Rebuking The A-bomb 'Revisionists'

July 09, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The continuing controversy over the atomic bombing of Japan that ended World War II is fomented by "revisionists" who ignore the realities of the time, declares a former top aide to the man who ordered it -- President Harry S. Truman.

Truman believed the bombings he ordered in August 1945 of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to save at least 250,000 American lives in an invasion, said David H. Stowe, 84, a Truman aide from 1947 to 1953 and a resident of the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville for the past four years.

"He knew that he had to do it, and he knew it was the right thing to do," Mr. Stowe said. Preparing plans for the continued operation of the presidency in case of atomic attack was among his main duties, he said.

In the context of developing those plans, he talked many times with Truman about the A-bomb attacks that brought massive death and destruction to the Japanese cities, said Mr. Stowe, a Connecticut native who holds two degrees in economics from Duke University.

Mr. Stowe said he was the only one of the six administrative assistants with "Q clearance" for atomic energy. "So my conversations with the president about atomic matters were private," he said.

Post-World War II tensions reached new heights during the fighting in Korea and as the Cold War with the Soviet Union intensified. An all-out atomic war was not beyond possibility, he said.

"This became important during the Korean War because of the possibility that World War III could have started," said Mr. Stowe, who was later chairman of the National Mediation Board.

"President Truman had no qualms whatever about doing it," he said. "It was known that there were 50,000 casualties on Okinawa and they were working on 250,000 dead in an invasion. He knew that he had to do it, and he knew it was the right thing

to do."

Mr. Stowe said he considered Truman a courageous president for not shirking tough decisions such as the bombing "and for firing MacArthur," an event he witnessed at first hand.

Amid fierce controversy, President Truman relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur as Far East commander in April 1951 during the Korean War, after MacArthur violated an agreement with the president to stick to military matters and leave political matters to the constitutional commander in chief, the president.

"MacArthur was an excellent general but he was trying to set up a presidential run and Mr. Truman was afraid of World War III; that was behind every decision," Mr. Stowe said.

Mr. Stowe, a member of the board of the Truman Library Institute, in Independence, Mo., the late president's hometown, rejects the complaints of "the revisionists" who have for years attacked the United States and Truman for using the A-bombs.

More "revisionist" thinking went into the Smithsonian Institution's original plan for the display of the Enola Gay -- the B-29 that bombed Hiroshima -- which was denounced by veterans' groups, including the American Legion and the Air Force Association, he said.

"I didn't understand it," Mr. Stowe said of the initial exhibition plan that the veterans complained had an anti-bomb agenda and portrayed the United States rather than Japan as the aggressor in the war. After five revisions, the exhibition opened June 28 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington amid praise for its objectivity.

"We don't need to glorify what we did, but we don't need to criticize it or apologize for it either," Mr. Stowe said. "I've talked to many people who would have been in those invasion boats and they were all glad we did it."

His secretary's husband, a Marine officer, was killed on Okinawa, he said. "That [battle] was bloody, but an invasion of Japan would have been 10 times worse."

"It was a courageous decision," said Mr. Stowe.

The United States detonated its first A-bomb in a test at Alamogordo, N.M., on July 16, 1945.

The next day, the Allied leaders, Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, meeting at Potsdam, Germany, demanded Japan's surrender.

The alternative, they warned, was "prompt and utter destruction." The ruling Japanese war party rejected the Allied warning.

On Aug. 6, in the world's first atomic attack, the Enola Gay dropped its bomb on Hiroshima. When the Japanese war leaders continued to resist surrender, Bock's Car, another B-29, dropped the second A-bomb, on Nagasaki, Aug. 9.

Japan held out for another five days until, on Aug. 14, Emperor Hirohito finally forced the leaders to agree to surrender in the face of such great destruction. The announcement was made Aug. 15, V-J Day, the end of World War II.

Some A-bomb opponents have argued that the United States should have exploded a bomb over the ocean in a demonstration to the Japanese of its destructive force.

"We tested it once at Alamogordo and we didn't have that many bombs that we could have done that [demonstration]," Mr. Stowe said.

Mr. Stowe was an official in the Budget Bureau when the United States began preparing for war.

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