Skip to content Skip to footer

The Bomb Sends a Message to the World – Untold History

Sorry, this media item is no longer available or fails to load.
More at The Real News

The atomic bomb did not end the war with Japan, it was a threat to the Soviet Union that the US would dominate the post-war world.

Peter Kuznick (co-author with Oliver Stone of The Untold History of the United States): The atomic bomb did not end the war with Japan, it was a threat to the Soviet Union that the US would dominate the post-war world.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussion about the television series and the book The Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.

And now joining us in the studio once again is Peter Kuznick.

Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So one of the themes you take up in this series is the issue of was the nuclear attack on Japan necessary, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the thesis of the book essentially is that it wasn’t. And it seems to me it’s such a critical question, because if you can accept that using weapons of mass destruction is legitimate and was acceptable then, then why can’t you accept anything after that? So it’s perhaps one of or maybe the most critical thing to debate about American history. So what’s your take?

KUZNICK: It really is in many ways the starting point of where things go badly wrong. We can look at 1898 and the invasion of the Philippines as an important turning point. But after that, it’s really the atomic bombing more than almost anything else. It gives the United States a sense of impunity. It gives the United States a sense of power. The United States can really throw its weight around now. We don’t have to be afraid of anybody. And Truman says that on the USS Augusta back. He says it to the sailors. He says that we’ve got this new weapon coming into the war.

But right from the very first time he was briefed on it—. It’s very interesting that Truman was vice president for 82 days before Roosevelt died, and nobody even told him that we were building the atomic bomb. He was considered such a lightweight. There was so little respect for him. Nobody even brought him in on the fact that we’re building this extraordinary bomb.

So he finds out after Roosevelt dies. The night after the emergency cabinet meeting, Stimson informs him. The next day, Jimmy Byrnes flies up from South Carolina, and then he gives him a fuller briefing. And Truman writes in his memoir that Byrnes says it’s a weapon great enough to destroy the whole world and may allow us to dictate our own terms at the end of the war. But a weapon great enough to destroy the whole world—Truman writes in his memoir.

And then he’s briefed on that on April 25 by Stimson and Groves. They give a fuller briefing on this. And afterwards, Truman writes that Stimson says that this is so powerful and so dangerous that even if we have it, maybe we shouldn’t use it. And Truman says, I felt the same way after reading the report and hearing their briefing.

Then, when he’s at Potsdam on July 25, he gets the full report on how powerful the Trinity test had been at Alamogordo, and he writes: we’ve discovered the most terrible weapon ever. He says, this may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley era after Noah and his fabulous arc.

Truman knows this is not just a bigger, more momentous weapon. He knows that he’s beginning a process that could end life on the planet. But he goes ahead and uses it in the most reckless possible way, the way that people had been warning was likely to trigger an arms race with the Soviet Union.


NARRATOR: Truman vacillated, and ultimately yielded to the Byrnes–Forrestal hardline faction. The feared and potentially suicidal arms race would continue.

When Truman finally met with Robert Oppenheimer in October 1945, he asked him to guess when the Russians would develop their own atomic bomb. Oppenheimer did not know. Truman responded that he knew the answer: never.

Contrary to the belief of Truman’s inner circle, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not make the Soviet Union any more pliable.


JAY: So the debate’s always been, I guess, twofold. One is: was the bomb really necessary to end the war, and meaning that were the Japanese ready to surrender anyway? And there’s also been, you could say, a debate that even if they weren’t ready to surrender, do you actually unleash such a weapon and begin an era of using weapons of mass destruction? And just to give a sense of the scale of what we’re talking about, here’s a quote from Truman’s chief of staff. Now, it needs to be pointed out he says this afterwards, and I asked you off-camera, and as far as we know, he never actually said this to Truman, but he gives a sense of the nature of what we’re talking about.

So Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral Leahy, who chaired the meetings of the Joint Chiefs, was the most impassioned, classifying the bomb with chemical and bacteriological weapons as violations of, quote, every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all the known laws of war. He proclaimed that, quote, Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. In being the first to use it, we adopt an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. Leahy angrily told the journalist Jonathan Daniels in 1949, quote, Truman told me it was agreed they would use it only to hit military objectives. Of course, then they went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could, which was just what they wanted all the time. I’m reading now from Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s book. And just as a quick aside, the way to do all this is you got to watch the series, but you’ve got to read the book afterwards, because there’s layers of richness to this history that clearly the series just didn’t have time to take in.

So let’s get back to the key debate. Like, Leahy’s not the only one that says the bomb wasn’t necessary to win the war.

KUZNICK: Six of America’s seven five-star admirals and generals who won their fifth star during the war are on record as saying the bomb was either morally reprehensible, militarily unnecessary, or both. So we’re talking about people we don’t think of as pacifists. We’re thinking about Dwight Eisenhauer, who said repeated—on several occasions that he spoke to Stimson at Potsdam and urged him not to use the bomb ’cause the Japanese were already defeated, he said, and I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.

One of the most intriguing, though, is Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, who actually advocated the use of atomic bombs during the Korean War, was appalled that we used atomic bombs in this war.

JAY: Because in Korea he thought it was necessary, and in this one he didn’t.


NARRATOR: General MacArthur, supreme commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, considered the bomb completely unnecessary from a military point of view. He later said that the Japanese would have surrendered in May if the U.S. had told them they could keep the emperor.


KUZNICK: In fact, there’s an interesting exchange that he has with Herbert Hoover, the former president. Hoover wrote a memo in May in which he warned about terrible casualties in an invasion and said, change the surrender terms. Tell the Japanese they can keep the emperor so we can get the war over with, ’cause that was the main stumbling block.

JAY: Yeah. Explain that.

KUZNICK: Let me first tell this MacArthur exchange. MacArthur wrote to Hoover on two occasions, and MacArthur said to Hoover that that was a wise and statesmanlike memo that you sent, and if we had adopted it, the war could have ended in May, he says. He says, and I’m sure the Japanese would have accepted it gladly.

JAY: This is a surrender that allows the emperor to stay in power, at least nominally.

KUZNICK: Which we did anyway, right? And, in fact, Stimson argued that we had to keep the emperor in power, ’cause it’s our only way to maintain order in Japan. So we had to keep the emperor for our interests. It was actually some of the people on the left who wanted to get rid of the emperor, ’cause the emperor for all the obvious reasons was a war criminal and was complicit in all of this, was a negative force in Japanese life. But they knew they wanted to keep the emperor. And MacArthur says the war could have ended in May. I think that’s premature, I don’t think the Japanese were quite ready to surrender in May, but possibly in June and almost certainly in July from what we know.

JAY: Okay. So Truman and his generals know this.


JAY: They’re hearing feedback from many of their generals on this count. And Truman says, yes, we’re going to use it. So why do they use it?

KUZNICK: It’s hard to reason with Truman. You know, it’s hard to get into his mind. But I think on some level he believed that the bomb would speed up the end of the war, which he wanted to do, and he wanted to do for obvious reasons, ’cause he had American men who were being killed, and that was a consideration for Truman.

The other reason was because of the Soviet Union. At Yalta, Stalin had agreed to come into the Pacific War three months after the end of the war in Europe, which means around August 8.

JAY: I mean, the Americans were pleading with Stalin to do that.

KUZNICK: Yes, for quite some time. And he finally agreed to do it, in return for which he was going to get certain concessions, basically what the Russians had lost in the 1904-1905 war with Japan. So they were going to get the railroads in Manchuria, they were going to get Outer Mongolia, Port Arthur, Port Dairen. They were going to get south Sokal and they were going to get the Kuril Islands. A lot of things that were important to them economically they were going to get back for coming in.

But after [incompr.] test the bomb, it’s very clear, as Stimson, Byrnes, Churchill, and Truman all say, let’s get the war over with if we can before the Russians get in on a kill. So on the one hand, they wanted to speed up the end of the war for obvious reasons. They also wanted to speed it up for diplomatic reasons, and they wanted to make sure the Russians didn’t get it.

But in May we’ve got several leading Americans—Leó Szilárd, Walter—Harold Urey, and Walter Bartky, three leading scientists, went to the White House to see Truman and to talk to him about not using the bomb. Truman sends them to South Carolina to see Jimmy Byrnes. Byrnes was not yet Secretary of State, but he was Truman’s behind-the-scenes adviser, his principal adviser on all these things. And in the exchange between Szilárd and Byrnes, Byrnes says to Szilárd, he says, well, you’re Hungarian, aren’t you? Don’t you want to make sure that we get the Russians out of Hungary? And Szilárd says, that’s not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about using a weapon that’s beginning to open the door to this era of mass destruction on an inconceivable scale. And all Byrnes was talking about was rolling back the Russians in Europe, the Soviet gains in Europe.

So I think the bomb was in large measure a diplomatic weapon. As Leslie Groves says, Brigadier General Groves, who was the head of the Manhattan Project for the army, and he says that from the beginning, as soon as I—two weeks after I took over this job, I knew that our enemy was Russia. A lot of people thought Russia was our heroic ally. I never felt that way. So in his mind it was always directed toward Russia. And we know that from other people, too.

JAY: So you’re killing tens of thousands of women and children to send a message.

KUZNICK: Yes. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were being killed.

JAY: Now, one of the points you make in the book, that the evidence now examining the sort of logic of the Japanese about when or why surrender, that the bomb wasn’t the decisive issue. It actually was the Russians were entering the war.

KUZNICK: Yes, and that’s what changed it. We knew that that was going to be the fact. If you look at our intelligence reports on April 11 or July 2, the intelligence reports to the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the summary for the week of the Potsdam meeting, they say the same thing: Soviet entry into the war will convince Japanese that defeat is inevitable, or Soviet entry into the war will immediately force Japan’s surrender.

Our intelligence was saying that. We knew that. And we knew it because we had broken the Japanese codes and we were intercepting their cables, and the cables going from Foreign Minister Tōgō in Tokyo to Ambassador Satō in Moscow were saying this over and over again: unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to ending the war. But—’cause the reason why the cables [incompr.] the Japanese had decided in May—actually, the end of April, but officially in May, that their only hope—that the best hope for ending the war is to get the Soviets to intervene diplomatically on their behalf to get the Japanese better surrender terms, which meant, essentially, keeping the emperor. So that was going back and forth. We knew that.

Truman himself refers to the intercepted July 18 telegram as the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace. Those are Truman’s words: the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace. We knew that that was decisive. Truman says, I went to Potsdam primarily to make sure the Soviets were coming into the war. And he writes back, after he meets with Stalin on July 17, he writes in his diary, he says, Stalin’ll be in the Jap war by August 15; finis Japs when that happens. That’s Truman’s own words, finis Japs when the Russians come in. So he knew that the Soviet entry was going to be the main factor.

JAY: Finis Japs meaning it’s over.

KUZNICK: Yeah, the war’s over. Truman knew that. So why does he use the bomb? He’s not bloodthirsty. I mean, he’s not a Hitler. He’s not an evil person. But he was using the bomb as the war—people’s morality is lowered in the war. We’ve got those great quotes there by Dwight Macdonald and Freeman Dyson.

JAY: Well, you say he’s not a Hitler, but the chief prosecutor of Nuremberg said that he—you have a quote in the book which says, you know, maybe you can debate Hiroshima, maybe. And when you put this in context, which you have from a Japanese point of view, too, if you use one bomb to wipe out a city or 1,000 airplanes and firebomb and wipe out the city,—

KUZNICK: It didn’t make any difference to them.

JAY: —to some extent it’s not that different. But the guy who was the Nuremberg prosecutor says, you can’t explain Nagasaki. You sent the message with Hiroshima. You’ve shown everyone.

KUZNICK: He said Nagasaki’s a war crime.

JAY: He’s called it a war crime.

KUZNICK: He said there’s no difference.

JAY: And, frankly, you know, how you compare who was the war criminal, but it’s at the scale of Hitler.

KUZNICK: And in one way it’s worse, because Hitler’s crime was finite. Millions of people were killed as a result of Hitler’s crimes. Truman was opening the door to the possible annihilation of the species, and he knew it. He knew that that’s what he was beginning, the process. This was the first time when mankind has the ability to end life on the planet. And Truman knew that. And the scientists knew that.

In fact, Oppenheimer briefs the interim committee on May 31 and tells them within three years we’ll likely have weapons between ten and 100 megatons in destructive capability. A hundred megatons would be 7,000 times as big as the Hiroshima bomb. What he knew and what they knew and what Teller was talking about developing from the beginning was a superbomb, and this superbomb could be made as big as you wanted [incompr.] infinite destructive capability. That’s what we were opening up the door to.

And the other point you were making, though, about—from the Japanese standpoint, the Japanese knew that we were already wiping out cities. We began with the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9 and 10, and we’d firebombed 100 Japanese cities by that point. Destruction reached 99.5 percent of the city of Toyama. We had run out of big targets. We were wiping out middle-sized cities that had no military significance at all.

JAY: Yeah, clearly attacking civilians to break the back of Japanese will, but with civilians as the deliberate target,—

KUZNICK: Yes, that was it. We called it terror bombing.

JAY: —which is something—which is more or less something Hitler introduced to modern warfare.

KUZNICK: Yes, and then the British paid him back for that. But we called it terror bombing. That was the strategy, to burn down Japanese cities. But we already showed that we could do that. To the Japanese leaders, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not qualitatively different than the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities. And in terms of destruction, it really wasn’t even much more than the firebombing of Tokyo, the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. So to them, that didn’t make the difference. What made the difference to them was the Soviet invasion, ’cause we bombed Hiroshima August 6; at midnight on August 8, the Soviets come into the war. Stalin had actually sped up the Soviet entry when he found out that the U.S. was going to drop the bomb.

JAY: I mean, and the point you’re making here is it wasn’t just the dropping of the bomb that’s the great crime; it’s that Truman knew he was opening the door to bigger and bigger bombs. And, I mean, I don’t know how he could be—he didn’t believe the Soviets would ever have the bomb, apparently, but I don’t know how you can be that dumb.

KUZNICK: No. And if you look at Stettinius’s diary, Stettinius records a conversation with Truman in which Stettinius says Truman knew that the Soviets were going to be developing a bomb soon. So even though he says that to Oppenheimer, that famous meeting he has with Oppenheimer after the war, the first time he’d actually met Oppenheimer, who was the head of Los Alamos, the scientist most responsible for the bomb project, and in that meeting Truman says, when did he think the Russians are going to get the bomb, and Oppenheimer says, I don’t know, and Truman said, I know, they’re never going to get the bomb—. And Oppenheimer was just floored by the ignorance of this man. And then Oppenheimer blurts out, he says, I think I have blood on my hands. And Truman says, ah, well, the blood’s on my hands. Let me worry about it. And then, afterwards, Truman calls him a crybaby scientist and he says, I never want to see that son of a bitch in this office again.

JAY: Alright. In the next segment of our interview, we’re going to pick up this discussion, because the acceptance of this use of weapons of mass destruction as not just—as primarily a diplomatic threat, you could say, that we’re going to shape the world as we like it, and we’ve already shown you we’re willing to use this weapon to do it. That starts to shape U.S. foreign policy.

JAY: So we’ll pick all this up in the next segment of our interview with Peter Kuznick on The Real News Network.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.