World History 2 232 - 13.4.2 Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Early in 1945, the Japanese army and navy agreed to adopt the first joint operational plan in their histories. Operation Ten-go (“heaven”) called for suicide attacks by land and air units for defense in the Pacific, and a month later these attacks were combined with the shukketsu (“bleeding”) strategy in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Throughout the war, the Japanese had believed that high casualties would dishearten U.S. troops, who they felt could not tolerate suffering and loss. On Iwo Jima, the Japanese sacrificed twenty-one thousand soldiers and inflicted twenty-six thousand casualties on U.S. Marines (seven thousand were killed and the rest wounded). But the U.S. troops persisted and again absorbed high casualties as they later captured Okinawa. Japan’s struggle for Okinawa included the use of the island’s civilians, resulting in the death of 100,000 and demonstrating the resolve to be expected from the Japanese in defense of their main islands (Figure 13.18).

In this black and white picture, four women are laying on the floor, propped up on their elbows, looking through rifles. They are wearing dresses, stockings, and shoes. One woman is to the right of them down on one knee in a dress, holding a rifle aimed up. There is a woman in a dress to her right standing up and aiming her rifle straight out. Surrounding the women are three Japanese military personnel in uniforms, looking down at the women. Behind them all in a semi-circle are standing many other women in dresses observing. In the background on the right there is a short wall and five of the women are looking over the wall into the trees and land behind the wall. Another woman is leaning against the wall looking at the group of women standing watching those with the rifles.
Figure 13.18 Japanese female students receive weapons training in 1945. (credit: “Kokumin Giyutai” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The slogan gyokusai (“honorable death”), combined with shukketsu and commitment to the emperor, was exemplified by the kamikaze or suicide pilots, essentially human bombs trying to fend off U.S. naval forces. In the face of such near-fanatical defensive efforts, U.S. secretary of war Henry L. Stimson and General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff, estimated that an invasion of Japan could cost between 500,000 and one million U.S. casualties and last well into 1946. President Truman was briefed on these estimates, and they were widely discussed among the military planning circles and staff. Japan’s leaders, however, refused to consider an unconditional surrender that, among other things, may have led to the emperor’s being tried for war crimes. They came to the conclusion that an invasion of the home islands was inevitable. Private and secret initiatives were floated to persuade the Soviet Union to mediate with the United States and Britain to end the war.

Between July 17 and August 2, 1945, the final Allied summit conference took place at Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin. This time, Harry S. Truman replaced the late Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill was replaced by Britain’s newly elected prime minister Clement Attlee. Truman was already troubled by Soviet actions in Europe. He disliked the concessions Roosevelt had made that allowed the Soviets to install a communist government in Poland. He also disapproved of Stalin’s plans, made known at the Yalta Conference, to demand large reparations from Germany. Truman feared the resulting burden on Germany might lead to another cycle of rearmament and aggression.

After issuing a demand for the unconditional surrender of Japan, the conference turned toward the fate of postwar Europe. The Allied leaders agreed to demilitarize Germany and to divide the conquered nation and its capital of Berlin into four occupation zones: three in the west to be controlled by Britain, France, and the United States, and one in the east for the USSR. An Allied Control Council was created to administer occupied Germany, though the choice to make the council’s decisions unanimous later proved unrealistic. The German economy was to be decentralized and focused on agriculture and nonmilitary industries.

The debates about reparations stemming from the Yalta Conference were settled with a plan to exchange Germany’s western industrial production for its eastern agricultural production. In practice, however, this plan led to economic policies being instituted and managed by zones rather than for the nation as a whole, creating further disunity among the Allies. Finally, a program of denazification for Germany and Austria was confirmed that included punishment of war criminals. The settlement of the final borders of Poland was postponed, but Britain and the United States agreed to the transfer of designated German territory to Poland.

Truman had known little about the Manhattan Project before becoming president and now relied on the advice of his experts. They shared a widely held faith in the justice of the U.S. cause and accepted technological approaches to ending the war. Informed of the success of the Trinity Test while at the conference, Truman noted his thinking about using the bomb in his July 25, 1945, diary entry. He favored using it only against military targets, not civilian ones:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10. I have told the secretary of war, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.

The bomb was used, first against Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and three days later on Nagasaki, both cities populated by civilians including women and children.

A variety of factors likely influenced Truman in making his decision. The desire to save American lives perhaps played the greatest role. The desire to justify the expense of the Manhattan Project also likely influenced him. Some have suggested that Truman hoped to demonstrate to the Soviet Union the technological superiority of the United States. Others believe that a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor also played a role. Some have suggested that a long history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States made the use of the atomic bomb against Japan seem less horrific than its use against Europeans would have been.

Dueling Voices

Dropping the Atomic Bomb

When it became clear that the Manhattan Project had been successful, a panel of scientists led by Robert Oppenheimer, the project’s head, made recommendations about the weapon they had created in a report dated June 16, 1945. A month later, physicist Leo Szilard and sixty-nine other scientists and technicians at the Manhattan Project’s Chicago laboratory petitioned President Truman to use caution when deciding how to deploy the bomb.

The initial use of the new weapon . . . in our opinion, should be such as to promote a satisfactory adjustment of our international relations. At the same time, we recognize our obligation to our nation to use the weapons to help save American lives in the Japanese war.

(1) To accomplish these ends we recommend that before the weapons are used not only Britain, but also Russia, France, and China be advised that we have made considerable progress in our work on atomic weapons, that these may be ready to use during the present war, and that we would welcome suggestions as to how we can cooperate in making this development contribute to improved international relations.

(2) The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous . . . . Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects . . . . We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.

—Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons

The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusion and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.

If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and if Japan still refused to surrender our nation might then, in certain circumstances, find itself forced to resort to the use of atomic bombs. Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved.

The development of atomic power will provide the nations with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.

If after this war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation. . . .

The added material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.

—A Petition to the President of the United States

  • What are the points made by the two sides? Which do you think made the better argument?
  • Do the scientists seem more concerned about the bomb’s effect on the Japanese or about the consequences for the United States of using it? Explain your answer.
  • In what ways are Truman’s feelings about the bomb similar to those of Szilard and his supporters?
  • If you had been President Truman, would you have ordered the bomb to be dropped? Why or why not?

Little Boy, as the first atomic bomb was called, was dropped on Hiroshima from the U.S. bomber the Enola Gay. Survivors referred to August 6 as “the day of two suns”; the blast was so bright that it burned the shadows of victims into walls and concrete. More than seventy thousand people were killed instantly. Immediately afterward, the sky turned purple and gray, even black, from the dust and debris suspended in the air. Hundreds of wooden and paper houses were ignited. Thousands of shocked and confused people whose flesh had burned off began roaming about, almost instinctively moving toward any pool or stream of water. Over the following days, months, and even years, people continued to succumb to their wounds and injuries, bringing the total deaths to more than 100,000. Three days later, Fat Man, the second bomb, similarly descended upon Nagasaki, killing forty thousand Japanese immediately. Including the aftermath, deaths there totaled seventy thousand.

Link to Learning

Not everyone was horrified by the thought of the atomic bomb being used against Japan. But lyrics of the popular song “When the Atom Bomb Fell” reveal another perspective. The song was released in 1945 after the bomb had been dropped.

Visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to learn more about the effects of the bombing on the residents of Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, keeping the promise made at Yalta, after the bombing of Hiroshima the Soviets broke their nonaggression pact with Japan and invaded Manchukuo and Korea. Japanese defenses there quickly crumbled in the face of tens of thousands of casualties, ending any hope that the Soviets might act as an intermediary in some negotiated settlement with the Allies. Japan surrendered shortly after.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax