restricted access The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan by Wilson Miscamble (review)
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Reviewed by
Wilson Miscamble, The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 174pp.

Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., has taught at Notre Dame for more than two decades. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992) and the prize-winning From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Decision is in some ways a distillation of the latter volume but stands on its own as a valuable contribution to the literature. Based on an impressive amount of research and gracefully written, it should be read by anyone interested in the subject and is particularly suitable for the classroom.

Only a few of the book’s many virtues can be mentioned in a brief review. Most authors, naturally emphasizing the subject of nuclear bombs and relations with the Soviet Union, leave the impression that President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of States James F. Byrnes thought of little else during the period. Miscamble shows the bewildering number of issues, most of them unprecedented, with which they had to contend. Both had earlier served as U.S. senators, and their previous experience had largely been in domestic affairs. Both tended to act as though they were dealing with fellow politicians who happened to be foreigners. “I know how to deal with the Russians,” Byrnes said on one occasion. “It’s just like the U.S. Senate. You build a post office in their state, and they’ll build a post office in our state” (p. 130).

Miscamble also does an excellent job of presenting situations as they must have appeared to the participants, as opposed to judging them on the basis of post-Hiroshima knowledge and attitudes. Decisions that had to be made within the context of fast-moving events, often in the face of conflicting advice, are fair game for those writing years or decades later. Miscamble is particularly cogent in his discussions of “alternatives” so freely thrown about by some scholars. Alternatives by definition were [End Page 206] not tried and therefore can easily be depicted as preferable to what actually was done.

Perhaps the most valuable chapter in Decision is the one titled “Necessary, But Was It Right?” This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of the moral questions involved in using nuclear bombs against largely civilian populations. Even some individuals who accept the notion that the bombs hastened the end of a bloody war—a war that would have become far bloodier had the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands taken place—criticize the act as intrinsically immoral. Citing the likelihood that an estimated 250,000 people (mostly Asians, but many Westerners), would have died every month the war continued, Miscamble agrees with Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s statement that using the bombs was “our least abhorrent choice” (p. 123).

Along the way, Decisions provides devastating commentaries on some of the Hiroshima revisionists’ most prized fictions. One is that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender in the summer of 1945 and would have done so if only the United States had assured them that they could retain their sacred emperor. Truman and Byrnes refused to extend such an assurance, the story goes, because they wanted the war to continue until the nuclear bombs could be used. The real purpose of the bombs, therefore, was not to defeat an already-defeated Japan but to use the nuclear threat to bully the Soviet Union. Miscamble easily demolishes such nonsense by pointing out that intercepted Japanese messages gave no indication that the authorities in Tokyo were even considering surrender. Some civilian officials wanted to enlist the Soviet Union to broker a peace settlement that would have preserved the imperial system and the prewar Japanese empire intact, but these terms were entirely unacceptable to Truman and Byrnes, who were committed to the “unconditional surrender” policy enunciated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943.

Another revisionist myth is that Truman and Byrnes employed a coherent...