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Looking back at the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. This week, as we mark the 78th anniversary of the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American audiences seeing the film "Oppenheimer" are revisiting the fateful decisions made by U.S. military and political leaders to use atomic weapons on a civilian population. Estimates of those killed in the two cities range from 150,000 to roughly 225,000. Though nine countries now have nuclear weapons, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain their only use in armed conflict.

Today we're going to listen back to three FRESH AIR interviews which explore whether the use of atomic weapons against Japan was justified and whether the American public was misled about their effects. We begin with Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who has studied the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence. Terry Gross spoke to him in 1995 when he published the book "Hiroshima In America." He said that Americans had been fed a myth about the decision to use atomic weapons.


ROBERT JAY LIFTON: The myth is - which is the official American narrative of Hiroshima - that we dropped the bomb reluctantly after great reflection only in order to save lives and end the war, and that therefore it was a good and necessary thing and that we should not in any way trouble ourselves over it.

TERRY GROSS: You trace the beginning of the official version of the story of the atom bomb and why we dropped it on Hiroshima to a press release after the bomb was dropped. Can you read an excerpt of that press release for us which you reprint in your book, "Hiroshima In America"?

LIFTON: Probably the most important part of the press release is the first sentence, which reads, 16 hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. And then the - it goes on to say, that bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It goes on to say, the Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid manyfold, and the end is not yet. Only in the third paragraph does it say, it is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its powers has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.

GROSS: What is so significant about the first sentence that you read about Hiroshima being an important military base?

LIFTON: Well, what's significant about that first sentence is that it's a partial truth, and that is - that really matters. Because it's true - there was a Japanese military base in Hiroshima. It was a staging area for Southeast Asia and an important one. But there was also a city of 300,000 people, and the bomb was aimed at the center of the city. It was targeted on civilians, and it was meant to destroy the city. But the press release presented it as a strictly military action, and it blamed, more or less, the Japanese for this particular event. Now, again, the Japanese bear some blame because they did initiate the war, but it's a way of exonerating America and completely militarized what was really an attack on a whole city.

GROSS: Do you have information that leads you to believe that we could have had a peace with Japan, that Japan would have surrendered had it not been for the atom bombs?

LIFTON: There's a lot of evidence of a very good possibility that Japan would have surrendered if an effort at negotiation was initiated by us or responded to by us with the condition that the emperor be maintained. That isn't just an impression that I have, or that such leading historians as Barton Bernstein and Martin Sherwin and Gar Alperovitz have - many others as well. Almost any historian who studies these materials comes to that sense of it being at least a very good possibility. And it was stated so among Truman's advisers.

For instance, Joseph Grew, who was acting secretary of state during part of that period and who knew Japan well, strongly advocated that we look into precisely that kind of negotiation because he thought that maintaining the emperor was the only condition that the Japanese were holding to. And by not doing that, we strengthened the hand of the more fanatical Japanese who didn't want to surrender under any conditions. And that position won over John McCloy, who was one of Stimson's closest advisers and also presented it to President Truman. So at the very top of Truman's advisory group, there was that advocacy and that position. Ironically, one of the things that held them back was waiting for the atomic bomb to be finished and to be ready.

GROSS: Why do you think a second weapon was used at Nagasaki?

LIFTON: Well, a second weapon was really part of the first order. There was - the Nagasaki bomb or the second city, whichever was decided upon, was in that first order, which was to use available atomic bombs, or atomic bombs as they became available. So one could have used an endless number of bombs according to that order. And that's the way a military order can be given to have that kind of momentum still in the midst of a bloody war. However, there could have been an order to stop, to interfere and prevent the use of that second bomb. It was not given.

And sadly, the second bomb was completed and dropped so quickly that most observers now feel that the Japanese hardly had sufficient time to consider a surrender in between the use of those weapons. There was some impulse to use that second bomb because there was also curiosity about what it could do. It was a different kind of bomb from the uranium bomb used on Hiroshima. It was a plutonium bomb of a different kind and of one that was considered to be highly important for the military future. And that could well have been a factor in carrying out the use of that second bomb or not interrupting that momentum of its use.

