Today, Chris Wallace reminded me why, besides the Trump fetish they pretend not to have, I watch CNN less and less these days. While interviewing Matt Damon about Oppenheimer, the new film by Christopher Nolan (Insomnia, Inception, The Dark Knight, Dunkirk), Wallace asked the actor if the United States was right or wrong to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and further inquired if Damon would have unleashed the weapons. Of course, there was no way Damon could have answered credibly. He cannot verify what he would have done about a matter he had no say in and that unfolded twenty-five years before he was born. Damon was wise enough not to take the bait. Instead, he called it an impossible question and referred to the reaction of his friend Ben Affleck’s grandfather, who was a soldier during World War II. The veteran said that based on what they were told about the potentially enormous casualties that would result from an invasion of Japan---hundreds of thousands if the purported Japanese vow to fight to the last man were indeed real---he cheered when the bombs were dropped. We understand the self-interest. He thinks the bombs might have saved his life. My father, who was among the wave of U.S. soldiers who went into Japan after the surrender, felt the same way. For his part, Wallace offered that although the assault raised a difficult moral question, it was politically a no-brainer. In other words, it had to be done. In a previous discussion of his book Countdown 1945, Wallace opined that Truman had no choice. It was either bomb Japan or invade it, the former option being far more favorable in terms of saving lives.
But there is another story. While it is true that an invasion of Japan, defended by one million soldiers, could have cost more American lives than all previous battles of the war combined, it is also true that Japan’s vaunted Imperial Navy had been decimated and the island nation’s supply lines had largely been destroyed. Some U.S. military strategists preferred the idea of allowing Japan to “wither on the vine,” which necessitated neither an invasion nor a nuclear attack. The Soviet Union, Japan’s most feared enemy historically, was scheduled to declare war on Japan three months to the day after Germany surrendered. Given that Germany surrendered on May 8th, the Soviets’ declaration of war was due on August 8th. Truman distrusted Stalin and was concerned about the postwar concessions he would have to make to the Soviet Union for its sure-to-be-decisive intervention. As we know, the U.S bombed Hiroshima on August 6, killing 78,000 people, and Nagasaki on August 9, a day after the Soviet Union indeed declared war on Japan.
None of this is to argue that Truman made the wrong decision. As Wallace suggests, there are moral questions to consider. But political no-brainer? Nah, it was a brainer.