Today’s fifty-ninth anniversary of the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima finds most Americans still satisfied that President Truman’s decision to use the bomb was a difficult but necessary one designed to bring peace and save lives. It seems unlikely that many Americans will reconsider their positions on this issue. To some Hiroshima has become the paradigm of the very notion of “bombing for peace,” and one’s variance from this position tends to mark an individual as holding liberal or radical political tendencies. But a few days ago as I was reading through the papers of the late sinologist and cold warrior George Edward Taylor at the University of Washington I encountered some documents which reminded me that questioning the wisdom of using atomic weapons against Japanese civilians to end the Pacific War is not a position reserved for the contemporary left: even at the time of these bombings there were embedded conservative members of the military-intelligence community who viewed the use of these weapons as unnecessary folly.
George Taylor was a classic Twentieth Century international man of intrigue. He ran intelligence operations in Japanese occupied China, during World War Two served as Deputy Director for the Far East of the Office of War Information (OWI), later worked with Rand, State, other articulations of the Twentieth Century’s revolving door of American intelligence agencies and universities. During World War Two Taylor brought anti-Communist sinologist Karl Wittfogel to the United States, after the war he helped establish a safe nest for then “useful” Nazi-collaborator Nicholas Poppe, and during the McCarthy era he betrayed his former friend Owen Lattimore before Senator McCarran’s Internal Security Subcommittee. His support for the Vietnam War on the University of Washington campus marked him as a Nixonian reactionary. Taylor was a sort of Third Man who shape-shifted through the foreground and background of various Twentieth Century theatres of conflict-and his correspondence finds him holding court with the likes Henry Kissinger, Edward Lansdale and Harold Lasswell.
In 1996 I met Taylor at his spectacular penthouse home atop Seattle’s Pill Hill– overlooking the city and the Olympic and Cascade Mountains–to conduct a lengthy interview covering his contacts with Wittfogel, the McCarthy period and his years supervising a small army of anthropologists weaponizing anthropology against the Japanese at the Office of War Information (OWI) during the Second World War.
At OWI Taylor’s team of social scientists studied Japanese culture and created cultural-specific propaganda-primarily leaflets dropped from airplanes on Japanese soldiers and civilians. Because Taylor believed that an understanding of culture was vital to the success of his OWI team he recruited over a dozen anthropologists and other social scientists to work on his Japanese analysis and propaganda campaigns. Among other resources, Taylor’s team had access to five-thousand diaries seized from captured and killed Japanese soldiers, and these heartfelt writings were used as important resources for voicing the OWI’s successful propaganda efforts. Ruth Benedict’s OWI work resulted in her post-war publication of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword which analyzed the culture and personality of the Japanese. Benedict’s work focused on the role and importance of the Emperor in Japanese culture and reflected many of the institutional views of Taylor’s OWI division.
When I interviewed Taylor I was surprised by his insistence that at the beginning of the war he viewed his psychological warfare programs as a means of ending the war by helping the Japanese overcome all the cultural obstacles preventing their surrender-however, as the war advanced and the American advantage became clear he came to see his job as being to convince U.S. civilian and military leaders that they did not have to engage in acts of genocidal annihilation to end the war. Racist stereotypes of maniacal Japanese soldiers and citizens fighting to the death dominated the War Department and the White House, and Taylor and his staff increasingly strove to battle this domestic enemy as a prime deterrent of peace. It was with great difficulty that Taylor and his staff of anthropologists worked to convince civilian and military personnel that that Japanese were even culturally capable of surrender.
Taylor’s papers contain numerous typewritten speeches capturing his efforts to convince U.S. military strategists that the Japanese could surrender. In one such undated speech (probably from 1944) he argued that,
“If we accept, as we must, the view that Japanese soldiers, in spite of their indoctrination, are as human as other troops, we shall be the less surprised at the mounting evidence of their very human reactions to defeat. We are taking more and more prisoners. Two years ago it would have been very unusual for sixty men to allow themselves to be picked up out of the water when their transport had been sunk. In New Guinea and Burma stragglers are coming in out of the jungles to surrender without a struggle. We have known for a long time that many Japanese officers have been evacuated from indefensible positions and that their reaction on places such as Attu, where escape was impossible, was not to fight to the last man.”
But it was just this sort of reasoned analysis–arguing against the War Department’s pull for a genocidal campaign to obliterate a “race” believed incapable of surrender–that was ignored by the War Department and White House. The OWI had little success in convincing President Roosevelt of the importance on not including the demise of the Japanese Emperor in America’s demands for unconditional surrender, but as Taylor told Sharon Boswell in a 1996 interview “fortunately Roosevelt died and Truman came in.”
Taylor maintained that Truman understood the OWI’s insistence that surrender could be negotiated and he seemed to grasp the importance of exempting the Emperor from conditions of “unconditional” surrender. Taylor said that Truman authorized the OWI to communicate this to the Japanese. As Japan’s war effort collapsed there was a growing interest in surrender.
A few days ago I found among Taylor’s papers and correspondence some blurry photocopies of declassified intelligence reports from the codename “MAGIC-Diplomatic Summaries.” These are translated Japanese diplomatic intercepts that were secretly being decoded and read by American military intelligence during the war. A May 11, 1945 MAGIC intercept supports the views of Taylor, others at the OWI, and elsewhere in military intelligence that the Japanese military were ripe for surrender:
“Report of peace sentiment in Japanese armed forces: On 5 May the German Naval Attaché in Tokyo dispatched the following message to Admiral Doenitz:
‘An influential member of the Admiralty Staff has given me to understand that, since the situation is clearly recognized to be hopeless, large sections of the Japanese armed forces would not regard with disfavor an American request for capitulation even if the terms were hard, provided they were halfway honorable.’
Note [by U.S. military intelligence]: Previously noted diplomatic reports have commented on signs of war weariness in official Japanese Navy circles, but have not mentioned such an attitude in Army quarters.”
This mention of “halfway honorable” terms of surrender was exactly why the anthropologists in Taylor’s group had been focusing on the importance of the emperor in Japanese society. But such considerations were easily ignored by a War Department whose cost benefit calculations weighed the coming hundreds of thousands dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki against the balance of specifying the acceptable conditions that came to follow unconditional surrender.
Even more tragic is a July 20th MAGIC intercept in which Japanese Ambassador Sato advocated his desire for a Japanese surrender if the United States would assure him that the “Imperial House” would remain in existence. These MAGIC Documents are a sad testimony that in the days before the attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American intelligence had good evidence that Ambassador Sato was close to surrendering to the Americans. But neither the knowledge gleaned from these intercepts nor the general advice of social scientists at the OWI dissuaded American plans to unleash nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians.
Perhaps it is George Taylor’s gloomy credentials as a hawk, a dangerously-anti-Communist-conservative, and as an intelligence insider that makes his voice such an intriguing one in the chorus of those questioning the necessity of Truman’s deployment of the A-Bomb. While out of the A-Bomb decision making loop Taylor and others at the OWI knew Japan was ripe for (pseudo-unconditional) surrender. Like many others, Taylor later came to believe that Truman’s decision to use of nuclear weapons had more to do with “scaring the hell out of the Soviet Union” than it did with saving the inflated estimates of American lives some argued would be lost in a Japanese invasion and occupation.
But beyond the obvious message sent to the Soviet’s, Truman’s decision to use his doomsday weapon (twice) without presenting the Japanese with the actual conditions of his unconditional surrender revealed elements of an important American post war trajectory-a trajectory of violence where American military force became the tool of preference selected over the promise of diplomacy.
DAVID PRICE teaches anthropology at St. Martin’s College in Olympia, Washington. His latest book, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists has just been published by Duke University Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org