To what extent was the atomic bomb used as a diplomatic “master card” by American policymakers at the end of the Second World War?

This essay achieved a high 2:1 in the second year of my undergraduate.

To what extent was the atomic bomb used as a diplomatic “master card” by American policymakers at the end of the Second World War?

The decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one of the many contentious issues of the period leading into the Cold War. The three main schools of thought range from the traditionalist view that they were used for purely military reasons, as the ‘least abhorrent choice,’[1] through revisionism –championed most influentially by Alperovitz[2]– which would state that in fact the bombs were used only for their diplomatic connotations. The various strains of ‘post-revisionism’ led by such as Sigal, Sherwin and Asada[3] would suggest in general that, while the American policymakers certainly realised the diplomatic potential of the new technology, it was not the only consideration. While one must be careful using the term ‘post-revisionism’ in relation to this debate, it is probably the most accurate way to describe the school of thought, despite just how wide-ranging it is. The different schools all have aspects which seem convincing; the contemporary concerns probably were military, although it would have been impossible to ignore diplomatic considerations.

The earliest historiography, of the Traditionalist school, would disagree wholly that the atomic bomb was used with diplomatic considerations in mind. The argument of Traditionalists, many of them contemporaries such as Truman, Karl T. Compton[4]  and Stimson,[5] as well as later Maddox and Hammond is that the decision to drop the atomic bomb was a result of military concerns, and had nothing to do with post-war planning with regards to the Soviets. The main argument set forward by the Traditionalist school is that the bomb removed the need to conduct a land invasion of Japan, thereby simultaneously ending World War Two more swiftly and dramatically reducing the casualty figures.[6]

In his 1947 article, Stimson stated that the dropping of the bombs was in fact the humanitarian option, and that the casualties inflicted by the two bombs –estimated at around half a million- were much lower than the projected casualties of one million US and one and a half million Japanese resulting from an invasion of the mainland, still planned for late 1946.[7] The dropping of the two atomic bombs did undoubtedly save lives, as it is unlikely given the bitterness of the Japanese defence up until August 1945 that an invasion would have led to fewer than half a million deaths total, but it seems unlikely that the projections Stimson cites were completely accurate, a doubt which recurs throughout both revisionist and more recent works.[8] Scope exists to challenge the value of the article as a source of Stimson’s opinions, as he had the benefit of hindsight –of seeing the world’s reaction to the dropping of the bombs- and so may well have just been trying to portray a U.S. government morally superior to the reality. As a magazine article, he was expecting people to read it, and was hoping to persuade the readers of this moral superiority too.

Stimson also gives Japanese intransigence as a reason for the dropping of the bomb, arguing that the combined effect of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was decisive in finally forcing Japanese surrender.[9] Although there is some support for this viewpoint,[10] others including Asada argue that it was influential, but only after the Japanese were already defeated. Asada in particular argues that the value of the bombs was in the shock they caused rather than anything military.[11] This would once again support the idea that military concerns were all that was taken into consideration when the decision was being made.

Both Stimson and Truman argued that the bombs brought about an immediate end to the war by forcing the Japanese to surrender in the face of such devastation. This view however is widely regarded as inaccurate by many, including Feis and Frank,[12] and one must struggle to reconcile the view of the Japanese who surrendered after just two bombs, no matter their destructive power, with the Japanese who continued to fight long after other major cities had been levelled by conventional bombing, thereby seemingly invalidating the argument.

On the other hand, there are many who would argue that the atomic bomb was in fact used as a diplomatic ‘master card;’ indeed that it was used as such before it even became a reality. Sherwin in particular argues that this can be seen in Truman’s policymaking as early as 1943.[13] Widely considered the most influential and well-known proponent of the bomb being dropped for political-diplomatic reasons is for Gar Alperovitz, who has been described as the ‘godfather of revisionism.’[14] The argument that only post-war diplomatic considerations had a bearing on the decision to drop the bomb was initially put forward by others such as Blackett and Williams among others,[15] but Alperovitz’s 1965 work[16] was the first to cite meaningful evidence. The main reason for the dropping of the bomb, it is argued, was to ‘impress the Soviets;’[17]an implied threat to keep their apparent expansionism could be held in check, an idea potentially influenced by Churchill.[18]

Alperovitz agrees with Feis and others that the bomb was not necessary to end the war, although he is somewhat more committed to this view. While Feis states that it was not ‘essential,’[19] Alperovitz argues that it was not necessary at all, and Truman needed only to sit back and wait for the Soviet invasion.[20] Offered as a military alternative by Alperovitz, Messer, and many Japanese historians is the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.[21] The argument is that there was no military need to drop the bombs as the Soviet invasion scheduled to start the same day as the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, would have achieved the same end. It is this unwillingness to allow the alternatives a chance which Alperovitz cites as evidence for his thesis that the bomb was used only to diplomatic ends.[22] The argument for the dropping of the bombs being unnecessary for the end of the war is very convincing, especially when compared with the projected impact of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