GROSS: President Truman is considered the buck-stops-here president, the president who was very decisive, who felt that the use of the bombs in Japan were justified and necessary to end World War II and save American lives. He, I think, has said that he never lost any sleep over the decision.

LIFTON: He - President Truman made many such statements that he never lost any sleep, that he made a clear-cut decision. But he made those statements in a very agitated way. He spent 25 years of the remainder of his life after having made that decision constantly defending it. And he said very different things. He sometimes said it was just like an artillery weapon - when you have it, you use it. At other times, he said it was an awesome weapon that should never be used because it kills women and children indiscriminately. He had those dual feelings about the weapon.

But you have to weigh all of these elements as you come to some kind of psychological profile of this man who was inherently decent and struggling to carry through his responsibility as a wartime president as well as he could. He was afraid not to make a decision to use the weapon. It was wartime. It was a bloody war. Americans were enraged at the Japanese. Would they have excused him if he didn't use that weapon? As Byrnes said, his secretary of state, he might be crucified by the American people and the victim of an overwhelming congressional investigation if the weapon hadn't been used - an investigation of what had happened to that $2 billion used on that project, a really unprecedented sum at that time. So ironically, one can use a weapon like that because one is afraid not to use it.

GROSS: Getting back to what you describe as the myth that we've been told and that we've perpetrated about our use of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - so the myth says that we reluctantly, after great reflection, dropped the bombs. You also say that Truman's style, the buck-stops-here style, was a style that really discouraged great reflection.

LIFTON: That's right. It's impossible to undergo great reflection when you're impelled toward quick and immediate decision, often before all of the elements of the problem are clear. That makes it very hard for even one's advisers to lay out all of the considerations that one should look at in making such a decision. There wasn't a lot of reflection about using the weapon. There was intermittent thought and some discussion of the direction of negotiation about the emperor. But there was an obsession very early, even before the bomb appeared, before it was completed, with that weapon.

And everybody was waiting for the weapon, so much so that some historians have made, I think, a convincing argument that the bomb probably delayed the end of the war and cost American and Japanese lives rather than having saved them, because there was some inclination toward negotiating with the Japanese. And Truman said that might be a good idea.

But then when it was referred to his advisers, Stimson would say, well, the timing isn't right. And the timing isn't right meant that one had to wait for the bomb to appear before any such negotiation. And in that way, there were delays about ending the war that were based on waiting for the bomb and the existence of the bomb. It really shows the danger of creating an object like this and how much it can affect those who create it and contemplate its use.

DAVIES: Robert Jay Lifton speaking with Terry Gross in 1995 about his book "Hiroshima In America." Lifton is now 97, and he has a new book coming out in September titled "Surviving Our Catastrophes: Resilience And Renewal From Hiroshima To The COVID-19 Pandemic." Coming up, writer Lesley Blume on how Americans were misled about the real effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Next, what Americans didn't know about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The deadly effects of radiation poisoning are widely recognized. But journalist Lesley Blume says that in the year following the atomic attacks, Americans knew little about conditions in the two Japanese cities, which, like the rest of Japan, were under U.S. occupation and military censorship. I spoke to Blume in 2020 about her book "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World."

So a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered. And after years of war, Americans were, of course, deliriously happy that it was over. What did they know about the destruction and death that the weapon had visited on Hiroshima?

LESLEY BLUME: Well, I mean, at first, it appeared that the U.S. government was being almost ecstatically forthright about the new weapon. And when, you know, President Truman announces the bombing, he says, look; this is the biggest bomb that's ever been used in the history of warfare. And the Japanese should surrender or they can expect a reign of fire and ruin from the sky unlike, you know, anybody's ever seen before. We've unleashed the power of the sun. I mean, it was almost biblical language. So they knew - everybody who heard the announcement knew that they were dealing with something totally unprecedented, not just in the war but in the history of human warfare. What was not stated was, you know, the fact that this bomb had radiological qualities and that even blast survivors on the ground would be - you know, would die in an agonizing way for the days and the weeks and the months and years that followed.

DAVIES: Right. And so in the weeks and months that followed, what was being said about radiation and its effects? I mean, American generals had testified before Congress on this. How did they characterize the risk?

BLUME: Well, very - yeah. In the immediate weeks, you know, very little - I mean, a lot of it was really painted in, you know, landscape devastation. You know, photographs - landscape photographs were released to newspapers showing, you know, the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I mean, they were rubble pictures. And also, you know, obviously, people are seeing the mushroom cloud photos taken from the bombers themselves or from recon missions.

And - but in terms of the radiation, you know, even in the announcement, Truman's announcement of the bomb, he's painting the bombs in conventional terms. He says, you know, these bombs are the equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. And so Americans, you know, they don't understand - they know that it's a mega-weapon, but they don't understand the full nature of the weapons yet. You know, the radiological effects are not in any way highlighted to the American public.

And in the meantime, you know, the U.S. military is scrambling to find out how, you know, the radiation of the bombs is affecting the physical landscape, how it's affecting human beings - because they're about to send tens of thousands occupation troops into Japan. So they - you know, they're sending their own recon missions in late August of 1945 onto the ground, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to see if they can, in good conscience, clear the atomic cities for occupation. And they do declare, you know, privately, you know, amongst themselves that the radiation has dwindled to nothing.

Because of the height at which the bomb had been detonated, they said that much of it had been reabsorbed back into the atmosphere. But they would also, you know, start to study the blast survivors who had taken in radiation to their bodies, you know, when the blast went off and look at how it affected them. The fact is that the people who created the bombs didn't have a full understanding of what the bombs were going to wreak on landscape and humans and were going to be studying that for years while they were on the ground occupying Japan.

DAVIES: You mentioned Lieutenant General Leslie Groves. I think he was actually involved in the Manhattan Project, right?

BLUME: Rather involved, yes, the spearheader of said project. He was charged with building the bomb for wartime use and managed to do it in three years, which is quite miraculous. And in his mind - I mean, he - Leslie Groves, never had any moral qualms whatsoever about the decimation or, you know, the radiation agonies. Afterwards, he had been told, get this bomb ready for wartime use. And he did that. And, you know, that was, in, you know, his eyes, a huge triumph.

DAVIES: Right. And he was - I think he was the one who said that you could live there forever of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - right? - no problem.

BLUME: Yeah. So, well, you know, again, as news started to filter over from Japanese reports about what it was like on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath, wire reports started picking up, you know, really disturbing information about, you know, the totality of the decimation and, you know, this sinister, what they called, you know, a disease X that was ravaging blast survivors. You know, so this news was starting to trickle over early in August of 1945 to Americans.

And so the U.S. realized that not only were they going to have to really try to study very quickly how radioactive the atomic cities might have been, you know, as they were bringing in their own occupation troops, but they realized that they had a potential PR disaster on their hands, you know, because the U.S. had just won this horribly hard-earned military victory and were on the moral high ground they felt in defeating the Axis powers. And, you know, they had avenged Pearl Harbor. They had avenged Japanese atrocities throughout the Pacific Theater in Asia. But then, you know, reports that they had decimated, you know, a largely civilian population in this excruciating way with an experimental weapon - you know, it was concerning because it might have deprived the U.S. government of their moral high ground.

DAVIES: You know, there were reports from Japan about the level of destruction and also about lasting effects from radiation poisoning. How did U.S. - the U.S. military respond to these reports?

BLUME: Well, they went they went on a PR - they created a PR campaign to really combat the notion that, you know the U.S. had decimated these populations with a really destructive radiological weapon. And, you know, they dispatched Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer themselves went to the to the Trinity site of testing to - and brought a junket of reporters so they could, you know, show off the area. And they said, you know, that there was no residual radiation whatsoever and that, therefore, any news that was filtering over from Japan were, quote, "Tokyo tales." So right away, they went into overdrive to contain that narrative.

