Did the Atomic Bomb End the Pacific War?
Many historians and most lay people still believe the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Pacific War.
They claim with varying intensity that the Japanese regime surrendered unconditionally in response to the nuclear attack; that the bomb saved a million or more Amercian servicemen; that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen chiefly for their value as military targets; and that the use of the weapon was, according to a post-war propaganda campaign aimed at soothing American consciences, ‘our least abhorrent choice’.
The trouble is, not one of these claims is true.
That such denial of the facts has been allowed to persist for 75 years, that so many people believe this ‘revisionist’ line - revisionist because it was concocted after the war as a post-facto justification for the bomb – demonstrates the power of a government-sponsored rewrite of history over the minds of academics, journalists, citizens and presidents.
The uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima, code-named ‘Little Boy’, landed on the city center, exploding above the main hospital and wiping out dozens of schools, killing 75,000 people, including tens of thousands of school children.
‘Fat Man’, the plutonium bomb used on Nagasaki, incinerated the largest Catholic community in Japan, obliterating the country’s biggest cathedral along with a residential district packed with schools and hospitals. Its missed its original target, the city center.
Zealous apologists for the bomb will have started picking holes: Hiroshima held troops? Yes, a few enfeebled battalions. Hiroshima had military factories? Most were on the outskirts of town, well clear of the bomb.
Nagasaki hosted a torpedo factory and shipyards? Yes. The factory was deep underground and untouched by the weapon; the bomb missed the shipyards, which were not functioning in any case.
Only Kokura, of the five intact cities set aside by the Target Committee, a secret group of US military and scientific personnel, for nuclear destruction, contained a large weapons arsenal. In any event, bad weather diverted the second atomic run from Kokura to Nagasaki.
And yet, it mattered little to the Target Committee if the targeted city held civilians or soldiers, arms-makers or sushi restaurants, kimono-clad women or children. The ideal city should, according to the committee’s Minutes, “possess sentimental value to the Japanese so its destruction would ‘adversely affect’ the will of the people to continue the war; … and be mostly intact, to demonstrate the awesome destructive power of an atomic bomb.”
Kyoto matched that criteria but was grudgingly struck off the list for aesthetic reasons: War Secretary Henry Stimson had visited the beautiful heart of Japanese culture with his wife in 1926, and insisted on preserving it. Tokyo was rubble, so there was no point in “making the rubble bounce,” to appropriate Winston Churchill’s famous remark about the nuclear arms race.
In other words, the target should show off the awesome power of the bomb not only to the six leaders who ruled Japan from a bunker under the ruins of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo but also – and just as importantly - to Joseph Stalin, whose massed forces were being deployed to the border of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Stalin himself was aching to be “in at the kill,” to seize a communist foothold in Asia. The old Bolshevik fancied Hokkaido.
In this light, the use of the atomic weapon must be seen as a continuation and a start: the nuclear contination of the conventional terror bombing of Japanese civilians, and the start of a new “cold war” waged by a superpower equipped with a weapon that would, as James Byrnes said on May 28, 1945, a few weeks before he was appointed US Secretary of State, “make Russia more manageable” in Asia.
Let us revisit the scene of the world back then; let us try, briefly, to unravel the confluence of events that led to the use of the weapons.
By the start of 1945, Japan had lost the racial war they’d started in the Pacific. Allied-- chiefly US--military power had utterly defeated them. In fact, the Japanese had lost the war as early as the Battle of Midway, fought between June 4th and 7th 1942, when US forces destroyed the bulk of the Japanese navy, “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare,” as historian John Keegan described it, rendering Japan incapable of mounting another major offensive.
By July 1945 Japan possessed about 3,000 fighter planes and 1,500 bombers, but few functioning airfields. They lacked sufficient ammunition for their remaining artillery, machine guns and rifles. They had no effective navy (their most lethal sea weapon being some 2400 “suicide boats”: little high-speed craft used to ram the bellies of enemy ships). Untrained kamikaze pilots still dared to take off in planes made partly of wood, so dire were supplies of steel. Indeed, Japan was desperately short of all commodities, chiefly fuel, food and steel. The people were compelled to hand over any household steel items to be melted down for ammunition. Most civilians were malnourished or slowly starving.
No doubt Japan could still draw on a large pool of men: some 65 divisions had returned home earlier in the year, and every one of the 350,000 troops (about 900,000, if you include support units, teenage soldiers and troops with little training) assigned to the defense of Kyushu were determined to honor the fierce exhortation of the Bushido military code: “To die!”
