Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Although Japan's position was hopeless by early 1945, an early end to the war was not in sight. The Japanese navy would not be able to come out in force again, but the bulk of the army was intact and was deployed in the home islands and China. The Japanese gave a foretaste of what was yet in store by resorting to kamikaze (Japanese, “divine wind”) attacks, or suicide air attacks, during the fighting for Luzon in the Philippines. On January 4-13, 1945, quickly trained kamikaze pilots flying obsolete planes had sunk 17 U.S. ships and damaged 50. See Kamikaze.
Kamikaze, which in Japanese means “divine wind,” were suicide squadrons organized by the Japanese air force in the last months of World War II. Pilots flew their aircraft, loaded with explosives, directly into U.S. naval vessels. Kamikaze pilots, sacrificing their lives in a last-ditch effort to stop the American advance, sank about 40 U.S. ships.
The next attack was scheduled for Kyūshū in November 1945. An easy success seemed unlikely. The Japanese had fought practically to the last man on Iwo Jima, and hundreds of soldiers and civilians had jumped off cliffs at the southern end of Okinawa rather than surrender. Kamikaze planes had sunk 15 naval vessels and damaged 200 off Okinawa.
The Kyūshū landing was never made. Throughout the war, the U.S. government and the British, believing Germany was doing the same, had maintained a massive scientific and industrial project to develop an atomic bomb. The chief ingredients, fissionable uranium and plutonium, had not been available in sufficient quantity before the war in Europe ended. The first bomb was exploded in a test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
Two more bombs had been built, and the possibility arose of using them to convince the Japanese to surrender. President Harry S. Truman decided to allow the bombs to be dropped. For maximum psychological impact, they were used in quick succession, one over Hiroshima on August 6, the other over Nagasaki on August 9. These cities had not previously been bombed, and thus the bombs' damage could be accurately assessed. U.S. estimates put the number killed or missing as a result of the bomb in Hiroshima at 60,000 to 70,000 and in Nagasaki at 40,000. Japanese estimates gave a combined total of 240,000. The USSR declared war on Japan on August 8 and invaded Manchuria the next day.
The Japanese Surrender
On August 14 Japan announced its surrender, which was not quite unconditional because the Allies had agreed to allow the country to keep its emperor. The formal signing took place on September 2 in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship Missouri. The Allied delegation was headed by General MacArthur, who became the military governor of occupied Japan.
INSTRUMENT OF SURRENDER
This document formally announced the surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers, signed in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the USS Missouri, September 2, 1945.
We, acting by command of and in behalf of the Emperor of Japan, the Japanese Government and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, hereby accept the provisions set forth in the declaration issued by the heads of the Governments of the United States, China and Great Britain on 26 July 1945, at Potsdam, and subsequently adhered to by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which four powers are hereafter referred to as the Allied Powers.
We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese armed forces and all armed forces under Japanese control wherever situated.
We hereby command all Japanese forces wherever situated and the Japanese people to cease hostilities forthwith, to preserve and save from damage all ships, aircraft, and military and civil property and to comply with all requirements which may be imposed by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or by agencies of the Japanese Government at his direction.
We hereby command the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters to issue at once orders to the Commanders of all Japanese forces and all forces under Japanese control wherever situated to surrender unconditionally themselves and all forces under their control.
We hereby command all civil, military and naval officials to obey and enforce all proclamations, orders and directives deemed by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to be proper to effectuate this surrender and issued by him or under his authority and we direct all such officials to remain at their posts and to continue to perform their non-combatant duties unless specifically relieved by him or under his authority.
We hereby undertake for the Emperor, the Japanese Government and their successors to carry out the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration in good faith, and to issue whatever orders and take whatever action may be required by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or by any other designated representative of the Allied Powers for the purpose of giving effect to that Declaration.
We hereby command the Japanese Imperial Government and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters at once to liberate all allied prisoners of war and civilian internees now under Japanese control and to provide for their protection, care, maintenance and immediate transportation to places as directed.
The authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate these terms of surrender.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Bombing Hiroshima Was Not Necessary
In the last months of World War II (1939-1945), Allied forces urged Japan to surrender unconditionally or face “prompt and utter destruction.” Japan refused. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and three days later a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Japan accepted the Allied terms of surrender on August 14. In this Point/Counterpoint sidebar, Gar Alperovitz, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland in College Park, argues that using the atomic bomb was unnecessary because Japan had already been defeated. Historian J. Samuel Walker counters that the United States won the war at the earliest possible moment precisely because it did use the bomb against Japan.
Bombing Hiroshima Was Not Necessary
By Gar Alperovitz
The place to begin is with the top military leaders in the United States during World War II (1939-1945). In his book Mandate for Change, 1953-1956 (1963), Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allies in Europe during the war, and president of the United States from 1953 to 1961, recalled the day in 1945 when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson told him an atomic bomb was about to be used against one of Japan’s cities:
“During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”
Eisenhower put it bluntly in a 1963 Newsweek interview: "It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
William D. Leahy, a conservative five-star admiral who served as President Harry S. Truman’s chief of staff and chaired both the World War II U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined American-British Chiefs of Staff, was even more forceful in his book I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman (1950):
“…The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.…
“…In being the first to use it, we … adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
President Richard M. Nixon (1969-1973) recalled in a 1985 Time article how the supreme commander in the Pacific felt about the atomic bomb:
“[General Douglas] MacArthur once spoke to me very eloquently about it, pacing the floor of his apartment in the Waldorf. He thought it a tragedy that the Bomb was ever exploded. MacArthur believed that the same restrictions ought to apply to atomic weapons as to conventional weapons, that the military objective should always be limited damage to noncombatants.…
"MacArthur, you see, was a soldier. He believed in using force only against military targets, and that is why the nuclear thing turned him off.”
The list of World War II military leaders who felt the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary is very long. It includes men such as General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces; Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet; Admiral William Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet; Curtis LeMay, Army Air Force major general and commander of the 21st Bomber Command; and many others. We also know that General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, who shortly before his death in 1959 gave interviews defending the decision, expressed very different views inside the government before the bomb was used. A top secret memorandum from 1945, dated two months before Hiroshima, records that:
“He [Marshall] thought these weapons might first be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that, he thought we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which the people would be warned to leave—telling the Japanese that we intend to destroy such centers.… Every effort should be made to keep our record of warning clear. We must offset by such warning methods the opprobrium which might follow from an ill-considered employment of such force.”
