Skip to main content

(This first appeared in The Washington Post on March 7, 2012. Read the hyperlinked version at

This piece is part of an On Leadership special feature exploring the present-day Iran tensions in the context of leadership lessons from crises confronted by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

First the shock of the atomic bomb, and then: a shock of questions.

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.

Before the bombing of Hiroshima, the U.S. chiefs of staff, clearly frustrated by the narrow decision-making process, even resorted to an end run to get their views considered. They persuaded the British chiefs of staff to have Prime Minister Winston Churchill talk with President Truman about providing Japan with assurances for its emperor. (The U.S.-U.K. chiefs were looking at intelligence reports suggesting that if Truman did this, Japan was likely to surrender shortly after an expected Soviet Army attack in the first or second week of August — thus probably eliminating the need for the bomb long before a November invasion could begin.)

Prime Minister Churchill did, in fact, make such an approach to Truman, but his suggestion was rejected. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson similarly advised the president that if assurances for the emperor were offered, the war would likely end. Such assurances were initially included in the famous Potsdam Proclamation warning Japan to surrender, but they were removed before it was issued, making the document all but impossible for Japan to accept.

So what is the lesson here? A president today needs to be fully, not secondarily, on top of the decision-making process in a way that Truman never was. Fortunately, on this matter we seem to be far ahead of the experience of Hiroshima. President Obama appears to be in much greater control. And the modern White House and National Security Council are light-years ahead of the 1945 process, with options papers and fully briefed alternatives regularly considered.

Yet even today, there must be clear channels open for those who disagree.

Numerous reports detailing how economic policy was made at the outset of the Obama administration suggest that ‘problematic’ views, even those advanced by important officials like the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, were shunted aside.

This insularity has been one of the common criticisms of the current presidential administration. Obama’s “tightly knit circle of loyal senior advisers” and his deep-rooted history with some White House staff can be a leadership asset. But the magnitude of the Iran decision — like the Hiroshima decision — requires that the smallest to the very broadest issues be considered and debated from as many perspectives as possible.

So far, the decision-making process concerning  Iran seems still to be open today. On Monday, President Obama said, “We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue.” How long this posture can be maintained, though, is by no means clear. To maintain it will require great skill, as well as determination.

What the Hiroshima decision most reminds us, however, is that a president making decisions of this scope and scale, and facing an unruly political world, needs — there is no other word for it — wisdom. And he needs to bring in outsiders who can help him gain perspective, free from the bubble of insider debate. He also needs to make time to think; too much depends on whether he gets this one right.

Gar Alperovitz, author of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and a former special assistant in the Department of State, is the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site