This detailed analysis of why President Truman decided to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima 75 years ago was sent to me by Allen Gray, author of the excellent blog Wayne’s Journal, about his uncle’s experiences as a USAAF B-25 gunner/armorer in the South Pacific in World War II. The author prefers to remain anonymous but the copyright is his, not mine.
I agree with the analysis of Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb and think that he was correct to use it. However, I admit that I am biased for the reasons given in the next two paragraphs.
My father was part of a beach clearance unit in the first wave of Operation Zipper, the British amphibious landing in Malaya that was planned for 9 September and is mentioned below. It went ahead without opposition after the Japanese surrender as it was the quickest way to get British Commonwealth troops into Malaya.
Like many veterans, he said little about his service but he did say that he saw only one Japanese sentry, who was ‘as frightened as’ he was. He also said that the colonel told the unit afterwards that that the War Office estimate of their casualty rate if the operation had gone ahead was 90%. We once on holiday met a former Royal Marine whose unit had been in the second wave and had an estimated casualty rate of 50%.
See the Codenames website and Wikipedia for more on Operation Zipper.
Everything from here onwards was written by Allen’s correspondent.
The Days of August, 1945
The following, The Days of August, 1945”, was written by a Seattle attorney. He is a dedicated, if amateur, student of the history of the Atomic Bombings and the life of Harry Truman, and who a few years ago appeared as Truman in a play about the subject, “The Realm of Whispering Ghosts: If Truman Met Einstein.”
The Days of August, 1945
Seventy-five years ago later this morning, August 6 Japan time, the center of the city of Hiroshima was obliterated by the first nuclear bomb. Two days later the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. The day after that, much of Nagasaki suffered the same fate as Hiroshima. Six days after that, the Japanese people heard the unfamiliar “Voice of the Crane” announce Japan’s surrender. World War Two had come to a sudden end. The formal surrender to the allied powers would occur early the following month, on the deck of the battleship Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.
As a matter of cause-and-effect, it seems clear that, at the very least, this combination of events in early August precipitated a crisis within the Japanese government that produced a capitulation that was not imminent at the beginning of that month.
A Soviet attack in isolation would have been viewed as a diplomatic setback – some within the Japanese government had been hoping the Soviets would serve as an intermediary to negotiate a peace allowing Japan to retain a portion of its Empire and military might. But the Soviets months before had already served notice that the Soviets were formally withdrawing from the Japanese-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1941, and the Japanese military recognized that this action had begun the countdown for a Soviet entry into the war. The attacks on Japanese holdings in Manchuria and Korea did not come as a surprise to them. Standing alone, the Soviet entry into the war on August 8 would not have triggered Japan’s surrender seven days later. It took the shock of America’s employment of the “most cruel bomb” – as the Emperor would describe it in his August 15 broadcast – to move Hirohito to end a Cabinet deadlock and direct his ministers to make peace.
And that came just in time. For unknown to either the Japanese or us, Stalin was just weeks away from taking a fateful step that would have radically altered the course of history. Soviet forces were gathering for an invasion of the Japanese Home Island of Hokkaido. The landings were set to take place on August 24, 1945. Within a few days two Soviet divisions would have seized the northern half of Hokkaido – months before American forces were scheduled to storm ashore on the southernmost Home island of Kyushu.
As history actually unfolded, the Japanese surrender on August 15 (August 14 in America) pulled Stalin up short. The Soviets were in the process of taking the southern half of Sakhalin Island (lost to Japan under the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905), and also grabbing the Kurile Island chain. But Stalin wanted more – he wanted to share in control of the Japanese Home islands themselves, a position from which he hoped to bring about a Soviet Japan, and at the least block any American attempt to transform Japan into an anti-Communist bulwark. Indeed, Stalin was so loathe to let go of these goals that he pressed Truman to accept a post-surrender Soviet occupation of northern Hokkaido (the same territory scheduled for invasion), and only reluctantly accepted Truman’s refusal to permit such a dilution of American plans to be the sole occupying power of the four Home Islands.
Without the Atomic Bombings in early August, the war would still have been raging when August 24 arrived. There can be no doubt that the Soviet invasion would have been launched. If we assume just a one month a delay in the development and successful test of the Plutonium Bomb, or an outright failure of the “Trinity” test on July 26, the news of the Soviet invasion of Japan – for that is exactly how it would have been viewed, just as much an invasion of Japan proper as our planned landings on Kyushu on November 1 would have been seen as an invasion – would have triggered a crisis in Washington, DC. Without the atomic bombings, Truman would have returned from Potsdam to be confronted by a veritable mutiny by the Navy against the American invasion plans. Intelligence in late July showed that the Japanese had somehow moved 750,000 troops to Kyushu, not the 250,000 predicted earlier that Summer. The new numbers meant the Japanese could be expected to meet our invading forces with at least equal numbers on the beaches – a formula for disaster, based on the experience accumulated from the many amphibious landings conducted in Europe and the Pacific. The Navy would have been demanding a cancellation of the planned Kyushu landings, and adoption of their preferred strategy of blockade. The news that the Soviets had beaten us to the Japanese Home Islands by several months would have knocked the Navy’s and the Army’s arguments all into the proverbial cocked hat, forcing the American leadership to consider whether to scrape together a force that could be rushed ashore on northern Honshu, and block a Soviet move south towards Tokyo. The Cold War was already unfolding in Europe, and the pressure on Truman to prevent the Red Army from marching into Tokyo and imposing a Japanese puppet Communist government would have been excruciating.
And what of the Japanese? The Home islands of Japan had never been invaded. Never. The Mongols had tried twice, and each time the kamikaze, the “Divine Winds” of the typhoon season had wrecked the Khan’s mighty invasion fleets. The Japanese military, which had been preparing to beat back an invasion coming from the south – hence the shift of those 750,000 troops to Kyushu – would now have confronted the Russians coming through a northern backdoor unavoidably left unguarded. The military would have unleashed its plans to rally the entire nation against an invasion, while scrambling to move forces from the south to the north. The Japanese hated the Russians, and the Japanese elite loathed and feared Communism. The political dynamic of an evenly divided War Cabinet, with three military members adamantly opposed to surrender on any terms before Japan had the chance to bloody its enemies in a “decisive battle” for the Home Islands, squaring off against three civilian members who urged seeking peace with the Americans (if not on the “unacceptable” terms of the Potsdam Declaration), would have been swept away. There was no more time for the luxury of such debate. The Decisive Battle was at hand, the evil Russian Bear was ashore, and all Japan must be mustered to resist.
How would this world have unfolded? What we can say with confidence is that the moment for peace, which was latent at the beginning of August 1945, would have been swept away after an August 24 that saw Soviet forces storming ashore on the beaches of Hokkaido. The war would have continued. Extended now on the ground to the Japanese Home Islands, it would have continued to rage throughout East Asia and the Pacific. The British on September 9 would have launched “Operation Zipper,” a massive amphibious assault against the Japanese position in Malaya, an operation that would have dwarfed the D-Day landings. In response, the Japanese Commander of the Southwest Asian theater would have issued his promised order for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of allied military and civilian prisoners.
The war would have continued until, somehow, the Japanese leadership could be brought to its sense, and made to realize that continued fighting would only end in the obliteration of Japan itself. In our history, as events actually unfolded, that realization meant the Emperor taking the step that only he could take, by commanding a decision for peace. But he took that step in the comparative calm of a Japan not yet invaded, within the protective confines of the Imperial Palace. And even then, when word leaked out within military circles of his decision, and the impending surrender, it triggered a mutiny on the night of August 14/15 by captains and majors that saw murderous bands of soldiers invade the palace grounds, seeking to take the Emperor into “protective custody” and prevent the surrender broadcast scheduled for the next day. And while these fanatic junior officer “patriots” sought to prevent the planned surrender, the War Minster killed himself rather than be a party to the “shame” of capitulation. If Japan’s decision to surrender then was nearly undone, imagine the challenge for the emperor to try and bring about a surrender in the face of a united military plunging into the final “decisive” battle they had been itching to fight.
When Harry Truman made the decision to order the atomic bombing of Japan, he did so for one reason. Not to make an impression on Joe Stalin. He did so because he knew that the war with Japan had to be brought to an end, and soon. He recognized that continued war would mean the deaths of millions, including hundreds of thousands of Americans. He knew that continued war in the Pacific and East Asia would make it impossible to achieve a just peace for the wounded peoples of Europe, at the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass. Truman could not know that, had he hesitated to use the atomic bomb against Japan right when it became available, events were about to unfold that would have undone the moment for peace. But 75 years later we do. Or at least we ought to.