Museums Still Can’t Agree on How to Talk About the 1945 Atomic Bombing of Japan

Museums Still Can’t Agree on How to Talk About the 1945 Atomic Bombing of Japan

Though an American and a Japanese museum that tell the story of the atomic bomb agree on the horrors of nuclear war, they can’t agree on whether to call for the abolition of the weapons that cause it.

As a result, the Los Alamos Historical Museum—located in the New Mexico city where the atomic bomb was born—halted a traveling Japanese exhibition on the history of the bomb because of its theme of nuclear disarmament, the Associated Press reports.

The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition, produced by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the city of Nagasaki, tells the story of how two Japanese cities were destroyed by twin nuclear bombs in August 1945. So far, it’s been hosted in 37 cities in 13 countries over the past two decades. But it looks like Los Alamos won’t be one of them.

The exhibition, which has been traveling around the world since 1995, features artifacts, survivor testimonies and other items related to the 1945 bombings, which killed an estimated 80,000 people in Hiroshima and 40,000 people in Nagasaki. It includes objects like the shredded jacket of a junior high school student who was injured in Hiroshima and a rosary that was with a parishioner who was killed instantly while worshiping at a Nagasaki church.

Heather McClenahan, the Los Alamos Historical Museum’s director, told the AP that the museum’s board of directors wasn’t comfortable with the exhibition’s call for the abolition of nuclear bombs. Though the AP reports that the museum refused to host it until all parties could come to an agreement over how nuclear abolition was presented, McClenahan laterdenied the report. “We never cancelled the exhibit because we had never agreed to host it,” she told the Los Alamos Monitor. “We just want to make sure it’s respectful to our community.”

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was designed and tested in the 1940s, is still operational. It employs 11,200 people, 39 percent of whom live in Los Alamos itself—constituting about 35 percent of the town’s 12,000 residents. The lab currently produces the nation’s plutonium pits: triggers that set off the explosions that make nuclear weapons so deadly. Whether it will continue to do so is currently in question; as the federal government looks to update its nuclear infrastructure, it’s considering relocating pit production to South Carolina instead.

The museum is still engaged in discussions about potentially hosting the exhibition, according to McClenahan. Should the museum present a strong point of view on nuclear abolition? Or should it let visitors come to their own conclusions from the mangled objects and tortured testimonies of Japanese survivors? Until both museums can come to a consensus, don’t expect to see the exhibition in Los Alamos any time soon.

Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 1945

After the Interim Committee decided to drop the bomb, the Target Committee determined the locations to be hit, and President Truman issued the Potsdam Proclamation as Japan’s final warning, the world soon learned the meaning of “complete and utter destruction.” The first two atomic bombs ever used were dropped on Japan in early August, 1945.

For a detailed timeline of the bombings, please see Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombing Timeline.

Would Japan have surrendered without the atomic bombings?

In the summer of 1945, Japan’s war leaders knew they were not going to win World War II.

Opposing camps of historians generally agree on that, but little else when it comes to debating Japan’s willingness to surrender.

In the United States, generations were taught that Japan would never have surrendered so quickly without use of the atomic bomb and that victory would have required a bloody invasion of the Japanese mainland, costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

Japanese students were generally taught a very different narrative: that Japan already had been defeated and dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki three days apart was a geopolitical calculation to keep the Soviet Union at bay.

By the 1970s, multiple American scholars adopted the dominant Japanese point of view, arguing that the atomic bomb was unnecessary because the Japanese would have surrendered by the end of 1945.

The “revisionist” claims came under fire from the “orthodoxy” camp, which pointed to Japan’s famed unwillingness to surrender, its massed anti-invasion divisions and notes from some U.S. officials who supported Soviet help against Japan.

Somewhere between the opposing contentions lies the work of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, author of the 2005 book, “Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan.”

Hasegawa brings a unique perspective: he is a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara who speaks Russian and lived through the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo as a child.

“True defeat and surrender are two different things,” Hasegawa said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes. “Surrender is a political decision, requiring political will.”

The atomic bombs’ impact can’t be discounted when discussing Japan’s reasons for surrender, Hasegawa said.

However, the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, and the realization that Japanese forces would have to fight the Soviets in the north and the U.S. in the south, constituted “the greater shock,” Hasegawa said.

There were two broad camps among Japan’s war leadership in August 1945, according to Hasegawa’s research.

The war camp maintained that Japan must inflict tremendous damage on the Americans in order to win better terms than the “unconditional surrender” offered by President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference in 1945.

The peace camp contended that ending the war as soon as possible was the best way to achieve both camps’ overriding goal: retaining the emperor system.

In 1945, the emperor’s fate remained an open question for U.S. policymakers.

Senior officials like Joseph Grew, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, and War Secretary Henry Stimson argued for retention of the emperor in some capacity. High-ranking officials like Dean Acheson and Archibald MacLeish said the emperor must go, according to declassified U.S. government documents.

Japan’s war camp believed that the Soviet Union would eventually help broker a peace deal. Even after Stalin ended a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1945 and began massing troops toward Japanese-held territory, Japanese leaders held fast to this fantasy, Hasegawa said.

“From the Soviet Union’s point of view, it was important to postpone [Japan’s] surrender until they were ready to enter the war,” Hasegawa said.

On Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay delivered its payload and destroyed Hiroshima.

By that time, Japan had few remaining cities with a population of more than 100,000 that hadn’t been severely damaged. Gen. Curtis LeMay burned much of Tokyo with incendiary bombs months earlier, a move he later admitted would have been considered a war crime if the U.S. had lost.

Hiroshima was the latest bombing victim, albeit with a terrifying new weapon. However, Japanese forces still retained several divisions in Kyushu that prepared for an American invasion.

“The highest decision-making body was not even convened after Hiroshima,” Hasegawa said. “The cabinet was divided. The atomic bomb was effective enough that for the first time, cabinet decision-makers decided to really terminate the war. But on what conditions, they were totally divided.”

Japan’s leadership quickly sent a telegram to their ambassador in Moscow, hoping to appeal to Stalin for help.

Instead of offering aid, on Aug. 8, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov read to Japan’s ambassador a declaration of war.

The Soviets invaded Japan-held Manchuria on Aug. 9. The same day, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Even after the bombs and the Soviet invasion, some of Japan’s hawks weren’t ready to stop fighting, according to some historians.

Gen. Korechika Anami, Japan’s minister of war, called for conditions that the world wouldn’t have recognized as surrender.

Anami wanted retention of the emperor, self-disarmament, no foreign occupation, and trial of any Japanese war criminals by Japan itself, according to “The Rising Sun,” John Toland’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Japan’s war empire.

Emperor Hirohito, who had thus far stayed above the fray, put the debate over prolonging the war to an end when he called for a surrender.

For a few days, Japan continued asking American for conditions, unsuccessfully.

Diehard Japanese hawks attempted a palace coup to save the emperor’s “right to rule,” but the military quashed it. The emperor had spoken and the military would obey.

Hasegawa contends that Hirohito’s decision to surrender was entirely pragmatic.

“He didn’t do that because he was really concerned about the fate of the Japanese people,” Hasegawa said. “He didn’t surrender after the firebombing [of Tokyo]. The crucial point was that he just wanted to preserve the emperor system as head of the Shinto religion.”

The Soviets continued fighting in the north through September, capturing territories and islands at Japan’s fringes. But the United States closed in quickly and occupied Japan’s main islands. There would be no German-style partition.

Historians would later argue that this had been America’s goal all along. However, declassified archives show a great deal of disagreement among U.S. officials over Soviet involvement in Japan.

Michael Kort, professor of social science at Boston University, contends U.S. President Harry S. Truman simply wanted the war over and viewed Soviet involvement as another way to achieve that.

“The documentary evidence is overwhelming that Truman wanted the Soviets to enter the war and that on Aug. 8, he was very pleased to learn that they had done so,” Kort said.

As for the use of atomic bombs, opinion remains divided. A Pew Research Center poll released in April showed that 56 percent of Americans believe it was justified. Among Japanese, 79 percent said it was not.

Hasegawa lays the blame for the tragic atomic bombing and the Soviet invasion at the feet of Japan’s wartime government. However, his research ultimately changed his thinking on some aspects.

The bomb played a part in Japan’s surrender, but it may not have been necessary, he said.

Had the U.S. drawn Stalin into publicly supporting the Potsdam Declaration’s unconditional surrender demand, Japan might not have held out hope for a Soviet-brokered deal. Had it guaranteed the emperor’s position, Japan might have surrendered earlier, Hasegawa said, though this is yet another point that draws endless historical debate.

“Other alternatives were available, but they were not explored,” Hasegawa said.

Stars and Stripes researchers Norio Muroi and Catharine Giordano contributed to this report.

Was bombing Japan the only option?

A newsboy shouting “Extra! Extra” came around flashing the headline “New Bomb Destroys Hiroshima.” It was August 6, 1945. We, a group of young Marines in the Navy Language School on the campus of Oklahoma A&M, were taking a short morning break from our intensive Japanese training to become “combat interpreters.” Going back to class with our Japanese-American teachers, we knew that some of them had relatives living in the Hiroshima area, but we could not ask them. A few days later, a letter came from a Jesuit I knew from university, “I told the students at the morning Mass, ‘With this bomb, America lost the war.’”

The next year I entered the Jesuits, and later was missioned to Japan. Over the past 70 years I have tried to learn as much as I could about how the war with Japan had begun and especially how it ended—when and why the United States lost the moral high ground by engaging in indiscriminate mass bombing of civilians, culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Last year, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy (the daughter of John F. Kennedy) visited Nagasaki. On that occasion, an association of citizen groups for the abolition of nuclear weapons published in The Japan Times (Feb. 6, 2014) an open letter to President Obama:

We urge you . to acknowledge that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was a crime against humanity involving indiscriminate mass killing of civilians. Accordingly, we urge you to offer an official apology to the victims of these war atrocities. We are convinced that an American apology is vital to achieve the abolishment of nuclear weapons. We also sincerely believe that doing so will increase pressure on the Japanese government to acknowledge its own war crimes of the 1940s.

The letter goes on to enumerate in detail many of the Japanese war crimes, and assert that Japanese leaders, beginning with the Emperor, diverted attention from their own war crimes by assuming the role of victim of the atomic bombing. (For more on the question of a U.S. apology, see the postscript below.)

Night Raids

In early 1945, once the Japanese had been driven out of the Pacific islands of Saipan, Tinian and Guam, the Air Force mounted a bombing campaign against the Japanese home islands. Soon, however, the strategy shifted from high-level bombing to mass low-level night raids dropping twirling metal racks that threw out burning blobs of napalm. The first large-scale raid on the windy night of March 9, 1945, burnt up a large densely populated area of central Tokyo. An estimated 86,000 people were incinerated. That was the kick-off of a campaign that, by August of 1945, had already gutted over 60 city centers. Warning leaflets were now being dropped off a few days ahead of the attacks so that people could try to escape the target cities.

For the atomic bombs, a “Target Committee” under General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, discussed how to use the bombs for the maximum shock effect. This group morphed into the “Interim Committee” of government, military and scientific members advising President Harry Truman on the use of the atomic bomb. They recommended dropping two bombs. The first was to be on Hiroshima, a city selected, not for its military importance, but because it was a broad flat area. In the city there was an army divisional headquarters, but no large war production factories within the target area—only a broad expanse of homes, schools, hospitals, shopping and city administration areas. The parachuted bomb was ignited 1,500 feet above the city—a height carefully calculated for maximum destructive effect. The Air Force had to be explicitly notified to “spare” Hiroshima from its fire-bombing campaign.

What could have morally justified killing 140,000 people, most of whom were civilians? The historical record shows that the decision to use the atomic bombs was effectively made in early June when President Truman approvingly received the recommendations of the Interim Committee from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The official written military order, effectively pulling the trigger, was sent out on July 25, the day before, not after, the Allies issued the Potsdam Proclamation, which set terms of surrender for Japan. After the war, President Truman asserted that he decided to drop the atomic bomb after Japan failed to respond to the terms laid out in the proclamation.

President Truman, together with Secretary Stimson, in the years right after the war, was the source of the “myth” that killing 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 more in Nagasaki saved “a million casualties on both sides” if it should have come to a mass invasion and a desperate fight to the finish on the home islands of Japan. Historians and military experts have repeatedly disputed these numbers, making an estimate of a maximum of 46,000 deaths in the event of a full invasion. Such estimates as well as military planning, of course, had to assume the worst, namely that no acceptable terms of surrender would be offered, only “unconditional surrender.”

Moreover, we know now that among the top military officers at the time, most foresaw that the Japanese would likely have to capitulate within a few months without need for an invasion. Admiral William D. Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in 1950: “It is my opinion that 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…” The Japanese Navy had been destroyed the home islands were already blockaded by submarines and aircraft carriers. Shipping for essential oil imports, steel, and even for food had been cut off. Oil refineries and storage had been systematically bombed by B-29’s from Guam. Even if the horrendous supposition of President Truman were true, was it morally permissible to sacrifice 210,000 hostages with the A-Bomb in order to force Japan to surrender?

Even if the horrendous supposition of President Truman were true, was it morally permissible to sacrifice 210,000 hostages with the A-Bomb in order to force Japan to surrender?

Many officers of the Japanese Army, especially those of middle-rank, were fight-to-the finish fanatics. But there were reasonable men among Japan’s military and political leaders. In summer of 1945, the Japanese government, then not at war with Russia, was trying through their ambassador and the Emperor’s special envoy in Moscow to persuade the Soviets to arrange negotiations for ending the war. Stalin and Molotov, however, duplicitously stalled the talks while rapidly moving their armies across Siberia to attack Japan. The U.S. government knew the intentions of the Soviets, for Stalin had assured Roosevelt already at Yalta (Feb. 1945) that the Soviets would attack Japan three months after the defeat of Germany (May 1945). The U.S. government, having broken the Japanese diplomatic code, was listening in on what they knew were feckless Japanese diplomatic efforts in Moscow. Is it naïve to ask why the U.S. government in the early summer of 1945 did not try to meet the Japanese in their efforts to negotiate a surrender? There were neutral countries such as Switzerland, Sweden or the Vatican that could have acted as go-between.

Proposals to End the War

By July 1945, proposals had been developed within the U.S. government to make it easier for the Japanese leaders to end the war. These proposals suggested dropping the blunt demand for “unconditional surrender” and offer more detailed conditions, namely that the armed forces surrender unconditionally and that all war potential be destroyed, while a democratic national polity with the Emperor as head of state could be retained. Such a proposal could, it was hoped, be a basis for negotiating an earlier surrender. But President Truman did not act on these recommendations. The Allied leaders Potsdam Proclamation (July 26) broadcast as a kind of ultimatum, omitted the proposed assurance that the Japanese would be “free to choose their own form of government.” With this omission the hardliners could see the Proclamation to be little different from “unconditional surrender.” The Japanese government delayed its response, still striving in vain—and open to U.S. intelligence—to negotiate for better conditions through the Soviets.

Would a virtual history in which the Japanese would have earlier been shown assurances that the imperial system could be maintained have led to an earlier end of the war? We don’t know, but it would have been a more humane attempt. If negotiation could have ended the war sooner, there would have been no temptation to drop the atomic bomb the war could have ended before the Soviets could declare war and invade Japanese occupied Manchuria and Korea. Today, there might be only one Korea.

Whether one agrees or not with this projection of virtual history, the judgment remains that the U.S. leaders did not attempt more effective diplomatic efforts to bring the war to an earlier and more humane end, and that the bombing of Japan, culminating in the use of atomic bombs, was the use of immorally excessive force—and on predominantly civilian populations. Do we dare call it a war crime?

If negotiation could have ended the war sooner, there would have been no temptation to drop the atomic bomb the war could have ended before the Soviets could declare war and invade Japanese occupied Manchuria and Korea. Today, there might be only one Korea.

Postscript: Is an Apology Called For?

Immediately after the dropping of the two atomic bombs, and before the actual surrender, the Japanese Foreign Minister sent a telling protest through the Swiss government:

It is the fundamental principle of international law in wartime that belligerents do not posses unlimited rights regarding the choice of the means of harming the enemy, and ….must not employ arms, projectiles or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. (Hague Conventions). The indiscriminateness and cruelty of the bomb the U.S. used this time far exceed those of poisonous gases and similar weapons, the use of which is prohibited because of these very qualities….The use of such a weapon is a new crime against human culture.

This was the first and only protest letter the Japanese government ever issued on the atomic bombings.

Less than a week later, on August 15, 1945 Emperor Hirohito broadcast his Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War. He gave as reason for accepting the Allies’ conditions:

The enemy has begun to employ a new and cruel bomb with incalculable power to damage and destroy many innocent lives. If we continue to fight, it would lead not only to the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but it would also lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

Japan, then, becomes the victim to save “human civilization.” In the Rescript, the Emperor, in the same vein, expressed concern for “our allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire toward the emancipation of East Asia.” At the end of the war, most people of East Asia would have preferred not to be “emancipated” in that way.

Was the US justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War?

For years debate has raged over whether the US was right to drop two atomic bombs on Japan during the final weeks of the Second World War. The first bomb, dropped on the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, resulted in a total death toll of around 140,000. The second, which hit Nagasaki on 9 August, killed around 50,000 people. But was the US justified? We put the question to historians and two HistoryExtra readers.

This competition is now closed

Published: June 19, 2020 at 4:00 pm

America’s use of atomic bombs to attack the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 has long remained one of the most controversial decisions of the Second World War. Here, a group of historians offer their views on whether US president Truman was right to authorise these nuclear attacks…

“Yes. Truman had little choice” – Antony Beevor

Few actions in war are morally justifiable. All a commander or political leader can hope to assess is whether a particular course of action is likely to reduce the loss of life. Faced with the Japanese refusal to surrender, President Truman had little choice.

His decision was mainly based on the estimate of half a million Allied casualties likely to be caused by invading the home islands of Japan. There was also the likely death rate from starvation for Allied PoWs and civilians as the war dragged on well into 1946.

What Truman did not know, and which has only been established quite recently, is that the Imperial Japanese Army could never contemplate surrender, having forced all their men to fight to the death since the start of the war. All civilians were to be mobilised and forced to fight with bamboo spears and satchel charges to act as suicide bombers against Allied tanks. Japanese documents apparently indicate their army was prepared to accept up to 28 million civilian deaths.

Antony Beevor is a bestselling military historian, specialising in the Second World War. His most recent book is Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble (Viking, 2015)

“No. It was immoral, and unnecessary” – Richard Overy

The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was justified at the time as being moral – in order to bring about a more rapid victory and prevent the deaths of more Americans. However, it was clearly not moral to use this weapon knowing that it would kill civilians and destroy the urban milieu. And it wasn’t necessary either.

Militarily Japan was finished (as the Soviet invasion of Manchuria that August showed). Further blockade and urban destruction would have produced a surrender in August or September at the latest, without the need for the costly anticipated invasion or the atomic bomb. As for the second bomb on Nagasaki, that was just as unnecessary as the first one. It was deemed to be needed, partly because it was a different design, and the military (and many civilian scientists) were keen to see if they both worked the same way. There was, in other words, a cynical scientific imperative at work as well.

I should also add that there was a fine line between the atomic bomb and conventional bombing – indeed descriptions of Hamburg or Tokyo after conventional bombing echo the aftermath of Hiroshima. To regard Hiroshima as a moral violation is also to condemn the firebombing campaign, which was deliberately aimed at city centres and completely indiscriminate.

Of course it is easy to say that if I had been in Truman’s shoes, I would not have ordered the two bombings. But it is possible to imagine greater restraint. The British and Americans had planned in detail the gas-bombing of a list of 17 major German cities, but in the end did not carry it out because the moral case seemed to depend on Germany using gas first. Restraint was possible, and, at the very end of the war, perhaps more politically acceptable.

Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter. He recently edited The Oxford Illustrated History of World War Two (OUP, 2015)

“Yes. It was the least bad option” – Robert James Maddox

The atomic bombs were horrible but I agree with US secretary of war Henry L Stimson that using them was the “least abhorrent choice”. A bloody invasion and round the clock conventional bombing would have led to a far higher death toll and so the atomic weapons actually saved thousands of American and millions of Japanese lives. The bombs were the best means to bring about unconditional surrender, which is what the US leaders wanted. Only this would enable the Allies to occupy Japan and root out the institutions that led to war in the first place.

The experience with Germany after the First World War had persuaded them that a mere armistice would constitute a betrayal of future generations if an even larger war occurred 20 years down the line. It is true that the radiation effects of the atomic bomb provided a grisly dividend, which the US leaders did not anticipate. However, even if they had known, I don’t think it would have changed their decision.

Robert James Maddox is author of Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (University of Missouri Press, 2007)

“No. Japan would have surrendered anyway” – Martin J Sherwin

I believe that it was a mistake and a tragedy that the atomic bombs were used. Those bombings had little to do with the Japanese decision to surrender. The evidence has become overwhelming that it was the entry of the Soviet Union on 8 August into the war against Japan that forced surrender but, understandably, this view is very difficult for Americans to accept.

Of the Japanese leaders, it was the military ones who held out against the civilian leaders who were closest to the emperor, and who wanted to surrender provided the emperor’s safety would be guaranteed. The military’s argument was that Japan could convince the Soviet Union to mediate on its behalf for better surrender terms than unconditional surrender and therefore should continue the war until that was achieved.

Once the USSR entered the war, the Japanese military not only had no arguments for continuation left, but it also feared the Soviet Union would occupy significant parts of northern Japan.

Truman could have simply waited for the Soviet Union to enter the war but he did not want the USSR to have a claim to participate in the occupation of Japan. Another option (which could have ended the war before August) was to clarify that the emperor would not be held accountable for the war under the policy of unconditional surrender. US secretary of war Stimson recommended this, but secretary of state James Byrnes, who was much closer to Truman, vetoed it.

By dropping the atomic bombs instead, the United States signalled to the world that it considered nuclear weapons to be legitimate weapons of war. Those bombings precipitated the nuclear arms race and they are the source of all nuclear proliferation.

Martin J Sherwin is co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer (Atlantic, 2008)

“Yes. It saved millions of lives in Japan and Asia” – Richard Frank

Dropping the bombs was morally preferable to any other choices available. One of the biggest problems we have is that we can talk about Dresden and the bombing of Hamburg and we all know what the context is: Nazi Germany and what Nazi Germany did. There’s been a great amnesia in the west with respect to what sort of war Japan conducted across Asia-Pacific. Bear in mind that for every Japanese non-combatant who died during the war, 17 or 18 died across Asia-Pacific. Yet you very seldom find references to this and virtually nothing that vivifies it in the way that the suffering at Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been.

With the original invasion strategy negated by radio intelligence revealing the massive Japanese build-up on the planned Kyushu landing areas, Truman’s alternative was a campaign of blockade and bombardment, which would have killed millions of Japanese, mostly non-combatants. For example, in 1946 the food situation would have become catastrophic and there would have been stupendous civilian deaths. It was only because Japan surrendered when it still had a serviceable administrative system – plus American food aid – that saved the country from famine.

Another thing to bear in mind is that while just over 200,000 people were killed in total by the atomic bombs, it is estimated that 300,000–500,000 Japanese people (many of whom were civilians) died or disappeared in Soviet captivity. Had the war continued, that number would have been much higher.

Critics talk about changing the demand for unconditional surrender, but the Japanese government had never put forth a set of terms on which they were prepared to end the war prior to Hiroshima. The inner cabinet ruling the country never devised such terms. When foreign minister Shigenori Togo was told that the best terms Japan could obtain were unconditional surrender with the exception of maintaining the imperial system, Togo flatly rejected them in the name of the cabinet.

The fact is that there was no historical record over the past 2,600 years of Japan ever surrendering, nor any examples of a Japanese unit surrendering during the war. This was where the great American fear lay.

Richard B Frank is a military historian whose books include Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (Random House, 1999).

“No. Better options were discarded for political reasons” – Tsuyoshi Hasegawa

Once sympathetic to the argument that the atomic bomb was necessary, the more research I do, the more I am convinced it was one of the gravest war crimes the US has ever committed. I’ve been to Japan and discovered what happened on the ground in 1945 and it was really horrifying. The radiation has affected people who survived the blast for many years and still today thousands of people suffer the effects.

There were possible alternatives that might have ended the war. Truman could have invited Stalin to sign the Potsdam declaration [in which the USA, Britain and Nationalist China demanded Japanese surrender in July 1945]. The authors of the draft of the declaration believed that if the Soviets joined the war at this time it might lead to Japanese surrender but Truman consciously avoided that option, because he and some of his advisors were apprehensive about Soviet entry. I don’t agree with revisionists who say Truman used the bomb to intimidate the Soviet Union but I believe he used it to force Japan to surrender before they were able to enter the war.

The second option was to alter the demand for unconditional surrender. Some influential advisors within the Truman administration were in favour of allowing the Japanese to keep the emperor system to induce so-called moderates within the Japanese government to work for the termination of the war. However, Truman was mindful of American public opinion, which wanted unconditional surrender as revenge against Pearl Harbor and the Japanese atrocities.

Bearing in mind those atrocities, it’s clear that Japan doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to immoral acts in the war. However, one atrocity does not make another one right. I believe this was the most righteous war the Americans have ever been involved in but you still can’t justify using any means to win a just war.

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa is a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the author of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Harvard University, Press 2005)

“Yes. The moral failing was Japan’s” – Michael Kort

Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb was the best choice available under the circumstances and was therefore morally justifiable. It was clear Japan was unwilling to surrender on terms even remotely acceptable to the US and its allies, and the country was preparing a defence far more formidable than the US had anticipated.

The choice was not, as is frequently argued, between using an atomic bomb against Hiroshima and invading Japan. No one on the Allied side could say with confidence what would bring about a Japanese surrender, as Japan’s situation had been hopeless for a long time. It was hoped that the shock provided by the bombs would convince Tokyo to surrender, but how many would be needed was an open question. After Hiroshima, the Japanese government had three days to respond before Nagasaki but did not do so. Hirohito and some of his advisers knew Japan had to surrender but were not in a position to get the government to accept that conclusion. Key military members of the government argued that it was unlikely that the US could have a second bomb and, even if it did, public pressure would prevent its use. The bombing of Nagasaki demolished these arguments and led directly to the imperial conference that produced Japan’s offer to surrender.

The absolutist moral arguments (such as not harming civilians) made against the atomic bombs would have precluded many other actions essential to victory taken by the Allies during the most destructive war in history. There is no doubt that had the bomb been available sooner, it would have been used against Germany. There was, to be sure, a moral failing in August 1945, but it was on the part of the Japanese government when it refused to surrender after its long war of conquest had been lost.

Michael Kort is professor of social science at Boston University and author of The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb (Columbia Press, 2007)

HistoryExtra reader George Evans-Hulme and Roy Ceustermans debate…

George Evans-Hulme: Yes, it was. The US was, like the rest of the world, soldiering on towards the end of a dark period of human history that had seen the single most costly conflict (in terms of life) in history, and they chose to adopt a stance that seemed to limit the amount of casualties in the war, by significantly shortening it with the use of atomic weapons.

It was certainly a reasonable view for the USA to take, since they had suffered the loss of more than 418,000 lives, both military and civilian. To the top rank of the US military the 135,000 death toll was worth it to prevent the “many thousands of American troops [that] would be killed in invading Japan” – a view attributed to the president himself.

This was a grave consequence taken seriously by the US. Ordering the deployment of the atomic bombs was an abhorrent act, but one they were certainly justified in doing.

Roy Ceustermans: No, the US wasn’t justified. Even secretary of war Henry Lewis Stimson was not sure the bombs were needed to reduce the need of an invasion: “Japan had no allies its navy was almost destroyed its islands were under a naval blockade and its cities were undergoing concentrated air attacks.”

The United States still had many industrial resources to use against Japan, and thus it was essentially defeated. Rear Admiral Tocshitane Takata concurred that B-29s “were the greatest single factor in forcing Japan’s surrender”, while Prince Konoye already thought Japan was defeated on 14 February 1945 when he met emperor Hirohito.

A combination of thoroughly bombing blockading cities that were economically dependent on foreign sources for food and raw materials, and the threat of Soviet entry in the war, would have been enough.

The recommendations for the use of the bomb show that the military was more interested in its devastating effect than in preparing the invasion. Therefore the destruction of hospitals and schools etc was acceptable to them.

GEH: The USA was more interested in a quick and easy end to the war than causing untold suffering. They had in their hands a weapon that was capable of bringing the war to a swift end, and so they used it.

The atom bombs achieved their desired effects by causing maximum devastation. Just six days after the Nagasaki bombing, the Emperor’s Gyokuon-hōsō speech was broadcast to the nation, detailing the Japanese surrender. The devastation caused by the bombs sped up the Japanese surrender, which was the best solution for all parties.

If the atomic bombs had not had the devastating effect they had, they would have been utterly pointless. They replaced thousands of US bombing missions that would have been required to achieve the same effect of the two bombs that, individually, had the explosive power of the payload of 2,000 B-29s. This freed up resources that could be utilised for the war effort elsewhere.

RC: After the bloody battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the death toll on both sides was high, and the countries’ negative view of one other became almost unbridgeable, says J Samuel Walker in Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and The Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan. Therefore, the US created unconditional terms of surrender, knowingly going against the Japanese ethic of honour and against the institute of the emperor, whom most Americans probably wanted dead.

Consequently, the use of the atomic bomb became a way to avenge America’s fallen soldiers while also keeping the USSR in check in Europe. The Japanese civilian casualties did not matter in this strategy. Also, it did not prevent the Cold War, as the USSR was just a few years behind on a-bomb research.

At the time, revenge, geopolitics and an expensive project that could not be allowed to simply rust away, meant the atomic bomb had to be hastily deployed “in the field” in order to see its power and aftermath – though little was known about radiation and its effects on humans.

GEH: Admittedly, the US did use the atom bomb to keep the USSR in line, and for that it served its purpose. It may not have stopped the Soviets developing their own nuclear device, but that’s not what it was intended for. It was used as a deterrent to keep the (sometimes uneasy) peace between the US and the USSR, and it achieved that. There are no cases of a direct, all-out war between the US and the Soviets that can be attributed to the potentially devastating effects of atomic weaponry.

The atomic bombs certainly established US dominance immediately after the Second World War – the destructive power it possessed meant that it remained uncontested as the world’s greatest power until the Soviets developed their own weapon, four years after the deployment at Nagasaki. It is certainly true that Stalin and the Soviets tried to test US dominance, but even into the 1960s the US generally came out on top.

RC: The price to keep the USSR in check was steep: the use of a weapon of mass destruction that caused around 200,000 deaths (most of them civilians) and massive suffering through radiation. However, it did not stop the USSR from creating the same weapon within four years.

It might be argued that, following the explosions, Japan virtually disappeared from the world stage while the USSR viewed the bombing as an incentive to acquire the same weaponry in order to retaliate in equal force if the atomic bomb was ever used again. Considering the tension between the two countries, a similar attack with tens of thousands of civilian casualties would have created a nuclear apocalypse.

If the US had organised a demonstration, as they had briefly considered, the USSR would still have responded in the same manner, while Japan – which had made clear overtures for a (un)conditional surrender – could have been spared. Furthermore, by postponing the use of the bomb, scientists would have had time to understand the test results, meaning further anguish, like the Bikini Atoll [a huge US hydrogen bomb test in 1954 that had major consequences for the geology and natural environment, and on the health of those who were exposed to radiation] could have been avoided.

GEH: The large civilian death toll that resulted from the bombings can be seen as a small price to pay by the United States in return for their assertion of dominance on the world stage.

The USSR’s development of an atomic weapon had been underway since 1943, and so their quest for nuclear devices cannot be solely attributed to the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It should also be considered that the Soviets’ rapid progress in creating an atom bomb was not exclusively down to their desire to compete with the United States, but from spies passing them US secrets.

Postponing the use of the atom bomb would only have prolonged the war and potentially created an even worse fate for the people of Japan, with an estimated five to 10 million Japanese fatalities – a number higher than some estimates for the entire Soviet military in the Second World War.

Ultimately, the atomic bombs did what they were designed to do. They created such a high level of devastation that the Japanese felt they had no option but to surrender unconditionally to the United States, hence resulting in US victory and the end of the Second World War.

RC: Of course civilian casualties of another nation would have been acceptable to the USA. Japan had made clear overtures to peace, but cultural differences made this nearly impossible (the shame of unconditional surrender goes against their code of honour).

The determination to use an expensive bomb instead of letting it rust away the desire to find out how devastating it was and the opportunity to use the bomb as a strong showcase of US supremacy, made Japan the ideal target.

Obviously, the USSR would eventually succeed in creating the a-bomb. Therefore, making Hiroshima & Nagasaki the example of the tremendous power of the bombs would make it clear to the USSR that they too needed such weapons to defend themselves.

Moreover, other countries claimed the right of nuclear weapons to defend their citizens. Consequently, the tragic bombings became the example of an arm’s race instead of peace.

Furthermore, since Japan was already on the brink of collapse the bombing was unnecessary, and peace talks would have taken place within a decent time frame (even after the cancelled Hawaii summit). The millions of deaths calculated by Operation Downfall [the codename for the Allied plan for the invasion of Japan near the end of the Second World War, which was abandoned when Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] actually show that only desperation and honour stood between Japan and unconditional surrender.

George Evans-Hulme has a passion for military and political history, and enjoys visiting historical sites across the UK

Roy Ceustermans has a master’s degree in the history of the Catholic Church, an advanced master’s degree on the historical expansion, exchange and globalisation of the world, and a master’s degree in management

How the Hiroshima bombing is taught around the world

Seventy years after the United States dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, its place in history remains secure. As The Post has written: "It's seared into the collective global memory — no other time in history has a nuclear weapon been used in war." But how do the United States and Japan, and the rest of the world for that matter, teach this seminal event so many decades after the world witnessed this incredible display of force.

For the occasion, we asked the users of the social platform Reddit, "How is the Hiroshima atomic bomb taught in your country?"

The post received more than 2,500 comments, and these were some of the common threads:

  • The bombing saved lives by ending the war more quickly and without a land invasion.
  • Although it may not have been necessary, especially the subsequent bombing of Nagasaki, the United States wanted to send a message to the rest of the world.
  • The bombing was only a small part of the overall coverage of World War II (or barely mentioned at all).
  • It was the start of the Cold War.
  • It led to independence.

A more scholarly approach to global viewpoints can be found in "History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History," which was published in 2004 and collected excerpts from textbooks in different parts of the world. Here's a sample from Asia, North America and Europe:

Philippines: "Horrible atomic bombs" brought Japan to her knees.

Canada: "Most Canadians are unaware of the crucial role Canada played in the development of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (A uranium refinery in Ontario supplied the Manhattan Project.)

Italy: "There was no doubt that in very little time the Japanese, already at the end of their tether, would have had to surrender . What seems certain is that the show of force, made indiscriminately at the expense of unarmed people, increased the United States' weight in post-war tensions and decisions, especially concerning the Soviet Union. It is probably therefore that Truman's decision was inspired more by post-war prospects than by calculations on the most convenient method to put an end to the conflict with Japan."

Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, said that although countries that were invaded by Japan were very much in favor of the atomic bomb, Europe generally takes a dim view. "They find it completely shocking that a majority of Americans still think Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified and morally correct." Meanwhile, an analysis of U.S. and Japanese textbooks in use during the 1990s concluded that "there is a gap between what the historical evidence presents, what academic historians now know and the evidence presented to pupils."

This account by a Reddit user reflects what this reporter learned in high school in the mid-1990s.

By the latter half of the 2000s, though, American textbooks were taking on a more nuanced approach, offering perspectives from Japanese victims and even dissension by U.S. officials. The change is attributable partly to the passage of time and partly to the evolution in the way students are taught, says Christopher Hamner, who teaches history at George Mason University. "The textbook has walked away from this idea that it speaks with this omniscient voice and it tells you facts. Textbooks will have documents from both sides, they acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives." He added that students today "are just a little more skeptical, and I mean that in the best possible sense."

Interesting, a user claiming to be an American teacher offered a perspective of today's classroom:

Why did Japan surrender in World War II?

There is contentious debate among scholars about why Japan surrendered in World War II. Some believe the Aug. 15, 1945, declaration was the result of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It’s possible that these finally pushed Emperor Hirohito (posthumously called Emperor Showa) to break the deadlock in the Supreme War Council and accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration for unconditional surrender issued by the Allied leaders on July 26, 1945. In that declaration, there was a promise of “prompt and utter destruction” if the armed forces of Japan didn’t surrender. The use of weapons of mass destruction causing the incineration of large swaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in quick succession backed up that threat, highlighting the futility of continuing the war. Emperor Hirohito’s intervention on the side of those favoring capitulation was crucial to winning over those hardliners who didn’t. In this narrative, the dawning of the nuclear age brought peace. It also allowed military leaders to save face, since they could claim that the war was not lost on the battlefield, and agree to surrender to spare the Japanese people from more suffering.

This meant abandoning ketsu-go, the strategy of fighting one last decisive battle intended to inflict so many casualties on a war-weary America that it would relax its demands for unconditional surrender and negotiate a peace. This would, at a minimum, safeguard the Emperor, and potentially preserve the armed forces and shield them from prosecution for war crimes. This strategy was affirmed in June 1945 as the gruesome and bloody Battle of Okinawa was winding down. Reinforcements had been transferred from Manchuria to bolster the defense of Kyushu where the U.S. was expected to attack next.

In February 1945, Joseph Stalin met with Allied leaders in Yalta, promising to attack Japan three months after Germany’s surrender. He kept his promise, and Soviet troops invaded Manchuria in the wee hours of Aug. 9 before the Nagasaki bombing later that day. This came as a shock to Japanese leaders who had been trying throughout July that year to engage the Soviets as brokers in a peace deal with the Allies.

Soviet entry into the war was an alarming development for a military leadership that vowed to keep fighting to save the Emperor. The fate of the czar at the hands of communists, and prospects for a punitive Soviet occupation, influenced the calculus of surrender.

In February 1945, the Japanese military conducted a survey that concluded that Japan could not win the war. But they were not squeamish about the suffering of the Japanese public — more than 60 Japanese cities were subjected to extensive firebombing in 1945, displacing, maiming and killing several hundred thousand civilians. Military leaders could not contemplate the ignominy of surrender, so they compelled their nation to continue fighting a war that was already lost, subjecting the Japanese to horrific suffering that they could have ended far sooner.

Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, in his 2005 book “Racing the Enemy,” provides compelling evidence that the Pacific War ended due to the entry of the Soviets, not the atomic bombings. Having tasted defeat at the hands of the Soviets twice in the late 1930s in Manchurian border clashes, the generals knew that the new front meant further resistance was futile.

Sheldon Garon, a professor of history at Princeton University, takes issue with Hasegawa’s contention that the military was insouciant about Japanese suffering and ready to fight to the last civilian. Recently, Garon gave a talk in Tokyo about an ongoing book project focusing on how the war was lost for Germany and Japan.

He argues that the U.S. was surprised by Japan’s sudden surrender, noting that by Aug. 19, 1945, America would have had three more atomic bombs ready and had six more in production — it did not anticipate a swift end.

According to Garon, the Japanese military was deeply concerned by worsening conditions in Japan because they were undermining the war effort. Authorities, for example, planned the evacuation of a few hundred thousand school children to spare them the urban conflagrations, but were not prepared for the mass exodus of adults who bailed because they knew the military could not protect them. Roads out of Tokyo were clogged with these refugees: 8.5 million fled Japanese cities in the final five months of war, paralyzing transport networks.

This rural-escape survival strategy meant demoralized workers were abandoning factories, compounding existing shortages of war-related production.

According to Garon, these acts of sabotage also meant that an orderly society was no longer obeying orders, responding to accumulating signs of impending defeat. Alas, many of these unlucky refugees fled to smaller cities, and thus were subject to more bombings as America moved onto second-tier targets. The U.S. dropped leaflets warning of impending strikes, and then delivered, stoking fear and undermining faith in the government.

Officials were also demoralized by Germany’s surrender, and the horrific fight to the end that Adolf Hitler insisted on, subjecting his people and cities to a relentless pounding.

Garon observes that the Germans fought like samurai, sacrificing all even when they knew it was for a losing cause. While much is made of Japanese authorities training women and children to resist U.S. invaders with bamboo staves, Garon notes that none ever did so. In contrast, Germany took desperate measures, resorting to full mobilization and deploying these untrained conscripts to battlefields where many died or were injured.

Japan’s diplomats in Europe were shocked by the devastation of Germany and conveyed their concerns about Hitler’s “fighting to the finish” strategy. They advised against emulating the Germans, and thus implicitly counseled surrender for the national interest. But finding an exit with dignity proved elusive.

Garon attributes Japan’s delayed surrender to military intransigence and diplomatic incompetence, a dithering that subjected Japan to needless devastation.

Finally, it was the Soviet entry into the war and the atomic bombings that precipitated a hasty surrender. But it was overdue because the signs of defeat, including a devastating series of setbacks on the home front, had been gathering for some time: endless fire bombings, growing shortages of food due to the U.S. blockade “Operation Starvation,” bereaved families and the subversion of people voting with their feet. There was no appetite for suffering the fate of the Nazis or subjecting the nation to more nightmarish ruination.

As the public — no longer willing to endure — soured on the war, what choice did the Emperor and his advisers have if the Imperial Household was to survive?

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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Hiroshima marks 75th anniversary of A-bombing

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The nuking of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were two of the most disgusting and cowardly war crimes ever committed.

They were little more than a brutal and cynical live human experiment on women and children. The depravity and racism of the US government and military is apparent from Harry Truman's demented giggling prior to his announcement of the mass murders at Hiroshima:

See Kermit Beahan gloat as he claims responsibility for nuking the women and children of Nagasaki:

As Brig. Gen. Carter W. Clarke, the officer in charge of preparing MAGIC intercepted cable summaries in 1945, stated:

"….we brought them [the Japanese] down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn't need to do it, and we knew we didn't need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn't need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs."

As the historical record shows, six of the seven US WWII five star officers concluded that the nuking of hundreds of thousands of civilians was unnecessary. In fact, the nuking was one of the most brutal and cynical atrocities ever committed. As Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stated:

"The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan. The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war…."

Truman's own diaries show that he prolonged hostilities until the nukes were ready. We also know that he lied to the US public when he stated that Hiroshima was a "military target".

Prior to nuking Hiroshima, the U.S. military had already obliterated over 60 Japanese cities with napalm and white phosphorous. This conclusively proves that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had little value other than as an opportunity for the US military to conduct nuke testing on human subjects.

In this connection, Paul Tibbets is on record as stating that Hiroshima was set aside as a "virgin" test city. Additionally, the primary targets at Hiroshima were residential in nature with the overwhelming majority of casualties being civilian. In fact, Honkawa Elementary school was mere meters from the epicenter of the Hiroshima nuke strike.

Ricky Kaminski13

Instead of the scorn, let’s take a moment of pause. No action comes from no where. War is disgusting, and the conditions that cause it should be well known to all, understood and avoided at all costs, but it will always lurking in our darker and often hidden natures. Know your history, the whole story not just one ‘Sides’ narrative.

Love and understanding to all should be the goal. Never again should we see such a horrible example of what we are capable of doing to each other. 75 years. It takes an entire generation to forget the horrors. Let’s try not too. The blast in Lebanon was a spooky reminder to get our act together and the timing poignant. Lest we forget.


There is little question as to whether the US would have used a nuclear weapon in Europe. It would not have happened, and it served no military purpose - it was purely tactical, or strategic. The US wanted to run the world, and saw this as the best way to further its ambitions. Not to downplay decades of Japanese colonial and military atrocities throughout Asia, which is a different matter, and one for which Japan has yet to atone.


Rest in Peace to all the victims. Lets hope the world listens to the cries of the hibakusha : Never again should nuclear weapons becused on humanity.


expatToday 10:12 am JST

decades of Japanese colonial and military atrocities throughout Asia, which is a different matter, and one for which Japan has yet to atone.

Just had to throw that in at this time right? Japan has atoned in countless ways, from Article 9 to reparations to Asian countries. You really think 93 countries would attend the A-bomb memorial if they thought Japan had not atoned? Only J-haters continue to parrot this mantra in order to continue the agenda.


Not a big fan of war, seems both sides suffer. To the individual involed it's a devestating moment. For governments it's a pathetic matter of pride.


The Japanese victims must be remembered. So too the the victims of the Japanese.


There is little question as to whether the US would have used a nuclear weapon in Europe.

Don't be so sure. Remember, by the time the US was ready to drop the bombs on Japan, Germany was already invaded, with the Russians in Berlin. The war against Germany had progressed far closer to its inevitable conclusion than the war with Japan was expected to be. There quite literally would have been no point. On the flip side, the Japanese home islands hadn't been touched by Allied ground forces. There was expected to be at LEAST another year of fighting if Operations Downfall and Coronet had gone off as planned. Additionally, the US high command believed (based on lessons learned from the Battle of Okinawa) that unlike in Germany, any invasion of Japan would be resisted not only by a still sizable military contingent, but by an incredibly hostile, highly indoctrinated, and suicidally loyal civilian population. There was many officers who truly believed that Japan would not be subjugated until literally everyone capable of holding a weapon in Japan was dead. Whether that was true or not isn't relevant: That was the assumption the US was operating under.

Additionally, we can certainly make arguments that the bombings were a moral crime, but as far as the legal rules of war in place at the time, it was a perfectly acceptable act of war. The international treaty most people quote regarding the atomic bombings is the Fourth Geneva Convention. This limited the ability of signatories to bomb civilian cities in time of war and according the 4GC, the atomic bombings would have constituted a war crime. However, people neglect to mention that the 4GC wasn't signed until 1949. And international law operates under the principle of "That which is not prohibited, is permitted". The laws of war most nations used during WWII was the Hague Convention of 1907. This convention governed the bombardment of civilian cities. But remember, this is 1907. You know what HADN'T yet happened in 1907? Bombardment from the air. The HC1907 regulated bombardment by sea- and land-based artillery. After the war, there were attempts to regulate aerial bombardment from the air in the same way, but no major power wanted to limit itself with new laws after seeing the power of strategy bombing by German zeppelins. As such, most nations simply applied the regulations for sea- and land-based bombardment to bombardment by air. Here is what HC1907 says about that:

You must give ample warning to the target to allow civilians to evacuate

The city must have military targets.

The city must be 'defended'.

Let's look at those three rules vis-a-vis Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Leaflets were dropped over both cities, warning that they would be targets of aerial bombing. Condition 1 met.

Hiroshima had around 40,000 military personnel and was home to the HQs of numerous military units, including the GHQ of the Second General Army, which commanded 400,000 troops in Southern Kyushu. It also housed naval port and drydock facilities. Nagasaki had numerous military-industrial facilities, including Mitsubishi Shipyards and Steel and Arms Works. Both cities had military targets.

The definition of 'defended' was very vague. Most militaries considered a city 'defended' if it housed armed soldiers, which both cities did. Additionally, they were defended by heavy anti-aircraft units. The US used a definition of 'defended' that was VERY broad and actually included otherwise 'undefended' cities, so long as they were within range of Japanese airbases, meaning they were 'defended' by Japanese Air Defense units. Both cities met the definitions of 'defended'.

Were the bombings militarily necessary? Were they morally correct? Did they end the war sooner? Did they save lives? These are all things that can be debated.

More Comments:

John Connally - 8/29/2010

To you, Arnold, America is just one war crime after another. You need a healthier outlet for all your anger for America. Try tetherball.

The discussion involves the morality behind Truman's decision to drop the bomb. We were engaged in a war with Japan (not started by us, by the way) when thousands of Pacific Islanders, Chinese, East Asians, Japanese, Australians, Micronesians, and Americans were dying daily. Possessing the means to end the war, but not using it seems pretty immoral to me.

However, I'm sure you convinced yourself long ago that Japan was just about to surrender before the bombs were dropped. I'm sure you believe that Truman knew that, but he couldn't resist the chance to fry some Japs.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/28/2010

It is only "a load" to the adherents of the premise 'America is above all and
we can do no wrong/evil."
But although it did not make us worse than any other major world power, we have committed war crimes and regrettably not just when bombing Japan.

James joseph butler - 8/28/2010

I generally favor change. Which of course I think of as improvement.

Of course you're right about the value of policing war it's just that I look at Pres. Obama and I wonder how it is that someone raised in such a liberal, multicultural, milieu, could so closely resemble W regarding war. It's as if entrance into the "Commander" role requires a deal with the devil, the Congressional Military Industrial Complex, and the next election. I'm dumbfounded until I remember I didn't vote for him.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were linearly logical given the previous casualities and the casualities in 1945. The Japanese had never surrendered prior to August 1945. I wish to goddess you were right about taming war but nothing's changed.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/27/2010

Cultures change. Not quickly, or easily, or uniformly, or neatly, or linearly. But they do change. Sometimes those changes are, on the balance, positive.

Port's my apertif of choice, lately. There's a winery near here. nevermind.

James joseph butler - 8/27/2010

Jonathan do you actually think knowledge trumps hate and the male ego? Your "over-destructive tactics of the past" is a footnote of the future. "In the year 2525 if man is still alive, if woman can survive".

What are you drinking? What on earth makes you think people have gotten smarter or wiser? Fukuyama was not the first to think now is the future. The future is always dated.

John Connally - 8/27/2010

In other words, evil Truman ignored all his other "moral" options to choose the unnecessary and "immoral" option of frying a bunch of civilians. What a load!

Let's talk morality for a moment, since "context does not preclude moral judgment." Let's say our country has been involved in a world war for around four years. Let's say that everyone stateside has a relative, friend, or neighbor serving in the armed forces. Let's say that hundreds (and some days thousands) of our soldiers die each day the conflict continues. Now let's say the President has a weapon that can end the war, but chooses not to use it on moral grounds. Would the family and friends of the tens to hundreds of thousands (depending on what deflated or inflated invasion casualties figure you believe) dead American soldiers praise the President’s morality?

Joseph Mutik - 8/27/2010

I am sure that the USA would have used the bomb against Germany. USSR made its intentions very clear during the Warsaw uprising, when they let the Poles, fighting against the Germans, die without any help from the soviet army. The message was loud and clear, no independent countries in the soviet sphere of influence. The other question is if FDR would have done it? I believe that the answer to the last question is yes. I am also sure that Winston Churchill would have been very happy to avoid the entry of the soviet army into Germany and other European countries.
Talking about moral questions, another question is another question is how moral would have been to send 50000 to 100000 American and British soldiers to death in a conventional naval military landing in Japan. In Okinawa less than 10000 Japanese soldiers, out of 110000, surrendered, The rule of thumb for an European army is to surrender when about one third of a defensive unit is lost.
As I wrote in a previous message, the people asking "moral questions" in our days are in a 99% proportion people who don't have military training and don't see combat and use their time for developing argumentation skills. I am an Israeli American and I believe that the draft is the fairest way the citizens of a country can share the military burden.

John M Shaw - 8/26/2010

Mr. Tenuth seems to want to reduce legitimate and differing schools of Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombing interpretation into a formula whereby “context” precludes moral judgment. He dismisses moral judgments against the atomic bombings as “irrelevant” because they happened. That is like saying do not bother condemning slavery because it existed. But while even excellent historians like David Hackett Fischer could not clearly delineate between “functional” and “dysfunctional” moral judgments by historians, Mr Tenuth’s “context” is no safe refuge.

While Mr Tenuth thinks it is unhistorical to question Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs, or unfair to criticize with hindsight, eight months after the end of World War II a "what-if" study of the invasion of Japan scenario was commissioned by the U.S. military. These “after the fact” experts concluded that Japan, soon to be confronted by a two-front assault with the long promised entry of the Soviets, would have surrendered, precluding either a conventional military invasion or use of atomic bombs. It puzzles me why this kind of evidence is scorned by Mr. Tenuth. Perhaps he has a different “context” in mind.

The original Truman rationale held that there were no alternatives to the atomic bombing option. But over sixty Japanese cities had already been bombed. The assertion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets was completely unfounded. How does this “context” preclude moral judgment? If Truman was only thinking strategically, and if these two cities were such vital military targets, why were they not included among the sixty Japanese cities that had already been attacked with conventional weapons?. Both cities had little military or strategic value. The possibility that they were “virgin” test sites to assess the destructive impact of the new atomic weaponry should raise many troubling moral questions.

If Mr. Tenuth wants evidence for “a moral judgment made out of context,” how about his use of the unsubstantiated claim that Truman and the U.S. military feared not using the atomic bombs would have “cost millions of [American] lives”? Now, who is making “a moral judgment made out of context”? It seems that a nagging uncertainly over the morality of the use of atomic weapons, and as a counterpoint to the actual and predicted numbers of Japanese civilian casualties, led Truman to radically inflate the casualty estimates of U.S. servicemen if we had not dropped the bombs and resorted to invading Japan instead. The figures of 500,000 to 1,000,000 have almost achieved unassailable status, and are repeated by many like Mr. Tenuth to this day.

The research of historians like Barton Bernstein have revealed U.S. military and intelligence estimates during 1945 within a range of 60,000 casualties in a worst-case invasion scenario. Now, it is obvious that even that number would be unacceptable to any American president. The U.S. had lost 40,000 men invading Okinawa. So, why did Truman (and others in his administration) deliberately inflate casualty estimates? Bernstein concluded that the inflation of casualty estimates was a postwar creation within a new Cold War context to justify the possible future use of atomic weapons against the Soviet Union.

While Truman was initially elated with the prospects of the Soviets entering into the war with Japan (e.g., "finis Japs"), he and his advisers had second thoughts about the prospect of Soviet involvement in any postwar settlement with Japan. The unanswerable question is whether the atom bombs were intended to keep the Russians out of Japan, finish off Japan, or both? Thus, according to Gar Alperovitz, the decisions surrounding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had as much to do with the beginning of the Cold War than the end of World War II. Yes, these were strategic and political decisions, but they do not preclude moral judgment. The same arguments made by Mr. Tenuth were being made in 1945 and after. Criticisms, second guessing, or moral qualms about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen as dangerous because they might create an alarming form of "sentimentalism." The implication was that if the American people were made fully aware of the terrible consequences of the atomic bombs, they might hesitate to support their future use against the Soviet Union or other Cold War enemies.

All U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan suggested that nuclear threats had played the decisive role in ending the Korean War and resolving other superpower crises. The result was an official narrative which actively sought to legitimize its actions and constrain any dissent. Few if any doubts were raised prior to the Vietnam War, because as Barton Bernstein noted, there was no inclination to question or probe.

But after the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War, many Americans began to question America's mission in the world, including the validity of national security interest claims and the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. The most significant contribution of Gar Aperovitz's extensive research and "revisionist" thesis was to show that beginning with the Potsdam conference, the postwar historical consciousness of America was deliberately manipulated by the perceived imperatives of United States Cold War policy. This broader perspective has resulted in vastly different interpretations of the atomic bomb experience that goes beyond the simple fact that the United States dropped two atomic bombs and won the war.

In regards to the decision-making process surrounding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the continuing efforts of historical scholarship has shed new light on and directly addressed critical strategic, political and moral questions. A non-partisan (i.e., leftists like Alperovitz and Kai Bird, are in agreement with moderates like Bernstein and Martin Sherwin, and conservatives like J. Samuel Walker and John Ray Skates) consensus has been forged. Walker has concluded that while historians continue to disagree on some issues, the critical questions have been answered. The consensus among most historians is that the atomic bombs were not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan. It is clear that alternatives to the use of the atomic bombs existed, and that Truman and his advisers knew it, but decided otherwise. The decision to use atomic bombs against Japan was such a momentous event in bringing about the end of World War II and in shaping the postwar world that it will continue to be studied, evaluated, and debated for another sixty-five years.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/25/2010

War does have rules, even total wars, and there are ethics that go beyond the written rules (thus, the creation of "crimes against humanity" at Nuremberg). The Geneva protocols, and other governing international agreements, set rules for war. They may be violated, in small or large ways, by many combatants, but they nonetheless there is a discourse both within the US and internationally which explicitly defines limits on allowable conduct even when violence is involved.

I'm not going to defend the aerial bombardment of urban areas, nor argue that the atomic bombs were morally or ethically all that different from the firebombings. I will, however, note that the rules of war revised by the participants in that war afterwards pretty explicitly forbid precisely those kinds of actions. So whether or not the body politic learns lasting lessons from these discussions, we do have a framework within which governments have recognized both the need for limits and the desire not to repeat the over-destructive tactics of the past.

James joseph butler - 8/25/2010

We can discuss all day but we can't return to 1945. When McNamara said he could've been a war criminal that his recognition of time and circumstance. When you've fire bombed Tokyo you've moved beyond the "ethics and morals of war". War has no rules. (At least few America cares to sign up for, witness our lack of interest in either landmine or cluster bomb agreements.)

I'm curious, what "immensely fruitful" insights has mankind learned about war in the last half century? The Europeans have learned something since 1914 but what has America learned? Wars fought with joysticks are better than wars with amputees and PTSD.

Lewis Bernstein - 8/24/2010

No, one was not enough. The Imperial army was willing to fight to the death and murder any civilian politician who would suggest surrender. The first bomb, the entry of the USSR into the war against Japan, and the 2nd bomb convinced the peace faction that had formed to influence the emperor that surrender was the only way out.
The last days of the Pacific War have been well documented in many secondary works.

Bruno Pastre Maximo - 8/23/2010

After read this article and many others about the bombs I just ask, why needed 2 bombs? One wasn't enough??

Joseph Mutik - 8/23/2010

I didn't see much of a discussion about an obvious scenario that could have happened if USSR would have helped USA in a conventional conquest of Japan in 1945. We all know what happened in Korea and Vietnam. The soviets conquered the island of Sakhalin and included it in the Russian territory.
The atomic bomb argument is a complex one combining moral and practical arguments. What's interesting about the USA today is that the arguments about the morality of wars and war actions are made (in a 99% proportion) by people who didn't serve in the army didn't participate in any war, the people in the academia and media making these arguments enjoy the security provided by the people who serve in the army and don't "waste" their time for military training but they use the time for studying and developing the "moral arguments" skills.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/22/2010

I like the way Mr. Tenuth frames this, so that it seems like the rational thing to study the past without ever coming to any conclusions about it. Except his, of course. By strategically deploying uncertainty, he forecloses on an avenue of investigation which has, in fact, been immensely fruitful over the last half-century. He also ignores his own experience: the Truman decision has been a touchstone of ethical, political and tactical discussions since it happened, critical discourses for a society grappling with the implications of this technology. How can we rationally discuss the ethics and morals of war without reflecting on our most relevant experiences? And once we come to conclusions about the new rules of war, rules that largely preclude a repeat performance, the prima facie conclusion is that the previous act was immoral naturally, that conclusion doesn't preclude further study, but it raises different questions.

Nuking of Japan Was ‘Totally Unnecessary’ and Didn't End World War II, US Historian Explains

The historical record shows that it was the entry of the Soviets into the Pacific theatre that brought the Second World War to a close, and the idea that it was the use of atomic weapons that ended the war is a "myth" unsupported by the evidence, academic Peter Kuznick tells Sputnik.

On 6 August 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb codenamed "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing between 70,000 and 110,000 men, women, and children. Three days later, they dropped another bomb - codenamed "Fat Man" - on the city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 people. The atomic bomb was originally developed to deter Nazi Germany, which was known to be pursuing its own nuclear device. But the focus ultimately turned to Japan.

Peter Kuznick is a professor of history at American University, where he founded the Nuclear Studies Institute. He has authored and co-authored numerous books, including The Untold History of the United States, Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and American Perspectives, and Nuclear Power and Hiroshima: The Truth Behind the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Power. He explains that the "notion of American exceptionalism" is keeping an "immoral" myth alive, namely that the use of atomic weapons was necessary and justified.

Sputnik: According to Professor of Military History Saul David, the Battle of Okinawa – the bloodiest the US fought in the Pacific during the Second World War – is what ultimately informed the decision of US President Harry Truman to use the atomic bomb, to save up to one million American lives which could have been lost in a full ground invasion, and to save Japanese lives as well. How do you respond to that?

Professor Peter Kuznick: I respond that that's a crock of sh*t. That is disgraceful that people in 2020, with all the evidence that we have, can still be mouthing those inane platitudes and that justification. That is not only ignorant, it's fundamentally immoral. But we hear it all the time. I'm shocked that an intelligent and informed professor would repeat that today. I could give you example, after example, of people who mouthed that ignorant mythology. The reality, if anybody takes their time to look at the documents, is very, very different.

Sputnik: What was the reality?

Professor Peter Kuznick: We knew that there were two ways to get the Japanese to surrender without using the bomb. The first was to change the surrender terms to let them know that they could keep the emperor. The emperor to them was a deity.

