The controversy over the use of nuclear weapons has never gone away…

Although the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the Second World to an abrupt end, the controversy over the use of nuclear weapons has never gone away. We are far less credible of the justification of military necessity and a desire to save lives than people in 1945 were, and while we know more about what happened than contemporaries did, the context in which the events occurred is less familiar. It is difficult to overstate that the fighting in east Asia/ western Pacific was a toxic race war, where the Allies barely regarded the Japanese as human and where battles had become exercises in extermination. Similarly, the mentality of the Japanese leadership was entirely irrational by any modern standard and virtually incomprehensible. The junta running Japan was quite prepared to see tens of millions of their countrymen die rather than sully their honour by submitting. Finally, President Truman was operating within the agreed Allied framework of Unconditional Surrender. The policy ensured Hitler could not survive the Third Reich and when President Roosevelt introduced it in January 1943, it was assumed Japan would quickly fold once Germany was defeated. That, however, proved wishful thinking. Something designed to ensure the destruction of National Socialism became a dogma that ensured the defeat of Japan would be apocalyptic in its violence.

The main arguments against dropping the Bomb are based on the assumptions that Japan was already defeated, was about to surrender, and that atomic weapons are uniquely cruel and barbarous. Taking each in turn, it is true to say that to the Western military mind Japan was hopelessly defeated, but the men at the head of the Japanese military saw things very differently. Japan had over 60 divisions – 2,000,000 men ready to defend the home islands along with 10,000 aircraft and 3,300 suicide boats.[1] The military chiefs were confident they could give the Americans a bloody reverse on the beaches of Kyushu and salvage an acceptable peace, a view that was not changed by the second bomb on Nagasaki. That evening, General Anami, the Japanese minister of war, told the war cabinet in the presence of the Emperor:

‘I am quite sure we could inflict great casualties on the enemy, and even if we fail in the attempt our hundred million people are ready to die for honour, glorifying the deeds of the Japanese race in recorded history.’[2]

On 13 August, Onishi, father of the Kamikazes urged: ‘If we are prepared to sacrifice 20,000,000 Japanese lives in a special attack [suicide] effort, victory shall be ours!’[3]

The Japanese military leaders were ready to negotiate peace, but they were not prepared to surrender by the usual understanding of the term. Even after Nagasaki they still wanted to haggle over terms, which included hanging on to the conquered territory they still held – eastern China and the modern states of Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hirohito, who albeit late in the day, did the right thing and brought the lunacy to an end, when asked by Prince Asaka on 12 August, again after Nagasaki, if the war would continue if the Allies intended to remove the kokutai (national essence including the institution of the monarchy) replied, ‘Of course’.[4] The Japanese were prepared to negotiate before Hiroshima but Nagasaki moved them to their bottom line – the retention of the emperor.

It is also overlooked that the bombs gave the Japanese a means of surrendering while retaining some semblance of honour as Masatake Okumiya, a senior officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, explained:

‘… the Japanese had never lost a war. Japan had always won. Thus, both the government and the military people didn’t know how to deal with losing a war. They didn’t have any experience of defeat and didn’t know how to end it. In that situation, it was easier to continue the war rather than make the courageous decision to lose it.’[5]

It is a view backed up by Marquis Kido, Emperor Hirohito’s closest advisor:

‘… the atomic bombings and Russia’s entry into the war against Japan helped to bring about the end of the war. If those events had not happened, Japan at that stage probably could not have stopped fighting.’[6]

It is telling that Kido said Japan ‘could not’ rather than ‘would not’ stop fighting. Japan’s predicament was partly due to its own customs and culture. The committee system of government had no single figure with the authority to impose a decision and it proved virtually impossible for the cabinet to find unanimity as its civilians could not control the military and the military could not control itself. In the end, Hirohito had to dispense with tradition and protocol and force the hand of his ministers. His intervention undoubtedly saved the lives hundreds of thousands who would have died had the war been fought to a conclusion.

The third argument, that atomic weapons are more terrible than any other, has merit as they continue to kill months, years and even decades after their use, but the conventional fire-bombing of Tokyo killed more people than either Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the RAF firebombing of the German city of Pforzheim killed a higher proportion of its population than Nagasaki.[7] Little however can be proved by such comparisons and it is ridiculous if not obscene, to speculate if death by one form of burning is somehow preferable to another.

