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Posted by Admin on January 30, 2011

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

“Why did America use the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of the second world war?”

Table of contents:


Part I: Introduction:

Background to the events leading to the bombing of the two cities;

Part II: Political factors behind the event;

Part III: The personality of Truman and his perception of the nature of the bombs as a factor;

Part IV: Other aspects of the bombing;

Part V: Conclusion.


Part I:


Background to the events leading to the bombing of the two cities:

The American decision to use the two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II has come in for feverish debate in the years following the incident. It is one of the best-documented events in history, and has, at the same time, provoked lasting, emotionally heated reaction. Almost everyone with even a fleeting interest in World War II seems to have a strong opinion on this American action. (Harbour, 1999, p. 68) To state that the Americans bombed the Japanese because the latter were their rivals in the war is to speak simplistically of an issue that was a product of complex factors. The dropping of the bombs on the two cities was the climax of the great rivalry the two countries had developed against each other over some years; thus, to try to understand the motives behind America’s actions, one needs to look at how this rivalry developed between these two distant countries, whose culmination was the bombing of the two cities.

The Japanese and Americans had been pitted against each other in the Pacific many years before World War II began. Some historians fix the date of the crystallisation of US-Japanese rivalry at 1931, when the Japanese occupied Manchuria in China. The Americans considered this an audacious attack on their interests in Asia. 1931not only marked a nadir in the relations between America and Japan, this year was also extremely significant to Japan’s administration, for this was when the radical, militant elements in the Japanese administration led successfully what has been termed a coup, by which they ‘overthrew’ the moderate elements in the royal government and set the country on the long road of fascism of the kind that Europe was falling prey to. (Morris and Heath, 1963, pp. 2, 3 and 20) This Japanese act was the outcome of an ongoing rivalry, which dates back to an earlier period, when Japan embarked on an ambitious programme of industrialisation. A strong animosity had developed in America against the Japanese from the time she started growing in strength having realised that the way to prosperity lay in industrialisation, and had tried to make herself a strong industrial country. The rapid pace and force of Japanese industrialisation was started since her first contact with the western world, which, ironically, began with the US itself, (Wainstock, p.1) which had contributed more than any other country to Japan’s industrial strength, but was not able to tolerate her expansionist designs later. (Levine, 1995, p. 1) In an era of aggrandisements leading to the war, Japan, since she did not have the resources to match her rapid industrialisation, committed acts of aggression on several countries of South East Asia. Sensing that her food supplies could be cut off with ease by an enemy, Japan built a strong navy. But even so, her trade routes were unsafe. To neutralise this, she intensified her policy of annexation of several mainland countries and strategically important islands in the Pacific, some of which were equally economically or strategically important to an America that was seeking to establish its influence in the Pacific. In this climate of growing hostility, one by one, several territories started falling to the Japanese sword, the most important of which was the Chinese mainland in 1937, following, of course, the annexation of Manchuria. (Wainstock, pp.1 & 2)  The main reason for Japan’s annexation of China was to undo the Revolution, which she viewed as a possible threat to her dynastic rule. (Levine, 1995, p. 1) The fall of China intensified the American perception of the rapidly expanding Japan as a threat. Another milestone in the building up of their rivalry was Japan’s decision to join the Axis Alliance, led by Europe’s most brutal fascist regimes, those of Hitler and Mussolini, in 1940. (Conroy & Wray, 1990, p. 73) The bombing of Pearl Harbour, an American base, was the last straw. It jolted America out of its self-imposed isolation brought about by a feeling that it was a secure, unassailable fortress. (Hein & Selden, 1997, p. 69) Following Pearl Harbour, America, along with Britain and the Netherlands, blockaded Japan’s oil supplies. In order to obtain vital fuel, Japan started annexing large parts of the Pacific in quick succession –Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, (Hane, 1992, pp. 316 & 426) Guam, and Wake Islands (Wainstock, p. 2) Even after the attack on Pearl Harbour, America was not able to dent the superior Japanese navy. However, a decisive victory in the Battle of Midway, in June 1942, gave it an advantage. This campaign was crucial in halting Japanese advances, which, left unchecked would have given her access to territories as far as India, Australia and Hawaii. Holding on tenaciously, with superior intelligence, the Americans pulled off a famous victory, which boosted their morale. (United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946, p. 58) The field was now left open for a climactic battle; the Americans created this in the closing stages of the war and acted upon it. This was the episode relating to the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the factors listed above constituted the background to the rivalry between the two countries, a combination of factors, mostly political, precipitated the event. Some of these are listed in this research paper.

Since the purview of this paper is to merely look at the factors that led to the bombing of the two cities, no attempt is made to look at the moral aspect of the issue, or to stand in judgment on the incident. No matter how unspeakable the suffering the bombs ended up causing to the people who bore the brunt, and the mark it made on the national psyche of the country and its civilisation, this paper avoids reference to these areas of discussion, since this clearly falls outside its scope. However, some controversies related to the issue are taken up, for these are intertwined with the incident. While this paper has made a classification of the reasons for this attack, mention needs to be made that a watertight compartmentalisation may not be possible, and some overlaps may have occurred. Mention also needs to be made that in the section pertaining to the controversies of this action, since entire arguments of historians have been taken up for discussion, very long references to individual authors appear.

Part II:

Political factors behind the event

Surely, for an action of such great magnitude and far-reaching consequences, political factors were the most important consideration for president Truman. He saw in this situation an opportunity to strike a double blow –to silence Japan’s recalcitrance, and to fire a salvo at the Russian leader, Josef Stalin, with whom his country had been forced to develop an alliance because of the exigency of the hour. “The bomb was dropped primarily for its effect not on Japan but on the Soviet Union. One, to force a Japanese surrender before the USSR came into the Far Eastern war, and two, to show under war conditions the power of the bomb. Only in this way could a policy of intimidation [of the Soviet Union] be successful…[t]he United States dropped the bomb to end the war against Japan and thereby stop the Russians in Asia, and to give them sober pause in Eastern Europe.”(Kagan, 1995)

A crucial meeting, which ultimately decided the course of this action was called by Truman and held in the White House on June 18, as the Okinawa campaign was drawing to a close. The intention of this meeting was to seek from his Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) their opinion on the quickest and most effective means to ending the war in Japan. Those who attended it were the president’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, Navy Chief of Staff, Ernest King, Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, Secretary of Navy, James Forrestal, and Ira Eaker, representing General Arnold for the Army Air Forces. The opinion that emerged out of this meeting was that the best way forward was to invade Japan through its southernmost tip, Kyushu. The probable date of this planned invasion was set for November 1. Marshall suggested that the next phase of the invasion would be an attack, at a later date, on Honshu, the island on which Tokyo stands. General Marshall spoke on behalf of the Joint Chiefs, reading out from a paper they had prepared: ‘The Kyushu operation is essential to a strategy of strangulation and appears to be the least costly worth-while operation following Okinawa’. Although they were silent on two important clarifications Truman had sought, namely how long the operation would last, and what would be the expected number of American casualties, all who attended this meeting were unanimous in their assessment that the invasion of Japan through this route was the best option before them. The Chiefs arrived at a figure of 31,000 for the possible number of casualties during the first phase of the invasion, in the first 30 days of the campaign. This was arrived at by equating the casualties in this campaign with that in Luzon, in which the same figure had died, or were wounded or missing. The figure of 46,000 dead and another 174,000 wounded was estimated if the invasion went into the second phase. Truman’s most important consideration was the number of American casualties, which he wanted to be kept at the minimum. There was wide agreement on the number of casualties. This figure found reinforcement when, prior to the meeting, Marshall requested the expected number of American casualties from General Douglas McArthur, commander of the American Army in the Pacific. The General projected a figure that was almost exactly similar to these estimates –105,000 battle and an additional 12,500 non-battle casualties. (Walker, 1997, pp. 36-39) If this meeting spoke of a land invasion, one factor hurried up the decision to specifically use the bombs: some decrypted Japanese diplomatic communications, codenamed MAGIC, which revealed that the Japanese were looking forward to negotiations, rather than to peace, and in this direction, were looking towards Soviet Union, not America, were seen by Truman. This turned out to be one of the reasons he steeled his resolve to drop the bomb on the Japanese. Under the codename Downfall, the Americans had been making heavy preparations to lay an amphibious operation at the time Truman went to Potsdam. Just after he set sail, on July 16, he gained knowledge of the successful experimentation of the atom bomb, which was carried out by American scientists. The timing of the completion of the bomb coincided with Truman’s meeting with the Russian and British heavyweights. His main aim of going to Potsdam was to get an assurance from Stalin that the Russians would not enter the war till the time the Americans carried out their operation. So, it was clear that he had at the back of his mind two crucial elements –the operability and potential of the bomb to curtail severely American losses, and, for its successful implementation, the guarantee that Russia would not enter the war. (Allen, Polmar & Bernstein, 1995)

