Washington Post: From the atom bomb to attacking Iran? A leadership lesson from our nuclear history

From the atom bomb to attacking Iran? A leadership lesson from our nuclear history

The Washington Post, Published: March 7, 2012

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.

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