The Decision to Bomb Hiroshima
Today is the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Though most Americans are unaware of the fact, increasing numbers of historians now recognize the United States did not need to use the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan in 1945. Moreover, this essential judgment was expressed by the vast majority of top American military leaders in all three services in the years after the war ended: Army, Navy and Army Air Force. Nor was this the judgment of “liberals,” as is sometimes thought today. In fact, leading conservatives were far more outspoken in challenging the decision as unjustified and immoral than American liberals in the years following World War II.
By the summer of 1945 Japan was essentially defeated, its navy at the bottom of the ocean; its air force limited by fuel, equipment, and other shortages; its army facing defeat on all fronts; and its cities subjected to bombing that was all but impossible to challenge. With Germany out of the war, the United States and Britain were about to bring their full power to bear on what was left of the Japanese military. Moreover, the Soviet Union—at this point in time still neutral—was getting ready to attack on the Asian mainland: the Red Army, fresh from victory over Hitler, was poised to strike across the Manchurian border.
Long before the bombings occurred in August 1945—indeed, as early as late April 1945, more than three months before Hiroshima—U.S. intelligence advised that the Japanese were likely to surrender when the Soviet Union entered the war if they were assured that it did not imply national annihilation. An April 29 Joint Intelligence Staff document put it this way: “If at any time the U.S.S.R. should enter the war, all Japanese will realize that absolute defeat is inevitable.”
For this reason—because it would drastically shorten the war—before the atomic bomb was successfully tested (on July 16, 1945) the U.S. had strongly and repeatedly urged the Soviet Union to join the battle as soon after the defeat of Hitler as possible. A target date of three months after Germany’s surrender was agreed upon—which put the planned Red Army attack date at roughly August 8, the war in Europe having ended on May 8. (In late July the date was temporarily extended by a week.)
Nor was there any doubt that the Soviet Union would join the war for its own reasons. At the Potsdam Conference in July (before the successful atomic test) President Truman entered the following in his diary after meeting with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin on July 17: “He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.”
The next day, July 18, in a private letter to his wife, the President wrote: “I’ve gotten what I came for—Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it…I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now…”
The President had also been urged to offer assurances that the Japanese Emperor would be allowed to remain in some form of powerless figurehead
role by many top advisers—including, importantly, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, the man who oversaw the development of the atomic bomb. Before the bomb was used he explicitly urged the President that in his judgment the war would end if such assurances were given—without the use of the atomic bomb.
Nor were there insuperable political obstacles to this approach: Leadings newspapers like the Washington Post, along with leaders of the opposition Republican Party were publically demanding such a course. (Moreover, the U.S. Army wanted to maintain the Emperor in some role so as to use his authority both to order surrender and to help manage Japan during the occupation period after war’s end—which, of course, is what, in fact, was done: Japan still has an Emperor.)
As the President’s diary entry and letter to his wife indicate, there is little doubt that he understood the advice given by the intelligence experts as to the likely impact of the upcoming Russian attack. Further evidence is also available on this central point: The American and British Joint Chiefs of Staff—the very top military leaders of the two nations—also met at Potsdam to consolidate planning for the final stages of the war in the Pacific. General Sir Hastings Ismay, Chief of Staff to the British Minister of Defence, summarized the latest (early July) combined US-UK intelligence evidence for Prime Minister Churchill this way: “[W]hen Russia came into the war against Japan, the Japanese would probably wish to get out on almost any terms short of the dethronement of the Emperor.”
The July joint intelligence finding, of course, for the most part simply restated what had been the essential view of American intelligence and many of the President’s top advisers throughout the spring and summer months leading up to the July meeting at Potsdam.
Among the many reasons the shock of Soviet entry was expected to be so powerful were: first, that it would directly challenge the Japanese army in what had been one of its most important strongholds, Manchuria; second, it would signal that there was literally no hope once the third of the three Great Powers was no longer neutral; and third, and perhaps even more important, with the Japanese economy in disarray Japanese leaders were extremely fearful that leftist groups might be powerfully encouraged, politically, if the Soviet Union were to play a major role in Japan’s defeat.
Furthermore, U.S. intelligence had broken Japanese codes and knew Japanese leaders were frantically hoping against hope as they attempted to arrange some form of settlement with Moscow as a mediator. Since their strategy was so heavily focused on what the Russians might or might not do, this further underscored the judgment that when the Red Army attacked, the end would not be far off: the illusory hope of a negotiation through Moscow would be thoroughly dashed as Soviet tanks rolled into Manchuria.
Instead, the United States rushed to use two atomic bombs at almost exactly the time that an August 8 Soviet attack had originally been scheduled: Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. The timing itself has obviously raised questions among many historians. The available evidence, though not conclusive, strongly suggests that the atomic bombs may well have been used in part because American leaders “preferred”—as Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Martin Sherwin has put it—to end the war with the bombs rather than the Soviet attack. Impressing the Soviets during the early diplomatic sparring that ultimately became the Cold War also appears likely to have been a significant factor.
Some modern analysts have urged that Japanese military planning to thwart an invasion was much more advanced than had previously been understood, and hence more threatening to U.S. plans. Others have argued that Japanese military leaders were much more ardently committed to one or more of four proposed ‘conditions’ to attach to a surrender than a number of experts hold, and hence, again, would likely have fought hard to continue the war.
It is, of course, impossible to know whether the advice given by top U.S. and British intelligence that a Russian attack would likely to produce surrender was correct. We do know that the President ignored such judgments and the advice of people like Secretary of War Stimson that the war could be ended in other ways when he made his decision. This, of course, is an important fact in its own right in considering whether the decision was justified, since so many civilian lives were sacrificed in the two bombings.
Moreover, many leading historians who have studied both the U.S. and Japanese records carefully (including, among others, Barton Bernstein and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa) have concluded that Japan was indeed in such dire straits that–as U.S. and British intelligence had urged long before the bombings–the war would, in fact, have likely ended before the November invasion target date once the Russians entered.
It is also important to note that there was very little to lose by using the Russian attack to end the war. The atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9. There were still three months to go before the first landing could take place in November. If the early August Russian attack did not work as expected, the bombs could obviously have been used anyway long before any lives were lost in the landing.
(Since use of the atomic bombs and Russia’s entry into the war came at almost exactly the same time, scholars have debated at great length which factor influenced the surrender decision more. This, of course, is a very different question from whether using the atomic bomb was justified as the only way to end the war. Still, it is instructive to note that speaking privately to top Army officials on August 14 the Japanese Emperor stated bluntly: “The military situation has changed suddenly. The Soviet Union entered the war against us. Suicide attacks can’t compete with the power of science. Therefore, there is no alternative…” And the Imperial Rescript the Emperor issued to officers and soldiers to make sure they would lay down their arms stated: “Now that the Soviet Union has entered the war, to continue under the present conditions at home and abroad would only result in further useless damage… Therefore…I am going to make peace.”)
The most illuminating perspective, however, comes from top World War II American military leaders. The conventional wisdom that the atomic bomb saved a million lives is so widespread that (quite apart from the inaccuracy of this figure, as noted by Samuel Walker) most Americans haven’t paused to ponder something rather striking to anyone seriously concerned with the issue: Not only did most top U.S. military leaders think the bombings were unnecessary and unjustified, many were morally offended by what they regarded as the unnecessary destruction of Japanese cities and what were essentially noncombat populations. Moreover, they spoke about it quite openly and publicly.
Here is how General Dwight D. Eisenhower reports he reacted when he was told by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that the atomic bomb would be used:
“During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”
In another public statement the man who later became President of the United States was blunt: “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
General Curtis LeMay, the tough cigar-smoking Army Air Force “hawk,” was also dismayed. Shortly after the bombings he stated publically: “The war would have been over in two weeks. . . . The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, went public with this statement: “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. . . . The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.”
I noted above the report General Sir Hastings Ismay, Chief of Staff to the British Minister of Defence, made to Prime Minister Churchill that “when Russia came into the war against Japan, the Japanese would probably wish to get out on almost any terms short of the dethronement of the Emperor.” On hearing that the atomic test was successful, Ismay’s private reaction was one of “revulsion.”
Shortly before his death General George C. Marshall quietly defended the decision, but for the most part he is on record as repeatedly saying that it was not a military decision, but rather a political one. Even more important, well before the atomic bombs were used, contemporary documents record show that Marshall felt “these weapons might first be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that, he thought we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which the people would be warned to leave–telling the Japanese that we intend to destroy such centers….”
As the document concerning Marshall’s views suggests, the question of whether the use of the atomic bomb was justified turns not only on whether other options were available, and whether top leaders were advised of this. It also turns on whether the bombs had to be used against a largely civilian target rather than a strictly military target—which, in fact, was the explicit choice since although there were Japanese troops in the cities, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki was deemed militarily vital by U.S. planners. (This is one of the reasons neither had been heavily bombed up to this point in the war.) Moreover, targeting was aimed explicitly on non-military facilities surrounded by workers’ homes. Here we can gain further insight from two additional, equally conservative military leaders.
Many years later President Richard Nixon recalled that
“[General Douglas] MacArthur once spoke to me very eloquently about it, pacing the floor of his apartment in the Waldorf. He thought it a tragedy that the Bomb was ever exploded. MacArthur believed that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should always be limited damage to noncombatants. . . . MacArthur, you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned him off.”
Although many others could be cited, here, finally, is the statement of another conservative, a man who was a close friend of President Truman’s, his Chief of Staff (as well as President Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff), and the five star Admiral who presided over meetings of the Combined U.S.-U.K. Chiefs of Staff during the war—William D. Leahy:
“[T]he 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. . . . [I]n 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.”
Gar Alperovitz, Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, is a historian and political economist. He is the author, most recently, of America Beyond Capitalism and (with Lew Daly) Unjust Deserts. His work on the history of the decision to use the atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki spans over four decades; his 1995 book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb remains one of the definitive accounts of the actions and motivations of the US in the last, tragic chapter of WWII.