While Alperovitz’s work might appear to be definitive, it has been widely attacked by traditionalists such as Hammond and Maddox, as well as the Marxist revisionist Kolko.[23] Particularly of issue is the use of ellipses when dealing with primary sources, which allegedly alter their meanings. Although there are issues with Alperovitz’s work, it is by no means the ‘travesty of scholarship’ as Maddox describes it.[24]

The  polar viewpoints presented by the traditionalist and revisionist schools, that the bomb was dropped for military reasons, or that only political considerations were taken into account respectively, would serve to answer the question in absolutes, but the issue is far more complex than simple black and white. There is a whole spectrum in between, and much of it is said to fall into the so-called ‘post-revisionist’ school of thought. The ‘school’ is so wide-ranging however, and there are so many contrasting and sometimes conflicting viewpoints that it seems difficult to argue that they are all part of the same school. Some historians nearer to the traditionalist side, such as Sherwin,[25] argue that diplomatic considerations were taken into account, but they were distinctly secondary to the military ones, whereas others, including Gaddis, Yergin and Donovan[26] are more in favour of Alperovitz’s basic concept, even if they do disagree with his ideas.[27]

Gaddis in particular focuses on the meetings between Truman and several of his advisors, specifically that with Stimson and General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project.[28] Going into detail about the items discussed at that meeting, and others, he asserts that there was discussion, however tentative, about the myriad implications resulting from the technology behind atomic bombs, and these inevitably included the influence it would have on international relations. It is interesting to note that Gaddis presents it as ‘international relations’ rather than specifically mentioning the Soviets, by contrast to many other historians, who simply refer to the tensions between the U.S. and the USSR.[29] Gaddis’ argument is similar in principle to Alperovitz’s, therefore arguing that the bomb was used for its impact on diplomacy and world politics. However, he presents it as far more hesitant than the cold, calculating decisions Alperovitz portrays.

On the other hand, it is very easy to state with the benefit of hindsight that there was already a lot of forward planning underway by 1945, and that the dropping of the atomic bombs was a calculated move designed to impress or cow the Soviets. Even if there is an element of truth to this, one must not forget that there was still fighting continuing in the Philippines, and air crews were still being shot down;[30] the U.S. was still taking casualties. It seems likely that there was an air of disquiet at the prospect of invading Japan,[31] and with fighting still continuing unabated in other areas, Truman no doubt felt pressured to act in an attempt to bring the war to a prompt close. Perhaps the most telling representation of this is put forward by Messer, who argues that while the bomb was not a reality, even in the early stages of the Potsdam Conference, Truman wanted the Russians to enter the war as soon as possible, but as soon as he thought he could end it without them, he did his best to delay their involvement.[32] This would seem to imply that his first concern was the conservation of American lives, but when he had a choice of how to go about this, he immediately took the option which diplomatically strengthened America while simultaneously weakening the Soviet Union.

Bernstein argues,[33] perhaps most convincingly, that American policymakers did consider the bomb a diplomatic tool, if not a master card by some. He argues that despite the sentiments in Stimson’s 1947 article, it is revealed when studying his diary at the time that he did consider the bomb a ‘master card,’ even using the term.[34] The views set forward in his diary prior to the dropping of the bombs therefore contrast starkly with those he put forward in his later article. However it would seem to be a more reliable source than the article for determining Stimson’s true thoughts; as it was a private diary he would not have expected other people to have had access to it, and would therefore have felt free to share his inner thoughts.

Many other senior members of the administration are also evidenced as having considered the diplomatic value of the bomb, among them Truman and Byrnes. Bernstein asserts that prior to the Potsdam conference, Truman confided about the bomb that ‘If it explodes, as I think it will, I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys [the Russians].’[35] He also asserts that Byrnes alongside Stimson had understood the influence on diplomacy the bomb would have when it became a reality.[36] As the Secretaries of State and Defence respectively, it seems justified to consider them ‘policymakers,’ and even if not, they would have had direct and constant access to Truman, giving them opportunities to influence him, intentionally or otherwise.

Although both Byrnes and Stimson considered the bomb a diplomatic instrument, they disagreed over how to use it. It is important to note the differences: while Stimson considered it a ‘master card,’ he thought that an offer for international control could be traded for important concessions,[37] which seems far less antagonistic than Byrnes’ use of it as at least an implied threat.[38] The way Byrnes planned to achieve this was to maintain a monopoly on the technology, which he predicted they would be able to do for at least seven years.[39] Although it is crucial to note the difference, more important is the fact that they both considered it something they could use to extract major concessions from the Soviets; a diplomatic ‘master card.’