One of the reasons so many American military leaders felt as they did was that Japan was already essentially defeated and everyone knew it. Japan had virtually no navy, almost no air force, very little fuel or ammunition, and few of the basic supplies required to make war against the most powerful nation in the world. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence experts had broken Japanese diplomatic codes early in the war and were secretly listening to all Japanese cable traffic between Tokyo and its embassies around the world. It was clear that Japan was searching for a way to somehow end the war.
An illuminating way to gain perspective on the decision to use the atomic bomb is to go back to April 12, 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and a new president, Harry S. Truman, took office. At this time, and for the next three months, the atomic bomb was merely a scientist’s theory. Although it was hoped that the new weapon would work, no one could say for sure that it would because it had never been tested. And certainly no one could count on a theoretical weapon to end the war.
For this reason, all planning during the spring and summer of 1945 had to be based on the assumption that the theory might remain a theory and never become a bomb. Accordingly, beginning as early as April 1945, top officials offered three key points of advice.
First, many felt there was a very good chance Japan would surrender if the United States merely offered some modest face-saving concessions, assuring the Japanese that their emperor, Hirohito, whom they regarded as a god, would not be removed from office or tried as a war criminal. In general, letting him stay on without any power, in a manner akin to the king of England, seemed extremely important.
Second, even if this did not end the war as many believed it would, U.S. intelligence experts advised that combining assurances for the emperor with a massive new military shock would almost certainly do so. That shock would be a declaration of war against Japan by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), followed by a Red Army attack on Manchuria, a region of China that bordered the USSR and that had been seized by Japan. The declaration was expected in early August. The Soviet Union, fighting for its life against Germany, had maintained neutrality for most of the Pacific war, and U.S. diplomats had worked hard to secure a Soviet pledge to join the war against Japan three months after Germany was defeated.
Once Germany surrendered in May 1945, both Britain and the United States concentrated their combined military might against Japan, which was already on its last legs. Intelligence experts believed the Red Army’s attack would force Japan to realize the war must end. Even before the end of April 1945 a secret intelligence report judged that increasing "numbers of informed Japanese, both military and civilian, already realize the inevitability of absolute defeat."
“The increasing effects of air-sea blockade, the progressive and cumulative devastation wrought by strategic bombing, and the collapse of Germany (with its implications regarding redeployment) should make this realization widespread within the year,” the report said.
But this was without the Russians. The report went on to a much stronger judgment: “The entry of the USSR into the war would, together with the foregoing factors, convince most Japanese at once of the inevitability of complete defeat.”
Before the atomic bomb was tested, President Truman traveled to the Potsdam Conference in Germany to meet Soviet premier Joseph Stalin precisely because he wanted to be sure to get the Russians into the war. As he later wrote: “If the test [of the atomic bomb] should fail, then it would be even more important to us to bring about a surrender before we had to make a physical conquest of Japan.”
The third point of advice given by top officials during the summer of 1945 was similar to, but slightly different from, the first point. Many U.S. experts believed Japan was likely to surrender if assurances were given about the emperor, and far more likely to surrender if these assurances were combined with a Red Army attack. But virtually all agreed that Japan was highly unlikely to surrender if the United States did not make it clear that the emperor would not be harmed.
A few key dates help clarify how the summer months unfolded. First, it is important to understand that the full invasion of Japan could not have taken place, and was not even planned for, until the spring of 1946. Moreover, the first step toward the full invasion—an initial landing on the island of Kyūshū—could not take place until November 1945. In short, there was plenty of time to test advice that the war could likely be ended by a combination of assurances for the emperor and the Red Army attack expected in early August.
The next date is July 16, when the atomic bomb was successfully tested in New Mexico. After this test, the alternatives proposed to gain Japan’s surrender during the early summer were abandoned. Instead, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9—just before the date the Russians had originally been expected to attack. In fact, U.S. leaders now tried to stall the Russian declaration of war. The November landing date at Kyūshū was still almost three months off.
After the war a top secret internal War Department study concurred with the intelligence judgments offered in April: “The Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies.”
The study judged that Russia's early August entry into the war “would almost certainly have furnished this pretext, and would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable.” It also concluded that an initial November landing had been only a "remote" possibility and that the full invasion of Japan in the spring of 1946 would not have occurred.
Some historians believe that it was simply assumed that the bomb would be used once it was ready, or that there were political reasons why the terms given the emperor could not be changed. However, evidence discovered in recent years, together with intercepted Japanese cables, makes it clear that this was not the view at the top level of the U.S. government. For instance, early in August 1945, before the bombs were dropped, the diary of Walter Brown, an assistant to the secretary of state, records the following discussion of the latest intelligence information by the president, Admiral Leahy, and “JFB” (Secretary of State James F. Byrnes):
“Aboard Augusta/President, Leahy, JFB agrred [sic] Japas [sic] looking for peace. (Leahy had another report from Pacific) President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden.”
Some historians who agree that an invasion was highly unlikely have attempted to defend the use of the atomic bomb for other reasons. They argue that even though the war would almost certainly have ended before November, fighting was still going on and American lives were being lost. Accordingly, even if the atomic bombs were not needed to prevent either the November landing or the full 1946 invasion, using them may have saved lives that otherwise would have been lost during the period when a surrender was being arranged without using the bombs. How many lives, of course, is impossible to know. Combat was reduced at this point, and the number of days, weeks, or months involved is highly speculative.
So far as we know, top U.S. leaders did not make this argument, although many later tried to defend the use of the atomic bomb by suggesting that it saved perhaps one million American men, a figure that has been shown to have no factual basis. Moreover, if saving every possible life was the overriding consideration, it is difficult to explain why, against the advice of the U.S. military, American leaders made surrender so much more difficult by putting off assurances to the emperor and by attempting to delay the Russian attack after the bomb test was successful.
Others have not only challenged the argument that the atomic bomb may have saved a small number of lives, but have suggested that it actually may have cost many thousands of American and Japanese lives. One of those who implied as much was Secretary of War Stimson, the Cabinet member responsible for building the atomic bomb.
