Saturday, August 27, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox

NOTE:  While I was traveling in Italy, President Obama's visit to Hiroshima was a hot topic among political and social commentators of all sorts.    Most of the comments I read remained deeply entrenched in the Hiroshima Myth I wrote about last August: the use of the bomb was necessary to end the war and save lives, both American and Japanese, which according to the myth it did.  Despite strong evidence to the contrary, and the fact that far fewer Americans today believe nuclear weapons are a good thing, this widely-believed rationale for why the bomb was used remains unshakable.  In light of the latest round of rationalizing, I've decided to re-post my original pieces on Truman's decision to use the bomb and why the Japanese surrendered.  I have made a few modifications to the original.  (For an excellent, comprehensive history of the atomic bomb decision and why Japan surrendered, see: Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath.)    

The original posting, as modified:

Atomic Bombs Over Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Atomic Bombs Dropped on Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right)

August 6th, 2015, marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. As has been the case on every decennial anniversary of the bombing, the bomb’s use is currently being celebrated by politicians, media sorts, and most Americans as being responsible for ending the war and thus negating the need for an invasion of Japan’s home islands that would have caused enormous losses on both sides. This belief has achieved numinous status in the United States; most Americans accept it as an article of faith. It has become, as historian Christian Appy put it, the most successful legitimizing narrative in American history. There’s only one thing wrong with the Hiroshima narrative: it's not factual. There is perhaps no greater myth in U.S. history than the belief that the atomic bomb was the "winning weapon" that ended World War II. It’s what I call the Hiroshima Myth.

Despite doubts about the necessity to use the bomb expressed by a number of top military and political leaders at the time (and later in their personal reflections), challenges to the traditional Hiroshima narrative by several historians, and declining overall American attraction to nuclear weapons, the Hiroshima Myth remains deeply embedded in the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of Americans. How did it get so embedded? Why didn’t the highly authoritative 1947 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which concluded that the Japanese would have surrendered "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1 1945--even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, the Russians had not entered the war, and no invasion had been planned or contemplated," establish a different narrative?

Were the bombings instrumental in ending the war? Did they avert an invasion of the Japanese homeland and thus save lives? There’s much at stake in the answers to these questions, for if the bomb wasn't necessary to end the war, then its use on Hiroshima and, especially Nagasaki, was wrong, militarily, politically and morally, especially when one considers that these two cities were not vital military targets.

At the risk of being called unpatriotic, un-American, or worse, because the issue still touches raw emotions (Americans don't take kindly to questioning the morality of our country's purposes), I will attempt to refute the Hiroshima Myth. Fortunately I am able to draw upon information that wasn’t available when early histories of the bombings were written. This information includes a declassified paper written by a Joint Chiefs of Staff advisory group in June 1945, the personal accounts of a number of top Japanese leaders, and various bits of documentary evidence uncovered by enterprising historians. These discoveries enable a more accurate picture of bomb’s role in ending the war.

In a three-part essay, I will argue that use of the atomic bomb was not the main factor inducing Japan to surrender and Truman’s bomb-use decision was not primarily based on a desire to save American lives.  I will also argue in Part III that our enduring belief in the bomb as “the winning weapon” has had a profound impact on American culture and on how we approach national security.


It is conventional wisdom that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with Truman’s threat to launch a “reign of ruin” on Japan the likes of which the world had never seen, forced the Japanese Supreme Council (consisting of the six top members of the government) to accept the Potsdam Declaration’s demand for “unconditional surrender.” Assessing the validity of this claim requires looking at the war situation from Japan’s perspective. Were the atomic bombings, and the threat of more to come, the main reason Japan’s Supreme Council, after intervention by the emperor, decided to surrender? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine the timing of the surrender decision as well as how the top Japanese political and military leaders saw their strategic options in August of 1945.

An examination of the timing of Japan’s surrender decision casts serious doubt on the traditional understanding of the bomb’s role. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6. On the morning of August 9, the Supreme Council met for the first time in the war to discuss the unconditional surrender terms set forth in the Potsdam Ultimatum. Though Japan had explored ways to negotiate an end to the war, which we knew because we had broken their communication codes, it was adamantly opposed to surrendering unconditionally since this would likely result in an occupation, the loss of the authority of the emperor, dramatic changes to the country's form of government, its beliefs, traditions, and ways of life, and, possibly, to war crimes trials, which had been hinted at in the Potsdam Declaration. So what motivated the Supreme Council to meet on August 9 to discuss terms of surrender?

Contrary to the established winning weapon narrative, it wasn’t the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First, it is doubtful the bombing of Hiroshima pushed Japan’s political and military leaders to consider unconditional surrender. The fact that the Supreme Council decided to disregard Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori’s recommendation to meet on August 8 after Hiroshima, and didn’t meet until a day later, suggests that, despite having heard about the city's destruction shortly after the bombing, they didn’t consider it important enough to quickly convene.

Perhaps, as some defenders of the traditional narrative contend, the Council did not fully understand the nature and magnitude of the new weapon. This isn’t likely. Japan had its own nuclear research program and several military officers mentioned in their diaries that Hiroshima had been destroyed by a nuclear weapon.  Also, accounts of the utter destruction had been circulating.

So, if Hiroshima didn’t push the Supreme Council to meet on August 9, what did? Was it the Nagasaki bombing? Again, timing suggests it wasn’t Nagasaki. When the Supreme Council met on the morning of August 9, Nagasaki had not yet been bombed. The Council would not learn about Nagasaki until after their meeting on the surrender decision had adjourned, in a three-to-three deadlock, and the full cabinet had been called to take up the question.

There is good reason why the Japanese might not have been shocked by the horrors of the mass destruction of Hiroshima and, later, Nagasaki. The country had endured night and day fire bombings of its cities for weeks, resulting collectively in far more devastation and loss of life. In Tokyo alone, 16 square miles of the city were destroyed and an estimated 120,000 Japanese died. Japan had become numbed to destruction well before the atomic bombs. Sixty-six of its cities had been destroyed. If they didn’t surrender after all this destruction, why would the leveling of yet two more cities make them change their mind? Minister of War and Supreme Council member General Korechika Anami agreed, commenting on August 13 that the atomic bombings were no more menacing than the fire bombings Japan had endured from the sky for months.

The timing evidence makes it clear that something other than the shock of atomic bombs drove the Japanese to surrender on August 14. The decisive factors included: The debilitating effects of the naval blockade on the Japanese economy, the Russian invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria on August 8, and, most significantly, Truman's decision to allow the Imperial dynasty to continue, which was granted by the so-called "James Byrnes Note" on August 11.

Joseph Stalin
Japan wanted to bring the war to an end on the best possible terms. To accomplish this, it had two options: one diplomatic and one military. On the diplomatic front, since Japan nominally had a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, it thought Stalin might be willing to mediate a settlement that would not require unconditional surrender. Not only might Japan be able to keep their emperor, but also avoid war crimes trials and possibly even keep some of the territories it had conquered. Japan figured Moscow might welcome the establishment of terms less favorable to the U.S. 

The military option was to bolster the capability of Japan’s Imperial Army to inflict heavy casualties on American troops in the event of an invasion. The army entrusted with defending the homeland was still strong and had not been diminished by the atomic bombings. If the Army could prove formidable, and possibly even win a decisive battle, this might motivate the Americans to negotiate a termination of the war on better terms for Japan—or so it was hoped. Expecting that an invasion would begin in the southern island of Kyushu (correctly as it turned out), the bulk of the Japanese army was shifted to the south.

So on August 8 both of Japan’s strategic options were thus still alive: Stalin might still mediate, and the capacity of the Japanese Army’s to inflict punishment defending the homeland remained viable.

Moscow’s declaration of war against Japan on August 8, a week before it had promised to do so at the Yalta Conference, and its prompt invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island, however, changed the picture dramatically. Stalin’s belligerency wiped out the diplomatic option. Japan’s shifting of its best troops to the southern part of the home islands, left the north of Japan poorly defended. The Soviet Army sliced quickly through Manchuria and Sakhalin and was preparing to invade the northern Japanese Island of Hokkaido. It appeared the Red Army would soon land on Honshu. Japan was now facing a two-front war. While the bombing of Hiroshima had foreclosed neither of Japan’s strategic options, the Soviet invasion has foreclosed both.

Japanese intelligence had predicted that the U.S. would not invade for several months, possibly not until late 1945 or early 1946. This provided time for its Army to dig in and prepare for a decisive battle. The Soviet invasion and immediate threat to the home islands, however, turned the Supreme Council’s fear, originally expressed in June 1945, that Soviet entry into the war would “determine the fate of the empire,” into a reality. The prospect of a Communist Japan haunted the regime.  It now became critical to end the war as quickly as possible, and it was deemed far better to deal with the Americans than Stalin and the Red Army.

On August 11 a note from Secretary of State Byrnes to the Japanese Supreme Council qualified the "unconditional surrender" terms.  It stated that "the authority of the Emperor shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers," ... but "the ultimate form of government of Japan shall be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people."  This was a major breakthrough; Japan could keep its Emperor.  (Hirohito's post-war value as an authority to containing Japan's extended military, naval and war forces was deemed essential by Byrnes and Truman.)  Assuring Hirohito's role in the post-war world strengthened the hand of moderates on the Supreme Council over the militarists who were adamantly opposed to unconditional surrender.  This  paved the way for Japan' surrender on August 14.

The historical evidence thus points to the conclusion that the Japanese agreement to surrender was not motivated by the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,* or Truman’s threat of a “reign of ruin” (there were few cities left to hit with atomic bombs), or even a pending American invasion of the Japanese islands; rather it was inspired by Russia’s declaration of war and invasion and Washington's modification of the terms of surrender.  Also in play was Japan's deteriorating economic situation which compromised its capacity to sustain its military effort.

Was President Truman also concerned about the Soviet Union's invasion of Japan? One would think not since he had allegedly gone to Potsdam determined to get Stalin to fulfill his pledge made at the May Yalta Conference to enter the Pacific War two-months after the end of the European war (August 15).  Did the atomic bomb make him change his mind?  I turn to this question in Part II.

*  A number of defenders of the Hiroshima Myth site a statement made by Hirohito shortly after the war that a "new and most cruel bomb" had been a significant consideration in Japan's decision to lay down its arms.  He went on to imply that Japan's capitulation had saved the rest of the world from nuclear annihilation.  These words should be more correctly seen as part of a Hirohito face-saving spin to defect the humiliation of Japan's defeat.  It was designed to enable Tokyo to surrender without conceding defeat on the battlefield, where it counted most in the samurai mind.  To repeat: the Japanese Emperor, cabinet, and Supreme Council barely mentioned the bomb during their surrender deliberations.

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