This month marks the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And with each passing year the historical record is ever clearer that dropping the A-bombs was unnecessary, repugnant and very likely a war crime.
The bombings probably killed more than 200,000 Japanese civilians and maimed untold more. Such destruction of life stirs me to sorrow and outrage. That’s even more true given that there was an alternative available: the US could have dropped an A-bomb in or near Tokyo Bay. Such a warning shot could have persuaded the Japanese to end the war, and its humane nature would have enhanced the US’s moral standing.
The atomic bombings are often framed as the only alternative to a land invasion of a Japan that wouldn’t surrender under any but the most-dire circumstances. The possible need for an invasion loomed throughout 1945, and Americans naturally feared many US casualties. Much of a fanatic Japanese soldiery—and possibly many citizens—might fight to the last inch. One early study estimated 40,000 American soldiers’ deaths, yet President Harry Truman and others soon spoke of “half a million.”
But the A-bombs’ advent automatically changed that, allowing the US to wield the threat of nuclear attack. With the first device tested and proven in July 1945, and numerous others being readied early in August, America could have used their power as a new dimension of threat—rather than crudely dropping the bombs as mass killers.
Properly used as threats to ensure quick surrender, the A-bombs could have prevented virtually all further deaths in Japan—of Americans, Japanese and any others, from invasion, firebombing, A-bombing and ground warfare. That is, of course, precisely what the A-bombs did achieve. But the US hastily destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki first.
Tokyo Bay would have been the ideal place to display the bombs’ power. A large open area, the bay is next to Tokyo and all of Japan’s leaders, including the emperor. It offered a wide array of places—on vacant land or on water—to drop an A-bomb, for fully awesome effect. The mushroom-cloud explosion could be near or not-so-near to Tokyo, and more or less dangerous to Japan’s emperor, leaders, citizens and urban capital.
In this way, the US could have carefully maximized the scope of the threat, while minimizing the harm to Tokyo itself. And if the Japanese were crazily intransigent, we could have simply dropped another A-bomb, closer to Tokyo or in a low-population area. Even another, if needed.
But American leaders had acquired the habit of bombing cities, having attacked Berlin, Hamburg and even the cultural jewel of Dresden. US Air Force leaders such as Jimmy Doolittle gained instant fame from bombing raids over Japan. The hellish firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed some 250,000 civilians and maimed huge numbers more.
With the Japanese A-bombings, a key player was Leslie Groves, who had built up and managed the Manhattan Project over the years. He now chaired the committee guiding Truman’s actions, and he closely managed—daily and hourly—the planning, loading, and crew work to fly the bomb for dropping. Grove was determined to deploy them fast. Separately, a supposed threat of the Soviet Union’s invading Japan was cited as a reason for haste. Such an excuse to rush to bomb can likely be chalked up, at least partly, to self-interest by the US.
And the planning of Truman’s advisors—including Groves, Doolittle, and Curtis LeMay—was full of mistakes. Hiroshima emerged as a candidate after having escaped attack thus far in the conflict. It was almost entirely civilian, and any attention to its few military targets soon disappeared. Hiroshima was distant from Tokyo, and the blast itself wiped out all communication, so the Japanese leadership in Tokyo didn’t fully see the destruction. When the leveling of Hiroshima predictably gave Tokyo little awareness, Nagasaki was added. But that choice was even less logical, and it doubled the death toll and the stifling stain on America’s moral character.
The US had already exceeded rational and civilized bounds with our massive bombings in Europe and Japan. Our job was to conclude the war with a minimum of mega-deaths. By using the Tokyo Bay method to display the A-bombs’ power, America would have shown its compassion and humanity. But Truman and his people failed, and the harm was widespread and lasting.
On top of the Japanese deaths and casualties, the actual dropping of the A-bombs likely heightened the stakes at the advent of the Cold War. Had the US not dropped the A-bombs, the nuclear arms race might have proceeded more slowly and less wastefully, possibly without hydrogen bombs. The US and USSR might even have cultivated cooperation and prosperity, in place of mutual fears and military-industrial excesses.
This 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a sorrowful reminder: a final spasm of killing engulfed those two poor cities. Had the US instead fired a warning shot by dropping an A-bomb in Tokyo Bay, scarcely a soul would have died. And yet the leaders of that era chose to kill hundreds of thousands, instead.
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51g. The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Josef Stalin meet at the Potsdam Conference. They discussed the post-war order and peace treaty issues.
America had the bomb. Now what?
When Harry Truman learned of the success of the Manhattan Project, he knew he was faced with a decision of unprecedented gravity. The capacity to end the war with Japan was in his hands, but it would involve unleashing the most terrible weapon ever known.
American soldiers and civilians were weary from four years of war, yet the Japanese military was refusing to give up their fight. American forces occupied Okinawa and Iwo Jima and were intensely fire bombing Japanese cities. But Japan had an army of 2 million strong stationed in the home islands guarding against invasion.
A "mushroom" cloud rises over the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, following the detonation of "Fat Man." The second atomic weapon used against Japan, this single bomb resulted in the deaths of 80,000 Japanese citizens.
For Truman, the choice whether or not to use the atomic bomb was the most difficult decision of his life.
First, an Allied demand for an immediate unconditional surrender was made to the leadership in Japan. Although the demand stated that refusal would result in total destruction, no mention of any new weapons of mass destruction was made. The Japanese military command rejected the request for unconditional surrender, but there were indications that a conditional surrender was possible.
Regardless, on August 6, 1945, a plane called the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Instantly, 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized. In the months and years that followed, an additional 100,000 perished from burns and radiation sickness.
AJ Software & MultimediaThis map shows the range of the destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Exploding directly over a city of 320,000, the bomb vaporized over 70,000 people instantly and caused fires over two miles away.
Two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, where 80,000 Japanese people perished.
On August 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
Critics have charged that Truman's decision was a barbaric act that brought negative long-term consequences to the United States. A new age of nuclear terror led to a dangerous arms race.
Some military analysts insist that Japan was on its knees and the bombings were simply unnecessary. The American government was accused of racism on the grounds that such a device would never have been used against white civilians.
On August 6, the city of Hiroshima, Japan remembers those who lost their lives when the atomic bomb fell. Thousands attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony annually.
Other critics argued that American diplomats had ulterior motives. The Soviet Union had entered the war against Japan, and the atomic bomb could be read as a strong message for the Soviets to tread lightly. In this respect, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been the first shots of the Cold War as well as the final shots of World War II. Regardless, the United States remains the only nation in the world to have used a nuclear weapon on another nation.
Truman stated that his decision to drop the bomb was purely military. A Normandy-type amphibious landing would have cost an estimated million casualties. Truman believed that the bombs saved Japanese lives as well. Prolonging the war was not an option for the President. Over 3,500 Japanese kamikaze raids had already wrought great destruction and loss of American lives.
The President rejected a demonstration of the atomic bomb to the Japanese leadership. He knew there was no guarantee the Japanese would surrender if the test succeeded, and he felt that a failed demonstration would be worse than none at all. Even the scientific community failed to foresee the awful effects of radiation sickness. Truman saw little difference between atomic bombing Hiroshima and fire bombing Dresden or Tokyo.
The ethical debate over the decision to drop the atomic bomb will never be resolved. The bombs did, however, bring an end to the most destructive war in history. The Manhattan Project that produced it demonstrated the possibility of how a nation's resources could be mobilized.
Pandora's box was now open. The question that came flying out was, "How will the world use its nuclear capability?" It is a question still being addressed on a daily basis.
Find short, descriptive links to many of the important documents surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan here. The highlight of this website is a convincing interview with Dr. Leo Szilard, one of the scientists on the Manhattan Project, predicting the use of the bomb would start the arms race with the Soviet Union.
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One day after the bombing of Nagasaki, photographer Yosuke Yamahata documented the devastation. View the intense horror of nuclear war by taking this "Nagasaki Journey," then browse through the message boards to see how people were affected by this world-breaking tragedy.
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On July 24 I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make 'good use of it against the Japanese.' -President Harry Truman, Year of Decisions.
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