Customer Reviews: Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan, Revised Edition
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VINE VOICEon July 29, 2007
One of the most complex, divisive, and nuanced debates in the history of the twentieth century is the decision by U.S. President Harry S. Truman in August 1945 to drop two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, thereby ending World War II. A traditional conception of the decision, indeed the one most often voiced by actors in the decision, was that it was done to speed the end of the war and thereby preserve American lives that might be lost in future combat. The revisionist interpretation, often identified with Gar Alperowitz, argues that the war was almost over and that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender anyway. The reason to drop the bomb, therefore, had little to do with the ending of World War II and was aimed more at impressing and influencing future relations with the Soviet Union. Another interpretation suggests that the use of the atomic bomb had more to do with American racism, and that the U.S. would have refrained from using such a horrific weapon on other Caucasians in Europe. Other scholars condemn the use of such a weapon targeting large populations, including non-combatants, as immoral and obscene. Subsequent historians have argued various permutations of these interpretations and the debate remains far from settled.

J. Samuel Walker's "`prompt & utter destruction': Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bomb against Japan" is a superb short discussion of the merits of each of these interpretations and an assessment of the current state of understanding on the subject. He takes an exceptionally even-handed approach, pointing up the strengths and weaknesses of each major argument and assessing how they have evolved over time. In the end, as Walker documents, five fundamental considerations played into the decision to use atomic bombs in August 1945.

First, the decision makers, especially Truman, sought to end the war at the earliest possible moment. They believed this new and terrifying weapon would do so and should therefore be employed for what they considered the greater good of ending the bloodshed. Wrapped up in this argument, although Walker thinks it a bit of side issue, was a widely held belief that bringing the Japanese to the surrender table would require an invasion of its islands. This would be, as those considering it believed, a costly and lengthy campaign that might mean the loss of thousands of lives on both sides. Casualty estimates of all types exist, and they have been used in the debate since then to justify or condemn the use of the bomb. Walker finds that those estimates, which are at best educated guesses that range broadly depending on the assumptions and the perspectives of those making them, are less useful in assessing what took place than the understanding that Truman was unwilling to accept any more casualties than absolutely necessary.

Second, Walker notes how Truman and his advisors were intensely concerned that they had to justify the enormous cost of developing the atomic weapon, and a decision not to use it once it existed would open them to significant criticism. As Walker states, "The success of the Manhattan Project in building the bombs and ending the war was a source of satisfaction and relief" (p. 94). In this context, Truman expressed great concern that should he decide not to use the weapon once he had it that every American life lost thereafter would have been wasted. As he explained to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1947, "I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face" (p. 94).

Third, at least one of Truman's advisors, Secretary of State Byrnes, realized immediately and argued to his colleagues that this weapon would be useful in helping to bend the Soviet Union to American wishes in the post-war era. Truman recognized this as well, but according to Walker this was definitely an added bonus and not the primary consideration in using the bomb. Walker concluded, "Growing differences with the Soviet Union were a factor in the thinking of American officials about the bomb but were not the main reason that they rushed to drop it on Japan" (p. 95). Gar Alperowitz's "atomic diplomacy" thesis, therefore, has merit however overstated it might have been.

Fourth, Walker asserts that there was a lack of incentives among those making these decisions not to use the bomb. "Truman," Walker notes, "used the bomb because he had no compelling reason to avoid it" (p. 95). While many people since 1945 have questioned the morality of its use, Truman and his advisors did not let those scruples--and they did exist among them--outweigh their goal of ending the war as quickly as possible. Indeed, by the last year of the war conventional weaponry had laid waste to so many cities containing thousands of non-combatants--witness the firebombing of or Dresden and Tokyo--that virtually no one in a senior decision making role in the U.S. questioned the use of nuclear weapons despite their destructiveness since they believed dropping these bombs would shorten the war and save American lives.

Fifth, Walker comments that "Hatred of the Japanese, a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor, and racist attitudes were a part of the mix of motives that led to the atomic attacks" (p. 96). Again, this was not the primary consideration in dropping the bomb on Japan, "But the prevalent loathing of Japan, both among policymakers and the American people, helped override any hesitation or ambivalence that Truman and his advisors might have felt about use of atomic bombs" (p. 96).

Walker ends "prompt & utter destruction" with a series of questions still being debated about the decision to use the bomb. These include: "(1) how long the war would have continued if the bomb had not been used; (2) how many casualties American forces would have suffered if the bomb had not been dropped; (3) whether an invasion would have been necessary without the use of the bomb; (4) the number of American lives and casualties an invasion would have exacted had it proven necessary; (5) whether Japan would have responded favorably to a American offer to allow the emperor to remain on the throne before Hiroshima, or whether such an offer would have prolonged the war; and (6) whether any of the alternatives to the use of the bomb would have ended the war as quickly on a basis satisfactory to the United States (pp. 108-109).

