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above: the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 (left), and Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 (right) (Wikimedia)

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Dropping the Ball on the Bomb

Unraveling modern confusion about the decision to drop the atomic bomb

Unraveling modern confusion about the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

There is still a remarkable amount of confusion about one of the last acts of World War II: the use of the atomic bomb. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was horrible, but not more so than many other episodes of the war. To keep things in perspective, it is worth noting that all Allied bombing of both Germany and Japan, including both atomic bombs, was responsible for about 2 percent of the total deaths in World War II.

That is not to say that the atomic bombs, or the conventional bombings preceding them, should not be subject to criticism; but they should be seen in their true dimensions. Most people killed in World War II were killed in the fighting on the ground, or by Axis and Soviet occupation policies, not by Allied bombing.

But most other aspects of the war do not touch on later fears the way Hiroshima and Nagasaki did.

Before we assess the arguments of the critics and counter-critics of the U.S. government’s decision to use atomic weapons, a look at the historical context is in order, including an examination of the Japanese side. 

In 1945, Japan was clearly defeated, but far from giving up. Most of her fleet and merchant ships had been sunk, and access to the vital resources of Southeast Asia lost. Japanese cities were steadily being destroyed by air attacks. The Japanese faced slow starvation. Despite all this, and despite the defeat of its German ally, Japan’s government seemed unmoved.

Most American leaders believed that Japan had to be invaded. On June 18, America’s most respected military leader, General George Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, compared the strategic situation in the Pacific to that in Europe before the Normandy invasion. He rejected the idea that Japan could be bombed into surrender, and the Army Air Forces agreed that it could not be done—at least not with conventional weapons. This view was strongly supported by almost all ground force commanders in the Pacific. Admiral Ernest King, like most Navy and Army Air Forces commanders, thought blockade and conventional bombing could end the war without invasion. But King did not openly differ with Marshall, apparently assuming invasion preparations could be aborted later.

President Harry S. Truman, not surprisingly, took Marshall’s advice and approved plans for an invasion on November 1. At that point, only the atomic bomb or some political move could avoid an enormous loss of life. American soldiers would confront a largely intact Japanese Army, a huge force of kamikaze, and other suicidal weapons.

It is a comment on the folly of American planning that Japanese Army leaders welcomed the prospect of an invasion of Japan. They could do little about bombing or the blockade, but an invasion offered a chance to inflict such heavy losses that they could get better terms than “unconditional surrender.” This strategy was adopted as Japan’s national policy on June 6.

There was, however, a Japanese peace faction backed by Foreign Minister Shigenori TŌgŌ, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, and, later, Prime Minister KantarŌ Suzuki and Emperor Hirohito. But the peace faction feared assassination by the military extremists. Nor were its ideas clear. It only got the military to reluctantly agree in late June to seek Soviet mediation, which was not a true move toward peace.

Amazingly, before the first atomic bomb was dropped, Japan’s leaders never formulated a set of minimally acceptable peace terms. Even the aims of the various factions seem to have be inferred from their reactions to American moves.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew urged clarifying the meaning of unconditional surrender to encourage the Japanese to give up, by assuring them they would be treated fairly after surrender. Grew pointed out that all Japanese factions would insist on keeping the monarchy, which would not threaten American interests. An assurance on the monarchy was necessary to secure Japan’s surrender, although it was not sufficient in itself, as was later often carelessly assumed.

Although Truman was persuaded by Grew, many in his cabinet and the U.S. military hierarchy disliked the idea of preserving the Japanese monarchy, much less leaving Hirohito on the throne. These ideas were bitterly resisted, especially by liberals, as well as by Truman’s incompetent Secretary of State, James Byrnes. Internal opposition to this assurance as well as concerns about the ambiguity of whether it applied a guarantee to Hirohito specifically, led to dropping it from the Potsdam Declaration.

