The Atomic Bombs

Mic dropping bomb myths

The development and use of the atomic bombs during World War II was one of the most controversial historical events of the 20th century. Should it have been used? What were the alternatives? Was it an immoral act? Myths run alongside these questions, Buzzkillers, and we can get close to good answers by busting the myths. After all, that’s what we do!

The “decision to use the bomb” myth:

This is the biggie, but it’s also the easiest to address. There was never any high-level meetings within the military or with President Roosevelt or President Truman where the central question was, “Should we use the atomic bomb?” Essentially, the questions and issues that American government officials addressed were when it should be dropped and where.

The government set up a secret high-level committee in May 1945 called the Interim Committee comprised of: the Secretary of War, other government foreign affairs officials, government scientists, some non-governmental scientists, and technology experts. Here is the record of the “decision” to use the atomic bomb, reached on June 1, 1945:

while recognizing that the final selection of the target was essentially a military decision, the present view of the Committee was that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning. (Notes of Meeting of the Interim Committee , June 1, 1945. Truman Presidential Library).

A worker stands next to an atomic bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man.” Photo courtesy of CNN

The misconception that Truman had two choices, the a- bomb or invade:

President Truman had at least three other options. The first was that the US’s conventional bombing and naval blockade of Japan could just continue. This might sound like the “endless war” option, but it wasn’t. The on-going bombing of Japan was devastating. The firebombing technique that started in March 1944 was horrific. It lasted a year, basically wiped out huge areas of Japanese cities, and may have killed more people than the atomic bombs.

The second option was a demonstration of an atomic bomb in front of an audience of invited Japanese and other international officials. There was even talk of using the demonstration bomb in a highly dramatic fashion — to blow the top off Mount Fuji. A demonstration bomb was ruled out, however, because it might have failed to work, which may have heightened Japanese resolve to fight longer.

Finally, the US could have watered down its insistence on unconditional surrender by the Japanese government. This they refused to do, except for an interesting twist were the US did accept one condition — the retention of the Japanese emperor — even though they were careful not to call it a condition.

The denotation of the first atomic bomb. Photo courtesy of CNN.

The myth that bomb alone led Japan to surrender: 

Generations of Americans have probably taken it for granted that the atomic bombs were so horrific and such a shock that the Japanese realized that continuing war would be suicidal. The bombs, therefore, were the determining factor in the Japanese surrender.

It was more complicated than that. Two things led to the surrender — the bombs and the entry of Russia into the Pacific war at more or less the same time. In fact, the latest scholarship, based on much more available archival material than in previous decades, leans toward a potential Soviet attack as the determining factor in the surrender. Apparently, the Japanese government and high command did not expect the Soviets to declare war against them. (The two countries had signed a non-aggression pact in 1941. Further, the Japanese seem to have hoped that the Soviet Union might serve as an intermediary in peace negotiations with the other Allies in the Pacific.

But Stalin had agreed at the Yalta conference in February 1945 to enter the Pacific war three months after the surrender of Germany. August 8th was three months to the day after that agreement, and the Soviets had already moved soldiers to their far eastern regions and readied them for an attack on Japan. The latest scholarship indicates that a potential Soviet invasion was more frightening to Japanese leaders than the chance that more atomic bombs were going to be dropped. This might seem crazy, but at least by August 1945 the conventional bombing of Japanese cities was so devastating, especially in Tokyo, that the levelling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may not have seemed that much more serious than what was already happening.

At the very least, the combination of the atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war proved to be too much for the Japanese leadership. They agreed to surrender on August 15th, and the official surrender signing took place on the USS Missouri on September 2nd.

Further Reading:

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (2012)

Wilson Ward, “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima,” International Security 31 (4), Spring 2007: 162–179.

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