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Regret is unacceptable in terms of using a destructive weapon in times of war. Dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was, if not a complete mistake, poorly timed. Unfortunately, the moment it was used, it may have seemed to be the only solution to bring peace. This paper will examine the untimeliness of the bomb as manifested in postwar regret and nuclear warfare.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, thrust the United States into World War II, and thus helped reshape modern warfare. The lengthy, blood stained war reduced all armed forces into barbarous warriors who killed indiscriminately at times. Air raids became a war symbol, as each contending force would bomb “military targets” killing thousands within minutes. Ending the war and rediscovering international peace was not only painstaking, it introduced the world to nuclear warfare and a nuclear arms race.

The strategic bombing used in WWII was largely untested and believed to have the ability to end the war sooner due to its violence and potential to lower enemy morale. The Allies undeniably believed strategic bombing would end the war quicker and save the lives of many soldiers. However, all sides gave the phrase “military target” a wide interpretation during the war, while the intensity and duration of the conflict only added to the problem. The obscurity of the laws at the beginning of the war led to an all-out attack of air warfare, which led to the notorious bombings of London, Coventry, Hamburg, and Dresden. Bombing efforts later included Okinawa and Tokyo. Ultimately, the United States dropped the first two nuclear weapons ever used in warfare on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The United States began constructing the atom bomb in order to defend itself from Germany, which was believed to already have a nuclear bomb in the works. In the summer of 1939, a little-known Hungarian scientist, Leo Szilard, approached Albert Einstein and informed him of the possibility of the creation of a nuclear bomb, and of his suspicions of German atomic research. Szilard asked the famous scientist to warn President Roosevelt of the nuclear destruction capable using a large mass of uranium. Einstein agreed and penned a warning to Roosevelt alerting him of the build up of uranium in Czechoslovakian mines that Germany has captured. The letter prompted Roosevelt to create America’s own bomb endeavor, the Manhattan Project, which based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, included an immense conglomeration of scientists, military officers, and political figureheads. The planned target of the nuclear bomb was Germany. The Manhattan Project’s director, General Leslie Groves, announced in 1944 that Roosevelt wanted the bomb to be used against Germany as soon as the project was complete, as long as the European war had not ended.

On May 8, 1945 Germany surrendered and the Manhattan Project persisted. Szilard, once again, expressed his concern about the atomic bomb, however this time he was apprehensive about America’s bomb project. “But now, with the [European] war won,” he stated, “it was not clear what we were working for.” In fact, Los Alamos director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, remembered intensifying the project’s efforts after Germany’s defeat. Finally, on July 16, 1945, the first successful atomic explosion struck Alamogordo, New Mexico.

After Germany had unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, the war with Japan continued. American sentiment of the Japanese, who seemed would never surrender, was even more detestable than toward the Germans. Japan had disgraced the U.S. and U.K. militarily in nearly unheard of ways during the war, indicated by Pearl Harbor and Singapore. They were more brutal to their Anglo-American POWs than the Germans, and just before they surrendered, the Japanese turned violently against the Allies generating large amounts of casualties. During the war, the Japanese had wreaked carnage that included massacres of noncombatants, the mistreatment and killing of prisoners, habitual torture, and murder in the form of medical experiments. In addition, the Japanese soldiers were determined to fight for their nation and emperor, and would rather die than surrender. Thousands of Japanese warriors performed suicide missions, including kamikaze flights and the suicidal banzi charges. The Allies believed the enemy would have to be completely annihilated to achieve peace. As early as 1943, already half of the U.S. Army had agreed that it would be necessary to kill all of the Japanese in order to end the war. The soldiers were advised that they “faced an enemy unlike any other, and had no choice to kill or be killed.” Furthermore, women in Japan were mobilizing for the war effort. In September 1937, all women’s’ organizations were required to support the military or face suppression. During the last two years of the war women’s’ services were extremely extensive. By late 1943, women who were not working were accused as “women of leisure” (yukan josei) or “unpatriotic” (hikokumin). The determination of the Japanese threatened the U.S., and surrender seemed far off, if not impossible, without the use of an extreme measure.

Then, on June 8, 1945, a Japanese imperial conference adopted the “Fundamental Policy to be henceforth in the Conduct of War,” which pledged to “prosecute the war to the bitter end in order to uphold national policy, protect the imperial land, and accomplish the objectives for which we went to war.” This policy was accepted at a time when Japanese military forces were already severely suffering, yet Japan continued to strengthen its defense and was ready to fight to the “bitter end.” The Fundamental Policy was adopted exactly one month after Germany declared its “unconditional surrender,” therefore the Allies, at that time, were completely focused on fighting the war with Japan.

Subsequently, on July 27, the Potsdam Declaration was received by the Japanese government and called for the “unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces” furnished with “proper and adequate assurance of their good faith in such action.” At that point Japan would be able to retain its peace industries and resume participation in world trade and the Allied forces will be removed. The Potsdam Declaration does not directly mention the postwar status of the emperor, who was believed to be a god by the Japanese. Japan responded to the ultimatum with the term “mokusatsu,” whose literary meaning is somewhat ambiguous, however, it clearly meant the conditions were not acceptable. Also, the Japanese did not make a direct effort to gain peace with the U.S. by inquiring about the postwar status of the emperor. Japan was actually making an indirect effort to reconcile using Russia as a mediator. However, back on July 8, the Combined Intelligence Committee predicted that Japan would try to use peace negotiators in the USSR to divide the Allies by weakening the determination of the United Nations to continue fighting. The cable messages of Japan’s Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo in Tokyo and Ambassador Naotake Sato in Moscow, which U.S. Intelligence had intercepted, did not come as a surprise to officials.

The intercept cables indicated the wavering condition of the Japanese government’s attempt to restore peace. As late as July 27, 1945, Ambassador Sato warned Togo in Tokyo that the Soviets will not cooperate as long as the Japanese government is evasive on the peace terms. On August 2, a full three weeks after Sato was sent to Moscow, Togo replied that Japan was still not settled on the concrete amity conditions. Again on August 3, Sato pleaded that the Soviets will politely refuse to mediate until the Japanese produce a concrete plan to end the war. He added that postponement is a waste of valuable time in both Japan and Russia. The intercepted wires provided the United States with an obvious picture of the ambiguity of the Japanese government’s peace conditions. The cables indicate that all Japanese leaders agreed that continuance of the emperor was essential for peace, while the government was divided on other terms to end the war. Some wanted to hold out for at least no postwar occupation, self-disarmament, and conduct of their own war crimes trial. Some military leaders were adamant about fighting the war to the end, which would increase the number of both Japanese and American casualties. The few Japanese peace forces were weak and fearful of a military coup. They were also divided and unclear about their intentions and never prepared boldly and plainly to push for surrender. Furthermore, the Japanese premier, Admiral Baron Kantaro Suzuki, often vacillated in his pursuit of peace.

It could be argued that U.S. knowledge of the peace negotiators should have prompted American leaders to modify the terms of surrender. However, the uncertainty of Japan’s government coupled with the power of the militants made the guarantee of the emperor an unlikely solution to end the war. In addition, Japan’s desire to maintain the emperor’s status, exclude postwar occupation, engage in self-disarmament, and direct its own war trials would not have been a genuine American victory. Moreover, any modification might have prompted Japan to fight on for better terms, which was also intolerable.

Earlier, on May 31, 1945 the Interim Committee met for lunch to discuss a noncombat demonstration of the bomb as an alternative to its military use against Japan. While on June 11, the Franck Report, composed by a panel of scientists at the University of Chicago, advised that the bomb be demonstrated “before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island.” However, demonstrating the atomic bomb in order to accelerate the end of the war was rejected because of its risks. The Japanese air power was significant enough to interfere with dropping the bomb, which might have caused the blast to fail. If during the demonstration the bomb did not detonate it would not only humiliate the U.S. it could encourage Japan, or worse, provide Japan with untold amounts of information about the American atomic program. In addition, Japan’s overzealous militants may not have been impressed enough by the explosion to consider surrendering. And, if Japan did not surrender after the demonstration, it would be prepared to defend itself against an atomic attack. Furthermore, Allied POWs might be placed within the demonstration area and killed by the bomb. The risks of the noncombat demonstration lead to its rejection by the Scientific Advisory Panel on June 16, 1945 and by the Interim Committee on June 21.

The use of the atomic bomb in WWII, was not only a military concern, there was also a political undertone regarding the postwar outcome. The Russian dictator, Josef Stalin, was trying to secure Poland’s borders after the war with Germany had ended. President Truman was opposed to Stalin’s attempt and feared a large conflict with the Soviets, possibly a third world war. As he worked to conclude the struggle with Japan, Truman’s focus on Russian expansionism intensified. Acting Secretary of State, Joseph Grew, also expected an imminent war with Russia. The atomic program now needed to be carefully handled in order to assist America’s postwar efforts with the Soviets. On September 30, 1944, prior to the Alamogordo test, even before Germany’s surrender, Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant warned Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the certainty of a nuclear arms race with Russia if the U.S. tries to monopolize the atomic bomb after the war. Stimson met with both President Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, to discuss the international release of atomic technology in order to avoid an arms race.

On the other hand, Secretary of State James Byrnes and General Groves, both believed the United States should monopolize the nuclear bomb in order to maintain the upper hand after the war. They argued that it would take as much as ten years for the Russians to catch up, which positions the U.S. in a technological lead with tremendous diplomatic power. Byrnes and Groves also insisted that the power of the bomb would make Russia manageable in Europe following the war.

Once at Potsdam, Truman learned of the success of the first bomb test and decided against the urges of the Interim Committee to share the atomic knowledge with Stalin. Truman, instead, took the advice of Byrnes and Groves and did not tell Stalin of the A-bomb. However, Stalin’s spies already learned of the bomb and he was speeding up Russia’s operations. Unaware of the Soviet’s atomic progress, Byrnes and Truman were convinced that the bomb needed to be used in Japan before the Russians invaded. Fearful of Soviet expansion, Byrnes believed the bomb should be used on Japan as soon as possible in order to avoid Russian aggression in Manchuria.

