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All That Matters

The Use of Atomic Weapons in World War II

On August 6, 1945 the course of history was changed forever when the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This was the first nuclear weapon ever used in war, and three days afterward a second nuclear bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. Just five days later Japan accepted the terms of peace offered by the allied forces which they had rejected a week prior to the bombings, bringing to an end the worst war the world has ever known. Despite the deciding factor the use of atomic weapons played in ending the war so quickly, in more recent years some radical revisionist historians have sought to paint a picture of a Japan begging to surrender and of the nuclear bombings as being unnecessary. As expert on the bombings Robert Maddox points out, such views are sadly uneducated and subjective to ulterior agendas (4) such as those of anti-nuclear and even anti-American sentiment. The use of nuclear weapons in World War II was indeed necessary to force the surrender of Japan without a full scale land invasion.

First and foremost, there is the undeniable fact that Japan was determined to continue fighting. In his article, Japanese national Masayoshi Endo speaks of preparations to repel an American invasion:

The power of the military, urging all the Japanese to die in battle rather than surrender, was overwhelming. It deployed defensive forces along the seashore in Chiba Prefecture on which the U.S. Army might land for its mainland invasion. If the U.S. had not dropped the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and shown (or told) the Japanese military its great destructive power, the final battle on the mainland could have been inevitable. (Endo)

The Seattle Times confirms Endo's claim in an article reporting that Japanese forces had fought down to the last man on almost every previous island. Civilians also were reported to have hurled themselves over cliffs rather than surrender to American forces. In addition, the Japanese still had 2 million troops and 8,000 aircraft they could use for kamikaze purposes, states the newspaper article ("Bomb History Still Bears Bitterness").

Not only did military determination drive the Japanese war machine on, but also among the Japanese people there was a fear of American brutality. Along with the previous reports of civilian suicides, I myself lived in Japan for two years, during which time I heard accounts of families designating a male of the family to kill all other family members before committing suicide because they believed American soldiers would rape and torture any prisoners. Although those who actually carried out such mass suicides were later made aware that American forces were by and large so humanitarian that one former prisoner of war I talked to even called his captors "gentlemen," obviously this fear of American brutality further hardened the Japanese resolve to continue fighting rather than surrender.

Not just the military, but the civilian population was not ready to give up, as Hiroshima bombing survivor Ken Nakano is quoted in The Seattle Times article, which states, "Nakano thinks the Hiroshima bombing was necessary. . . .'Japan had time to surrender before that happened,' he said. 'We in Hiroshima never thought Japan would surrender'" ("Bomb History Still Bears Bitterness").

Why were the Japanese so determined to keep fighting? Besides the obvious reasons of the innate desire to preserve their homeland's sovereignty and fear of American occupation, there is an issue of cultural belief that the allied forces simply did not understand to the point that they could capitalize on it to end the war. As Douglas Long makes the point in his online archive of the World War II bombing, "The Japanese believed the Emperor to be a god (this is a key point)" (Long). The Japanese military and people not only believed that they had deity on their side, but also that they should die to preserve that god. Many of the revisionist historians such as Douglas Holdstock and Frank Barnaby point out that a Japanese proposal was sent to the Soviet Union prior to the bombing seeking mediation to end the war. However, this was merely an attempt to preserve the emperor. When the allied forces dismissed Japan's proposal because they were seeking unconditional surrender and issued an ultimatum calling for such. Japan rejected it (10-11). The cultural differences and miss communications were just too great. The Japanese could not understand that the allied forces were not concerned with the emperor, and the Americans did not understand that the preservation of the emperor was paramount to the Japanese.

Looking more in depth at this issue, Holdstock and Barnaby put forth the events of both Japan's and the allied forces' failed overtures for peace which led up to the bombings and the subsequent surrender of Japan in the year of 1945.

11-14 May 1945 The Supreme War Direction Council of Japan held a meeting and decided to ask the Soviet Union to act as a mediator to end the war. . . .[This was Japan's attempt to preserve the emperor.]