These historiographical questions ensure that future study of this subject will remain contested; overlaying all of it, of course, is the question of the morality of Truman's decision. Walker offers no conclusion to the debate, instead inviting further inquiry and exposition as each scholar makes a contribution to the marketplace of ideas where positions will be evaluated and accepted, rejected, or modified. This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the nature of the end of World War II and the beginning of the cold war.
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on May 2, 2000
This book is an important contribution to the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) debate on the reasons why the U.S. chose to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. The author took it upon himself to clearly determine whether the bomb was militarily necessary - as has been suggested by many U.S. historians writing before J. Samuel Walker - or whether it might have been used for purely political reasons such as intimidating the Soviet Union.
The results he comes up with are in many ways quite remarkable. For instance it becomes evident that then president Harry S. Truman was never confronted with the categorical choice between using the bomb and invading the Japanese main islands (which might have involved heavy U.S. losses). Indeed, by the beginning of summer 1945 Japan was believed to be so weak that the war was expected to come to an end before an invasion began, and even if it had been necessary to proceed with an invasion, the resulting casualties were supposed to be much fewer than Truman and his top-level advisers claimed after the war. However, Walker demonstrates rather convincingly that whichever alternatives might have existed, the bomb nevertheless proved to be the best means to win a decisive victory at the lowest cost in American casualties. Taking into account the element of time, one begins to understand how great the temptation must have been for Truman and his cabinet to drop the bombs and thereby finish the war with a clean stroke. Although other reasons, too, played an important part in the ultimate decision, the finding that using the bomb simply provided the president and his advisers with the most convenient measure to end the war is a compelling one and without doubt the book's most valuable message.
J. Samuel Walker has to be applauded for presenting the reader with this highly readable account of the line of reasoning behind the U.S. decision to use atomic bombs against Japan. The book is both concise and completely free of any emotion otherwise detrimental to a scholarly approach to this debate: a truly outstanding work - and probably the final say on the subject!
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on December 9, 2001
This book gives a good overview but just that - an overview. The events and circumstances surrounding the use of the A-bomb simply must be addressed in greater depth for one who wishes to become truly knowledgable on the subject. However, its brevity is also a strength in that for one just getting into the subject it serves as a fabulous introduction and for those already familiar with the subject, it sums things up into a nice recap. Contrary to some reviews of the book, the author doesn't ever say or even imply that the bomb should not have been dropped. Quite the opposite, he provides compelling reasons why the decision to use the bomb was sound and wise militarily, politically, diplomatically, and morally. Granted, the idea of morally justifying such terrible force in any context seems paradoxical and borders on philosophical absurdity, but the author does an admirable job at least providing relatively sound coherent reasons. So while not the final say, this book would be a good addition due to its brevity, credible research, and arguments which, as a whole, are very sound.
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on January 2, 2000
This is a jewel of a book on the end of World War II. There have been many myths about Truman's decision to drop the bomb-he even made a brief film explaining how he made the decision, but this clears the air. Truman never actually decided. Everyone involved simply assumed, and correctly so, that once it was completed, it would be used. The author points to many reasons why the atomic bomb should not have been dropped on Japan, most of them valid and discussed previously in historical circles. However, there is a very interesting tidbit about Stalin and some other surprises. It is well worth reading.
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on May 18, 2016
I used this monologue for a school-assigned book review, and it served its purpose well. Walker utilizes various historical lenses and methodologies to de-polarize Allied WWII-ending strategies. The minus-one-star review is in recognition of the item’s price. I believe that $20 for 160 pages, regardless of its academic standing, is too much.
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on May 13, 1998
This book was an excellent historical account of the events leading up to the use of the atomic bombs. I now realize that there were a multitude of reasons for and against their use, and a lot of gray in between. The reader is presented the information and forced to make their own opinion on this very controversial event.
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VINE VOICEon June 8, 2016
School children learn that the loss of Japanese lives caused by the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was justified. Otherwise Japan’s surrender would have required a land invasion which would have cost a million American lives. J. Samuel Walker in this 110 page monograph suggests that this settled history may be a myth. Walker describes how the narrative evolved and why it may be wrong. The legacy of President Harry Truman and our national self image hangs in the balance.
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on January 28, 2013
I enjoyed reading this book (kindle version) since it was a required book for my upper-level college class. It gave me a better understand of the major decision-makers for the use of the atomic bomb. Whether you support Truman's decision or not, the impact on human history is undeniable. Read this book and make your choice on whether or not Truman needed to use atomic weapons on Japan, or if the war would have ended without the use of them.
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on May 8, 1998
I was confronted in a class with the claim that we dropped the bomb for the purpose of intimidating Russia. Not so, I exclaimed, we did it to prevent massive casualties from a land invasion of Japan! Well, this book was a real eye-opener. The book showed that neither viewpoint was accurate, but I came away yet confident that the terrible decision had not been irresponsibly nor immorally made.
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on September 11, 2008
Samuel L. Walker has written a half-way decent introduction to the subject at hand, but it is not as good as many of the other reviewers think.

