The United States introduced the world to atomic warfare in August 1945. On August 6, the first bomb (“Little Boy”) detonated 1/3 of a mile above Hiroshima with force akin to 12,500 tons of TNT. Temperatures on the ground reached 5400°F, with some estimates closer to 8000°F. A ring of fire shot through the city for half a mile, destroying 70,000 of 76,000 structures. A second bomb (“Fat Man”) was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, with smaller but similar effects.
The combined death toll from Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to 130,000 upon impact, but steadily rose year after year due to radiation poisoning. Investigations and testimonies from both blasts tell a horrific tale. Individuals fortunate enough to be close to ground zero were either vaporized on the spot, leaving nothing but a shadow upon the concrete, or rolled into a charred, boiling ball. Others further out would face the torment of regaining consciousness after the blast. The world had turned into an ocean of fire. Citizens who only seconds before had been conversing, working, and playing, were now reorienting themselves to Gehenna. Fire troughs and rivers filled with those desperate for relief. Other people wandered smoldering streets with skins and eyeballs dangling, organs and brains exposed. As if to mock the ruin, black rain began to fall, soaking everything in radiation. For the few who survived the wounds and initial radiation, years of cancer, societal disgrace, dis-figuration, and solitude lay ahead. (information from sources to follow, including the documentary “White Light, Black Rain”)
I want to argue that, in WWII, the atomic bombing of mainland Japan was the decisive factor to Japanese surrender. However, the historical decisiveness of the atomic bomb was somewhat different than what would become popular historical orthodoxy in the U.S. To say that the bombs were the decisive factor is not to say that they were the direct cause, or the singular prerequisite, to Japanese surrender.
I want to argue my position in dialogue with the fairly recent work of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. In Racing the Enemy, Hasegawa rehearses three subplots to the 1945 narrative (the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan [USSUJ]), primarily with the atomic bombs in view (Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005], 2). This is the true context of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which, Hasegawa contends, refutes the popular American conception that Japan surrendered simply in response to the atomic bombs (ibid., 5). Hasegawa argues this by means of a careful reconstruction of the 1945 interplay among and within USSUJ.
In his argument, at least two points are clear. First, the Japanese government took the Soviet declaration of war more harshly than the atomic bombs. For example, there was an incredibly small amount of dialogue within the Supreme War Council when news came of the Nagasaki (ibid., 204). Second, for years, Japan was chiefly interested in Soviet relations. For example, Japan was urgent for years to have peace with the Soviets (ibid., 106) and was decidedly pessimistic when this objective fell beyond reach (ibid., 197). The amount of information Hasegawa provides, coupled with his appropriate handling of citations, seems to lend weight to the argument. Japan’s surrender could not possibly have been a simple decision based upon a monolithic event that instantaneously changed the hearts and minds of a nation. The end of Japanese imperialism was much messier than that, as history often seems to be.
“The Soviet entry into the war played a greater role than the atomic bombs in inducing Japan to surrender” (ibid., 5). In this conception, the atomic bomb did not provide “the immediate and decisive knockout blow to Japan’s will to fight” (ibid.). This is Hasegawa’s position. My position splits his challenge down the middle, conceding the “immediate” while retaining the “decisive.”
Granting the historical accuracy of Hasegawa’s work, I believe we can see that the atomic bomb was decisive by a domino effect of USSUJ relations. In brief, the atomic bomb provoked the Soviets to act, who in turn provoked the Japanese to act. I also believe the bombs had a more direct effect on Japanese officials than Hasegawa lets on to, but I will only focus on this “domino effect” for now.
First, the Japanese were fixated on the Soviet Union. This fixation amounted to a pressing of most diplomatic tactics towards the Soviets. Even before Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japan recognized the necessity of peace on their northwestern flank (ibid., 14-19). With Europeans in South Asia, Chinese in the West, and the United States in the East, the last thing Japan needed was Soviet hostility in the North. By mid-1943, the Japanese disposition became sharper: appease the Soviets at all costs (ibid., 20). Peace with the Allies would be sought through Soviet mediation, simultaneously ending the war and keeping the Soviets out of it (ibid., 106). Japan’s hope for a favorable peace with the Allies persisted when Stalin did not sign the Potsdam Proclamation, and that same hope vanished when the Soviets declared war (ibid., 167, 197). This reality negates the option that the atomic bomb dealt an immediately or directly decisive blow to Japan’s resistance.
Whether or not the posture was reasonable, Japan’s eyes were always focused on Soviet relations, and utter despair crept into their Supreme War Council only after the Soviet declaration of war (ibid., 203). This is because, as stated before, Japan knew that it could not maintain a war on all sides, against the full brunt of the Allies.
Second, the Soviet Union was fixated on matching the United States’ timeline for Japanese surrender. This was driven by Stalin’s desire to obtain Japanese-held lands in the East, including Manchuria and the Kuril Islands. This ambition was at first congruent with the U.S. desire for Soviet engagement on the Japanese front. A mainland invasion of Japan was going to cost many American lives, and any help would be appreciated – that is, until the atomic bomb entered U.S. game plans (ibid., 41, 89-90, 155-57). This turned the tables on Stalin in at least two ways. First, the U.S. now held a monopoly of power over the Soviet Union. The conference at Potsdam, for example, proved to be disastrous for Stalin’s plans, where “Truman could conduct negotiations from a position of strength, bossing the Soviet delegation around.”
Second, the U.S. now had a tangible means of outmaneuvering the Soviets to force Japan’s surrender, thereby negating any chance for Soviet advancement in the East (ibid., 154-55). If the United States forced Japan to surrender quickly with the atomic bomb, then Stalin would not be able to get his troops into the desired lands fast enough before the war’s end. The only possible way of Soviet justification for taking such property would be under the pretense of WWII.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa masterfully documents these events, exposing the fuller context of Japan’s surrender. Members of the Japanese government began the inevitable discussion of unconditional surrender only after the Soviet Union entered the war. However, it was the atomic bomb that brought the Soviets into the war. While it is true that Stalin had already planned to attack Japan, it is equally true that the success of the Manhattan Project put Stalin into a reactionary state. Further, when Soviet boots crossed into Manchuria, it was the atomic bomb that kept Japan between a rock and a hard place. There were options for dealing with the Soviet invasion (for example, Kawabe’s proposal to abandon all but southern Korea [ibid., 200]), but there was no counter to the multi-faceted problems introduced by the atomic bomb (ibid., 184-85).
Counterfactuals could be considered, but “what if’s” have no place at the work bench of historicity. We are relaying and reflecting on what actually happened, not what may or probably would have happened. What happened in 1945 is this: the United States used the atomic bomb on Japan, which provoked Stalin to invade Japanese territory prematurely, which brought Japan’s last major, mental barrier down to accepting surrender. In the final analysis, the macrocosmic origin of Japan’s surrender is indirectly but decisively found in the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bombs.
A NOVEL IDEA?
Several historians, such as Hasegawa, assert that Japanese surrender under the direct, singular weight of the atomic bomb is commonly assumed and taught in the United States. While it seems correct to say that the common American assumes this, the assertion about teaching may not be so accurate. Have typical historical works in the U.S. ignored the significance of Soviet hostilities in the Japanese surrender?
T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current, and Frank Freidel’s A History of the United States (Since 1865) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), what may be considered to be a “typical” volume of American history, and published only 15 years following WWII, reads:
Even after the horror of Hiroshima, the Japanese army remained adamant. But the bomb apparently caused Russia to enter the war hastily while there was still time; it declared war on Japan as of August 9. That same day, the Air Force dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. It was the final blow. After frantic negotiations, on August 14 the Japanese government agreed to surrender.613
I would be hard-pressed to summarize the final week of the Pacific war any better in only a few sentences. There is no denial of the reality and significance of Soviet involvement. At the same time, the atomic bomb is implied to be the decisive factor, particularly in that it “caused Russia to enter the war hastily while there was still time.”
John Keegan’s The Second World War (New York: Penguin Books, 1989) may serve as another “standard” textbook. Keegan devotes three times the amount of space to explain the event and significance of Soviet hostility than he does the atomic bomb. In the end, he doesn’t even draw a conclusion about why Japan surrendered, but simply relays the substance of Emperor Hirohito’s public address to the Japanese (584-585).
If common texts throughout the 20th century faithfully relayed the events of Japan’s surrender (i.e. that it was not as simple an event as, “We bombed them and so they gave up”), then what exactly is Hasegawa arguing against? “Americans still cling to the myth that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided the knock-out punch to the Japanese government” (Hasegawa, 298-99). One must assume that he is simply dismantling the popularly understood narrative behind Japan’s surrender – the narrative that an American is likely to believe unless he dives further into primary source material, or his high school teacher was knowledgeable on the elementary facts of WWII. Thus, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s thesis in Racing the Enemy seems irrelevant and typical, if but slightly under-playing the significance of the atomic bomb. The usefulness of Hasegawa’s work is in the data he has pulled together and the narrative he has faithfully traced of USSUJ through 1945. In this respect, he truly has done a fantastic job.
My argument that the atomic bomb was the decisive factor in Japan’s surrender does not necessitate the position that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. The appropriateness of atomic force in that context is a separate matter. In fact, these are categorically distinct issues. Why Japan surrendered is a question of historicity; whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb is a question of ethics.
Regarding the ethical question, I believe the atomic bombs were not justified. The United States entered WWII advocating that bombs should target only militarily significant objects. Civilians were off limits. This position was congruent with the “Rules of Aerial Warfare” articles produced at the 1923 Hague conference. This condemned “aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants.” Those who indiscriminately bombarded civilians were to be liable for compensation (Mark Selden, “A Forgotten Holocaust” in The Asia Pacific Journal, Volume 5, Issue 5, , 2).
Rotterdam seems to have taken the first drastic loss of civilian lives (40,000) by bombardment, at the hands of Germany (May 1940). This escalated in the bombing of London and Berlin in late 1940 (ibid., 4). U.S. involvement in the bombings of Casablanca (1943) and Dresden (1945) pushed the consistency of its own position. Some 35,000 non-combatants were killed in Dresden, and the city never had significant war-time value (ibid., 4-5).
The U.S. abandoned all pretense in the Spring of 1945 with an extensive firebombing of the Japanese mainland, resulting in 100,000 deaths (Mark Selden proposes figures multiple times this amount based on population density and impact area [ibid., 9]) across all but five Japanese cities, in which outright destruction averaged around 60% (ibid., 10). These bombs were filled with jellied gasoline and napalm that spread easily upon impact and refused to be quenched (ibid., 7). By this point, the U.S. had progressed unrecognizably far from the pre-war “no civilian casualties” principle. For example, the Tokyo firebombing was over an area deemed 84.7% residential by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (ibid.).
Clearly, there was an escalation of U.S. willingness to bomb civilians. I believe this explains why instantaneously killing over 100,000 civilians seemed justifiable in the face of the alternative (tens of thousands of American lives lost in a mainland invasion of Japan). Even so, it seems evident that the progression grated on the American conscience.
President Truman is a helpful study on this point. On July 25, he entered two distinct threads of thought into his diary which seem to be manifestly contradictory. On the one hand, he marveled at the destructive capability of the atomic bomb: it “caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high,” then “knocked over a steel tower ½ mile away” (Hasegawa, 159). The weapon was unnaturally powerful – as he casually remarked to Stalin the day before, “We have a new weapon of unusual destructive force” (ibid., 154). On the other hand, Truman had established with Stimson, the Secretary of War, that “the target will be a purely military one.” “…military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children” (ibid., 159).
Truman believed two things at the same time: the bomb’s destructive force was other-worldly, and it would be used strictly on military targets. The erroneous assumption was that one could precision strike a target on mainland Japan with an atomic bomb, which is like asking a toddler to trim his toenails with an ax. U.S. officials involved in the atomic bomb decision were aware that the weapon entailed “the killing of women and children; the destruction of surrounding communities, the effect on other nations, and the psychological reaction of the Japanese themselves” (ibid.). Therefore, it seems impossible to justify the decision with ignorance.
The ethical paradigms of bombing aside, there were alternative means of ending the Pacific war. Perhaps the simplest came at the Potsdam conference, from which the Potsdam Proclamation (July 1945) was jointly issued by the United States, Great Britain, and China. The proclamation called for the unconditional surrender of Japan and threatened destruction otherwise. Those involved in issuing this document were well aware that unconditional surrender was a near impossibility for the Japanese people because it threatened the heart of the nation: the emperor (ibid., 156-58). Even when negotiations for surrender did begin, the Japanese insisted on the singular condition of protecting the emperor, regardless of capacity (ibid., 209-214). Westerners may envision a similar scenario if England were to insist before surrender, “We demand no conditions except that the Queen not be humiliated and tried as a criminal.” By demanding unconditional surrender, the Allies were asking Romans to walk under the staff, to humiliate themselves and gut their national honor. This was shame that most Japanese preferred to die before experiencing. Therefore, it seems evident that the Pacific conflict could have ended if the Allies (primarily the U.S.) had engaged in more reasonable, less vindictive, diplomacy (e.g. demanding unconditional surrender was vengeance for Pearl harbor [ibid., 286]).
For these reasons, I believe using the atomic bomb was unjustifiable. First, it is unethical to indiscriminately target civilians, and doing so posed serious inconsistencies for the United States. Second, there were other means to end the Pacific war on favorable terms for the United States, most notably the fact that a near-unconditional surrender of Japan could have been achieved with an alternate draft of the Potsdam Proclamation.
I do find Hasegawa’s conclusion partially acceptable: “Justifying Hiroshima and Nagasaki by making a historically unsustainable argument that the atomic bombs ended the war is no longer tenable” (ibid., 300). The use of the atomic bomb was certainly improper. However, I deny the assumption that it is “historically unsustainable” to maintain that the atomic bombs “ended the war.” They did end the war, and still, they should not have been employed.