Stimson’s Justification for the Atomic Bomb: Carter Man

To summarize, Stimson’s article justifies the United States’s use of atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II. Stimson’s argument centers on the core belief that the bomb saved more lives than it cost. This aforementioned premise rests on Stimson’s assumption that the Japanese would not surrender absent a shocking display of unprecedented, seemingly unmatchable power, such as that provided by an atomic bomb.

It is clear from Stimson’s arguments that he favored using the atomic bombs to end the war with Japan. Beyond the article, Stimson’s role as Secretary of War from 1940-1945 and the significant part he played in the bombs’ development and use further suggests he wanted to utilize these weapons. Stimson immediately tries to establish credibility for himself in justifying the bomb’s use by pointing to his leadership role in the development of atomic energy dating back to 1941. Stimson also seemed eager to convince his audience that the decision to use the bomb was very carefully thought out. He opens the article by discussing how difficult the decision to use the bomb was, which suggests much deliberation went into the decision to drop the bomb. Stimson also displays numerous memos and countless discussions with others involved in the bomb’s development to further demonstrate how meticulous the decision to use the bomb was. In displaying the thought process that went into the decision to use the bomb, Stimson not only presents persuasive justification for the bombs’ use, but he also provides an impressive account of why the bombs were used in the manner that they were. For instance, Stimson argues convincingly that the bomb must be used without issuing a direct warning to Japan by pointing out the uncertainty that the bomb would work and the damage that would have been done to the peace effort had the U.S. threatened an atomic attack and followed it up with a dud. In referencing Japan’s still powerful army of five million men, Japan’s tendency to fight to the bitter death rather than surrender as demonstrated throughout the war, exemplified by Japanese Premier Suzuki’s refusal to accept what appeared to be relatively modest peace terms, and statistics and estimates regarding the atomic bomb, the potential ground invasion, and other details of the war, Stimson presents a persuasive account that the atomic bombs ended the war quickly and saved countless American and Japanese lives in the process. Stimson’s account is convincing at face value, but some questions are raised if one digs a little deeper.

The most significant question Stimson’s article raises regarding the decision to use the bomb concerns the role of the Japanese emperor in peace talks. Various cultures throughout the world can be fundamentally different. Such difference can prove critical in war. For example, the United States’s failure to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese population and stop the spread of communism in that country largely resulted from the United States’s failure to comprehend Vietnamese culture. Regarding Japan, the Japanese people believed their emperor ruled by divine right. If the U.S. could not guarantee Japan’s retention of the emperor, then Japan wouldn’t surrender. Unlike with Vietnamese, the U.S. understood Japanese culture as far as the role of the emperor was concerned. The memo Stimson left Truman regarding the peace terms to be offered to Japan afforded the country the option to retain its emperor. Additionally, when Stimson later discusses how both the atomic bombs and the Japanese emperor would be crucial in obtaining a prompt surrender from Japan, he acknowledges the powerful influence of the Japanese emperor over his people. Given what seems to be American awareness of the emperor’s status, it is curious why retention of the emperor was excluded in the eventual peace terms offered to Japan. Stimson mentions that the bit about the emperor was excluded as if it were some minor, irrelevant detail. He doesn’t even explain why or how such a provision did not make the offered peace terms. Such an exclusion cannot be swept under the rug. Stimson already demonstrated that the decision to use the bomb was a calculated one. When considering the scrupulous attention to detail involved in the decision to use the bomb in relation to the known importance of the emperor to the Japanese people, it is suspicious that the tidbit about Japan retaining its emperor was ultimately removed from the offered peace terms.

Though the question of the emperor remains the largest unanswered question raised by Stimson’s article, Stimson’s article raises some other minor questions as well. For instance, Stimson insisted that the Japanese would not surrender under any circumstance absent a major shock. He points to the way the Japanese fought throughout the war, such as at Iwo Jima, to bolster this argument. However, Stimson briefly mentioned how Japan at one point attempted to secure a peace through Russian mediation. Stimson claimed Japan’s terms were unacceptable since they allowed Japan to retain “important conquered areas” without specifying what these special areas were. Whatever Japan’s terms may have been, that Japan tried to negotiate a way out of the war through Russia contradicts the notion that Japan was completely unwilling to surrender.

Stimson also left me with a few curious questions when he claimed that more people were killed in bombing raids than by the atomic bomb in his argument that the atomic bombs saved American and Japanese lives. I have no doubt such a claim was true when Stimson’s article was published in 1947. One of the questions I had was whether or not the bombing raids remained costlier in terms of human life than the atomic bombs after the long term effects of nuclear radiation set in. My more profound question centers around Stimson’s potential knowledge of nuclear radiation. Was Stimson aware of the effects of nuclear radiation at the time the bomb was dropped and/or when this article was published? If he was not aware, and therefore truly believed the atomic bomb was saving lives, would he have felt differently about dropping the bomb if he knew more about the effects of radiation? Or, was Stimson aware of radiation’s effects, yet went forward in comparing the misleading death tolls of the bombing raids and atomic bomb droppings in their immediate aftermath to add credibility to his argument that the atomic bombs ultimately saved American and Japanese lives? Though I do not have enough evidence to definitively answer that question, Stimson’s many years of experience in the development of atomic energy and the expertise he gained during that time introduces the possibility that Stimson was indeed aware of the long term effects of nuclear radiation when the decision to drop the bomb was made and/or when he published this article.

Could Stimson have had other motives to use atomic weapons on Japan other than ending the war quickly? The postwar world could be one. As August of 1945 arrived and with the Yalta and Potsdam conferences preserved in hindsight, it seemed evident that a postwar standoff between the west and Soviet Union loomed large. Given the Soviet Union’s agreement to help end the war against Japan via invasion once the Red Army completed its objective in Europe, very vaguely and briefly touched upon by Stimson in one of his memos, it is possible the bomb was used to end the war before the Soviets could mount an invasion and therefore have a say in the administration of postwar Japan. Another possibility is that, in anticipation of the Cold War, the U.S. wanted to use the atomic bomb to demonstrate its power to the U.S.S.R. and make clear to the Soviets that the U.S. had the upper hand in dictating the administration of the postwar world.

Another scenario is possible still. Stimson explained how the development of atomic bombs began out of necessity. Germany began developing such weapons at a time when the outcome of the war was very much in doubt, and so it was crucial that the U.S. obtain an atomic bomb first. Even though Germany was subdued before the U.S. finished creating its atomic bomb, Stimson also hit on the need to eliminate any doubt that developing an atomic bomb was possible. Perhaps with all the time, effort, resources, and finances that went into the development of the atomic bombs, Stimson wanted to see the bombs used so that the entire process of building the bomb wouldn’t seem like a waste.

Ultimately, Stimson’s role in the development of atomic bombs makes him highly qualified to discuss the decision to use them. Additionally, he puts forth very strong arguments in favor of the decision to use the bomb. But one should not simply take Stimson at his word, as certain aspects of his argument raise questions about American motives to use the atomic bombs.

Word Count: 1466 (Good thing nothing in the syllabus requires a limit on blog posts or “to be” verbs)

Stimson, Henry L. “The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb.” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (Feb 01, 1947): 97.

  1 comment for “Stimson’s Justification for the Atomic Bomb: Carter Man

Leave a Reply