Walker presents strong evidence that the use of the atomic bomb was necessary if the war was to be ended "as quickly as possible." So far, so good. When it comes to the question of whether the bomb was necessary to end the war 'reasonably quickly,' that is, within three or four more months, he uncritically accepts the claims of Paul Nitze that the Japanese would probably have surrendered by Nov. 1st, 1945, and certainly by Dec. 1st. This is rather odd, because, Walker cites Robert P. Newman's Truman and the Hiroshima Cult. Newman read through the interrogations of Japan's surviving wartime leadership conducted by the Strategic Bombing Survey, and found that they only one Japanese leader agreed with Nitze's estimated surrender date, and that one only when prompted (earlier in the same interview, he expected Japan to hold out rather longer).

Newman further reviewed the intelligence data available to the U.S. through July of 1945, and showed that the Japanese were making strenuous efforts to resist the expected amphibious invasion, while specifically rejecting the terms they finally accepted in August. (The U.S., British, and Chinese governments were convinced that a surrender on terms, a la the Versailles treaty, would likely lead to World War III in the 1960s or 1970s). Thus, even if Nitze's conclusion was correct, there was no reason for Truman or anyone else in Washington to believe it.

Finally, Nitze's conclusion of a surrender by December 1st at the latest, Newman showed, was formed around June of 1945, and was based on his assessment of the damage conventional bombing would inflict on Japan, and how he thought the Japanese leaders would react to that damage. Nitze had persuaded the Air Force to schedule an air campaign targeting Japanese transportation facilities, which would have disrupted both war production and food distribution, leading to a threat of widespread starvation. While this might have caused the Japanese government to fold, it might also have resulted in widespread relocation of civilians to rural areas, where they would have had ready access to food. Thus, the estimated surrender date was little more than a guess, unsupported by evidence.

Robert C. Butow interviewed those same Japanese leaders at much greater length for his book Japan's Decision to Surrender, which I highly recommend. His conclusion, as related by Freeman Dyson in From Eros to Gaia, was that there was no way to know when the Japan would have given up, because the Japanese leaders themselves didn't know when they would have surrendered.

When it comes the question of how many casualties the U.S. would have suffered if the U.S. had invaded Japan, Walker accurately summarizes the estimates presented to Truman in mid-1945, when there were only 350,000 Japanese troops present on Kyushu. Based on experience on Luzon, casualties might have been "only" about 17,000 killed, 53,000 wounded. As Walker says, preventing such casualties was itself enough reason for Truman to order the bomb dropped. But by August 1st, the number of Japanese defenders on Kyushu had grown to 900,000, as Richard B. Frank notes in Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, another of the works Walker cites. Thus, 'Luzon percentage' casualties would have grown to around 43,000 killed, 137,000 wounded. And, as Frank further notes, Luzon's casualties levels were among the lowest of the Pacific War, when measured by casualties inflicted per Japanese defender. The experience of Okinawa or Saipan would have suggested at least double those figures, and casualties per Japanese defender on the scale of Iwo Jima would have led one to expect around 300,000 dead, 800,000 wounded among the Kyushu invasion force. The medical corps was expecting around 400,000 to 500,000 total casualties, about one-fourth of them dead. In fact, it was the position of the Japanese military that they would inflict such heavy casualties on any invasion force that the Allies would agree to precisely the surrender on terms the Allied governments wished to avoid, and there was substantial evidence of war weariness among the U.S. and British populations.

Further, D. M. Giangreco has since shown that higher estimates were circulating in Washington at the time, and that former President Hoover had written Truman that as many as half a million U.S. troops might die in an invasion of Japan. (See e.g. Harry S. Truman And the Cold War Revisionists by Robert H. Ferrell). Thus Walker's confident predictions of relatively low casualties in an invasion have little value, and his statement that Truman's postwar estimates of hundreds of thousands of deaths among the invasion force were not believed in 1945 is questionable, to say the least.

In addition, Walker completely neglects to mention deaths among Allied POWs and civilian internees held by the Japanese (tens of thousands had already died, and hundreds of thousands probably would have died if the war had continued much longer), Asian civilians who died in areas under Japanese control (perhaps 200,000 per month on the average, for the entire 97 months starting with Japan's invasion of China in 1937), Japanese civilians killed in air conventional air attacks (around 20,000 per month, excluding the Tokyo raid of March 9-10), expected Japanese civilian casualties in an invasion of Japan (over one million), expected British Commonwealth and Japanese casualties in the invasion of Malaya (scheduled to begin September 1st, 1945), and Japanese military and civilian deaths as a result of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria (scheduled to begin August 15th, 1945, but moved up a week after the Hiroshima bombing). When contemplating a war extending another two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half months, these figures lead to a conclusion that many more people would certainly have died than the atom bombs killed, probably have led to more Japanese casualties than occurred, and possibly have led to more Japanese civilian casualties than occurred in the atomic bombings.

And when it comes to the perception of the Japanese as "beasts," Walker completely neglects to mention the deliberate Japanese murders of POWs and civilians, or the documented Japanese biological warfare experimentation and use in China. If the description of Japanese conduct as "beastial" is to be objected to, it can only be on the grounds that the adjective is unfair to wild beasts.

As a short introduction to a vast and complicated subject, this book isn't too bad. But it is highly limited, definitely biased against Truman and the U.S., and can not be taken as a last word on the subject by any means. It should definitely be supplemented by some of the works mentioned above for an accurate view.

20120418: added product link, corrected typo.
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