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above: representatives of the Empire of Japan on board the USS Missouri during surrender ceremonies, Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945:  (US Army Signal Corps/Wikimedia)

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The Myth of the Atomic Bomb

For a generation after the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed on Sept. 2, 1945, the standard narrative remained fairly straightforward. By deciding to use nuclear weapons—against Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and on Nagasaki three days later—President Harry Truman enabled the realists in Tokyo, also called the peace faction, to prevail. This made a full-scale invasion of Japan unnecessary and thus saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. Even if there had been no invasion, a related argument went, the two bombs saved millions of starving Japanese civilians by making unnecessary a long siege of their devastated home islands.

In 1965, a revisionist theory was presented by historian Gar Alperovitz. He accepted that the bomb persuaded Japan’s leaders to surrender, but he argued that they had intended to do so in any event, and certainly well before the proposed Allied invasion, named Operation Downfall, set for Nov. 1. Alperovitz further asserted that Truman’s primary motive for using the bomb was to send an intimidating message to Stalin about America’s awesome new capability. Using nuclear weapons was not necessary to end the war, Alperovitz concluded, and it was therefore wrong to do so.

Over the ensuing four decades, the debate, often acrimonious, essentially revolved around whether the use of the bomb was moral or not, and necessary or not, either in the context of the time or in retrospect. Neither camp questioned...

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