DAVIES: So I understand, you're saying they took them to a site in the United States where a weapon had been tested and showed them that there was no residual radiation?

BLUME: Yes, they did. They went to the Trinity site, which is in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb had been tested - successfully tested - on July 16 of 1945. And, you know, meanwhile, you know, this junket of, you know, two dozen reporters gets there, and around the detonation site, you know, the sand and the desert has been turned to green glass because of the impact of the bomb. And they're all wearing booties, but - you know, to cover their shoes from possible radiological particles. But, you know, Leslie Groves is there to give a junket saying that, you know, hey; everything's OK here, and, you know, you could live here forever. You could live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki forever, too. There's nothing to see here, folks.

DAVIES: So the U.S. military was saying these reports of terrible suffering and lingering radiation effects were Japanese propaganda. This also happened in the context of, you know, the moral judgments that might - people might make about such a weapon. And the military was putting it in the context of the way the war had begun and the way the Japanese had behaved. How did all that set the context for the American response?

BLUME: Look. Americans were still enraged by Pearl Harbor, and they, you know, had had a horrific time fighting in the Pacific Theater. And, you know, casualties were enormous. You know, Japanese tenacity in battles was unlike anything Americans had encountered before. You know, Americans were horrified by Japanese atrocities in China and throughout Asia. And the feeling of righteousness, of righteous rage and vengeance in dropping the bombs was near-total. And, you know, Harry Truman himself articulated that in his speech when he announced the bombing. He said the Japanese have now been repaid many fold. And just, you know, one quick stat really illustrates the mindset of the Americans towards the bombings at that time. In August of 1945, a poll was taken, and nearly a quarter of the Americans surveyed said that they wished that they could have dropped many more atomic bombs on Japan before the country had surrendered. So that's a pretty strong indication of how high the support was.

DAVIES: Lesley Blume's book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It To The World." We'll hear more of our interview after a short break. And we'll hear from Evan Thomas, whose new book explores the actions of key American and Japanese leaders in the closing months of World War II. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. As we observe the 78th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we're listening to three interviews about the use of atomic weapons on the cities. When we left off, we were listening to my 2020 interview with writer Lesley Blume. Her book "Fallout" tells the story of John Hersey, the young American reporter who brought the first widely read account of the destruction and suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the American public a year after the atom bombs were dropped. Blume writes that Japan was under military occupation and censorship, so firsthand accounts from the bombed cities were hard to come by.

There were clearly reporters in the Pacific theater who wanted to get the story about the effects of atomic weapons. And there was some reporting. On the whole, did it capture and convey what was happening to the American people?

BLUME: Yeah. I mean, many of the reporters who were coming in with the occupied forces, for them, getting in on the ground to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a huge scoop. And a few of them did make it in there. And a few of them were able to get out really alarming initial reports that were, you know, heavy on facts about devastation and the fact that there was some kind of a terrible affliction still killing off blast survivors, but light on details 'cause nobody knew what on Earth, you know, was in reality happening in the aftermath of the bombings. However, they didn't - you know, these reports, some of them appeared only in truncated form in American press. And after they came out, General MacArthur's occupation forces were able to quickly organize to suppress additional such reporting.

DAVIES: Right, so people - so reporters couldn't get in. And meanwhile, you had the American government saying, you know, you're hearing a lot of Japanese propaganda that you should be skeptical of.

BLUME: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the American officials were saying for the most part, you know, this is just - you know, these are - the defeated Japanese is trying to create international sympathy to create better terms for themselves in the occupation. Ignore them.

DAVIES: So there was a lot that people didn't know about what had happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it was John Hersey that ultimately kind of changed that. So John Hersey manages to get to Hiroshima. And he, of course, had covered the war in Europe and had seen horrific damage from allied bombing of German cities. What did Hiroshima look like then and how did it compare to Hershey's expectations?

BLUME: I mean, Hersey had seen everything from that point, from combat to concentration camps. But he - and let's not forget, he came in through Tokyo, which had been decimated. But he later said that nothing prepared him for what he saw in Hiroshima. I mean, the devastation was just so total. And even though he and, you know, people around the world had seen devastated cities for years at that point, the thing that terrified him the most was that this had been done by one single 10,000-pound primitive bomb. One weapon had created all of this destruction and misery. And, you know, even though it was nearly a year later, I mean, it was still just a sort of smoldering wreck. You know, many people had returned to Hiroshima to try to start rebuilding their lives on the ruins. But, I mean, that really amounted to living in these rusted shanties on top of, again, what is essentially a graveyard.

DAVIES: Right. Now, he had to find people who had experienced the explosion, survived it and were willing to talk about it. And he didn't have a lot of time. How did he do it?

BLUME: Well, he was lucky. He - but he was also strategic. He had read an article before he got in about some German priests who had been in Hiroshima and survived and had given a survival testimony to - that had run in Time Magazine. And so he knew that they had returned to Hiroshima, so he sought them out. And fortunately, a couple of them spoke English. And Hersey won over their trust. They gave him their testimonies about what it had been like for them on August 6, 1945. And then not only did they agree to be his translator - because they spoke Japanese, Hersey did not - they also began to make introductions for him within the blast survivor community.

DAVIES: Well, Lesley Blume, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BLUME: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

DAVIES: Lesley Blume's book is "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up And The Reporter Who Revealed It to The World." Coming up, writer Evan Thomas on the actions of key U.S. and Japanese leaders in the closing months of World War II. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. As we mark the anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we're listening to interviews about the American decision to use the only atomic weapons ever employed in armed conflict. Veteran journalist Evan Thomas' book, "The Road To Surrender," profiles three leaders - two American and one Japanese - involved in critical decisions leading up to the end of World War II. In the summer of 1945, Germany had surrendered to the Allies while Japan, largely defeated, was defiant and still capable of inflicting horrific casualties on any force that might try and invade the Japanese mainland.

So in the summer of 1945, the efforts to develop an atomic bomb are coming to fruition. The secretary of war, Stimson, knew about this. And there was discussion of, if it was to be used, what kind of target would it be? Should you drop it in the ocean? Should you drop it in an uninhabited area, you know, to demonstrate its power? Give us a sense of - there was a targeting committee - what its deliberations were like.

EVAN THOMAS: There was a targeting committee of military people, largely, and some scientists. And their big issue was to make sure that they hit the target at all. It would be nice if we could hit a port or some factories or a military base. But if you're dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet, it just wasn't that accurate. And the targeting committee decided that the best thing to do was to pick a target smack in the middle of a city. In Hiroshima, it was a bridge in the middle of Hiroshima. And, yes, Hiroshima was a military city in the sense that it had military forces there. It had ports on the outside. There was a military base there. It was still basically a civilian city. It was full of civilians.

And so the target committee decided not to take the chance of going after a military target but to drop the bomb right in the middle of the city, where they were sure they would strike it and it would set off a heck of a big bang. They did not have many regrets about that. There's no evidence of them saying, oh, my God, we're going to kill a lot of civilians. There were some civilians who worried about it. But the military, the people on the target committee - they wanted to drop that bomb, and they wanted to make sure it hit its target.

DAVIES: There was discussion of trying to convince the Japanese to surrender. And one of the things was, what would happen with the Emperor Hirohito? The presence of the emperor presented a special problem. What was it? What was his status?

THOMAS: Well, he was divine in Japanese Shinto religion. He was the man in charge. But he wasn't really. His legitimacy depended on the military. They propped him up. The idea was that the emperor should be above politics, not dragged into politics. As a practical matter, it made him a tool of the military, and the Japanese government was just determined to preserve the emperor. Their existence in the government depended on there being an emperor - if not this emperor, at least some other emperor. But they wanted to keep the imperial system. They were completely wedded to this idea that there had to be an emperor. After all, he was divine.

DAVIES: So let's look at what's happening in Japan here. There were a lot of military leaders who were determined to fight to the end. But one person that you focus on was the foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, who had a different take on this. He wanted peace. Tell us about him.

THOMAS: Togo was the one civilian on the Supreme War Council. The rest were the war minister, army, navy, chiefs of staff, the prime minister. They're all in uniform. Togo is the one civilian, and he's the only one who wants to surrender, who wants to save his country by surrendering. All the others want to fight to the bitter end. They believe that for two reasons. One is there is something almost mystical and grand about national suicide. And they talk this way. The hundred million, they say, will die for the emperor. The other piece, though, is they believed that if they could make the Americans bleed enough, suffer enough, take enough casualties, then the Americans would give them terms that they wanted. They knew they were defeated. They knew their fleet was sunk and their army was was about to be defeated. But they hoped that if they could make us bleed, we would give them the terms they wanted, which were no occupation, no American troops on Japan, no war crimes trials because they knew that as leaders of Japan, they were going to be tried for war crimes. So they didn't want that. And lastly, they wanted to keep their emperor.

DAVIES: So Shigenori Togo, the foreign minister - he tries to get the Soviet - reach out to the Soviet Union to have them negotiate, approach the allies on behalf of Japan. That kind of doesn't really go anywhere. But then he also tries to work the others on the Supreme Council, this body that's running the country at the time, to sort of massage them and get them to see reality. And let's end this thing. And then you write that in June, six weeks before the atomic bombs were dropped, he met with the emperor and that the emperor said, please terminate the war as quickly as possible. And when I read that, I thought, well, gosh, why didn't that settle the question if the emperor had the authority?

THOMAS: The emperor has the authority in theory, but in practice, he doesn't have that authority. He's too dependent on the military himself. For one thing, the Emperor Hirohito is somewhat of a meek-seeming figure. He has a reedy voice. He likes marine biology. He's not a warrior type at all. And he exists at the sufferance of the military. In June, the emperor hears that the military is thinking of removing him from Tokyo and taking him up to their mountain redoubt and, in effect, making him their prisoner. He refuses. He shows some backbone. For once, he stands up to them. But he knows that he's very much a tool of the military. He doesn't like to admit it, but that is the practical reality.

DAVIES: In July in the United States, the atom bomb is successfully tested. So it's clear that the United States is going to have an operable weapon to drop on Japan. And the idea emerged among Stimson and the Secretary of War and others of rather than dropping the bomb to give the Japanese a warning, saying, we have this terrible weapon, and we will not drop it if you will surrender. And perhaps even we'll let you keep your emperor, at least in some kind of ceremonial role. How does Harry Truman regard this idea?

THOMAS: Truman and his new secretary of state, Jimmy Byrnes, do not want to give the Japanese an out. Byrnes and Truman regard the Japanese as being duplicitous. And if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. And they are afraid that if you say to the Japanese, you can keep their emperor, that will just be an excuse for them to fight on. In that judgment, the president actually has some backing from the military community that also worries about that. They have fresh memories of Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese continued to negotiate even as they were getting ready to strike Pearl Harbor militarily. So they just don't trust the Japanese.

And the proof of that, I think, is in the debates in the Supreme War Council. After we had dropped two atom bombs on Japan, the militarists still wanted to fight on. The most revealing moment is at a meeting of the Supreme War Council on August 9. Their bomb has dropped on Hiroshima. They're talking about what to do. Word comes that another Hiroshima-style bomb has just taken out Nagasaki. And the Supreme War Council, the six of them, are now divided. They're stalemated. And it takes - in Japan, it takes a consensus to make a decision. They're stalemated on whether to surrender. That's after we had dropped two atom bombs.

