The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
According to Miscamble, this book "examines why the bombs were used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki." It "goes on to investigate the role they played in Japan's surrender." The author is convinced that history always includes a moral dimension. So, especially in a book on this subject, he feels compelled to explore "whether it was right for the United States to use this weapon against Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (3).
He also writes: " . . . my effort here takes account of the available and extensive documentary evidence on this much debated issue, and it draws on the best scholarship on the subject" (4).
Chapter 1, "Franklin Roosevelt, the Manhattan Project, and the Development of the Atomic Bomb"
The title of this chapters says it all. Miscamble briefly describes the end of the FDR administration and the planning and practical advance towards the development of an atomic weapon to use against the enemies of the Allies. The chapter includes vignettes of, for example, the collaboration between Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, an unlikely partnership. In retrospect, it is a bit surprisingly to realize that the success of the Manhattan Project was not a sure thing, and that at least some of FDR's advisers considered it a waste. Those who reported on the project, however, seemed confident. The bomb could make a huge contribution toward achieving the goal of "complete victory at the lowest cost in American lives."
Chapter 2, "Harry Truman, Henry Stimson, and Atomic Briefings"
The chapter begins with the death of FDR in April 1945, and with Harry S. Truman's succession to the presidency. Miscamble reveals how that FDR had operated on the premise that knowledge is power. He had not often met with Vice-President Truman, who came into the Oval Office poorly informed about any number of significant matters, including the Manhattan Project. To make things even more difficult, Truman's success going forward depended on the likes of Henry L. Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War, a seasoned official with an Ivy League education. Miscamble notes that men like Stimson, who Truman inherited from the previous administration, had never thought very highly of "the senator from Pendergast." But Truman worked effectively enough during those critical first days in office, depending heavily on the best teams he could assemble. Miscamble notes that, contrary to his image of autocracy and quick decisions, Truman actually worked methodically and deliberately, relying on advisers. Also, Miscamble takes the side of those historians who do not believe that Truman strongly considered the development of atomic weapons with an eye toward their implications for future diplomacy. Truman focused simply on winning the war.
Chapter 3, "James F. Byrnes, the Atomic Bomb, and the Pacific War"
Although often overlooked in the 21st century, the contribution of Byrnes (Secretary of State, 1945-47) should not be ignored. "There was but one major issue from Truman's swearing-in until the eve of Potsdam on which Byrnes exercised real impact on policy. His membership on the Interim Committee allowed him to influence American policy on the use of the atomic bomb" (41). Meanwhile, the incredible, ferocious war in the Pacific was dragging on. Iwo Jima and Okinawa were absolutely brutal fights. The politicians and military leaders could only imagine what an invasion of Japan itself would be like. As late as June 18, 1945, U.S. officials were planning for such an invasion, knowing that casualties would run into the hundreds of thousands. Essentially, Truman relied on and deferred to Byrnes on questions related to the atomic weapon. Regarding the development and use of the bomb, Byrnes argued for no sharing of atomic secrets with U.S. allies, and no warning to Japan before use of the bomb.
Chapter 4, "The Potsdam Conference, the Trinity Test, and Atomic Diplomacy"
This chapter reports an incredibly interesting time in history, July 1945. The test at Alamogordo succeeded, and the negotiations at Potsdam were, in the words of both Truman and Byrnes, "the success that failed." Much of the deliberations were held among the advisers, not among the Big Three themselves. Failure was the result of Stalin's deceit, his intention to take as much territory in Europe as he could, and his lack of any real commitment to the agreements. After those meetings in Germany, Truman and Byrnes were eager to go home and, above all, to find out the specifics of what the bomb promised in terms of ending the war.
Chapter 5, "Hiroshima, the Japanese, and the Soviets"
In contrast to the backward look, Miscamble insists that the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan was not a controversial decision for President Truman. Moreover, that action was perfectly consistent with the policies of FDR, who would have done the same thing. The assessments of what could happen in the event of a U.S. invasion of Japan were grim. There would be tens of thousands of American casualties, if not more. Miscamble denies the early and oft-repeated story that Japan was on the brink of surrender in late July 1945. This chapter gives some of the details of the preparations at Tinian Island in the Pacific, and about Paul Tibbets and "Deak" Parsons, and the naming of the Enola Gay after Tibbets' mother.
Chapter 6, "The Japanese Surrender"
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were combined with the announcement that the Soviets were declaring war on Japan. Emperor Hirohito decided to end the sufferings of his people and agree to the terms of surrender. Yet even then, there were holdouts in the Japanese military who wanted to fight on. A third atomic bomb would be ready before the end of August, with Tokyo as its intended target. The U.S., strangely, was not well-prepared for Japan's acceptance of the Potsdam proposal for surrender (with the Japanese caveat that the imperial system of government remain intact). Miscamble points out, again, that in this case, the haggling among officials within the Japanese government over the terms indicates that Japan was not already on the verge of surrender. Miscamble reports the audacity of the Soviets who wanted to jointly rule in Japan with the U.S., and the Soviet attempts to conquer Japanese islands as the war was ending.
Chapter 7, "Necessary, But Was It Right?"
Miscamble seeks to place Hiroshima and Nagasaki in context. First, the immediate destruction of the bombs, and the total number of deaths that came as a result of radiation poisoning, are a comparatively small number during WW II. Second, the number of people who were not killed because the war came to an end is comparatively high. Third, to focus on the barbarity of August 1945 while ignoring Pearl Harbor Day and the hundreds of thousands the Japanese killed in Asia every month is hardly fair. Nor is it fair to implicate Truman alone while ignoring Churchill and FDR. Both of them were, of necessity it seems, proponents of total war. Nor is it right to suggest that Truman ever turned his back on "some feasible moral course of action that would have secured a Japanese surrender" (124).
Chapter 8, "Byrnes, the Soviets, and the American Atomic Monopoly"
Strange! Truman enunciated a policy of keeping atomic secrets from a dangerous world. Yet even before the Japanese had surrendered, H. D. Smyth's official history of the Manhattan Project was published. Something else that's strange: After WW II, the Truman administration did not emphasize America's exclusive control of atomic weaponry in its foreign diplomacy. One might say that the U.S. didn't have to. Its power was obvious. But nothing suggests that U.S. officials were deliberately exploiting their power. At a conference in London, Byrnes got little cooperation from Molotov who was representing Stalin. As usual, Truman, now focused more on domestic issues, gave Byrnes a diplomatic blank check. Miscamble's account not only denies that the Truman Administration was involved in "atomic diplomacy." It insinuates that the major players hardly knew how that might be done.
Chapter 9, "The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War"
Miscamble emphasizes that, after the end of World War II, the Truman administration did not have a coherent view of how the U.S. might go forward with its newfound atomic capability. He denies that Truman was actively conducting nuclear diplomacy. Miscamble says that the Cold War that unfolded was not inevitable, but that it escalated mainly because of Joseph Stalin's paranoid power grabs.
"Ironically, Stalin might have been able to pursue his chosen approach of sovietization of a vast territory without much objection from the United States, if he had been able to limit his external goals to an East European sphere of influence. If he had learned a lesson from the Iran episode in March 1946 and sat back contentedly to enjoy an empire that reached beyond the accomplishment of any of his Czarist forebears, then the Cold War might have been averted. But he could not. Stalin overreached and moved far beyond cementing his control of Eastern Europe so as to threaten both in the Mediterranean, particularly in Turkey, and also in Western Europe. In this disastrous choice lies the immediate origins of the Cold War" (146-47).
Regarding Japan and the bombs, Miscamble concludes as follows: "First, the principal motive for utilizing the new weapon lay in a potent mix of desire to force Japan's surrender and save American lives. Second, the atomic bombs contributed decisively in forcing that eventual surrender and in bringing the brutal war to an end prior to any costly invasion of the Japanese home islands." Third, "while the atomic bomb was never entirely separated from considerations of postwar international politics, the decision to use the weapon was not driven by these concerns" (151).
A major theme here is that one of the most remarkable aspects of this story is how uncontroversial atomic weapons were before the end of World War II. Both FDR and Truman, along with virtually everyone in their administrations, assumed that if ever the silver bullet of an atomic weapon came into American hands, the U.S. was going to use it to end the war.