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The Dilemma

In August 1945, after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen scheduled to participate in the invasion of Japan reacted as you might expect. They cheered, they danced. Some of them wept with relief. Others sat in quiet disbelief. One infantry officer, who had been wounded in action in Europe and was slated to lead a rifle platoon up a defended beach near Tokyo, recalled thinking, "We were going to live. We were going to grow into adulthood after all."

In more recent years, scholars of World War II have argued that it was not necessary to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, or that it was not necessary to drop more than one, or that the Japanese might have been moved to surrender if the United States had staged a demonstration of the bomb's power on a deserted island. That argument has gained popular currency. When I was writing this book, friends would ask, was it really necessary to drop two atomic bombs? In school and college, many had been exposed to books and scholarship that argued that, by August 1945, Japan was ready to surrender, and that America's real motivation in dropping the A-bomb was to intimidate Russia in the earliest days of the Cold War.

The facts are otherwise. On the morning of August 9, 1945, after the United States dropped two atomic bomb and Russia declared war on Japan, the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, the group of six leaders who ran Japan, deadlocked on whether to surrender. The vote was a tie, three to three. The most powerful leaders, the ones who ran the army, wanted to keep on fighting. For five more days, Japan teetered on the edge of a coup d'état by the military that would have plunged Japan into chaos and extended the war for many bloody months. On the last night, coup plotters seized control of the Imperial Palace, running through the halls looking for a recording of the emperor's voice, to be broadcast the next day at noon, announcing Japan's surrender. (The recording, fortunately, was tucked away in a room reserved for ladies-in-waiting.) Hot and dark, largely burned out by American firebombs, Tokyo roiled with intrigue and deception, including large doses of self-deception on the part of the leaders responsible for deciding.

In Washington, meanwhile, decision makers were not, for the most part, thinking about the bombs' effect on the Soviet Union. They were praying that the bombs would bring Japan to its senses. Indeed, they were seriously considering dropping another. The Washington leaders were not free of their own illusions as they struggled over what to do, but they faced a hard reality. They were actors caught in a dilemma as old as war but never more grotesquely distended: that to save lives it was necessary to take lives—possibly hundreds of thousands of them.

This book is a narrative of how the most destructive war in history ended—and very nearly did not. It asks what it was like to be one of the decent, imperfect people who made the decision to use a frighteningly powerful new weapon. How did they choose how many bombs to drop, when, where, and to what end? I learned that the word decision does not accurately describe the fraught, inexorable process that they went through. Were they somehow subject to
"psychic numbing," as scholars have suggested? A few, like Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the chief of the XXI Bomber Command, seemed to be (or pretended to be) unfeeling or at least matter-of-fact. "If you kill enough of them, they stop fighting," said LeMay, whose B-29s burned to death at least 85,000 residents of Tokyo on one night in March 1945. But others were troubled, even tormented, though they, too, tried not to show it. Duty, mercy, expediency, and ending a four-year war all pulled at them.

The problem for these men—the looming, intractable, seemingly unsurpassable obstacle—was that Japan was unwilling to surrender. By the summer of 1945, the empire appeared to be defeated. Japan's ships had been sunk, its cities burned, and its people were on the verge of starvation. But its military leaders, who commanded 5 million soldiers under arms, as well as greater citizen armies equipped with pitchforks and scythes, seemed bent on mass suicide. To attempt to defeat them by invading and seizing territory seemed sure to produce the greatest bloodbath of all time—and the Japanese, or at least their military leaders, beckoned the Americans to it.

The Allied forces assembled a vast invasion armada, including at least a dozen hospital ships, but the projected casualty estimates were so ghastly that even the most upright of men, Gen. George C. Marshall, the chief of staff of the army, invited his subordinates to fudge the numbers. Dropping the A-bomb on Japan was a foregone conclusion. That Japan would surrender was not. The atomic bombs would kill roughly 200,000 people. Had Japan fought on, likely many more people would have died, possibly millions more, in Asia as well as Japan.

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