Depriving Russia a role in Japan was surely a paramount reason for the urgency with which the bombs were dropped; the Soviets were scheduled to enter the war on August 8. An Asia in which the Soviets would play a decisive role, was a prospect the Truman administration had to prevent at all costs; nothing gave it a better chance than the timing of the development of the bomb, and Russia’s scheduled date of entry into Japan. By hurrying up the bomb, the Truman administration made sure the Japanese surrendered to the Americans alone, as argued by the British physicist, P.M.S. Blackett, who, in his book Fear, War and the Bomb, has contended that ‘the dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the Second World War as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now in progress’(Clarfield & Wiecek, 1984, p. 58) The Russia factor was at work all through. Policy-makers in the US were clear from the beginning that America was to be alone, and that Russia was to be excluded from the bomb project. One of the most strident critics of the use of the bomb, Leo Szilard, had feared that the use against civilians would be catastrophic. He had gone on to suggest that the Americans and Russians get into a joint effort at developing the bomb, wherein, his reasoning went, by openly sharing this knowledge with Russian scientists, the certain arms race that was set to follow could be prevented. In trying to enlighten the American political establishment about his idea, he sought a meeting with president Roosevelt; however, he was referred to Secretary of State James Byrnes, who brusquely squelched the idea, and prevented the meeting with Roosevelt. Szilard even invited Churchill’s fury for having suggested this idea. (Szasz, 1984, p. 146)

The idea of bombing Japan was taken in order to force a total and unconditional surrender, towards which the Truman administration wanted to make sure no effort was spared. Quoting Brower (1982), Lee (1998) states: “The JCS understood that Japan’s defeat would result from the increasing application of military, psychological and political pressures upon the island nation. Their strategy clearly reflected that understanding. The JCS gradually tightened the blockade, bombed Japan relentlessly with conventional and atomic weapons, contributed to efforts to induce an early Japanese capitulation through a clarification of the unconditional surrender formula, and strongly urged two presidents to secure early Soviet entry into the war” (Lee, 1998, p. 109).

Another perceptive line of reasoning is that the bombs were essentially a culmination of the process of American isolationism that had been building up from the time World War I ended. If, as argued by Glynn (1992), America, whose political and economic power was way ahead of that possessed by any country in Europe, had shown sagacity and generosity in bailing France out financially and in redressing the German expansionist designs, it would have effectively put a brake on the growth of the deep animosities these two frontline European nations developed towards each other. Having failed to do it, mainly because of its isolationist designs, America sought to maintain its position of eminence in world affairs by spearheading the revolution in physics that was catching up in Europe. Having triggered the race for weapons development in Europe, what it did was to show it was ahead of the rest. This it could accomplish only by demonstrating its power to the rest of the world. The perfect excuse for this was provided by Japan’s defiance. It is true that the situation of war made scientists of each country work on the bomb faster than their counterparts in other countries. If the war had not taken place, it is possible that the invention itself would not have taken place. This writer extends this argument to suggest that once America failed to show pragmatism in dealing with Europe after World War I, when the time came, it had to showcase its newly-acquired might in brute fashion. It had to vindicate the appositeness of its policy of isolationism after World War I; no other action served to show that better than the decisiveness with which it dropped the bombs on targets that were convenient to it from all perspectives. (Glynn, 1992, p. 114)

Truman had taken office at a time when the Soviet Union, with a diametrically opposite ideology, was taking shape as a potential rival to the emerging American dominance in world affairs. Roosevelt had been hoping that a conciliatory approach towards this country was the best way to an amicable post-war settlement. However, following his death, Truman had to rely on his predecessor’s advisors in international affairs, an area in which he was vastly untested; however, their opinion was different from their master’s. (Clarfield & Wiecek, 1984, p. 82) Thus, opposition to Russia was a philosophy Truman imbibed from the start of this tenure.

Bruce Cumings (1999) proffers another interesting insight into the urgency with which Truman used the newly devised bomb. It has to do with the nature of the political arrangement in the US. There is a certain irony about the position of the president –as the foremost decision maker in the country, he is yet faced with a tight situation, sitting on a seat of thorns. On the one hand, he is handicapped by the power of the Congress alone to go to war; on the other, his is a temporary position; all the power he commands is gone when he loses his election or has run out his term. In the final sense, he is alone responsible for the decisions he takes. It is a high-pressure office, in which he is the sole decision-making authority, into whose shoes nobody would like to step in. Nor does anyone else have the authority or power to take decisions of the gravity he does in a system in which there are liberal doses of daily infighting and squabbling among the different agencies such as the legislature and the judiciary, and also within the Congress. The possession of the control of the just-invented bomb came to symbolise the sway the president held over all others in the administration. This was the most concrete symbol of this power that he and nobody else could enjoy in the administration. Truman, in particular, vested the control of the atomic bomb with the Atomic Energy Commission, which made sure it did not fall into the hands of the top military brass. Thus, possession and sole control over who controlled the bomb weighed more in Truman’s presidency than in any other’s mainly because it was then that the bomb was invented. It is in this sense, that, quoting Sherwin (1975), Cumings goes on to argue “…why the bomb, once readied, was used: not just to intimidate the Russians, but to intimidate everyone from recalcitrant Republican congressmen to isolationists in the broad body politic to Hirohito to Stalin to Churchill to the “total field” in which the American president has held sway since 1941, namely, the world.” (Cumings, 1999, p. 56)

Part III:

The personality of Truman and his perception of the nature of the bombs as a factor:

It is possible to argue that the attitude and decision-making nature of the new president and the peculiarity of the situation in which he was inaugurated into the presidency could be classified as another reason the bombs were dropped on the two cities. Almost from the moment the uniqueness of the new weapons was made known to the president, he took an altogether authoritative role. A study of the assertiveness with which the just-sworn in president acted lends to this conclusion. It is difficult to say with certainty if the same incidents of bombings would surely have taken place if a person other than Truman had been at the helm of affairs at that time.

President Truman won greater admiration once he had quit office than when he was in power; this was more pronounced after his death. During the years he was in the White House, he was seen as a president who had inherited a difficult mantle from the formidable Roosevelt. There was an aura of greatness created around him, most notably because of the famous words he had painted on his desk, ‘the buck stops here’. However, recent research, carried out a good few decades after his death, has shown that underneath the image of an astute, frank and honest president were qualities that hardly got the attention they really had to: suspicion, insensitivity and narrow-mindedness. He used his dashing demeanour to guise his innate insecurity and terrible self-doubt. (Walker, 1997, p. 7) This quality of his was perhaps well known in the White House. A humorous anecdote may not be out of place to illustrate this: it is said that when Truman rushed to the White House upon hearing the news of president Roosevelt’s sudden death, he is said to have offered his help to the family. To this, Eleanor is reported to have quipped: ‘Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now’! (Boller, 1996, p. 278) It was only natural that the bomb caught his attention like no other, and became the idée fixe of his presidency. When he took office from president Roosevelt, he was sure about nothing but the fact that he had to carry on his illustrious predecessor’s legacy, which centred round the victory that America, with its coalition partners in the Allied forces, had to seal in the Pacific with minimum loss of American lives. In a sense, it was a difficult legacy he inherited, because he only knew he had to continue with Roosevelt’s legacy, but was unsure about which that was. (Walker, 1997, pp. 7-9) There had been a considerable difference of opinion between the Roosevelts on the purpose of the war. If Delano had been under the impression that the ultimate aim was winning the war, Eleanor differed with him, asserting that winning the war was only half the battle won; the First Lady was of the strong view that winning the peace after the war ended was more important. This, to her, was the lasting victory, one that would place America on the pedestal to its chosen destiny. (Rozell & Pederson, 1997, p. 209) Is it any wonder then that the utterly confused president made the following comments at a press conference the day after taking oath: ‘Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me’? (Jones, 1994, p. 36) Thus, it was only natural that the invention that came into existence weeks after he took office, the bomb, turned out to be a weapon in both the literal and figurative senses –it would help him shake off the Roosevelt hangover; using it with unequivocal force would firmly establish his position.

On July 7, 1945, a palpably tense and reluctant Truman set sail for Potsdam in Germany to attend for a meeting with ‘Generalissimo’ Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill. This unease was predictable to a greenhorn who was barely three months into his presidency: “Truman’s anxiety about attending the conference was understandable. He was still a novice at his job and still learning the complexities of the many problems he faced. He was traveling to meet and doubtlessly disagree on important issues with two crusty and renowned leaders who must have seemed larger than life, even to the president of the United States. He was determined to protect American interests but worried about how successful he would be in jousting with his formidable, tenacious, and experienced counterparts.” (Walker, 1997, pp. 7-9 and 53) In the situation that he was in, nothing gave him greater strength than the bomb; it was a godsend to a cornered president, one arrow with which he could kill all–the butterflies in his own stomach, the Rooseveltian noose that hung over his head, and all the political issues discussed earlier.

Thus, once the awesome bomb had been unfurled, the president became unshakably firm in his conviction that it had to be used, come what may. The first significant communication he made after learning about the power of the bomb was: ‘I am going to make a decision which no man in history has ever had to make…’He was clear right from the moment he had got a grasp of the bomb’s potency that there was no alternative to using it. He had told Byrnes that ‘he had given thought to the problem and, while reluctant to use this weapon, saw no way of avoiding it’. This was also reflected in the address he gave the nation three days after Hiroshima, in which he plainly declared that ‘having found the bomb we used it’. Even in his memoirs, he expressed scant regret for having used it, stating: ‘Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used’ Another factor that may have influenced Truman to use the bomb against Japan was that he had to take off from where Roosevelt had left; he had to continue a majority of the projects and policies that Roosevelt had initiated, one of the which was the Manhattan Project, whose brief it was to develop the bomb. It was in line with his resolution to continue Roosevelt’s policies. Finally, the very fact of the sheer, intimidating power of the powerful bomb he knew was not just another bomb gave him control over it. This power of controlling the world’s most powerful bomb till then, making him the only man in the universe, filled with him pride and ego. This would give him unquestionable might, and enhance his already powerful status. (Gaddis, Gordon, May, & Rosenberg, 1999, pp. 16, 17) Two months after the incidents in Japan, he exhibited his knowledge of the importance of the bomb, saying, ‘The discovery of the means of releasing atomic energy began a new era in the history of civilization. The scientific and industrial knowledge on which this discovery rests does not relate merely to another weapon. It may some day prove to be more revolutionary in the development of human society than the invention of the wheel, the use of metals, or the steam or internal-combustion engine.

Never in history has society been confronted with a power so full of potential danger and at the same time so full of promise for the future of man and for the peace of the world. I think I express the faith of the American people when I say that we can use the knowledge we have won not for the devastation of war but for the future welfare of humanity.’ (Koenig, 1956, p. 122) On August 9, 1945, in response to a letter from a prelate that the Americans had ‘indiscriminately’ bombed Hiroshima, Truman is said to have remarked: ‘Nobody is more disturbed over the use of the Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true’ (Cumings, 1999, p. 58) Since the time of the capture of Pearl Harbour, the propaganda war intensified in the US, making the Japanese the ultimate villains in their eyes. Although the Americans did inflict a heavy defeat on the Japanese in the campaigns of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the strong sentiment they had against the Japanese, by which not even the president was immune from this stereotype, may have forced him to choose Japan as the target for the testing of the atomic bombs. It is not surprising, considering that in his private diaries, he referred to the Japanese as ‘savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic’. (Wainstock, p.121) The anti-Japan feeling was so strong in the US that from the time the bomb was conceived, it was decided to develop it to be used, and to be used against Japan. (Blumenson et al., 1960, p. 496) It was also decided that it should be used on a dual target comprising military installations and civilian targets such as residences close to these installations, and should be used without prior warning (Divine, 1969, p. 315). This was despite vehement pleas not to use it against Japan by none other than one of the chief architects of the bomb, Leo Szilard, who pleaded that the administration refrain from using the deadly bomb because, to him, ‘Japan was essentially defeated’, and ‘it would be wrong to attack its cities with atomic bombs as if atomic bombs were simply another military weapon’. Another strong motivation for Truman was that he ordered the atomic bombs to be dropped to vindicate the cost in terms of money and manpower that went into making the bombs. The bombs had been developed at a cost of $two billion. It seemed foolish to him at that point of time to not use it after having spent so much on a project into which the country’s best scientific minds had been invested. He felt he was answerable to a hostile Congress about a project that had been carried out in great secrecy, and that he was accountable to it. When the executive had fought with the Congress to get the money, Truman and his team were afraid of offending the Congress by not using the bombs. The leaders were eager to please the Congress, whose various committees had been demanding that ‘the results had better be worth the $2 billion investment.’ (Wainstock, 1996, pp. 1&2, 37 &38 and 121-123) A measure of the relief the success of the bomb sent in the inner political coterie responsible for its development could be discerned from the remark Stimson is believed to have made immediately upon receiving news of the success of the trial: ‘Well, I have been responsible for spending two billions of dollars on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth.’ The president was overjoyed at hearing the news of the success. Stimson records in his diary that on hearing the news of the successful explosion, ‘The President was tremendously pepped up by it’, and ‘and spoke to me of it again and again, when I saw him. He said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence….’ This became clear in the way he conducted himself at the conference the next day, something even Churchill found almost tangible, saying Truman had become more forceful the next day ‘because of this new piece of knowledge’. (Szasz, 1984, pp. 145, 146)

Further, the importance the bomb held in Truman’s heart was so great that some historians such as Alperovitz & Bird, (1994) have taken up from this point to suggest that it was this penchant for this bomb that was to not only motivate Truman to go ahead and bomb Japan, it was the turning point in the polarisation of the world’s superpowers the led to the Cold War. Their logic is based on the following reasoning: the potential for conflict between the Americans and the Russians was no doubt in the air even as they were going into the war, but what actually put the two powers on the road to rivalry was the bomb, and Truman’s grasp of its unprecedented might. This was to serve as the catalyst for sealing the alignment of forces that shaped the world leading to the famed Cold War. Even while getting into Potsdam, Truman had been in two minds about his own ability to pull off a diplomatic coup over Russia; as he confided to his wife in his diary, he was jittery about the prospect of what his meeting with the Generalissimo would achieve. It had always been Roosevelt’s policy to contain the armament of Germany, which he believed was crucial to assure the world that a rearmed Germany would never again threaten it, and to contain the Russians with an alliance of like-minded western powers. However, at the time, and in Truman’s initial days in office, till the time the atom bomb was tested, the battle lines were only hazy. There was no clear agreement on the shape the defeated Germany would take after it had surrendered. These researchers conclude that if there was something that gave direction and thrust to the rivalry that was to concretise as the Cold War, it was the bomb, and its primacy in the president’s mind. (Alperovitz & Bird, 1994)

Part IV:

Other aspects of the bombing:

A study of why America dropped the bombs on the two Japanese cities is incomplete without a reference to the controversies surrounding the issue. In a nutshell, the controversies relate to the two grave questions historians have asked in later years: was the bombing of Japan necessary at all in the first place to force a surrender on it, and, secondly, if it was, would not one bomb have sufficed?

“Post-war historians have challenged President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb to shorten World War II and save American lives. Some claim that the Allies could have ended the war by negotiating with the Japanese; others contend dropping the bombs was patent racism and that atomic bombs never would have been dropped on the Germans.” (Allen, Polmar & Bernstein, 1995)

Historians accuse Truman of not taking all factors into consideration, and of not making a full understanding of the internal situation in Japan at that time.

After Potsdam, as we have seen, his will to drop the bombs was hastened, on the thought that its use would totally save American lives, as compared to an invasion, bringing the Japanese to their knees. But it is clear that this was an oversight, and an assumption that went wrong –five days after the end of the second bombing on Nagasaki, there was an attempted coup, whose success would have dragged on the battle for many more weeks or months. Even the massive bombings had not diluted Japanese will; a group of senior Japanese army and navy officers were still determined to carry on fighting after staging a coup. They had made preparations for a great showdown with the American forces on the beaches, under the codename ‘Decisive Battle’. That the coup did not succeed and ‘Decisive Battle’ did not materialise is another matter. The point being raised by present-day historians is –assuming that the coup would have been successful, there is no doubt that fighting would have dragged on, and would have resulted in losses of several American lives. The question is, how many American lives would have been sacrificed in the fighting? Given the near depletion of resources at Japan’s command at that point of time, it is possible that not more than a handful of American lives would have been lost. The crucial point is, when the Japanese were fighting on only one resource, their determination, and given the fact that even without the dropping of the bombs, not more than a relatively few American lives would have been lost, was it fair to estimate that the Japanese would have killed a million Americans?  Truman had long been obsessed with one thought more than any other –the prevention of the loss of a million American lives. Critics are agreed on the fact that this figure was a) grossly exaggerated in the first place when secretary Stimson arrived at this figure, and b) this was seized upon relentlessly by Truman to be used every now and then to justify the catastrophic bombings. They are at a loss to understand how Truman could have taken this figure of a quarter to a million potential American deaths as the gospel truth when even the trigger-happy Gen. Douglas McArthur arrived at an estimate, done without any prompting, on a figure that was nowhere near what Truman put forth throughout. What adds substance to the whole issue is that in the first place, Gen. McArthur himself had exaggerated the whole estimate, for some unknown reasons. But what is highly pertinent is that records discovered after the war showed that at that time, McArthur’s staff had released an all-important communication: ‘The strategists at Imperial General Headquarters believed that, if they could succeed in inflicting unacceptable losses on the United States in the Kyushu operation, convince the American people of the huge sacrifices involved in an amphibious invasion of Japan, and make them aware of the determined fighting spirit of the Japanese army and civilian population, they might be able to postpone, if not escape altogether, a crucial battle in the Kanto [Tokyo] area. In this way, they hoped to gain time and grasp an opportunity which would lead to the termination of hostility on more favorable terms than those which unconditional surrender offered.’ Obviously, this too, points to the fact that there was clearly no need to force a total Japanese surrender at that point of time, given the drain they were facing, and more importantly, to use the bombs to force a surrender. Moreover, the American Sixth Army in Luzon, Philippines, had estimated that the Kyushu invasion would have the same gravity as that of the earlier invasion, on Okinawa. This was to be taken as the correct estimate by any standards, for this was not carried out by ideology-driven politicians, but by groups of professional soldiers and doctors who had actually been at the scene of fighting. Using the Okinawa invasion as the standard, they had estimated, as was the regular practice, that on a ratio of 1:4 for the Kyushu invasion, this would claim no more than four times the number of casualties the Okinawa episode had claimed. Even estimating that in the face of a heavy, sustained Japanese kamikaze raids, though a distinct impossibility, had the losses been in the order of ten times that of the Okinawa invasion, the total American casualties would have amounted to nothing more than 147,500 dead and some 343,000 wounded. In the event of an American offensive, ‘Decisive Battle’, the losses on both sides would have been terrible. If the bomb gave the American president an alternative to an invasion, it would have given the Japanese Emperor an opportunity to end the war. (Allen, Polmar & Bernstein, 1995)

