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Dropping the Atom Bomb: Historical Perspectives on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Updated on April 12, 2016
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Introduction

On August 6, 1945, the bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan which killed almost 100,000 people instantly, with more casualties to follow from the effects of the blast. Two days after the blast which decimated Hiroshima, a second bomber group flew to Nagasaki to drop another bomb, killing over 35,000. On August 10, 1945, at the urging of the Emperor of Japan, Japan agreed to surrender with the provision that the Emperor remain as Japan’s constitutional monarch[1]. The decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although debated by historians and ethicists ever since, accomplished its overall purpose – by hastening and end to the war in the Pacific, and granting the allies a victory without potential human costs from a prolonged war on the ground. The use of the atomic bomb played a role in the ending of hostilities in the War of the Pacific, and was one of several factors that ultimately convinced Japan to surrender to the Allies. It ended WWII with a devastating finality that has been hotly debated and criticized ever since by historians, ethicists and laypeople alike. By examining the justifications by those in power to use the Atomic bomb on Japan and examining both primary and secondary sources, it is possible to demonstrate that the use of the bomb was ultimately instrumental in bringing about the end of the conflict, despite the numerous claims that detractors state to the contrary. Examined in whole, these claims fail. Usage of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki perhaps questionable in moral and ethical terms, but wholly justifiable militarily, when the great future cost of human lives hung in the balance in light of a potential land invasion.

[1] Ronald H. Spector, Eagle Against the Sun (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 550-560.

Japanese Ideology Leading to War

Japanese ideology leading up to WWII focused on imperialism which was combined with a disdain for what they considered to be “soft” Western democracies. They resented the Western colonial territories in Asia, and desired to gain control of the raw materials needed to create and maintain an Asian empire. They also greatly resented what was viewed as Western intervention in their attack of China by supplying the Chinese with arms, resources and support. While they recognized the strength of both the American economy and military, they grossly underestimated the United States’ ability to attack the Japanese controlled islands or its mainland.[1] Ultimately, Japan’s push for dominance by attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor was a miscalculation, and they then faced a war with the United States and her Allies in what would come to be known as the War in the Pacific. This miscalculation lead to horrific conditions, culminating in the use of the Atomic bomb on the Japanese mainland. In addition to the misjudgment in attacking Pearl Harbor and pulling the United States unwittingly into a full-out war with the Japanese Empire, Japan also misjudged the resistance of other Asian countries and the European Allies as a whole as it began wholesale invasions into other Asian nations. Although Japan experienced early victories that emboldened their attacks and their methods, they faced a defeat at the battle of Midway, and ultimately were faced with little alternative but surrender upon the use of the Atom bomb in addition to the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japanese forces. Faced with the distinct possibility of fighting a war on two fronts, the Emperor intervened and expressed a desire for peace, which ultimately lead to the Japanese surrender.[2]

[1] “Japan’s Quest for Power and World War II in Asia” Asia for Educators: Columbia University Accessed October 13, 2015, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1900_power.html

[2] Ibid.

Henry Stimson

Henry Stimson was well in a position to understand the process behind the decision to drop the Atomic bomb on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, he was in the perfect position to play an instrumental role in advising the President on the decision itself as the Secretary of War from 1940-45.[1] Once the war concluded, and the debate about the use of the Atom bomb in the Pacific began in earnest, Stimson was urged to write an account of the decision making process behind the use of the bomb, which was published in 1947. In his article, he articulates the point that the primary purpose of the Atomic bomb was to “end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise.[2]” Stimson wrote “In light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his country-men in the face.[3]” It is clear, therefore, from reading Stimson’s case on the decision to use the Atomic bomb against Japan at the end of WWII that the Secretary of War and indeed the President saw no viable alternative to the use of the bomb without weighing into consideration thousands if not millions of lives on both sides of the conflict, including civilian casualties in Japan had the land invasion taken place as planned[4].


[1] Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947): 97-107.

[2] Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947): 97-107.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert P Newman, “Hiroshima and the Trashing of Henry Stimson,” The New England Quarterly 71, no. 1 (1998): 5-32.

Hiroshima

A markerHiroshima, Japan -
Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan
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Nagasaki

A markerNagasaki, Japan -
Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan
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Initial Objections: Advanced Warning

The first challenge to the use of Atomic weapons in the Pacific theater, not from high-ranking government officials or from historians or ethicists but from the Federal Council of Churches on moral grounds. They argued that the attacks using Atomic bombs on Japanese soil were “Illegitimate: ‘morally indefensible and sinful’”[1] because advance warning of the weapon had not been granted. Stimson’s official narrative not only explained why advanced warning could not be granted, but provided legitimate justification for it as well. On June 1, 1945, the Interim Committee (tasked with advising the President on the use of the Atomic bomb) made several recommendations, one of which included the caveat that the weapon should be used as soon as possible on the Japanese, and that no prior notice or warning should be given[2]. The reasons, he argued, were clear. The committee determined that a warning was impractical as they were unlikely to be effective in prompting the Japanese to surrender – and there was an ever-present possibility that the bomb that was dropped would fail to detonate as a dud. According to Stimson, “Nothing would have been more damaging to our effort to obtain surrender than a warning or a demonstration followed by a dud – and this was a real possibility. Furthermore, we had no bombs to waste. It was vital that a sufficient effect had to be quickly obtained with the few we had.”[3]

[1] Ibid.

[2] Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947): 97-107.

[3] Ibid.

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Challenge 1: Japan was Already Prepared to Surrender

Later critics of Henry Stimson’s official narrative focus on three major areas of contention with Stimson’s viewpoint. Understanding these criticisms and arguments becomes key in recognizing the necessity of the Atom bomb to end the war in the Pacific once and for all. Firstly, opponents of the usage of the atom bomb emphatically claim that Japan was altogether prepared to surrender prior to the use of the Atom bomb. Japan had been economically weakened by both the blockade and the firebomb raids of major cities, and was in no position to fight a pitched battle on the home islands against a superior invading force. This argument comes primarily from a report released from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey.[1] This report indicates that Japan was prepared and likely to surrender even before a land invasion could be implemented, most likely prior to December 31, 1945, and that its readiness to capitulate to Allied forces demonstrably indicated that the Atom Bomb was completely unnecessary militarily to end the war.[2] The declassification of documents in the 1970’s from ULTRA (the codebreaking Pacific operation) and MAGIC (diplomatic intercepts and intelligence) show that Japan, far from preparing for an unconditional surrender prior to the use of the Atomic bomb, was building up an unprecedented, massive force on the island of Kyushu, exactly where the first stage of a land invasion was to take place[3]. Not only were the defenders on Kyushu preparing a massive defense of the island, but the number of troops stationed there were double the amount that intelligence reports had previously estimated, making the causality estimate based on lower, inaccurate numbers null. The Japanese, recognizing that a victory was impossible, were prepared to fight one last, bitter fight to the finish, taking out as many American attackers as possible in order to try and negotiate more palatable surrender terms[4]. Although the Japanese economy was suffering due to the lack of resources and manpower, they were willing to engage in a decisive battle, and were readying their defensive at an astounding rate, demonstrating that although the traditional bombing and blockades were in full effect, they were not having the crippling effect on the economy and morale that was hoped for by Allied leadership.[5]

[1] Michael Kort, “The Historiography of Hiroshima: The Rise and Fall of Revisionism,” The New England Journal of History 64, no. 1 (2007): 31-48.

[2] Michael Kort, “The Historiography of Hiroshima: The Rise and Fall of Revisionism,” The New England Journal of History 64, no. 1 (2007): 31-48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ward Wilson, “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima,” International Security 31, no. 4 (2007): 162-179.

[5] Michael Kort, “The Historiography of Hiroshima: The Rise and Fall of Revisionism,” The New England Journal of History 64, no. 1 (2007): 31-48.

