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The Untold Story: How America Became a Dangerous Empire

Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick offer a major reexamination of modern American history in “The Untold History of the United States,” which has many strengths.

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The Soviet invasion was so successful that the Manchurian emperor was captured, and the offensive spread to Korea, Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. Stone and Kuznick note that Japan, which had already suffered devastating fire-bombings of major cities, seemed less concerned about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than the dramatic loss of territory to an old enemy, the Russians. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, after the Russian offensive had secured Manchuria.

The book also notes that in the war’s final months, the hardliners in Truman’s administration, like Byrnes, insisted on an “unconditional surrender” by Japan. To the Japanese, this meant the emperor had to go and that Japanese society would have to be completely restructured.

Yet, there were voices outside the White House, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who advised Truman to let the Japanese keep the emperor in order to make it easier for them to surrender. MacArthur was confident that maintaining the emperor would be a help and not a hindrance to rebuilding the country.

The irony of this protracted argument is that, after Hirohito’s announcement of surrender, the allies did let the emperor stay. And he reigned until his death in 1989. Indeed, Hirohito had been looking for a way to surrender since June 1945.

Today it seems fairly clear that the combination of the Soviet invasion and an altering of the unconditional surrender terms could have avoided the hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings brought on by the two atomic bombs, and perhaps stopped the dawn of the atomic age.

However, both Byrnes and the military commander of the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves, admitted that they wished to use the weapons not so much to induce Japan to surrender, but to warn the Russians what they were now up against in the post-World War II world.  (Stone and Kuznick, p. 160)

As wiser men like Wallace foresaw, this threat backfired. Stalin ordered a ratcheting up of his scientific team to hurry along the Soviet version of the bomb. (ibid, p. 165)

Misreading the Soviets

Truman also miscalculated regarding the Soviet capability to duplicate the U.S. development of a nuclear bomb. When Truman asked the scientific supervisor of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, how long it would take for the Russians to come up with their version of the bomb, Oppenheimer said he was not sure. Truman said, “I’ll tell you. Never.”  (p. 179)

The Russians exploded their first atomic bomb just four years later. The nuclear arms race was off and running.

The other major argument in support of Truman’s decision to drop the A-Bombs on two Japanese cities has been that lives were saved by avoiding a U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland, a project codenamed Downfall and scheduled to begin in December 1945. In other words, there were still several months to negotiate Japan’s surrender.

The hurried-up decision to use the bomb seems to stem from the fact that Truman had told Stalin at the Potsdam Conference that the U.S. now had the weapon. (Stone and Kuznick, pgs. 162-65) So, just four days after the conclusion of Potsdam, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Then, one day after the Russians invaded Manchuria, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Still, Stone and Kuznick recognize that their historically well-supported view is considered contrarian to mainstream U.S. history. That’s because the political and historical establishment has tried to prop up Truman as something like a good-to-near-great President.

The reason that people like George Will and Condoleezza Rice do so is fairly obvious. To them, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race were things to be thankful for. But the national mythology about Harry Truman goes further. One needs only consider the enormous success of David McCullough’s 1992 biography of the man, eponymously called Truman. For me, and others, this was a 990-page appeal for Truman’s canonization.

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