August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman's decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman's choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell's famous essay, "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb."
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman's decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz's revisionist view that Truman was practicing "atomic diplomacy" won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian's attempt to create a "revisionist" display to mark the bomb's 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the "culture wars" between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb's power? We'll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that "unconditional surrender" did not mean the end of Japan's Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin's entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor "to bear the unbearable," in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific -- if only a matter of weeks -- would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let's use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such "conventional" firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decision-makers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it's difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan's apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World's Bomb (2008), World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay's firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in "self-deception" when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to "a purely military" target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else's powerful documentary, "The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb."
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.