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Challenge 2: Denying the Soviet Entry

The second criticism leveled at supporters of the traditional narrative surrounding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is charge that the use of the bomb was primarily utilized to deter or delay the Soviet Union’s entry into war against Japan, with whom the cold war was already shaping up. This theory, called “Atomic Diplomacy” sounds good in hindsight on paper, but the evidence does not support the claim. President Truman was repeatedly reported to have told reporters on the way to the Potsdam Conference that his primary objective was to end the war in the Pacific with as few American casualties as possible, and that “a soviet declaration of war might save hundreds of thousands of Americans from injury or death”[1] President Truman was pleased upon announcing the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, and had drafted a memo to Stalin on July 31, 1945 stating that since Moscow had already committed to entering the war, it was the time for them to make good on their commitment.[2] Furthermore, Truman told his aids that the purpose behind his trip to Potsdam was have the Soviets enter the war in the Pacific.[3] None of these facts make the claim that the Atom bomb was meant to deter Soviet entry into the Pacific theater feasible or justifiable.

It is clear, however, that one of the arguments is at least partially correct -the decision of the Soviet forces to declare war played a role in Japan’s decision to surrender. It also seems clear that the Soviet entry alone did not carry the necessary weight for Japanese capitulation[4]. Ultimately, it was most likely a combination of the use of the Atom bomb along with Soviet invasion that precipitated the end of the war in the Pacific. As Japan faced the distinct possibility of a war on two simultaneous fronts, combined with a continued bombing campaign of their major cities, it is doubtful that they could deny the situation was indeed dire. It is also evident that they recognized that to continue on against both the US and Russia would ensure their complete devastation – a blow from which they may never recover.[5] While those who accept the official narrative of the use of the Atomic bomb put forth by Stimson typically downplay the impact of the Soviet entry into the theater, its impact on the end of the war simply cannot be dismissed or discounted.

[1] Michael Kort, “Racing the Enemy: A Critical Look,” Historically Speaking 7, no. 3 (2006).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert P Newman, “Hiroshima and the Trashing of Henry Stimson,” The New England Quarterly 71, no. 1 (1998): 5-32.

[5] Robert A. Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security 18, no. 2 (1993): 154-201.

Source

Challenge 3: Casualty Estimates

The last point of typical contention for opponents of the Atom bomb lies with the casualty estimates that deterred the American desire for a land invasion of the Japanese home islands. Opponents argue that the estimates were overly high, therefore eliminating the option in favor of utilizing the new Atomic weapon. Unfortunately, if anything, the numbers show that the casualty estimates provided to Henry Stimson and President Truman were too low. Since the Japanese were more than prepared to attempt to gain better surrender terms by making the casualty count as costly as possible and fight a bitter battle on their homeland, it is undeniable that the cost of human lives during a land invasion would be severe.[1] Although the original numbers were first questioned in the report released by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in 1946, it relied on information that was available at the time. The USSBS had no idea of the information that would become declassified in the 70’s from intelligence and decryption sources. These sources detailed a massive buildup of Japanese forces on Kyushu, making the original estimates for Japanese and American casualties far lower than they would have realistically been had a land invasion been implemented. Additional casualties would have to be accounted for in light of the Japanese determinism to fight to the last person, if necessary, in order to render the most possible damage against the invading forces, and by their determinism to deliver a crushing blow to the American invaders.[2] By the time the use of the atom bomb was being discussed in earnest, the casualty estimates for a land invasion of Japan were astronomical, as noted by the War Department’s Dr. Shockley “If the study shows that the behavior of nations in all historical cases comparable to Japan’s has in fact been invariably consistent with the behavior of the tropps in battle, then it means that the Japanese dead and ineffectives at the time of the defeat will exceed the corresponding number for the Germans. In other words, we shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese. This might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including {between} 400,000 and 800,000 killed”.[3] These numbers greatly exceed the estimate relayed by Stimson in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, which claimed over a million casualties[4]. If anything, the reality of the numbers demonstrates that the casualty count in reality would have been higher than anticipated by Henry Stimson and President Truman – not lower, as historical revisionists claim.

[1] Ward Wilson, “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima,” International Security 31, no. 4 (2007): 162-179.

[2]

[3] D.M. Giangreco, “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasions of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications,” Journal of Military History 61 (1997): 521-82.

[4] Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947): 97-107.

