This month marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima, Aug. 6, and Nagasaki, Aug. 9, which ended World War II.
The bombings devastated the cities, killing upward of 62,000 in Hiroshima and 39,000 in Nagasaki, and that is before counting the tens of thousands more who died from radiation poisoning later. Despite the enormous death toll, the bombings were well received at the time (by Americans) as a necessary evil, the only way to end the war with an enemy who pigheadedly refused to surrender.
The main defense you hear of the bombings is that they were the only alternative to invading the Japanese home islands. American war planners estimated the invasion would cost a quarter million to a million lives. Thus, you’ll often hear the argument that the bombings actually saved thousands of lives.
But I think this underlying premise is wrong. An invasion of Japan was not the only other option available to the U.S. There were a number of steps America could have taken instead, and did not need to drop the atomic bombs to end the war. My thinking has been influenced by reading the book “Hiroshima Nagasaki,” by Paul Ham, who explores a few different ways the war could have ended. I highly recommend the book, which you can find at the Fairfield Public Library.
Alternatives to invasion:
1) Change the surrender terms: Throughout the war, the United States told Japan it would only accept an unconditional surrender. This meant Japan would have to relinquish all land taken by conquest, and accept American occupation of Japan proper. However, it was not clear to the Japanese what unconditional surrender would mean for their emperor, whom they viewed as a god. The Japanese High Command, and its society more generally, could not stomach the thought of their emperor being put on trial in the event of an American occupation.
One member of the American government, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, understood the high esteem in which the Japanese held their emperor. He suggested softening the terms of surrender to make it clear to the Japanese that the U.S. would not prosecute the emperor. This language was included in the first draft of the Potsdam Declaration the allies issued to Japan in late July 1945 spelling out the surrender terms. But Stimson was on his way out, and was replaced by new Secretary of War James Byrnes. Byrnes removed the language about shielding the emperor in the final draft of the declaration.
The great irony is that, after the war, the U.S. spared the emperor even as it put other members of the Japanese government on trial for war crimes. If the United States had been clear all along that it would not touch Japan’s most revered leader, would Japan have surrendered earlier? It’s hard to be sure, but we can at least say this was a missed opportunity.
2) Demonstrate the bomb: One idea batted around among top American officials was inviting Japanese representatives to view a demonstration of the atomic bomb’s destructive power. Surely if the Japanese could see this new weapon at America’s disposal, they would finally come to their senses that the war was lost. Ultimately, the U.S. declined to do this partly because they did not feel it would provide the necessary motivation to surrender, and because they worried about what would happen if the bomb were a dud. Also, the U.S. had few bombs to spare. After bombing Nagasaki on Aug. 9, it didn’t have any bombs left, and didn’t expect to have the next one ready until September. Maybe the demonstration wouldn’t have worked, but here again it’s something the U.S. could have tried to end the war without further loss of life.
3) Allow Japan to surrender to someone else: Suppose Japan refused to surrender to the U.S. even after it changed the surrender terms and even after seeing evidence of America’s nuclear weapons. What then? I’ve never heard anyone argue for this third alternative, but it’s worth considering, and that is the U.S. could have just turned its ships around and gone home, even without Japan’s surrender. By the summer of 1945, Japan had long ceased to be a threat to the American homeland because its navy and air force were obliterated. Japan could muster little defense against the nightly air raids on its cities.
But if the U.S. stopped fighting Japan, wouldn’t that free Japan to rebuild its army and continue its conquest of the Pacific? I think not, and that’s because another world power was poised to stop it from doing that – the Soviet Union. The USSR had remained neutral with Japan for most of the war, but that changed on Aug. 8, 1945, two days after the bombing of Hiroshima, when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and proceeded to overrun Japanese fortifications in Manchuria.
In the absence of American forces, I suspect Japan would have negotiated a surrender with the USSR. It’s possible the USSR would have invaded Japan, but I find that unlikely given the huge costs involved.
To be clear, this would have been a risky decision. The Soviet Union was a brutal government that committed many atrocities in Eastern Europe, so allowing it to take command of the Pacific would have meant more people would suffer under its boot. Perhaps Japan would have become a Soviet puppet state. Perhaps it would have remained a military dictatorship instead of turning into a liberal democracy as it did under American occupation. We will never know. But let’s not forget that the decision to drop the bombs was also a gamble. After all, the U.S. had already firebombed dozens of other cities, and yet Japan had still refused to surrender. Why should destroying the cities by other means make a difference?
When faced with the prospect of killing tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, the alternative doesn’t have to be good to be better. Killing is the worst thing a person can do to another, only justified under the most extreme circumstances. Leveling whole cities full of people would require overwhelming evidence that the alternatives would be much worse, and I don’t think that was true in August 1945.