Did the USA need to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? On the 6th of August 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima,1ushering in the nuclear age. The bomb caused the deaths of over 100,000 people,2with the bulk of the destruction pertaining to innocent civilians. Three days later, the Americans repeated their action at Nagasaki. The aim of the US was not, however, to cause complete annihilation of the Japanese, but to seize the fierce nationalism within Japan, ending world war two. Arguably, this was achieved, with the Emperor Hirohito broadcasting their surrender on the 15th of August.3However, was the Americans use of nuclear warfare justified in their bid for world peace? President of the time Harry Truman stated, “I never lost any sleep over my decision (to drop the Atomic bomb)”, yet, Americans have since been subject to fierce revisionist denialism that there was not an over riding need to employ such a controversial tactic.
By 1945 Japan was in ruins. America had continuously bombed strategic Japanese locations, and implemented a blockade that had dramatic effects on the nations civilians, suggesting that the Japanese were close to surrender without the implantation of the A bomb. Conversely, the US had witnessed the Japanese’s determination to fight to the bitter end , rather than surrender, and their failure to respond to the Potsdam declaration clearly illustrated this. Through analyzing the historical context in which this dramatic act of war occurred it is difficult to come to a sound judgment on the necessity of America’s actions. Due to the consequences that would have triggered if the war had continued, i believe that the US did need to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, however, it was not necessary to drop the following bomb on Nagasaki.
With the break out of World War two, Hitlers initial victories captured the imagination of the Japanese militarists, showing what could be achieved through a program of territorial expansionism. Due to the war, changes occurred in Europe’s colonial powers, which created a power vacuum in South East Asia, and a perfect stage for Japan to expand their influence; as Edwin P Hoyt stated “Japans ambition at the lowest level was to replace the Europeans and the Americans as the colonial powers…establishing an Asian Federation”. This shift in power however was not supported by the US , creating a poisonous relationship between the two nations that would end in catosptrophy. The US implemented harsh economic sanctions, resulting in an ultimatum for Japan. Japan could either give into the pressure from the US and retreat from South East Asia, or , they could advance to take over the resources of Malaya and the oil fields of the Netherlands East Indies, which would indefinitely lead to war with the US. Historian Hugh brogan affirms Roosevelt was “ convinced US would enter the war…yet refused to fire the first shot”. The Japanese planned to adopt a dual approach were upon they would enter into negotiations with the US and prepare for war at the same time. The Japanese believed that war might be avoided if the 1 L.Morton, Decision to use the Atomic bomb, Foreign Affairs, 1956.
US dropped the sanctions in return for their withdrawal from Indochina; however, on the 26th of November Cordell Hull made an unacceptable demand, claiming that the Japanese were required to withdraw from not just Indo China, but also China. Japan deemed this unacceptable, and at the Imperial Conference 1st December 1941 a final decision was made to go to war with the US, and orders were made to carry out a surprise attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbour.
On the 7th of December 1941 the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, killing 2388 soldiers 9, in the hopes of knocking the United States out of a Pacific war, allowing them to pursue their strategic and imperialistic goals. However, Japans failure to achieve total victory meant that the Japanese unified a nation against them, which then mobilised its mighty economy into a war machine that eventually defeated Japan. The importance in understanding the context which resulted in Japan and US warfare is vital in evaluating whether the US needed to drop the Atomic bomb. This being as it is evident that since the emergence of Japan as world power, the US have been present, and determined to minimise the Japanese’s influence. This relationship of dominance , whereby the US hands Japan harsh ultimatums is arguably one of the reasons why Japan refused to surrender in 1945, and will be discussed in depth as the essay progresses.
As the conflict between the US and Japan developed the Japanese initially stunned the United States with their success, ending the period of European colonial rule in Asia within just 6 months, bringing to fruition the Japanese dream of a Greater East Asia Co Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese demolished the creed of European and white superiority that had been the bastion of European colonialism in Asia, completely reshaping the political dynamics of Asia. However, intoxicated by their success, rather than consolidating their gains, they still searched for new opportunities. The Allies began their counter attack, however, became aware of the determination that defined Japanese militarism, whereby their soldiers were willing to fight to death, rather than surrender.
During December and January 1944 and 1945 the Americans regularly bombed the islands of Iwo Jima, launched 334 B’29s on the capital Tokyo killing 83000 people in March, and attacked Okinawa, the site of a major military base10. Thus by July 1945, Japan had few ships and planes to defend itself, and was met with leaflets from the US announcing in advance where the next attack would take place, urging people to surrender. Furthermore, the blockade implemented by the allies was severely impacting the Japanese, solidifying that defeat was inevitable, yet the Allies heard no news of surrender from the Emperor. Consequently the US began to evaluate the implementation of the A bomb as a necessary method in order to bring the war to a conclusion. President Truman described the Atomic project as the ‘greatest scientific gamble in history’ and believes his decision to drop it was unquestionably the right decision, bringing the war to a quick.
end, and saving the lives of thousands of Allies. Prior to its use, the Potsdam Declaration was released, informing the Japanese that they must surrender unconditionally or face ‘prompt and utter destruction’. (Unknown to the Japanese this was a reference to the A-Bomb). The allies hoped that an invasion of Japan could be avoided if the declaration was accepted, however, with the Japanese’ failure to reply, the count down to the first use of an atomic bomb moved onward. On the 6th of August 1945, the Enola Gay was released over the city of Hiroshima12, an unprecedented attack resulting in mass scale destruction. President Truman announced following that ‘If Japan does not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth’. 13However, despite, the destruction of Hiroshima, the American Government received no communications from the Japanese government in Tokyo, resulting in a second bomb launched on Nagasaki.
Consequently, on the 14th of August, after failed attempts of safeguarding his position, the Emperor accepted the Allied terms. Hirohito made an official radio broadcast to the nation, stating ‘should we continue to fight…it would lead to the total extinction of human civilisation’, 14and on the 2nd of September, aboard the Missouri, the main surrender occurred, ending the conflict in the pacific. The atomic bomb, although causing mass scale disaster, finished the cruel and drawn out conflict, however, does that mean that it was necessary, and can be justified?
Perhaps the biggest debate which argues that the bomb was not needed was that fact Japan was in fact already defeated. Dennis Wainstock, author of ‘The decision to drop the bomb’ believes that the blockade, in conjunction with the B’29s attack destroyed Japan, broadening the realisation of defeat. Rear Admiral Tochitane Takata said ‘The b29’s were the greatest single factor in forcing the Japanese to surrender’ with Lieutenant General Kawabe believing ‘it is my opinion our loss in the air lost us the war’.16 Furthermore, Japan was economically dependant on foreign sources, thus the blockade favoured the conviction that defeat was inevitable as the Japanese population was starving to death. Additionally, there is significant evidence to support the argument that Japan would have surrended without use of the Atomic bomb, had the US been willing to safe guard the position of the Emperor. The Soviet Union received world from high-level Japanese sources confirming this, which, although many deny American knew about, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote ‘It was known to us that she had gone so far as to make tentative proposals to the soviet Government…not considered seriously’.
However despite the aforementioned evidence suggesting that the Japanese were already defeated, it is arguable that that did not mean that they would surrender.
throughout the war that, despite severe loss, they would rather die, than surrender. The invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa resulted in severe casualties, yet the Allies heard no talk of negotiations. Joseph C.Grew, who was the former Ambassador to Japan believed, through ‘intimate experience with the Japanese thinking and psychology over an extensive period’18 that regardless of military defeat, it would be highly unlikely that Japan would of their own initiative surrender. Additionally, Historian Barton Bernstein wrote ‘ no one who looks at intransigence of the Japanese militarists should have full confidence in any other strategy (apart from the A bomb), 19which affirms Truman’s decision that it was necessary in order to bring the war to a quick end. Furthermore, The American public was overwhelmingly behind the atomic bombing of Japan, with the bomb receiving an 85% approval 20rating, proving that within the context of the disaster, it was not considered to be as controversial as it is with the power of hindsight. From analysing the arguments for and against the US decision to drop the A bomb on Hiroshima it is clear that this controversial act of war is not easily declared right or wrong.