DAVIES: Evan Thomas' book is "The Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To End World War II." You'll hear more of our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to the interview I recorded earlier this year with Evan Thomas, whose new book, "The Road To Surrender," is about three leaders - two American and one Japanese - in the closing months of World War II. Just after the U.S. successfully tested an atomic bomb in July 1945, Allied leaders, including Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Harry Truman, met in a summit known as the Potsdam Conference.

Before the bomb is dropped, there is there is a meeting at Potsdam, which is a suburb of Berlin, right? It's in Germany - defeated Germany. And out of that comes a lot of things, including a message to Japan. What was the message from the Allied leaders then?

THOMAS: The message was called the Potsdam Declaration. And it basically said, you have to surrender, or we'll destroy you, period. It didn't have a lot of particulars in it. And the Japanese got that message and rejected it summarily. They - there's a word for it, they - in Japanese. It means to treat with silent contempt.

DAVIES: Right. So the United States decides to proceed with dropping the first weapon. You note that the commander, General Carl Spaatz, insisted on a written order for this. He wasn't going to do this on some verbal command. And it's a long flight from the Marianas where this B-29 left, and it dropped the bomb over Hiroshima. It was devastating, of course. And, you know, this is a time - you know, we kind of - we're used to instant communication in our age. But in fact, it took a long - some time for the perception of this disaster, this kind of carnage, to make its way around the world and even in Japan. It's interesting where Truman hears news that the bomb had been dropped. Tell us that story.

THOMAS: Truman is on a ship coming back from the Potsdam Conference when he first learns that the bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima. And he says, this is the greatest thing in history. He's excited about it. He - at least in the mess hall with the sailors, he is enthusiastic. And he gives a pretty strong speech warning the Japanese that another one is coming their way if they don't surrender.

Now, what is Truman really thinking? That is a harder question. And I think the most interesting evidence of it - this is indirect. But on the day that Truman gives the order to drop the atom bomb, July 25, 1945, that evening he writes in his diary, I have ordered the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, and we are in agreement that the target should be purely military, not civilian - that we should kill soldiers and sailors, not women and children.

Well, what is he thinking? Because as we've mentioned earlier, the aim point of the bomb was a bridge in the middle of Hiroshima. Of course it was going to kill women and children. It did. As it happened, it killed about 10, maybe 20,000 soldiers, but 50 or 60,000 civilians - right away, instantly, including most of them women and children, because the men were off at war.

So what was Truman thinking? Well, he may have been badly briefed. That's possible. We don't really have a good record of that. But more likely, he and Stimson had decided that day to remove another city, Kyoto, from the target list, that had been on the target list. And I think that they were feeling that they had done the right thing by sparing the ancient cultural capital of Japan, therefore saving a beautiful and magnificent city. And they were, I think, in a way congratulating themselves on that. And so they chose to view Hiroshima as a military target, even though it wasn't.

This is human denial. It's kind of incredible to think that the president and the secretary of war didn't really know what they were doing. But I think under the pressure of this kind of thing, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that the information is murky, that human denial kicks in. Still, it's hard to explain.

DAVIES: All right. So when the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and this incredible destruction - the Japanese military leaders are some distance away in Tokyo. Do they understand what's happened?

THOMAS: The Japanese military leaders have been working on building an atom bomb for Japan for years, and they failed at it. So they are aware that it is possible to build an atom bomb. They know that. They don't want to believe that the Americans have done it. But the evidence is considerable that they have. They stall. They hem. They haw. They send a plane down of scientists to look at it. It takes a day or two for the plane to get there and the scientists to get back. They are also in denial. They don't want to believe what's happening. And when they finally do accede that, well, it's an atom bomb, they think, well, they must only have one atom bomb because they must not have enough uranium material to build more than one. And then, of course, there's a second, and that - there goes that argument. And then they are just in a kind of a suicidal fugue state. Some of them realize, we've got to surrender. Others want to fight on.

DAVIES: And what you see is, in effect - I mean, some of the military commanders attempt to stage a coup. Shigenori Togo, the foreign minister, goes to see the Emperor Hirohito, and he actually declares that we have to end this, right? He issues a sacred decision - a seidan. Am I pronouncing that correctly?



