Was Hiroshima and Nagasaki Necessary?

The decision by President Truman to use the atomic bomb against Japan in August, 1945 was made without drawing on all the facts and alternatives available at the time. Proponents of his decision argue that the bombing brought the war to a swift end, saving the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers. They criticize opponents of this fateful decision for being too removed to understand or pass judgment and tend to illicit an emotional response in defending Truman’s position. However, at the time Truman was making his decision he was aware of the fact that Japan was in a stranglehold, was ready to surrender, and that the Soviet Union would soon be free to threaten Japan with a northern invasion. While peace could have been brokered with this knowledge in hand, Truman went ahead with his fateful decision in order to avoid a land invasion that was just as unnecessary as dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The most logical reason for Truman moving ahead with the bombings in Japan was that he was saving thousands of American and Allied lives by avoiding a land invasion. One author placed the range between 20,000 and 1.2 million and, drawing on dates and figures from available primary sources, concluded that this anomaly arose from a “political agenda” and the need to justify the decision. For those facing a possible land invasion, the bombs certainly would have seemed a more viable alternative. One such soldier vehemently criticized opponents of Truman stating that those not on the front line, those not even born, or anyone removed from the immediate situation in Japan were unqualified to criticize Truman’s decision. When the Enola Gay exhibit became a contentious issue in 1994, Cokie Roberts maintained that questioning history made “very little sense”. However, questioning and interpreting history is a necessary process; providing one uses the appropriate sources available and is able to maintain an unbiased perspective. It is not enough to rely on raw emotion and experience to interpret a decision such as the one Truman made. Therefore, one must delve deeper into the facts and circumstances surrounding Truman’s decision to determine whether or not he made the right one.

Available sources before the bombings reveal a Japan already war weary and ready for surrender. The Mariana Islands had been retaken by the United States in July 1944, removing a key defense area from Japan. The U.S. aerial attack had left much of Japan’s cities and industrial centers devastated and as Stimson highlighted, there would be little left as a “background” for the atomic bomb. According to Admiral Leahy, in late 1944 Japan was already facing complete defeat as a result of an almost “complete sea and air blockade”. It appeared that Japanese forces were contained to their main islands and were fast running out of resources to continue fighting. In addition, the Soviet Union had previously declared their intention to invade Japan in February at the Yalta Conference, of which the U.S. was party to, which would further debilitate Japan’s ability to fight on.

The Japanese Government was aware of their weaknesses and key leaders had been contemplating an end to the war months before the bombs were dropped. On June 22, 1945, at a meeting of the Supreme War Council, Emperor Hirohito took the bold step of criticizing the military and calling for an end to the war. In response, Japanese leaders requested help from the Soviet Union in mediating a peace agreement. The U.S. had previously broken the Japanese code and knew of the Japanese desire to bring an end to the war. They also knew that unconditional surrender, without protection for the emperor, was one of the impediments to obtaining a peace agreement with Japan; yet in the Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 unconditional surrender was included as a prerequisite for any agreement with Japan. Despite knowledge of Japan’s desire for peace and that Soviet forces would soon enter the war against Japan, Truman made his decision to drop the bombs the day before the Potsdam Declaration. Given this knowledge it seems that the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, was unnecessary and avoidable; particularly given that the Emperor system was maintained after Japan was defeated, the one condition stopping Japan from surrendering earlier.

By the beginning of August 1945, Japan’s resources were depleted, they were contained to their main islands, were facing invasion by Allied and Soviet troops, and many government leaders were ready for peace. The Japanese were willing to surrender providing their emperor system was not abolished and Truman knew this. However, he made his decision to go ahead with the bombing in order to save American lives. Perhaps it is true that thousands of soldiers lives would have been lost if the bombs had not been dropped and Allied forces had carried out a land invasion. However, given the knowledge possessed by the President and military leaders of Japan’s weak position, a land invasion seemed just as unnecessary as the decision to drop the two nuclear bombs. The evidence shows it was not as simple as a choice between a land invasion and dropping the atomic bombs, but that there were other alternatives to ending the war that were not seized upon. Since these two bombs were dropped, science and technology has developed many new tools of destruction. If this fateful event has taught us anything it has taught us that we should not settle for what seems to be the simplest solution to peace, but rather should seek out the solution that involves the smallest loss of life for all concerned parties.