It Should Never Be Done Again: Hiroshima, 70 Years Later

Hiroshima after the bomb

Hiroshima after the bomb

W.J. Astore

August 6, 1945.  Hiroshima.  A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston.  Incinerated by the first atomic bomb.  Three days later, Nagasaki.  Japanese surrender followed.  It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed.  But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?

President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II.  The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides.  The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost.  A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice.  It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese).  This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”

Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location.  Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.  Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.)  Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision.  This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.

Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender?  Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power?  We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions.  Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready.  Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.

Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.

A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks.  Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results.  The mentality seems to have been: We developed it.  We have it.  Let’s use it.  Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.

That mentality was not humane, but it was human.  Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it.  The attack on Hiroshima  was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay.  Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.

Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals.  Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.

As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008), World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.

A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following.  They died horrible deaths.  And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project.  A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me.  They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”

Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):

The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment.  Now it has been done.  The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done?  What have we done.  The third reaction was it should never be done again.

It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.

Let us hope it is never done again.  Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again.  For that way madness lies.

14 thoughts on “It Should Never Be Done Again: Hiroshima, 70 Years Later

  1. Right, Nuclear Bombs SHOULD Never be used again. Although, maybe a 3rd bomb should have been dropped on entire Mid-East…because those Religious Fruitcakes are Horrible. ISSIS is the Worst–SO FAR!

  2. There was an attempted coup – to prevent the Emperor from accepting the Allies Surrender Terms; one officer involved was former Premier Tojo’s son-in-law. And a prominent Japanese Field Marshal (Hata) felt that the Japanese could repel any invasion and could survive future A-Bombs.

    The A-Bombs emboldened the Emperor to order his armed forces to surrender; prior to that, he was afraid of being deposed by the leadership of the Armed Forces.

    Truman made the right choice; without the A-Bombs, we would have had to invade Japan; and the losses, on both sides, would have been horrific. We learned about radiation effects after-the-fact.

  3. * “Japan is doomed and the Japanese know it. Peace feelers are being put out.”
    —HARRY HOPKINS to President Truman, 28 May 1945

    * “Intercepted messages from Togo to Sato, Japanese ambassador to Moscow, instructing the latter to see Molotov before his departure for the Big Three meeting, to lay before him the Emperor’s strong desire to secure a termination of the war.”
    —JAMES FORRESTAL, diary entry, 13 July 1945

    * “Certainly prior to December 31, Japan would have surrendered, even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
    —U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey No. 4

    * “There are both older and more recent sources for the same basic information, but the American people overwhelmingly continue to believe the lie promoted at the time and now, that the bombs were dropped to save huge losses of American lives in a costly, inch-by-inch invasion of Japanese-held islands and Japan itself.”
    —DAVID DELLINGER, “Beyond Survival,” page 346

    “The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”
    —Major General Curtis LeMay, 20 September 1945

    “The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell.”
    —Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Force

    “There were political implications in the decision” [to use the bombs].
    —Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker

    “I knew nobody in [the] higher echelons of the Army Air Force who had any question about having to invade Japan.”

    “We had the Japs licked anyhow. I think they would have quit probably within a week or so of when they did quit.”
    —General George Kenney, Army Air Force in the Southwest Pacific

    “LeMay felt, as did the Navy, that an invasion of Japan wasn’t necessary.”
    —Brigadier General Roscoe C. Wilson

    “We were certain that the Mikado could stop the war with a royal word.”
    —Admiral Leahy

    “We used them [the Japanese people] as an experiment for two atomic bombs.”
    —Brigadier General Carter W. Clarke

    “Intercepted Japanese diplomatic messages revealed their anxiety to make peace.”
    —Colonel Alfred McCormack, Army Intelligence

    “The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”
    —General Dwight D. Eisenhower

    “The atomic bomb neither induced the Emperor’s decision to surrender nor had any effect on the ultimate outcome of the war.”
    —Brigadier General Bonners Fellers

    • I’m in the military still and it seems I really can’t have faith in my leadership due to their leadership that holds the strings (their strings). Professional military leaders make professional military decisions that quietly get undone by their handlers it seems.

  4. In early August 1945 I was pre flighting the APQ 13 high altitude navigation and bombing radar the Army Air Corps was using in the Pacific war. I was 20 years old and had been in the Air Corps since early 1943. What was an “atomic bomb? We just thought it was another high explosive so we were all for it. Maybe it meant we could all go home.
    We heard a few days later that the Japanese surrendered because of the bombs and then we heard of the vast destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but little was told us of the effect of radiation on people. The official story was that dropping these bombs saved thousands of our soldiers lives.

    Only years later did we learn of the horror associated with atomic weaponry. Then much later we learned that dropping these bombs had nothing to do with shortening the war but were used to force the Japanese to surrender to us only because we felt that they were planning to include the Soviet Union in any surrender agreement.

    Lesson. Be wary of any “official story” from the government and especially from the military establishment.

  5. I think the comments once again show that no consensus is possible on whether the atomic bombs were decisive in ending the war sooner. Even well-informed people at the time disagreed.

    Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground. That included blockade, firebombing, and invasions (Iwo Jima and Okinawa). A longer blockade and more Japanese would have starved. More firebombing, more dead Japanese. More invasions, more dead Japanese, and of course Allied troops as well. The Japanese were well indoctrinated to fall in battle like cherry blossoms in the service of the emperor, whom they viewed as a god.

    How to get a Japanese leadership and people to surrender when they saw the very act as dishonorable to the warrior code of Bushido? How to persuade a military that was already committing suicide on a massive scale in Kamikaze attacks against Allied ships to capitulate and live on with the shame of defeat?

    It’s clear from the evidence that Truman believed the atomic bomb would shock the “beast” of Japan (“beast” was Truman’s word, a description that Allied soldiers and other Asian peoples who suffered at the hands of Japan, e.g. the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, would have agreed with). It surely did shock them. Profoundly. Was it sufficient? Was it necessary?

    Again, there is no alternate reality in which the atomic bomb wasn’t dropped, and thus no way of knowing whether in that other reality, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender on August 15th.

    • “Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground.” from Prof.Astore above

      What evidence do you have that Americans were “war weary” in August of 1945? I was there and I saw no evidence of weariness. Now that’s a poll of one but everyone in the military, from the first day they went in wanted the war to end and go home. And civilians? they were doing great. Full employment.

      Now the final argument about “Americans” and war. We have been in perpetual war for fourteen (yes 14) long years now and I don’t hear a single Democratic or Republican candidate even mention ending our aggressive military action. In fact, just the opposite, they virtuallyall fall over themselves in support of funding continued war. And the febrile American citizens. I haven’t heard too many peeps out of them. They really feel the government is protecting them as they are being humiliated standing in line to be “screened or their phone tapped.

      No!. Subsequent events clearly showed that both the English and American political leaders had already defined at that time the next enemy, Soviet Bolshevism, and that drove the mass slaughter in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb was our “big dick” in establishing who would dominate the post war world.

      • traven: Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been devastating battles for the men who fought them. War bond drives had slowed, which is why the “heroes” of the flag-raising at Iwo were brought back to raise money for the war effort. Few Americans were enthusiastic for a longer war in the Pacific after VE Day, and nobody wanted a land invasion of Japan. Families with troops overseas wanted their men sent home alive pronto, not in body bags in 1946 after a bloodbath on Japan.

        Today is different. Military action is isolated from the people. No draft, a “professional” military, no national mobilization, no personal sacrifices required, e.g. no rationing. Can you imagine people with ration cards today, waiting in line for gas or making metal drives in the cause of supporting “our” troops and funding “our” perpetual wars? Of course not.

    • Terrorists talk like that to their minions before sending them off to self-destruct……we should be above that. No military man (real man) would want to bomb civilians as an act of war with any intention.

  6. Early in 1945, the Japanese were trying to surrender. The only obstacle was Truman’s insistence on unconditional terms. The only issue was whether to leave the emperor in place. General MacArthur preferred to leave the emperor in place because he said it would make the post-war occupation easier. The final surrender was on conditional terms, the same terms Truman could have had months before the nukings.

    It is significant that the nukings occurred just hours before the Russians were due to enter the war. Truman did not want to share the post-war occupation of Japan with the Russians.

  7. There is no reason to debate whether the Atomic Bomb should have been used in WWII. Events in the past cannot be changed. I understand that, for many of you, placing the guilt on the USA offers a personal catharsis, but it changes nothing. I’m curious why the incendiary raids (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo etc. etc.) fails to generate the moral outrage that the Atomic Bomb’s use does.
    As Jean-Paul Sartre “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.”
    The real issue is preventing any more uses of atomic weapons (we can row that boat). So far the those that have the bombs have not seen fit to use them. How can we keep it that way. Decommission them all–remember that the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon is well known, the real issue is getting enough U-238 or Plutonium. I don’t think the cat can be put back in the bag.

    • “no reason to debate”???

      What has happened, has happened. True. The entire unshakable “truth” of history, however, is open to factual discovery and contextual interpretation. We don’t change what has happened, but we certainly are, as a species, perpetually in a process of factual discovery & contextual interpretation. The “truth” is open to debate.

      “Moral” debate is particularly important in it’s necessity for developing moral “imagination”. We need to develop our moral imagination in order to best set forth on the “real issues” at hand.

      Just a personally amusing side note: I can’t recall ever having felt any personal catharsis in the association of guilt and the USA in any manner. In fact, it is always a somber realization.

  8. Just what are the ‘real issue’ at hand, in moral terms and in practical terms.
    To me the issues are the use of what is called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (not limited to nuclear weapons). You can debate the morality if you wish, but the practical impact of using these weapons is more important to humans.

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