Reflections on the Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

A couple of years ago I published on this blog the following discussion of the decision to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. On the seventieth anniversary of this defining event in human history I am calling attention to it anew. I would welcome your comments.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

It comes up every year at the time of the anniversary. It is one of the most difficult and complex questions in American history. Why did the leadership of the United States choose to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945, not once but twice?

This represents one of the most complex, divisive, and nuanced debates in the history of the United States in the twentieth century. U.S. President Harry S. Truman in August 1945 chose to drop two atomic bombs from B-29s on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, thereby forcing Japan to surrender and thereby ending World War II. A traditional conception of the decision, indeed the one most often voiced by actors in the decision, was that it was done to speed the end of the war and thereby preserve American lives that might be lost in future combat.

A revisionist interpretation, often identified with Gar Alperowitz, argues that the war was almost over and that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender anyway. The reason to drop the bomb, therefore, had little to do with the ending of World War II and was aimed more at impressing and influencing future relations with the Soviet Union. Another interpretation suggests that the use of the atomic bomb had more to do with American racism, and that the U.S. would have refrained from using such a horrific weapon on other Caucasians in Europe. Other scholars condemn the use of such a weapon targeting large populations, including non-combatants, as immoral and obscene. Subsequent historians have argued various permutations of these interpretations and the debate remains far from settled.

In the end historians have offered five fundamental considerations that played into the decision by Truman to use atomic bombs in August 1945. First, the decision makers, especially Truman, sought to end the war at the earliest possible moment. They believed this new and terrifying weapon would do so and should therefore be employed for what they considered the greater good of ending the bloodshed. Wrapped up in this argument, although historian J. Samuel Walker, who has written a book on the interpretations of the decision, thinks it a bit of side issue, was a widely held belief that bringing the Japanese to the surrender table would require an invasion of its islands.

This would be, as those considering it believed, a costly and lengthy campaign that might mean the loss of thousands of lives on both sides. Casualty estimates of all types exist, and they have been used in the debate since then to justify or condemn the use of the bomb. Those estimates, which are at best educated guesses that range broadly depending on the assumptions and the perspectives of those making them, are less useful in assessing what took place than the understanding that Truman was unwilling to accept any more casualties than absolutely necessary.

Second, Truman and his advisors were intensely concerned that they had to justify the enormous cost of developing the atomic weapon, and a decision not to use it once it existed would open them to significant criticism. As historian J. Samuel Walker concluded in “prompt & utter destruction”: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bomb against Japan (1997): “The success of the Manhattan Project in building the bombs and ending the war was a source of satisfaction and relief.”

In this context, Truman expressed great concern that should he decide not to use the weapon once he had it that every American life lost thereafter would have been wasted. As he explained to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1947, “I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”

Third, at least one of Truman’s advisors, Secretary of State Byrnes, realized immediately and argued to his colleagues that this weapon would be useful in helping to bend the Soviet Union to American wishes in the post-war era. Truman recognized this as well, but according to Walker this was definitely an added bonus and not the primary consideration in using the bomb. As Walker concluded, “Growing differences with the Soviet Union were a factor in the thinking of American officials about the bomb but were not the main reason that they rushed to drop it on Japan.” Gar Alperowitz’s “atomic diplomacy” thesis, therefore, has merit however overstated it might have been.

Fourth, there was a lack of incentives among those making these decisions not to use the bomb. “Truman,” as Walker notes, “used the bomb because he had no compelling reason to avoid it.” While many people since 1945 have questioned the morality of its use, Truman and his advisors did not let those scruples—and they did exist among them—outweigh their goal of ending the war as quickly as possible.

Indeed, by the last year of the war conventional weaponry had laid waste to so many cities containing thousands of non-combatants—witness the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo—that virtually no one in a senior decision-making role in the U.S. questioned the use of nuclear weapons despite their destructiveness since they believed dropping these bombs would shorten the war and save American and perhaps enemy lives.

Fifth, there is no question that such comments as these affected the debate: “Hatred of the Japanese, a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor, and racist attitudes were a part of the mix of motives that led to the atomic attacks.” Again, this was not the primary consideration in dropping the bomb on Japan, “But the prevalent loathing of Japan, both among policymakers and the American people,” according to Walker, “helped override any hesitation or ambivalence that Truman and his advisors might have felt about use of atomic bombs.”

