Nagasaki, After the bomb dropped

The Mythology Surrounding Truman’s Decision to Use Atomic Weapons

Was dropping two atomic bombs on Japan a military necessity, or a political move designed to intimidate the U.S.S.R? This question has been asked since the end of the war, with the official government narrative being that the bombs spared what would have been an extremely bloody ground invasion. This helps maintain the notion that WW2 was a “good” war: the U.S. defeated the objectively evil regimes of Germany and Japan, countries that had committed large scale atrocities, including genocide. Dropping the bombs, according to this narrative, was necessary to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, the projected number of casualties of a ground invasion. The notion that the bombs were a political calculation threatens this narrative, which is why it has been such a controversial subject for so many years.

The projected difficulty of invading Japan was influenced heavily by the fanaticism with which Japanese soldiers fought. The battle of Okinawa provides an excellent case study. The battle started on April 1st and ended on June 22nd. In that time, an estimated 100,000 Japanese soldiers died defending an area only 466 square miles. It’s estimated 80,000-100,000 civilians also died, either from being forced to fight, committing suicide, or being murdered by Japanese soldiers who questioned their commitment to fight to the death.

Rockets from an American warship stream toward Okinawa Island
Rockets from an American warship stream toward Okinawa Island prior to the invasion by U.S. forces.

This Japanese fanaticism is epitomized by people reflecting on being a teenager fighting in the battle.

“We wanted to be of use to the country as quickly as we could. We were consumed by a burning desire to offer our lives in defense of the nation. We had no fear of death whatsoever.”

“Classmates dropped in front of my eyes, one after the other, launching those raids where death was the only possible outcome. They went on those raids simply to get killed. That’s how war is.”

“I was envious of my school friends who died. I thought that it was just a matter of time before my number was up too….I really thought that it would be easier to die sooner than later.”

To defeat the Japanese, U.S. forces had to sustain the highest casualty levels ever endured in a single battle– 12,520 killed and 37,000 wounded. This death total included 4,900 sailors killed by 3,050 Japanese kamikaze pilots.

A Japanese naval lieutenant surrounded by American soldiers
A Japanese naval lieutenant surrounded by American soldiers in Okinawa, July 14, 1945

If Japan fought with such tenacity to defend every inch of soil, and drafted women and children to fight alongside the army, the death toll would have been truly astounding for both sides. This much is obvious. The harder question to answer is whether Japan had the ability to defend the home islands of Japan as they did Okinawa.

Strong evidence points to no. By early August Japan was in desperate straits. Japan’s factories were operating fitfully to produce weapons and other goods due to inadequate raw materials, especially oil which had not been available since April. Most Japanese were surviving on a near starvation diet, and about a quarter of all houses had been destroyed.

The U.S. military knew this, which informed the analysis of top generals. General Henry Arnold, commanding general of the army air forces, wrote in 1949 that, “It always appeared to us, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” In 1950 Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff, wrote that, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…” Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, said two months after the bombings that “the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan…” General Dwight Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that when told of the decision to drop the bomb, he expressed, “grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives…

According to Admiral Ernest King, there was a much more humane way to end the war: an “effective naval blockade would, in the course of time, have starved the Japanese into submission through lack of oil, rice, medicines, and other essential materials.

These sentiments were confirmed by former Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoye, who said: “Fundamentally, the thing that brought about the determination to make peace was the prolonged bombing by the B-29s.” In other words, the Japanese government had resolved to make peace before the atomic bombs were dropped.

Clearly if it was up to the military, the bombs would have never been dropped. However, the decision rested with President Harry Truman, who ordered two bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombs caused the deaths of at least 225,000 civilians, almost all of whom were civilians.

Nagasaki, After the atomic bomb dropped
Nagasaki, After the bomb dropped, August 9, 1945

As noted before, Truman said he dropped the bombs to avoid a ground invasion and end the war as soon as possible. Yet the evidence presented above suggests this was not true. So why did Truman choose to use atomic weapons?

The best way to first approach this question is to look for any possible weaknesses in Truman’s rationale for dropping the bombs. One weakness in his argument is that he would periodically provide other justifications for dropping the bomb. He said on August 9, 1945, that, “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” This statement is a complete lie. Hiroshima was a city of about 300,000 civilians that contained some military elements. If the U.S. really needed to invade Japan, and this invasion would really have been as terrible as Truman claimed, then this fact alone would justify dropping the bombs. Since Truman felt compelled to lie to add further justification, it casts a shadow over his whole argument.

Another shadow is cast by the insistence of “unconditional surrender” throughout 1945, which culminated in the Potsdam Declaration on July 26th. This statement reiterated the “unconditional surrender” demand, and warned Japan faced “prompt and utter destruction” if they failed to comply. Some factions of the Japanese government had been arguing for finding a peace deal since the beginning of 1945. However, the Japanese government interpreted “unconditional surrender” as meaning the Emperor would be tried as a war criminal and possible executed. This fear kept Japan fighting until the bombs were dropped. Despite America’s strong language, the U.S. never intended to depose the Emperor. He would be more useful for them to stay as a figurehead and make occupation more palatable for the Japanese people.

Unfortunately, the U.S. never made their position regarding the Emperor explicit to the Japanese, even though many people within Truman’s administration advised doing so throughout 1945. The President even asked former President Herbert Hoover to prepare a report, in which Hoover advised informing the Japanese they could keep the Emperor as a figurehead if they acceded to other demands. Hoover even suggested Japan be allowed to retain several important territories.

Why did Truman not listen to advice like Hoover’s? Some scholars have suggested the main purpose of the bomb was actually to intimidate the U.S.S.R. Evidence for this can be found by studying the Potsdam meeting Truman had with Churchill and Stalin. First, Truman postponed the meeting to when the bomb would be tested. Upon hearing the test was successful, Churchill said Truman was “a changed man” regarding relations with Stalin and “generally bossed the whole meeting.” Truman also confided to one of his negotiators that the bomb, “would keep the Russians straight.” The scholar Gar Alperovitz explains the paradox of Potsdam– that U.S. negotiators faced differences with the Soviets with cheerfulness rather than frustration– can only be understood by realizing “top policy makers were thinking ahead to the time when the force of the new weapon would be displayed.”

Even after sifting through mountains of research for his seminal 847 page book on the subject, “THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB And the Architecture of an American Myth” Alperovitz is still forced to conclude a definitive answer regarding Truman’s decision is impossible. Instead, he emphasizes it’s important to be wary of official government narratives that mythologize history. Such a process simplifies history, which makes it easier to digest, but not understand. This of course is a crucial difference. It does little good to accept history if this acceptance is not grounded in fact.

When this analysis is applied to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is astonishing to see how the official government narrative caused future generations to regard the bombings. Those who believe the narrative think of the bombings as just another unfortunate casualty of war– after all we had no choice. Once the myth is stripped away, and you realize the bombings were not necessary like Truman wanted everyone to believe, they have to be thought of differently. They were a choice. Why he made that choice, we cannot say definitively. However, it is critical to understand that Truman made the choice to use atomic weapons. This choice had profound consequences that are immensely disturbing knowing that he did not need to make the choice that he did.