Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Oliver Stone’s “The Bomb”

The third installment in Stone’s “Untold History of the United States” focuses on the decision to drop the atomic bomb first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki.

Stone makes, or a least strongly implies, a number of points.

1. The Japanese were willing to surrender before the bomb if the safety of the emperor was assured
2. Truman was more interested in a show of force for the Soviet Union
3. The Japanese were more concerned about the Soviet invasion than the atomic bomb
4. The casualty estimates for the invasion of Japan were originally modest and have grown over time

Let’s take Stone’s points one by one.

The Japanese were willing to surrender before the bomb if the safety of the emperor was assured
More accurately, the Japanese indicated that they were willing to do so. As to whether they would actually have followed through, and what exact terms they were looking for, is debatable.

Even if total surrender other than the sole condition of the safety of the emperor was on the table, it would have taken someone with significantly greater political stature than Harry Truman to accept the offer.

This was the enemy that attacked Pearl Harbor, the enemy that perpetrated the horrors of Bataan and Corregidor, the enemy that American soldiers had been fighting for four years bloody inch by bloody inch across jungle islands that no one had ever heard of. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt had declared that only Unconditional Surrender was acceptable; Unconditional Surrender has been wrested from the Germans and the American public damn well expected Unconditional Surrender from the Japanese.

Roosevelt had the stature to settle for less, but not Truman. I don’t see any way that this was politically possible given the limitations of the man in the White House.

Truman was more interested in a show of force for the Soviet Union
I agree that this was a secondary factor. As Stone points out Truman was terribly naïve scientifically and appears to have actually thought that the US could maintain a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Learning that the Americans had the bomb, and were willing to use it, certainly concerned Stalin. It concerned him so much that he accelerated Soviet efforts toward developing the bomb themselves.

The use of the bomb probably ended any hope for an agreement to ban the weapons or at least made it obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. I doubt it could have happened anyway. Of course Wallace, if he had become president, might have been stupid enough to trust Stalin but not anyone else.

So, like I said, this was a secondary motive but I doubt it was anything close to the primary reason. Truman probably considered it “icing on the cake.” The real issue was ending the war with Japan.

The Japanese were more concerned about the Soviet invasion than the Atomic Bomb
This was one I hadn’t heard before and I hadn’t realized how extensive the fighting had been in Manchuria nor how many casualties had been suffered. I was under the impression that the fighting had been token as best.

Ok, so I learned something but I still don’t buy Stone’s premise.

Again this was undoubtedly a factor, but was it the primary driving factor toward Japan finally accepting Unconditional Surrender?

I have to believe the answer is no and here’s why. Ultimately it was the emperor himself that made the decision and ordered surrender. The Japanese high command might have been willing to fight to the last drop of blood of the last soldier and maybe even the last civilian but the emperor wasn’t.

For the emperor to have intervened and to have actually addressed the Japanese people over the radio was staggeringly unprecedented. Like extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, extraordinary actions usually require extraordinary reasons.

The Soviet invasion wasn’t extraordinary. The Japanese weren’t stupid. They probably realized from D-Day on that the participation of the Russians was just a matter of time. A long anticipated event wouldn’t have caused the emperor to act.

The Atomic Bomb would have been not only unanticipated but inconceivable to the Japanese prior to Hiroshima. The second bomb demonstrated that it wasn’t a one and done thing. This WAS extraordinary enough to get the emperor to act. Stone is wrong. It was the bomb that forced the issue.

The casualty estimates for the invasion of Japan were originally modest and have grown over time
The implication being that the casualty estimates in 1945 weren’t large enough to be the driving factor in the decision to drop the bomb.

Stone backs up this claim by quoting the ever growing numbers expressed by Truman over the years and quotes General George Marshall as estimating 31,000 casualties.

While Stone is right about Truman’s ever growing numbers, he’s being very dishonest with Marshall’s quote. Marshall did indeed, by using the Battle of Luzon as a model, estimate 31,000 casualties but within the first 30 days with a total of 70,000 overall. Fleet Admiral William Leahy thought Okinawa was a better model (and I have to agree with him on that one) and estimated 268,000 casualties.

These estimates were only for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushsu, did not include naval casulaties and did not take into account Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu and the capture of Tokyo. They also were fairly early and didn’t take into account the ever increasing discovery of Japanese reserve forces by Allied Intelligence including some 8,000 suicide aircraft.

Let’s look at some other estimates, courtesy of Richard B. Frank in Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House, 1999.

A study done by the Joint Chiefs of Staff implied that a 90-day Olympic campaign would cost 456,000 American casualties, including 109,000 dead or missing. If Coronet took another 90 days, the combined cost would be 1,200,000 casualties, with 267,000 fatalities. Imagine what the Japanese total, military and civilian, would have been.

A study by Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s staff estimated that conquering Japan would cost 1.7-4 million American casualties, including 400,000–800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese fatalities. The key assumption was large-scale participation by civilians in the defense of Japan; an assumption not included in any of the military estimates but certainly part of the Japanese Ketsugo defense plan.

Herbert Hoover estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 deaths and may have discussed these numbers with Truman during their meetings in 1945.

D.M Giangreco and Kathryn Moore at History News Network, writing about Purple Heart production, indicate that approximately 500,000 Purple Hearts were manufactured in preparation for the invasion of Japan. They were expected to last until 1947.

There are still 120,000 of those medals available. Young soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are being awarded medals originally made for their grandfathers.

Stone's claim is total nonsense. Clearly there were concerns in 1945 that the number of casualties during the invasion of Japan was going to be horrendous.

Even simple actions by simple men have multiple and complex motives. Often we can't say ourselves with any certainty what the primary reason for an action was. Life is just too complicated to break it down into simple one on one cause and effect relationships.   One can always look at history and find "other considerations" or "other factors." Things that have not been highlighted or even mentioned in the summary of events that history becomes. There is always a simplification process. That doesn't mean what becomes known as "history" is wrong, just incomplete. It always has been, and it always will be.   At least for this episode Stone strikes me as confusing mountains and molehills.

1 comment:

David Martin said...

Please see "Oliver Stone on the Japanese Surrender" at http://www.dcdave.com/article5/130122.htm for a bit more education on this subject.