Meanwhile, plans to use the atomic bomb as an alternative to invasion continued. No one could devise a safe “demonstration” of the bomb likely to impress the Japanese. It was decided—not without some dissent—that the best way to use it was to attack an important military installation in a Japanese city.

On July 25, the Army Air Forces were ordered to drop both available atomic bombs after Aug. 3—as soon as weather allowed visual bombing—unless Japan accepted Allied terms. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was thus effectively ordered at the same time.

The Potsdam Declaration, containing the U.S.’s ultimatum and the terms of Japan’s surrender, was announced the next day, a development welcomed by the Japanese peace faction. Japan’s Foreign Ministry held that the declaration had clearly abandoned a demand for unconditional surrender, and was relieved by the economic provisions. TŌgŌ wanted the terms clarified further, but it was a moot point as the military forced an outright rejection of this deal.

The military faction demanded better terms of surrender, even more than had been offered two years earlier in the Cairo Declaration of 1943. The Cairo terms were seen as unsatisfactory because Japan would lose its pre-1931 empire and later conquests. Even TŌgŌ and other civilian leaders hoped to keep some of Japan’s older colonies. Marquis KŌichi Kido even hoped to hang on to Manchuria!

Hiroshima’s destruction had a drastic impact on the negotiating stance of both factions. When the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War met, the civilians and Navy Minister Yonai now recommended immediate surrender, on the sole condition that the monarchy be preserved. Even the military nominally accepted the Potsdam Declaration, but insisted that there be no Allied occupation, that Japanese forces disarm and demobilize themselves, and that war criminals would be tried only by the Japanese. 

A deadlock persisted even through the bombing of Nagasaki and Soviet attack. The impasse broke when the civilians arranged the emperor’s personal intervention; Hirohito, who had been strongly impressed by the bomb, backed the peace faction. Japan offered to surrender if given a concession on the monarchy. After some argument on the American side, Truman agreed. The surrender went through—but only after a coup by Japanese Army extremists was defeated.

The atomic bomb was hardly the sole cause of Japan’s surrender, but it provoked the emperor’s intervention and determined its timing, forcing a decision that had long been taking shape. The defenders of the use of the bomb, whatever else they may get wrong, are at least accurate in their assessment of why it was dropped. Despite rather free misrepresentation of sources, no one has ever produced any direct evidence that the bomb was used for any purpose other than ending the war. 

So, was the use of the bombs justified, in retrospect? A split verdict seems the only rational answer. Postwar research vindicated those who insisted that blockade and bombing could have forced a surrender. Invading Japan was a terrible idea which never even should have been considered, it would merely have exposed the Allies to what strength Japan had left. Further, Japan’s deeply divided leaders were closer to giving up than it seemed at the time, although nowhere as near surrender as the more enthusiastic critics of the atomic bomb later pretended.

At first sight, the idea that an invasion was not needed might suggest that the atomic bomb was not needed. But the bomb shortened the war by some weeks or months. The last phase of the war in the Pacific was so destructive that shortening it was worthwhile. Without the atomic bomb, aided by conventional bombing and the blockade, the fighting elsewhere in Asia would have gone on. That would have meant the loss of more American lives and many more Japanese lives. Not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but many other cities would have been destroyed.

Moreover, Japan still held most of Southeast Asia; the collapse of the transportation systems there would doom to famine areas dependent on food imports. The Japanese still held hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners and internees in camps across the region, and they planned to massacre them when the next Allied land advance took place, which would have occurred in September, when Britain planned to land in Malaya. Even where food was plentiful, prisoners were slowly starving. Pacific War historian Richard B. Frank has calculated that for each month the war would have continued, at least 250,000 people would have perished.

Much therefore depended on ending the war quickly.  Using the atomic bombs was justified, not to avert a land invasion which should never have been contemplated anyway, but because shortening the war saved hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of lives; mostly those of Asians and Europeans.

It was the lesser evil in the situation and the decision to use the bomb was right—even though it was made partly for the wrong reasons and on the basis of inadequate knowledge. That is not exactly uncommon in war!

However, an honest verdict on the atomic bomb must be mixed. Later knowledge suggests that the second bomb was not needed to force the surrender. As General Douglas MacArthur’s report concluded, the Nagasaki bombing did not seem to have had much influence on Japanese decision-making. The horrible mistake of dropping the second bomb so soon after the first was another product of the overestimation of Japan’s will to resist.

However, even given this caveat, one must defend the use of the atomic bomb against some of the typically muddled thinking perpetrated by historians and laymen alike.  These can be divided into two sorts:  errors of fact and outright lies; and basic structural confusions. 

The former are so numerous they would require an entire book to address completely. We can merely note a few.

0820-BOMBREMEMBER-3First, some historians claim that various military leaders opposed the use of the bomb, notably Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Curtis LeMay, and Henry Arnold, and Admirals William Leahy and Ernest King. There is no evidence that any, save possibly Leahy, did so at the time.

Arnold thought until late July that an invasion would be needed, then decided that conventional bombing could defeat Japan—or, dropping no less than four atomic bombs. Eisenhower, admitting he had no special knowledge of the Pacific theater, told Secretary of War Henry Stimson that it seemed to him that Japan was beaten and the bomb was not needed. But, apparently, he accepted Stimson’s explanation of why it was necessary. Many commentators have disregarded the influence over American policy of Marshall’s grotesque insistence that a land invasion was needed to force a surrender.

Other gems often found in academic or popular commentary include claims that the Americans “knew” Japan was about to surrender, or had already decided to surrender, before the bomb was dropped. Also, that Truman never accepted Grew’s view that allowing the Japanese monarchy to continue was no threat to the U.S. and was necessary to get a surrender. Many suggest that the issue of preserving the monarchy was the only thing preventing a surrender, which, at least before Hiroshima, it certainly was not.

Other historians belittle the Potsdam Declaration as representing no change in policy and having no effect on the Japanese. Some actually claim that Japan did not reject it, and others that the atomic bomb did not affect the positions taken in the Supreme Council. All these claims are false. Some accuse Truman and Stimson of exaggerating the cost of an invasion in order to justify the bomb—which, as Richard B. Frank and Robert James Maddox showed, they did not.

Arguably, however, the more significant problems people have understanding the U.S. decision to drop the bomb involve basic structural confusions, including:

1) A focus on whether the use of the bomb was justified in hindsight. This is a very different question from why the decision to use it was made in 1945.

2) A misunderstanding of the central issue facing those decision makers, which was ending the war with as little loss of life as possible. Whether and how to use this new weapon of mass destruction, and what the long-term implications would be, was a subsidiary question.

3) Falsely assuming that because a land invasion was not needed to force Japan to surrender, that the use of the bomb was unjustified.

4) Detaching the use of the atomic bomb from the actual background of the final stages of a world war, in which death was everywhere and hard choices had to be made. These people view the atomic bomb as some sort of unique horror totally different from other events of the war. Accounts of the fire-bombing of Japanese cities show this to be false.

5) Projecting back into 1945 the later taboo against using nuclear weapons that emerged in the West. That taboo may be a good thing, but it is of no use in understanding the situation in 1945 when the fears and experiences that inspired it did not yet exist.

6) Wrongly assuming that because Japan’s defeat was inevitable the enemy had no military capability left.

7) An inability to grasp that what was later known about the military situation, and the wrangling Japanese factions, was not known at the time. This often includes an exaggeration of the readiness of the Japanese to make peace. Additionally, Cold War revisionists, exaggerating American hardening toward the Soviet Union, falsely suggested that the real motive for using the bomb was to intimidate the Soviets.

8) An inability to recognize that ending the war involved an interaction with the Japanese, in which they had to make some of the crucial decisions. The Japanese delay in doing so led to the U.S. dropping the bomb. They were not simply passive recipients of American bombs and promises, but had their own deep-seated motives and ideas. Nor did the enemy leaders form an undifferentiated group. They had their own bitter divisions, bitter enough to end in the Aug. 14 coup attempt.

Other ideological obsessions are also present. One is our society’s fantastic obsession with race and racism; hence claims that the atomic bomb was used against the Japanese only because they are “colored.” There is literally no evidence that this influenced American decision makers. In fact, U.S. leaders disliked and distrusted the Germans far more than the Japanese, as the more generous plans for postwar Japan showed.

0820-BOMBREMEMBER-2But the fear of nuclear war has been the main factor fostering confusion. Much of today’s frantic insistence that the atomic bomb is uniquely horrible and somehow apart from the rest of the war seems propelled by the idea that, had atomic weapons not been used in 1945, there would have been no danger of nuclear war later. That idea, that Hiroshima opened a Pandora’s box, is usually an unspoken assumption often put forth by insinuation or indirection. But it occasionally surfaces in an unmistakable manner. 

One example of this is in Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell’s 1996 book Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial, which, whatever its faults, has the virtue of expressing ideas widely held but not often articulated. The authors complain that Hiroshima set a precedent for the use of nuclear weapons. “As long as we continue to defend and justify the Hiroshima model we risk making that kind of decision again,” they write.

In grumbling about the tendency of World War II veterans to think that the use of the bomb was justified, Lifton and Mitchell remark on the need to distinguish their “sacrifice from the specific horror and threat to the human future embodied in two of our military acts late in that war.”

Indeed, this form of argument—if it is an argument—seems to have become very common late in the Cold War.  In a 1983 statement, entitled “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops remarked:

After the passage of nearly four decades and a concomitant growth in our understanding of the ever-growing horror of nuclear war, we must shape the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing in 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons…

This argument subordinates the search for historical truth to some perceived desirable political need of the present. Many thinking along these lines feel compelled to show that using the atomic bomb was unjustified, even in terms of the reasons given at the time. They go beyond the simple idea that using the bomb was wrong and precipitated later dangers, to insisting that it was totally unnecessary and saved no lives. Often, they go even further and assert that those who made the decision had some sinister motive. 

Strictly speaking, of course, there is no logical connection of ideas here—the bomb might have saved lives in 1945 while still having the malign long-range effect postulated.  We are dealing here with an emotional and propagandistic linking of ideas, and the posing of a false moral dilemma. 

One has only to state the basic underlying thesis, that using the atomic bomb in 1945 led to the danger of nuclear war, to see how infantile it is. Had World War II ended without the bomb being used, its existence would have become known anyway. The Cold War, already well underway during the latter part of World War II, had deeper roots than Soviet envy of, or worries about, the bomb. 

For example, it was not just the fact that the bomb existed or had been used that caused Cold War tensions—indeed, who in the West would lose sleep at the possession of nuclear weapons by Britain or France? It was rather the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons in the context of the Cold War, and later threats of “rogue states” and terrorists, that led to later perils. If anything, it seems likely that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki induced greater caution on the part of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in dealing with nuclear weapons.

The hysteria and retrospective wishful thinking that, had the atomic bomb not been used in 1945, the postwar world would have been safer, are clearly misplaced. In the context of World War II, the bomb did not pose a unique moral dilemma. American leaders had already accepted massive losses of Japanese civilian lives when they ordered the fire-bombing of Japanese cities well before Hiroshima. 

The way in which many focus on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as though they were the sole Japanese civilians killed in the war, indicates their real motives. Their pity is not directed at the Japanese, but at themselves, for the danger which they imagine the atomic bombings of 1945 exposed them to.

There is something to be said for real sympathy with the Japanese who suffered and died, even if they were our enemies at the time. There is little to be said for the later misuse of the issue for political ends.

Alan J. Levine

Alan J. Levine is a historian and writer living in New York City. 

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