Another argument says the bombings may have been prevented had the weapons been demonstrated to the Japanese but in practice, there were too few bombs to allow that. They were produced one at a time and only four were made over July and August 1945.[8] One was required for the test and a demonstration would have reduced the atomic arsenal to two. The Japanese would needed to have been told about the bomb or sent a film of the test but that would have removed the shock of a surprise attack and endangered American airmen as the Japanese, who had been saving their aircraft for the expected invasion, would be sure to challenge any B-29 arriving over their airspace.

The Allies could of course, have modified their surrender terms but it can be equally argued the Japanese could have surrendered long before they did. Having chosen to ignore the warning contained in the Potsdam Proclamation, some responsibility for what subsequently happened must rest with the Japanese government. Arguments that Japan was only days from surrender before Hiroshima are derived from Western logic, the failure to respond either to the Potsdam Proclamation or the destruction of Hiroshima indicates otherwise. If the Japanese were about to surrender why did they not do so after the first bomb? When was the surrender going to happen? September? October? Later? The debate between hawks and doves within the Japanese war cabinet could have gone on for months.

Truman though had other options to the Bomb. Every piece of important infrastructure could have been systematically destroyed by conventional means from the air. Japan could have literally, been bombed back into the Stone Age. Meanwhile the naval blockade would have tightened its chokehold to the point where next to nothing could be imported or moved between the home islands. In such a scenario millions of Japanese would have died a slow death through starvation and disease, an outcome that in terms of raw numbers would have been far worse, though not as dramatic as mushroom clouds.

The Soviets were the wildcard in the mix. With no quick Japanese surrender, the Red Army may well have pressed onto the northern island of Hokkaido, which they planned to invade in September 1945, sparking a race to Tokyo. Alternatively, Truman could use his trump card, and drop the Bomb. If he did not, Hokkaido and perhaps northern Honshu would have come under Soviet occupation. By ending the war quickly, nuclear weapons may have prevented Japan from being divided in the same manner as Germany or Korea.

The bombs are now part of Japanese folk memory and no one can expect the victims to look upon their use favourably. The fate of the two cities seems unnecessarily cruel, as the war could have been ended without atomic weapons; the difficulty is in determining exactly how and when. The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were expendable in a battle of wills between an uncompromising American president and their own, equally obstinate, government. Using the Bomb in Truman’s own words was ‘no great decision’.[9] He saw it as the quickest and easiest way to bring the war to an end. The other options: negotiations, limited invasion, siege or continued conventional bombardment carried great political and military risks, not least of which was how far would the Red Army advance before the Japanese finally threw in the towel. Compared with those great issues and the sixty or more millions that had already died, the fate of two enemy cities seemed of little import.

The purpose here is not to justify what Truman did but to attempt to explain it. From the distance of time his actions appear callous, even vindictive but he was struggling with circumstances he had limited control of, and he was, it must be remembered, a product of his time. Humanitarian concerns cut little ice in the supercharged atmosphere of 1945. LIFE magazine was a mainstream American publication. Its 6th August editorial called for ‘classic statesmanship’ to end the war on terms that included the retention of the emperor.[10] A week later, the 13th August issue that covered the atomic bombs, also carried a cameo that probably captured the mood of the day. Entitled ‘A Jap Burns’, the article showed photographs of the last moments of a Japanese soldier on Borneo as he writhed in flames after being blasted by an Australian flamethrower. The pictures were accompanied by the following commentary:

‘… the flamethrower is easily the most cruel, the most terrifying weapon ever developed. If it does not suffocate the enemy in his hiding place, its quickly licking tongues of flame sear his body to a black crisp. But so long as the Jap refuses to come out of his holes and keeps on killing, this is the only way.’[11]

In a sense, Truman was doing the same thing for broadly the same reasons, although on an infinitely larger scale. As I alluded to in the previous article, he regarded the Japanese as ‘beasts’. History has shown that once an enemy is regarded as something less than human, any restraint on the violence that can be inflicted upon them quickly evaporates.

  1. (Ross, 1997) p.159
  2. (Toland, 2003) p.811
  3. (Butow, 1954) p.205
  4. (Bix, 2000) L.7976
  5. (Rees, 2001) pp.231-32
  6. (Holmes, (Ed.) The World at War, 2007) L. 9155
  7. (Friedrich, 2006) p.91
  8. (Feis, 1961) p.184
  9. (Alperovitz, 1996) p.514
  10. LIFE, 6 August 1945
  11. LIFE, 13 August 1945


Photo by WikiImages is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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