This Thursday, August 6, will mark the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, an event that would lead to Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II, a global conflagration which, over six blood-filled years, had cost 75 million lives and inflicted untold misery and devastation on millions more.
At the time, the news of the nuclear weapons that demolished Hiroshima, and three days later Nagasaki, was greeted with enthusiasm by an American public that felt vindicated in its war against an implacable foe that did, after all, start the war. Americans at home were relieved that, with Tokyo’s imminent capitulation likely, their sons would not have to face the grim prospect of invading Japan after the heavy toll already taken in the Pacific fighting.
The conviction that the U.S. was justified in dropping the bombs remained high in surveys of the postwar generation. A Gallup poll taken in 1945 showed that 85 percent of Americans supported the atom-bombings. But over the past 75 years, public opinion has shifted significantly. By 1995, only 57 percent supported the nuclear strikes, a decrease of almost 30 percent. When President Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, a CBS news poll found a virtual split on the issue: 43 percent approved, 44 percent did not.
How had such a seismic shift in American public opinion come about? There were many reasons. First, the Cold War and its discontents. Once the Soviets had achieved nuclear parity, the looming threat of mutual annihilation altered public perspectives on the use of atomic weapons as a military option. The arms race and a burgeoning anti-nuclear movement contributed to a growing aversion to nuclear testing.
Popular anxiety over the apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear miscalculation would eventually lead to mutually reducing missile stockpiles and other measures limiting nuclear risk. Nevertheless, the public remained apprehensive at any prospect of nuclear warfare and chagrined at its baleful history.
It is therefore no surprise that this era saw a cottage industry of literature and documentaries on Hiroshima as well as movies depicting nuclear doom from the somber On the Beach to the satiric Dr. Strangelove. Then came Vietnam, with the government subjecting a small Asian country to a massive bombing campaign which, it assured an increasingly skeptical public, would bring victory even as U.S. casualties mounted ominously. For a growing number of Americans, the enemy was not Hanoi but the military-industrial-bureaucratic state. And the original sin at its roots was Hiroshima.
Thus, emboldened by the culture wars and enabled by access to newly available documents, a cadre of revisionist historians such as Gar Alperovitz in Atomic Diplomacy and other works, presented a counter-narrative to the bombing of Hiroshima, portraying the decision as primarily a diplomatic ploy to check Soviet ambitions rather than a military tactic to defeat Japan. They implied that exercising the nuclear option was not a blow to end World War II but to embark on the Cold War. If so, then in obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States had committed a war crime, the first in a series that culminated in bombing Hanoi and Haiphong.
Yet, as the debate persisted, the revisionists themselves have been subjected to some revisionism, casting further light on what we now know about President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb.
In Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, the military historian Richard B. Frank demonstrates that the Japanese were not on the verge of collapse but rather that the military junta that ruled Japan with an iron hand was determined to defend the home islands with a fanatic, massive, and powerful resistance in a fight-to-the-death strategy dubbed Ketsu-Go (Decisive Operation). The regime plausibly believed that it could sufficiently bleed a U.S. invasion force so that a war-weary America would be compelled to make peace. To maintain their grip on power, the Japanese hard-liners understood that in order to win, they simply didn’t have to lose.
Revisionist critics have presented an alternative picture. They argue that Japan knew it was beaten. That a peace party was making feelers of surrender to the still-neutral Soviets, overtures that were spurned by maximalists in Washington. That a 1946 Strategic Bombing Study issued after the war concluded that the atomic bombs were unnecessary in bringing Tokyo to terms and that a combination of conventional aerial bombing and a naval blockade would have sufficed without a costly invasion. They further cite postwar reappraisals by various military leaders to the effect that the bomb may not have been necessary to end the conflict.
According to the revisionists, it was only the machinations of U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes, primarily intent on cowing the Russians with a demonstration of American nuclear might, that deflected a viable peace accord and drove a path to the bomb. They maintain that Tokyo would have submitted to American terms that were issued in late July 1945 at the Potsdam conference to sort out postwar arrangements, had the U.S. omitted a demand for unconditional surrender and included an assurance that Emperor Hirohito would be left on the throne, which Byrnes deleted from the Potsdam proposal.
Ironically, for a critique that argues for Japanese receptivity to a settlement, the revisionist case is strangely Anglocentric. It battens on American diplomacy and pays slight attention to what was occurring within the inner circles of Japan’s military command, the only body that could determine whether, and in what manner, hostilities might cease. Tokyo’s so-called peace feelers were offered not to the Americans but to the Russians, with the aim of splitting the Allies. The envoys who made the initiatives had to tread cautiously because they were viewed with suspicion and animus by the hard-liners. And in any case, they did not have the power to effect a peace accord.
Moreover, their “peace terms” included, at minimum, retaining Japanese conquests in Manchuria together with sovereignty over Korea, Formosa, and other conquered territories, leaving an intact Japanese military ready to eventually spoil for another war. The idea that the United States, China and its allies would even sit down to consider such a proposal was absurd. Indeed, the junta saw these “initiatives” as little more than a ploy to test the mettle of the Americans. U.S. intercepts showed that had Washington made any concessions at this stage, the hard-liners would have read it as a weakening of American will to pursue the war.
What was critical in all this was not what transpired in Washington but in Tokyo.
As Richard Frank observes: “It was Japanese, not American, leaders who controlled how and when the Pacific war would end. Those insisting that Japan’s surrender could have been procured without recourse to atomic bombs cannot point to any supporting credible evidence” from the inner circle that controlled Japan’s destiny: the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, and the emperor.
Vital to U.S understanding of the Japanese war council’s thinking was the intelligence supplied by Ultra and Magic, the programs that had broken Japan’s codes and given the U.S. a vital window into the deliberations of the Japanese warlords. And what was learned from these intercepts—later verified by postwar testimony from captured participants—was that the junta had no intention of surrendering, not after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, nor after the second fell on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Nor did the Soviet entry into the war on Aug. 8 alter their determination.
As for the stratagem of exploding a “demonstration” bomb before a Japanese delegation, not only would this have been impracticable, but that it stood a chance of success was swiftly disproved by Hiroshima itself, which had no impact on the military clique, nor did Nagasaki. After the second bomb was dropped, the Supreme Council was still at loggerheads in a 3-3 tie over further resistance. It was only the intervention of the emperor at this point “to bear the unbearable” that broke the impasse. And even then, die-hard officers mounted an aborted coup in an attempt to fight on.
Little Boy, the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, killed and wounded 150,000 people, the majority from the initial blast and fires, the rest from radiation. Fat Man, the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, accounted for another 70,000 killed and wounded. While seen as discreet events, inflicting mass death from the air was in fact the culmination of a fire-bombing campaign in 1945 that exacted a tremendous toll on Japan’s largely wooden cities. The incendiary raids of March 9-10 on Tokyo alone killed 97,000 and wounded 40,000. Another 86,000 were slain in the bombing of other Japanese cities, an often unremarked-on result of “conventional” bombing, which was greater than the combined fatalities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Each of the U.S. military branches, competing in inter-service rivalry, believed that it alone could bring the enemy to heel: the Air Force by bombing, the Navy by blockade, the Army by invasion. As the British and the Germans had already demonstrated, “conventional” air power alone could not break a nation’s will to fight, nor would it likely do so against a fanatical Japanese military.
But it would likely have taken hundreds of thousands of more Japanese lives in the process. A naval blockade would have led to famine in a population already on a near starvation diet, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of more Japanese in thrall to a military leadership for whom surrender was unthinkable. Moreover, such a strategy would take months, or years, while U.S. Navy vessels were subject to formidable kamikaze attack.
An invasion would have been met by fanatical Japanese resistance that would have exacted a catastrophic toll in American casualties. A two-pronged assault led by General Douglas MacArthur was planned starting that fall. The first, code-named Olympic, set for Nov. 1, targeted the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu; the second, Coronet, scheduled for March 1, 1946, aimed at the main island of Honshu where Tokyo was situated.
As noted by Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar in Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan—And Why Truman Dropped the Bomb, although MacArthur low-balled estimates of American casualties (figures often cited by revisionists) this did not account for Japan’s rapidly reinforcing Kyushu with 900,000 men.
According to Allen and Polmar, the latest estimate, issued by the medical staff of the Sixth Army, which would actually have to do the fighting, might have resulted in almost a half-million American casualties, nearly 150,000 fatal, on Kyushu alone. Allen and Polmar assert that “Kyushu would have been the bloodiest battle in history. And it could have been surpassed by the assault on Honshu.”
In addition to formidable ground troops supported by tanks and artillery, American forces would have encountered a massive civilian defense force, 8,500 kamikazes targeting vulnerable U.S. landing craft and a die-hard military prepared to use large stockpiles of poison-gas.
For revisionists to quibble over “lower” figures would provide small comfort to the mothers of thousands of American boys who would have been sacrificed in the onslaught.
It was this reality that prompted Truman to order the atomic-bomb strikes. His decision likely saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. This was his goal, and rightly so—any American president’s first priority in wartime is to limit the loss of American life.
And in doing so, Truman ultimately may have also saved millions of Japanese. Others were rescued as well, such as the 300,000 surviving romusha, laborers enslaved by the Japanese in their Asian conquests, and over 100,000 interred Allied civilians and 16,000 American prisoners of war. More than 8,000 had already perished under the most brutal conditions. They also likely would have been slaughtered if the U.S. invaded Japan.
In contemplating an invasion, American planners had to consider the bloody price paid by U.S. forces as they seized Japanese-held islands across the Pacific. On Okinawa alone, Americans suffered upwards of 50,000 casualties, more than 12,000 fatal. The Japanese defenders were virtually wiped out, losing 110,000. Worse still, they sacrificed their civilians; at least 60,000 died on Okinawa. On Saipan, almost half the civilian population of 20,000 committed suicide, indoctrinated to be fearful of falling into American hands. Wherever the Japanese could no longer evacuate their troops, the garrisons fought to the death.
People nowadays tend to blur the downfalls of Germany and Japan, but they were critically different. In May 1945, the Nazis were crushed, Germany was overrun, Hitler was dead, and the remaining German armies were fleeing west in hopes of capture by the British and Americans rather than falling into Soviet hands. (There is little doubt that had the military situation required it, the United States—which had reduced German cities to rubble and had leveled Hamburg and Dresden—would not have hesitated to use the bomb against Germany, its original primary target.) But in August 1945, although the Japanese military machine was battered, it was still formidable, intact, and led by a determined, ruthless, unified command.
Its territory, although besieged, was unconquered, and it did not yet consider itself defeated. It was the A-bomb that provided the shock that brought it to surrender.
Hirohito was still ready to fight on after Okinawa. It was only on Aug. 10, following the bombing of Nagasaki, when the U.S signaled to Tokyo that the emperor could remain on the throne “subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers,” that Hirohito lent his weight to surrender. And, as Stanley Weintraub writes in The Last Great Victory, even this took another fraught four days before a deadlocked Supreme Council finally acceded to the emperor’s will. As President Truman remarked concerning Hirohito: “We told ‘em we’d tell ‘em how to keep him, but we’d make the terms.”
The decision to keep the emperor turned out to be critical since he was the only source of authority that could not only guarantee a formal surrender but, equally important, assure the capitulation of Japanese armies scattered through Asia, whose commanders would otherwise have been reluctant to give up. Typical was the response of General Okamura, commander of the Japanese army occupying China: “Such a disgrace as the surrender of several million troops without fighting is not paralleled in the world’s military history.”
The unified surrender of these troops—spread over China, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines—was possible only under the aegis of the emperor. And as he acknowledged, it was the atomic bomb that was the deciding factor in his capitulating. The U.S. public of 1945 that supported bombing Hiroshima by 85 percent was not more callous than our own.
It simply had direct experience of the butcher’s bill.
When Americans think of “the good war,” it is often the battle against Hitler that comes to mind: Britain’s bravery in the Blitz, the G.I.s at Normandy, the Bulge, the Rhine, liberating the camps: a war of conscience against radical evil. The campaigns fought against Japan do not seem to have retained the same resonance in the national mythos. Aside from the stirring image of the Marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, the other battles seem to have faded into the past with associations that are indistinct (Kwajalein, Peleliu, Tarawa) or hard to remember.
It is easier for most Americans to make a pilgrimage to Normandy—and on to Paris—than to pay homage to the fallen at Guadalcanal. For too many Americans, the Pacific War began with Pearl Harbor, led to the disgraceful internment of the Nisei, and ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It does not have the aura of “the good war.” But in fact, the United States was fighting an implacable military dictatorship whose forces had inflicted a wave of atrocities in their wake from the rape of Nanking (200,000 victims) to the Bataan Death March to the sack of Manila (100,000).
The Japanese warlords had enslaved a large swath of Asia, which they ruled with brutal force as well as holding their own people in thrall. The courageous men who fought to bring their regime down deserve our homage. And the fateful decision that saved many of their lives and brought the war to a speedy conclusion must be seen, for all the devastation it wrought, as a necessary one that ultimately achieved a benign occupation that led to peace and prosperity for both the victors and the vanquished.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday.