On this day in 1945, Harry Truman said, “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.” Or anyway, that’s the recording I’ve previously heard; it differs a little from his officially prepared statement: “Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base.”

Let’s begin with the wording. You wouldn’t normally say, “Hiroshima, a military base” any more than you would say, “Oakland, a military base” or “Seattle, a military base,” or “Houston, a military base”—well, you get the idea. You would normally say, “Hiroshima, a city.”

Indeed it would make greater sense to say “Hiroshima, a military target”—for the Second World War was an industrial war, and civilians did work essential to the war effort throughout the factory towns of the combatant nations. Thus one could make the argument that any considerable city was a legitimate military target.

And throughout the war cities had been targeted. From the time of the aerial bombardments in the First World War, people throughout the world had known that cities would be bombed in the next war and that civilians would be killed, as indeed they were through various small wars in the 1920s. The vision of Atlanta aflame in Gone with the Wind is as much anxious portent of the coming urban infernos as it is a reflection on the Civil War. From the first in the burgeoning big war—from Guernica, Warsaw, the blitz of London; from Coventry through the V-2 assaults (engineered by that great American Wernher von Braun); including Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo among others—cities came under fire.

But despite this precedent Truman did not say “Hiroshima, a city” nor even “Hiroshima, a military target.” One might therefore conclude that Truman did not want to speak of Hiroshima as a city, even a city that might legitimately be targeted under the circumstances of a war that had seen plenty of cities targeted.

What was the nature of his unwillingness to make this case? I think it derives in part from a key phrase in the prepared statement: “one bomb.” The atomic bomb was not a precision weapon. Even if you sent waves of B-24’s, B-17’s, or B-29’s to hit a city you could still claim (though, it’s true, with decreasing plausibility as the war went on) that you were not targeting the city, but that you were targeting military sites within the city, and that any civilians killed, whether by stray bombs or by the cumulative firestorms sometimes raised by the incendiary weaponry, were unfortunate if inevitable casualties. (Not everyone made such claims, of course.)

“One bomb” meant that you couldn’t pretend to yourself or anyone else that you weren’t going to kill civilians, that you weren’t targeting a city—by definition the center of a civilization. This feature of atomic weaponry is one—perhaps the most important—of the particularly horrifying features of nuclear bombardment. During the revived enthusiasm for nuclear weaponry in the early 1980s, I asked my mother what would happen if the Russians bombed us with nuclear weapons. “Oh, honey, we’d be dead right away. We’re only thirty miles from MacDill, and that’d be a first-strike target.”

None of which is to say that Truman, or the U.S., necessarily shouldn’t or under any conceivable circumstances wouldn’t have used the weapon, but it does cast some light on a paradox of reaction to the bombing. By generally accepted account, many fewer people were killed in the bombing of Hiroshima than in the bombing of Tokyo, which it would have been equally if not more inaccurate to describe as a military base. Yet there is nothing like a commensurate level of introspection over the bombing of Tokyo. The bombing of Tokyo took many bombs and bombers; Hiroshima only one.

It is useful to remember the bombing of Tokyo when thinking about the atomic bomb. Often, people point out that the bombing saved the U.S. an invasion of Japan and count the casualties of an invasion against the Hiroshima bombing; the bombing thus saved the lives of U.S. soldiers, sailors, and marines. But it is also worth pointing out that had the delivery of the atomic bomb been delayed, any invasion would surely have been preceded by further incendiary bombings of Japanese cities. On this measure it seems quite likely that the use of the atomic weapon killed fewer civilians and fewer Japanese, as well as fewer Americans, than the likely alternative.

Historians also make the case that the brutal efficiency of one-bomb—one-city destruction created a sense of immediacy that had otherwise been lacking among Japanese leaders, and precipitated a decision to surrender that had previously existed only in diffuse form. On this reckoning the single bomb was perhaps more effective than continued conventional bombings at ending the war.

I see I’ve written 750 words on the bomb and only barely touched on two issues—how it related to earlier bombings in the war, and its effectiveness at ending the war. There are other issues; there is an enormous literature on the subject. I’ll put my old discussion of the motives for dropping the bomb under the fold.

It might be worth mentioning too, though, that I almost never teach “the decision to drop the bomb” at even this length in class. I spend a fair bit of time instead on the conventional air war, out of which it seems to me that the atomic bomb developed logically. Given the history of the war to that date I cannot envision the U.S. not using the bomb, nor—considering Dresden and the reaction of Americans to the revelation of the concentration camps—imagine the U.S. would not have used atomic bombs against Germany had they been ready in time.

From five years ago.

