From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War by Wilson D. Miscamble C.S.C.
Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007
Pages: xx+393. $69.95
||Joseph M. Siracusa
||Australian Journal of Politics and History
|Date accepted online:
|Published in print:
||Volume 53, Issue 03, Pages 465-504
At precisely 5:30 a.m., on Monday July 16, 1945, at "Trinity", the code name for the Manhattan Project test site in Alamagordo, New Mexico, a gathering of officials and scientists, led by General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, witnessed the first explosion of an atomic bomb. And what a show it was. For a fraction of a second, the light produced by Trinity was greater than ever produced on earth, and could have been seen from another planet. With the success of "Trinity", the US government now believed that it could probably conclude the Second World War without Joseph Stalin's assistance, and from the Potsdam Conference, meeting in the outskirts of bombed-out Berlin, President Harry S. Truman sent an ultimatum to Tokyo to surrender immediately, unconditionally or face "prompt and utter destruction". By the end of July, the Manhattan Project had produced two different, powerful types of atomic weapons, known as "Little Boy", and "Fat Man". After considering the various proposals, Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt upon his death in April, concluded that the only way to shorten the war, while avoiding a costly and bloody invasion of the Japanese mainland, was to use the bomb against Japanese cities - the first against Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki three days later on 9 August. Beaten by science and the overwhelming Soviet offensive in China, where the Kwantung Army suffered more than 80,000 killed, in a little more than a week, Japan surrendered on 14 August.
Wilson D. Miscamble's From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War makes a compelling case against "Writers engaging in wishful thinking and fanciful recreations [who] have sought to fashion circumstances in which the A-bombs might be seen as unnecessary (and then as almost certainly wrong and immoral)" (pp. 241-42). In particular, Miscamble takes aim at the cottage industry of Truman critics led over the years by Gar Alperovitz, Arnold Offner, and others who argue that the president employed "atomic diplomacy" to put a brake on Soviet ambitions in eastern and central Europe or alternatively, in the words of Offner, "lacked insight into the history unfolding around him". Commonsense, together with an easy command of the extant documents, persuades the Queensland-born professor of history at the University of Notre Dame to reach another conclusion: had Truman "not authorized the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen might have been added to the lists of those killed in World War II" - in addition to "the thousands of allied prisoners of war [including many Australians] whom the Japanese planned to execute" (p. 242). Most importantly, Miscamble raises a question that no critic of Truman has been able to answer from the day the bomb was dropped: "Could an American president have survived politically and personally knowing that he might have used a weapon that could have saved their slaughter?" My guess is - based on my own observations of presidential politics for over three decades - that he would have been lynched. The public hysteria generated by Watergate and Monica Lewinsky is an important clue to what would have happened to the former Missouri senator if he had gone ahead with the invasion without recourse to nuclear weaponry.
In any case, while Miscamble's From Roosevelt to Truman may not be the last word on the subject - after all, history as thought never has a real ending - it should be the first place early Cold War scholars visit when they want to understand the complex transition from the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to that of Harry S. Truman. There, they will find the most persuasive argument to date that Truman was the right man, in the right place, at the right time.