Was Hiroshima Necessary?

Christopher Phelps

On August 6, 1945, a U.S. bomber named after its pilot’s mother, the Enola Gay, passed over a city the size of Denver, Colorado, and dropped a single atomic bomb.

Alter the initial blinding flash, an expansive mushroom cloud arose, leaving the awesome visual image now rccognized instantly by every schoolchild.

Within a few seconds, ninety percent of Hiroshima was leveled; “130,000 people died, many more were severely burned or injured. Three days later, a world still in shock learned that a second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, killing 75,000. The final drama of the Second World War thus commenced the atomic age.

The firebombing of Dresden, Germany by the United States had already established the pattern of a war in which civilian immunity dissolved, but the atomic bomb was a weapon that could not, in any circumstance, be used with military precision. Just as much as Auschwitz.-Birkenau, Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to symbolize the modern descent into barbarism.

A number of important historical discussions are raised by the events: When would the war have ended without the use of nuclear bombs? Did U.S.policy makers believe the bomb was necessary? How large would U.S. invasion casualities have been had the bomb not been dropped?

Historian Gar Alperovitz, author of Atomic Diplomacy and a new study on the decision to use the bomb (to be published by Knopf in July), has amassed eye-opening research that helps to answer these questions.

As early as 1946, a massive official U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that “certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to I November 1945 [when the island of Kyushu would probably have been invaded], Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

A 1946 War Department Operations Division study, discovered in 1989, conceded that “the Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies.” The Soviet Union’s entry into the Pacific war in August, the study argued, would have provided that pretext.

A full invasion of Japan would have been unnecessary in 1946. President Harry S. Truman knew that alternatives to the bomb existed. Truman’s diaries reveal acute awareness of the likely effect of the Soviet entry into the Pacific war.

When Stalin promised secretly at Potsdam in July 1945 that he would commit Russian troops to the Pacific theater in August, Truman wrote to his wife, “We’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed!”

Veterans’ groups take it as patriotic catechism that the bomb was militarily necessary. In order to boost troop morale, soldiers stationed around the world were told to prepare themselves for a likely invasion of Japan. But many of their commanders in the top brass did not see it that way.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower recalled that right after the bomb was dropped he told Sec. of War Henry L. Stimson of “my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was unnecessary and… that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to have lives.”

Army Air Force Commander Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold said, “It always appeared to us that atomic bomb or no atomic bomb the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” According to Admiral William D. Leahy, “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan….”

The American Legion claims that up to one million U.S. soldiers would have died in an invasion of Japan had the bomb not been used, but if the above-cited military leaders are taken at their word, not a single American would have died. Japan was on the verge of surrender. Had it been permitted to keep its emperor (which it did, in the end), Japan would likely have surrendered immediately.

Even without that concession, the combination of economic blockade, convcntional bombing, and the shock of Russia’s engagement would have made the futility of resistance obvious.

Why, then, was the bomb used? Historians have argued that Truman (feared being seen as “soft” on the Japanese. Some have emphasized bureaucratic dynamics within the government, the momentum of having invested huge sums in the bomb’s development, and the interest in measuring its effects on actual cities.

But the most important cause by far was the emergent Cold War. Truman and U.S. policy makers wished to control the settlement of postwar Europe and forestall a massive Soviet commitment to the Pacific. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in short, were meant to impress Stalin as much as Hirohito.

ATC 56, May-June 1995