The military use of the bomb in Japan did not lead to Soviet cooperation in the international control of atomic weapons. Conversely, the Russians pushed harder to create their own weapon, leading to the first Soviet atomic explosion on September 23, 1949. Forecasted by America’s NBC radio, the striking announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima warned citizens, “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein.” The nuclear arms endeavor undeniably consumed monstrous amounts of natural and public resources, which cost trillions of dollars. Throughout the Cold War the nuclear efforts were kept secret, masking the dangers and costs of a weapon that grew to threaten the very reality of civilization.

Employing any of the alternatives to the bomb, without having to invade Japan and risk losing American lives, clearly did not seem to be the solution to attaining peace. However, using some form of alternative, in combination with promising the retention of the emperor, might have ended the war without the use of the atomic bomb, or even may have avoided a Russian invasion. During and after the war, many officials were opposed to using the bomb. However the protest remained unheard by many, including Truman, due to the secrecy of the project among other hidden agendas. Upon learning of the use of nuclear bombing, Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, was appalled.

It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

Herbert Hoover was among the many who were convinced that allowing the conditional surrender of Japan to keep its emperor, which is what actually occurred even after the nuclear bombings, would have been a sufficient peace offering.

I am convinced that if you, as President, will make a shortwave broadcast to the people of Japan – tell them they can have their Emperor if they surrender, that it will not mean unconditional surrender except for the militarists – you’ll get a peace in Japan – you’ll have both wars over.

General Douglas MacArthur, the Pacific Commander in Chief of the Army, was not even consulted on the decision to drop the bomb. He was horrified upon hearing the news.

Norman Cousins was a consultant to General MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan. Cousins writes of his conversations with MacArthur, “MacArthur’s views about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were starkly different from what the general public supposed.” He continues, “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

The decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan was both military and political, and hastened peace between Japan and the U.S. However, postwar concerns were not only underestimated, they were largely inaccurate. Some U.S. officials believed the bomb would display America’s military supremacy and make the Soviets more manageable after the war. Instead, the Soviets began to build their own nuclear bombs causing an international nuclear arms race. In addition, the effects the nuclear technology was unknown and kept hidden for years to come, posing many dangers. Furthermore, alternatives to dropping the bomb on Japan were cast aside, many were unacceptable, however if multiple alternatives were utilized, the A-bomb may not have been necessary. Many military, scientific, and political leaders objected to the use of the bomb, while others were not aware of its existence until it exploded over Hiroshima. When the war concluded, several key individuals who were originally in favor of the bomb, realized that it was not necessarily essential to end the war and its use triggered many postwar problems.

The postwar regret and nuclear arms race may have been avoided if the U.S. leaders, particularly Harry Truman, did not rush to detonate the atomic bomb over Japan. Truman was pressured to end the war in the Pacific quickly, however the use of the bomb was not the only answer. To be sure, the policymakers knew that the emperor had to be retained, and indeed, was retained even after the atomic bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the U.S. had guaranteed the status of the emperor earlier, the war could have ended without the use of the bomb. Furthermore, the secrecy of the project kept many important wartime figures in the dark, including the Pacific Commander in Chief of the Army, General MacArthur. These leaders may have been able to convince the President that the bomb was uncalled for and dangerous. The petitions of many scientists were kept from the President until it was too late, while pressure to use the bomb was pushed onto Truman. The whirlwind of events and pressure caused the President to act for the use of the bomb, while alternatives were shrugged off. If the President and other leaders were given all the information about the opposition to the bomb, it could have been avoided. If the emperor was guaranteed in the Potsdam Declaration and Japan still did not surrender, perhaps a demonstration of the bomb could have brought peace sooner. If the militants persisted, dropping the bomb on Japan, while informing the Soviets of the technology, may well have warranted its use without the postwar regret and arms race. The last months of the war forced the President to make his brash, poorly timed decision to drop the nuclear bomb on Japan. The regret of the policymakers, the secrecy of the project, and the postwar nuclear struggle with Russia drives the conclusion that the bomb was used in a hurried manner, which could have been avoided if the leaders looked beyond the bomb and discovered a more appropriate tactic to achieve peace.


Alperovitz, Gar, Why the United States Dropped the Bomb, in Technology Review, August/September 1990 (24-34).

Bernstein, Barton J., Understanding the Atomic Bomb and the Japanese Surrender: Missed Opportunities, Little-Known Near Disasters, and Modern Memory in Hiroshima in History and Memory, edited by Michael J. Hogan (38-79).

Biddle, Tami Davis, Air Power in The Laws of War Constraints on Warfare in the Western World, edited by Michael Howard, George J. Andreopoulos, Mark R. Shulman (140-159).

Dower, John, War Without Mercy, 1986.

Farrell, Theo, Counting the costs of the nuclear age, in International Affairs, v.75, Issue 1, January 1999 (121-129).

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Maddox, Robert James, The Biggest Decision: Why We Had to Drop the Atomic Bomb, in American Heritage, May/June 1995 (71-77).

Takaki, Ronald, Hiroshima, Little Brown and Company, NY, 1995.

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