Stalin already knew when the test had been scheduled and now was being told it had succeeded. Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, noted Stalin's response. Apparently, once he stepped away from the Conference, Stalin called his secret police chief, Beria, and scolded him for not having told him of the success of the test before Truman. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko reported that when Stalin returned to his villa he remarked that the Americans would use their atomic monopoly now to dictate terms in Europe, but that he wouldn't give in to that blackmail. He ordered Soviet military forces to speed their entry into the Asian war, and he ordered Soviet scientists to pick up the pace of their research.
Truman behaviour at Potsdam reinforced Stalin's belief that the U.S. intended to end the war quickly and renege on its promised concessions in the Pacific. On July the 25th Truman approved a directive signed by Stimson and Marshall, ordering the atomic bomb be used against Japan as soon after August 3rd as the weather permitted. He and Byrnes fully expected the Japanese government to reject the Potsdam declaration, which failed to give any reassurances about the Emperor. The U.S. even vetoed Stalin's wish to sign the declaration - adding Stalin's signature would have signalled the Japanese that the Soviet Union was about to come into the war. It was incredibly underhanded behaviour by the U.S., both toward the Japanese and the USSR.
While the hours were ticking off until the atomic bomb was ready to use the absence of a Soviet signature was encouraging the Japanese to continue their futile diplomatic efforts since May of that year to keep the Soviets out of the war, knowing that the entry of their giant army would crush the Japanese Empire.
Stimson, who had serious misgivings about using the bomb, referring to it as "the dreadful, "the terrible", "the diabolical", repeatedly tried to convince Truman and Byrnes to assure the Japanese about the Emperor, but it was an exercise in futility. When Stimson complained to Truman about being ignored, Truman told his elderly, frail Secretary of War, that if he didn't like it he could pack his bags and go home.
Six of America's seven five-star officers who received their final star during the war declared the bomb morally reprehensible, militarily unnecessary, or both.
Though Truman always somewhat proudly accepted responsibility for his decision, Groves, who drafted the final order to drop the bomb, contended that Truman didn't really decide:
"As far as I was concerned, his decision was one of non-interference. Basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans. Truman did not so much say 'yes', as not say 'no'."
He described Truman scornfully, as a little boy on a toboggan.
Truman's attitude in all this was puzzling. Though at times treating the bomb as a poker hand to hold over Stalin's head, he also understood that it was really a sword of damocles hanging over all of humanity. He wrote in his Potsdam diary:
"We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark."
Six of America's seven five-star officers who received their final star during World War II declared the bomb morally reprehensible, militarily unnecessary, or both. Eisenhower said:
"So then Stimson told me they were going to drop it on the Japanese. I listened. I didn't volunteer anything, because, after all, my war was over in Europe, and it wasn't up to me. But I was against it on two counts; first, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing; second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon."
General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, considered the bomb completely unnecessary from a military point of view. He later said that the Japanese would have surrendered in May if the U.S. had told them they could keep the Emperor. Opposition was sufficiently known that Groves imposed the requirement that U.S. commanders in the field clear all statements on the bombings with the War Department. As Groves said:
"After three years of the highest tension, we didn't want MacArther and others saying the war could have been won without the bomb.
Ironically, shortly after the war was over, General Curtis "Demon" LeMay said:
"Even without the atomic bomb, and the Russian entry into the war, Japan would have surrendered in two weeks. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war."
The target committee had selected a number of sites on the Japanese mainland. Stimson removed Kyoto, the ancient cultural capital, which was spared its fate over the strong opposition of Groves. It was the city of Hiroshima that was decided upon; it had been deliberately left undamaged by LeMay's bombers. Here the U.S. could showcase its new weapon.
At the hypo-centre, where temperatures reached 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit, the fireball roasted people to smokey-black char in a fraction of a second, as their internal organs boiled away.
On August 6th, at 2:45 AM, three B-29s took off from the island of Tinian for Japan. The lead plane, the Enola Gay, carried the uranium bomb. Pilot Paul Tibbits named the plane after his mother. Six and a half hours later, the Enola Gay came into sight of its target. The doomed city lay quiet in the flooding early morning sunshine. Hiroshima's three hundred thousand civilians, forty-three thousand soldiers and forty-five thousand Korean slave labourers were just beginning their day.
The target was a bridge near the centre of the city. At 8:15, right on schedule, the giant plane went into its bombing run at thirty-one thousand feet, speed three hundred and thirty miles per hour. As the bomb was released the plane twisted violently to get as far as possible from the blast. At the last minute, a gust of wind blew the bomb, carrying it toward Chima Hospital at one end of the bridge. The bomb fell almost five miles to two thousand feet, and then the two masses of uranium came together at lighting speed and turned to energy. The plane, now nine miles away, was battered by the shock wave. The fire ball expanded outward, enveloping the densely populated centre of the city, its intense heat and blast driving outward to shatter buildings and ignite all debris. The bomb totally destroyed an area extending approximately 1.2 miles in all directions. An hour and a half later, from almost four miles away, the crew could still look back and see the mushroom cloud rearing up to forty thousand feet or more.
At the hypo-centre, where temperatures reached fifty-four hundred degrees Fahrenheit, the fireball roasted people to smokey-black char in a fraction of a second, as their internal organs boiled away. Tens of thousands were killed instantly; an estimated hundred and forty thousand were dead by the end of the year; two hundred thousand by 1950.
The U.S. officially reported only 3,243 Japanese troops killed. Among the casualties were 23 American prisoners of war, some of whom survived the blast only to be beaten to death by bomb survivors.
When the bomb exploded at Hiroshima, Truman, aboard the Augusta, had gone from one crew member to another, telling them the great news, like a town cryer:
"This is the greatest thing in history."
Responding to this, Catholic lay worker and pacifist, Dorothy Day wrote:
"We have killed three hundred and eighteen thousand Japanese. Mr. Truman was jubilant. President Truman. True man. What a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true man. Truman is a true man of his time, in that he was jubilant."
Nagasaki was just one more city. For Japanese leaders the devastating news on August 9 was the Soviet invasion.
But, the Japanese did not surrender. Stalin, honouring his pledge to Roosevelt and having now moved one and a half million men to the Eastern front, attacked Japan on August 9th on three fronts in Manchuria. The fighting was bloody. The Kwangtung Army was practically obliterated - estimates ranged up to seven hundred thousand Japanese killed, wounded and captured. Stalin also attacked in Korea, in the Kuril Islands and on Sakhalin Island.
This enormous event has been mostly forgotten to history, because later that morning on August 9, before Japan had time to react to the Soviet invasion, the United States dropped its second bomb, an implosive plutonium bomb nicknamed Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki. Exploding, ironically, over the largest Catholic Cathedral in Asia, with a force of 22 kilotons, forty thousand died immediately - of them, 250 soldiers. Henry Wallace wrote of Truman and Byrnes in his diary on August 10th, one day after Nagasaki:
"It is the attitude of Truman, Byrnes and both the War and Navy Departments will make for war, eventually."
Yet, neither the announcement of Nagasaki, or Army Minister Anami's fallacious report that the U.S. had one hundred more atomic bombs, moved Tokyo any closer to surrendering unconditionally. After all, Japanese cities were being wiped all through 1945 - 200 planes and thousands of bombs, or one plane and one bomb, it didn't seem to make a noticeable difference. For Japanese leaders the devastating news on August 9 was the Soviet invasion. Nagasaki was just one more city that was destroyed.
But the Red Army easily overwhelming Japanese forces in their richest colony, the puppet state of Manchukuo, was cause for alarm. General Kawabe, the Army Deputy Chief of Staff explained:
"It was only in a gradual manner that the horrible wreckage which had been made of Hiroshima became known. In comparison, the Soviet entry into the war was a great shock because we had been in constant fear of it, with a vivid imagination that the vast Red Army forces in Europe were now being turned against us."
Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki said:
"Japan must surrender immediately, or the Soviet Union will take not only Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, but also Hokkaido. This would destroy the foundation of Japan. We must end the war when we can deal with the US."
A top secret study done in January 1946 by the Intelligence Staff of the War Department concludes:
"...there was little mention [in the Japanese cabinet] of the use of the atomic bomb by the US. The dropping of the bomb was the pretext seized upon...as a reason for ending the war. But...[it] is almost a certainty that the Japanese would have capitulated upon the entry of Russia into the war."
Not only would the Soviets destroy their empire, but they would have no qualms about destroying the Emperor himself. After all they murdered their own emperor in 1918.
On August 14th, five days after the second bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, and with desperate fighting still raging against the Soviets, Emperor Hirohito now exerted his personal power. For centuries the Japanese emperors had lived without contact with their people, revered as divine beings. But now, Hirohito speaking to the Japanese people directly, ordered surrender over the radio. It was the first time most of them had heard the voice of god.
The horrors and bloodshed of World War II coarsened a lot of people to the suffering of others. Freeman Dyson, the renown future physicist, who was part of the Tiger Force fleet of three hundred British bombers, explained:
"I found this continuing slaughter of defenceless Japanese even more sickening than the slaughter of Germans. But still I did not quit. But that time I had been at war so long that I could hardly remember peace. No living poet had the words to describe the emptiness of the soul which allowed me to go on killing without hatred and without remorse. But Shakespeare understood it, and he gave McBeth the words '...I am in blood, Stepp'd in so that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as going o'er'"
In that spirit, 85% of the American public, convinced that the bombs had ended the war, applauded their use. Truman in 1958:
"It was done on the theory that our troops were expecting to invade Japan in a very short time, and it was estimated that it would take about a million and a half men to make that invasion and in all probability there'd be a half a million casualties and two hundred and fifty thousand of them killed. And we had this powerful new weapon, and I had no qualms about using it because a weapon of war is a destructive weapon, none of us want war and all of us are against war, but when you have the weapon that will win the war, you'd be foolish if you didn't use it."
Truman's estimates of the casualties kept climbing as the years went by. Almost 50 years later in 1991, President George Bush praised Truman's tough, calculating decision, which spared millions of American lives.
Controversy over the atomic bombings continued to roil American society. Protests by the American Legion, the Air Force Association, and congressional conservatives, forced the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum to cancel a 1995 exhibit on the bombings.
Young second lieutenant Paul Fussell, who was in the Pacific at the time of the bombing, published Thank God for the Atom Bomb in 1988, in which he wrote:
"For all the fake manliness of our facades, we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all."
Like millions of others of his generation, and millions since, Fussell was convinced that Truman and the bomb saved them from invading Japan. But attributing victory to the bomb, in a sense, insults the memory of the many men and women who gave their lives to defeat the Japanese, year by grinding year.
Robert Oppenheimer met with Henry Wallace shortly after the war, deeply worried at the eventual slaughter of tens of millions. Earlier that year, he'd informed top military and civilian leaders that within three years the U.S. would likely have weapons seven thousand times as powerful as the bomb that would destroy Hiroshima. He proposed international control of atomic technology to assuage Soviet fears over U.S. intentions. Wallace wrote in his diary:
"The guilt consciousness of atomic scientists is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen."
He agreed with Oppenheimer. What was needed was an olive branch, and it came from the most unexpected quarter.
Henry Stimson, The Colonel, was a true old soldier, but he was terrified by the forces he'd helped unleash, and now wanted to put the genie back in the bottle. In early September Stimson sent a memo to Truman saying that the Soviets should be treated as allies:
"If we have this weapon rather ostentatiously on our hip, their suspicions and their distrust of our purposes and motives will increase. The chief lesson that I have learned in a long life, is the only way you can make a man trust worthy is to trust him, and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him, and show your distrust."
He proposed that the U.S. dismantle its atomic bombs if the Soviets agreed that both countries would ban atomic weapons research, and thus submit to an international system of control. Truman devoted the historic September 21 1945 cabinet meeting - Stimson's last - to discuss his proposal. Wallace allied himself with Stimson indicating the absurdity of trying to keep an atomic monopoly. With Byrnes away in London, Navy Secretary James Forrestal argued that the Soviets could not be trusted - the Russians, he said, like the Japanese, are essentially oriental in their thinking.
The Cabinet split sharply over Stimson's proposal, which would have put the United States squarely on the side of wanting world peace. But Truman vacillated, and ultimately yielded to the Byrnes/Forrestal hardline faction. The feared and potentially suicidal arms race would continue.
When Truman finally met with Robert Oppenheimer in October 1945 he asked him to guess when the Russians would develop their own atomic bomb. Oppenheimer did not know. Truman responded that he knew the answer - never. Clearly surprised by the President's truculent ignorance, and frustrated that he did not understand the seriousness of the evolving crisis, Oppenheimer blurted out "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands", to which Truman told him:
"...the blood was on my hands, let me worry about that."
Oppenheimer was later attacked by right-wing conservatives as an agent of the Soviet Union and subjected to numerous investigations by the FBI. In 1954 his security clearance was revoked. His real crime in the eyes of American authorities was opposing building the new hydrogen bomb, which he considered a weapon of genocide.
Contrary to the belief of Truman's inner circle, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not make the Soviet Union any more pliable. Soviet forces occupied the northern half of the Korean peninsula, left face-to-face with U.S. forces in the south. Korea would later become a major flashpoint in the Cold War that would engulf the world for another fifty years.
