Bryan M. Rigg, Ph.D., Military Historian
Harry S. Truman had no idea the atomic bomb existed until minutes after he was sworn in as the 33rd U.S. president on 12 April 1945. Soon thereafter, Secretary of War Henry Stimson pulled him aside and told him of a weapon with, as Truman wrote in his memoir, “almost unbelievable destructive power.” Within three months, he would have to make a decision that would affect millions of lives around the world. For a man who historian Alonzo L. Hamby characterized as having “an informality that at times appeared to verge on crudeness,” making this decision and staying the good graces of the public was no small chore. As Truman said to the press after being sworn in: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
So how did Truman make his historic decision? What people fail to realize is when Truman gave the order to drop the atomic bombs, he brought the Second World War to a swifter conclusion and helped end Japan’s Holocaust in its occupied territories.
Allied forces, led by the U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy Sailors and U.S. Army Soldiers were slowly but surely liberating people from the concentration camps and other prisons imposed by the Empire of Japan, as seen on the island of Guam where we liberated the Chamorro people from seven Japanese concentration camps in July 1944. Guam, whose citizens were American nationals, had suffered thousands of deaths. Japanese soldiers had killed off 10 percent of the population during its occupation and raped a vast majority of the women and girls on the island. It was a tiny Holocaust on American soil.
In the Philippines, Army commandos liberated the Cabanatuan POW camp right before the Japanese were going to execute the inmates. Japan was planning to terminate all Allied POWs before the Allied invasion of their home islands.
What many people fail to realize when learning about the Pacific War is that Japan killed twice as many during its Imperial reign as Adolf Hitler killed during the Third Reich. Japan slaughtered 22 million people throughout Asia, whereas Hitler’s genocide claimed 11.7 million people—primarily Jews (6 Million) and Soviet POWs (3.7 million).
As the Allies marched closer and closer to Japan, it did so by island hopping—conquering Pacific Islands on their way to Japan’s home islands. The Allies did not march through Asia or Russia or Manchuria to get to Japan—they approached from the east through the Pacific. They were seizing stepping stones across the biggest ocean in the world to get to the Empire’s heart. Most of the landmass the Empire had seized from 1927-1945 was still under its control. Hundreds of millions were still under the jackboot of the Japanese in places like Eastern China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, parts of Burma, Laos, Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. Close to 400 million were still under Japan’s control and victims of murder, rape and pillage everywhere the Japanese occupied. So, when President Truman gave the order to drop the atomic bombs and brought the war to a speedy conclusion, this act saved the lives of millions of people. Historian Richard Frank wrote:
“What is clear beyond dispute is that the minimum plausible range for deaths of Asian noncombatants each month in 1945 was over 100,000 and more probably reached or even exceeded 250,000. Any moral assessment of how the Pacific war did or could have ended must consider the fate of these Asian noncombatants and the POWs.”
Every month the Allies could not bring the war to a close, the Japanese murdered approximately 250,000 people every four weeks. That is how many people the Nazis killed in their fourth deadliest death camp of Sobibor in a year and a half of operation! The Nazi concentration camp of Dachau claimed 32,000 people in 12 years of operation. And unlike the Nazis, the Japanese were also raping millions of women as seen with their behavior in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Guam, Nanking, Beijing, Shanghai, and hundreds of other islands and cities under its control. Between indiscriminate “girl hunting” and their Comfort Women rape brothel network, Japanese soldiers stationed outside of Japan in 1945 continued to sexually abuse the native peoples they controlled.
I recently posted articles about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was horrified by the amount of hate mail I received for showing what the historical record says about the deployment of the atomic bomb. If those bombs had not fallen, Emperor Hirohito wasn’t anywhere close to surrendering by 9 August 1945. Readers were upset about the innocent Japanese citizens who died. No one likes to see innocent people suffer, but what about the innocent people who were suffering and dying under the Japanese? What about all the women and girls who had been raped, tortured and often killed (quite often from internal bleeding)? When one studies the horrific behavior of the Japanese, as illustrated with the Rape of Nanking, the fact that the bombs brought the war to a quick conclusion (even if only by a few months), saved five to possibly 10-times more Asians than the number of Japanese killed by the atomic bombs. Wars and aerial bombardments never hit only military targets and Japan deliberately placed their military bases, factories and government buildings in civilian neighborhoods, making the entire region a target according to international law.
I was shocked by readers defending FASCIST Japan and their lack of compassion and understanding for the millions of Asians suffering at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. In the end, President Truman’s decision to drop those bombs, not only saved millions of Asians, it also saved millions of Japanese who were starving at the time. Right after the war’s conclusion, we supplied the Japanese with millions of meals on a daily basis, saving thousands if not millions from dying of malnutrition—do you think the Japanese would have done that for us? Consider the fact the Japanese stole food from the Chinese and allowed millions to starve during their occupation. As President Truman said, “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I…The only language [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one that we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”
As the war showed all too clearly, trying to reason with the likes of evil men like Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito could not be done. The language of only brute force brought all three of these nations to their knees, not philosophical discussions about the value of human life. If we could have civilly reasoned with these men at the diplomatic table, I am sure President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and many others would have gladly have done so instead of sacrificing 400,000 of our sons in bringing down these empires. In dropping these bombs, Truman not only saved an estimated 800,000 American KIAs needed to invade and conquer Japan, but more impressively, he probably saved millions of Asians from death and millions of Asian women and girls from being traumatized and raped. We should never forget these facts when discussing this very necessary decision. It’s well and good to have a tender heart, but tender hearts don’t take down totalitarian regimes bent on world domination.
Truman might have been accused of being crude, but I think he was restrained and heroic. Had I been President of the United States in 1944 and had the atomic bomb, I would have nuked Berlin, Rome and Tokyo if it would have saved one more Jewish life, one more Chinese life, one more Allied life, or one more American life. As General Curtis LeMay, in charge of the aerial war over Japan, said, “Only a foolish asshole would not use any and every weapon at his disposal to win a goddamned war.” The Allies and America won World War II and saved millions by doing so. People should thank President Truman and be glad that the straight-talking, no-nonsense, former haberdasher and World War I hero had the foresight and guts to make the hard call that saved the world.
About the Author: Bryan Mark Rigg is the author of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, which won the William E. Colby Award for Military History, was featured on NBC-TV’s Dateline, and has been translated into eleven languages. He is also the author of Lives of Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers: Untold Tales of Men of Jewish Descent Who Fought for the Third Reich and The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and His Astonishing Rescue. For an in-depth look at the war in the Pacific, go to Amazon.