As we mark the seventy-eighth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we bear witness to a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, a greater percentage of Americans than ever before now doubt the necessity of using nuclear weapons against Japan. By contrast, the arguments justifying their use remain stubbornly persistent. This is noteworthy considering the historical evidence now clearly indicates that Japan was on the brink of surrender at the moment when these weapons were employed.
The decision to initiate an instant holocaust against potentially as many as 210,000 Japanese civilians was complex and multifaceted. The principal argument mounted to justify the use of atomic bombs — that they would quickly end the war and avoid an invasion that could result in as many as one million casualties — doesn’t hold much weight. Instead, historical evidence more strongly indicates America’s desire to circumvent the need for negotiations with the Soviet Union over the future of East Asia. The Potsdam Conference, held by Allied leadership in the summer of 1945, aimed to determine the postwar settlement in Europe. The United States did not want to be forced into similar negotiations — with the Soviets at the table — for the postwar settlement of the Pacific.
Since the mid-1990s, the ongoing dispute over the deployment of the bombs has been a front in the larger culture war. The conflict emerged when the Smithsonian Institution, in a bid to appease prevailing sentiments, forfeited its scholarly autonomy and halted a critical examination of the decision to use the bombs. The study was meant to complement the unveiling of the fully restored bomber Enola Gay.
The persistence of discredited arguments justifying the bombings — and their integration into the culture of American exceptionalism — is, by now, laughable. Their existence underscores the need to reevaluate the key arguments that demonstrate the fundamentally needless nature of employing atomic weapons against Japan.
Keeping the Soviets Out
According to the line of reasoning used to warrant the bombing, the use of nuclear weapons was intended to force Japan’s immediate and unconditional surrender. This ended the war before millions of battle-hardened Soviet troops could pour into Eastern Asia. A happy corollary of this strategy was the prevention of potential Soviet liberation of the continent from Japanese rule and the hindrance of Western European colonial powers’ attempts to exploit labor and resources for postwar economic reconstruction. However, if this was indeed the intended objective, its ultimate result, despite the significant loss of Japanese civilian lives, was merely a temporary delay of the inevitable by a few years.
It is worth considering the following key points: The United States stands alone as the only nation to employ nuclear weapons with hostile intent. And it is the only nation to use them deliberately against civilians. The United States also considered using nuclear weapons as a means to bring about the end of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. As best as can be discerned, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia has ever considered employing nuclear weapons offensively in a conflict in a manner similar to how the United States employed its nuclear weapons against Japan. Finally, the United States has upheld a nuclear “first use” doctrine, exited arms control treaties, and advocated for novel technologies to disrupt the nuclear balance.
The decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in the closing stages of World War II was swiftly met with controversy. Initially, dissent emerged within the ranks of senior American military and political figures, albeit privately. Although much of the public greeted news of the bombings with exultation, interpreting the event as signaling the immediate end of the conflict, this sentiment wasn’t unanimous. An editorial published in a September 1946 edition of Saturday Review questioned the bombings’ necessity and suggested that they were done deliberately to intimidate the Soviet Union.
This idea was explored in Gar Alperovitz’s 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam — The use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation With Soviet power. Alperovitz was the first to thoroughly articulate the idea that the bombs were dropped to both bring about an immediate end to the war and to avoid large-scale Soviet involvement that could potentially replicate in the Far East what had already occurred in Eastern and Central Europe.
The Atomic-Diplomatic Exchange That Never Happened
While the Yalta agreement of February 1945 was ambiguously defined and open to varying interpretations, Alperovitz asserts that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s understanding was that Poland and much of Eastern Europe liberated by the Red Army would fall under Soviet influence. However, Harry S. Truman, who assumed the presidency in April of 1945, diverged from Roosevelt’s cooperative stance, choosing instead to adopt a more confrontational approach to curtail and confine Soviet power in Europe. Encouraged by his top advisors, Truman pursued a confrontational stance with Joseph Stalin over Eastern Europe, partly driven by their perception of atomic weapons as a potent diplomatic tool.
This hard-line approach with the Soviet Union had been previously avoided for three key reasons: Roosevelt was committed to cooperating with Stalin; the United States wanted to avoid Germany and the Soviet Union signing a separate peace; and because a hard-line approach could result in losing Soviet support against Japan.
It was initially thought that Soviet forces would be necessary to hold down the Kwantung Army in Manchuria to prevent the reinforcement of the Japanese Home Islands. However, by April of 1945, Allied forces had secured control of the sea lines around Japan, precluding this possibility. By April of 1945, a Soviet entry into the Pacific Theater was no longer considered necessary for the Americans to complete a successful invasion of Japan.
Although the bombs could have been seen as valuable bargaining tools in the ongoing negotiations with the Soviet Union regarding the conclusion of World War II, their use didn’t necessarily hinge on their military deployment. Alperovitz suggests that Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who possessed extensive knowledge of the bomb program within Truman’s cabinet, leaned toward sharing information about nuclear energy and the bomb, along with proposing Soviet participation in an international atomic energy control commission.
This concept of an atomic-diplomatic exchange was already being discussed as early as December 1944. To encourage Japanese surrender and favorable terms in future Soviet negotiations, the notion of a nonmilitary atomic bomb demonstration, such as a detonation in Tokyo Harbor, was seriously considered.
Japan’s Impending Surrender at the Time of the Bombings
A central and enduring argument that persists to this day is that the use of the atomic bombs ended the war “early.” They thus prevented considerable losses — both Japanese and American — that would have come with an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. But there is considerable evidence to suggest that Japan was already defeated before the atomic bombs were dropped.
The Japanese navy, as an example, had for the most part been sunk by the spring of 1945, allowing for near-total Allied control of the seas around Japan. Moreover, the Japanese air force had been so thoroughly obliterated that American bombers attacked with near impunity. The routine firebombing raids over Tokyo, including the devastating attacks on March 9 and 10, 1945, that claimed 100,000 lives, exemplify this. During the period between March 9 and June 15, 1945, out of around 7,000 bombing missions, only 135 American planes were lost, underscoring the extent of American air supremacy over Japan.
Alperovitz further highlights that the Japanese had initiated peace envoy missions as early as September 1944, reaching out to figures like Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek by December 1944 and engaging with the USSR in April 1945. That the Japanese were interested in negotiating a peace was well known. Moreover, the Americans knew that there was a potential for a surrender without necessitating an invasion as early as April 1945, provided there was clarity in the surrender terms.
The argument that the bombings prevented the necessity of an invasion is undermined by the very cities that were chosen to be bombed. It is now known that as many as nine atomic bombs were proposed to be used tactically against Japanese military targets as part of a planned — though never authorized — invasion. That two of those bombs were ultimately used against cities of no particular military value is evidence that plans for an invasion had already been abandoned by August of 1945.
The potential for a massive confrontation between the Red Army and the Kwantung Army in Manchuria introduced the prospect of the Soviets seeking equal participation in subsequent conflict-ending talks. This would have positioned them to assert a stronger claim over the region, resulting in gains that could far exceed their initial claims to territories lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Consequently, the atomic bomb, instead of being used tactically, evolved into a strategic weapon of terror intended to jolt Japan into immediate surrender.
Notably, American policymakers had concluded that Soviet involvement in the war was comparable, both psychologically and militarily, to the impact of atomic weapons. The decision to drop the bombs was not driven by a military necessity to conclude the war but was deliberately undertaken to end the war on American terms and to put the United States in the best possible negotiating position.
The argument of military necessity is further undermined by the stance taken by three of the most prominent American military figures of World War II: Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with Admiral William Leahy. These leaders opposed the use of the atomic bomb against Japan because they felt it was completely unnecessary.
Bloodshed for Sunken Costs
Ronald Takaki’s 1995 book Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb concludes that some of the motivation to use the weapons was simply a consequence of the immense cost in developing them (foreshadowing Eisenhower’s later warning of the military-industrial complex).
By 1945, the Manhattan Project had taken on a life of its own, employing 120,000 people and with an associated cost of about $2 billion (roughly $34 billion, as adjusted for inflation). Takaki proposes a comparison to the contemporary US auto industry of the era. To borrow a term from modern times, the atomic bomb had become “too big to fail.”
Takaki reveals that, as the war and the development of atomic weapons progressed, the bomb’s use in combat wasn’t guaranteed. Roosevelt’s last known thought on the matter was that the bomb could be used against Germany or Japan, if necessary, yet he proposed a preliminary demonstration in order to give the Japanese the opportunity to reconsider American terms for surrender. This approach was the option preferred by 46 percent of 150 Manhattan Project physicists polled in the summer of 1945.
Takaki’s findings also reveal that both Truman and General George Marshall were aware, well before the decision to deploy the bombs, that the frequently cited casualty estimate of up to a million for a Japanese Home Islands invasion was inaccurate. Contrary to the purported concern for minimizing avoidable loss of life, it was widely acknowledged among the highest ranks of the Allied command that bombing operations — whether in Germany or Japan — were becoming increasingly lethal and predominantly impacting civilian populations. A 1946 Bombing Survey confirmed the remarkable success of the bombing campaign, supporting the assessment that Japan would have surrendered prior to November 1 1945 (the date of a proposed invasion of Kyushu), without the need for atomic weapons or Soviet entry into the conflict.
It was known at the time that both Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev wanted to ensure the Soviet Union a place at the bargaining table and were concerned the war would end before Soviet forces could play their role. Consequently, 1.5 million Soviet troops crossed into Manchuria on August 9, 1945, the day Nagasaki was bombed. The American strategy to use atomic weapons as a means to force greater cooperation thus failed, as Stalin responded to the bombings by ordering his own scientists to redouble their efforts to catch up to the United States in the development of atomic weapons.
Truman’s advisors thought the United States would enjoy a decade-long “atomic monopoly” that would provide them with a diplomatic master card for the immediate postwar era. However, this decision inadvertently paved the way for the atomic arms race, as the Soviets successfully detonated their own nuclear weapon only four years after the war’s end.
From Tactical Weapons to Global Game Changers
The atomic bombings stand as a strategic misstep and a moral catastrophe. Historians claim that, at the time, there was a near consensus on two points: first, that the atomic bombs were unnecessary both for hastening the war’s end and avoiding a Japanese invasion; and second, that Truman and his advisors were well aware of viable alternatives to targeting civilian populations with the bombs. Despite this understanding, some historians have argued that had Truman refrained from using the weapons, he might have faced impeachment due to the exorbitant project costs incurred.
The figure of “one million casualties” has long been used as a prominent justification for the atomic bombings, but its repeated invocation lacks verifiable grounding. The origin of this figure can be traced back to Stimson’s 1947 atomic bomb defense, published in Harper’s Magazine. However, in Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Philip Nobile reveals that Stimson’s essay underwent significant revisions by McGeorge Bundy and James B. Conant. These individuals, both influential in the early Cold War and nuclear weapons development, orchestrated the writing of Stimson’s defense.
Nobile notes that Barton J. Bernstein, the eminent Stanford historian and Cold War specialist, discovered files from the Joint War Plans Committee. These files indicated that various invasion scenarios would have resulted in as few as forty-six thousand casualties, casting further doubt on the widely cited “one million casualties” claim.
Princeton historian Michael D. Gordin argues that the atomic bombs not only transformed warfare, but that they themselves transformed in the moment of detonation. Initially conceived of as tactical weapons that were simply more destructive firebombs, they emerged from the terrible blast as strategic weapons that had the power to end conflicts and alter the course of geopolitics.
In Gordin’s view, the atomic bomb was as much a surprise to the Japanese as it was to the Americans. He argues that US military commanders failed to properly appreciate the bomb’s profound strategic significance. If this was the case, it seems unlikely that the foreknowledge existed about the bomb’s capability to swiftly and unconditionally force surrender. Gordin argues that a sizable group of American decision-makers did not believe that the bomb had the power to end the war immediately because they weren’t certain the bomb would work.
Moreover, the understanding of what “worked” meant, regarding atomic bombs, evolved over time. Initially, atomic bombs were simply seen as more potent versions of conventional bombs, intended for tactical use in Japan’s invasion or as a display of advanced American military prowess. No one could foresee that these weapons would possess the power to not only end the conflict swiftly but also alter the global geopolitical landscape. This shift in perception occurred only after the bombs were used, transforming atomic weapons from tactical tools to strategic instruments of an entirely new nature.
Gordin also points out that it was impossible to know, in August of 1945, that the atomic attacks on Japan would the first and — hopefully — last offensive use of nuclear weapons. Because this is the case, the uniqueness of the atomic bombings only increases with every year that passes, thus continuing the transformation of the atom bombs into something wholly unlike any other weapon ever used.
The Shift From Firebombing to World-Ending
It is precisely because atomic bombs were considered nothing more than more powerful versions of existing weaponry that we then must reconsider the Anglo-American firebombing campaigns that characterize the end of World War II. These campaigns were specifically and deliberately aimed at the destruction of cities and their civilian populations.
The atomic bombs were not initially considered as revolutionary weapons requiring extensive deliberation. Instead, they were seen as more powerful versions of existing weapons, integrated into a broader bombing campaign aimed at stunning Japan into unconditional surrender. Remarkably, the vast majority of Japanese casualties were a result of the American-led firebombing campaign. It’s notable that the Anglo-American allies specifically excluded area bombing from being deemed a prosecutable war crime, formalizing this agreement on August 8, 1945 — just two days after the bombing of Hiroshima and a day ahead of the bombing of Nagasaki.
The use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945 constituted a war crime by any objective measure. And we’ve all been living with the ethical and moral consequences ever since — consequences that have contributed significantly to the complex phenomenon of American exceptionalism. While the United States currently warns against the potential use of nuclear arms by others, it is crucial to acknowledge that to date, it is solely the United States that has employed them — and without justifiable cause.
Contrary to the notion of achieving a “nuclear peace” and resolving conflicts, the aftermath has led the world into a prolonged state of precarious uncertainty spanning almost eight decades. Redressing this imbalance and establishing a lasting peace in a world without nuclear weapons, will only come about with the eradication of the deceitful narratives employed to rationalize American war crimes. As the brief era of a unipolar world fades away, and the threat of nuclear conflict resurfaces, the importance of disarmament matters more than ever. The responsibility to lead this charge falls squarely on the shoulders of the United States, author of the horror that inaugurated the nuclear age.