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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why the United States Dropped the Bomb, in Technology Review,
August/September 1990 (24-34).
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
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.
Counting the costs of the nuclear age, in International Affairs,
v.75, Issue 1, January 1999 (121-129).
H.R., Women and War in Japan, 1937-45, in The American Historical
Review, v.80, Issue 4, October 1975 (913-934).
James, The Biggest Decision: Why We Had to Drop the Atomic Bomb, in
American Heritage, May/June 1995 (71-77).
Hiroshima, Little Brown and Company, NY, 1995.