Yet Japanese “spirit” on the ground meant little without any effective air defense: the Pacific War was won in the air, and by mid-1945, American aircaft carriers and warships ringed the Japanese achipelago in an impenetrable blockade, and US aircraft were in complete control of the skies over Japan.
By then, 67 major Japanese cities (including Tokyo) lay in ruins, the result of General Curtis LeMay’s terror firebombing campaign, in which millions of incendiary (proto-napalm) canisters created huge firestoms that tore through Japan’s papyrus homes like a bushfire in hell – killing at least 100,000 civilians in Tokyo in a single night, on March 9-10, making it the deadliest bombing raid in history.
LeMay’s goal was the same as Allied terror-bombing of Germany: to break civilian morale. It failed: the Japanese and German people hardened in response to terror bombing - as had the British, of course, during the Blitz, offering empirical evidence of civilian mental toughness the Allies failed to heed.
Yet, if the destruction of most of Japan’s cities was not enough to make them surrender, throughout July 1945 Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet was busy finishing off what LeMay’s napalm sorties had failed to destroy or even target: Japan’s remaining infrastructure, such as airfields, 12 giant coal transports, and the naval base at Kure.
Something else sustained the Japanese that defies easy explanation to westerners: the ‘divine’ presence in their midst, in the form of Emperor Hirohito, the ‘Sacred Crane” who, the people believed, was descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and fortified their extraordinary psychological resilience. The western, Christian equivalent would be the return of the Messiah during total war.
Nowhere was the deference to Hirohito so palpable, so forceful, so weighed down by the dreadful burden of history, as in the concrete bunker under the ashes of Tokyo, where Japan’s War Council of six old Samurai rulers refused to utter three magic words: “We surrender - unconditionally.” Somehow those words had to be extracted from their mouths like an especially stubborn tooth.
Three hardliners – War Minister Korechika Anami, Army Chief of Staff General Yoshijiro Umezu and Navy Chief of Staff Suemu Toyoda – dominated the Six, and pressed every Japanese to fight to the death - commit, in effect, national “seppuku,” or ritual suicide - to defend the Emperor and the homeland.
Three moderates – Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and Navy Minister Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai - wavered and vacillated, by turns secretly pursuing peace and openly supporting war.
Through 1945, as their country crumbled before their eyes, the Big Six continued to press for a conditional peace – unacceptable to the Allies - that would at least deliver Japan’s chief condition: the preservation of the life of Hirohito and the Imperial dynasty.
For the Japanese regime, Hirohito’s life was non-negotiable, a condition of surrender Japan experts in Washington, notably Joseph Grew, US ambassador to Japan from 1932-1941, well understood and warned the Truman administration. To this, Tokyo would stick to the bitter end: no Japanese leader could, or would, bear responsibility for serving up the Emperor to the Americans to be tried and hung as a war criminal.
In Hirohito’s name, then, the Japanese regime would refuse to surrender, and nothing, not even the annihilation of the Japanese people, would deflect these grim old men from saving their divine monarch, a minimum condition for peace.
That day of reckoning was fast approaching. The Japanese regime was expecting and preparing for a US land invasion. The hardliners, Anami, Umezu and Toyoda, welcomed this prospect: every Japanese must prepare to martyr themselves in defense of the homeland. There was method in this madness: from the depths of their delusion the Japanese hawks believed high American casualties would compel the US to sue for a negotiated, conditional peace.
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Harry Truman was determined to avoid a land invasion, despite the advanced planning for “Operation Downfall,” the two-pronged attack on the Japanese homeland, at Kyushu and Tokyo Bay.
The appalling casualties of Okinawa (April 1-June 22), the bloodiest battle in the Pacific, in which an estimated 12,520 Americans were killed in action and up to 55,000 wounded, preyed on Truman’s mind.
With such terrible premonitions, Truman called a critical meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on June 18, 1945, to discuss the invasion plan – a month before the atomic bomb was scheduled to be tested in the New Mexico desert.
The Joint Chiefs were asked to estimate likely American losses – dead, missing and wounded – in a land invasion. General George Marshall calculated that during the first 30 days, casualties “should not exceed the price we have paid for Luzon,” where 31,000 were killed, wounded or missing (compared with 42,000 American casualties within a month of the Normandy landings).
Several caveats qualified this low “body count”: the invasion of Kyushu and Tokyo Bay would take even longer than the allocated 90 days, and the figures did not include naval losses, which had been extremely heavy at Okinawa. Nor did the meeting reckon on the unknown menace of Japanese civilians, all of whom were expected to fight to the death armed with bamboo spears and knives or whatever weapons they could find.
The Joint Chiefs agreed on the politically palatable figure of 31,000 battle casualties in the first month, implying about 10,000 killed in action. Other estimates placed the figure far higher: Admiral Chester Nimitz reckoned on 49,000 dead and wounded in the first 30 days; Admiral William Leahy predicted a 35% casualty rate, implying 268,000 killed and wounded in total. Major General Charles Willoughby, General Douglas MacArthur’s Intelligence Chief, and no stranger to hyperbole, warned of between 210,000 and 280,000 battle casualties in the first push into Kyushu. At the extreme end, some feared half a million dead and wounded.
That the estimated casualties of a land invasion ranged from tens of thousands to half a million should have sounded alarm bells: nobody really knew. In any case, Marshall insisted “it was wrong to give any estimate in number” (after the war he privately offered Truman “as much as a million” as the likely casualty number).
To put these figures in context: the American combat force slated to invade Japan numbered 766,700. So it was an obvious fiction – or, if the Joint Chiefs actually believed it, a dismal reflection of their faith in the quality of the American soldier – to claim after the war that Japan’s ailing divisions (only half of whom were sufficiently supplied with ammunition) and “home guard” - mostly civilians carrying knives and bamboo spears - would have wiped out the entire US invasion force.
In short, in June 1945 nobody seriously believed casualties of an invasion would be a million or several million. So the claims promoted after the war and ad nauseum to this day that the atomic bomb avoided a land invasion and “saved up to a million American troops” were grotesque fictions, used as post-facto justifications for the weapon in the face of mounting ethical objections to its use.
The crucial question, however, is what impact these shocking figures had on Truman’s mind. Winding up the 18 June meeting, the president asked the Joint Chiefs: so the invasion would be “another Okinawa closer to Japan?” They nodded. And the Kyushu landing – was it “the best solution under the circumstances?” the President wondered. “It was,” the Chiefs replied.
Truman was unpersuaded, and after deep consultation, energised by the prospect of Russia joining the Pacific war, he decided in early July to shelve – ie postpone, if not actually cancel - the invasion plan, two weeks before the atomic “gadget” was due to be tested in New Mexico.
Why risk thousands of American lives attacking a defeated nation? Why grant the old Samurai their dying wish, to martyr themselves and their people? Why not involve the Russians or use the US blockade to force Japan to surrender? Those questions fairly reflected Truman’s thinking at the time, and reflect the fact that he was determined to avoid a land invasion.
In this light, it was never a question for Truman of either the bomb or an invasion: the bomb hadn’t been tested. It was a question of: why invade Japan at all?
Fast forward to “Trinity,” the atomic bomb test conducted on on July 16th in the Jornada de Muerto desert, 35 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. Its success fulfilled the wildest dreams of the Manhattan Project, the secret organization charged with building the weapon.
The first man-made nuclear explosion detonated at 5:29 that morning. Radiation waves fled the bomb casing at the speed of light. Billions of neutrons liberated billions more in conditions that “briefly resembled the state of the universe moments after its first primordial explosion,” wrote one scientist. A bell-shaped fireball rose from the earth, whose “warm brilliant yellow light” enveloped physicist Ernest Lawrence as he stepped from his car. It was “as brilliant as the sun ... boiling and swirling into the heavens” – about a kilometer and a half in diameter at its base, turning from orange to purple as it gained height.
The nuclear dawn was visible in Sante Fe, 400 kilometers away. A partially blind woman later claimed to have seen the light. The blast was variously compared to “Doomsday” and “a vision from the Book of Revelation,” inspiring the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, to summon a line from the mystical Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita - “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – after which he strutted around like a cowboy who had just acquired the fastest weapon in the west.
The successful test certainly gave Truman the biggest weapon in the West - and a great boost to his confidence before the coming Potsdam conference, convened in late July to carve up the post-war world and to send an ultimatum to Japan to surrender.
The resulting Potsdam Declaration (or Proclamation), signed on July 26th by the United States, Britain and China, ordered Japan to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.”
The nature of that destruction, by an atomic weapon, was not revealed to the Japanese or, ominously, the Russians. Stalin knew of the weapon’s development through his spies in Los Alamos, and drew his own conclusions.
But something else set Stalin’s rage boiling: Russia had not been invited to sign the Potsdam ultimatum to Japan. He had been pointedly ignored.
On 27th July, Japan’s Big Six read the Potsdam ultimatum. The three “moderates,” Suzuki, Togo and Yonai, noted with relief that the Soviet Union was not a signatory.
Why had Russia been excluded? Russia was then a US ally and Stalin “a disgusting murderer temporarily on our side,” as George Orwell had described the Soviet dictator. Why not use Russia’s name to help end the war, as Truman had earlier that month intended?
For one thing, Truman was now armed with a nuclear weapon, and the president understandably felt Russia’s help might no longer be needed to force Japan to surrender.
For another, James Byrnes, the US secretary of state and master political manipulator, had persuaded Truman to strike Russia’s name from the ultimatum. Byrnes himself had put a line through the Soviet Union on one draft, signed the amendment “JB” and added the word: DESTROY. The clerk responsible failed to heed Byrnes’ wishes, as I found a copy of this remarkable document in a box in the Truman Presidential Library in 2009.
By persuading Truman to remove Russia as a joint-signatory on the ultimatum, Byrnes effectively prolonged the war because, at a single stroke – surely the deadliest pen stroke in history – he deleted one of the greatest incentives for Japan’s surrender (avoiding a communist invasion) and reassured the Japanese leaders that Stalin remained neutral.
Byrnes thus handed Tokyo’s hardliners a powerful justification to continue the war effort. The US Secretary of State’s motives were threefold: to buy time for the bomb to complete its journey across the Pacific; to deny Stalin a claim on the spoils of victory; and to give America a crack at using the bomb and emerging as sole Pacific victor. In short, nuclear power was now guiding US strategy, not combat troops on the ground or Russia’s support.
In the event, Byrnes delaying tactics worked: the Big Six dared to hope that Russia remained neutral - as agreed under the Russo-Japanese Neutrality Pact. And so Tokyo’s fantasies were allowed to persist: they would continue to press Moscow to mediate a conditional peace with America, which Stalin had no intention of offering, even as he accelerated the mass deployment of his forces to the border with Japanese-occupied territory.
There was an olive branch in the Potsdam ultimatum, which the moderates seized on. One clause appeared to offer the Japanese people, of their “freely expressed will,” the chance to choose their post-war government. That implied the retention of the Imperial system, or at least the emperor as figurehead.
Yet it was wide open to interpretation, and the three hardliners (Anami, Toyoda and Umezu) drew the darkest interpretation of another clause, which insisted that “the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest must be eliminated for all time.”
In their eyes, this meant the Emperor, and his probable execution as a war criminal – tantamount to the destruction of the soul of Nippon.
The Potsdam ultimatum must therefore be firmly rejected, they concluded. To surrender the national godhead would condemn them forever as the most reviled figures in Japanese history. The hawks prevailed: none of the Big Six were willing to sign a paper they interpreted as the Emperor’s death warrant.
And so, on 28 July Prime Minister Suzuki was persuaded to officially “mokusatsu” or “kill [the Potsdam ultimatum] with silence” – a Japanese negotiating tactic that treated offense with silent contempt.
Prime Minister Suzuki obliged at once: “The government does not think that [the Potsdam statement] has serious value,” he told the Japanese press. “We will do our utmost to fight the war to the bitter end.”
Like monks cloistered with their myths, the Big Six resolved to fight on, locked in the fantasy of Soviet-sponsored peace negotiations from which Japan would emerge with “honor” intact, oblivious to the fact that, in the eyes of the world, the Japanese regime had nothing left to negotiate - and much less honor.
On 6th August, on the morning a bomber called the Enola Gay flew towards Hiroshima with an atom bomb in its belly, the Japanese leaders were still waiting, hoping, for a Soviet reply to their peace feelers .
Part II of this essay will appear next week on HNN.
Paul Ham (born 1960) is an Australian author, historian, journalist and publisher, who writes on the 20th century history of war, politics and diplomacy. He lives in Sydney and Paris.and is the author of Hiroshima Nagasaki, as well as two histories that examine Japanese atrocities during the Pacific War: Sandakan and Kokoda. He teaches at SciencesPo and at the École de Guerre in France.
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