Explosive Decisions: The Use of the Atomic Bomb in World War II

I wrote this paper 3 years ago for a class I took on Chinese and Japanese History (19 years old) and submitted it recently for a World Wars Conference at University of Houston-Downtown. Personally, I have grown as a writer and am disappointed with this essay as I could have done a lot better, but it got me admitted into a professional conference and I had a great time researching for this assignment as well as writing it that I decided to share it with my readers. Please enjoy. 

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are taught in the school books as a tremendous victory for the United States because of how they essentially stood up to the Japanese and finally were able to end the war. However today, some U.S. Citizens criticize the government for the bombings and share a belief that the United States was wrong for the bombings and that alternative options should have been taken in order to end the war. And the empathetic stories of survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only exacerbate the argument that what the U.S. Government did was a bit extreme. While one cannot turn back time and undo what the United States did, it can still be explored if there were indeed different opportunities for both Japan and the United States in order to at least prevent using the atomic bomb.

From the United States’ perspective there were many warnings sent to the Japanese urging them to surrender or face the consequences. However by using this secret weapon, the U.S. government had knowledge that the attack would bring about many casualties to not only Japanese military targets but also innocent civilians. This was an arduous decision indeed, but there is evidence (such as a letter from President Truman) that the U.S. had justifiable reasons for doing what they did. From the Japanese perspective, the ones who were not militarily involved in the war will say otherwise. This leaves current students who are interested in the study of World War II and historians wondering if the decision made was the correct way to go or if there was another way to end the war without having to produce so many casualties.

In order to get a good glimpse of this past, first one must understand what drove the United States to come to the drastic decision that would change the face of history itself. Starting with December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked a United States deep naval base located on Hawaii called Pearl Harbor, much to the surprise of many. The reason for it being such a surprise was because no one would have seen a reason for Japan to attack the United States. During this time, Japan was in a war with China and had already occupied rural parts of China. And according to a National Geographic documentary, the Japanese wanted the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines because of its strategical location[1] so they could conquer all of China.  And the United States came into the picture because they stood in Japan’s way of all this. So by attacking the United States, the Japanese hoped to essentially cripple them in order for Japan to get the U.S. to back off while Japan could conquer China and by the time the United States healed themselves, China would already be conquered and nothing could be done about it.[2]

Unfortunately for Japan, the attack on Pearl Harbor turned out to be counterproductive in the sense that instead of getting the United States to back off, what it did was unite Americans to fight in the war until the Japanese were defeated. And Japan was far from wanting a war with the United States because they were well aware that they would have a great difficulty in winning the war. The Japanese knew that the more the war went on, the more America would be able to mobilize and inevitably destroy Japan. So in other words, Japan was well aware they were writing a check they could not cash but it didn’t stop them from proceeding with the attack.

Adding on to the fact of Japan being the major aggressor in this war, they even behaved barbarically during the stages of the war and had this murderous mentality in doing so. For example: Japanese soldiers would kill prisoners and even successfully attempted suicide missions with the mindset of suicide being a better option than giving up.  But it is important to note that the United States behaved just as bad by mutilating their Japanese prisoners. In fact, most Americans viewed the Japanese as inhumane, barbaric,[3] and even traitorous (because the leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Isoroku Yamamoto, was a Harvard Graduate)[4]. With all that said, one can infer that the hatred the Americans had against the Japanese could have played a part in the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in the sense that the United States essentially had a vendetta against Japan.

Since no side was willing to back down during the war and with “Japan having vowed to fight to the bitter end in the Pacific, despite clear indications (as early as 1944) that they had little chance of winning”[5] it was pretty self-evident that something big was to occur in order for it to finally come to an end. And because in “September 1939, the United States was uniquely positioned to move forward on a bomb project”[6], the war was soon to be over. By 1945, the United States give Japan an ultimatum: “Surrender unconditionally or face prompt and utter destruction.”[7] With that said, Japan was hesitant upon surrendering “unconditionally”, the reasons for this was because of the fear they had of what may happen to their Emperor Hirohito. And granted, the United States did not plan to do anything to the Emperor but when Japan sent a message to the United States saying that there would be an agreement of peace under the condition of having nothing happen to their Emperor, Joseph Ballantine (one of the advisors of President Truman) said, “We can’t agree to that, because the prerogatives of the emperor include everything, and if you agree to that, you’re going to have endless struggle with the Japanese.”[8] It should also be noted that in a post-war interview, Truman stated that a promise to the Emperor Hirohito was presented “through regular channels” that he would not be tried as a war criminal and his title would not be taken away from him but this was wrong; the United States never spoke to the emperor of this and “Truman had somehow forgotten the central issue determining the fate of the war”.[9]

Finally on August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima, located about 500 miles from Tokyo, suffered “prompt and utter destruction” with an “explosion wip[ing] out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people; tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure.”[10] With that in mind, it would seem as though an immediate surrender would have taken place but because the Japanese failed to do so, another bomb (More powerful than the one used at Hiroshima)[11] was dropped on the city of Nagasaki three days later. Based on the destruction and devastation caused by the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, one may ask the question whether or not a second bomb was necessary. The answer to that is perhaps, but there is no clear evidence to support that decision.