After the war, Stimson returned to the understanding on all sides that if assurances for the Japanese emperor were not given, it was always clear that Japan would likely fight to the last man and the war would continue indefinitely. It was quite possible, he later wrote, that “history might find that the United States, by its delay in stating its position, had prolonged the war."
Stimson, along with virtually every other top U.S. official involved, had urged that such assurances be given early enough in the summer to allow Japan time to make its decisions. However, on the advice of Secretary of State Byrnes, President Truman decided not to do this. Indeed, the assurances regarding Hirohito that were already written into the Potsdam Declaration, which warned Japan to surrender, were deliberately removed just before the bomb was used. This made it all but inevitable that the war would continue and that Japan would not surrender.
Japan was not given assurances for the emperor early on because it had been decided to wait for the test of the atomic bomb. Had there been no bomb, there would almost certainly have been far less delay in offering these assurances. And then, as Martin Sherwin, a historian at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, has observed, the war might well have ended much earlier in the summer and “many more American soldiers and Japanese of all types might have had the opportunity to grow old.”
We will never know, of course, whether the war could have been ended earlier had it not been decided to delay offering assurances. However, it seems increasingly clear to many historians that, as so many top World War II generals and admirals believed, using the atomic bomb was not militarily necessary. Moreover, even after two atomic bombs were used, Japan did not surrender until the assurances for the emperor were finally given in a U.S. message implicitly accepting this fundamental condition.
Many historians now also understand that diplomatic considerations regarding the Soviet Union figured importantly in the decision to use the atomic bomb because it offered an alternative to a Russian attack. Indeed, once the successful atomic test occurred, Secretary of State Byrnes and others reversed course entirely and tried to end the war before the Russians got in. It is also quite clear that many top U.S. officials saw the bomb as a powerful “big stick” to wave in diplomacy against the Russians. The precise role such diplomatic, as opposed to military, factors played in the decision is still not entirely clear, but many experts recognize their importance.
Very few historians believe the bombing of Nagasaki, the second city, can be justified on any grounds. Moreover, even those who defend the use of the atomic bomb in general often avoid the central point made by General Marshall that if a bomb were used, it should first be used on a strictly military target such as a naval base. Then, if such a bombing did not produce the desired results, a clear warning should be given so civilians could be evacuated from the cities before another bombing. And only if this did not work, should an inhabited city be bombed.
None of this occurred, of course. Neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were important military targets. The bombs were used without explicit warning and targeted in a manner designed to create shock by destroying as many workers’ homes as possible. It is conceivable, given all the facts we now have in our possession, that some strictly military use and targeting of the bomb, as Marshall urged, can be defended. But there can be no legitimate military or moral defense of the decision to use the atomic bomb mainly against the women, children, and elderly civilians who were left behind in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when most of the young men had gone to war.
About the author: Gar Alperovitz is Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995) and Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965).
The Atomic Bomb Ended the War at the Earliest Possible Moment
By J. Samuel Walker
In the summer of 1945, President Harry S. Truman and his advisers focused their attention on the most important problem they faced—achieving a complete victory in the war with Japan as quickly as possible. The war with Germany had ended on May 8, 1945, allowing the United States for the first time to concentrate its energies and resources on the Pacific campaign. The Japanese were badly weakened and reeling toward defeat, but they were not prepared to surrender. It was apparent to both the American and the Japanese governments that the United States would win the war, but Truman and his advisers were not certain how long the war would last before they found a way to end it. The president was committed to a total victory at the lowest possible cost in American lives; the Japanese planned to keep fighting to extract more acceptable surrender terms.
The Pacific war was a dreadfully savage affair. American forces assaulted a series of islands occupied by the Japanese that served as stepping stones across the Pacific. The Japanese defenders were determined to drive back the invaders, or in the later stages of the war, to inflict heavy casualties even in a lost cause. In each battle, the Americans eventually managed to overcome often-fanatical Japanese resistance, but achieving their objective was a wretched and terrifying experience. Journalist and historian William Manchester, who participated in several offensives as a Marine sergeant, later recalled the faces of his battle-weary comrades in his book Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War (1979): "haggard, with jaws hanging open and the expressionless eyes of men who had left nowhere and were going nowhere.” American troops were forced to flush Japanese soldiers from caves, pillboxes, and other defenses, to endure suicidal banzai attacks, and to conquer an enemy who refused to surrender.
American progress in the island campaign sealed the fate of the Japanese empire. After U.S. troops gained control of Saipan, a part of the Mariana Islands, in July 1944, Japanese military leaders acknowledged that they could not win the war. "We can no longer direct the war,” they concluded, "with any hope of success.” But the recognition that Japan was on the verge of defeat did not mean that it was on the verge of surrender. Gradually, some high officials in the Japanese government looked for ways to end the war promptly on a satisfactory basis. Their efforts were adamantly opposed by most military leaders, who insisted that Japan should fight a last-ditch decisive battle to secure more favorable surrender terms. The key deliberations over continuing the war or seeking peace took place among the six members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, who were evenly divided.
Despite their sharp differences over the issue of war or peace, both factions agreed that Japan would not surrender unless it received assurances that the emperor, Hirohito, would be allowed to remain on his throne. The emperor was viewed as a deity whose removal from the throne, or worse, trial as a war criminal, was totally unacceptable to all Japanese. One U.S. report observed in 1944 that "hanging of the Emperor to them would be comparable to the crucifixion of Christ to us.”
The emperor himself was ambivalent about ending the war and did not clearly favor the position of either faction. Thus, the Japanese government was paralyzed by indecision and internal dissension, and the war continued. From April 1 to June 21, 1945, the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war took place on the island of Okinawa, 500 km (310 mi) south of the main Japanese islands. American forces eventually prevailed, but only after a tortuous campaign in which about 7,000 U.S. soldiers and 5,000 sailors were killed or missing in action.
Within this context, Truman sought a way to force a Japanese surrender with the lowest possible cost in American lives. He and his advisers feared that an American invasion of the Japanese homeland that would take a terrible toll in U.S. casualties might be necessary, and they looked for other options that would end the war on American terms. The president and other top officials seriously considered three alternatives to an invasion. None offered a certain path to victory, alone or in combination, and all carried major drawbacks that made them of dubious value.
The first was to continue and intensify the bombing and naval blockade of Japan. Waves of American B-29 bombers had attacked Japan since late 1944. The single most destructive raid occurred on March 9 and 10, 1945, when the firebombing of Tokyo, the capital of Japan, flattened an area of about 41 square kilometers (16 square miles) and killed more than 83,000 Japanese. Despite the enormous death tolls and damage they caused, the bombings of Japanese cities did not bring about surrender. Many military leaders, notably the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Army, Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, did not believe that the bombings would force an early Japanese surrender.
A second alternative to an invasion was to wait for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to enter the war by attacking Japanese forces in Manchuria, which Japan had seized from China. The Soviets and the Japanese had signed a nonaggression pact in 1941, and U.S. leaders hoped that once the Soviets declared war on Japan, as they had promised to do, it would hasten the end of the war. But American military officials did not suggest that Soviet participation would be enough in itself to force the Japanese to quit the war. Marshall's staff told Truman on June 4, 1945, that Soviet entry into the war would be helpful but would trigger a Japanese surrender only if "coupled with a landing, or imminent threat of landing, on Japan.” Furthermore, the Soviets' entry into the war would inevitably expand their power and influence in Asia, which was not a welcome prospect when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were already steadily increasing over contentious issues in Europe.
A third possible alternative to an invasion was to allow the Japanese to retain the emperor with his power greatly reduced. The United States had announced a policy of "unconditional surrender” in 1943, but by the summer of 1945, some leading officials argued that Japan might be more likely to surrender if it received assurances that the institution of the emperor would not be abolished.
But modifying the demand for unconditional surrender in this way presented serious risks. It could strengthen the hand and increase the credibility of the militants in the Japanese government who opposed surrender, especially after the heavy price that U.S. forces had paid at Okinawa. Softening the unconditional surrender requirement could also undermine support among the American people for the war and perhaps lead to a compromise settlement that would allow Japan to renew its aggression in the future. And because the American people passionately hated the Japanese and strongly endorsed unconditional surrender, Truman could lose political support at home if he relaxed the policy. As a result, he vacillated and never made a decision on whether to modify the policy.
Advocates of moderating the unconditional surrender formula received some potentially encouraging information on July 13, 1945, when American intercepts of Japanese diplomatic cables decoded a message in which the foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, told his ambassador to the Soviet Union, Naotake Sato, that the emperor wanted to end the war and that the major obstacle to peace was the demand of the United States for unconditional surrender. But U.S. officials were highly skeptical that this cable reflected the emperor's true feelings. General John Weckerling, one of the top intelligence officers on Marshall's staff, thought the chances that the emperor had decided on peace were "remote.” He found it much more likely that the cable was a ploy to “appeal to war weariness in the United States.” Other U.S. leaders accepted Weckerling's conclusions.
Whatever the reasons behind Togo's message, the Japanese government never sent a signal to the United States that it would surrender on the sole condition that the emperor could remain. If it had done so, as it did a month later after the atomic bombings, the Truman administration would almost certainly have approved, as it did after the atomic bombings, and the war would have ended. But Japanese leaders were so torn by discord in July 1945 that they could not agree to make such an appeal, and the emperor still had not made his own position clear.
There was a fourth alternative to a U.S. invasion of Japan that only a few high officials in the U.S. government knew about. Throughout the war, the United States had been striving feverishly to develop a new weapon, the atomic bomb. By the spring of 1945, it was expected to be ready soon, and assuming that it worked as designed, it might provide a means to force a Japanese surrender without the disadvantages that burdened the other options. On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was successfully tested in New Mexico, which presented Truman with an awesome new weapon that might—no one could be certain— bring about a prompt end to the war.
The successful test of the bomb occurred one day before the opening of the Potsdam Conference in Germany, during which Truman negotiated with British and Soviet leaders over the shape of the postwar world. The president was elated by the news of the atomic explosion. It gave him much greater confidence in dealing with his formidable counterparts, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, over a series of difficult questions.
Truman's secretary of state, James F. Byrnes, was convinced that the bomb would give the United States increased leverage in negotiating with Stalin over disputed issues. Truman shared the hope that the atomic bomb would improve his diplomatic bargaining position, but he still viewed it primarily as a weapon of war. Byrnes was not involved in military policy, and U.S. military leaders, not the secretary of state, were instrumental in the decision to use the bomb. Their principal concern was to end the war at the earliest possible moment, and they regarded the bomb as the most promising and least risky way to do it.
As the Potsdam Conference drew to an end, the United States, Britain, and China issued a warning to Japan. The document, known as the Potsdam Declaration, called on the Japanese government to surrender unconditionally or face "prompt and utter destruction.” Several of Truman's advisers had urged that the declaration unambiguously state that Japan could retain the emperor after it surrendered. Byrnes opposed this proposal, largely on political grounds, and removed language in a draft of the declaration that would have made a clear offer that the emperor could remain. Nevertheless, the Potsdam Declaration included language that left an opening for the retention of the emperor by calling for the establishment of a peaceful government formed by the "freely expressed will of the Japanese people.” There was no doubt that the "freely expressed will” of the Japanese people would be to keep the emperor.
Foreign Minister Togo recognized that acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration as a basis for peace could very well preserve the institution of the emperor. But the Japanese government remained paralyzed by its internal divisions. The die-hard military faction found the declaration offensive and unacceptable, and the Japanese premier, Kantaro Suzuki, dismissed it by saying that Japan would "press forward to carry the war to a successful conclusion.”
A clearer statement by the United States that it would not seek to remove the emperor might have persuaded the Japanese to surrender, but in light of the implacable hostility of the militants and the emperor's continuing ambivalence about ending the war, this is highly doubtful. The Japanese rejected the declaration not because they failed to recognize the flexibility it demonstrated on the issue of the status of the emperor, but because they hoped to win other concessions by fighting on.
By rejecting the Potsdam Declaration, Japan forfeited its last opportunity to avoid the horrors of the atomic bomb. The city of Hiroshima was largely destroyed, and according to U.S. estimates somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 people were killed or missing as a result of a single atomic bomb dropped from a B-29 bomber on August 6, 1945. Three days later a second bomb wiped out much of Nagasaki, and 40,000 people were either killed or missing.
