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.
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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. 1931 not only marked anadir 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 its 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 faras 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.
Surely, for an action of such great magnitude and far-reachingconsequences, political factors were the most important considerationfor president Truman. He saw in this situation an opportunity to strikea double blow –to silence Japan’s recalcitrance, and to fire a shot atthe Russian leader, Josef Stalin, with whom his country had been forcedto develop an alliance because of the exigency of the hour. “The bombwas dropped primarily for its effect not on Japan but on the SovietUnion. One, to force a Japanese surrender before the USSR came into theFar Eastern war, and two, to show under war conditions the power of thebomb. Only in this way could a policy of intimidation [of the SovietUnion] be successful…[t]he United States dropped the bomb to end thewar against Japan and thereby stop the Russians in Asia, and to givethem sober pause in Eastern Europe.”(Kagan, 1995)
A crucial meeting, which ultimately decided the course of this actionwas called by Truman and held in the White House on June 18, as theOkinawa campaign was drawing to a close. The intention of this meetingwas to seek from his Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) their opinion on thequickest and most effective means to ending the war in Japan. Those whoattended it were the president’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy,Navy Chief of Staff, Ernest King, Army Chief of Staff, General GeorgeMarshall, 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 thatemerged out of this meeting was that the best way forward was to invadeJapan through its southernmost tip, Kyushu. The probable date of thisplanned invasion was set for November 1. Marshall suggested that thenext phase of the invasion would be an attack, at a later date, onHonshu, the island on which Tokyo stands. General Marshall spoke onbehalf of the Joint Chiefs, reading out from a paper they had prepared:‘The Kyushu operation is essential to a strategy of strangulation andappears to be the least costly worth-while operation followingOkinawa’. Although they were silent on two important clarificationsTruman had sought, namely how long the operation would last, and whatwould be the expected number of American casualties, all who attendedthis meeting were unanimous in their assessment that the invasion ofJapan through this route was the best option before them.
The Chiefsarrived at a figure of 31,000 for the possible number of casualtiesduring the first phase of the invasion, in the first 30 days of thecampaign. This was arrived at by equating the casualties in thiscampaign with that in Luzon, in which the same figure had died, or werewounded or missing. The figure of 46,000 dead and another 174,000wounded 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 wideagreement on the number of casualties. This figure found reinforcementwhen, prior to the meeting, Marshall requested the expected number ofAmerican casualties from General Douglas McArthur, commander of theAmerican Army in the Pacific. The General projected a figure that wasalmost exactly similar to these estimates –105,000 battle and anadditional 12,500 non-battle casualties. (Walker, 1997, pp. 36-39) Ifthis meeting spoke of a land invasion, one factor hurried up thedecision to specifically use the bombs: some decrypted Japanesediplomatic communications, codenamed MAGIC, which revealed that theJapanese were looking forward to negotiations, rather than to peace,and in this direction, were looking towards Soviet Union, not America,was seen by Truman. This turned out to be one of the reasons he steeledhis resolve to drop the bomb on the Japanese. Under the codenameDownfall, the Americans had been making heavy preparations to lay anamphibious operation at the time Truman went to Potsdam. Just after heset sail, on July 16, he gained knowledge of the successfulexperimentation of the atom bomb, which was carried out by Americanscientists.
The timing of the completion of the bomb coincided withTruman’s meeting with the Russian and British heavyweights. His mainaim of going to Potsdam was to get an assurance from Stalin that theRussians would not enter the war till the time the Americans carriedout their operation. So, it was clear that he had at the back of hismind two crucial elements –the operability and potential of the bomb tocurtail severely American losses, and, for its successfulimplementation, 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 theurgency with which the bombs were dropped; the Soviets were scheduledto enter the war on August 8. An Asia in which the Soviets would play adecisive role, was a prospect the Truman administration had to preventat all costs; nothing gave it a better chance than the timing of thedevelopment of the bomb, and Russia’s scheduled date of entry intoJapan. By hurrying up the bomb, the Truman administration made sure theJapanese surrendered to the Americans alone, as argued by the Britishphysicist, 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 muchthe last military act of the Second World War as the first majoroperation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now inprogress’(Clarfield & Wiecek, 1984, p. 58).
The Russia factor was atwork all through. Policy-makers in the US were clear from the beginningthat 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 thebomb, Leo Szilard, had feared that the use against civilians would becatastrophic. He had gone on to suggest that the Americans and Russiansget into a joint effort at developing the bomb, wherein, his reasoningwent, by openly sharing this knowledge with Russian scientists, thecertain arms race that was set to follow could be prevented. In tryingto enlighten the American political establishment about his idea, hesought a meeting with president Roosevelt; however, he was referred toSecretary of State James Byrnes, who brusquely squelched the idea, andprevented the meeting with Roosevelt. Szilard even invited Churchill’sfury for having suggested this idea. (Szasz, 1984, p. 146)
The idea of bombing Japan was taken in order to force a total andunconditional surrender, towards which the Truman administration wantedto make sure no effort was spared. Quoting Brower (1982), Lee (1998)states: “The JCS understood that Japan’s defeat would result from theincreasing application of military, psychological and politicalpressures upon the island nation. Their strategy clearly reflected thatunderstanding. The JCS gradually tightened the blockade, bombed Japanrelentlessly with conventional and atomic weapons, contributed toefforts to induce an early Japanese capitulation through aclarification of the unconditional surrender formula, and stronglyurged two presidents to secure early Soviet entry into the war” (Lee,1998, p. 109).
Another perceptive line of reasoning is that the bombs were essentiallya culmination of the process of American isolationism that had beenbuilding up from the time World War I ended. If, as argued by Glynn(1992), America, whose political and economic power was way ahead ofthat possessed by any other country in Europe, had shown sagacity andgenerosity in bailing France out financially and in redressing theGerman expansionist designs, it would have effectively put a brake on the growth of the deep animosities these two frontline European nationsdeveloped towards each other. Having failed to do it, mainly because ofits isolationist designs, America sought to maintain its position ofeminence in world affairs by spearheading the revolution in physicsthat was catching up in Europe.
Having triggered the race for weapons development in Europe, what it did was to show it was ahead of therest. This it could accomplish only by demonstrating its power to therest of the world. The perfect excuse for this was provided by Japan’sdefiance. It is true that the situation of war made scientists of eachcountry work on the bomb faster than their counterparts in othercountries. If the war had not taken place, it is possible that theinvention itself would not have taken place. This writer extends thisargument to suggest that not only should America have shown pragmatismin dealing with Europe after World War I, when the time came, it had toshowcase its newly-acquired might in brute fashion. It had to vindicatethe appositeness of its policy of isolationism after World War I; noother action served to show that better than the decisiveness withwhich it dropped the bombs on targets that were convenient to it fromall perspectives. (Glynn, 1992, p. 114)
Truman had taken office at a time when the Soviet Union, with adiametrically opposite ideology, was taking shape as a potential rivalto the emerging American dominance in world affairs. Roosevelt had beenhoping that a conciliatory approach towards this country was the bestway to an amicable post-war settlement. However, following his death,Truman had to rely on his predecessor’s advisors in internationalaffairs, an area in which he was vastly untested; however, theiropinion was different from their master’s. (Clarfield & Wiecek,1984, p. 82) Thus, opposition to Russia was a philosophy Truman imbibedfrom the start of this tenure.
Bruce Cumings (1999) proffers another interesting insight into theurgency with which Truman used the newly devised bomb. It has to dowith the nature of the political arrangement in the US. There is acertain irony about the position of the president –as the foremostdecision 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 thepower of the Congress alone to go to war; on the other hand, his is atemporary position; all the power he commands is gone when he loses hiselection or has run out his term. In the final sense, he is aloneresponsible for the decisions he takes. It is a high-pressure office,in which he is the sole decision-making authority, into whose shoesnobody would like to step in. Nor does anyone else have the authorityor power to take decisions of the gravity he does in a system in whichthere are liberal doses of daily infighting and squabbling among thedifferent agencies such as the legislature and the judiciary, and alsowithin the Congress.