At the time, the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did seem necessary to some because vengeance played an extreme part in executing the bomb with Truman saying: “We have used [these bombs] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.”[12]  Despite the annihilation of a majority of the city in Hiroshima, it was Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill who said, “there never was a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not”[13] So it is no surprise that when President Truman first heard that the bomb on Hiroshima was dropped, his response was not one of pain or remorse. This was before Truman had knowledge of what the bomb was truly capable of and the impact it had on the civilians in Hiroshima however.

This leads historians of today to wonder if the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still necessary and the truth is that the day after the first bomb on Hiroshima was dropped, a senator from Georgia named Richard Russell, sent President Truman a telegram essentially telling him that more atomic bombs should be used but Truman rejected this idea saying:

“I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare…but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner. For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation, and for your information, I am not going to do it unless it is absolutely necessary…My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan”[14]

Meaning that the United States had essentially made their point by dropping two bombs on Japan and there was no need for there to be more bloodshed. However in a postwar interview, when Truman was asked whether or not any other bombs were planned to be used against Japan as well, Truman responded, “Yes. The other two cities on the list [Niigata and Kokura] would have been bombed.”[15]

One can only imagine what a third or fourth bomb would have done to the people of Japan.  Knowledge of the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone, are too much to handle; In Hiroshima there is an estimated total of 135,000 and in Nagasaki were 64,000. But in the end, who is to blame for all this destruction? Of course Truman was the president of the United States during this time, who allowed for the bombs to be dropped but it was

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt [who] authorized the development of the bomb, [and] its progress was overseen by U.S. government representatives, hundreds of American Scientists, and thousands more American staffed the plants that manufactured the components, including fissionable ones, that made the bomb work. American scientists or rather those working in the United States, saw the bomb successfully tested and knew basically what it would do to a city and its residents. President Harry S. Truman…authorized the atomic bombings, with the advice and consent of his closest advisors. The United States can be properly credited with having made the decisive weapon in the Pacific War—and it can be rightly blamed for having unleashed upon the world the special destructiveness of nuclear power.”[16]

But it cannot be forgotten where Japan’s place in History was before and during the Second World War. Before the war, Japan was in the process of modernizing itself after essentially being pushed around one too many times by foreign powers. And one of the key important things Japan wanted to modernize was their military and after the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, Japan had successfully done so and made its place among the world’s great powers. The secret to Japan’s modernization was essentially them borrowing certain political attributes from other countries however its main goal was to assert itself as the World’s Greatest power and become the ultimate sphere of influence. This started with Japan attempting to essentially spread their empire into China in order to insulate against the 1930’s Great Depression but this didn’t sit right with China who was in the process of bringing about a new government[17] and as a result, there was war between Japan and China and as stated earlier, the United States stood in the way of Japan successfully being able to take over China.

In other words, one can say that Japan was responsible for giving the United States a reason to use the bomb because when one carefully reads the terms put in the Potsdam Declaration (the declaration which gave Japan terms to follow upon surrendering) especially one of the numbers that says, “the Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives”[18], which does not seem unfair. And another term that says, “We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners” should have given the Japanese a little peace of mind when contemplating whether or not they should accept the surrender terms. It essentially leads to the conclusion that it was perhaps the stubbornness of the Japanese government that led to their inevitable demise.

The question still remains whether or not there were still other options that could have taken place as an alternative to using the bomb. To find the answer to that, one must try to find the reason for the United States stressing upon Japan an “unconditional” surrender. As stated earlier, there were no plans to harm the emperor nor were there plans to enslave any Japanese citizens. So why desire for an unconditional surrender? A good inference could be that the United States wanted to instill fear in the Japanese people because even though they were on the clear losing side of the war, they were still unwilling to back down. When the Japanese were almost to the point of surrendering on the one condition that they knew nothing would happen to their emperor, why couldn’t the United States accept that one term? Secretary of State, James Byrnes answers the question for that in his memoirs, “While equally anxious to bring the war to an end, I had to disagree [to Japan’s condition]…and any retreat from these words [“unconditional surrender”] now would cause much delay in securing their acquiescence”[19]. And according to Tsuyoshi’s “Racing the Enemy”, it appears that

“Truman was well aware that once he insisted upon unconditional surrender in the Potsdam Proclamation, Japan would fight the war to the bitter end…He feared that any negotiations with the Japanese government might be taken as a sign of weakness. Any weakening of the U.S. stand on unconditional surrender might strengthen the war party in Japan, reinforcing their will to fight on… [And] the atomic bomb provided Truman with the answer to the dilemma of imposing unconditional surrender on japan and saving American lives. Thus, [Truman] was eager to use the atomic bomb rather than explore other alternatives”[20]

So to put it another way, there may have been alternative options but based on the situation Truman was in, with Japan not wanting to surrender and having the atomic bomb as this almost magic button that could make all the world’s problems go away (along with many of his confidants perhaps urging him to use it), it seemed as though giving the “go ahead” to dropping the bomb was his only option. That and if there were any other alternatives that could have been taken, the Japanese perhaps would have still continued to fight. It should also be known that Japan also had scientists that were capable of building their own atomic bomb but the only thing that hindered this from happening in Japan was that the scientists were “unenthusiastic about the bomb”.[21]

The aftermath of the surrendering resulted in the U.S. occupying Japan and making sure the terms of the treaty are carried out. And General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of this occupation and set out to try and transform Japan politically, economically, and socially. Politically he set to make Japan out to become a constitutional monarchy essentially not taking any power away from the emperor Hirohito and allow him to keep his title. Economically he set out to democratize it and socially, he set out to bring equality amongst Japanese citizens.[22] And because the Japanese had such a hatred for the United States during the War, one would expect the Japanese to drag their feet during the Occupation but they instead reacted peacefully and were instead grateful that the United States stuck to their promise that they had no intention to enslave the Japanese citizens and only sought out to bring peace amongst the people of Japan.

Looking back on the past, it seems as though while this war was avoidable, it still ended with peace among the people of Japan and the United States. And despite all the lives lost on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is quite clear that the United States made the right choice. The fact of the matter is that after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese did not make a declaration of peace until four days after the first bomb and one day after the second bomb was dropped.[23] And one cannot say that the United States did not try to make peace with Japan by urging them to surrender. Even President Truman stated in a letter regarding the bombings, “We sent an ultimatum to Japan. It was rejected… Dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives, and gave the free nations a chance to face the facts.”[24] So while innocent civilians died as a result of this explosive decision, it was a sacrifice the United States and Japan both were going to have to make.

-Mr. Writer

Originally written on November 29, 2013 at 4:09 P.M.

 

Works Cited:

“The Atlantic | December 1946 | If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used | Compton.” The Atlantic | December 1946 | If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used | Compton. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/46dec/compton.htm&gt;.

“The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2013. <http://www.history.com/topics/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki&gt;.

“Potsdam Declaration.” Atomicarchive.com: Exploring the History, Science, and Consequences of the Atomic Bomb. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2013. <http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Hiroshima/Potsdam.shtml&gt;.

“Truman’s Reflections on the Atomic Bombings.” Atomicarchive.com: Exploring the History, Science, and Consequences of the Atomic Bomb. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Rotter, Andrew Jon. “Chapter 4: The United States I: Imagining and Building the Bomb.” Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Rotter, Andrew Jon. “Chapter 3: Japan and Germany: Paths Not Taken.” Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Byrnes, James, “All in One Lifetime” (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958)*

Catton, Philip. “Second World War in Asia.” Stephen F. Austin State University. 4 Nov. 2013. Lecture.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. “Chapter 5: The Atomic Bombs.” Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Cambridge: Harvard UP., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Cyril Clemens, ed., Truman Speaks (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960),p.69*

Catton, Philip. “The Occupation of Japan” Stephen F. Austin State University. 6 Nov. 2013. Lecture.

Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack. Dir. Michael Rosenfeld and Kirk Wolfinger. By Patrick Prentice. Perf. Tom Brokaw, Bob Ballard, Stephen Ambrose. National Geographic’s, 2001. Netflix.

Catton, Philip. “Japanese Imperialism” Stephen F. Austin State University. 7 Oct. 2013. Lecture

 

* Source copied from source used in “Racing the Enemy”

[1] National Geographic’s Documentary (Netflix)

[2] Catton’s Lecture (Second World War in Asia)

[3] Catton’s Lecture (Second World War in Asia)

[4] National Geographic’s Documentary (Netflix)

[5] History.com

[6] “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb”

[7] Catton’s Lecture (Second World War in Asia)

[8] “Racing the Enemy”

[9] “Racing the Enemy”

[10] History.com

[11] History.com

[12] “Truman Speaks”

[13] “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb”

[14] “Racing the Enemy”

[15]“Racing the Enemy”

[16] “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb”

[17] Catton’s Lecture (Origins of the Sino-Japanese War)

[18] Potsdam Declaration

[19] James Byrne’s “All in One Lifetime”

[20] “Racing the Enemy”

[21] “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb”

[22] Catton’s Lecture (The Occupation of Japan)

[23] If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used

[24] Truman’s Reflections on the Bomb

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