Some 70 years have passed since the United States dropped the atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As many as 80,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and as many as 50,000 in Nagasaki, not counting the fatalities in the aftermath.
President Harry Truman always stood by his decision to drop the bombs. The feisty president from Missouri would insist that he never lost a night’s sleep over the decision.
There isn’t any question that the United States would have won the war without resorting to the atom bombs. But at what cost? Some estimates insist the United States (and Great Britain) would have lost troops in six digit numbers had there been an attempt to take the Japanese islands by conventional force.
Yet it is doubtful such a huge undertaking would have been necessary to secure Japan’s surrender.
Contrary to myths about Japan’s will to ‘fight to the last man,’ Japan was quite ready to discuss surrender. Indeed, Japan had laid out four conditions of surrender, three of which need not have been taken seriously. Those three were the conditions that foreign troops would not occupy Japan, that Japanese courts would try the war criminals rather than American and British tribunals, and that the Japanese would only disarm on a voluntary basis. Japan was not serious about keeping out American occupation or barring American and British tribunals from trying the war criminals. As to insisting on disarming only on a voluntary basis, Japan did just that after its surrender.
Regarding the fourth condition, retaining Hirohito as emperor, the United States itself stipulated to this condition after the surrender.
In consideration of all the facts, using the atom bomb was probably unnecessary. No less a figure than General Douglas MacArthur thought it was a mistake to drop the bomb.
But whereas the United States made a mistake in dropping the atom bomb, the blame is still on Imperial Japan. In response to American and British insistence on unconditional surrender (communicated at the conference in Potsdam, Germany in July 1945), Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro deliberately ignored the ultimatum. And regarding conditional surrender, Japan was in no position to bargain.
Japan knew it was subjecting its own people to the horrors of war. American and British officials warned at Potsdam that Japan would face utter destruction absent an unconditional surrender. And though American and British officials did not specify use of the atom bomb, the highest levels of Japan’s military and government likely knew a weapon of unprecedented force was imminent. Nazi Germany knew the allies were working on an atomic bomb and the Germans shared most of their intelligence with Japan.
It’s not quite clear that the atom bombs forced Japan’s surrender. Japanese scholars have insisted that the Soviet Union’s entry into the war was the crux of Japan’s surrender. (Japan was hoping for the Soviet Union to broker the surrender but the Russians instead attacked the Japanese in Manchuria.) How many atom bombs would Japan have allowed before its unconditional surrender? We don’t really know. But we do know it took six whole days after the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki for Japan to finally surrender.
Seventy years later, we can be thankful the atom bomb and other nuclear weapons have not since been used.
But whereas the United States is often criticized as the only nation to have used a nuclear weapon, the guilt rests with Imperial Japan for subjecting its people to such horror.
John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer.