A New Look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

For the last 60 years we have been taught that the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II.  To be sure, there has been an intense debate about whether the bombs were necessary to end the war, or whether there were alternatives.  Now a new study argues that not only were there alternatives to using the atomic bombs, but that the atomic bombs were essentially irrelevant in ending the war.

This argument is presented in Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s meticulously researched study, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan.  While building on an immense amount or research by many historians, Hasekgawa uses U.S., Japanese, and (for the first time) Soviet archives to take a new look at the Japanese decision making process that culminated in Emperor Hirohito’s “sacred decision” to “bear the unbearable” and surrender to the allies.  This hour-by-hour examination of why and how the Japanese leadership decided to surrender finds that it was the Soviet declaration of war on August 8th – and not the Hiroshima bomb on August 6th or the Nagasaki bomb on August 9th – that led to surrender.  As Hasegawa notes in his conclusion, “Justifying Hiroshima and Nagasaki by making a historically unsustainable argument that the atomic bombs ended the war is no longer tenable” (pp. 299-300).

Why the Soviet declaration of war, and not the atomic bombs, was the critical event leading to surrender will be discussed shortly.  But it is worth noting at the outset that Hasegawa’s chronology and his interpretation of the U.S. government’s diplomacy toward Japan in July and August of 1945 leads to some very disturbing conclusions.

The first conclusion largely supports the so-called “revisionist” interpretation of why the atomic bombs were used.  Where the “traditional” interpretation argues that the bombs were used to end the war before an invasion of the Japanese home islands was necessary, and that there were no realistic alternatives to using nuclear weapons, the “revisionist” interpretation argues that there were additional factors or motives within U.S. policy making circles that were pressing for their use.  According to the “revisionist” argument, Truman and his advisers did not consider alternatives to the bombs because, in addition to ending the war against Japan, they wanted to demonstrate the power of the bomb– and thus the greatly increased military power of the United States – to the Soviet Union.  In using atomic bombs against Japan, therefore, the United States not only ended the war and opened the “Nuclear Age,” but it also opened the era of “atomic diplomacy” and gave a powerful boost to the emerging Cold War.

Secondly, Hasegawa makes a strong case that Truman was so determined to use the atomic bomb on Japan that that he rejected alternatives that might end the war before the bomb was available.  In addition to the factor of “atomic diplomacy” noted above, Truman also wanted to revenge Pearl Harbor and the special savagery with which the Pacific war was fought.  Any possible modification of the demand that Japan surrender “unconditionally,” therefore, was rejected not only for objections to any particular modification – for example, that the safety of Emperor Hirohito be guaranteed – but because there was the danger that Japan might accept such terms and the opportunity to use the atomic bomb on Japanese cities would be lost.

As Hasegawa notes, the responsibility of Japanese leaders, including the Emperor, for the tragedy of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was very large.  Their continuation of the war after the loss of Okinawa was totally irresponsible and demonstrates how little the well being of their countrymen counted against the mystifications of preserving the Emperor system and the virtues of military glory.  But the declaration by the Japanese government on August 10th that the United States was guilty of a “crime against humanity” is surely accurate, and judgment should be rendered, at least in our understanding of the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan
The use of the atomic bombs in the context of the US-Soviet rivalry at the end of the Pacific war has been explored by many historians.   At the Yalta conference in February 1945, the Soviet Union reaffirmed its earlier pledges to enter the Pacific war three months after the end of the war in Europe.  At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Stalin told Truman and Churchill that the Soviet Union would declare war on Japan shortly after August 15th. 

Once information about the power of the atomic bomb test in New Mexico reached Truman in Potsdam on July 21st, observers reported that Truman appeared very energized and became more aggressive toward the Soviets in negotiating the many outstanding issues on the table regarding especially the postwar settlements in Europe and Asia.

In addition to Truman’s “atomic diplomacy,” the atomic bomb appeared to offer the Americans a way to end the Pacific war before the Soviets could enter it.  Truman immediately authorized the use of two atomic bombs against a short list of Japanese cities that included  Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   The bombs were to be used as soon as possible; the understanding was that this would be on August 3rd or as soon as weather conditions over Japan permitted.  Truman hoped, and expected, that the bombs would force Japan to surrender before the Soviets could enter the war.

For their part, the Soviet Union planned to declare war according to the timetable noted above in part to secure the territorial concessions that it had been promised by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta conference in February.  This was mostly territory seized from Russia by Japan at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5.  As the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated after the death of Roosevelt in April, the Soviets saw their entry into the Pacific war as increasingly urgent, no longer trusting the United States to fulfill its earlier pledges.  Stalin also expected to be included in the postwar settlement and administration of Japan, along the lines of the four-power occupation of Germany that accompanied the end of the war in Germany.

Throughout the war in Europe, the Soviet Union had a Neutrality Treaty with Japan, though they had given the Japanese notice in April 1945 that it would be terminated in 1946.  As Japan’s military prospects collapsed in 1945, keeping the Soviets out of the Pacific war became the main focus of Japanese diplomacy.  In addition to not wanting the power of the Soviet military brought to bear against the Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea, the Japanese Foreign Office somewhat ludicrously hoped that the Soviets would agree to broker or mediate a peace treaty with the United States and Britain that would be less severe than “unconditional surrender.”  Because it had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, the “Magic intercepts,” the United States was aware of these diplomatic moves; and Japan’s offers were also communicated to the Allies by the Soviets.

But the importance of this diplomacy to the Japanese “peace party” has not been thoroughly explored until now.  Realistically or not, the Japanese leaders maintained the hope that the Soviets would save them right up to the declaration of war by the Soviets on August 8th.  It was only at that point that they realized that all was lost.  Similarly, the Japanese military’s unrealistic belief that it could achieve consolation and glory by one final battle against the invaders of the home islands could not stand up to the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the northernmost home island of Hokkaido.  And finally, the great fear shared by all the Japanese leaders that domestic unrest would overthrow their leadership from within was amplified by the prospect of communist armies on their soil.

By contrast, records of the Japanese government deliberations show that the military leaders appeared unfazed by the bombing of Hiroshima, and the bombing of Nagasaki was barely mentioned in the cabinet discussions of that day.  Indeed, regarding the bombing of Hiroshima, Hasegawa observes that, “If anything, the atomic bomb on Hiroshima further contributed to their desperate effort to terminate the war through Moscow’s mediation” (p. 186).

The Potsdam Proclamation and the Japanese Surrender
According to Hasegawa, the United States constructed its end-game diplomacy with Japan not to seek its surrender, but to justify using the atomic bomb.  This was the import of the Potsdam Proclamation and the US insistence on retaining the stance of “unconditional surrender.”

The allied conference at Potsdam began on July 7th and ended on August 2nd.  Both the United States and the Soviets brought to the conference the draft of a proclamation calling on Japan to surrender.  Both of them contained the demand for unconditional surrender.  The American draft promised that if Japan did not surrender, it would be met with “prompt and utter destruction.”  This was the only “reference” to the atomic bomb in the proclamation, though it obviously could not be understood by the Japanese to refer to such weapons.

The original plans for a joint proclamation demanding Japan’s surrender envisioned that it would be issued at the time of the Soviet declaration of war on Japan.  Once the news from New Mexico had been received that the atomic bomb test was successful, and the United States could attempt to end the war by using the atomic bomb before the Soviets could declare war on Japan, it became vital that the Soviets be excluded from being a signatory to the proclamation.  The British and Americans accomplished this essentially by lying to the Soviets, hoping in this way to exclude the Soviets from the postwar settlement if the war ended quickly.  Ironically, by excluding Stalin’s signature from the proclamation, the Japanese were misled to believe that there was a division between Stalin and Truman and Churchill.  This encouraged them to continue their diplomatic strategy with the Soviets for a mediated settlement, and lessened the pressure within Japan’s leadership circles to consider the proclamation as the basis of surrender negotiations.

But the most important point about the Potsdam proclamation, according to Hasegawa, was that it was drafted with the intention of being rejected, and thus justifying using the atomic bombs.  Referring to James Byrnes, Truman’s Secretary of State, Hasegawa summarizes his stance at Potsdam thusly:

In Byrnes’s mind the atomic bomb … would force Japan to surrender and forestall Soviet entry into the war.  The atomic bomb had to be used.  In order to drop the bomb, the United States had to issue the ultimatum to Japan, warning that the rejection of the terms specified in the proclamation would result in ‘prompt and utter destruction.’  And this proclamation had to be rejected by the Japanese in order to justify the use of the atomic bomb.  The best way to accomplish all this was to insist upon unconditional surrender….  Byrnes knew even before the Japanese responded to the Potsdam Proclamation that the document was the prelude to the bomb. (158)

The proclamation was “issued” by broadcasting it over the radio.  When the Japanese government did not directly respond to the proclamation – intensifying its diplomacy with the Soviets, as noted above – the Japanese press stated that the government had chosen to “ignore” the proclamation.  On the basis of such press reports, Truman maintained then and to his dying day that the Japanese had rejected the allies’ ultimatum.  As one conservative US diplomat put it, “There seemed to be an eagerness for grasping at any excuse for dropping the bomb” (170).


Though Truman maintained that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets, the bombs killed 110,000 civilians and 20,000 military personnel instantly.  Tens of thousands more died later from radiation sickness.  Many historians reasonably argue that the fire-bombing of Tokyo, Dresden, and other cities had so eroded the protections that the laws of war were supposed to extend to noncombatants that the atomic bombings were simply more of the same.  Others note that the loss of so many lives in a single instant, and the lingering deaths suffered by so many thousands who fell victim to radiation poisoning, marked the atomic bomb as a qualitatively new kind of weapon of mass destruction.  In either case, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened an age of terror that is still with us.  But it can no longer be maintained that the bombs helped to end World War II and in saving many lives by shortening the war were therefore justified.


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