The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bombs — 70 Years On
Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s new Military History in the News, a weekly column from the Hoover Institution that reflects on how the study of the past alone allows us to make sense of the often baffling daily violence, not by offering exact parallels from history, but rather by providing contexts of similarity and difference that foster perspective and insight — and reassurance that nothing is ever quite new.
A new exhibition at the American University Museum in Washington marking the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki portrays the Japanese people incinerated by the blasts and sickened by radiation as victims. On display are artifacts that survived the bombings and art depicting the people caught up in the maelstrom. But if the Japanese people killed and injured by the atomic bombings were victims, what were they victims of? War crimes committed by the Truman administration? The Japanese government’s reckless decision to invade China in 1937, occupy French Indochina in 1940, and attack the United States as well as the British Commonwealth in 1941? The unwillingness of Japanese military and civilian officials to admit they had been defeated and thereby risk the annihilation of the Japanese people by fighting on?
As the decision to drop the atomic bombs fades into the distant past, the world would do well to remember the alternatives. In July 1945, the Allied powers issued the Potsdam Declaration, which held out an olive branch of sorts to Japan: The Japanese could surrender their armed forces unconditionally, while leaving the fate of Emperor Hirohito open to negotiation. Instead of accepting this offer to end the war, Japanese leaders believed it showed a slackening of Allied will to continue the conflict. Provided the Japanese people steeled themselves for further sacrifices, Japan could emerge from the conflict with a negotiated peace that left its political institutions intact.
This was a severe misreading of the Allies’ intent. When it became clear that Japanese leaders had rejected the Potsdam Declaration, the Allies prepared to execute military operations to end the war by force of arms: dropping of atomic bombs, entry of the Soviet Union into the conflict on the Asian mainland, and invasions of the Japanese home islands. Allied leaders, it must be remembered, did not have the advantage of hindsight in determining which of these measures would force Japanese surrender. Instead, they prudently determined to embark on all of them.
Had Truman decided to forgo the use of the atomic bombs, what might have been the alternative history? Every major invasion in the Pacific War in which large numbers of civilians were involved — Saipan, Luzon, and Okinawa — had led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths. Given that Japanese military leaders were arming civilians (with bamboo spears, no less) to defend the homeland, an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have resulted in a bloodbath.
Even more dreadful would have been the impact of the next phase in the American aerial bombardment of Japan. Emulating the “Transportation Plan” against Germany that brought the Third Reich’s rail networks to a halt in 1944, U.S. airmen were planning to throttle the rail networks and waterborne traffic the Japanese used to move food and materiel around the home islands. Instead of the several hundred thousand people killed by the atomic bombs, this alternative air campaign would have led to mass starvation in Japan over the winter of 1945-46 and the likely deaths of millions of Japanese civilians. In the event, such an outcome was only averted by the American occupation of Japan and the commitment of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and his forces to treat the Japanese people humanely.
So should we remember the Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Absolutely. But then should we allow emotions based on their suffering to lead us to conclude that the atomic bombs should never have been dropped in the first place? Only if by rewriting history we are willing to take ownership of the consequences.
Peter Mansoor, U.S. Army (retired), is a Member of the Hoover Institution Working Group on the Role of Military History in Contemporary Conflict. He is the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History at Ohio State University. Mansoor is the author of The GI Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941–1945, Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq, and Surge: My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Remaking of the Iraq War.