The New York Times
Politics /17 Sep 2019
09.17.19

The ‘A’ in A-Bomb Shouldn’t Have Stood for ‘Apprehension’

On President Harry Truman’s 61st birthday, May 8, 1945, he enjoyed not only “a birthday cake” but the “surrender of Germany.” When blowing out his candles, Truman probably wished for the Japanese surrender. It was soon fulfilled.

I recently finished Sean L. Malloy’s Atomic Tragedy, which narrates and analyzes the American government’s decision (particularly through the perspective of War Secretary Henry Stimson) to drop the Atomic bomb against Japan. It offers useful insight for how world leaders should think and utilize the weapons they create.

From Truman’s birthday on V-E to V-J Day, U.S. leaders were on a mission to end the war in the Pacific as swiftly as possible. Assuming the A-bomb was the only way to accomplish such an objective, they hurriedly developed it. On July 25, a presidential directive written by Truman and Stimson stated that the atomic bombs were to be “delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready.” While the decision to use the A-bomb was unequivocal, questions regarding “the integration of the bomb into a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at securing Japanese surrender and the choice of targeting within Japan” lingered. As the U.S. careened towards deploying the first WMD, leaders like Stimson delayed answering these critical questions until the bomb was “ready for use.” This permanent deferment, in exchange for expedience, made top U.S. officials first-rate wagers of war but third-rate makers of peace. In their race, they failed to apprehend that the bomb was “special” not because it provided greater capacity but because it provided revolutionary capabilities to end the war and ensure the peace.

On May 29, Marshall and Stimson discussed “the possible ways and means of employing” the A-bomb while referencing “the burning of Tokyo.” The two men’s inability to grasp that the weapon could be used for newfangled purposes trickled down the officialdom. Los Alamos officials advocated using “the bomb…to maximize its blast effects” with the “basic requirement” being “the mass killing of Japanese civilians.” If the weapon didn’t wreak more destruction, its creation was futile. Officials believed that bombing civilians would provide a greater catalyst to surrender than targeting “the Japanese ruling oligarchy.”

‘Atomic Tragedy’ by Sean L. Malloy. 248 pp. Cornell University Press

Instead of improving the bomb’s blast they should have improved their analysis of Japanese leaders. Hirohito’s “foremost preoccupation was the preservation of the imperial household” as the ruling elite considered the bombing of civilians “not among the top considerations.” Knowing to target the emperor’s treasures instead of innocent civilians would have given the U.S. a strategic advantage and moral superiority.

Officials also did not recognize the diplomatic and destructive potential of the bomb. Stimson appreciated the ability “to integrate the atomic bomb into American diplomacy,” but he waited until the bomb was ready for “a formal decision.” The delay was deadly because subsequent meetings “divorced” the bomb’s use from diplomatically securing the Japanese surrender. Consequently, the wanton civilian massacre in Hiroshima and Nagaski was unnecessary because Japan was “struggling to find a way out of the horrible mess” and the U.S. could have used the bomb as a threat with the offer of conditional surrender to end the war—instead of just using it without warning. Lastly, and most importantly, few truly understood and comprehended the bomb’s destructive impact. Stimson worried that the bomb “would sow seeds of bitterness…undermining the foundations of any peace that followed.” The postwar Cold War, proxy wars and perpetual fear of nuclear annihilation (even now) validate Stimson’s qualms.

Nearly 75 years later, one can reflect on the Truman administration’s decision to “drop the bomb” and realize that, yes, the decision was urgent, but it did not need to be impulsive and ill-conceived. The consequences that arose from such a decision surely warranted more reflection and strategic thought. As leaders across the world research and develop new weapons—whether they be conventional or nuclear—and as they enter new warfare domains—artificial intelligence and space—military and civilian officials should spend less time thinking about the destructive impact such weapons could yield in the moment and more about their global ramifications in the long-term.

When watching the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in July 1945, scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer was reminded of a verse from Hindu scripture in the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” One can only hope that when nations develop extraordinary weapons in the future, their leaders may deliberate enough on these weapons’ uses and abuses that their creators may quote a different passage from the Gita, “One who has control over the mind is tranquil in heat and cold, in pleasure and pain, and in honor and dishonor.”

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