Should Us Have Dropped Atomic Bomb On Japan Essay Contest

As evidence of the link between the bomb decision and diplomacy toward Moscow, Mr. Alperovitz points to Truman's postponement of his Potsdam meeting with Stalin and Churchill until July 1945, when the new weapon would have been tested. At Potsdam, after hearing about the first successful detonation in New Mexico, Truman turned suddenly more truculent. According to Stimson, Churchill marveled that the President "was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting." Truman confided to his crony and reparations negotiator Edwin Pauley that the bomb "would keep the Russians straight." Mr. Alperovitz argues that "the U.S. feeling of cheerfulness rather than frustration" over differences with the Soviets at Potsdam "makes little sense unless one realizes that top policy makers were thinking ahead to the time when the force of the new weapon would be displayed."

But how might Truman, if he were disinclined to use the bomb, have ended the war without the large number of casualties required, by any estimate, for the invasion of Japan? Mr. Alperovitz says that the President could have shown himself a lot more eager to welcome the Soviets into the Asian conflict. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, had wanted Stalin to help pin the Japanese down on the Chinese mainland, making it harder for them to reinforce their home armies when the Americans invaded.

Mr. Alperovitz suggests that on the issue of Soviet participation in the Japanese war, Truman zigged and zagged after taking office in April 1945. In mid-June, American officials like General Marshall were arguing that a Soviet war declaration might "prove to be the decisive blow to force a Japanese surrender." But at Potsdam, Mr. Alperovitz writes, Truman sought to delay a Soviet war declaration: although it might have precluded the use of the bomb on Japan, it would have given Stalin a large foothold in east Asia. Mr. Alperovitz says that the timing of the Hiroshima bombing -- Aug. 6, 1945 -- was no accident. Two days later the Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese and then crossed the border into Manchuria.

MR. ALPEROVITZ offers another alternative for ending the war without using the bomb: relaxing the unconditional surrender demand issued by Roosevelt in 1943 at Casablanca. He suggests that the President might have provided assurances that if Tokyo surrendered, the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, would be permitted to retain his throne. This idea indeed found strong support among Truman's advisers. Stimson proposed that Truman allow the Japanese "a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty if it be shown to the complete satisfaction of the world that such a government will never again conspire to aggression." Mr. Alperovitz notes that in mid-August, after the bombs had been dropped and the Russians had entered the conflict, Truman and Byrnes were willing to provide assurances about the Emperor. Doesn't the fact that these weren't provided earlier, when they might have helped end the war, indicate an eagerness to drop the bomb?

Mr. Alperovitz gives less weight than other scholars to the arguments against such an offer. As the Stanford historian Barton Bernstein has recently noted in the journal Diplomatic History, the Tokyo regime of mid-summer 1945 was badly split over what kind of American peace offer, if any, to accept. At that point, granting a concession on the Emperor's role could have drawn the United States into extended bargaining with the Japanese leaders. Haggling with a regime that Roosevelt and Truman had denounced as criminal, that had attacked Pearl Harbor and that had committed well-publicized atrocities was the kind of thing the unconditional surrender doctrine had been drafted to avoid. Not irrationally, Truman told Churchill that he did not think the Japanese had "any military honor after Pearl Harbor." (And there is also the possibility that ambiguity over Hirohito's role might have impeded America's ability to occupy the country and reform the political system from the ground up.)

Mr. Alperovitz devotes considerable space to showing how Stimson's article in Harper's, misleading official memoirs and the American Government's refusal over the years to release certain classified documents helped enshrine the original explanation of the atomic bomb decision. Yet, as energetically as he argues his case, he is unlikely to convert those who do not believe that finding an alternative to the atomic bomb should have been an overarching priority for Truman in the summer of 1945.

Moreover, Mr. Alperovitz's new volume lacks what the Harvard historian Charles S. Maier has called the "shock value" of his earlier one. One reason is that we are more skeptical about the motives of our leaders and the origins of the cold war than we were in 1965. But another is the degree to which Mr. Alperovitz's views have pushed other scholars to re-examine their assumptions about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

IN "Code-Name Downfall," Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar, the authors of "CNN: War in the Gulf" and "Rickover: Controversy and Genius," reveal new sidelights on the planning to invade Japan. Amid some purple prose (the book begins, "The United States was plunged into despair on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941," and later says, "MacArthur's life and career were a parade of superlatives"), they show how the fall of Okinawa in July 1945 became the prelude to the planned landing by seven Army and three Marine divisions on Kyushu and the 17-division landing on the main Japanese island of Honshu, the latter action scheduled for March 1946. They describe the fictitious attacks and feints devised to deceive the foe, and the possible American use of poison gas, anthrax germs and atomic weapons during the invasion. Told of Hiroshima, one American planner said he wanted "six of these things" for the Kyushu landing. Ignorant of the danger of radiation to his own troops, General Marshall pondered using atomic bombs on Kyushu before the Americans came ashore.

Mr. Allen and Mr. Polmar explain that before the atomic bombs were dropped the Pentagon expected to be faced with Japanese resistance until November 1946. Grimly recalling a March 1945 bombing attack on the Japanese capital, General Marshall said, "We had 100,000 people killed in Tokyo in one night, and it had seemingly no effect whatsoever."

The authors also describe Truman's effort to assess the possible casualties that would result from a full-scale invasion. Whereas Mr. Alperovitz laments Truman's manipulation of casualty estimates after his retirement (in 1959 he argued that the bomb saved "millions of lives"), Mr. Allen and Mr. Polmar are more intrigued by the manipulation of casualty estimates before Truman made his decision. They note a "worst-case scenario" in June 1945 that estimated the number of battle casualties at 220,000, but caution that the military was not averse to reshaping casualty estimates in order to influence Truman's thinking on whether or not to invade Japan: "High estimates would make the invasion a far less attractive alternative to the bomb."

The authors display little ambivalence about the question raised by the second half of their subtitle, "And Why Truman Dropped the Bomb." They dispose of the immensely complex problem of whether or not the bomb should have been dropped in a few paragraphs, writing, "As for the use of the atomic bomb as an implied threat to the Soviet Union, geopolitics may have been on the minds of some of Truman's advisers, but the war and American lives were on his mind. Preparations for the massive amphibious assault on Japan were under way, and Truman went to Potsdam in July seeking assurance that Stalin would enter the war against Japan. Then Truman learned on July 16 that the atomic bomb would work, and he ordered it used. It was a weapon, and it might end the war without an invasion." Mr. Allen and Mr. Polmar conclude that Kyushu "would have been the bloodiest invasion in history" and "could have been surpassed by the assault of Honshu." The debate goes on.

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On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Another bomb fell Aug. 9 on Nagasaki. Decades later, controversy and misinformation still surround the decision to use nuclear weapons during World War II. The 70th anniversary of the event presents an opportunity to set the record straight on five widely held myths about the bomb.

1. The bomb ended the war.

The notion that the atomic bombs caused the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, has been, for many Americans and virtually all U.S. history textbooks, the default understanding of how and why the war ended. But minutes of the meetings of the Japanese government reveal a more complex story. The latest and best scholarship on the surrender, based on Japanese records, concludes that the Soviet Union’s unexpected entry into the war against Japan on Aug. 8 was probably an even greater shock to Tokyo than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima two days earlier. Until then, the Japanese had been hoping that the Russians — who had previously signed a nonaggression pact with Japan — might be intermediaries in negotiating an end to the war . As historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa writes in his book “Racing the Enemy,” “Indeed, Soviet attack, not the Hiroshima bomb, convinced political leaders to end the war.” The two events together — plus the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Aug. 9 — were decisive in making the case for surrender.

2. The bomb saved half a million American lives.

Archive footage from the plane that dropped ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the aftermath of that detonation. (Internet Archive)

In his postwar memoirs, former president Harry Truman recalled how military leaders had told him that a half-million Americans might be killed in an invasion of Japan. This figure has become canonical among those seeking to justify the bombing. But it is not supported by military estimates of the time. As Stanford historian Barton Bernstein has noted, the U.S. Joint War Plans Committee predicted in mid-June 1945 that the invasion of Japan, set to begin Nov. 1, would result in 193,000 U.S. casualties, including 40,000 deaths.

But, as Truman also observed after the war, if he had not used the atomic bomb when it was ready and GIs had died on the invasion beaches, he would have faced the righteous wrath of the American people.

3. The only alternative to the bomb was an invasion of Japan.

The decision to use nuclear weapons is usually presented as either/or: either drop the bomb or land on the beaches. But beyond simply continuing the conventional bombing and naval blockade of Japan, there were two other options recognized at the time.

The first was a demonstration of the atomic bomb prior to or instead of its military use: exploding the bomb on an uninhabited island or in the desert, in front of invited observers from Japan and other countries; or using it to blow the top off Mount Fuji, outside Tokyo. The demonstration option was rejected for practical reasons. There were only two bombs available in August 1945, and the demonstration bomb might turn out to be a dud.

The second alternative was accepting a conditional surrender by Japan. The United States knew from intercepted communications that the Japanese were most concerned that Emperor Hirohito not be treated as a war criminal. The “emperor clause” was the final obstacle to Japan’s capitulation. (President Franklin Roosevelt had insisted upon unconditional surrender, and Truman reiterated that demand after Roosevelt’s death in mid-April 1945.)

Although the United States ultimately got Japan’s unconditional surrender, the emperor clause was, in effect, granted after the fact. “I have no desire whatever to debase [Hirohito] in the eyes of his own people,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied powers in Japan after the war, assured Tokyo’s diplomats following the surrender.

Archive footage taken of the Japanese city of Nagasaki after it was destroyed by the atomic bomb ‘Fat Man’ on August 9, 1945. (Internet Archive)

4. The Japanese were warned before the bomb was dropped.

The United States had dropped leaflets over many Japanese cities, urging civilians to flee, before hitting them with conventional bombs. After the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945, which called on the Japanese to surrender, leaflets warned of “prompt and utter destruction” unless Japan heeded that order. In a radio address, Truman also told of a coming “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.” These actions have led many to believe that civilians were meaningfully warned of the pending nuclear attack. Indeed, a common refrain in letters to the editor and debates about the bomb is: “The Japanese were warned.”

But there was never any specific warning to the cities that had been chosen as targets for the atomic bomb prior to the weapon’s first use. The omission was deliberate: The United States feared that the Japanese, being forewarned, would shoot down the planes carrying the bombs. And since Japanese cities were already being destroyed by incendiary and high-explosive bombs on a regular basis — nearly 100,000 people were killed the previous March in the firebombing of Tokyo — there was no reason to believe that either the Potsdam Declaration or Truman’s speech would receive special notice.

5. The bomb was timed to gain a diplomatic advantage over Russia and proved a “master card” in early Cold War politics.

This claim has been a staple of revisionist historiography, which argues that U.S. policymakers hoped the bomb might end the war against Japan before the Soviet entry into the conflict gave the Russians a significant role in a postwar peace settlement. Using the bomb would also impress the Russians with the power of the new weapon, which the United States had alone.

In reality, military planning, not diplomatic advantage, dictated the timing of the atomic attacks. The bombs were ordered to be dropped “as soon as made ready.”

Postwar political considerations did affect the choice of targets for the atomic bombs. Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered that the historically and culturally significant city of Kyoto be stricken from the target list. (Stimson was personally familiar with Kyoto; he and his wife had spent part of their honeymoon there.) Truman agreed, according to Stimson, on the grounds that “the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long postwar period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians.”

Like Stimson, Truman’s secretary of state, James Byrnes, hoped that the bomb might prove to be a “master card” in subsequent diplomatic dealings with the Soviet Union — but both were disappointed. In September 1945, Byrnes returned from the first postwar meeting of foreign ministers, in London, lamenting that the Russians were “stubborn, obstinate, and they don’t scare.”

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.

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