Harry Truman and Memory of Mass Murder

Harry Truman spoke in the U.S. Senate on June 23, 1941: “If we see that Germany is winning,” he said, “we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”

Did Truman value Japanese lives above Russian and German?  There is nothing anywhere to suggest that he did.  Yet we debate, every August 6th or so, whether Truman was willing to unnecessarily sacrifice Japanese lives in order to scare Russians with his nuclear bombs.  He was willing; he was not willing; he was willing.  Left out of this debate is the obvious possibility that killing as many Japanese as possible was among Truman’s goals.

A U.S. Army poll in 1943 found that roughly half of all GIs believed it would be necessary to kill every Japanese person on earth. William Halsey, who commanded the United States’ naval forces in the South Pacific during World War II, thought of his mission as “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs,” and had vowed that when the war was over, the Japanese language would be spoken only in hell. War correspondent Edgar L. Jones wrote in the February 1946 Atlantic Monthly, “What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off  the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”

On August 6, 1945, President Truman announced: “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T.  It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”Hiroshima was, of course, a city full of people, not an Army base. But those people were merely Japanese. Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey had told the New York Times: “Fighting Japs is not like fighting normal human beings. The Jap is a little barbarian…. We are not dealing with humans as we know them. We are dealing with something primitive. Our troops have the right view of the Japs. They regard them as vermin.”

Some try to imagine that the bombs shortened the war and saved more lives than the some 200,000 they took away. And yet, weeks before the first bomb was dropped, on July 13, 1945, Japan sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan’s codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary to “the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Truman had been informed through Swiss and Portuguese channels of Japanese peace overtures as early as three months before Hiroshima. Japan objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor.

Presidential advisor James Byrnes had told Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to “dictate the terms of ending the war.” Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote in his diary that Byrnes was “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.” Truman wrote in his diary that the Soviets were preparing to march against Japan and “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Truman ordered the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6thand another type of bomb, a plutonium bomb, which the military also wanted to test and demonstrate, on Nagasaki on August 9th. Also on August 9th, the Soviets attacked the Japanese. During the next two weeks, the Soviets killed 84,000 Japanese while losing 12,000 of their own soldiers, and the United States continued bombing Japan with non-nuclear weapons. Then the Japanese surrendered.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that,”… certainly prior to 31 December, 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”  One dissenter who had expressed this same view to the Secretary of War prior to the bombings was General Dwight Eisenhower. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy agreed: “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

Whatever dropping the bombs might possibly have contributed to ending the war, it is curious that the approach of threatening to drop them, the approach used during a half-century of Cold War to follow, was never tried.  An explanation may perhaps be found in Truman’s comments suggesting the motive of revenge:

“Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, and against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international law of warfare.”

Truman doesn’t say he used the bomb to shorten the war or save lives.  He says he used the bomb because he could. “Having found the bomb we have used it.”  And he provides as reasons for having used it three characteristics of the people murdered: they (or their government) attacked U.S. troops, they (or their government) brutalized U.S. prisoners, and they (or their government) — and this is without any irony intended — oppose international law.

Truman could not, incidentally, have chosen Tokyo as a target — not because it was a city, but because we (or our government) had already reduced it to rubble.

The nuclear catastrophes may have been, not the ending of a World War, but the theatrical opening of the Cold War, aimed at sending a message to the Soviets. Many low and high ranking officials in the U.S. military, including commanders in chief, have been tempted to nuke more cities ever since, beginning with Truman threatening to nuke China in 1950. The myth developed, in fact, that Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for nuking China led to the rapid conclusion of the Korean War. Belief in that myth led President Richard Nixon, decades later, to imagine he could end the Vietnam War by pretending to be crazy enough to use nuclear bombs. Even more disturbingly, he actually was crazy enough. “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you? … I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes,” Nixon said to Henry Kissinger in discussing options for Vietnam.

I just want you to think, instead, about this poem:

Hiroshima
by Sherwood Ross

I am the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto
A graduate of Emory College, Atlanta,
Pastor of the Methodist Church of Hiroshima
I was in a western suburb when the bomb struck
Like a sheet of sunlight.
Fearing for my wife and family
I ran back into the city
Where I saw hundreds and hundreds fleeing
Every one of them hurt in some way.
The eyebrows of some were burned off
Skin hung from their faces and hands
Some were vomiting as they walked
On some naked bodies the burns had made patterns
Of the shapes of flowers transferred
From their kimonos to human skin.
Almost all had their heads bowed
Looked straight ahead, were silent
And showed no expression whatever.
Under many houses I heard trapped people screaming
Crying for help but there were none to help
And the fire was coming.
I came to a young woman holding her dead baby
Who pleaded with me to find her husband
So he could see the baby one last time.
There was nothing I could do but humor her.
By accident I ran into my own wife
Both she and our child were alive and well.
For days I carried water and food to the wounded and the dying.
I apologized to them: “Forgive me,” I said, “for not sharing your burden.”
I am the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto
Pastor of the Methodist Church of Hiroshima
I was in a western suburb when the bomb struck
Like a sheet of sunlight.

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  • Tonto

    David Swanson says, “Did Truman value Japanese lives above Russian and German? There is
    nothing anywhere to suggest that he did. Yet we debate, every August 6th
    or so, whether Truman was willing to unnecessarily sacrifice Japanese
    lives in order to scare Russians with his nuclear bombs. He was
    willing; he was not willing; he was willing. Left out of this debate is
    the obvious possibility that killing as many Japanese as possible was
    among Truman’s goals.”

    This sort of speculative, altruist, humanitarian drivel is enough to make one puke.

    Let me suggest David Swanson read a little more about human history to find out what really goes on behind the scenes. Read about the recent history of the French Revolution and how lives were treated then; especially as these newly liberated concepts played out in Haiti and St. Domingue (Hispaniola). When the African blacks got “freedom” in mind, a contagion they suffered due to the French Revolution, they exterminated not just the French, the Spanish and the English on this Island. They exterminated all the half-breeds too.

    Any American (black, white, hispanic or whatever) that lives in the U.S. today and who on a daily basis is forced to brush up against newly liberated kids (who could have been Obama thirty years ago), kids like Trayvon Martin, will recognize what is going on in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century history of Hispaniola. There is a certain sense of retribution-entitlement that leads the altruist rabble (like the ilk that write here) to feel entitled to even-the-score against those they feel who have historically threatened them, or kept-them-down.

    The problem is NOT that Truman sought to have as many of these people kill each other off in their own wars upon each other, or with the A-bombs he gave orders to drop on Japan. The problem is, the moronic, altruist, humanitarian youth of today, who think they have everything all figured out, and who will in their own way claim retribution-entitlement against those they feel who have historically threatened them…

    We live in a world that is rapidly becoming a less favorable place to live. Post Fukushima, no one should have delusions about entering a new scientific Garden of Eden. That is NOT what is evolving. There is no debate about human progress any more. Human progress due to the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment has been amply demonstrated by the sordid history of scientific progress, that there will be left on this world, none but slaves, slaves and overseers, when it is through, and likely, ultimately, destroyed by the greedy, fame-seeking scientific overlords that have been rapidly consolidating their historical gains since the Eighteenth Century when traditional slavery was curtailed.

    You are a slave. It is your ignorance that keeps you a slave. There are so many slaves in the world now, unless you kill them all, they will continue to hunt free people down for the bounty the scientific overlords pay them to find those who are free. You, and all the rabble who speak of freedom here are terrorists, if you hadn’t realized what has happened over the last decade.

    And your goals are the same goals that terrorists seek, the dissolution of the modern, scientific, western culture that enslaves everyone on the planet; the same culture that recklessly continues to destroy the potential for anyone to enjoy life on earth.

    • JB fairness

      History shows when the right one comes along and the opportunity is there, they will resort to the ultimate means of technology, if they were a strong advocate of going the extra mile after the enemy. Meaning he may have a propensity for resorting to ultimate measures that should leave anyone in a state too unfathomable to the point “did we go to far??”(not him quoting, but his constituents) , when he(truman), himself felt he didn’t go too far when he pulled the switch on a population. Not sure what his motives(ie population reduction, show of might, or rhetoric?) But his version of justice was to make the entire crowd complicit for a sector of it at fault. When truman made the decision that day to incongruously extinguish a certain race of humanity, then it should have sent shivers thru anyone’s body, knowing of its unlimited potential. And if it didn’t, that should be worrisome, meaning there are still many who condone his ultimate means instead of the conventional means, in battle. It appears in his play-book, theres really no room in humanity for diplomacy much less human decency.

  • Carl_Herman

    Right on, David; thank you.

  • KV

    War is war. At the very onset, all moral, ethical and legal aspects are morphed to justify what each side is doing. You should consider Japanese occupation in Korea, China, Pacific nations. Contextually, you should also consider Holocaust and while you are at it, look up some of the ancient wars. Finally, look up Ashoka’s last war before conversion to Buddhism. This is about the human animal and psyche and pathos.

  • JB fairness

    Good article. History shows when the right one comes along and the opportunity is there, they will resort to the ultimate means of technology, if they were a strong advocate of going the extra mile after the enemy. Meaning he may have a propensity for resorting to ultimate measures that should leave anyone in a state too unfathomable to the point “did we go to far??”(not him quoting, but his constituents) , when he(truman), himself felt he didn’t go too far when he pulled the switch on a population. Not sure what his motives(ie population reduction, show of might, or rhetoric?) But his version of justice was to make the entire crowd complicit for a sector of it at fault. When truman made the decision that day to incongruously extinguish a certain race of humanity, then it should have sent shivers thru anyone’s body, knowing of its unlimited potential. And if it didn’t, that should be worrisome, meaning there are still many who condone his ultimate means instead of the conventional means, in battle. It appears in his play-book, theres really no room in humanity for diplomacy much less human decency.