August 6th and 9th of 2015 mark the 70th anniversary of the U.S. dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the first and only time a state used a nuclear device on cities (or civilians) of another state. Some conservative estimates put the immediate death toll of the two bombs at 200,000 people. This is more than the total number of American soldiers killed in the Pacific front of World War II.
Since the bombs were dropped, the U.S. government, U.S. high school history texts, and the American public have asserted that dropping the bombs was necessary. According to one review of American textbooks by Satoshi Fujita, an assistant professor of U.S. modern history at Meiji University,
“…most of the textbooks published by the early 1980s carried the U.S. government’s official view that the nuclear attacks allowed the U.S. troops to avert the invasion of Japan’s mainland and minimize American casualties, thus contributing to an early conclusion of the war.”
American politicians have continued to espouse this view. Primary among them was Harry S. Truman, the one-term president responsible for making the decision to drop the bombs in August of 1945. In his 1955 memoirs, Truman claimed the bombs saved half a million American lives. Truman insisted he felt no remorse and bragged that “he never lost any sleep over that decision,” while simultaneously referring to the Japanese as “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.” By 1991, George H.W. Bush claimed dropping the bombs saved millions of American lives. Historian Peter Kuznick sums up the ever-increasing number of American lives saved due to these actions:
“…from the War Department’s 1945 prediction of 46,000 dead to Truman’s 1955 insistence that General George Marshall feared losing a half million American lives to Stimson’s 1947 claim of over 1,000,000 casualties to George H.W. Bush’s 1991 defense of Truman’s ‘tough calculating decision, [which] spared millions of American lives,’ to the 1995 estimate of a crew member on Bock’s Car, the plane that bombed Nagasaki, who asserted that the bombing saved six million lives—one million Americans and five million Japanese.”
Twenty years ago (the 50th anniversary of the bombings) when the Smithsonian Museum tried to create a thought-provoking display about Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima), the Senate threw a temper tantrum and passed a resolution condemning the move. The resolution stated that
“…the Enola Gay during World War II was momentous in helping to bring World War II to a merciful end, which resulted in saving the lives of Americans and Japanese.”
Of course, none of these figures about saved American lives are true. When President Truman was contemplating dropping the bomb, he consulted a panel of experts on the number of American soldiers that would be killed if the U.S. launched an invasion of the two main Japanese islands. According to historian Christian Appy,
“[Truman] did…ask a panel of military experts to offer an estimate of how many Americans might be killed if the United States launched the two major invasions of the Japanese home islands…Their figure: 40,000 – far below the half-million he would cite after the war. ”[emphasis added]
Americans are socialized to believe that dropping the bombs was necessary to end the war. As recently as January 2015, a Pew poll found that 56% of Americans believed dropping the two atomic devices was justified. Only 34% said it was not justified. This American attitude is understandable given the downplaying of Japanese deaths and the exaggeration of American lives saved in high school history books.
In spite of this public perception, dropping the nuclear bombs was totally unnecessary from a military standpoint. America’s leading generals voiced their concerns before and after the bombs were dropped. General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Western Europe, reacted to the news in a way that contradicts politicians’ narratives:
“During his [Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson] recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives ,” he said. [emphasis added]
General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Pacific, was not even consulted about the use of the bomb. He was only notified two days before the first bomb was dropped. When he was informed he thought “‘…it was completely unnecessary from a military point of view.’ MacArthur said that the war might ‘end sooner than some think.’ The Japanese were ‘already beaten.’”
Tough, cigar-smoking “hawk,” General Curtis LeMay—who was responsible for the firebombing of Japanese cities—was also disappointed with the decision to drop the bomb. In an exchange with reporters he said,
“The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. [emphasis added]”
“You mean that, sir? Without the Russians and the atomic bomb?” one journalist asked.
“The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all,” LeMay replied.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, sent out the following public statement: “The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan [emphasis added].”
While Eisenhower, MacArthur, LeMay, and Nimitz believed the dropping of the bombs to be unnecessary, Chief of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy went even further, insisting that even the contemplated invasion of Japan was unnecessary to end the war. He said,
“I was unable to see any justification…for an invasion of an already thoroughly defeated Japan. My conclusion, with which the naval representatives agreed, was that America’s least expensive course of action was to continue to intensify the air and sea blockade…I believe that a completely blockaded Japan would then fall by its own weight. [emphasis added]”
At the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, President Truman appointed a panel of 1000 experts to study the conflict. One third of the experts were civilians and two-thirds were military. The panel issued its report, entitled “United States Strategic Bombing Survey”—a 108 volume publication on the Pacific front. The survey makes the following damning conclusion about the necessity of dropping the the atomic bombs and invading Japan:
“Nevertheless, it seems clear that, even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945,…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. [emphasis added]”
Even the Japanese leaders knew they were defeated. They were even secretly willing to negotiate an unconditional surrender. According to the survey, there was
“…a plan to send Prince Konoye to Moscow as a special emissary with instructions from the cabinet to negotiate for peace on terms less than unconditional surrender, but with private instructions from the Emperor to secure peace at any price.”
If dropping the bombs was not necessary, and if Japan was even willing to contemplate an unconditional surrender, then why were the bombs dropped at all? One reason referenced by several historians was to project American power against the future enemy in the Cold War, the U.S.S.R. As the Christian Science Monitor noted in 1992,
“Gregg Herken…observes…that ‘responsible traditional as well as revisionist accounts of the decision to drop the bomb now recognize that the act had behind…’a possible diplomatic advantage concerning Russia.’ Yale Prof. Gaddis Smith writes: ‘It has been demonstrated that the decision to bomb Japan was centrally connected to Truman’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union.’”[emphasis added]
Secondly, there was a rather large incentive to use the bomb—to test its effectiveness. On that subject, the most succinct quote comes from Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander U.S. Third Fleet. He said, “[The scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. . . . It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before.”
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Manhattan Project (the project to build the bomb) cost the U.S. an estimated $1,889,604,000 (in 1945 dollars) through December 31, 1945. That comes out to $25,051,739,964.00 in today’s dollars. The Center goes on to add:
“Weapons were created to be used. By 1945, the bombing of civilians was already an established practice. In fact, the earlier U.S. firebombing campaign of Japan, which began in 1944, killed an estimated 315,922 Japanese, a greater number than the estimated deaths attributed to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
From a purely numbers perspective, the detonation of the atomic bombs killed fewer people than the firebombing of the 67 Japanese cities with napalm. The sick logic of war is this: having killed close to 316,000 Japanese people by firebombing cities, killing 100,000-200,000 more is just as justifiable.
It is clear from the recitation of some of the evidence that the dropping of the atomic bombs was not necessary to end the war. It was not necessary to obviate the U.S. invasion of Japan (which in and of itself was not necessary) and it was not necessary for an unconditional surrender.
It is time for the United States to stop believing that the infamous nuclear attacks were justified. On that front, there is some hope. Back in 1991, 63% of Americans believed dropping the bombs was justified, compared to 56% today. Clearly, the numbers are heading in the right direction.
The U.S. government could easily nudge public opinion in the appropriate direction by issuing a public apology for the dropping of these weapons of mass destruction on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. is capable of doing this. In 1988, the U.S. Senate voted to compensate Japanese Americans for interning them during WWII. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a formal letter of apology. The U.S. did the right thing by apologizing to Japanese Americans. It is time to extend this apology to the entire Japanese nation.