A non-review of Prompt and Utter Destruction by J. Samuel Walker
I had a conversation on Discord awhile ago, and somehow the issue of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came up. I repeated what I had always heard to be true, namely that the use of the bomb was done to prevent an invasion of the Japanese mainland that would’ve cost even more lives, both American and Japanese. This is certainly how Truman et al. portrayed the decision after the fact. But one of my compatriots explained that the historical consensus now is that basically none of this is true. He went on to recommend Prompt and Utter Destruction by J. Samuel Walker, which I have now read.
This is my kind of history. Even though it’s about political leaders, it doesn’t really get into the form of history that is all about how one or two people changed the world. In this case, the focus is on President Truman and his advisors, and their thinking leading up to the atomic bombings. Because one of the first things that Walker points out is that, if you’re going to answer the question of why Truman made the decision that he did, you have to look at what he and his advisors knew at the time the decision was made.
This gets into the first popular myth: that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would cost 500,000 to a million U.S. casualties. This range is cited often, including by Truman and people close to him. But significantly, they only cite this number after the war, and there’s no record of it during the actual discussions of the atomic bomb. Truman had already authorized the invasion of Kyushu, one of the Home Islands, by the time the a-bomb was ready to go. But the casualty estimates for this were much lower, something like 30,000 (and were largely based on U.S. losses in the recent battle for Okinawa).
More importantly is the fact that there was never any real discussion of whether to drop the atomic bomb at all. It was taken as a given by Truman that, if it worked, it would be used. The only real debate was in terms of ancillary matters, such as whether to give Japan the opportunity to surrender before the bomb was dropped, whether to warn Japan that the bomb was coming, and what to tell the Soviets about the whole thing.
Much of Truman’s thinking is informed by the overall goal he inherited from FDR: that the war be won as soon as possible with a minimum of American casualties. Bombing civilians had become de rigeur by this point of the war, and Walker doesn’t find anything to suggest that the civilian death toll was ever a concern in the decision to use atomic weapons. On the contrary, a committee set up by Truman for deciding how the bomb should be used specifically recommended that the U.S. target an industrial area where the workers lived nearby. Meanwhile, there were still American casualties due to naval engagements, even if there were no land battles going on as of the summer of 1945. Truman’s primary concern was minimizing (or stopping) these, and does not seem to have cared at the time that tens of thousands of Japanese civilians would die.
But this wasn’t Truman’s only concern. He was also worried about the Soviet Union, since it was becoming increasingly clear that there would be some form of conflict between the U.S. and Europeans and the Soviets. One of Truman’s considerations, then, was that making it clear that the U.S. was a functioning nuclear power would help keep the Soviets off-balance in later negotiations. Truman may have also had a bit of an inferiority complex as well; he had not been privy to much of FDR’s diplomatic and national security thinking, and letters and diary entries make it clear that he was nervous going up against Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. But having a functioning nuclear arsenal helped his confidence considerably.
The long and short of the book is that everything in popular mythology about America’s use of the atomic bomb in WWII is wrong. One, it wasn’t done out of a belief that the only options were dropping it and an invasion. Two, the likely casualties of an invasion were lower than are portrayed now. Three, the Japanese government was close to surrender anyway, with their only real concern that they get to maintain the imperial throne. It is possible that the bombings accelerated their decision to surrender, and may have overcome the resistance of some of the holdouts within Japanese leadership. But again, the important thing is that Truman and the American hierarchy were not thinking in terms of “a-bomb or invasion,” as there were other options (such as a blockade to starve the Japanese into surrender) that were also considered.
One of the most interesting arguments for use of the bomb was actually that it would help to limit the use of atomic weapons in the future. James Conant, a chemist who had taken a leadership role in the scientific mobilization for building the atomic bomb, argued just this. He and other Manhattan Project scientists believed that demonstrating the true destructive power of the atomic bomb and showing that at least one nation in the world was willing to use it were the only way to prevent their use in the future. This was of particular concern regarding the Soviet Union. Walker writes:
Conant believed that only if the American people clearly demonstrated their willingness to use their atomic arsenal would the Soviet Union be amenable to nuclear arms control agreements.
Even though this idea does not appear to have entered into Truman’s calculus, it is to me one of the most interesting thoughts raised in the book. It’s an attempt to see future consequences beyond the immediate, something that humans seem preternaturally disposed to do despite being so bad at it.
I see this as stemming, at least in part, from our need to control our world as much as possible. If we predict the future, we can engage in the fiction that we’re capable of doing so with meaningful accuracy. To be clear, sometimes we are (and some are better at this than others). Prediction markets are pretty accurate by and large, at least from what I understand. But it’s also very hard to measure, since we have no comparison; in other words, we don’t know what the consequences would’ve been if we’d made a different choice.
I think about this a lot in my own case. It’s easy to say that my life would be better if I’d gone left instead of right in a given situation, but how can I truly know? One different decision a few years ago would cause so many ripples in my life that it’s impossible to account for them all. Really the only answer, as I see it, is to give up on the idea of certainty, and accept that we can generally make at best vague judgments about past decisions. It’s easy where there’s a clear case of cause-and-effect (even if we’re too eager to make a causal link between events sometimes), but that’s rare with anything as complex as a human life.
It’s a scary proposition to think that in truth we have no idea what we’re doing, even when it comes to our own lives. This is also a consequence of the Fallacy of Induction: we don’t necessarily know that because a decision has always gone a certain way that it will always go that way, and this becomes more and more true as the complexity increases. But of course, all we can do is what we can do.