There are a series of questions still being debated about the decision to use the bomb. These include: “(1) how long the war would have continued if the bomb had not been used; (2) how many casualties American forces would have suffered if the bomb had not been dropped; (3) whether an invasion would have been necessary without the use of the bomb; (4) the number of American lives and casualties an invasion would have exacted had it proven necessary; (5) whether Japan would have responded favorably to an American offer to allow the emperor to remain on the throne before Hiroshima, or whether such an offer would have prolonged the war; and (6) whether any of the alternatives to the use of the bomb would have ended the war as quickly on a basis satisfactory to the United States.”

These historiographical questions ensure that future study of this subject will remain contested; overlaying all of it, of course, is the question of the morality of Truman’s decision. There is probably no conclusion to the debate, instead further inquiry and exposition will make a contribution to the marketplace of ideas where positions will be evaluated and accepted, rejected, or modified.

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8 Responses to Reflections on the Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

  1. J. Martin says:

    Thanks, Roger. This is a useful précis of the issues involved. Another factor I’ve heard bandied about is Truman’s relatively recent rise to the presidency. I don’t find the counterfactual speculation that often crops up in this conversation particularly helpful (and so I won’t pretend to know what Roosevelt would have done). But I have found compelling the suggestion that Truman,—since he was somewhat out of the loop while FDR was still alive and under pressure to make his mark as the first new occupant of the Oval Office in over a decade—relied heavily on his military advisors, who naturally favored the swiftest end to Pacific was as possible. This might be read as a corollary to point 1.

    As a similar corollary to point 4, It’s also worthwhile to consider the state of knowledge about the impact the bomb would have. Knowledge was certainly available that radiation was dangerous and that the bomb would cause massive and indiscriminate damage, but I would argue that it hadn’t penetrated public (or policy) consciousness to the point where it was sufficiently powerful to impact the decision to use nuclear weapons. There is a natural tendency to assess Truman’s decision in light of the psychological power nuclear weapons acquired during the Cold War, but the sharp distinction we now draw between conventional arms and WMD was yet to develop.


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  3. I agree that much of the moral condemnation seen in the revisionist criticisms regarding the use of the atomic bomb are largely driven by the post-war perceptions of the dangers of thermonuclear weapons that threatened the survival of our species. President Truman was operating on the information and knowledge he has at that time to make his decision. It is very difficult to see how he would have decided not to use the bomb on a Japanese city. There was great pressure on to end the war as soon as possible. The veterans of the fighting in Europe were very unhappy at the prospect of being sent to the Pacific to invade Japan. They felt they had done their part and voiced their displeasure at being sent to the PTO. There was also a great sensitivity to the projected casualties & cost for the invasion of Japan. There was a worry that the American people might not have the patience to see the war through to its conclusion if there had been an invasion. Contrary to the popular myth that we had a united country in support of the war there were many issues of concern as the war progressed. The Truman Administration was rightly concerned with these domestic issues as well as the concerns of the veterans of the ETO who were being assigned to the Pacific. No one wanted to have “the Golden Gate by ’48” scenario play out. There was also the very real concern that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war would result in a partition of Japan like we experienced in Germany. Certainly Stalin was aiming to take as much Japanese territory as possible and he would have been loathe to give it up in a peace settlement. So putting Truman in the context of the time, the knowledge that he had available, the expectations of the massive casualties involved in an invasion, the domestic concerns, the uncertain geopolitical situation if the Soviets also invaded Japan and the clear intent of the Japanese to fight to the bitter end (as seen in the island by island battles, most recently Iwo Jima and Okinawa) it made rational sense to use the atomic bombs. Forgotten over time is that we used massive B-29 raids to drop incendiaries on the tinderbox Japanese cities, razing them to the ground. The March 9/10 raid was the single deadliest air raid of World War II, 330 American B-29s rain incendiary bombs on Tokyo, touching off a firestorm that kills upwards of 100,000 people, burns a quarter of the city to the ground, and leaves a million homeless. Tokyo was the first of five incendiary raids launched in quick succession against the largest Japanese cities. Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe were also targeted — with Nagoya getting hit twice within a week. By the end of the war, more than 60 Japanese cities had been laid waste by firebombing. WWII was a Total War and the later criticisms seem to be removed from the reality faced in the summer of 1945.


  4. roberthorvat says:

    Thanks so much Roger.


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