It was a time of grotesque calculations, messy miscommunication, moral ambiguity and denial. Yet the papers of three “forgotten” men who were instrumental in ending the Second World War show that America’s decision to use the atomic bomb was the right one, according to a new book.
When the bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” fell on Japan in August 1945, around 70,000 people were killed at Hiroshima and 35,000 at Nagasaki in the initial blasts alone. Estimates for total deaths stand at 200,000-300,000 and the horrifying aftermath was described in forensic detail by journalist John Hersey.
The A-bomb changed everything. It was a “Great History Landmark”, with power to destroy or perfect civilisation, Henry Stimson, the US secretary of war, believed by May 1945 — two months ahead of the first successful test. Now a book drawing on diaries and letters of Stimson and two other leading protagonists whose names are little-known today reveals the conflicts and chaos they faced, and overcame, that summer.
Its author, Evan Thomas, set out believing that the use of the atomic bombs had been indefensible — unnecessary to defeat Japan and intended to frighten the Soviets. He soon changed his mind. “Most people of my generation believe in the revisionist view,” he said. “I went into this thinking, ‘Did we really have to drop an atom bomb? Did we really have to drop two of these things?’ So my view changed. I became an anti-revisionist just by doing the reading.”
Before America dropped its atomic bombs, the Japanese empire was unwilling to surrender in spite of a series of battlefield defeats, carpet bombing of Japanese cities and severe shortages. Its generals planned to force a final, decisive battle on home soil. Having correctly guessed the intended landing site for US forces on the beaches of Kyushu, they were prepared to deploy 7,000 kamikaze planes to target landing ships.
Those pilots would be supported by 1,000 suicide bombers in small speedboats and midget submarines as well as swimmers carrying TNT charges. US military planners estimated that Kyushu would have around 350,000 defenders.
Thomas’ own father was earmarked to be among the invasion force. However, Thomas believes that, against such fearful odds, the invasion would not have gone ahead. He said: “We lost 7,000 men at Iwo Jima and 12,000 at Okinawa. This was going to be hundreds of thousands. What would we have done instead? We would have starved the Japanese. We were already blockading them. They were already down to 1,500 calories a day and eating acorns. We had figured out how to cut their rail lines so rice would not be going to the Kanto Plain around Tokyo. So it would have been a grizzly ending.”
As a result, Thomas believes the atomic bombs saved hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Japanese and an even greater number of Asians living under Japanese occupation. Nevertheless, his book highlights the qualms of the American policy chiefs. He said: “I think they reached the right decision. But it’s inherently miserable, because you are deciding to kill people to save people. This is the essential dilemma of warfare. This is why you shouldn’t get into wars — because they always lead you to this dark place where you are figuring out how do I kill enough people to save more people, or my people at least.”
The first of Thomas’ “heroes”, Stimson, oversaw the building of the atomic bomb and authorised the order to deliver it. He was 77 years old and suffering from coronary heart disease, migraines and fatigue in 1945. The veteran statesman was determined to end the war but agonised over civilian casualties and insisted that no atomic bomb should be dropped on Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto — a city he had visited with his wife in the late 1920s.
Such was the strain he was under that Stimson had a small heart attack on August 8, the day he showed President Truman a photograph of the “total destruction” of Hiroshima. He had a major one a month later, after he presented the president with the first plan for the control of nuclear weapons.
“Is that a coincidence?” Thomas asks. “I don’t think so.”
The second man in the author’s trio is General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the US Army Air Force commander who ordered the B-29s carrying the atomic bombs to take off. At the time, he believed, like Stimson, that their use was absolutely necessary. He had previously ordered the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 and had squandered $1,700 on poker over the five subsequent nights. Thomas said: “What was he doing? Escaping. His wife understood why he was gambling family money away — because he was firebombing innocent people in cities.”
Thomas reveals that, in older age, Spaatz had trouble sleeping. One day, shortly before he died from a stroke in 1974, aged 83, he called his granddaughter Katharine to him and spoke — for the first time, he said — about the wrongness and folly of using nuclear weapons.
The author is fascinated by his protagonists’ tortured conflicted feelings and crises of conscience. He said: “I am intrigued by this moral ambiguity, because we live in an age, in Britain as well as the US, where, if you watch cable TV and Twitter and all that, everybody is morally certain that they are right and the other side’s wrong. ‘My group is right and your group is wrong.’ And not just wrong, but morally inferior to me.
“I think this story really gets at a greater truth, which is that a lot of decisions are 51:49, that decision makers have to carry enormous moral ambiguity and that they’re not sure about what they’re doing. And even though my hero Stimson was a very self-confident, powerful guy, he was wracked with doubt and then died with a guilty conscience. I think he was wrong to feel guilty — but he felt guilty.”
Thomas’ third man is Shigenori Togo, Japan’s foreign minister who opposed going to war with the US in 1941. By spring 1945 he knew that his country was beaten and was eager to find a way out despite opposition from traditionalist diehards. After the bombs were dropped, he was instrumental in securing the imperial intervention, or seidan, of Emperor Hirohito seeking “to bring the war to an end immediately” in order to “relieve the people and maintain the nation”.
Like Stimson, Togo was ill and exhausted in the summer of 1945, suffering from pernicious anaemia while he risked a traitor’s death by strenuously seeking peace. After the war, he was tried as a war criminal because he had not resigned from the government to stop the attack on Pearl Harbor. He died in prison in 1950, aged 67. Stimson only outlived him by three months, dying of a heart attack, aged 83, while holding the hand of his wife, Mabel.
Contrary to some pundits’ claims that the second bomb was unnecessary, Thomas argues that it took at least two bombs to make the Japanese military realise that the nuclear threat offered a face-saving excuse to surrender. Even then, it was a close-run thing. After news of the second bomb was brought into a meeting of the Japanese leadership on August 9, General Anami, the war minister, declared that America could drop a hundred bombs and Japan would never yield. He said the Japanese would discover life in death. “Wouldn’t it be beautiful?”
Right on the eve of Japan’s capitulation, fanatics in the army stormed the palace, seeking a recording of the emperor’s voice that would be played to announce the surrender. Fortunately it was stashed in a safe in the ladies’ quarters.
It wasn’t only in Japan that there was chaos in the final weeks and days. Thomas said: “One would like to think that when you make a decision like dropping the atom bomb, you would get a group of leaders in the room and they would have a long and careful debate and work it all out — and it would be logical and reasonable. No! That’s not the way it works. People have prejudices, they have incomplete information, they have bad intelligence. The left hand doesn’t tell the right hand, people are in denial. It’s a much more human process. And it’s a mess.”
For example, on the day that he authorised Stimson to use the first bomb, on the port city of Hiroshima, Truman wrote in his diary that the target would be a “purely military one”, affecting soldiers and sailors and not women and children. This was quite untrue. Thomas said: “What the hell was he thinking? He had not been well briefed. I don’t think he really knew because they didn’t want to tell him exactly what they were doing. But there was a lot of denial. ‘I don’t want to know’.”
In fact, Truman had delegated so much authority to the military that he was not aware that the second strike, on Nagasaki, was taking place until after it happened. Nagasaki was not even the primary target. The bomb was meant for Kokura, another city 100 miles away. When the pilot of the B-29 Superfortress carrying the bomb saw that Kokura was obscured by smoke from conventional bombing of a nearby city, he made for the secondary objective.
Nagasaki was also obscured — this time by cloud — but a small break over the Urakami industrial valley gave the bombardier his chance. As a result of striking this district, rather than the centre, the bomb killed about half as many people as that dropped on Hiroshima, even though it was almost twice as powerful.
Thomas said: “The crew were embarrassed. ‘We missed’. They told their commander General Doolittle and he was glad because he knew that his boss, Spaatz, would be relieved that they killed fewer people. It’s grotesque but it shows you the human pressure, that they’re glad they’ve killed half as many people with this bomb.”
He believes that thoughtful leaders such as Stimson, Spaatz and Togo, who wrestled with their consciences and uncertainty, should be an inspiration today amid geopolitical turmoil.
“Every time people get on their moral high horse, they’re more likely to make stupid decisions because they’re full of righteous indignation. That’s how people get into wars. I hope the message is caution. Be deliberate, realise these are close calls and nobody has a final purchase on morality. So I’d like to slow things down, especially as we veer back to the nuclear brink.”
Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II by Evan Thomas is published in hardback on 8 June by Elliott & Thompson. The image at the top of this article shows American B-29 bombers flying past Mount Fuji on their way to bomb Tokyo, Japan, 1945. Photo: History/Universal Images Group/Getty Images