The Long Shadow of James B. Conant 2

The first has to do with the bomb. In 1945, Conant became a member of the Interim Committee (“so-named,” as Hershberg ex¬plains, “to forestall congressional charges of executive usurpations of authority”),1 which had been formed to advise Truman on atomic issues. On May 31, the issue was the use of the bomb against Japan. According to the minutes: “At the suggestion of Dr. Conant the Sec¬retary [of War, Henry L. Stimson] agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of work¬ers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.” Conant’s sugges¬tion became, of course, atomic reality. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, Nagasaki on August 9 (before Japanese officials had had time to inspect the damage from the Hiroshima explosion). There were 200,000 casualties. On August 14, Japan surrendered.
Conant seems never to have doubted that the destruction, with¬out warning, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the wisest thing to do, and he never publicly expressed regret about it afterward (though Conant’s grandchildren told his biographer that they remember him admitting privately, very late in life, that the Nagasaki bomb had been a “mistake”). Tactically, the decision involved a calculation, subsequently much disputed, about the number of lives it would have cost to win the war by conventional means (which would un¬doubtedly have included the continued firebombing of Japanese cities). But Conant’s reasoning wasn’t only tactical. He was given to geopolitical speculation anyway, and as one of the few people privy to knowledge about the bomb from the inception of the nuclear pro¬gram, he had plenty of time to contemplate its usefulness in strate¬gic terms.
The consideration that dominated his long-term thinking was the need for international control of atomic weapons. Conant be¬lieved that unless the American government was willing, after the war, to share nuclear information with the other powers, and to sub¬mit to the authority of an international atomic energy commission, it would sooner or later find itself engaged in a ruinous arms race. (Conant’s friend J. Robert Oppenheimer believed the same thing; they were right about the arms race.) But Conant also believed that unless the American public was convinced, by some kind of demon¬stration, of the bomb’s terrible power, it could never be persuaded to accede to international regulation, for it would be unable to imagine what an indiscriminate holocaust a nuclear war would inevitably be. He may have thought, too, although here the evidence is not so clear, that the Soviets, while still without a bomb of their own, re¬quired a similar demonstration to draw them to the arms control bargaining table. Was Conant’s advice to bomb Hiroshima therefore influenced by a desire to show the world, by the instantaneous in¬cineration of tens of thousands of Japanese citizens, how monstrous a weapon he had helped to produce? And was the decision of the administration as a whole dictated by a desire to impress the Sovi¬ets, with a view either to persuading them to agree to international regulation, or to chilling any postwar expansionist intentions they might have harbored?
The answer is difficult. Revisionist historians, such as Gar Alper- ovitz, have suggested that future relations with the Soviet Union were on the minds of the men who decided to use the bomb against Japan. There seems to be very little written evidence to support this claim, and it is clear that whatever other considerations it may have entertained, the Interim Committee’s decision-making in 1945 was dominated by a desire to end the war as quickly as possible and with the least loss of life. In 1946, though, Conant thought he perceived the beginnings of a backlash against the bomb—something he feared, because he felt it could lead to atomic paralysis on the part of the American public, and therefore to an end to any strategic use¬fulness the bomb might have. If we couldn’t bring ourselves to drop the bomb, what was the advantage of having it? John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” which appeared in the New Yorker on August 31, 1946, is the best-known sign of this backlash, but there were rumblings elsewhere, as well, and Conant felt obliged to orchestrate a re¬sponse. True to form, he kept his own role hidden.
The response Conant conjured up was the famous article by Stimson (by then retired) called “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” which was published in Harper’s in February 1947. Stimson introduced the article as “an exact description of our thoughts and actions as I find them in the records and in my clear recollection”; but it was, in fact, an exact description of some of the Truman ad¬ministration’s thoughts and actions, and a few of the recollections were Conant’s. The piece was initiated entirely by Conant, who (as was his custom) got an intermediary, Harvey Bundy, to persuade Stimson to write it. In his letter to Bundy, Conant expressed dismay at the argument he saw being circulated that the decision to drop the bomb was immoral, and said he felt no cause to second-guess his reasoning as a member of the Interim Committee, which was that the use of the bomb was justified “on the grounds that I believed it would shorten the war against Japan, and that unless actually used in battle there was no chance of convincing the Amer¬ican public and the world that it should be controlled by interna-tional agreement.” There is ample evidence that Conant continued to use this ex post facto argument to defend the Interim Commit¬tee’s decision; but the letter to Bundy seems to have been the only place in which he acknowledged that the desire to provide an ad¬monitory example was a factor in his own thinking at the time. Still, it is a striking admission.

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