The 50th anniversary of the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has produced a wholly predictable debate over the necessity and morality of that decision. Or perhaps debate is the wrong word. All too typical of this year’s commemorative activities was a proposed exhibit on Hiroshima at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; the script for this exhibit presented a picture, in the words of an irate Wall Street Journal editorial, of a “besieged Japan yearning for peace” and lying “at the feet of an implacably violent enemy—the United States.” Although the exhibit was subsequently canceled, it encapsulated a point of view that has now endured for a full half-century, and shows no sign of waning.
On August 6, 1945 the American war plane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing between 70,000 and 100,000 Japanese. Three days later another atomic device was exploded over Nagasaki. Within a few days Japan surrendered, and the terrible struggle that we call World War II was over.
At the time, the American people cheered the bombings without restraint, and for the simplest of reasons. As the literary historian Paul Fussell, then a combat soldier expecting to take part in the anticipated invasion of Japan, would later recall:
We learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, and for all the practiced phlegm of our tough façades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live.
At that moment, few if any Americans doubted that the purpose of this first use of atomic bombs was to bring the war to the swiftest possible end, and thereby to avert American casualties.
But the moment was short-lived. As early as 1946, challenges to the dominant opinion appeared and soon multiplied. To a large extent, the early revisionists—prominent among them such figures as Norman Cousins, P.M.S. Blackett, Carl Marzani, and the historians William Apple-man Williams and D.F. Fleming—were influenced by the emerging cold war, whose origins, for the most part, they attributed to American policy under President Truman. As one exemplar of the new revisionist movement put it:
The bomb was dropped primarily for its effect not on Japan but on the Soviet Union. One, to force a Japanese surrender before the USSR came into the Far Eastern war, and two, to show under war conditions the power of the bomb. Only in this way could a policy of intimidation [of the Soviet Union] be successful.
Another phrased the same purpose in different words:
The United States dropped the bomb to end the war against Japan and thereby stop the Russians in Asia, and to give them sober pause in Eastern Europe.
In 1965, in Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, Gar Alperovitz picked up the main themes of the earlier writers, arguing for them now on the basis of new documentation and in a cultural climate—the climate of the mid-60’s—newly hospitable to revisionist interpretations of American motives and behavior. According to Alperovitz, the bombs were not needed “to end the war and save lives—and . . . this was understood by American leaders at the time.” Their aim, he wrote, was political, not military; their target was not Japan but the Soviet Union.
The chief villain was Harry Truman, who, in Alperovitz’s reading, was bent on reversing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy of peaceful accommodation with the Soviets. Thus, when he learned of the prospect of the bomb, Truman decided to delay the Allied meeting at Potsdam until the weapon could be tested. If it worked, he could take a tougher line in Eastern Europe and, perhaps, end the war before the Soviets were able to make gains in East Asia. In his eagerness to achieve these political goals, Truman failed to give proper attention to Japanese peace feelers; refused to change the demand for unconditional surrender, which was a barrier to Japanese acceptance of peace terms; and did not wait to see if Soviet entry into the Asian war might by itself cause Japan to surrender. In short, the confidence provided by the American monopoly on atomic weapons allowed Truman to launch, at Japan’s expense, a “diplomatic offensive” against the Soviet Union, one which would play a role of great importance in engendering the subsequent cold war.
Because of his more detailed arguments, resting in part on newly available documents; because protest over the Vietnam war was raising questions about the origins of the cold war; and because a new generation of American diplomatic historians, trained or influenced by early revisionists like William Appleman Williams, had come onto the academic scene, Alperovitz’s book enjoyed great influence and established the direction which the debate over Hiroshima has taken up to this very day. Indeed, Alperovitz is in many ways the “dean” of atomic revisionism. A second edition of his book was published in 1985, and the latest version has just appeared under the title The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb;1 a summary version was published as an article, “Hiroshima: Historians Reassess,” in the Summer 1995 issue of the quarterly Foreign Policy.
Alperovitz’s eminence is all the more remarkable in that both his chief thesis and most of his arguments have, from their first appearance, been shredded by other scholars, his fellow revisionists among them. In, for example, The Politics of War and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 (1968), Gabriel Kolko, without mentioning Alperovitz or his book by name, directly refuted almost all his findings. Other revisionist critics found, in the words of a 1974 summary of their views, that
the book strained the evidence, failed critically to assess sources, neglected the Roosevelt period, addressed the wrong questions, exaggerated the impact of the bomb, misunderstood Truman, and forced events into a dubious pattern.
This new generation of revisionists, notably Martin J. Sherwin and Barton J. Bernstein, stressed the essential continuity between the policies of Truman and those of Roosevelt, who had also insisted on secrecy and on keeping information about the atomic bomb away from the Soviets. Where Sherwin found no evidence of an elaborately planned showdown or “strategy of delay” in dealing with the Russians, Bernstein was even more emphatic. In his view, the hope of using the atomic bomb to produce and “cement” a peace that was to America’s liking was only “a tasty bonus,” and was in no way “essential to propel American leaders in 1945 to use the bomb on Japan.”
These, the findings of two of the most scholarly revisionist historians, amounted to a rejection of a basic tenet of the tradition as represented by Alperovitz. And yet, even as they demolished his arguments, the new revisionists remained wedded to a number of his major conclusions. By the time these newer scholars appeared on the scene, condemnation of the bomb had become a central element in the larger revisionist project of proving the general error and evil of American policy, and for many it could not be abandoned, whatever the cost in faithfulness to the evidence. And so, even as they conceded that the bomb had not been used to advance the incipient cold-war political interests of the U.S., they shifted the central ground of argument to another question. Granting that the bomb had been used to bring the war to a swift end in order to avoid an invasion of Japan and the consequent loss of American lives, they proceeded to question whether it was either a necessary or a morally acceptable means to that end. Their answer was: no.
That, in a nutshell, is the answer that is still being given today, and where the argument has to be engaged. For the school that I have called “revisionist” now represents something more like a scholarly consensus, not to say a conventional wisdom universally parroted by educators, pundits, and the popular media. For distilled versions of this conventional wisdom, one need look no farther than the essays gathered in the “Special Report” which Newsweek devoted to the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima (July 24, 1995), or Murray Sayle’s essay in the July 31 New Yorker, or the July 27 Peter Jennings special on ABC, Hiroshima: Why the Bomb Was Dropped.
Let us begin with the first line of revisionist attack, which is to question whether an invasion of Japan would have been so costly in American lives as to justify the use of atomic bombs in order to avoid it.
In his memoirs, President Truman wrote that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have entailed the loss of 500,000 American lives. In their own respective memoirs, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of State James Byrnes proposed the figure of one million lives, or one million casualties overall.2 The revisionists have pounced on both these estimates, producing lengthy arguments to show that they are impossible and leaving the impression that the numbers were cut from whole cloth to justify the bombings after the fact. All this is meant to undermine the probity of American leaders by showing them to be liars: if anticipated casualties at the time were fewer than the claims made after the war, the revisionists argue, then fear of such casualties could not have been the motive for dropping the bomb.
But some anticipations of casualties at the time were in fact quite high. A study done in August 1944 for the Joint Chiefs of Staff projected that an invasion of Japan would “cost a half-million American lives and many more that number in wounded,” while a memorandum from Herbert Hoover to President Truman in May 1945 estimated that a negotiated peace with Japan would “save 500,000 to one million lives.” There is every reason to believe that such round, frightening numbers lingered in the minds of Truman and Stimson long after they were first received, and that they haunted all future deliberations.
More precise estimates were made nearer in time to the use of the bombs. In preparation for a meeting with President Truman scheduled for June 18, 1945, the army’s Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, asked General Douglas MacArthur for a figure of American casualties in the projected invasion of Kyushu (code name: Olympic). Marshall was shocked by MacArthur’s reply: 105,050 battle casualties (dead and wounded) in the first 90 days alone, and another 12,600 casualties among American noncombatants. Marshall called these figures unacceptably high.
In connection with that same meeting on June 18, the document that has received the most attention by revisionists is a study by the Joint War Plans Committee, prepared on June 15. It estimated that casualties in an invasion of southern Kyushu on November 1, followed some months later by an assault on the Tokyo plain, would be a relatively low 40,000 dead, 150,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing, for a total of 193,500 casualties in the entire two-pronged operation.
There are, however, several problems with these estimates. To begin with, they did not include naval casualties, although experience at Okinawa showed these were certain to be numerous. A separate estimate did exist for such losses—9,700 in the Kyushu invasion—but it excluded the unknowable number of casualties that would be suffered by American soldiers and sailors on transports struck by kamikaze attacks. Intercepted Japanese military messages revealed that the Japanese had about 10,000 planes, half of them kamikazes, to defend the home islands. In addition, the Japanese counted on flying bombs, human torpedoes, suicide-attack boats, midget suicide submarines, motorboat bombs, and navy swimmers to be used as human mines. All of these “had been used at Okinawa and the Philippines with lethal results,” and the intercepts showed that they were now being placed on Kyushu.3
The report offering the figure of 40,000 dead, moreover, was peppered with disclaimers that casualties “are not subject to accurate estimate” and that the estimate was “admittedly only an educated guess.” Indeed, when the report went from the original committee up to the Joint planners, it omitted the casualty figures altogether on the grounds that they were “not subject to accurate estimate.” The document then went to Assistant Chief of Staff General John E. Hull. In his accompanying memorandum to General Marshall, Hull suggested that losses in the first 30 days in Kyushu would be on the order of those taken at Luzon, or about 1,000 casualties per day. Hull’s memorandum, and not the committee report listing specific figures, was read out by Marshall at the June 18 conference with the President.
At the meeting itself, Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, suggested that Luzon was not as sound an analogy as Okinawa. There, American casualties had run to 75,000, or some 35 percent of the attacking force. “Marshall,” writes the historian Edward Drea, “allowed that 766,700 assault troops would be employed against Kyushu. Although unstated, a 35-percent casualty rate translated to more than a quarter-million American casualties.” As for the President, he was very mindful of the bloodbath at Okinawa, and he demanded the “Joint Chiefs’ assurance that an invasion of Kyushu would neither repeat that savagery nor degenerate into race war.” There is no evidence that Truman ever saw or heard the omitted low figures for the entire operation that had been drawn up by the Joint War Plans Committee.
But whatever the value of any of these estimates, they soon became obsolete. Marshall’s calculation rested on the assumption that Kyushu would be defended by eight Japanese divisions, or fewer than 300,000 men, and that American domination of the sea and air would make reinforcement impossible. Intercepts of Japanese military communications soon made a mockery of those expectations. By July 21, the estimate of Japanese troops on Kyushu had grown to 455,000; by the end of the month, to 525,000. Colonel Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence officer, took note of the new situation: “This threatening development, if not checked, may grow to a point where we attack on a ratio of one (1) to one (1), which is not the recipe for victory.” Soon the number of Japanese troops on Kyushu rose to 680,000 and, on July 31, a medical estimate projected American battle and non-battle casualties needing treatment at 394,859. This figure, of course, excluded those killed at once, who would be beyond treatment.
Years later, in a letter, Truman described a meeting in the last week of July at which Marshall suggested the invasion would cost “at a minimum one-quarter-of-a-million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy. The other military and naval men present agreed.” If Truman’s recollection was accurate, this may have been the last such estimate before the dropping of the bomb; but whether accurate or not, there can be no doubt that Marshall’s own concern did not abate even after Hiroshima. On the very next day he sent a message to MacArthur expressing alarm at the Japanese strength on southern Kyushu, and asking for alternative invasion sites. On August 11, five days after Hiroshima, three days after the Soviets had entered the war, and two days after Nagasaki, when the Japanese had still not surrendered, Marshall thought it would be necessary “to continue a prolonged struggle” and even raised the possibility of using atomic bombs as tactical weapons against massed enemy troops during the invasion.
As the foregoing suggests, it was, and remains, impossible to make convincing estimates of the casualties to be expected in case of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands. From the beginning the debate has been tendentious, distracting attention from more important questions. The large numbers offered by Stimson and Truman in their memoirs may not have been accurate, but the attacks on those numbers by the revisionists are at least as suspect. No one can be sure that the true figure would have been closer to the lower than to the higher estimates.
In any case, what matters is not what American leaders claimed after the war, but what they believed before the atomic bombs were used. On that point, there can be no doubt. In discussions that were not shaped by attempts to justify using the bomb, since it had not yet even been tested, men like Truman, Stimson, and Marshall were deeply worried over the scale of American casualties—whatever their precise number—that were certain to be incurred by an invasion. The President could not face another Okinawa, much less something greater. That is all we need to know to understand why he and his associates were prepared to use the bomb.
Yet this conclusion, supported both by the evidence and by common sense, has been furiously resisted by revisionists and their large cohorts of fellow-travelers. Thus, a 1990 account of the current state of the question reports: “The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time . . . an invasion was a remote possibility.” This would have been welcome news indeed to General Marshall, who as we have seen was deeply concerned about the difficulty and human cost of such an invasion right up to the moment of surrender.
A second pillar of the argument that the dropping of the bomb was unnecessary goes as follows. The Japanese had already been defeated, and it was only a brief matter of time before continued conventional bombing and shortages caused by the naval blockade would have made them see reason. They were, in fact, already sending out peace feelers in the hope of ending the war. If the Americans had been more forthcoming, willing to abandon their demand for unconditional surrender and to promise that Japan could retain its emperor, peace could have come without either an invasion or the use of the bomb.
This particular case rests in large part on a quite rational evaluation of the condition of Japan and its dismal military prospects in the spring of 1945, and on the evidence that Japanese officials were indeed discussing the possibility of a negotiated peace, using the Soviets as intermediaries. But neither of these lines of argument proves the point; nor do both of them taken together.
Even the most diehard military leaders of Japan knew perfectly well how grim their objective situation was. But this did not deter them from continuing the war, as the most reputable study of the Japanese side of the story makes clear.4 Although they did not expect a smashing and glorious triumph, they were confident of at least winning an operational victory “in the decisive battle for the homeland.” Since any negotiated peace would be considered a surrender which would split the nation apart, Japan’s militarists wanted to put it off as long as possible, and to enter negotiations only on the heels of a victory.
Some thought an American invasion could be repelled. Most hoped to inflict enough damage to make the invaders regroup. Others were even more determined; they “felt that it would be far better to die fighting in battle than to seek an ignominious survival by surrendering the nation and acknowledging defeat.”
Premier Kantaro Suzuki supported the army’s plan, and was content to prosecute the war with every means at his disposal—for that, after all, was “the way of the warrior and the path of the patriot.” At a conference on June 8, 1945, in the presence of the emperor, the Japanese government formally affirmed its policy: “The nation would fight to the bitter end.”
In spite of that, some Japanese officials did try to end the war by diplomatic negotiation before it was too late. Early efforts had been undertaken by minor military officials, who approached American OSS officers in Switzerland in April; but they were given no support from Tokyo. In July, some members of the Japanese government thought they could enlist the help of the Soviet Union in negotiating a peace that would not require a surrender or the occupation of the home islands. It is hard to understand why they thought the USSR would want to help a state it disliked and whose territory it coveted, especially when Japanese prospects were at their nadir; but such indeed was their hope.
The officials sent their proposals to Naotake Sato, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow. Their messages, and Sato’s responses, were intercepted and must have influenced American plans considerably.
Sato warned his interlocutors in Tokyo that there was no chance of Soviet cooperation. An entry in the diary of Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal for July 15, 1945 reports “the gist of [Sato’s] final message . . . Japan was thoroughly and completely defeated and . . . the only course open was quick and definite action recognizing such fact.” Sato repeated this advice more than once, but the response from Tokyo was that the war must continue.
Revisionists and others have argued that the United States could have paved the way by dropping the demand for unconditional surrender, and especially that the U.S. should have indicated the emperor would be retained. But intercepts clearly revealed (according to Gerhard Weinberg in A World at Arms) that “the Japanese government would not accept the concept of unconditional surrender even if the institution of the imperial house were preserved.” And then there were the intercepts of military messages, which led to the same conclusion—namely, as Edward J. Drea writes, that “the Japanese civil authorities might be considering peace, but Japan’s military leaders, who American decision-makers believed had total control of the nation, were preparing for war to the knife.”