However, arguably it is harder to argue on the side of the Allies when it comes to determining the necessity of the second bomb on Nagasaki. After the dropping of the first bomb, the Soviets declared war on Japan, which many historians believe would have been more than enough to convince the Japanese to surrender. As John W. Downer affirms in ‘Unconditional surrender at the Smithsonian’, ‘most Japanese accounts then and since weigh the soviet declaration of war as being at least as shocking as the Hiroshima bombing’. Further supported by Historian Gar Alperovitz, who believes that the shock of a soviet declaration of war would force Japan to realise defeat was inevitable and then clarification of surrender terms (assurance of the Emperor) would produce the surrender before an invasion took place. However, the US failed to hear a response in the delegated amount of time, and thusly, launched a second bomb on Nagasaki, resulting in the eventual surrender of Japan. When the US made their decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, initiating the nuclear arms race, it was inevitable that Truman’s decision would be analysed, causing controversy for years to come.
There is a plethora of published work that strongly believes that the US decision to employ the A bomb was a mistake, and was blatantly not necessary as Japan was so weak indicating that surrender was not far off. Additionally, it cannot be forgotten that the victims of the bomb were primarily innocent civilians, thus from a moral point of view, the action cannot be justified. However, Japans militaristic attitude throughout the war consistently affirmed the US belief that Japan would never surrender of their own accord, and the A bomb was a necessary action in order to conclude the war. From analysing both sides of the argument i believe that the US did need to drop the first bomb in order to display to Japan that they did not have any other option but to surrender, however, the dropping of the second bomb was definitely not needed. The bombing of Hiroshima, in conjunction with the entry of the Soviet Union was more than enough to force Japan to surrender, and thusly, the bombing of Nagasaki cannot be justified.
1. A.Pollock, D.McKinlay, J.Cantwell, Conflict in the Pacific 1937-195, McGraw Hill Publications, Australia 2003.
2. H.Truman, Memoir: Year of Decisions, Garden City 1955
3. H.L.Stimson, M.Bundy, On Active Service in peace and War, Harper and Brothers, New York 1948
4. D.Eisenhower, The white house years: Mandate for change 1953-1956, Garden City 1963 5. W.D.Leahy, I was there, Whittlesey House, New York 1950
6. J.C.Grew, Turbulent Era: A diplomatic Record of forty years 1904-1945, Hougton Mifflin Company 1952
7. H.L.Stimson, The decision to use the Atomic Bomb, week 13 reading 8. K.Doak, Nationalism in Modern Japan, Koninklike 2007,
9. E.Cannizzaro, The Law of Treaties beyond the Vienna Convention, Oxford 10. E.P.Hoyt, University Press 2011,Japans war: The Great Pacific Conflic, Random House 1971
11. D.D.Wainstock, The Decision to drop the Atomic Bomb, Prager Publishers, 1996 12. G. Alperovitz, The Decision to drop the Bomb, Vintage Books 1996 Articles
1. Barton J. Bernstein, A post war myth, 50000 U.S lives saved, Bulliten of Atomic Scientists, vol 3 no.9
2. John W. Dower, Unconditional Surrender at the Smithsonian, Week 13 Reading 3. L.Morton, Decision to use the Atomic bomb, Foreign Affairs, 1956
1.The project of the Nuclear Age Peace foundation.org http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/library/ correspondence/stimson-henry/corr_stimson_1945-07-31.htm