Reasons for Atomic Bombing

What everyone was told:

Everyone was told that the atomic bombings were carried out to end the war and to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, which might have been lost in invading the Mainland Japan.

Harry Truman said in a radio address on 9 August 1945: “Having found the bomb, we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned the pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us…”
Henry Stimson [the Secretary of War] wrote in his memoirs: “We estimated that if we should be forced to carry this plan to its conclusion, the major fighting would not end until the latter part of 1946, at the earliest. I was informed that such operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone…The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change the fact and I do not wish to gloss it over. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of a clash of great land armies. …“

It was not a military decision or a military need and it was known to be unnecessary:

Evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not a military decision or a military need and was known to be unnecessary to the decision makers to end the war. Harry Truman was the ultimate decision maker and Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, was the ultimate advisor to Harry Truman. Both of them were told that it would not be necessary.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of military leaders that advises the President, the Secretary of Defense/War and other government leaders. “[However, as far as the use of atomic bombs was concerned “[t]he Joint Chiefs of Staff never formally studied the decision and never made an official recommendation to the President. Brief informal discussions may have occurred, but no record even of these exists. There is no record whatsoever of the usual extensive staff work and evaluation of alternative options by the Joint Chiefs, nor did the Chiefs ever claim to be involved. (“The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Gar Alperovitz, New ed. Edition, 6 August 1996)”

Both Harry Truman and Henry Stimson knew that the Japanese Government had contacted Swedish and Russia counterparts in pursuit of peace, and it was a matter of time for Japan to surrender. At least, Henry Stimson knew that (1) the Japanese military and industrial bases and cities were bombed without Japanese military contest and to the extent to which a request had to be made to the Air Force to save a few cities for atomic bombings, and (2) the Japanese fleet, both navy and civilian, was destroyed and the sea blockade prevented Japan from importing oil and other supplies required to continue the war.

The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946 concluded that the atomic bombings were not necessary to end the war:

“…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. …Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that … Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated. (The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946)

The followings include accounts of some US military leaders:

..[Herbert] Hoover points out that on September 20, 1945, Major General Curtis LeMay, commander of the U.S. air force for its bombing of Japan, said “the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war… The war could have been over in two weeks without the Russians coming in and without the atomic bomb.” The following month, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, concurred: “The atomic bomb did not win the war against Japan. The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace….” Hoover recounts, further, that Admiral William D. Leahy later wrote that “it is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon… was of no material assistance… The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” Hoover’s editor, George Nash, adds a footnote saying that “in an interview (on November 11, 1963) [General Dwight D.] Eisenhower declared that he had opposed dropping the bomb for two reasons: ‘First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and… Second, I hated to see our country to be the first to use such a weapon.'” (Book Review Article, “Herbert Hoover’s ‘Secret History of World War II’ and Some Reflections it Prompts,” published in the Spring 2012 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 94-135.)

What made Japan surrender?

Many historians believe that the invasion by the Soviet Union, which started on 9 August 1945, was a decisive factor that ultimately made Japan surrender. Historically, the Soviet Union had been the biggest threat to the Japanese army.

A recent study by Japanese researchers suggests that the following four factors brought the decision to surrender (“Showa-shi Kougi (Showa History Lecture),” Tabun Suzuki, 2015):

  • A desire to avoid ultimate battles on the main land (because of the lack of capability to continue the war)
  • Atomic bombings
  • Soviet Union’s advancement
  • Acceptable conditions of non-conditional surrender (the sounding of the Potsdam Declaration)

The above statement does not necessarily contradict the dominant opinion by scholars that the atomic bombings were not necessary to end the war.

Similarly, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, the author of the 2005 book “Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan” says: “The bomb played a part in Japan’s surrender, but it may not have been necessary.”

Reasons for atomic bombing

Despite the fact that Harry Truman knew that it was a matter of time for Japan to surrender, why did he decide to use the atomic bombs, knowing that many people would be killed? Few historians, if not none, would oppose the idea that he and Henry Stimson, by actually showing the power of the atomic bombs, wanted to intimidate the Soviet Union, which did not have the technology to produce such bombs yet and which was known to become an enemy of the US again after the war. Henry Stimson’s following remark reinforces the above idea:

The National Archives in Washington contain US government documents that chart Japanese peace overtures as early as 1943. None was pursued. A cable sent on May 5, 1945 by the German ambassador in Tokyo and intercepted by the US dispels any doubt that the Japanese were desperate to sue for peace, including “capitulation even if the terms were hard”. Instead, the US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, told President Truman he was “fearful” that the US air force would have Japan so “bombed out” that the new weapon would not be able “to show its strength”. He later admitted that “no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb”. (Guardian, 6 August 2008)

One of the main reasons why GHQ took measures to prevent the dissemination of information about Hiroshima, including the suppression of reports on the medical effects of the atomic bombs, was that the US did not want the Soviet Union to know that only thousands out of those 70,000 who died by the end of the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, were believed to have died by the blast of the atomic bomb, which could indicate that atomic bombs were not so effective as a military weapon.

Another reason for Harry Truman’s decision can be found in his announcements soon after atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which he said respectively: “We have spent more than two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble of the history, and we have won.” and “Having found the bomb, we have used it.” These remarks suggest that there was no reason for him not to use the atomic bombs, particularly after spending an enormous amount of money without telling the public about it.

Hatred played a role.

The loss of lives of the Japanese was not a particular concern for Harry Truman or Henry Stimson. Harry Truman expressed his hatred of the Japanese in many public occasions as well as in his diaries, letters and private conversations.

Henry Stimson wrote in his memoir, [the use of atomic bombs was] the least abhorrent choice [of ending the war]. However, overseeing the Target Committee, he knew exactly where the atomic bombs would be dropped—in the heart of a dense urban area for maximum destruction and inevitably indiscriminately mass killings. He was the one who pushed for the internment of 112,000 Japanese Americans in 1942. (He was also the opponent of racial integration in the military, keeping the black soldiers serving only under white officers.) His controversial personality can be traced in his attitude toward the Jewish people as well:

Henry Stimson, the American Secretary of War in the Administration of President Roosevelt, tried to prevent Jewish refugees from Europe from reaching Palestine or the United States and opposed the creation of the State of Israel, according to a new study published.. by the Institute of Jewish Affairs, the research arm of the World Jewish Congress.

Writing in the Institute’s journal, Patterns of Prejudice, American Jewish historian Harvey Strum said that Stimson repeatedly urged Roosevelt not to let Jewish war refugees into the U.S., opposed efforts to persuade the British to lift their restrictions on immigration to Palestine, and viewed a Jewish State as a threat to Anglo-American interests in the Middle East.

Under Stimson’s leadership.., the U.S. War Department repeatedly refused during World War II to disrupt the mass extermination of the Jews by bombing the deportation railways leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz. (“Behind the Headlines the Nefarious Role of Henry Stimson,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 27 December 1984.)

Hatred was an integral part of the US strategy against the Japanese. Under Henry Stimson, US service men were given distorted and prejudice views toward the Japanese through educational videos such as “Know your enemy–Japan.” In the Gallup poll conducted shortly after the atomic bombings, 85 percent of the US citizens approved the bombings. It is safe to assume that with the public hatred toward the Japanese, which was reinforced by the politicians, Harry Truman had no hesitation in using the atomic bombs.

Today’s US society

A survey in 2015 by Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of the Americans still justify the atomic bombings on Japan. As noted elsewhere on this website, the majority of Americans are open to nuclear strikes on enemy nations even if they are told two million civilians would be killed by the strikes.

A recent rise of populism in the US has been accompanied with increased levels of hatred against certain peoples or certain segments of its population. If such hatred is applied to a (perceived) enemy nation, we may see an increased level of tolerance in the US society for the use of a nuclear weapon against such a nation. The public, instead of being a checking power against a potential error of judgement—a decision to use a nuclear weapon– by the political leader, may become a perceived supporter of such an error of judgement. Certainly, hatred or prejudice will not lead to a world without nuclear weapons.