The demand for unconditional surrender had in any case been asserted by Roosevelt and had become a national rallying cry. Truman could not lightly abandon it, nor is there reason to think that he wanted to. Both he and Roosevelt had clear memories of World War I and how its unsatisfactory conclusion had helped bring on World War II. In the former conflict, the Germans had not surrendered unconditionally; their land had not been occupied; they had not been made to accept the fact of their defeat in battle. Demagogues like Hitler had made use of this opportunity to claim that Germany had not lost but had been “stabbed in the back” by internal traitors like the socialists and the Jews, a technique that made it easier to rouse the Germans for a second great effort. In 1944, Roosevelt said that “practically all Germans deny the fact that they surrendered during the last war, but this time they are going to know it. And so are the Japs.”
In the event, Truman did allow the Japanese to keep their emperor. Why did he not announce that intention in advance, to make surrender easier? Some members of the administration thought he should do so, but most feared that any advance concession would be taken as a sign of weakness, and encourage the Japanese bitterenders in their hope that they could win a more favorable peace by holding out. And there were also those who were opposed to any policy that would leave the emperor in place. These, as it happens, were among the more liberal members of the administration, men like Dean Acheson and Archibald MacLeish. Their opposition was grounded in the belief that, as MacLeish put it, “the throne [was] an anachronistic, feudal institution, perfectly suited to the manipulation and use of anachronistic, feudal-minded groups within the country.” It is also worth pointing out, as did the State Department’s Soviet expert, Charles Bohlen, that a concession with regard to the emperor, as well as negotiations in response to the so-called peace feelers on any basis other than unconditional surrender, might well have been seen by the Soviets as a violation of commitments made at Yalta and as an effort to end the war before the Soviet Union could enter it.
What if the U.S. had issued a public warning that it had the atomic bomb, and described its fearful qualities? Or warned the Japanese of the imminent entry of the Soviet Union into the fighting? Or, best of all, combined both warnings with a promise that Japan could keep its emperor? Again, there are no grounds for believing that any or all of these steps would have made a difference to the determined military clique that was making Japan’s decisions.
Even after the atomic bomb had exploded at Hiroshima on August 6, the Japanese refused to yield. An American announcement clarified the nature of the weapon that had done the damage, and warned that Japan could expect more of the same if it did not surrender. Still, the military held to its policy of resistance and insisted on a delay until a response was received to the latest Japanese approach to the Soviet Union. The answer came on August 8, when the Soviets declared war and sent a large army against Japanese forces in Manchuria.
The foolishness of looking to the Soviets was now inescapably clear, but still Japan’s leaders took no steps to end the fighting. The Minister of War, General Korechika Anami, went so far as to deny that Hiroshima had been struck by an atomic bomb. Others insisted that the U.S. had used its only bomb there, or that world opinion would prevent the Americans from using any others they might have. Then on August 9 the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, again doing terrible damage.
The Nagasaki bomb convinced even Anami that “the Americans appear to have 100 atomic bombs . . . they could drop three per day. The next target might well be Tokyo.” Even so, a meeting of the Imperial Council that night failed to achieve a consensus to accept defeat. Anami himself insisted that Japan continue to fight. If the Japanese people “went into the decisive battle in the homeland determined to display the full measure of patriotism . . . Japan would be able to avert the crisis facing her.” The chief of the army general staff, Yoshijiro Umezu, expressed his confidence in the military’s “ability to deal a smashing blow to the enemy,” and added that in view of the sacrifices made by the many men who had gladly died for the emperor, “it would be inexcusable to surrender unconditionally.” Admiral Soemu Toyoda, chief of the navy’s general staff, argued that Japan could now use its full air power, heretofore held in reserve in the homeland. Like Anami, he did not guarantee victory, but asserted that “we do not believe that we will be possibly defeated.”
These were the views of Japan’s top military leaders after the explosion of two atomic bombs and the Soviet attack on Manchuria.
Premier Suzuki and the others who were by now favoring peace knew all this was madness. The Allies would never accept the military’s conditions—restrictions on the extent of Japanese disarmament, on the occupation of Japan, and on trials of Japanese leaders for war crimes—and the continuation of warfare would be a disaster for the Japanese people. To break the deadlock he took the extraordinary step of asking the emperor to make the decision. (Normally no proposal was put to the emperor until it had achieved the unanimous approval of the Imperial Council.) At 2 A.M. on August 10, Emperor Hirohito responded to the premier’s request by giving his sanction to the acceptance of the Allied terms. The Japanese reply included the proviso that the emperor be retained.
There was still disagreement within the American government on this subject. Public opinion was very hostile to the retention of the emperor, and in particular, as Gerhard Weinberg has written, “the articulate organizations of the American Left” resisted any concessions and “urged the dropping of additional atomic bombs instead.” At last, the U.S. devised compromise language that accepted the imperial system by implication, while providing that the Japanese people could establish their own form of government.
Although the Japanese leaders found this acceptable, that was not the end of the matter. Opponents of peace tried to reverse the decision by a coup d’état. They might have succeeded had General Anami supported them, but he was unwilling to defy the emperor’s orders. He solved his dilemma by committing suicide, and the plot failed. Had it succeeded, the war would have continued to a bloody end, with Japan under the brutal rule of a fanatical military clique. Some idea of the thinking of this faction is provided by an intercept of an August 15 message to Tokyo from the commander of Japan’s army in China:
Such a disgrace as the surrender of several million troops without fighting is not paralleled in the world’s military history, and it is absolutely impossible to submit to the unconditional surrender of a million picked troops in perfectly healthy shape. . . .
It was the emperor, then, who was decisive in causing Japan to surrender. What caused him to act in so remarkable a way? He was moved by the bomb—and by the Soviet declaration of war. (That declaration, scheduled for August 15, was itself hastened by the use of the bomb, and moved up to August 8.) But statements by the emperor and premier show clearly that they viewed the Soviet invasion as only another wartime setback. It was the bomb that changed the situation entirely.
On hearing of this terrible new weapon, Emperor Hirohito said, “We must put an end to the war as speedily as possible so that this tragedy will not be repeated.” Suzuki said, plainly, that Japan’s “war aim had been lost by the enemy’s use of the new-type bomb.” Finally, the central role of the bomb was made graphically clear in the Imperial Rescript of August 14, in which the emperor explained to his people the reasons for the surrender. At its heart was the following statement:
The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but it would also lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects. . . ? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.
There can be, in short, no doubt that the actual use of atomic weapons was critical in bringing a swift end to the war, and that mere warnings would not have sufficed.
Finally, whether or not they condemn American policy on instrumental grounds, some critics assail it on purely humanitarian ones. In particular they have asked whether it was necessary to drop the bomb on a city. Should it not have been used for the first time on a desert island, or some uninhabited place, as a demonstration?
This suggestion was put forward even before the bomb was dropped, but it failed to win support. A demonstration outside Japan, it was felt, would not be effective in persuading the Japanese themselves; and if it were announced for some location within Japan, the Japanese might place Allied prisoners on the site, and make extraordinary efforts to shoot down the carrying plane. Also, in August 1945 the Americans had but two bombs, and using one for a demonstration would leave only the other. There was the danger that one or both of the devices might fizzle, or that, even if the first one worked, those Japanese who wished to continue the war might deny, as in the event some did, that the blast came from a new weapon, or might argue, as others did, that the Americans had no more in their arsenal.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, as director of the research project at Los Alamos, was on the committee that selected the target cities, averred that to his mind no mere display would be sufficiently impressive to shock the Japanese into surrender. Even the Franck Report, signed by scientists urging a demonstration, doubted that this would break the will or ability of Japan to resist, and reluctantly approved use against Japan if all else failed. Leo Szilard, the scientist most vigorous in his opposition to the early use of the bomb, also conceded that “the war has to be brought to a successful conclusion and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare.” It is important to recognize that only in hindsight has moral revulsion been expressed against the use of atomic weapons on cities. As McGeorge Bundy points out in his book Danger and Survival, “no one put [the idea] forward before Hiroshima. . . . No one ever said simply, do not use it on a city at all.”
Still, the moral question must be addressed. It has been argued that the nuclear bomb is a weapon like no other, so terrible that nothing can justify its use, and that its use in 1945 made its future use more likely. But events have not borne this out: in the 50 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare, and it is not impossible that their first use helped deter a repetition.
Moreover, the sharp distinction between nuclear weapons and others on moral grounds seems questionable. In a single raid on Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, incendiary bombs from American planes killed 80,000-100,000 Japanese (as many as at Hiroshima on August 6), wounded a similar number, and destroyed more than 250,000 buildings, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. It is hard to see how the continuation of such bombing until there were no more targets would have been a moral improvement over Hiroshima. Distinguishing nuclear weapons from all others would seem, in fact, to give greater moral sanction to the use of weapons and tactics no less horrible.
If the moral complaint is to be fairly lodged, it must be lodged against any and all warfare that attacks innocents—which means, in effect, the overwhelming majority of wars to the present time. It is a historical axiom that the longer and more sharply contested a war, the greater the brutality with which it is fought. The British began World War II refusing to employ aerial bombardment; they dropped leaflets on Germany instead. Before the war was over, they had carried out the fire bombing of Dresden, killing tens of thousands of civilians. Similarly, American doctrine at the beginning of the war was that indiscriminate bombing of cities was both wrong and unwise. Before long, however, Hitler’s bombing of Rotterdam and later of London, Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and its brutal treatment of prisoners of war, its bombing of Shanghai, the rape of Nanking, the forced prostitution of Korean women, and the Bataan death march made Americans change their minds. “Precision” bombings of targets in or near cities gave way to more indiscriminate destruction launched out of anger and with the purpose of destroying the enemy’s morale, thereby (again) bringing the war to an earlier end.
In the history of warfare such developments are typical rather than unusual. It is right to do all we can to reduce the horrors of war. But to prevent them entirely, it will be necessary to prevent war.
Let us sum up. It is, I think, clear that any strategy other than the employment of atomic weapons would have failed to compel a Japanese surrender short of an invasion of the home islands. Even at a low estimate, the two planned invasions would have brought 193,500 American casualties and, as Robert J. Maddox puts it, “only an intellectual could assert that 193,500 anticipated casualties were too insignificant to have caused Truman to use atomic bombs.” The Japanese, moreover, had plans to kill Allied prisoners of war as the fighting approached the camps where they were being held; so the swift surrender brought on by the bomb saved still more American lives.
And what about Japanese casualties? The experience of Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa showed that such casualties would have been many times greater than those suffered by Americans—invasion or no invasion. American planes would have dealt with many more Japanese cities as they had dealt with Tokyo, and would have repeated their attacks on the capital as well. The American navy would have continued its blockade, and starvation would have taken off countless civilians. In sum, the cost would have been greater than that exacted by the bombs. As a former president of the Japanese Medical Association has said, “When one considers the possibility that the Japanese military would have sacrificed the entire nation if it were not for the atomic bomb attack, then this bomb might be described as having saved Japan.” It is a terrible thought, but the evidence suggests that he is right.
Gar Alperovitz, in the name of many other critics of U.S. policy, has assailed “America’s continued unwillingness to confront the fundamental questions about Hiroshima” because “we Americans clearly do not like to see our nation as vulnerable to the same moral failings as others.” Americans certainly share the same weaknesses as the rest of the human race. They need not, however, shrink from a confrontation of the “fundamental questions” surrounding Hiroshima. An honest examination of the evidence reveals that their leaders, in the tragic predicament common to all who have engaged in wars that reach the point where every choice is repugnant, chose the least bad course. Americans may look back on that decision with sadness, but without shame.
1 Knopf, 688 pp., $32.50.
2 See Robert James Maddox, Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years After (University of Missouri Press, 1995). I am grateful to Professor Maddox for allowing me to see the proofs of this work in advance of publication. My debt to it here is very considerable.
3 See Edward J. Drea, MacArthur's ULTRA: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan 1942-1945 (University of Kansas Press, 1992).
4 Robert J.C. Butow, Japan's Decision to Surrender (Stanford University Press, 1954).