Western vs. Russian Relations Post-War

Once WWII ended, the world found itself divided. The USSR, as an ally, became unwilling to give up the land that they had conquered at great price. In light of the fact that the USSR did not have a secure border, allowing invaders to easily enter its territory prior to counter-attack, was interested in extending its borders as far away from its major industrial cities as possible, which made surrounding and consolidating towns that were located on or near the border. This desire for expansion was seemingly confirmed by the Yalta Agreement, which defined spheres of influence between the allied nations. The desire to spread communism across the industrialized yet defeated Germany also played a role in the expansions of the Communist Sphere across Eastern Europe. As the devastation of WWII finally began to sink in, leaders in all countries expressed an interest to keep Germany from threatening the peace of the European continent again. This was especially true for Stalin, and the soviet states in the east, who had paid dearly for their victory.[1]

[1] Patrick Brogan. The Captive Nations: Eastern Europe, 1945-1990. (University of Michigan, Avon Books, 1990).

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Conclusions

While the waters surrounding the use of the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 may be perpetually murky on ethical and/or moral grounds, militarily they are clear. President Truman and his advisors lead a democratic nation that was tired of war, and wanted to end the hostilities as soon as possible, with the least amount of human casualties and they viewed the use of the bomb as a means to that end. Their objectives were demonstrably realized once the bombs were dropped, the Soviet Union entered the war and Japan initiated its first, informal surrender. While the use of the bombs may not be solely responsible for bringing an end to the lingering war in the Pacific, revisionist historical arguments against their use fail to prove their case, and are insufficient in light of the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Understanding both the political and cultural climates of the war in the Pacific indicates the lengths that were required to ensure victory with the lowest cost to human life, and the use of the Atom bomb served its intended purpose. Whether it alone was the deciding factor or not, it is undeniable that, without its use there is little reason to suspect that the fighting would have ceased as suddenly and unexpectedly as it did, making the decision and objective a success. Though it was a horrible weapon with serious consequences, the decision to utilize it in the Pacific theater was not only justified but necessary, as indicated by Henry Stimson “I cannot see any other course…holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”[1]

[1] Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947): 97-107.

References

Brogan, Patrick. The Captive Nations: Eastern Europe, 1945-1990. University of Michigan: Avon Books, 1990.

Giangreco, D.M., “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasions of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications,” Journal of Military History 61 (1997): 521-82

“Japan’s Quest for Power and World War II in Asia” Asia for Educators: Columbia University. Accessed October 13, 2015. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1900_power.html

Kort, Michael, “The Historiography of Hiroshima: The Rise and Fall of Revisionism,” The New England Journal of History 64, no. 1 (2007): 31-48.

Kort, Michael, “Racing the Enemy: A Critical Look,” Historically Speaking 7, no. 3 (2006).

Newman, Robert P, “Hiroshima and the Trashing of Henry Stimson,” The New England Quarterly 71, no. 1 (1998): 5-32.

Pape, Robert A, “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security 18, no. 2 (1993): 154-201.

Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Stimson, Henry L, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine 194, no. 1161 (1947): 97-107.

Wilson, Ward, “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima,” International Security 31, no. 4 (2007): 162-179.

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    • Damian10 profile image

      Damian 18 months ago from Naples

      Julie; very well written and very well researched.

      Great job. Happy New Year.

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 18 months ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thank you, Damian. I enjoy converting my school papers into hubs

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 18 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Julie

      This is a well researched and well thought out hub. As I was reading this I remembered that the data that was presented to Truman called for an initial invasion force of 1,000,000 men of whom 75% were not expected to make it past the beachead (overlord used 500,000 with much less loss of life) then there was the task of pushing inland and possibly fighting for every inch.

      On Okinawa the Japanese had about 7,000 troops when the Marines landed, by the end of the Battle a mere handful of Japanese surrendered! That must have weighed heavily with the commanders.

      By the way, I checked and it appears some warning was given prior to both bombs in that pamphlets were dropped warning if Japan didn't surrender their cities would be attacked, after the first bomb America did ask for surrender but Japan didn't believe the allies had more weapons like it, until the second was dropped!

      I couldn't vote in the poll simply because to me, as horrible as it sounds I think it was the right thing to do!

      I'm just glad I wasn't the one making the decision.

      Lawrence

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