Reasons for Truman’s Decisions
As a result, Truman’s actions were viewed as a vicious, unnecessary act of terror by some scholars, and a reasonable decision to end the war and globally assert American dominance by others. There are multiple perspectives on this situation, and modern critics increasingly believe that Truman’s actions were unnecessary; however, these revisionist historical views fail to consider the inability to predict the results of actions made in the past. According to Professor Robert H. Jackson, the ethicality of a decision must be based upon situational ethics, which utilizes the circumstances and evidence present during a specific time period to decide whether an action has been ethically conducted. This situational framework will be used to explain why Truman made the utmost reasonable decision when he chose to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Jackson argues that “the conduct of foreign or military policy is governed by self-interest and expediency and not by morality.” This concept of the need to act in the best self-interest of the nation was expressed when F.D.R. invested in the Manhattan Project, a $2 billion dollar plan to develop atomic bombs in the United States. This secretive project was unknown to most members of congress and had no choice but to be successful. Much was at stake for those involved in Washington, as a secretive War Document reported, “if the project succeeds, there won’t be any investigation. If it doesn’t, they won’t investigate anything else.” A multitude of time, resources, and risk-taking had been involved, and the only option that the government had was to not be wasteful and to demonstrate American power through the use of the atomic bomb. Jackson’s claim that being governed by self-interest is immoral is simply false, since behaving in one’s self-interest is moral. It is a natural human tendency to do what is best for oneself, and it is especially the duty of the president to take the proper actions to defend his own country. F.D.R. was following his duty to make a rational decision that would benefit his nation most, and doing so would not be considered immoral.
President Truman Decision-Making Process
Following F.D.R.’s death, President Truman immediately entered the presidency and was responsible for handling the atomic bombs. Truman’s main flaw was that he “never questioned that assumption” that the atomic bomb would be used. The use of the atomic bomb had always been a matter of “when” and “where” to use it, rather than “if” it would be used at all, and under the situational framework of ethics, it was necessary for Truman to question the impact that the atomic bombs would create more thoroughly. In fact, historical recordings show that “there seems to have been little or no discussion of the effects of an atomic weapon or the circumstances under which it would be used.” Truman failed to follow the situational framework and incorporate updated information on the effects of the atomic bomb, and he could have been more informed, rather than going through with F.D.R.’s action plan since it was already in place.
However, Truman’s decision-making did not lack all rationality, as his team calculated that if the U.S. decided to attack Japan on soil rather than using the nuclear bomb, there would be an estimated death toll of 250,000. This number was far higher than the projected loss of 150,000 lives from the atomic bomb. Truman believed that the logical approach was to make a decision based on minimizing the number of casualties. While he believed that bombing Hiroshima would be less fatal, recent research has shown that approximately 50,000 deaths would have actually resulted from invading Japan on land. While this revisionist view of history supports the critics’ point of view that Truman should not have used the atomic bomb, it is important to recognize that Truman used the information that was considered accurate during his time to come to a final conclusion. Although looking back, his final decision may seem morally corrupt with the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost, according to what was known at that time, Truman made the most rational decision for his nation.
Truman also expressed his logical decision-making skills and his concern for citizens outside of his nation when he decided where to drop the atomic bomb. Washington’s Target Committee, which narrowed down the four main possible targets to drop the bomb stressed the importance of using the bomb as a weapon that would produce “the greatest psychological effect against Japan.” While Truman initially agreed with this idea, he also recognized that he did not want to target areas heavily populated with women and children. In this situation, Truman portrayed his moral standing and concern for others while still having to take the proper measures to protect his nation. Truman eventually made an effective and logical decision to bomb an area that did not entirely consist of innocent civilians, and expressed his ability to conduct a proper choice when no option seemed to be just.
Japan’s Situation in 1945
Additionally, while scholars may believe that dropping the atomic bomb ended the war, critics share the fundamental premise that Japan’s situation in 1945 was completely hopeless, and that the nation was ready to surrender. While Truman was aware of this fact at the time, he was unable to disclose this due to the strict security measures that dictated his actions. In the 1960s, historians discovered records that revealed missing information from 1945, known as “The Ultra Secret of World War II.” Ultra was a radio intelligence organization that broke into messages from the Japanese Army, Navy, and diplomats. These messages revealed that Japan was planning to surrender prior to the bombing of Hiroshima. Although the American government was aware of this information at the time, they still saw the use of the atomic bomb as an opportunity to assert American dominance in the political sphere and to shape the post-war world. All countries behave in their best self-interest during times of war, and while America’s decision to drop the atomic bomb may not be just, it was the most reasonable decision to make during that time.
In conclusion, looking back in history, it is easy to criticize the actions of political leaders. The sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of human beings is a horrifying, morally corrupt act that should never be normalized; However, it is of utmost importance that political virtue, or the ability to “ignore the surrounding clamor, to forbear from acting according to impulse or passion or temptation,” is used in critical decision-making. While it is human nature to judge a situation based on the outcome of it, it is impossible to predict the exact way that a certain decision will affect the lives of citizens. There is never a “good” choice when it comes to decision-making that may result in the loss of life. Leaders have the responsibility to choose the least horrible choice under the circumstances, and to live with the knowledge that their actions may be criticized as morals evolve over time.
- Asada, Sadao. “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender: A Reconsideration.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
- Bernstein, Barton F. “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered.“ Council on Foreign Relations, 1995.
- Frank, Richard. “Why Truman Dropped the Bomb.” Washington Examiner, 2015.
- Jackson, Robert H. “The Situational Ethics of Statecraft.” In Ethics and Statecraft: The Moral Dimension of International Affairs, 101-101. Edited by Cathal J Nolan. London: Praeger, 2004.
- Morton, Louis. “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” In Foreign Affairs, 334-336. New York: Council on Foreign Relations NY, 1957.
- Navarro, Montaniel. “The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima: A Reasonable and Just Decision.” Ann Arbor: ProQuest LLC, 2010.