Historians have also come out with evidence that Truman exaggerated the potential American casualties of an invasion of Japan to justify his use of the atomic bomb after the war ended. They quote a letter he wrote in 1948, in which he insisted, as he had done all along, that he decided to use the atomic bomb ‘to save 250,000 boys from the United States.’ He was convinced all along that by carrying out these attacks, he had achieved his aim, and in his memoirs written in 1955, after his presidency had ended, Truman still insisted that ‘half-a-million American lives were saved by the bomb.’ However, his critics now claim that the Joint War Plans Committee on June 15 had given a figure of only about 40,000 American deaths if the planned invasion of the home islands took place. To calculate the number of American casualties on the mainland, Admiral Leahy took the earlier battle in Okinawa as the basis, in which American casualties were roughly 35 percent of the total force of 120,000. Thus, even if it was agreed that Okinawa was the proper basis for the number of casualties the Americans would sustain in the event of a mainland invasion, and updating Leahy’s figures to a more accurate 29 percent, the casualty figure in the entire campaign should not have exceeded a maximum of 200,000 deaths and 725,000 injuries. (Loebs, 1995)


The second major controversy relates to this point –if for a moment, for the sake of argument, it is assumed that the bombing was absolutely necessary, then the bomb on Hiroshima would have done the job, and the second one on Nagasaki was totally redundant. The Nagasaki bomb was a non-factor in forcing the Japanese Emperor to order surrender. There were protracted arguments and vacillations in the Japanese think-tank about the decision to surrender following the Hiroshima bombing on August 6. Of course, it has to be admitted that Truman was not aware of these wranglings; but the reasons given by the American decision makers to use the second bomb was very unconvincing and specious. In his memoirs, Truman has explained his reason for dropping the second bomb: ‘On August 9, the second atom bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. We gave the Japanese three days in which to make up their minds to surrender and the bombing would have been held off another two days had weather permitted.’ But the truth is that Truman took three days from the first bombing till the second not because he wanted to give the Japanese time to decide, but because the second bomb became ready only on August 9. Truman had ordered his military on July 25 that they should use ‘additional bombs as soon as they are made available by the project staff.’ Thus, if the second bomb had been ready on August 7, or even August 6 itself, it would have been dropped then. This is buttressed by General Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which developed these weapons, who said the second bomb had to ‘follow the first one quickly so that the Japanese would not have time to recover their balance.’ Truman knew the extent of the destruction in full detail, and had the time to stop the Nagasaki bombing. “The Nagasaki story shows that America’s leaders, understandably obsessed with ending the war quickly, failed to use the second atomic bomb rationally or tactically. No high-level discussion was held to consider the second bomb. Nobody challenged or reviewed the informal, unofficial, and premature judgment of General Groves, reached in December 1944, to drop two atomic bombs.” (Loebs, 1995)

Another argument put forward at the time of the bombing was that this bomb helped reduce the spread of nuclear weapons: this line of thinking goes that this bomb contributed to the subsequent prevention of nuclear weapons and helped maintain a balance of power in the later years. This argument, of course, has been defeated by the logic of why it was necessary to drop these bombs on thickly populated areas, and not on deserted areas, if use of the bomb was the only prerequisite to this argument. (Hein & Selden, 1997, p. 58)

There is another pressing argument put forward by some critics: Truman dropped the bomb for diplomatic, not military reasons. Truman’s critics quote his remark that ‘the bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms’ (an obvious reference to the Soviet Union) after the war, and Secretary Byrnes’s equally strong statement that ‘our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.’ But in hindsight, they ask, is it not possible to argue that Stalin would have been as convinced and apprehensive about American might even if the bombs had been dropped on some desert or any other kind of barren land? Was if necessary to bomb thickly populated, flourishing cities if the only intention was to fill awe in Stalin? Moreover, if that was the sole purpose, far from not being justified in dropping the bombs on civilian areas, would not just one bomb have sent the same message as two bombs? (Loebs, 1995)


In July, two major breakthroughs were achieved by the code-breaking operations entitled MAGIC and ULTRA. MAGIC intercepts read by Truman and this team showed that the Japanese were unrelenting, and that the elite, the moderate elements in the administration, were willing to negotiate peace terms with the Allies, but afraid of discussing this intention with the military, the hardline elements, fearing a reprisal from them. Traditionally, the military had controlled most of Japan’s decision making. These elements were seen to be taking very firm actions on those who were even willing to talk about peace. It is clear that the Japanese started making moves to ask the Soviets to mediate in a peace effort with the Americans and the British and bring an end to the war in the Pacific. MAGIC had revealed that the Emperor had plans of deputing his prince, Konoye Fumimaro to Moscow with his message. (Newman, 1995, p. 13)

One of the most scholarly, yet controversial works on Truman’s decision to use the bomb has been from Gar Alperovitz. His highly provocative analysis may have triggered serious debate from a school of thought on the subject not inclined to hear his viewpoint, but it is necessary for us to develop our thinking on the issue of the great American blunder in dropping the bombs:

Quoting the US Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), he says that it came out with its findings as early as 1946, which were presented in its report entitled, ‘Japan’s struggle to end the war’. The summary of the report read as follows: ‘certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated’ Quoting another report from the secretive War Department, which was carried out in April 1946, but made public only in 1989, he furnishes the exact words of the report: ‘the Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies… ‘. Further, in the event of the bombs not being dropped, Russia would have entered the war, according to the set plan, in early August, the time when the bombs were actually dropped. This report says that had the Russians actually entered Japan in early August, that would have given the Japanese just the pretext they were looking to, in order to surrender. The moderate elements in the Japanese administration were at pains to convince the militant elements to make them agree to a surrender; citing the Russian entry would have made the moderates use this as the solid reason to make the hardliners see the writing on the wall, and would in all probabilities have made them relent. Hence, according to the report, in the event of the Russian entry in early August, not only would the need for the bombs have been obviated, there would have been no possibility of the planned invasion of Kyushu in November, which would have, in Truman’s assessment, led to the loss of all those American lives, and the subsequent attack on Tokyo in April 1946. (Alperovitz, 1995)

Part V:


It is clear that while taking a decision of this magnitude, Japan happened to provide the American administration just the conditions that would have given it the excuse to drop the bomb; the decision went far ahead of the cursory purpose of ending the war, and forcing a Japanese surrender.

A look at the actions of the Truman administration right from the start of the decision-making process would suggest that it overlooked all parameters that went against the action:

Even at the all-important June 18 meeting, the central point that arose was the agreed number of probable American casualties. There is no proof whatsoever, that a figure that even remotely resembled the half to one million, the figure that the president and his advisors kept brandishing throughout, was mentioned during this most important meeting about the invasion. (Walker, 1997, p. 39)

Another major advice against the use of the bomb came in June 1945, when it was imminent that the atomic bomb would be used on an enemy. This came from an eminent, highly concerned group of scientists, which went aghast at the prospect of the use of this weapon. Presenting this report to the War Department, it said sage words: ‘In the past, scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to which mankind had put their disinterested discoveries. We now feel compelled to take a more active stand because the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past. All of us, familiar with the present state of nucleonics, live with the vision before our eyes of sudden destruction visited on our own country, of a Pearl Harbor disaster repeated a thousand-fold magnification in every one of our major cities.’ Asserting that this would give short term benefits, that too, only political, at the cost of long-term detriment, this group went on to add that if there was one country that was more vulnerable to such attacks in future, from any country that copied this technology, it was America, with its concentration of industrial complexes and civilian areas in close proximity to each other. It warned that Russia, with its deep mistrust of America, could develop an even more unimaginably powerful device that it could easily use against the US. In view of the fact that taking the first step towards destruction would not only endanger American security in future, but also that of the entire world by precipitating a contest in which each of the participants could become more destructive than the other, this group suggested that the technology be demonstrated in the full glare of the world, under the auspices of a world body (the United Nations was in the process of being formed then). (Williams, 1956, pp. 952, 953)

Gar Alperovitz has come out with the startling theory that president Truman was aware of the fact that there existed several alternatives to the bomb. Just before Potsdam, on July 12, one of the several important codes that the US decoded mentioned in explicit terms that Emperor Hirohito was seriously contemplating intervening personally to offer surrender. When Truman was informed of this, all he did was to dismiss the cable as just another of the many of the Emperor’s communications, saying it was ‘…the Jap Emperor asking for peace’. This was believed to be the ideal time for the surrender; the only sticking point was what formula was to be worked out vis-à-vis the Emperor, for taking the Emperor as a war criminal would have been the ultimate insult to a nation that considered him god-incarnate, and was sure to provoke rebellion of the highest degree. All along, from the time of Germany’s surrender on May 8, the prospect of a Japanese surrender was always on the cards: the American insistence that Russia enter the war around August 8 was meant to give them the advantage of diverting the Japanese in Manchuria. This would have given the Americans the leverage to take on the Japanese army in the mainland, as a major force would have been diverted to the fighting in Manchuria. “By midsummer, however, Japan’s position had deteriorated so much that top U.S. military planners believed the mere shock of a Red Army attack might be sufficient to bring about surrender and thus make an invasion unnecessary.”(Alperovitz, 1995)

Yet, with all these factors, Truman’s determination to nip the growth of Russia’s strength was far greater than all the considerations he was expected to take. His decision to override the advice of the group of scientists was perhaps understandable, but the fact is that he overlooked the decision of one of the most intimate insiders in his administration, Admiral Leahy, who, making a pensive reflection of the American decision, had these to say: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….” (Boorstein & Boorstein, 1990, p. 47), and ‘in being the first to use it, we … adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children’ (Weisserman, 2004)

Thus, in the end, the decision to drop the bomb, seen in the light of all the facts presented in this paper, seems to have been an impetuous one; not only did the bombs cause appalling damage and put to use an innovative technology that was to take man’s power of destruction to unseen heights, this decision of Truman’s, ignoring the advice of the moderate elements in his administration, also fulfilled the dire predictions that the group of scientists made and caused an arms race, whose implications we are still seeing today.

Written By Ravindra G Rao




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