Marshall, Truman, and the Decision to Drop the Bomb
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Correspondence Marshall, Truman, and the Decision to Drop the Bomb Gar Alperovitz and Robert L. Messer To the Editors: In the Spring 1991 issue of International Security, Barton J. Bernstein reported that at the end of World War 11, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and others briefly explored using nuclear weapons tactically in connection with plans for the possible invasion of Japan. Although Marshall’s interest in this option has been known for some time,’ Bernstein’scontribution sheds considerable light on the earliest thinking about tactical nuclear weapons. However, Bernstein also strongly suggests that Marshall’s consideration of the tactical option somehow negates a now very considerable body of other evidence showing that American leaders understood that when the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan (expected in early August 1945), the shock of this event would likely precipitate a surrender without the atomic bomb, and long before an initial landing on the island of Kyushu (set for planning purposes three months later, in the first week of November). If Bernstein is right, many other important issues of interpretation connected with the only use of nuclear weapons in history are put into question. For instance, because he thinks an invasion was still deemed likely, Bernstein suggests his research ”raises Gar Alperovitz, author of Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, and President of the National Center for Economic Alternatives, is working on a new book on the Hiroshima decision and its long-term legacy. Robert L. Messer, Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is author of The End of An Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman and the Origins of the Cold War, and is currently working on a book treating Truman’s nuclear policy. Barton J. Bernstein is a Professor of History at Stanford University, and has long been writing on nuclear history. 1. Barton J. Bernstein, “Eclipsed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” International Security, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Spring 1991), pp. 149-173. Bernstein acknowledges (p. 152, note 3) that he dismissed information on this option when it was initially cited, but has now changed his mind. See Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam; The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965), pp. 113-114; Atomic Diplomacy, expanded and updated ed. (New York: Viking, 1985),pp. 161-162; and Herbert Feis, The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War IZ (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 10-11. International Security, Winter 1991192 (Vol. 16, No. 3) 01991 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 204 Correspondence I205 serious doubts“ about arguments that the bomb was used ”primarily to intimidate the Soviet Union” (pp. 151, 169). We believe that Bernstein is wrong, first because evidence concerning Marshall’s view of a possible tactical use of nuclear weapons is very sketchy; second because information concerning discussions on the subjectby Marshall and others lower down the chain of command is different from information about the top officials who actually made the crucial decisions; third, and above all, because the most recently discovered evidence concerning the view of President Truman himself runs strongly counter to Bernstein’s interpretation. THE SHOCK OF RUSSIAN ENTRY AND THE FADING LIKELIHOOD OF AN INVASION As in all complex questions of historical analysis it is, of course, possible to debate matters of nuance and emphasis. However, it is no longer a novel argument that in the late summer of 1945 President Truman and his top advisers were aware that use of the atomic bomb was no longer necessary to avoid an invasion. In his recent survey of the literature on the bomb decision, J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, concludes: Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion...