Why were the Atomic Bombs dropped on Japan?

With President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, the question is raised again: why did the U.S. drop the atomic bomb? Was it necessary to convince Japan to surrender? Did it save lives more lives than it cost, by avoiding a long protracted invasion?

Starting in the 1960s, the Vietnam War left many questioning the ethics and necessity of war and led to the idea that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary. Economist Gar Alperovitz led a new group of historians to argue that the purpose of the bomb was to intimidate the Soviets and not to defeat the Japanese. By 1995, the American public was so divided on the issue that a 50th-anniversary exhibit at the Smithsonian had to be changed repeatedly and finally scaled back drastically. Tempers have cooled somewhat since then, but the President’s visit surely will bring old passions to the fore.

That passion has been the driving factor of this debate. As a result, scholarly works and documentary releases that use reason to discredit theories about the use of the bomb have gone unnoticed. All the way back in 1973, Robert James Maddux proved that Alperovitz’s argument about intimidating the Soviet Union was without merit, but that had little effect on the general public’s perception.

Those making a case that the morale of the USSR was the true target of those bombs rely on inferences about what Truman and his advisers were thinking – there is no documentation to prove that they felt the need to intimidate the Soviets with the bomb. Other studies have shown that the Japanese had no intention of surrendering on America’s terms. Instead, they were preparing for a U.S. invasion, including the use of biological warfare, and intended to put up the most determined resistance they could. The consequences of allowing the war to drag on in this manner would certainly have been worse for America and her allies, and possibly also worse, in the long term, for Japan.

At the Casablanca Conference in 1943, President Roosevelt presented the United States’ objectives – unconditional surrender of its enemies, allowing for the occupation of their territory and the establishment of new political institutions as the Allies felt necessary. In the summer of 1945, those terms were imposed on Germany. According to the 1999 book, Downfall, the Japanese government, knowing it could not win the war, was not willing to accept the American terms. They were especially opposed to occupation and to any change in their political system.

Knowing that the U.S. would have to invade the island of Kyushu, the Japanese heavily reinforced the island and planned to delay the U.S. long enough for them to lose their will to occupy the island and give up. By the end of July 1945, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall was worried enough to tell General MacArthur to reconsider the invasion and possibly give up on it entirely.

It turns out that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the USSR’s entry into the war against Japan within a period of three days, convinced the Emperor and the government of Japan that surrender was their only option. There is increasing evidence that Japan would not have surrendered on American terms before an invasion if the bombs had not been dropped.

This is not to say that it is morally permissible to destroy entire cities and wipe out civilian populations with nuclear weapons. Fortunately, no country has used this kind of weapon since, and we should continue to work to see that such destruction never happens again, as president Obama emphasised in his recent visit to Japan.

This is not an intellectual struggle over the morality of atomic weapons alone. It is also a struggle to end an attitude toward human life that developed prior to World War II. Years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, British and American strategists proposed the burning of entire cities as legitimate methods to use in the fight against Germany and Japan. The firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and other Japanese cities resulted in casualties equal to or greater than the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How this became to be a legitimate view is less clear, but what is clear is that this threshold was crossed well before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The famous Atomic strikes were a continuation of a prevailing mindset which viewed civilian life as entirely expendable, and it is this attitude which we must strive to move away from, even in war.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE