Seventy-five years ago today, the United States unleashed the only nuclear war in history.
Among the truths held self-evident by millions of Americans is the notion that the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives, both American and Japanese.
The choice, Americans learn, was between atomic bombs and an even bloodier invasion of Japan, whose fanatical citizens would have fought to the death defending their homeland and their emperor.
This narrative is deeply flawed.
‘Anxious to terminate’
Japan had in fact been trying to find a way to surrender for months and US leaders knew it. Japan could no longer defend itself from the relentless US air onslaught; ferocious firebombing had reduced most Japanese cities, including Tokyo, to ash.
General Curtis LeMay, commander of strategic bombing, even complained that there was nothing left to bomb but “garbage can targets.”
The Allies, through a secret cryptanalysis project codenamed Magic, had intercepted and decoded secret transmissions from Shigenori Togo, the Japanese foreign minister, to Naotaki Sato, the ambassador in Moscow, stating a desire to end the war.
However, saving face was imperative to the Japanese, which meant retaining their emperor. Unconditional surrender was, for the time being, out of the question.
In a secret memo dated June 28, Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph A Bard wrote that “the Japanese government may be searching for some opportunity which they could use as a medium of surrender.” In a 1960 interview, Bard reiterated that “the Japanese were ready for peace and had already approached the Russians” about capitulating.
On July 26, the leaders of the US, Britain and China issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding unconditional Japanese surrender and vowing “prompt and utter destruction” if Japan refused. The US had successfully tested the first atomic bomb in New Mexico 10 days earlier.
The declaration was originally written so that Emperor Hirohito would not be removed from the Chrysanthemum Throne, with Japan to be ruled as a constitutional monarchy after the war.
However, secretary of state James Byrnes removed that language from the final declaration. It would be unconditional surrender or total annihilation.
President Harry S Truman, who only learned about the Manhattan Project after being sworn in on April 12, approved a plan to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. Planners sought undamaged cities.
Tokyo, which in early March suffered firebombing that killed more people than either atomic bomb, was off the table. Kyoto was spared due to its cultural significance. Hiroshima, Japan’s largest untouched target, would die first, then Nagasaki.
Seven of the eight five-star US generals and admirals in 1945 opposed using the bomb. One of the opponents, General Dwight D Eisenhower, later said that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
“Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary,” Eisenhower wrote in 1954, by which time he was the president. “I thought our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was no longer mandatory to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.”
The idea of giving Japanese officials a live demonstration of an atomic bomb on a remote island, proposed by Strategic Bombing Survey vice-chairman Paul Nitze and supported by navy secretary James Forrestal, was rejected. It was believed the demonstration would likely not move the Japanese any more than the ongoing destruction of their actual cities via conventional bombing.
Throughout spring and summer 1945, Japanese officials increasingly sought an honorable end to the war. They knew that the defeat of Nazi Germany meant that a Soviet invasion, first of Manchuria and Korea, then of Japan itself, was now imminent.
“The Japanese could not fight a two-front war, and were more anti-communist than the Americans were,” Martin Sherwin, a historian awarded the Pulitzer Prize for co-authoring a biography of Manhattan Project leader J Robert Oppenheimer, said during a recent webinar. “The idea of a Soviet occupation of Japan was their worst nightmare.”
Historian and professor Peter Kuznick, co-author of the best-selling The Untold History of the United States, also spoke at the webinar. “The joint chiefs of staff repeatedly reported that if the USSR should enter the war then Japan would realize that defeat is inevitable,” he said.
Kuznick also noted that General George Marshall, the only five-star US officer to approve of using the atomic bomb, said that a Soviet invasion would likely lead to Japan’s swift surrender.
Truman knew this too. On the opening day of the Potsdam Conference, he had lunch with Josef Stalin. Afterwards he wrote in his diary that the USSR “will be in the Jap war by August 15. Fini Japs when that occurs.”
Regardless, Truman pressed ahead with the plan to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I have told Secretary of War Stimson to use [the A-bomb] so that military objectives … are the target, not women and children,” the president wrote in his diary on July 25.
The nuclear era dawns
At 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress dropped “Little Boy.” It exploded above Hiroshima with the force of 16 kilotons of TNT, destroying everything and everyone within about a 1.6-kilometer radius.
The heat, blast wave and ensuing inferno killed as many as 90,000. Tens of thousands more were injured, many mortally. Tens of thousands more people perished from radiation over the following weeks, months and years.
Three days later, “Fat Man,” the second and so far the last nuclear weapon used in war, obliterated Nagasaki in a 20-kiloton air burst. As many as 75,000 people died that day, with a similar number of people wounded and tens of thousands more dying later from radiation.
Despite Truman’s self-delusion, most of the people living in the two cities in 1945 were women, children and old people, as most of the men were away fighting the war, or dead from it.
The morning Nagasaki was destroyed, prime minister Kantaro Suzuki addressed the Japanese cabinet, declaring that “under the present circumstances I have concluded that our only alternative is to accept the Potsdam Proclamation and terminate the war.”
Why Japan really surrendered
Suzuki did not learn about Nagasaki until the afternoon of August 9. But he did know that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan the previous day. This, Japanese officials and historians on both sides of the Pacific agree, precipitated Japan’s surrender more than the A-bombs, although it also slammed the door shut on attempts to negotiate a surrender via Moscow.
“The destruction of another city was just the destruction of another city,” said Sherwin. “It was the entry of the Soviets into the war that really threw the Japanese into a complete panic.” They knew that if they didn’t surrender soon to the US, they would lose not only their overseas empire, but also Hokkaido.
An exhibit at the National Museum of the US Navy in Washington, DC, states that “the vast destruction wreaked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of 135,000 people made little impact on the Japanese military. However, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria changed their minds.”
“The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all,” General LeMay stated flatly in September 1945.
“The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan,” agreed Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.”
It is probably too much to say the atomic bombings had nothing to do with ending the war. Hirohito spoke of “a new and most cruel bomb” that could “lead to the total extinction of human civilization,” in his surrender broadcast. And the decision to capitulate was not unanimous; a cabal of hardline military officers attempted a coup the day before the emperor’s announcement.
American leaders knew that the Soviet Union would feature prominently in the postwar world order. The US wanted to maximize its own position as the dominant world power – and what better way to do this than to show the Russians that the United States had the cold resolve necessary to unilaterally wage nuclear war and hold an atomic monopoly.
Stimson acknowledged that some US officials saw nuclear bombs as “a diplomatic weapon,” and that “some of the men in charge of foreign policy were eager to carry the bomb as their ace-in-the-hole” and wanted “to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip.”
“I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys,” Truman reportedly said, referring to the A-bomb and Soviet leaders.
According to Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard, Byrnes believed that “a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia.” But some US officials admitted that waging nuclear war actually pushed Moscow rush to develop its own nuclear arsenal, which it did in 1949.
‘A nice, round figure’
As for the common claim that a US invasion of Japan would have cost a million lives, Kai Bird, who shared the Pulitzer Prize with Sherwin for their Oppenheimer biography, said it is simply not true.
“This figure was never given to Truman or bandied about by Stimson,” Bird told the webinar audience. “I asked [Stimson protégé] McGeorge Bundy about it, and he sheepishly admitted that he chose 1 million because it was a nice, round figure. He pulled it out of thin air.”
There is no doubt that an invasion of Japan would have been horrific for all involved, as demonstrated by the bloody battle for Okinawa, in which more than 12,000 American invaders and six times that number of Japanese defenders died – along with as many as half of the island’s 300,000 civilians, many of whom committed mass suicide rather than fall under enemy occupation.
However, the probability of Japan remaining in the war by the time the US was ready to invade was extremely low, especially given the Soviet Union’s declaration of war.
Plus, the claim that the United States cared about the lives of Japanese people, who were portrayed in wartime propaganda as sub-human barbarians, is questionable. Back in the United States, Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals – who had been banned from even immigrating to the US since the 1920s – were still languishing in concentration camps.
The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would make perfect laboratories in which to test the atomic bomb, as some US officials later acknowledged.
“When we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we didn’t need to do it, we used [the Japanese] as an experiment for two atomic bombs,” said General Carter Clarke, the intelligence officer in charge of intercepted Japanese cables.
Many of the very men who invented the A-bomb had grave misgivings, even before its use. These Manhattan Project scientists wrote what came to be known as the Franck Report in May 1945. It recommended a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese and questioned whether using it would really bring Japan to its knees when massive conventional bombing had not.
“If no international agreement is concluded immediately after the first detonation, this will mean a flying start of an unlimited armaments race,” the report prophetically stated.
A false choice
Seventy-five years later, millions of Americans believe the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of “necessary evil,” while ignoring alternatives to the standard narrative.
What if the United States had clarified its unconditional surrender stance to assure that Hirohito would not be hanged? Or announced that he would be allowed to remain in a position of ceremonial leadership? After all, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander, ultimately allowed Hirohito to remain emperor, albeit as a figurehead.
“It is possible,” wrote Stimson in his memoir, “that an earlier exposition of American willingness to retain the emperor could have produced an earlier ending to the war.”
The official US narrative blames the Soviet Union for starting the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, which on numerous occasions over the following decades brought the world within reach, and once to the brink, of thermonuclear annihilation.
But it was the United States that fired the first salvo, resulting in the Soviets scrambling to develop their own deterrent and launching an arms race.
There are now thousands of nuclear warheads in the arsenals of a record number of countries. The risk of nuclear armageddon as real as it has ever been. Humans have the power to bring about our own extinction.
“If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been tried as war criminals,” General LeMay remarked. “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not immoral if you win?”