As [General Douglas] MacArthur's Southwest Pacific command said in the summer of 1945, the execution of the emperor to them:

Almost all of Truman's advisers urged him to change his surrender terms. Let the Japanese know that they could keep the emperor. The one person who resisted that was the one person that Truman relied on. And that was Secretary of State James Byrnes. And Byrnes said, "you'll be politically crucified if you let them keep the emperor". Nonsense. There were no repercussions after the war when we did let them keep the emperor.

Early in the war we'd broken the Japanese codes. We were intercepting their cables in mid-May. The [Japanese] Supreme War Council decided to approach the Soviet Union to help Japan get better surrender terms. It was a foolhardy move on the Japanese part, but they didn't know that the Soviets were committed to coming into the Pacific war. And so, we have the cables from Foreign Minister [Shigenori] Tōgō in Tokyo to Ambassador [Naotake] Satō in Moscow. They go back and forth and they say over and over again, "The only obstacle to peace is the demand for unconditional surrender". They said that if the US will recognise the emperor and Japan’s honour, the war could be over tomorrow. This was the main demand that the Japanese were making. Some members of the war cabinet made three other demands. But most of the Japanese leaders, the one common denominator they had was keeping the emperor.

Truman himself refers to the intercepted July 12th cable on July 18th, as “the telegram from the Jap emperor, asking for peace”, those were Truman's words. Aboard the USS Augusta back from Potsdam to the US Walter Brown, who was the assistant to James Byrnes, writes:

All of Truman's advisers knew this and they all pressed them to change the surrender terms, but he refused to do so. Secretary of War Stimson was leading that effort. And at [the conference in] Potsdam, [Germany] he spoke to Truman, and Byrnes repeatedly rejected it. Truman got so frustrated with him and said unto his frail 78-year-old secretary of war "if you don't like it, why don't you pack your bags and go home?" They brought a version of the Potsdam proclamation that put in the change to the surrender terms, but Truman and Byrnes rejected it.

So that's number one, the second way to get the Japanese to surrender without atomic bombs was to wait for the Soviet invasion to begin. From the day after [the bombing of] Pearl Harbour, the US had been urging the Soviets to enter the Pacific war. But the Soviets had a war to fight on their own against the Germans.

And so, they resisted the demands to enter the Pacific war. But at the Yalta meeting in February ‘45, Stalin agrees to come into the Pacific war three months after the end of the war in Europe, which would place it around August 8th or August 9th. American intelligence and British intelligence have been saying for months that once the Soviets come in, the war is over. The Joint Intelligence Committee report on April 11th to the Joint Chiefs of Staff says, “If at any time the USSR should enter the war, all Japanese will realise that absolute defeat is inevitable”.

The Japanese Supreme War Council issued a statement on May 16th that said:

Sputnik: So why did the US use the atomic bomb against Japan?

Professor Peter Kuznick: It was not only dropped on the Japanese, it was dropped on the Soviets. The Cold War had already begun. Truman met with [Vyacheslav] Molotov 10 days after taking office on April 23rd. Immediately, in 10 days, overturned [former US President Franklin] Roosevelt's friendly policy toward the Soviets. Roosevelt's final telegram he sent before he died to Churchill said that these issues between us and the Soviets pop up every day and they work out, they get resolved. We shouldn't blow them up and make a bigger deal of them than they are. Roosevelt knew that we would have friendly relations after the war if he was president, but he died on April 12th. Truman did not have that understanding or that belief or that commitment. And so on the April 23rd meeting, he accuses the Russians of having broken all of the Yalta agreements

Sputnik: And did they?

Professor Peter Kuznick: No, of course not. Truman didn’t know what he was talking about. He had been getting false information from Byrnes. Byrnes was hostile [to the Soviets]… Stalin cables the next day and lays out what the agreements were and Truman was wrong. And as Joseph Davies, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, points out to Truman - in two crucial meetings - that the US position was wrong, which others tried to also convince Truman. And Truman vacillates for a period of time. But in Truman's mind, the enemy was the Soviets. It's not just Truman's mind. That's also the same attitude that General [Leslie] Groves had. General Groves was the head of the Manhattan Project.

Sputnik: What was the position of the senior leadership in the US military on the dropping of the bomb?

Professor Peter Kuznick: The American military leaders knew the bomb was unnecessary. The US had eight five-star admirals and generals in 1945. Seven of the eight are on record saying that the atomic bombings where either militarily unnecessary, morally reprehensible, or both.

Admiral William D. Leahy, who was Truman’s personal chief of staff who chaired the meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later commented:

“The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. … In being the first to use it we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages”.

[Admiral Leahy] later told Truman's biographer:

Leahy said, "I could see no excuse from a national security point of view for an invasion of an already thoroughly defeated Japan". That was Admiral Leahy.

The reality was that the bombs did not end the war. So, when [US President Barack] Obama says at Hiroshima, “World War II reached its brutal end at Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, he's repeating the same fundamental lie that stood at the heart of the American defence of the atomic bombings.

Sputnik: The US had already been bombing Japan extensively before they dropped the atomic weapons.

Professor Peter Kuznick: The US had firebombed more than 100 Japanese cities. Destruction reached as high as 99.5 percent of the city of Toyama. Japanese leaders accepted that the US could wipe out their cities. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two more cities that had to be sacrificed. What changed the equation for them was the Soviet invasion that started at midnight on August 8th.

The Soviets blew through the mighty Kwantung Army in Manchuria. Immediately the Japanese held meetings the morning of August 9th and what they focused on entirely was the Soviet invasion. There was very little discussion of the atomic bombs.

The national museum of the US Navy had a display of the atomic bombs that for years - now they've changed the wording - but for years, this is what it said:

We have this from all kinds of sources.

Sputnik: So it sounds like the decision to drop the bomb coincided with the Soviet invasion.

Professor Peter Kuznick: August 6th we drop the first bomb, August 8th at midnight the Soviets invade, August 9th, before the Japanese had a chance to respond, we dropped the second bomb. While that is going on, there is a meeting of the [Japanese] Supreme War Council in which Army Minister [Korechika] Anami comes in and says, "I have intelligence that says that the United States has 100 more atomic bombs and that Tokyo is the next target". And even that doesn't change anybody's opinion or anybody's mind. What changed their mind was the Soviet invasion.

But we don't want to give credit to the Soviets anymore.

Sputnik: Any more than we want to give them credit for defeating the Nazis in Europe?

Professor Peter Kuznick: Right. [Very few Europeans and Americans] think the Soviets deserve the lion's share of credit for defeating Germany in World War II. Even though for most of the war, the Soviets confronted 200 German divisions while the US and the British were confronting 10 between us. Even though the Soviets lost 27 million people. And even though Churchill says the Red Army “tore the guts out of the German war machine”. And we know that the Soviets did most of the fighting, most of the dying. The mythology, the lies, are still pervasive around so much of World War II.

So this is why when that professor [Saul David] says that – I mean yes, [the Battle of] Okinawa was devastating and the losses were terrible at Okinawa – but that's not why the United States dropped the atomic bomb. We dropped the atomic bombs because we wanted to drop the atomic bombs. Because we wanted to send a message to the Soviet leaders. And they got that message. That is exactly how the Soviet leaders interpreted the atomic bomb, as if they were the real target, not the Japanese, because they knew better than anybody that this was totally unnecessary from a military standard point of view in order to defeat Japan.

Sputnik: Why do you suppose the myth persists? Given the fact that it was so long ago, and there is so much historical record that you've described, including the top military brass coming out against it.

Professor Peter Kuznick: The myth persists because it's at the heart of the notion of American exceptionalism, the heart of the idea that the United States is a just, benevolent nation that has the best interest of humanity at heart. And if it ever does bad things, it's out of noble motives. I mean this whole idea is at the core of who Americans believe we are and believe that World War II is the good war. And that anything that chips away at that edifice somehow undermines the entire belief structure about World War II. If there is such a thing as a good war, World War II qualifies more than any other war I can think of. For the United States, maybe the war against slavery is up there also, and the war against the Brits for freedom, for colonial liberation.

Sputnik: To what extent is this relevant today?

Professor Peter Kuznick: The problem now is that we still depend on nuclear weapons. And they're just as insane now as they were back in 1945. Especially in the hands of Donald Trump, who tears up the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018 tears up the INF Treaty (the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty) in 2019 tears up the Open Skies Treaty says he wants to do away with the New START Treaty. He says he doesn't like it. That's the last piece of arms control architecture that's left, the New START Treaty that expires in February 2021. And if that doesn't get renewed, we're going to be backing into a Cold War-style nuclear arms race. That’s insanity. Especially at a time when we know what nuclear winter means.

We've got 14,000 nuclear weapons, almost all of which are between seven and 80 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. So the estimate is that could lead to up to two billion deaths [due to the resulting nuclear winter]. I mean that, so I'm just saying that as a species, if even a fraction of those weapons were used, we'd be toast.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity

The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.