Less than three months after assuming the presidency, following the untimely death of Franklin D. Roosevelt near the end of World War II, Harry Truman addressed the nation on Independence Day, July 4, 1945, exactly 75 years ago.
The man from Independence, Missouri expressed “humility for the guidance that has been given us of God in serving his will as a leader of freedom for the world.”
Truman spoke in a day when governmental leaders were unashamed to acknowledge gratitude to God for his help.
Nearing the end
As President Truman sought to encourage a war weary nation on the 169th anniversary of the declaration of its independence from England, World War II was nearing an end. Fighting in Europe had ceased in early May with the capitulation of Nazi Germany. In less than a month and a half, Japan would also surrender unconditionally. The formal surrender document would be signed almost three weeks later, on the open deck of the battleship USS MISSOURI anchored in Tokyo Bay.
But, on this Fourth of July in 1945, most Americans felt that the end of the epic conflict was much further away. As U.S. forces pushed closer and closer to the Japanese homeland, the fighting intensified and the cost, in terms of human casualties, significantly escalated.
The massive Battle of the Philippines, begun in October of 1944, was all but over by late June 1945. Only pockets of resistance remained. The bloody Battle for Iwo Jima had ended in late March of 1945. Iwo was located roughly 700 miles from the Japanese home islands.
Most recently, American fighting forces had just wrapped up the deadly 83 day campaign for Okinawa on June 22. Okinawa was a mere 400 miles from mainland Japan.
U.S. casualties from these three operations alone, including dead and wounded, totaled just over 160,000 men. Of that number, some 61,000 young Americans had paid the ultimate price. These numbers reflected the fanatical fighting spirit displayed by enemy troops in defending their homeland.
Equally reflective of that fanaticism was the fact that Japanese soldiers in the Philippines, on Iwo Jima, and on Okinawa essentially fought to the last man. There were very few from among their ranks who actually surrendered. The vast majority were either killed in action or committed suicide.
After Okinawa, the next step was the invasion of Japan itself, a colossal undertaking codenamed Operation Downfall. It would far eclipse in its overall scope the D-Day landings at Normandy, France a year earlier. Developed on the premise that the Japanese people, military and civilian alike, would meet invading American soldiers with a maniacal zeal, it was divided into two distinct campaigns.
Operation Olympic, scheduled to kick off in November of 1945, would secure the southernmost island of Kyushu first. In March 1946, Operation Coronet, utilizing large numbers of troops brought over from the now quiet European theater of operations, would land forces on the island of Honshu, within striking distance of Tokyo itself.
The Japanese, on the other hand, had amassed every asset available for the decisive defense of their homeland. Under no illusion that they could actually defeat the Americans, their military leadership hoped to inflict enough casualties so that the U.S. would lose heart and sign a peace treaty giving Japan favorable concessions.
Awaiting the American landings was a 900,000-man army, a 28 million-strong civilian force of men and women comprising a sort of militia, 10,000 kamikaze pilots, and all of Japan’s remaining naval vessels, including hundreds of suicide speed boats and manned torpedoes. The stage was set for a blood bath of historical and horrific proportions.
While the Japanese were actually training young school girls to fire rifles at American GIs, top U.S. leadership was making grim projections about the outcome of Operation Downfall. Anticipating the opposition of a “fanatically hostile population,” they were preparing for American casualties, including both dead and wounded, totaling between 1.7 and 4 million men.
It was believed that as many as one million Allied service members, mostly American, and 10 million Japanese, military and civilian, would die in the fighting to finally subdue Imperial Japan. As such, it would have been the most epic and devastating battle in world history.
An excruciating decision
But, of course, Operation Downfall never happened. Two atomic bombs, one dropped on the city of Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, forced the once seemingly invincible Empire of Japan to finally surrender.
The combined death toll from the bombs unleashed on the two cities varies widely, depending upon the source, ranging from around 130,000 to 275,000. In either case, the two days on which those weapons were utilized, Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, represent two of the darkest and saddest days in human history. I have stood at ground zero in both cities. Each experience was surreal. I pray that such ghastly instruments of death will never be used again.
Men will continue to debate the legitimacy and morality of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While each of those approximately 200,000 lives was precious, all human life is, the alternative was the loss of possibly 10 million or more lives, mostly Japanese, had Operation Downfall taken place.
Years earlier Japan had launched a war of brutal aggression in the Far East, which she ultimately advanced throughout Asia and the islands of the Pacific. During the course of this war, which was of her own doing in the pursuit of empire, she committed atrocities beyond number and murdered millions upon millions.
President Truman’s decision to use newly developed nuclear weapons against Japan was excruciatingly difficult. As he later revealed, his motive was not to destroy the Japanese people or their culture, nor to simply exact revenge. The decision was made in order to end Japan’s ability to continue to wage war. In the end, his courageous decision actually saved millions of lives, most of them Japanese.
Let us remember the fateful last days of the second world war, the heartrending decisions that had to be made in those days, and the willingness of Americans, in the Independence Day words of President Truman, to humbly acknowledge “the guidance that has been given us of God in serving his will as a leader of freedom for the world” ... 75 years ago.