Despite the two atomic attacks, the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War remained bitterly divided. To end the stalemate, the emperor, whose ambivalence about seeking peace had ended after the bombing of Hiroshima, appealed to the Supreme Council to surrender with the single condition that the imperial institution be preserved. The militants reluctantly agreed to honor this request, in part because of their respect for the emperor and in part because the devastation of Nagasaki had demolished their arguments that the bomb used against Hiroshima had not been an atomic weapon. The Japanese sent a message to the United States offering to surrender if the emperor were not removed. After intense deliberations by Truman’s advisers, the United States sent a vague response to the Japanese message that avoided an explicit guarantee about the status of the emperor but suggested that the imperial institution might be allowed to continue. The U.S. reply caused a new crisis in Tokyo and revived sharp conflicts among the members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War. Finally, after a second appeal by the emperor, the Japanese agreed to surrender.
The atomic bomb was decisive in ending the war. Truman's use of the new weapon was an easy and obvious military decision for him. As he had hoped, it brought about a prompt and complete victory over Japan without risking the drawbacks of the other possible approaches for ending the war. In light of the circumstances that existed in the summer of 1945, it is difficult to imagine Truman or any other American president electing not to use the bomb.
Following the end of the war, myths about the reasons behind the use of the bomb became articles of faith for many Americans. The most prominent is that Truman authorized the atomic attacks because the only alternative would have been an invasion of Japan that would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. This postwar explanation for the decision to drop the bomb, advanced by Truman and some of his advisers, was seriously misleading. Other alternatives for ending the war existed, even if they were not as attractive to U.S. policy-makers as using the bomb. Because of the severe hardships it was suffering, Japan probably would have surrendered before the American invasion began around November 1, 1945. If an invasion had proved necessary, U.S. military experts estimated that in the worst case, the number of American deaths would have run in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. But even without an invasion, U.S. soldiers and sailors would die as long as the war continued. In the minds of Truman and his advisers at the time, ending the war and saving even a relatively small number of American lives was ample justification for using the bomb.
Another myth about the end of the war is just as misleading. It suggests that Truman was well aware that the Japanese were looking for a way to surrender, and that he used atomic weapons not to defeat Japan but to intimidate the Soviet Union in the emerging Cold War. A key element in this formulation is that the United States could have persuaded the Japanese to surrender at the time of the Potsdam Declaration by guaranteeing the status of the emperor. However, the statement that the United States made about the emperor's status after Hiroshima was no clearer than the Potsdam Declaration. After flatly rejecting the Potsdam Declaration as a basis for peace, Japan accepted equally vague U.S. assurances about the emperor only two weeks later. The dramatic shift in the position of the Japanese government was a direct result of the atomic bomb. The bomb, therefore, was essential for ending the war on American terms at the earliest possible moment.
About the author: J. Samuel Walker is the author of Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan (1997).
Effects of the Atomic Bombs
Upon witnessing the first test explosion of an atomic bomb, American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Hindu poem, the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and the metaphor of destruction became reality. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey was a joint Army-Navy commission formed to study the impact of bombing during World War II (1939-1945). In 1946 the group produced this report, detailing the devastating effects of the bombs on those two cities. The report also speculates on whether the bombs were necessary to force a Japanese surrender, part of a historical debate that still engenders controversy.
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey
The Attacks and Damage
1. The attacks.—A single atomic bomb, the first weapon of its type ever used against a target, exploded over the city of Hiroshima at 0815 on the morning of 6 August 1945. Most of the industrial workers had already reported to work, but many workers were enroute and nearly all the school children and some industrial employees were at work in the open on the program of building removal to provide firebreaks and disperse valuables to the country. The attack came 45 minutes after the "all clear" had been sounded from a previous alert. Because of the lack of warning and the populace's indifference to small groups of planes, the explosion came as an almost complete surprise, and the people had not taken shelter. Many were caught in the open, and most of the rest in flimsily constructed homes or commercial establishments.
The bomb exploded slightly northwest of the center of the city. Because of this accuracy and the flat terrain and circular shape of the city, Hiroshima was uniformly and extensively devastated. Practically the entire densely or moderately built-up portion of the city was leveled by blast and swept by fire. A "fire-storm," a phenomenon which has occurred infrequently in other conflagrations, developed in Hiroshima: fires springing up almost simultaneously over the wide flat area around the center of the city drew in air from all directions. The inrush of air easily overcame the natural ground wind, which had a velocity of only about 5 miles per hour. The "fire-wind” attained a maximum velocity of 30 to 40 miles per hour 2 to 3 hours after the explosion. The "fire-wind” and the symmetry of the built-up center of the city gave a roughly circular shape to the 4.4 square miles which were almost completely burned out.
The surprise, the collapse of many buildings, and the conflagration contributed to an unprecedented casualty rate. Seventy to eighty thousand people were killed, or missing and presumed dead, and an equal number were injured. The magnitude of casualties is set in relief by a comparison with the Tokyo fire raid of 9–10 March 1945, in which, though nearly 16 square miles were destroyed, the number killed was no larger, and fewer people were injured.
At Nagasaki, 3 days later, the city was scarcely more prepared, though vague references to the Hiroshima disaster had appeared in the newspaper of 8 August. From the Nagasaki Prefectural Report on the bombing, something of the shock of the explosion can be inferred:
The day was clear with not very much wind—an ordinary midsummer's day. The strain of continuous air attack on the city's population and the severity of the summer had vitiated enthusiastic air raid precautions.…
The city remained on the warning alert, but when two B-29's were again sighted coming in the raid signal was not given immediately; the bomb was dropped at 1102 and the raid signal was given a few minutes later, at 1109. Thus only about 400 people were in the city's tunnel shelters, which were adequate for about 30 percent of the population.
When the atomic bomb exploded, an intense flash was observed first, as though a large amount of magnesium had been ignited, and the scene grew hazy with white smoke. At the same time at the center of the explosion, and a short while later in other areas, a tremendous roaring sound was heard and a crushing blast wave and intense heat were felt. The people of Nagasaki, even those who lived on the outer edge of the blast, all felt as though they had sustained a direct hit, and the whole city suffered damage such as would have resulted from direct hits everywhere by ordinary bombs.