THOMAS: There is this little tiny peace party under Togo that is working the emperor, working the palace. And the emperor, by August 9, is worried about a couple of things. He doesn't really trust his own military. He's afraid maybe they're going to kidnap him, take him up into the mountains. But he's also worried that a third atom bomb may come for him, may come for Tokyo. He's not wrong to be worried about this. His own palace was largely burned at the end of May by American firebombs. He's basically living in a shelter underneath his library. And finally, he declares a seidan, a sacred decision, that - and he says - he gathers together his military advisers in his shelter. And he says, I agree with Togo, with Foreign Minister Togo. We have to surrender.

Now, it's not the end of the story because although they accept the American demand for a surrender, the Japanese insist that the emperor must remain and be sovereign. Well, back in Washington, they're not going to buy that. Truman and Stimson and Byrnes - they're not going to allow the emperor to remain sovereign. They want the emperor not to be reporting to God but to Douglas MacArthur, to the Supreme Allied Commander who is going to take over when the Americans arrive. So the Americans reject that term, and we're back at square one. The military wants to keep on fighting, and the stalemate goes on for another four or five days. And it's not clear that the Japanese are ever going to surrender. And Truman, President Truman, starts thinking about using a third bomb, a third nuclear bomb, a third atomic bomb. He tells the British government that sadly, he's preparing to drop a third atom bomb on Tokyo.

DAVIES: So in the end, the atomic bombs did convince the Japanese, with some difficulty, to surrender. But for a long time, you know, the details of what it was like in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not really known to the American public. And about a year later, there was a full issue of The New Yorker dedicated to it, written by John Hersey, who had spent an awful lot of time in Hiroshima gathering information. And it was shocking. It was widely quoted. It was read in full on radio broadcasts. And questions were raised about the use of such a horrific weapon. Were we war criminals for having done this? And Henry Stimson, the war secretary at the time, the man who had a lot of moral qualms himself, was engaged to write a response, which he did, saying dropping the bomb was the right thing to do. It saved lives. What was his case?

THOMAS: He argued that it was the least abhorrent alternative. It was abhorrent, but the alternative was an invasion of Japan that would have cost the lives of millions of Americans. Now, personally, he felt guilty that we didn't try hard enough to get the Japanese to surrender beforehand by letting them keep their emperor. I ask in the book, should he have felt guilty? And my answer is no because the Japanese - I think the record is pretty clear now. The Japanese just were not going to surrender even if we offered them to keep their emperor.

The other piece of this puzzle that is important here to recognize - it's not just Americans that we saved by not invading Japan. It's Japanese because if we hadn't invaded Japan, we would have blockaded Japan, and we would have starved them. They were already down to 1,500 calories a day per person, roughly. And they, by, say, the winter of '45, '46, would have suffered a famine. We had figured out how to cut their rail lines into the plain of Tokyo. We were going to be able to squeeze off their rice. Their rice crop was already the worst they'd had in years. And they were going to start dying, and they were going to have civil war. Who knows what would have happened not just in Japan but also in Asia? The Japanese - the brutal Japanese occupation of China and Southeast Asia was killing people at the rate of roughly 250,000 a month, and that was just going to go on and on.

So by ending the war in August, we not only saved Japanese lives. We've saved a great number of Asian lives. There's a lot of research on this that shows that the death tolls, had we not bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been many multiples of the death tolls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's a brutal equation. You know, it's just - the point here is that wars are easy to get into, but they are hard to get out of. And there was no way out.

DAVIES: Well, Evan Thomas, thanks so much for speaking with us.

THOMAS: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Evan Thomas' book is "The Road To Surrender: Three Men And The Countdown To End World War II."


DAVIES: On Monday's show, Terry speaks with Christopher Nolan, director of the new film "Oppenheimer," about Robert Oppenheimer, the man known as the father of the atom bomb. Nolan also directed the "Batman" trilogy, "Dunkirk," "Inception" and "Insomnia." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

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