16 July

The success of the first nuclear test was reported to President Truman in Potsdam. [The allied force leaders were holding a conference in Potsdam, Germany to discuss war matters.]
17 July The Potsdam conference lasted until 2 August During the conference Stalin showed Truman a copy of the Emperor's message [asking for Soviet mediation]; and asked for his advice. Truman advised Stalin not to recognize Konoye [the Japanese diplomat who sent the message] as a special emissary. . . .
18 July Russia responded to Japan on the Konoye mission, saying that the Soviet Union would not accept the Japanese proposal. . . .
26 July The Potsdam Declaration Ultimatum.
28 July Japan rejected the Potsdam Declaration Ultimatum.
6 August The uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
8 August Russia declared war on Japan.
9 August The plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
14 August Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration Ultimatum.
15 August Japan surrendered, bringing the Second World War to an end. (10-11)

Although their own record clearly shows that the Japanese rejected the allied forces' peace proposal as outlined in the Potsdam Declaration Ultimatum, Holdstock and Barnaby, and other such revisionist historians hang not only on the fact that the allies rejected Japan's proposal, that as previously discussed was an attempt to preserve the emperor, but also on the matter that President Truman advised Soviet leader Stalin to disregard the Japanese offer (11). Some including Holdstock and Barnaby have gone as far as to accuse Truman as having such motives to advise Stalin against taking the Japanese offer seriously as wanting to show the Soviets how powerful the United States was by dropping nuclear bombs, as not wanting to have so much government funding go to waste on an unused weapon, and as wanting to use the Japanese as "guinea pigs" for the first nuclear war (12).

However, Maddox renders a more insightful view of President Truman's comments to Stalin as well as his overall situation. President Roosevelt who had led the allied forces powerfully through the entire war up to that point with British Prime minister Winston Churchill, had suddenly died in April of that year, leaving Truman to handle issues that would be difficult to make judgment calls on even after months of intense study of the implications. Truman did not have that kind of time and was under a lot of pressure. Maddox observes that at the Potsdam conference, President Truman advised Stalin to dismiss Japan's message of a proposal to avoid tipping off the Soviets that the U.S. had already broken the Japanese encoded messaging system, not to ignore Japan so he could use the weapon just to show the Soviets the U.S.'s power or to make sure the bombs didn't go unused (92).

Further evidence that Truman intended to use the nuclear weapons only to convince the Japanese to surrender is found in a 25 July, 1945 journal entry of the President in which he writes:

I have told the Sec. Of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. (qtd. by Genne Dannen)

President Truman obviously was not well informed as to the particulars of Japanese geography as well as to the military operations which executed the dropping of the nuclear bombs, as an excerpt from his radio speech to the nation announcing the bombing of Hiroshima published on the Internet illustrates. "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base" (qtd. by Dannen).

Minutes of a meeting of the U.S. military Target Committee 10-11 May, 1945, although more informed than the President, show the same motive of striking a largely military target to shock the Japanese into surrender. Among the meeting's recorded minutes found both in the U.S. National Archives and in an Internet archive compiled by Dannen, Hiroshima was considered as a possible target for the atomic weapons because it served as an army depot of great importance. Also included in the meeting minutes was the consensus that whatever target was hit, it had to be one of great "psychological" impact to the Japanese (Dannen). Obviously the military's aim was to crush the morale of the Japanese in hopes they would surrender, not to impress the Soviets or experiment on Asian guinea pigs.