The confidence of American foreign policymakers in the last years of the war, combined with the evidence in the various contemporary diaries shows that many of the policymakers did consider the bomb a diplomatic ‘master card.’ Alongside this, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many outside the policymaking process had also considered the diplomatic potential of the technology,[40] and it is just untrue that such considerations were not taken into account by those directly involved in the decision to drop the bomb, as is shown in the diaries.[41] One must add however, that there certainly were military considerations at the same time; the dropping of the bombs probably did speed up the end of the war even if, as many historians agree, it was the Soviet invasion which finally forced the surrender.[42] In the words of Asada, the use of the bomb was ‘unnecessary but confirmatory.’[43] Although it may seem with hindsight that the political factors took primacy, military considerations were just as important.

Word Count (including title): 3,000

 

[1] H. L. Stimson, ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb’, Harper’s Magazine (February 1947), pp.97-107.

[2] G. Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power (New York, 1965)

[3] L. Sigal, Fighting to a Finish: The Politics of War Termination in the United States and Japan, 1945 (London, 1988), M. J. Sherwin, ‘The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War,’ in eds. M. P. Leffler and D. S. Painter, Origins of the Cold War: An International History, (London 1994) pp.79-90, S. Asada, ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender:  A Reconsideration’, Pacific Historical Review, 67 (1998), pp.477-512.

[4] B. J. Bernstein, ‘The Atomic Bomb and American Foreign Policy, 1941-5: An Historiographical Controversy,’ Peace and Change, 2 (Spring 1974), p.1.

[5] H. L. Stimson, ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,’ pp.97-107.

[6] J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ Diplomatic History, 14 (Winter 1990), p.98

[7] H. L. Stimson, ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,’ pp.97-107

[8] G. Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy, and R. B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York & London 1999).

[9] H. L. Stimson, ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,’ pp.97-107

[10] R. Butow, Japan’s Decision to Surrender (Stanford, 1959), H. Feis, Japan Subdued: The Atomic Bomb and the End of the War in the Pacific (Princeton, 1961), B. J. Bernstein (ed.), The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues (Boston, 1976).

[11] S. Asada, ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender – A Reconsideration,’ in ed. R. J. Maddox, Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, (Columbia, 2007) pp.24-58

[12]R. B. Frank, Downfall, H. Feis, Japan Subdued, see also J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ p.98

[13] M. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York, 1975) p.6

[14] R. J. Maddox, ‘Gar Alperovitz Godfather of Hiroshima Revisionism,’ in ed. R. J. Maddox, Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (Columbia, 2007) pp.7-23

[15] P. M. S. Blackett, Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy (London, 1948), W. A. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland, 1959), also N. Cousins, T. K. Finletter, C. Marzani, D. F. Fleming and H. Feis, see J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ p.98

[16] G. Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy.

[17] J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ pp.98-9

[18] M. Sherwin, A World Destroyed, p.7

[19] J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ p.98

[20] R. J. Maddox, ‘Gar Alperovitz Godfather of Hiroshima Revisionism,’ p.12

[21] S. Asada, ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender – A Reconsideration,’ p.49

[22] J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ pp.98-9

[23] J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ p.99-100.

[24] R. J. Maddox, ‘Gar Alperovitz Godfather of Hiroshima Revisionism,’ pp.7-12

[25] M. J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed.

[26] D. Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (London, 1978).

[27] J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ pp.101-2.

[28] J. Gaddis et al., Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy Since 1945 (Oxford, 1999), p.16

[29] J. Gaddis et al., Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy Since 1945 (Oxford, 1999), pp.16-7

[30] R. J. Maddox, ‘Gar Alperovitz Godfather of Hiroshima Revisionism,’ p.12

[31] P. Fussell, ‘Hiroshima: A Soldier’s View,’ New Republic 185 (August 1981), pp.26-30.

[32] R. L. Messer, The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman and the Origins of the Cold War, (Chapel Hill, 1982), B. J. Bernstein, ‘ American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War,’ p.32

[33] B. J. Bernstein, ‘ American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War,’ in ed. B. J. Bernstein, Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration (Chicago, 1972) pp.15-77

[34] Diary of Henry Stimson, April 24, 25, May 10, 14, 15, 16, 1945.

[35] Diary entry of July 23, A. Bryant, Triumph in the West, 1943-1946 (based on the diaries and autobiographical notes of Field Marshal the Viscount Alanbrooke), p.364 (London, 1959), B. J. Bernstein, ‘ American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War,’ p.32

[36] See Diary of Leahy, May 20, 1945; R. Hewlett and O. Anderson Jr., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission Volume 1: The New World, (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1962) pp.354-7.