But on a far larger scale, the bombing haunted the Soviet imagination. Future Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's son, Anatoly, recalled his father telling him that Hiroshima set the heads of the Soviet military spinning. The mood in the Kremlin was neurotic. The mistrust towards the allies grew quickly. Opinions floated around to preserve a large land army to establish control over extended territories to lessen the potential loss to another atomic bombing.
And, in what many consider a cruel irony, the Japanese were allowed after all to keep the Emperor, whose retention, most experts believed essential to post-war stability in Japan. Truman suffered no political repercussions from this decision.
As Truman anticipated, the process he unleashed did indeed threaten the future existence of life on this planet. Even pugnacious Winston Churchill had moral qualms. When he visited Truman towards the end of his Presidency, Margaret, the President's daughter, described the scene:
"Everyone was in an ebullient mood, especially dad. Without warning, Mr. Churchill turned to him and said 'Mr. President, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before St. Peter and he says "I understand you two are responsible for putting off those atomic bombs. What have you got to say for yourselves?"'"
Unnecessarily killing people is a war crime - threatening human extinction goes far, far beyond that.
Although Harry Truman left office with approval ratings so low that only George W. Bush has come close since, he is now widely viewed as a near-great president and routinely showered with praise by Republicans and Democrats alike. Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who George W. Bush credited with 'telling me everything I know about the Soviet Union', named Truman her "man of the century" to Time magazine. David McCullough's 1993 biography of Truman won him a wide readership and a Pulitzer Prize, followed by an Emmy-awarded Best TV Movie on the cable network HBO in 1995, seen by millions.
In the film the Soviet point of view is entirely ignored and the characters of Henry Wallace and Jimmy Byrnes are not included. But the real Harry Truman is far darker than McCullough's underdog. Despite his denials, his flawed and tragic decision to use the bomb against Japan was meant instead as a ruthless and deeply unnecessary warning that the United States could be unrestrained by humanitarian considerations in using these same bombs against the Soviet Union if they continued to interfere in Europe or in Asia.
However, on a larger, moral scale, Truman knew he was beginning a process that could end life on the planet, as he said explicitly on at least three occasions. Yet he forged ahead recklessly. Unnecessarily killing people is a war crime - threatening human extinction goes far, far beyond that. This is what Henry Wallace understood more deeply than any other government official. The man who did his utmost to end the US monopoly of the atomic bomb has been largely lost to history.
After leaving government in 1946, Wallace ran for president in 1948 as a candidate for the newly formed Progressive Party. Their message of peace in a time of rising tensions was not heard. Repeatedly attacked by Truman and the press as a communist sympathizer, Wallace garnered less than 3% of the vote. Following the election he retired from politics, increasingly accused of sheltering communists, during his campaign he compromised himself during the pressures of the Korean War and the McCarthy period, loudly condemning the Soviets. He clung to his progressive ideals, and decried later US involvement in Vietnam. He lived quietly on his farm in upstate New York where he died in 1965.
In an irony that only American capitalism could embrace, the hybrid corn company which Wallace founded in was sold in the late 1990s to the Dupont Corporation for more than $9 billion - a bittersweet reminder to those who denigrated Mr. Smith Goes To Washington as naive and communist. He remains one of the unsung heroes of the Second World War, showing the world a kinder vision of America. Though his vision was opposed at every step, it did not die. Following in the footsteps of others before him, Henry Wallace continued to lay the foundations, and other followed. Franklin Roosevelt said:
"No man was more of the American soil than Wallace."
But few now remember how close Wallace came to getting the vice presidential nomination on that steamy Chicago night in July 1944. It was here that Roosevelt committed the greatest blunder of his splendid career, acceding to the party bosses choice of Harry Truman. He could have resisted, and with the peoples' backing had Wallace as his Vice President. But he was tired of defending his vision for world peace, very tired and near death.
This sad moment points to the fallibility of all human history. To fail is not tragic - to be human, is.
What might this country have become had Wallace succeeded Roosevelt in April '45 instead of Truman? Would no atomic bombs have been used in World War II? Could we have avoided the nuclear arms race and the Cold War? Would civil rights and women's rights triumphed in the immediate years? Might colonialism ended decades earlier, and the fruits of science and industry been spread more equitably around the globe? We'll never know.
From Wallace, the last word:
"Some have spoken of the American century. I say that the century on which we are entering, the century which will come out of this war, can be and must be the century of the common man. If we really believe we are fighting for a peoples' peace, all the rest becomes easy."