America’s Atomic Bombs: Did They End the War?
Seventy-six years ago, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Decades later, and as we pass another anniversary commemorating the achievements of a nuclear peace, the facts should have us resolve that these bombs weren’t necessary at all, and they were undeniably completely avoidable.
Japan’s militaristic leadership was preparing to defend its nation against what appeared to be an imminent US invasion. Japan was even mobilizing civilians to fight the potential invading force. An invasion which was thought to be costly for the US. To avoid such a cost, US President Harry Truman, faced with a tough choice, decided to drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war.
A US invasion would have cost America what President Truman claimed was “half a million lives.” Japan would never give up, and Truman was faced with a terrible decision, and in order to save lives, the bombs must be dropped. The bombs were needed to end the war. But is this true? Were the bombs necessary, and was there another way?
President Truman wrote in his memoirs that General George C Marshall told him the ground invasion would “cost a million American lives” to end the war with Japan. However, as Ronald Takaki shows us in his book, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, there weren’t half a million lives at risk — not even close. Further, the war was already over. For years following the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan, the US justified the murder of thousands of civilians based on assertions that were neither true nor accurate.
America’s Top Generals Knew
Some of America’s highest-ranking members of the US military saw things relatively different than the official line claimed by President Truman.
Fleet Admiral William D Leahy wrote after the war about the atomic bombs:
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 because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons
Fleet Admiral Chester D Nimitz contended:
The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war. …the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan
Later in 1946, the commander of the US Third Fleet, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey Jr., held that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment…. It was a mistake to ever drop it…. [The scientists] had this toy, and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it…”
General Eisenhower’s view was that “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing . . . to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], was a double crime”
Eisenhower also said to Secretary of War Henry Stimpson:
[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. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’
A month after the bombing, Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the head of the Twenty-First Bomber Command, believed “the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”
Then why does the myth persist that America’s atomic bombs were needed?
Half a Million Lives and Japan Already Defeated
The real myth is that the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. The main argument was to save American lives. Going back to Eisenhower, he assumed the bombs were “no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” So, what gives?
As it turned out, Truman, in preparation for a US invasion of the main Japanese island, requested the Joint War Plans Committee to confirm the possible casualty rates for American forces invading Japan: 40K killed and 150K wounded. Right from the US military’s own estimates, and drastically different than the half a million potential American deaths we are told were threatened by a fanatical Japanese resistance.
The Joint War Plans estimate relied on the calculation that the invasion would have had two entry points: the island of Kyushu and the Tokyo Plains. This plan drastically changes the invasion strategy and exposure to bottlenecked defences seen in previous island invasions like Okinawa — which Truman hoped to avoid.
More than that, an invasion was only one possible strategy against Japan. Truman wrote in his diary on June 17: “Shall we invade Japan proper or shall we bomb and blockade?” This is before the Trinity test and knowing he had atomic bombs. With Japan’s main army separated from the main island and ready to surrender, the sea blockade and conventional bombing campaign having already done all the work, as Fleet Admiral William D Leahy observed above: “the Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” As he put it, the bombs were of “no material assistance in our war against Japan.”
Japanese military strength and effectiveness were all but decimated. The Japanese navy, for example, had “ceased to exist.” This phrase was noted in the US Summary Report of the Pacific. It is described as follows, “except for it’s shore-based Kamikaze airforce and surface and undersea craft adapted for anti-invasion suicide attack, the Japanese Navy had ceased to exist [emphasis mine].” Japan’s naval fleet was mostly destroyed. All its aircraft carriers were sunk or destroyed, and what ships they had left were converted to stationary anti-aircraft stations because they lacked the fuel to keep them going.
Japan’s air force was in a similar standing. It lacked fighters, bombers, trained pilots, materials for building and repairing them, as well as fuel even to fly what aircraft they did have. Japan resorted to suicide attacks because of poor construction and repairs, poor training, and US air dominance. Fewer than 1/5 of these attacks even reached their targets — Japan was in a death swing militarily. General Curtis LeMay claimed the US did not lose a single B-29 bomber to Japanese fighters. The strategic bombing survey notes that “United States planes crisscrossed the skies with no effective Japanese or antiaircraft opposition.”
The blockade crippled Japan, which Japan’s air force and navy could not do anything about. Its economy was virtually destroyed as Japan’s merchant fleet was decimated and destroyed. Vital material resource imports ceased, and many ports stopped operating altogether, including Hiroshima. Japan’s remaining ground forces were scattered, unable to communicate effectively, could not resupply, and simply stranded where they were.
So why would the US invade Japan at all? Maintaining the blockade and bombing campaign would continue to inflict vast misery and death in Japan, and there was little Japan could do. A notable section from the strategic bombing survey described total civilian casualties of the war. It read as follows:
Total civilian casualties in Japan, as a result of 9 months of air attack, including those from the atomic bombs, were approximately 806,000. Of these, approximately 330,000 were fatalities. These casualties probably exceeded Japan’s combat casualties which the Japanese estimate as having totaled approximately 780,000 during the entire war
It also highlights the largest civilian cause of death, “the principal cause of civilian death or injury was burns.” Finally, and conclusively, Japan was already defeated. Just as America’s high-ranking military men noted above, the bombing survey read that “nevertheless, it seems clear that, even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion.”
Returning to Truman’s diary, he ruminated over the US strategy, “shall we invade Japan proper or shall we bomb and blockade?” It seemed though the answer was already there. The US simply needed to continue its bombing and blockade campaign. The bombs were not necessary for Japan’s unconditional surrender, and further, the invasion wasn’t necessary either. However, as noted above, what invasion would occur would not, according to the US estimates, “cost half a million American lives” and was still something the Soviets would help avoid (whom Truman hoped would enter the war). It remains clear at this point that Japan was finished and surrender was imminent, no invasion was necessary, and the US bombing and blockade operations had done their jobs.
This brings us to the fact that the US knew Japan was already suing for peace.
Japan’s Peace Efforts with the Soviets
Ambassador Sato Naotake in Moscow received messages from Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori urging him to speed up an agreement from Russia to mediate the end of the war by helping Japan surrender conditionally. One such message carried with it an address from Emperor Hirohito. It read that:
His Majesty the Emperor, mindful of the fact that the present war daily brings greater evil and sacrifice upon the peoples of all the belligerent powers desires from his heart, that it may be quickly terminated. But so long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender, the Japanese Empire has no alternative but to fight on with all its strength for the honor and the existence of the motherland
The Togo and Sato telegram messages were intercepted and decoded by the American code-breaking operation Magic. The US had been able to break Japanese codes since 1942. The Sato-Togo telegrams, from July 11 onwards, were intercepted and decoded, then sent to the highest-ranking US policymakers, including Truman, Chief of Staff William Leahy, Secretary of State James Byrnes, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Deputy Secretary of State John McCloy, and Secretary of Navy James Forrestal. However, Truman and Byrnes rejected the pleas from Stimson, McCloy, and Forrestal to terminate the war through an accepted conditional surrender of Japan.
Those at the highest echelons of power knew Japan was seeking peace to end the war. So why not just end it? Why not reach out to the Japanese and say, hey, we know you want to end the war, so let’s mediate peace. Truman’s plan before Potsdam was to use the Soviet entry into the war to push the Japanese to surrender. It was this strategy that the US hoped would end the war, not an invasion. On July 17, Truman wrote in his diary that Stalin will be “in the [Japanese] war on August 15.”
Note: since Truman uses racial slurs when referencing the Japanese, those will be omitted here and replaced by proper terms.
So, what was the primary obstacle impeding a peace settlement? Well, we know that Japan was looking for peace, and Truman knew this even upon his meeting with Stalin, which Stalin also knew, of course. This meant that neither man wanted peace, or at least not yet. Truman thought he needed Soviet intervention because he knew the Japanese were at the end, and Soviet help would preclude a US invasion, making it unnecessary (despite the fact the Japanese were already finished). However, Stalin wanted back what Russia lost to the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War.
The main Japanese aim was to avoid the unconditional surrender scenario. They could not have accepted an unconditional surrender because it would threaten their imperial institution. An unconditional surrender meant that the Emperor could be subjected to a war-crime trial. This is a problem for Japan. Imagine, comparatively, arresting Jesus Christ and trying him for war crimes. It’s simply not a conceivable scenario.
The Japanese high command had both hawks and doves amongst them, like the US. The hawks were bent on fighting to the very end, and the doves pushed for accepting surrender terms from the US and UK. The hawks: the Army Minister, and the Chiefs of Staff of both services, wanted to continue Japanese resistance. The doves: the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Navy Minister, wanted to accept unconditional surrender. The Togo-Sato telegrams were evidence of one Japanese diplomatic strategy for peace. Sato, replying to Togo in increasingly anxious and insubordinate tones, warned that the Soviets had no intention of helping Japan. The only way out was a conditional surrender to the US and UK. Nevertheless, the Japan high command refused.
Japan’s Soviet-mediated diplomatic solution was paired with Japan’s military strategy, which sought to make the US invasion of mainland Japan very costly. Japan knew they would lose the war. However, they hoped, ultimately, that they would come out of it with favourable terms for them. Needless to say, neither strategy was going to work. Still, the US bent on unconditional surrender, did not get one after both bombs were dropped. As noted above, within US policy circles, as Takaki notes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved a proposal for a conditional surrender, including recommendations from Churchill. This was, of course, refused by Truman.
Upon hearing about the success of the Trinity bomb test on July 18, Truman writes, “[I] believe [the Japanese] will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland.”
Despite the war practically over, the US knowing Japan sought peace through the Soviets (which would never materialize), it chose to end the war as quickly as possible — by using the atomic bombs.
This is a turning point. Whereas an invasion was one possiblity, the solution was to partner with the Soviets to end the war, making the invasion unnecessary — which it was anyways. However, with Truman having knowledge of the bombs, he chose a different course, one that murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. Despite knowing the Japanese sought peace, Truman and Byrnes hoped (were sure) the bombs would end the war with a swift Japanese unconditional surrender, thereby cutting the Stalin out.
The Bombs that Did not Need To Be
The bombs didn’t end the war. Days after Hiroshima was incinerated and days after Nagasaki was annihilated, the Japanese high command still did not unconditionally surrender. They sat — for five days. Only until the Emperor intervened did Japan surrender to the United States, finally ending the war.
So, if the US planned on Japan immediately surrendering — speedily ending the war — if that was indeed the US plan, it failed. The strategic bombing survey makes this note:
On August 6, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and on August 9, Russia entered the war. In the succeeding meetings of the Supreme War Direction Council, the differences of opinion previously existing as to the Potsdam terms persisted exactly as before [emphasis mine]. By using the urgency brought about through fear of further atomic bombing attacks, the Prime Minister found it possible to bring the Emperor directly in to the discussions of the Potsdam terms. Hirohito, acting as arbiter, resolved the conflict in favor of unconditional surrender
With the combined efforts of US strategic bombing, the blockade of mainland Japan, and the Soviets entering the war, the atomic bombs were the icing on the cake. Though they did not have the intended effect Truman had hoped for, the Japanese did not “fold up before Russia comes in [to the war].” Truman callously sacrificed the lives of innocent civilians. Instead of honourably approaching the Japanese and mitigating a peace plan (that surely would have materialized), he decided, cowardly, to unleash atomic bombs. This is a war crime in the grossest sense.
Truman, Byrnes, Groves, etc., all saw the Soviets as the next global threat; the bombs were a way to push them around, signalling US dominance and a willingness to murder hundreds of thousands in the process. As Takaki notes, General Leslie Groves states that the bombs should go through a “battle test” and knew that while the bombs would be used against Japan, they were not the target. “There was never any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis. I didn’t go along with the attitude of the country as a whole that Russia was a gallant ally,” he states. Groves was one of the preeminent architects of the bomb strategy. Byrnes, like Groves, saw the bombs as leverage against the Russians, and he believed that once the Soviets knew of US atomic power, it would take them seven to ten years to attain their own atomic bomb capability.
Twenty-four hours after the bombing of Hiroshima, Stalin ordered the Soviet Union to catch up with US atomic capabilities — no matter the cost. Four years later, the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, Joe 1. The atomic bombs did not instantly end the war as Truman had hoped, but they did usher in a new age, the Atomic Age.
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