[37] B. J. Bernstein, ‘American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War,’ p.35

[38] Diary of Henry Stimson, August 12, September 3, 4, 5, 1945.

[39] R. Hewlett and O. Anderson Jr., The New World, p.417, pp.456-61.

[40] M. J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed, see J. S. Walker, ‘The Decision to use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ pp.100-1.

[41] Diary of Henry Stimson, April 24, 25, May 10, 14, 15, 16, 1945, Diary of William Leahy, May 20, 1945; R. Hewlett and O. Anderson Jr., The New World, pp.354-7.

[42] G. Alperovitz, R. L. Messer and Japanese historians, see S. Asada, ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to surrender – A Reconsideration,’ p.49

[43] S. Asada, ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender – A Reconsideration,’ p.46

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Diary of Henry Stimson

Diary of William Leahy

Stimson, H. L., ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,’ Harper’s Magazine (February 1947), pp.97-107

Secondary Sources

Alperovitz, G., Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation of Soviet Power (New York, 1985)

Asada, S., ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender – A Reconsideration,’ in R. J. Maddox (ed.), Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (Columbia, 2007), pp.24-58

Asada, S., ‘The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender: A Reconsideration,’ Pacific Historical Review, 67(1998), pp.477-512

Bernstein, B. J., ‘American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War,’ in B. J. Bernstein (ed.), Politics and Policies of the Truman Administration (Chicago, 1972), pp.15-77

Bernstein, B. J., ‘The Atomic Bomb and American Foreign Policy, 1941-5: An Historiographical Controversy,’ Peace and Change, 2 (1974), pp.1-16

Bernstein, B. J. (ed.), The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues (Boston, 1976)

Blackett, P. M. S., Military and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy (London, 1948)

Bryant, A., Triumph in the West 943-1946 (based on the diaries and autobiographical notes of Field Marshal the Viscount Alanbrooke (London, 1959)

Butow, R., Japan’s Decision to Surrender (Standford, 1959)

Gaddis, J., Gordon, P., May, E., and Rosenberg, J., Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy Since 1945 (Oxford, 1999)

Feis, H., Japan Subdued: The Atomic Bomb and the End of the War in the Pacific (Princeton, 1961)

Frank, R. B., Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York & London, 1999)

Fussell, P., ‘Hiroshima: A Soldier’s View,’ New Republic, 185 (1981), pp.26-30

Hewlett, R., and Anderson Jr., O., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission Volume 1: The New World (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1962)

Maddox, R. J., ‘Gar Alperovitz Godfather of Hiroshima Revisionism,’ in R. J. Maddox (ed.) Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (Columbia, 2007) pp.7-23

Messer, R. L., The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman and the Origins of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, 1982)

Sherwin, M. J., A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York, 1975)

Sherwin, M. J., ‘The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War,’ in M. P. Leffler and D. S. Painter (eds.), Origins of the Cold War: An International History, (London, 1994), pp.79-90

Sigal, L., Fighting to a Finish: The Politics of War Termination in the United States and Japan, 1945 (London, 1988)

Walker, J. S., ‘The Decision the use The Bomb: An Historiographical Update,’ Diplomatic History, 14 (1990), pp.97-114

Williams, W. A., The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland, 1959).

Yergin, D., Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State (London, 1978)

Feedback:

68%

All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Excellent-Good

Critical approach to historiography: Good

Focus on question: Good

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Good-Competent

Use of examples: Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good-Competent

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Good

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Good

Sources cited correctly: Good

General Comments and Advice: Your essay displays a wide breadth of reading and a good understanding of the various historiographical perspectives and schools of thought. You show an appreciation of the differences between sources that have been attributted to each school (particularly with regards to post-revisionism) and the problematic nature of these categories. You also utilise and analyse primary sources well in support of your arguments and in addressing the various ways in which US officials and policymakers viewed the atomic bomb as having the potential to act as a diplomatic ‘master card’. You show some good critical engagement with secondary sources and generally provide a well-balanced analysis that examines a comprehensive range of viewpoints.

Your introduction, although highlighting your understanding of the different historiographical schools of thought, would benefit from further ‘signposting’ of the structure of your own analysis and an outline of your key arguments which you can refer back to in your conclusion. This helps you to demonstrate a consistent argument throughout your essay.

Although your references are generally correctly cited, some small errors with regard to formatting have been highlighted ; ensure that you include full references for your bibliography, including primary sources such as diary entries the way you would for other texts.

 

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