It’s the same reason I see so much undirected anguish about current events in Afghanistan. For all the left’s (usually valid) criticism of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t think we’re any more comfortable with helplessness than anyone else. Blaming someone is one way to ameliorate this, whether your target is Biden, Trump, or Bush. Instead, I think we have to learn how to accept no-win scenarios; doing otherwise just leaves us flailing. Meanwhile, we have no clue what the future truly holds, and shouldn’t let our imagination run away with us. I’m not defending the Taliban by any means, and their taking charge would not have been my choice of outcomes. But the whole point is that it wasn’t truly up to us, and this is something we have to learn to deal with. It’s a difficult proposition for Americans.
Meanwhile, it’s frustrating to see the number of people willing to take to the airwaves and/or blogosphere to pontificate about what all this means. It’s all guesswork, no matter how educated. But saying “I don’t know” doesn’t drive viewership or clicks, and we’d rather someone pull something out of thin air than think about how much bigger the world is than human reasoning can encompass. I don’t see how anyone is served by wild speculation, except as a bromide for the readership and income for the speculator.
You may notice too that the ambiguity and difficulty has been twisted to actually serve certain members of the elite. Those who were wildly wrong about what would happen on those issues with the most difficulty, especially foreign policy and the economy, routinely maintain their credibility despite their only consistency being in their mistakes. Somehow an ability to be wrong is fine as long as you were in a position where those errors could affect large numbers of people. Small-scale mistakes, though, are far less pardonable. So I guess the message is to go big, since you’re less likely to be blamed that way. (Actually, it’s another reminder that there’s a club and most of us are not in it.)
This pathological need for prediction is no different in our personal lives. For example, I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was in my mid-30s. I can still remember how when I first tried stimulant medication, it suddenly felt like my brain was clear for the first time in my life. But this inevitable brought thoughts about what might have been, which continue to haunt me. I started wondering how school might have gone if I’d been diagnosed as a kid, and what it might’ve meant for my career. The problem of course is that my brain assumes things would’ve been better, despite not having any real way of knowing this. I could just as easily have ended up in a job I hate, I could have grown up into a worse person, who knows?
Yet these thoughts persist. As best I can tell, my mind is inferring back the relief I get from meds, and just assuming that nothing could’ve possibly gone wrong. We assume things will continue as they have, but because our faculties of prediction are so limited, there’s so much that gets elided.
What’s curious, though, is why my brain is so hell-bent on assuming that a single positive change 25 years ago would’ve automatically meant so many other positive changes. I’d still be me, after all, and I question how different of a person I really would’ve been. I think, instead, this falls under the realm of fantasy or daydream. As such, what this is really showing me is things that I’m unhappy about in my own life as it stands.
Much of this is stuff I’ve written about before. I wish I’d gone further in my career, even if where I am isn’t per se bad. I wish I could use more of my brain more often, rather than being limited by the time periods that my stimulants are in effect. I wish I were the type of person who could build and maintain professional connections, rather than wanting to go it alone (or at least not being cool with the mercenary use of social relationships).
What I have to do, as a first step, is figure out how to recognize these feelings of loss (and I’m not sure how else to describe them) for what they are. Dissatisfaction is okay, provided it doesn’t completely take over. It’s important not to feel hopeless, since that doesn’t lead anywhere good (and certainly nowhere productive). The hardest pill to swallow is how many decisions I made simply by default, or how many times I chose not to make a decision, which is still a choice of sorts. I’d almost rather I’d been wrong more often rather than simply avoiding mistakes, which is not the same thing as being right. But here too, how could I possibly know that this would be better? It’s darkness all the way down.
I do know that I tend to use uncertainty as an excuse for not making a difficult decision, and also that my brain wiring does not handle the truly open-ended well. It’s why I get stuck so easily, and even now have difficulty imagining how to change the things I’m dissatisfied with. This drives me to fantasy about things being magically different, which then leads to disappointment when they don’t come true.
I wish I could say I understood what Truman was thinking in the summer of 1945, but I really can’t. I’ve never been faced with an open-ended decision like that one, even if I can say that I wouldn’t take it for granted that the atomic bomb should be used. But that’s about all I can say for sure. For all the historical second-guessing, especially in popular culture, far too little attention has been paid to the decision-making process, to the psychology of this sort of thing. Instead, it’s just the canard that 500,000+ U.S. soldiers would die in an invasion, when that wasn’t the number Truman had at the time and he wasn’t facing an either-or between dropping the bomb and invading.
I’d like more discussion of the decision-making process in part because it seems so alien to me. I can’t imagine deciding that killing tens of thousands of people to save a couple thousand Americans is the correct one, but I also can’t pretend that I know what it’s like to be faced with that kind of decision. For all my hand-wringing about not having any real responsibility in my job, there is another side to that particular coin. It’s also easy to blur the line between learning from a decision like this and playing armchair general. That’s why Prompt and Utter Destruction was so engaging for me, because it focuses on just that: what Truman and his advisors knew, what their priorities were, and (as best can be gleaned second-hand) how their thinking went. It all comes back to priorities, at least some of which went beyond the ending of the war itself. It would’ve been nice to have more discussion of Truman’s thought process, but (1) there is already quite a bit, and (2) Walker wisely limited himself to what he could actually document. This is not a book full of speculation.
As much as this kind of decision scares me, isn’t that on some level what I’m looking for? Don’t I want to feel responsible for something? Usually that has negative connotations, so clearly not that, but how do you only take the good? The potential for greater or wider-ranging successes is also the potential for equally broad failures. I don’t want to be solely motivated by fear of screwing up something important, of course, but I do wonder if my desires are only looking at part of the equation.
Despite this being a non-review, I would definitely recommend Prompt and Utter Destruction if you’re at all interested in the subject. It’s a quick read, too!