Look at this mess. Maybe I should have a new blog tag called "flunking history." FOR PETE'S SAKE, PEOPLE. (Buckle in -- a history nerd rant is coming.)
President Truman made an unbelievably tough call in unbelievably tough circumstances, and I remain convinced that it was the right call. (You can see some related documents, courtesy of the Truman Presidential Library, including the warning letter dropped on Japan.)
The answer was and is "yes" in order to end the Pacific war once and for all against an implacable foe willing to fight tooth and claw to the bitter end and beyond, a fiercely aggressive enemy that struck first (lest we all forget) at Pearl Harbor. Hello, "date which shall live in infamy"? How easily some people gloss over that inconvenient fact.
The alternative to the bomb was a full-scale invasion of Japan that would have cost countless American/Allied (and Japanese too, let's not forget, both military and civilian) lives. A common speculative guess is half a million lives, a number that I think is much too conservative. Double it. You only have to look at the appalling carnage at Okinawa (an amphibious invasion that had a butcher's bill of some 150,000 dead and wounded on both sides, plus another 100,000 civilian casualties) for a hint of what would have happened in Japan proper. Alternatively, you can look at the liberation of the Philippines.
OK, for my unpopular stance on the atomic option against imperial Japan, you can now have fun calling me all kinds of nasty names. But facts are stubborn things, and the fact remains that Truman's call ended the war. Do I wish the war had ended another way? Absolutely. Do I as a historian see some other possible option to force Japan's capitulation? No. (Aside from the invasion option, which would have been even more cringe-inducing in its human cost.) There were no "good" choices open to Truman, only "bad" and "worse." Often I think that today's armchair historians and pie-eyed ignorant young utopia-dreamers just don't realize this. Half the time they're busy making the US the "bad guy" and Japan the "victim" and rewriting history into unrecognizable tripe.
And for the record: I have no animus against contemporary Japan (in fact, I long to go visit if I ever have the money). But it is not the same as imperial Japan, and it's foolish to blur the two in discussions of history. And it's completely foolish to make moral equivalence between the Allies and imperial Japan. In the light of history, the good guys won in the Pacific. If you have more doubts, ask me about Japanese POW camps, "comfort women," the invasion of Manchuria, the treatment of Nanking, the rape of the Philippines, the Bataan Death March, and so on. (I'm not even going to open the misery-filled can of worms about WW II-era, Japanese-held Taiwan.) There's your history-nerd advice of the day, plus this: in the same vein, I don't believe in tarring modern Japan with the brush of "yellow guilt" of its history, just as I don't believe in tarring modern Germany with "Nazi guilt." At the same time, it's perilous to refuse to look at history with a clear and critical (even self-critical) eye.