If the military was targeting cities, albeit for military purposes or even merely psychological shock on the Japanese, why then did they not target the Japanese capital of Tokyo? Masaaki Koarashi answers that question quite simply in his, Chronological Table of the Nuclear Weapon. The city of Tokyo had already been burnt to the ground in March of 1945 when in one night 234 B-29 bombers dropped 1,665 tons worth of conventional bombs over the city (Koarashi). Larry Besser, whose father, Jacob Besser, was a crew member abroad both planes that dropped the atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commented on the Tokyo bombings, saying, "The Tokyo fire bombing killed more people than were killed at Nagasaki, just as horribly and just as dead" (Besser). This type of "fire bombing" that Besser refers to was developed by the British and Americans and was also known as "firestorm" as Dr. Randy Fertel, professor at Tulane University writes. The professor goes on to mention how this very deadly type of bombing was used against Germany as well as Japan.

Using a mixture of high explosives and incendiary bombs to generate "firestorms," R.A.F. bombers destroyed four square miles in Hamberg [Germany] in July 1943 and, with the help of American B-17's, the entire city of Dresdon on the night of February 13, 1945 (killing between 35,000 and 100,000). A month later 16 square miles in central Tokyo were consumed along with 88,000 lives. Before the summer of 1945, firestorms would kill half a million Japanese and make homeless twenty million more. (Fertel)

Others, such as Koarashi, put the death toll of the Tokyo bombing higher at an estimated 100,000 killed (Koarashi). In the afore mentioned Seattle Times article, Air Force General Hap Arnold confirms Koarashi's estimate and argues, "We had had 100,000 people killed in Tokyo in one night of (conventional) bombs and it had seemingly no effect whatsoever. It destroyed the Japanese cities, yes, but their morale was not affected as far as we could tell, not at all. So it seemed quite necessary, if we could, to shock them into action" ("Bomb History Still Bears Bitterness").

So in the end, what is the difference between killing many people with many bombs and killing many people with one bomb? There are two differences. First and foremost, the tactic of one bomb provided the psychological shock needed to force the Japanese government into submitting to surrendering unconditionally, saving the U.S. and Japan the horror of a bloody invasion, something conventional bombs could not do. Secondly, no one debates the moral correctness a half a century later of using many bombs on Tokyo or Hamberg or Dresdon, but they will argue over the use of one bomb on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki. If revisionist historians are concerned with the alleged needless loss of human life in the bombings and not the issue of nuclear weapons, why do they not point out the atrocities which occurred at those cities devastated by fire bombing? To be against nuclear war is no crime; I myself hate nuclear weapons and what they have done to our world, but to try to revise history, saying that the use of nuclear weapons did not cause the Japanese to surrender, just because one has a personal agenda against nuclear weapons is not objective, it is biased.

Others have brought up the point of a demonstration. Why couldn't the U.S. military just detonate a nuclear bomb over Tokyo Bay to show the Japanese our new power? There are several problems this idea. First of all, it would have not had nearly the same psychological effect on the Japanese as weapons dropped on legitimate targets. In all likelihood the Japanese would have dismissed such an explosion as a different type of conventional weapon. In an interview with Dr. Max Stanton, college professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, he reminds us that some were even skeptical of the Hiroshima bombing even after it occurred. Some Japanese, because they did not believe the Americans could have nuclear capabilities, surmised that the mass destruction caused by one plane must have been some sort of fine mist of flammable gas that was sprayed over the city then ignited (Stanton). More importantly, the U.S. only had two bombs, and no one was sure that they would even work. Even President Truman in his afore mentioned journal entry, writes of the weapons, "Anyway we 'think' we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom" (qtd. by Dannen). What if a weapon used in a demonstration with the Japanese emperor watching turned out to be a dud, as many feared those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might be? The effect would be the opposite of what the allied forces wanted, only encouraging the Japanese all the more. Moreover, no one knew how many nuclear bombs the Americans had. No doubt the U.S. hoped Japan would think they had an endless supply when in fact they only had the two.

It is significant to also remember that Japan and Germany also had been working on the development of nuclear weapons. This is a point that is greatly ignored by revisionist historians. Koarashi documents the German and Japanese nuclear projects, stating that in March of 1945, German scientists were working on an experimental operation but had yet to achieve critical mass. Also, in April of that same year, the Riken Scientific Institute was destroyed in Japan by American bombings, ending the Japanese atomic weapons project (Koarashi). Maddox adds that nuclear fission had been discovered by German scientists in 1938 and that scientists developing the American atomic weapons warned the U.S. government in 1943 that Germany could possibly have nuclear weapons ready in less than a year (25). President Truman in his journal entry brings up a very good point. "It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb" (qtd. by Dannen). There is no doubt that the desperate Japanese would not have hesitated to use such a weapon against the United States.

Besser laments that he has seen an "explosion of revisionist historians trying to spew their versions of why it would have been better to invade the Japanese home islands, killing many more on both sides with guns than what we did with two single bombs" (Besser). The Seattle Times describes historians' views of the bombings as "cyclic," saying that at first historians generally justified the bombings, in the 1970's and 80's condemned it, and then in years since then have begun to change their opinion yet again ("Bomb History Still Bears Bitterness").

Nakano, who was there at Hiroshima on that fateful day, states, "I don't think there's a need to apologize. Japan hit first. The revisionist historian idea that the Japanese will soon surrender is a very wrong guess" ("Bomb History Still Bears Bitterness"). Dr. Stanton supports Nakano's argument, asserting that there's no question that the bombing of Hiroshima was necessary (Stanton).

Having fought forest fires, I see the nuclear bombings as a fireline. You cut a line around the fire to keep it from spreading, and in the process you have to kill a number of trees. However, in doing so, you save many, many more square miles of forest behind that fireline. So it was with the use of nuclear weapons in World War II; horrific as they were, they made a horrific land assault unnecessary, saving many more lives than they cost.

Furthermore, I have experienced Japan first hand. I have shaken hands with former soldiers who have shown me their battle scars while saying that they probably fought my grandfather in the war and were glad to be able to shake my hand. I have talked with people who still called America the enemy, saying enemies are enemies until death. I have walked down streets bombed by my own country's planes a half century earlier. I have lived among the people of Japan and can say without a doubt that here was a people so determined, they would have never surrendered had it not been for the shock of nuclear war. Looking at how quickly after the bombings Japan agreed to the terms of the allied forces, one can not dispute that the use of nuclear weapons greatly shortened the war. Besser puts it best, saying, "The use of the atomic bombs, despite revisionist objections, shortened the war and saved American lives. In the perspective of the times, that's really all that matters" (Besser).


Sources Cites

Besser, Lawrence. "Remembering Nagasaki: The Decision." The Expolratorium 19 July 1999. 10 May 1999  <http://www.exploratorium.edu/nagasaki/commentary/decision.html>.

"Bomb History Still Bears Bitterness." The Seattle Times 1995. 12 May 1999 <http://www.seattletimes.com/trinity/articles/closer1.html>.

Dannen, Gene. Atomic Bomb: Decision 27 April 1999. 10 May 1999 <http://www.dannen.com/decision/index.html>.

Endo, Masayoshi. "The Decision to Drop the Bomb." NHK-TV Internet Forum June 1997. 5 May 1999 <http://www.nhk.or.jp/nuclear/touron/e/iken/p6_2.html>.

Fertel, Randy. "Remembering Nagasaki: The Decision." The Expolratorium 7 Aug. 1999. 10 May 1999 <http://www.exploratorium.edu/nagasaki/commentary/decision.html>.

Holdstock, Douglas and Frank Barnaby. Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Retrospect and Prospect London: Frank Cass, 1995.

Koarashi, Masaaki. Chronological Table of Nuclear Weapon 1995. 5 May 1999 <http://www.ask.ne.jp/~hankaku/english/chronotbl.html>.

Long, Douglas. A Summary of the Article Hiroshima: Was it Necessary? 30 Mar. 1999. 1 May 1999 <http://www.he.net/~douglong/index.html>.

Maddox, Robert James. Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later Columbia, Missouri and London: University of Missouri UP, 1995.

Stanton, Max. Personal Interview. 19 May 1999.

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