Though often taken for granted today, after World War II numerous top military leaders — from the hawkish Gen. Curtis Lemay to President Dwight D. Eisenhower — went public with statements declaring that the atomic bombing of Japan was completely unnecessary. Even Adm. William D. Leahy, the president’s chief of staff, bluntly stated: “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.”
Whatever one thinks of the decision, that these and many other top military figures would make public such view raises obvious questions about the leadership process by which the decision was made — as well, inevitably, about the wisdom of the decision itself. Had President Harry S. Truman heard more dissenting voices during the decision-making process, the nuclear history of our world may have been far different.
And yet Truman didn’t hear them, though not because they weren’t speaking. If there is one leadership lesson we should take from the decision to use the bomb nearly 70 years ago, it is the importance for our presidents to truly attend to dissenting views.
Right now, as we look out at the next chapter of our world’s nuclear history — the possibility of a nuclear Iran and the question of whether Obama will support an attack — we should be reminded of this lesson, and what can happen when a president makes a profound decision without the full weight of robust and diverse debate.
Though documentation is sketchy, the Hiroshima decision appears to have been dominated by the inexperienced new president’s top adviser and personal friend, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes. A shrewd and highly secretive Washington operator, Byrnes was adept at keeping the decision process closed to contending views. By all accounts he operated in a manner similar to the way another experienced insider, Vice President Dick Cheney, guided another inexperienced president, George W. Bush, at the outset of his administration.
President Truman accepted this, deciding only a year and a half later to fire Byrnes for overreaching.
One product of the insular nature of this Hiroshima decision-making arrangement was that Truman hardly considered the question of alternatives. There were no contending position papers, no deep analyses of the pros and cons for American policy, no careful assessments of longer-term implications. A special group, the Interim Committee, was appointed to consider how — not whether — to use the new atomic weapon. A brief discussion of whether it might be necessary occurred over lunch one day, with most present reportedly in favor. Virtually every student of the “decision,” however, understands this to have been a casual conversation, not a serious policy exploration.