There is an urban legend that Truman knew nothing about the bomb before assuming the presidency the previous April. That is incorrect. Truman was the head of the Senate budget committee during most of the war, the funding for the war went through his hands. And he noted five billion dollars was spent to support an operation on "high explosives" in the New Mexico desert. This was a very significant amount of money, as the funding for the whole war was around 225 billion (1940 dollars). When he asked about this, he was told, "Don't ask..." and he left it alone.
Hanson reviews quickly the options Truman had, with his desire to end the war as soon as possible:
Victor Davis Hanson: Using the A-Bomb on Japan Was the Best Terrible Choice President Truman Could MakeAnd after Pearl Harbor, the defeat of two of the others Axis powers, plus the other costs included during the rest of the Pacific war, unlikely the American people would have swallowed that.
"...One, Truman could have allowed Japan’s wounded military government to stop the killing and stay in power.
But the Japanese had already killed more than 10 million Chinese civilians since 1931, and perhaps another 4 million to 5 million Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians and members of the Allied Forces since 1940.
A mere armistice rather than unconditional surrender would have meant the Pacific War had been fought in vain. Japan’s fascist government likely would have regrouped in a few years to try it again on more favorable terms.
Two, Truman could have postponed the use of the new bombs and invaded Japan over the ensuing year.See my comments above. The American people would not be in the mood to walk away after so much men and treasure.
The planned assault was scheduled to begin on the island of Kyushu in November 1945, and in early 1946 would have expanded to the main island of Honshu.
Yet Japan had millions of soldiers at home with fortifications, planes and artillery, waiting for the assault.
The fighting in Japan would have made the prior three-month bloodbath at Okinawa, which formally ended just six weeks before Hiroshima, seem like child’s play.
The disaster at Okinawa cost the U.S. 50,000 casualties and 32 ships — the worst battle losses the American Navy suffered in the war. More than 250,000 Okinawans and Japanese soldiers were killed as well.
Just the street fighting to recapture Manilla in the Philippines in early 1945 cost a quarter-million Filipino, Allied and Japanese lives.
Three, the U.S. could have held off on using the bomb, postponed the invasion and simply kept firebombing Japan with its huge fleet of B-29 bombers.
The planes soon would have been reinforced with thousands more American and British bombers freed from the end of World War II in Europe.
The napalming of Tokyo had already taken some 100,000 lives. With huge new Allied bomber fleets of 5,000 or more planes based on nearby Okinawa, the Japanese death toll would have soared to near a million.
An argument I've had with many people over the years, who called the atomic bombings "inhumane". War, by definition, is inhumane! The least bad path is to end it as soon as possible, without insuring we will have another one in the near future (See the disaster of post World War I diplomacy). And if the use of two atom bombs ended the war quicker, so much the better.
Four, the U.S. might have played rope-a-dope, stood down and let the Soviet Red Army overrun China, Korea and Japan itself — in the same fashion that the Russians months earlier had absorbed eastern Germany, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
But the Soviet occupation of North Korea alone only led to more war in 1950.
Had the Soviets grabbed more Japanese-occupied territory, more communist totalitarianism and conflict likely would have ensued, with no chance of a free and democratic postwar Japan.
The Americans and the British knew Stalin was just slightly less bad than the Axis powers, and to allow them to have more nations would be a disaster. Excellent point on Korea.
Five, Truman could have dropped a demonstration bomb or two in Tokyo Bay to warn the Japanese government of their country’s certain destruction if it continued the war.
But there was no guarantee that the novel weapons, especially the untested plutonium bomb, would work. A dud bomb or an unimpressive detonation at sea might have only emboldened the Japanese to continue the war.
There were likely only three bombs ready in August. It was not clear when more would be available.
So real worries arose that the Japanese might be unimpressed, ignore the warning and ride out the future attacks in hopes there were few additional bombs left.
Very serious point. The estimates for a Japanese invasion would be over a million casualties. We could not afford the risk.
In the past few years, I've been looking at the subject of leadership, military, political, law enforcement, etc. Many of the recent nominees to high office have been, to put it lightly, poor leaders. Others have been outright morons of no leadership ability. Dick Morris (I'll be the first to say, not the greatest source) said in an interview after 9/11, he asked the then president, Bill Clinton, about one of the times he had a chance to order an attack on bin Laden, but passed. Clinton responded, "There were women and children there, and I have to sleep at night..." Bubba, you are in the center chair by your own choosing. You got to get over those issues so people like me can sleep at night.
Last year I watched the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, about the explosion and aftermath at the power plant in 1986. In the days afterwards, there is a meeting of the Politburo and the General Secretary, Gorbachev, on the actions being taken to control the disaster. The physicist, Valery Legasov, explains they must have three men walk through contaminated water to allow tanks below the reactor to be drained, before the nuclear fuel reacts with the liquid.
Legasov: "...Of course we will need your permission."
Gorbachev: "My permission, for what?"
Legasov: "We're asking you for your permission to kill three men."
Gorbachev: "Comrade Legasov...all victories, inevitably come at a cost."
A decision that had to be made. Not pleasant, but you're in the center seat. And if you can't make a decision, it's time to get out of the center seat.