The possession of the control of the just-inventedbomb came to symbolise the sway the president held over all others inthe administration. This was the most concrete symbol of this powerthat he and nobody else could enjoy in the administration. Truman, inparticular, vested the control of the atomic bomb with the AtomicEnergy Commission, which made sure it did not fall into the hands ofthe top military brass. Thus, possession and sole control over whocontrolled the bomb weighed more in Truman’s presidency than in anyother’s mainly because it was then that the bomb was invented. It is inthis sense, that, quoting Sherwin (1975), he goes on to argue “…why thebomb, once readied, was used: not just to intimidate the Russians, butto intimidate everyone from recalcitrant Republican congressmen toisolationists in the broad body politic to Hirohito to Stalin toChurchill to the "total field" in which the American president has heldsway since 1941, namely, the world.” (Cumings, 1999, p. 56)
It is possible to argue that the attitude and decision-makingnature of the new president and the peculiarity of the situation inwhich he was inaugurated into the presidency could be classified asanother reason the bombs were dropped on the two cities. Almost fromthe moment the uniqueness of the new weapons was made known to thepresident, he took an altogether authoritative role. A study of the assertiveness with which the just-inaugurated president acted lends tothis conclusion. It is difficult to say with certainty if the sameincidents of bombings would surely have taken place if a person otherthan Truman had been at the helm of affairs at that time.
President Truman won greater admiration once he had quit office thanwhen he was in power; this was more pronounced after his death. Duringthe years he was in the White House, he was seen as a president who hadinherited a difficult mantle from the formidable Roosevelt. There wasan aura of greatness created around him, most notably because of thefamous words he had painted on his desk, ‘the buck stops here’.However, recent research, carried out a good few decades after hisdeath, has shown that underneath the image of an astute, frank andhonest president were qualities that hardly got the attention theyreally had to: suspicion, insensitivity and narrow-mindedness. He usedhis dashing demeanour to guise his innate insecurity and terribleself-doubt. (Walker, 1997, p. 7) This quality of his was perhaps wellknown in the White House. A humorous anecdote may not be out of placeto illustrate this: it is said that when Truman rushed to the WhiteHouse upon hearing the news of president Roosevelt’s sudden death, heis said to have offered his help to the family. To this, Eleanor isreported to have quipped: ‘Is there anything we can do for you? For youare the one in trouble now’! (Boller, 1996, p. 278) It was only naturalthat the bomb caught his attention like no other, and became the idéefixe of his presidency. When he took office from president Roosevelt,he was sure about nothing but the fact that he had to carry on hisillustrious predecessor’s legacy, which centred round the victory thatAmerica, with its coalition partners in the Allied forces, had to sealin the Pacific with minimum loss of American lives. In a sense, it wasa difficult legacy he inherited, because he only knew he had tocontinue with Roosevelt’s legacy, but was unsure about which that was.(Walker, 1997, pp. 7-9) There had been a considerable difference ofopinion between the Roosevelts on the purpose of the war. If Delano hadbeen under the impression that the ultimate aim was winning the war,Eleanor differed with him, asserting that winning the war was only halfthe battle won; the First Lady was of the strong view that winning thepeace after the war ended was more important. This, to her, was thelasting victory, one that would place America on the pedestal to itschosen destiny. (Rozell & Pederson, 1997, p. 209) Is it any wonderthat the utterly confused president made the following comments in apress 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 ofhay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, Ifelt 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 thatcame into existence weeks after he took office, the bomb, turned out tobe a weapon in both the literal and figurative senses –it would helphim shake off the Roosevelt hangover; using it with unequivocal forcewould firmly establish his position.
On July 7, 1945, a palpably tense and reluctant Truman set sail forPotsdam in Germany to attend for a meeting with ‘Generalissimo’ JosefStalin and Winston Churchill. This unease was predictable to a novicewho was barely three months into his presidency: “Truman’s anxietyabout attending the conference was understandable. He was still anovice at his job and still learning the complexities of the manyproblems he faced. He was traveling to meet and doubtlessly disagree onimportant issues with two crusty and renowned leaders who must haveseemed larger than life, even to the president of the United States. Hewas determined to protect American interests but worried about howsuccessful he would be in jousting with his formidable, tenacious, andexperienced counterparts.” (Walker, 1997, pp. 7-9 and 53) In thesituation that he was in, nothing gave him greater strength than thebomb; it was a godsend to a cornered president, one arrow with which hecould kill all–the butterflies in his own stomach, the Rooseveltiannoose that hung over his head, and all the political issues discussedearlier.
Thus, once the awesome bomb had been unfurled, the president becameunshakably firm in his conviction that it had to be used, come whatmay. The first significant communication he made after learning aboutthe power of the bomb was: ‘I am going to make a decision which no manin history has ever had to make…’He was clear right from the moment hehad got a grasp of the bomb’s potency that there was no alternative tousing it. He had told Byrnes that ‘he had given thought to the problemand, while reluctant to use this weapon, saw no way of avoiding it’.This was also reflected in the address he gave the nation three daysafter Hiroshima, in which he plainly declared that ‘having found thebomb we used it’. Even in his memoirs, he expressed scant regret forhaving used it, stating: ‘Let there be no mistake about it. I regardedthe bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should beused’ Another factor that may have influenced Truman to use the bombagainst Japan was that he had to take off from where Roosevelt hadleft; he had to continue a majority of the projects and policies thatRoosevelt had initiated, one of the which was the Manhattan Project,whose brief it was to develop the bomb. It was in line with hisresolution to continue Roosevelt’s policies. Finally, the very fact ofthe sheer, intimidating power of the powerful bomb he knew was not justanother bomb gave him control over it. This power of controlling theworld’s most powerful bomb till then, making him the only man in theuniverse, filled with him pride and ego. This would give himunquestionable might, and enhance his already powerful status. (Gaddis,Gordon, May, & Rosenberg, 1999, pp. 16, 17) Two months after theincidents in Japan, he exhibited his knowledge of the importance of thebomb, saying, ‘The discovery of the means of releasing atomic energybegan a new era in the history of civilization. The scientific andindustrial knowledge on which this discovery rests does not relatemerely to another weapon. It may some day prove to be morerevolutionary in the development of human society than the invention ofthe wheel, the use of metals, or the steam or internal-combustionengine.
Never in history has society been confronted with a power so full ofpotential danger and at the same time so full of promise for the futureof man and for the peace of the world. I think I express the faith ofthe American people when I say that we can use the knowledge we havewon not for the devastation of war but for the future welfare ofhumanity.’ (Koenig, 1956, p. 122) On August 9, 1945, in response to aletter from a prelate that the Americans had ‘indiscriminately’ bombedHiroshima, Truman is said to have remarked: ‘Nobody is more disturbedover the use of the Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbedover the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and theirmurder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem tounderstand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you haveto deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is mostregrettable but nevertheless true’ (Cumings, 1999, p. 58) Since thetime of the capture of Pearl Harbour, the propaganda war intensified inthe US, making the Japanese the ultimate villains in their eyes.Although the Americans did inflict a heavy defeat on the Japanese inthe campaigns of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the strong sentiment theAmericans had against the Japanese, by which not even the president wasimmune from this stereotype, may have forced him to choose Japan as thetarget 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) Theanti-Japan feeling was so strong in the US that from the time the bombwas conceived, it was decided to develop it to be used, and to be usedagainst Japan, (Blumenson et al., 1960, p. 496) and that it should beused on a dual target comprising military installations and civiliantargets such as residences close to these installations, and should beused without prior warning (Divine, 1969, p. 315), despite vehementpleas not to use it against Japan by none other than one of the chiefarchitects of the bomb, Leo Szilard, who pleaded that theadministration refrain from using the deadly bomb because, to him,‘Japan was essentially defeated’, and ‘it would be wrong to attack itscities with atomic bombs as if atomic bombs were simply anothermilitary weapon’. Another strong motivation for Truman was that heordered the atomic bombs to be dropped to vindicate the cost in termsof money and manpower that went into making the bombs. The bombs hadbeen developed at a cost of $two billion. It seemed foolish to him atthat point of time to not use it after having spent so much on aproject into which the country’s best scientific minds had gone. Hefelt he was answerable to a hostile Congress about a project that hadbeen carried out in great secrecy, and felt 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 usingthe bombs. The leaders were eager to please the Congress, whose variouscommittees had been demanding that ‘the results had better be worth the$2 billion investment.’ (Wainstock, 1996, pp. 1&2, 37 &38 and121-123) A measure of the relief the success of the bomb sent in theinner political coterie responsible for the development of the bombcould be discerned from the remark Stimson is believed to have madeimmediately upon receiving news of the success of the trial: ‘Well, Ihave been responsible for spending two billions of dollars on thisatomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prisonin Fort Leavenworth.’ The president was overjoyed at hearing the newsof the success. Stimson records in his diary that on hearing the newsof the successful explosion, ‘The President was tremendously pepped upby it’, and ‘and spoke to me of it again and again, when I saw him. Hesaid it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence….’ This becameclear in the way he conducted himself at the conference the next day,something even Churchill foundalmost 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 greatthat some historians such as Alperovitz & Bird, (1994) have takenup from this point to suggest that it was this penchant for this bombthat was to not only motivate Truman to go ahead and bomb Japan, it wasthe turning point in the polarisation of the world’s superpowers theled to the Cold War. Their logic is based on the following reasoning:the potential for conflict between the Americans and the Russians wasno doubt in the air even as they were going into the war, but whatactually put two powers on the road to rivalry was the bomb, andTruman’s grasp of its unprecedented might. This was to serve as thecatalyst for sealing the alignment of forces that shaped the worldleading to the famed Cold War. Even while getting into Potsdam, Trumanhad been in two minds about his own ability to pull off a diplomaticcoup over Russia; as he confided to his wife in his diary, he wasjittery about the prospect of what his meeting with the Generalissimowould achieve. It had always been Roosevelt’s policy to contain thearmament of Germany, which he believed was crucial to assure the worldthat a rearmed Germany would never again threaten it, and to containthe Russians with an alliance of like-minded western powers. However,at the time, and in Truman’s initial days in office, till the time theatom bomb was tested, the battle lines were only hazy. There was noclear agreement on the shape the defeated Germany would take after ithad surrendered. These researchers conclude that if there was somethingthat gave direction and thrust to the rivalry that was to concretise asthe Cold War, it was the bomb, and its primacy in the president’s mind.(Alperovitz & Bird, 1994)
A study of why America dropped the bombs on the two Japanese cities isincomplete without a reference to the controversies surrounding theissue. In a nutshell, the controversies relate to the two gravequestions historians have asked in later years: was the bombing ofJapan necessary at all in the first place to force a surrender on it,and, secondly, would not one bomb have sufficed?
“Post-war historians have challenged President Harry Truman’s decisionto 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 withthe Japanese; others contend dropping the bombs was patent racism andthat 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 inJapan at that time.
After Potsdam, as we have seen, his will to drop the bombs washastened, on the thought that its use would totally save Americanlives, as compared to an invasion, bringing the Japanese to theirknees. But it is clear that this was an oversight, and an assumptionthat went wrong –five days after the end of the second bombing onNagasaki, there was an attempted coup, whose success would have draggedon the battle for many more weeks or months. Even the massive bombingshad not diluted Japanese will; a group of senior Japanese army and navyofficers were still determined to carry on fighting after staging acoup. They had made preparations for a great showdown with the Americanforces on the beaches, under the codename ‘Decisive Battle’. That thecoup did not succeed and ‘Decisive Battle’ did not materialise isanother matter. The point being raised by present-day historians is–assuming that the coup would have been successful, there is no doubtthat fighting would have dragged on, and would have resulted in lossesof several American lives. The question is, how many American liveswould have been sacrificed in the fighting? Given the near depletion ofresources at Japan’s command at that point of time, it is possible thatnot more than a handful of American lives would have been lost. Thecrucial point is, when the Japanese were fighting on only one resource,their determination, and given the fact that even without the droppingof the bombs, not more than a relatively few American lives would havebeen lost, was it fair to estimate that the Japanese would have killeda million Americans? Truman had long been obsessed with one thoughtmore than any other –the prevention of the loss of a million Americanlives. Critics are agreed on the fact that this figure was a) grosslyexaggerated in the first place when secretary Stimson arrived at thisfigure, and b) this was seized upon relentlessly by Truman to be usedevery now and then to justify the catastrophic bombings. They are at aloss to understand how Truman could have taken this figure of a quarterto a million potential American deaths as the gospel truth when eventhe trigger-happy Gen. Douglas McArthur arrived at an estimate, donewithout any prompting, on a figure that was nowhere near what Trumanput forth throughout. What adds substance to the whole issue is that inthe first place, Gen. McArthur himself had exaggerated the wholeestimate, for some unknown reasons. But what is highly pertinent isthat records discovered after the war showed that at that time,McArthur’s staff had released an all-important communication: ‘Thestrategists at Imperial General Headquarters believed that, if theycould succeed in inflicting unacceptable losses on the United States inthe Kyushu operation, convince the American people of the hugesacrifices involved in an amphibious invasion of Japan, and make themaware of the determined fighting spirit of the Japanese army andcivilian population, they might be able to postpone, if not escapealtogether, a crucial battle in the Kanto [Tokyo] area. In this way,they hoped to gain time and grasp an opportunity which would lead tothe termination of hostility on more favorable terms than those whichunconditional surrender offered.’ Obviously, this too, points to thefact that there was clearly no need to force a total Japanese surrenderat that point of time, given the drain they were facing, and moreimportantly, to use the bombs to force a surrender. Moreover, theAmerican Sixth Army in Luzon, Philippines, had estimated that theKyushu invasion would have the same gravity as that of the earlierinvasion, on Okinawa. This was to be taken as the correct estimate byany standards, for this was not carried out by ideology-drivenpoliticians, but by groups of professional soldiers and doctors who hadactually been at the actual scene of fighting. Using the Okinawainvasion as the standard, they had estimated, as was the regularpractice, that on a ratio of 1:4 for the Kyushu invasion, this wouldclaim no more than four times the number ofcasualties the Okinawa episode had claimed. Even estimating that in theface of a heavy, sustained Japanese kamikaze raids, though a distinctimpossibility, had the losses been in the order of ten times that ofthe Okinawa invasion, the total American casualties would have amountedto nothing more than 147,500 dead and some 343,000 wounded. In theevent of an American offensive, ‘Decisive Battle’, the losses on bothsides would have been terrible. If the bomb gave the American presidentan alternative to an invasion, it would have given the Japanese Emperoran opportunity to end the war. (Allen, Polmar & Bernstein, 1995)
Historians have also come out with evidence that Truman exaggerated thepotential American casualties of an invasion of Japan to justify hisuse of the atomic bomb after the war ended. They quote a letter hewrote in 1948, he insisted, as he had done all along, that he decidedto 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 hadachieved his aim, and in his memoirs written in 1955, after hispresidency had ended, Truman still insisted that ‘half-a-millionAmerican lives were saved by the bomb.’ However, his critics now claimthat the Joint War Plans Committee on June 15 had given a figure ofonly about 40,000 American deaths if the planned invasion of the homeislands took place. To calculate the number of American casualties onthe mainland, Admiral Leahy took the earlier battle in Okinawa as thebasis, in which American casualties were roughly 35 percent of thetotal force of 120,000. Thus, even if it was agreed that Okinawa wasthe proper basis for the number of casualties the Americans wouldsustain in the event of a mainland invasion, and updating Leahy’sfigures to a more accurate 29 percent, the casualty figure in theentire campaign should not have exceeded a maximum of 200,000 deathsand 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 absolutelynecessary, then the bomb on Hiroshima would have done the job, and thesecond one on Nagasaki was totally redundant. The Nagasaki bomb was anon-factor in forcing the Japanese Emperor to order surrender. Therewere protracted arguments and vacillations in the Japanese think-tankabout the decision to surrender following the Hiroshima bombing onAugust 6. Of course, it has to be admitted that Truman was not aware ofthese wranglings; but the reasons given by the American decision makersto use the second bomb was very unconvincing. In his memoirs, Trumanhas explained his reason for dropping the second bomb: ‘On August 9,the second atom bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. We gave theJapanese three days in which to make up their minds to surrender andthe bombing would have been held off another two days had weatherpermitted.’ But the truth is that Truman took three days from the firstbombing till the second not because he wanted to give the Japanese timeto 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 projectstaff.’ Thus, if the second bomb had been ready on August 7, or evenAugust 6 itself, it would have been dropped then. This is reinforced byGeneral Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which developedthese weapons, who said the second bomb had to ‘follow the first onequickly so that the Japanese would not have time to recover theirbalance.’ Truman knew the extent of the destruction in full detail, andhad the time to stop the Nagasaki bombing. “The Nagasaki story showsthat America’s leaders, understandably obsessed with ending the warquickly, failed to use the second atomic bomb rationally or tactically.No high-level discussion was held to consider the second bomb. Nobodychallenged or reviewed the informal, unofficial, and premature judgmentof 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 thisbomb helped reduce the spread of nuclear weapons: this line of thinkinggoes that this bomb contributed to the subsequent prevention of nuclearweapons and helped maintain a balance of power in the later years. Thisargument, of course, has been defeated by the logic of why it wasnecessary to drop these bombs on thickly populated areas, and not ondeserted areas, if use of the bomb was the only prerequisite to thisargument. (Hein & Selden, 1997, p. 58)
There is another pressing argument put forward by some critics: Trumandropped the bomb for diplomatic, not military reasons. Truman’s criticsquote his remark that ‘the bomb might well put us in a position todictate our own terms’ (an obvious reference to the Soviet Union) afterthe war, and Secretary Byrnes’s equally strong statement that ‘ourpossessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageablein Europe.’ But in hindsight, they ask, is it not possible to arguethat Stalin would have been as convinced and apprehensive aboutAmerican might even if the bombs had been dropped on some desert or anyother 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 indropping the bombs on civilian areas, would not have just one bomb sentthe same message as two bombs? (Loebs, 1995)
In July, two major breakthroughs were achieved by the code-breakingoperations entitled MAGIC and ULTRA. MAGIC intercepts read by Trumanand this team showed that the Japanese were unrelenting, and that theelite, the moderate elements in the administration, were willing tonegotiate peace terms with the Allies, but afraid of discussing thisintention with the military, the hardline elements, fearing a reprisalfrom them. Traditionally, the military had controlled most of Japan’sdecision making. These elements were seen to be taking very firmactions on those who were even willing to talk about peace. It is clearthat the Japanese started making moves to ask the Soviets to mediate ina peace effort with the Americans and the British and bring an end tothe war in the Pacific. MAGIC had revealed that the Emperor had plansof 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 decisionto use the bomb has been from Gar Alperovitz. His highly provocativeanalysis may have triggered serious debate from a school of thought onthe subject not inclined to hear his viewpoint, but it is necessary forus to develop our thinking on the issue of the great American blunderin dropping the bombs:
Quoting the US Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), he says that it cameout with its findings as early as 1946, which were presented in itsreport entitled, ‘Japan’s struggle to end the war’. The summary of thereport read as follows:’ certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and inall probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrenderedeven if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had notentered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned orcontemplated’ Quoting another report from the secretive War Department,which was carried out in April 1946, but was made public only in 1989,he furnishes the exact words of the report: ‘the Japanese leaders haddecided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext toconvince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and mustcapitulate to the Allies… ‘. Further, in the event of the bombs notbeing dropped, Russia would have entered the war, according to the setplan, in early August, the time when the bombs were actually dropped.This report says that had the Russians actually entered Japan in earlyAugust, that would have given the Japanese just the pretext they werelooking to, in order to surrender. The moderate elements in theJapanese administration were at pains to convince the militant elementsto make them agree to a surrender; citing the Russian entry would havemade the moderates use this as the solid reason to make the hardlinerssee the writing on the wall, and would in all probabilities have madethem relent. Hence, according to the report, in the event of theRussian entry in early August, not only would the need for the bombshave been obviated, there would have been no possibility of the plannedinvasion of Kyushu in November, which would have, in Truman’sassessment, led to the loss of all those American lives, and thesubsequent attack on Tokyo in April 1946. (Alperovitz, 1995)
It is clear that while taking a decision of this magnitude, Japanhappened to provide the American administration just the conditionsthat would have given it the excuse to drop the bomb; the decision wentfar ahead of the cursory purpose of ending the war, and forcing aJapanese surrender.
A look at the actions of the Truman administration right from the startof the decision-making process would suggest that it overlooked allparameters that went against the action:
Even at the all-important June 18 meeting, the central point that arosewas the agreed number of probable American casualties. There is noproof whatsoever, that a figure that even remotely resembled the halfto one million, the figure that the president and his advisors keptbrandishing throughout, was mentioned during this most importantmeeting 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, whichwent aghast at the prospect of the use of this weapon. Presenting thisreport to the War Department, it said sage words: ‘In the past,scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to whichmankind had put their disinterested discoveries. We now feel compelledto take a more active stand because the success which we have achievedin the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greaterdangers than were all the inventions of the past. All of us, familiarwith the present state of nucleonics, live with the vision before oureyes of sudden destruction visited on our own country, of a PearlHarbor disaster repeated a thousand-fold magnification in every one ofour major cities.’ Asserting that this would give short term benefits,that too, only political, at the cost of long-term detriment, thisgroup went on to add that if there was one country that was morevulnerable to such attacks in future, from any country that copied thistechnology, it was America, with its concentration of industrialcomplexes and civilian areas in close proximity to each other. Itwarned that Russia, with its deep mistrust of America, could develop aneven more unimaginably powerful device that it could easily use againstthe US. In view of the fact that taking the first step towardsdestruction would not only endanger American security in future, butalso that of the entire world by precipitating a contest in which eachof the participants could become more destructive than the other, thisgroup suggested that the technology be demonstrated in the full glareof the world, under the auspices of a world body (the United Nationswas in the process of being formed then). (Williams, 1956, pp. 952,953)
Gar Alperovitz has come out with the startling theory that presidentTruman was aware of the fact that there existed several alternatives tothe bomb. Just before Potsdam, on July 12, one of the several importantcodes that the US decoded mentioned in explicit terms that EmperorHirohito was seriously contemplating intervening personally to offersurrender. When Truman was informed of this, all he did was to dismissthe cable as just another of the many of the Emperor’s communications,saying it was ‘…the Jap Emperor asking for peace’. This was believed tobe the ideal time for the surrender; the only sticking point was whatformula was to be worked out vis-à-vis the Emperor, for taking theEmperor as a war criminal would have been the ultimate insult to anation that considered him god-incarnate, and was sure to provokerebellion of the highest degree. All along, from the time of Germany’ssurrender on May 8, the prospect of a Japanese surrender was always onthe cards: the American insistence that Russia enter the war aroundAugust 8 was meant to give them the advantage of diverting the Japanesein Manchuria. This would have given the Americans the leverage to takeon the Japanese army in the mainland, as a major force would have beendiverted to the fighting in Manchuria. “By midsummer, however, Japan’sposition had deteriorated so much that top U.S. military plannersbelieved the mere shock of a Red Army attack might be sufficient tobring about surrender and thus make an invasionunnecessary.”(Alperovitz, 1995)
Yet, with all these factors, Truman’s determination to nip the growthof Russia’s strength was far greater than all the considerations he wasexpected to take. His decision to override the decision of the group ofscientists was perhaps understandable, but the fact is that heoverlooked the decision of one of the most intimate insiders in hisadministration, Admiral Leahy, who, making a pensive reflection of theAmerican decision, had these to say: “It is my opinion that the use ofthis barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no materialassistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeatedand ready to surrender….” (Boorstein & Boorstein, 1990, p. 47) ‘[I]n being the first to use it, we … adopted an ethical standard commonto the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war inthat 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 ofall the facts presented in this paper, seems to have been an impetuousone; not only did the bombs cause appalling damage and put to use aninnovative technology that was to take man’s power of destruction tounseen heights, this decision of Truman’s, ignoring the advice of themoderate elements in his administration, also fulfilled the direpredictions that the group of scientists made and caused an arms race,whose implications we are still seeing today.
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