The zero area, where the damage was most severe, was almost completely wiped out and for a short while after the explosion no reports came out of that area. People who were in comparatively damaged areas reported their condition under the impression that they had received a direct hit. If such a great amount of damage could be wreaked by a near miss, then the power of the atomic bomb is unbelievably great.
In Nagasaki, no fire storm arose, and the uneven terrain of the city confined the maximum intensity of damage to the valley over which the bomb exploded. The area of nearly complete devastation was thus much smaller; only about 1.8 square miles. Casualties were lower also; between 35,000 and 40,000 were killed, and about the same number injured. People in the tunnel shelters escaped injury, unless exposed in the entrance shaft.
The difference in the totals of destruction to lives and property at the two cities suggests the importance of the special circumstances of layout and construction of the cities, which affect the results of the bombings and must be considered in evaluating the effectiveness of the atomic bombs.…
Hiroshima before the war was the seventh largest city in Japan, with a population of over 340,000, and was the principal administrative and commercial center of the southwestern part of the country. As the headquarters of the Second Army and of the Chugoku Regional Army, it was one of the most important military command stations in Japan, the site of one of the largest military supply depots, and the foremost military shipping point for both troops and supplies. Its shipping activities had virtually ceased by the time of the attack, however, because of sinkings and the mining of the Inland Sea. It had been relatively unimportant industrially before the war, ranking only twelfth, but during the war new plants were built that increased its significance. These factories were not concentrated, but spread over the outskirts of the city; this location, we shall see, accounts for the slight industrial damage.
The impact of the atomic bomb shattered the normal fabric of community life and disrupted the organizations for handling the disaster. In the 30 percent of the population killed and the additional 30 percent seriously injured were included corresponding proportions of the civic authorities and rescue groups. A mass flight from the city took place, as persons sought safety from the conflagration and a place for shelter and food. Within 24 hours, however, people were streaming back by the thousands in search of relatives and friends and to determine the extent of their property loss. Road blocks had to be set up along all routes leading into the city, to keep curious and unauthorized people out. The bulk of the dehoused population found refuge in the surrounding countryside; within the city the food supply was short and shelter virtually nonexistent.…
The status of medical facilities and personnel dramatically illustrates the difficulties facing authorities. Of more than 200 doctors in Hiroshima before the attack, over 90 percent were casualties and only about 30 physicians were able to perform their normal duties a month after the raid. Out of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 were killed or injured. Though some stocks of supplies had been dispersed, many were destroyed. Only three out of 45 civilian hospitals could be used, and two large Army hospitals were rendered unusable. Those within 3,000 feet of ground zero were totally destroyed, and the mortality rate of the occupants was practically 100 percent.…
Fire-fighting and rescue units were equally stripped of men and equipment. Father Siemes reports that 30 hours elapsed before organized rescue parties were observed. In Hiroshima, only 16 pieces of fire-fighting equipment were available for fighting the conflagration, three of them borrowed. However, it is unlikely that any public fire department in the world, even without damage to equipment or casualties to personnel, could have prevented development of a conflagration in Hiroshima, or combatted it with success at more than a few locations along its perimeter. The total fire damage would not have been much different.
All utilities and transportation services were disrupted over varying lengths of time. In most cases, however, the demand fell off even more precipitously than the available supply, and where the service was needed it could be restored at a minimal level.…
By 1 November, the population of Hiroshima was back to 137,000. The city required complete rebuilding. The entire heart, the main administrative and commercial as well as residential section, was gone. In this area only about 50 buildings, all of reinforced concrete, remained standing. All of these suffered blast damage and all save about a dozen were almost completely gutted by fire; only 5 could be used without major repairs.…
…The official Japanese figures summed up the building destruction at 62,000 out of a total of 90,000 buildings in the urban area, or 69 percent. An additional 6,000 or 6.6 percent were severely damaged, and most of the others showed glass breakage or disturbance of roof tile. These figures show the magnitude of the problem facing the survivors.
Despite the absence of sanitation measures, no epidemics are reported to have broken out. In view of the lack of medical facilities, supplies, and personnel, and the disruption of the sanitary system, the escape from epidemics may seem surprising. The experience of other bombed cities in Germany and Japan shows that this is not an isolated case. A possible explanation may lie in the disinfecting action of the extensive fires. In later weeks, disease rates rose, but not sharply.…
At Nagasaki, the scale of destruction was greater than at Hiroshima, though the actual area destroyed was smaller because of the terrain and the point of fall of the bomb. The Nagasaki Prefectural Report describes vividly the impress of the bomb on the city and its inhabitants:
Within a radius of 1 kilometer from ground zero, men and animals died almost instantaneously from the tremendous blast pressure and heat; houses and other structures were smashed, crushed and scattered; and fires broke out. The strong complex steel members of the structures of the Mitsubishi Steel Works were bent and twisted like jelly and the roofs of the reinforced concrete National Schools were crumpled and collapsed, indicating a force beyond imagination. Trees of all sizes lost their branches or were uprooted or broken off at the trunk.…
1. Casualties.—The most striking result of the atomic bombs was the great number of casualties. The exact number of dead and injured will never be known because of the confusion after the explosions. Persons unaccounted for might have been burned beyond recognition in the falling buildings, disposed of in one of the mass cremations of the first week of recovery, or driven out of the city to die or recover without any record remaining. No sure count of even the preraid populations existed. Because of the decline in activity in the two port cities, the constant threat of incendiary raids, and the formal evacuation programs of the Government, an unknown number of the inhabitants had either drifted away from the cities or been removed according to plan. In this uncertain situation, estimates of casualties have generally ranged between 100,000 and 180,000 for Hiroshima, and between 50,000 and 100,000 for Nagasaki. The Survey believes the dead at Hiroshima to have been between 70,000 and 80,000, with an equal number injured; at Nagasaki over 35,000 dead and somewhat more than that injured seems the most plausible estimate.
Most of the immediate casualties did not differ from those caused by incendiary or high-explosive raids. The outstanding difference was the presence of radiation effects, which became unmistakable about a week after the bombing. At the time of impact, however, the causes of death and injury were flash burns, secondary effects of blast and falling debris, and burns from blazing buildings.…
The seriousness of these radiation effects may be measured by the fact that 95 percent of the traced survivors of the immediate explosion who were within 3,000 feet suffered from radiation disease.…
A plausible estimate of the importance of the various causes of death would range as follows:
Flash burns, 20 to 30 percent.
Other injuries, 50 to 60 percent.
Radiation sickness, 15 to 20 percent.…
Flash burns.—The flash of the explosion, which was extremely brief, emitted radiant heat travelling at the speed of light. Flash burns thus followed the explosion instantaneously. The fact that relatively few victims suffered burns of the eyeballs should not be interpreted as an indication that the radiant heat followed the flash, or that time was required to build up to maximum heat intensity. The explanation is simply that the structure of the eye is more resistant to heat than is average human skin, and near ground zero the recessed position of the eyeball offered protection from the overhead explosion. Peak temperatures lasted only momentarily.
Survivors in the two cities stated that people who were in the open directly under the explosion of the bomb were so severely burned that the skin was charred dark brown or black and that they died within a few minutes or hours.…
Because of the brief duration of the flash wave and the shielding effects of almost any objects—leaves and clothing as well as buildings—there were many interesting cases of protection. The radiant heat came in a direct line like light, so that the area burned corresponded to this directed exposure. Persons whose sides were toward the explosion often showed definite burns of both sides of the back while the hollow of the back escaped. People in buildings or houses were apparently burned only if directly exposed through the windows. The most striking instance was that of a man writing before a window. His hands were seriously burned but his exposed face and neck suffered only slight burns due to the angle of entry of the radiant heat through the window.
Flash burns were largely confined to exposed areas of the body, but on occasion would occur through varying thicknesses of clothing. Generally speaking, the thicker the clothing the more likely it was to give complete protection against flash burns. One woman was burned over the shoulder except for a T-shaped area about one-fourth inch in breadth; the T-shaped area corresponded to an increased thickness of the clothing from the seam of the garment. Other people were burned through a single thickness of kimono but were unscathed or only slightly affected underneath the lapel. In other instances, skin was burned beneath tightly fitting clothing but was unburned beneath loosely fitting portions. Finally, white or light colors reflected heat and afforded some protection; people wearing black or dark-colored clothing were more likely to be burned.
…Comparatively few instances were reported of arms or legs being torn from the body by flying debris. Another indication of the rarity of over-pressure is the scarcity of ruptured eardrums. Among 106 victims examined by the Japanese in Hiroshima on 11 and 12 August, only three showed ruptured eardrums.…
Injuries produced by falling and flying debris were much more numerous, and naturally increased in number and seriousness nearer the center of the affected area. The collapse of the buildings was sudden, so that thousands of people were pinned beneath the debris. Many were able to extricate themselves or received aid in escaping, but large numbers succumbed either to their injuries or to fire before they could be extricated. The flimsiness of Japanese residential construction should not be allowed to obscure the dangers of collapse; though the walls and partitions were light, the houses had heavy roof timbers and heavy roof tiles. Flying glass from panels also caused a large number of casualties, even up to 15,000 feet from ground zero.
The number of burns from secondary fires was slight among survivors, but it was probable that a large number of the deaths in both cities came from the burning of people caught in buildings. Eyewitness accounts agree that many fatalities occurred in this way, either immediately or as a result of the lack of care for those who did extricate themselves with serious burns. There are no references, however, to people in the streets succumbing either to heat or to carbon monoxide as they did in Tokyo or in Hamburg, Germany. A few burns resulted from clothing set afire by the flash wave, but in most cases people were able to beat out such fires without serious injury to the skin.
Radiation disease.—The radiation effects upon survivors resulted from the gamma rays liberated by the fission process rather than from induced radio-activity or the lingering radio-activity of deposits of primary fission products. Both at Nagasaki and at Hiroshima, pockets of radio-activity have been detected where fission products were directly deposited, but the degree of activity in these areas was insufficient to produce casualties. Similarly, induced radio-activity from the interaction of neutrons with matter caused no authenticated fatalities. But the effects of gamma rays—here used in a general sense to include all penetrating high-frequency radiations and neutrons that caused injury—are well established, even though the Allies had no observers in the affected areas for several weeks after the explosions.
Our understanding of radiation casualties is not complete. In part the deficiency is in our basic knowledge of how radiation affects animal tissue. In the words of Dr. Robert Stone of the Manhattan Project, "The fundamental mechanism of the action of radiation on living tissues has not been understood.…”
According to the Japanese, those individuals very near the center of the explosion but not affected by flash burns or secondary injuries became ill within 2 or 3 days. Bloody diarrhea followed, and the victims expired, some within 2 to 3 days after the onset and the majority within a week. Autopsies showed remarkable changes in the blood picture—almost complete absence of white blood cells, and deterioration of bone marrow. Mucous membranes of the throat, lungs, stomach, and the intestines showed acute inflammation.
The majority of the radiation cases, who were at greater distances, did not show severe symptoms until 1 to 4 weeks after the explosion, though many felt weak and listless on the following day. After a day or two of mild nausea and vomiting, the appetite improved and the person felt quite well until symptoms reappeared at a later date.… Within 12 to 48 hours, fever became evident. In many instances it reached only 100° Fahrenheit and remained for only a few days. In other cases, the temperature went as high as 104° or 106° Fahrenheit. The degree of fever apparently had a direct relation to the degree of exposure to radiation. Once developed, the fever was usually well sustained, and in those cases terminating fatally it continued high until the end. If the fever subsided, the patient usually showed a rapid disappearance of other symptoms and soon regained his feeling of good health. The other symptoms commonly seen were shortage of white corpuscles, loss of hair, inflammation and gangrene of the gums, inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, ulceration of the lower gastro-intestinal tract, small livid spots (petechiae) resulting from escape of blood into the tissues of the skin or mucous membrane, and larger hemorrhages of gums, nose and skin.…
A decrease in the number of white blood corpuscles in the circulating blood appears to have been a constant accompaniment of radiation disease, even existing in some milder cases without other radiation effects. The degree of leukopenia was probably the most accurate index of the amount of radiation a person received. The normal white blood count averages 5,000 to 7,000: leukopenia is indicated by a count of 4,000 or less. The white blood count in the more severe cases ranged from 1,500 to 0, with almost entire disappearance of the bone marrow. The moderately severe cases showed evidence of degeneration of bone marrow and total white blood counts of 1,500 to 3,000. The milder cases showed white blood counts of 3,000 to 4,000 with more minor degeneration changes in the bone marrow. The changes in the system for forming red blood corpuscles developed later, but were equally severe.
Radiation clearly affected reproduction, though the extent has not been determined. Sterility has been a common finding throughout Japan, especially under the conditions of the last 2 years, but there are signs of an increase in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki areas to be attributed to the radiation. Sperm counts done in Hiroshima under American supervision revealed low sperm counts or complete aspermia for as long as 3 months afterward in males who were within 5,000 feet of the center of the explosion. Cases dying of radiation disease showed clear effects on spermatogenesis. Study of sections of ovaries from autopsied radiation victims has not yet been completed. The effects of the bomb on pregnant women are marked, however. Of women in various stages of pregnancy who were within 3,000 feet of ground zero, all known cases have had miscarriages. Even up to 6,500 feet they have had miscarriages or premature infants who died shortly after birth. In the group between 6,500 and 10,000 feet, about one-third have given birth to apparently normal children. Two months after the explosion, the city's total incidence of miscarriages, abortions, and premature births was 27 percent as compared with a normal rate of 6 percent. Since other factors than radiation contributed to this increased rate, a period of years will be required to learn the ultimate effects of mass radiation upon reproduction.…
Unfortunately, no exact definition of the killing power of radiation can yet be given, nor a satisfactory account of the sort and thickness of concrete or earth that will shield people.… In the meanwhile the awesome lethal effects of the atomic bomb and the insidious additional peril of the gamma rays speak for themselves.
There is reason to believe that if the effects of blast and fire had been entirely absent from the bombing, the number of deaths among people within a radius of one-half mile from ground zero would have been almost as great as the actual figures and the deaths among those within 1 mile would have been only slightly less. The principal difference would have been in the time of the deaths. Instead of being killed outright as were most of these victims, they would have survived for a few days or even 3 or 4 weeks, only to die eventually of radiation disease.…
2. Morale.—As might be expected, the primary reaction to the bomb was fear—uncontrolled terror, strengthened by the sheer horror of the destruction and suffering witnessed and experienced by the survivors.…
The behavior of the living immediately after the bombings, as described earlier, clearly shows the state of shock that hindered rescue efforts. A Nagasaki survivor illustrates succinctly the mood of survivors:
…I was working at the office. I was talking to a friend at the window. I saw the whole city in a red flame, then I ducked. The pieces of the glass hit my back and face. My dress was torn off by the glass. Then I got up and ran to the mountain where the good shelter was.
The two typical impulses were those: Aimless, even hysterical activity or flight from the city to shelter and food.
The accentuated effect of these bombs came not only from the surprise and their crushing power, but also from the feeling of security among the inhabitants of the two cities before the attacks. Though Nagasaki had undergone five raids in the previous year, they had not been heavy, and Hiroshima had gone almost untouched until the morning of 6 August 1945. In both cities many people felt that they would be spared, and the various rumors in circulation supporting such feeling covered a wide range of wishful thoughts. There were so many Christians there, many Japanese-Americans came from Hiroshima, the city was a famous beauty spot—these and other even more fantastic reasons encouraged hopes. Other people felt vaguely that their city was being saved for “something big,” however.…
3. The Japanese decision to surrender.—The further question of the effects of the bombs on the morale of the Japanese leaders and their decision to abandon the war is tied up with other factors. The atomic bomb had more effect on the thinking of Government leaders than on the morale of the rank and file of civilians outside of the target areas. It cannot be said, however, that the atomic bomb convinced the leaders who effected the peace of the necessity of surrender. The decision to seek ways and means to terminate the war, influenced in part by knowledge of the low state of popular morale, had been taken in May 1945 by the Supreme War Guidance Council.
As early as the spring of 1944, a group of former prime ministers and others close to the Emperor had been making efforts toward bringing the war to an end.…
Thus the problem facing the peace leaders in the Government was to bring about a surrender despite the hesitation of the War Minister and the opposition of the Army and Navy chiefs of staff. This had to be done, moreover, without precipitating counter measures by the Army which would eliminate the entire peace group. This was done ultimately by bringing the Emperor actively into the decision to accept the Potsdam terms. So long as the Emperor openly supported such a policy and could be presented to the country as doing so, the military, which had fostered and lived on the idea of complete obedience to the Emperor, could not effectively rebel.
A preliminary step in this direction had been taken at the Imperial Conference on 26 June. At this meeting, the Emperor, taking an active part despite his custom to the contrary, stated that he desired the development of a plan to end the war as well as one to defend the home islands. This was followed by a renewal of earlier efforts to get the Soviet Union to intercede with the United States, which were effectively answered by the Potsdam Declaration on 26 July and the Russian declaration of war on 9 August.
The atomic bombings considerably speeded up these political maneuverings within the government. This in itself was partly a morale effect, since there is ample evidence that members of the Cabinet were worried by the prospect of further atomic bombings, especially on the remains of Tokyo. The bombs did not convince the military that defense of the home islands was impossible, if their behavior in Government councils is adequate testimony. It did permit the Government to say, however, that no army without the weapon could possibly resist an enemy who had it, thus saving "face” for the Army leaders and not reflecting on the competence of Japanese industrialists or the valor of the Japanese soldier. In the Supreme War Guidance Council voting remained divided, with the war minister and the two chiefs of staff unwilling to accept unconditional surrender. There seems little doubt, however, that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weakened their inclination to oppose the peace group.
The peace effort culminated in an Imperial conference held on the night of 9 August and continued into the early hours of 10 August, for which the stage was set by the atomic bomb and the Russian war declaration. At this meeting the Emperor, again breaking his customary silence, stated specifically that he wanted acceptance of the Potsdam terms.
A quip was current in high Government circles at this time that the atomic bomb was the real Kamikaze, since it saved Japan from further useless slaughter and destruction. It is apparent that in the atomic bomb the Japanese found the opportunity which they had been seeking, to break the existing deadlock within the Government over acceptance of the Potsdam terms.
Source: Articles from Bibliobase edited by Michael A. Bellesiles. Copyright © 1998 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.