Today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which I might
not even have mentioned – didn’t we have a big enough fight on the 50th
anniversary? Do we have to start ginning up a new one two years before the

Nichoals Kristof cites “an emerging consensus” among historians:
“We Americans have blood on our hands” because of Hiroshima. Borrowing
from the President, he critiques “[r]evisionist historians like Gar
Alperovitz,” who have shaped “this emerging consensus” that “Washington
believed the bombing militarily unnecessary.”

Kristof knows lots of things about lots of things I know nothing
about, and I learn from his work, especially on contemporary Asia and
Africa. But he doesn’t know “American scholarship” all that well. Even if
you’re not an a-bomb expert – I’m not – you can say pretty quickly that
Kristof has the wrong end of the stick.

First of all, woe betide anyone who asserts there’s an “emerging
consensus” on the atomic bombs of 1945; it’s one of those issues that
reliably draws shouty people. And Alperovitz’s work in particular
invariably polarizes the profession; reviews of his Atomic Diplomacy and
The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb include accusations of professional
malfeasance as well as expressions of strong admiration. When historians
get to scuffling over his work, well, the tweed flies.

But second of all, and more importantly, if you went looking for
common ground between historians identified with both the left and the
right, you would find quite the opposite of what Kristof says.

Walter LaFeber of Cornell says,
Militarily, the Americans dropped the first bomb to end the war as
quickly as possible and before perhaps a million casualties resulted from
an invasion of Japan.
America, Russia, and the Cold War, 7th ed. (1993), p. 25

John Lewis Gaddis of Yale says,
Having acquired this awesome weapon, the United States used it against
Japan for a simple and straightforward reason: to achieve victory as quickly,
as decisively, and as economically as possible.
We Now Know (1997), p. 87

And Barton J. Bernstein of Stanford said as early as 1974,
The administration did not decide to use the bomb against Japan in
order to stop Soviet entry into the Pacific war or to gain advantages over
the Soviets in Eastern Europe or in the Pacific. Rather, the Truman
administration acted upon the inherited [i.e., from FDR] assumption that
the bomb was a legitimate weapon for combat use against an enemy…. The
combat use of the bomb promised to speed the end of the war and thereby to
save American lives.
“The Quest for Security,” Journal of American History 60:4, p. 1014

Indeed, Bernstein long ago indicated that what Kristof describes as
the Alperovitz “consensus” is dodgy for a few simple reasons.

1. Truman didn’t per se decide to use the bomb; he simply allowed
the existing bomb program established by FDR to go ahead. (This, by the
way, is why suggestions that Truman’s bigotry influenced the decision
cannot be terribly serious. The bombing had nearly nothing to do with
Truman personally.)

2. Assertions that Truman, or nearly-Secretary-of-State James F.
Byrnes, were thinking principally in terms of scaring the Soviets and not
of defeating the Japanese come from other people’s (usually self-serving)
recollections recorded well after the fact – after they were persuaded
that the a-bomb was something terrible and different.

3. The bomb’s developers didn’t think of it as a deterrent threat
rather than a combat weapon. The notion that it belonged to a special
category only emerged after people could see what instant, awful and
lasting damage it could do.

None of this general belief that the bombs were going to be used
for military purposes touches the question of whether they were used in
the best possible way – could they have been deployed against a more
definitely military target? Could there have been a little longer delay
before the second bomb? How many lives did avoiding an invasion really
save? Wouldn’t an invasion have cost Japanese lives too – more Japanese
lives, maybe, than the bomb? Working up to an invasion would probably have
meant continued conventional bombing and continued blockades, generating
more casualties even before the invasion itself occurred.

Bernstein again, this time in 1998:

In 1945, before Hiroshima and even afterward, Truman rightly
believed that the use of the A-bomb on Japan would be warmly endorsed by
Americans, that they never would have understood, much less approved, a
decision not to use the weapon if it was available, and that no mainline
American politician, who would have been likely to be President at the
time, would have decided otherwise….
He also seemed to believe that the use of the bomb, as Secretary
Byrnes contended, might help him in dealing with the Soviets. But that
hope was never a controlling reason but only a supplementary, and thus a
confirming, reason to do what Roosevelt would probably also have done,
what virtually all top-level presidential advisers seemed to endorse, and
what only one adviser, Under Secretary Bard, who was on the fringes of
decision-making, ever questioned before Hiroshima: dropping the bomb on
Japan in order to speed a surrender.
“Truman and the A-Bomb,” Journal of Military History, 62:3, p. 567

As I say, if there were something like a professional historical
consensus, this would be it. Nobody’s happy about the bomb – Truman wasn’t
either – but you won’t find hordes of historians going around accusing the
Truman administration of using the bombs without military reasons in the
midst of what was, after all, a brutal war in which the bombing of
civilians had already been established as awful, common practice.

Whatever the shortcomings of my profession, Mr. Kristof – and
historians can be maddening – consensus on Alperovitz isn’t one of them.
Please build a straw man out of someone else