Documents & Debates: The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bombs

August 9, 2023

Documents & Debates: The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bombs

On August 6th, 1945, America dropped the first atomic bomb used in war on Hiroshima, Japan. It followed this three days later when another bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito announced, on 15 August, that Japan would surrender unconditionally, and on 2 September the instrument of surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay onboard the USS Missouri.

For several decades, there was widespread acceptance of their necessity to end the war and prevent further loss of life. However, the narrative shifted in the mid-1960s, sparking a controversy that continues to this day. A turning point was the Enola Gay controversy in 1995, which marked a clash between the old narrative and new interpretations fueled by additional information gained since the mid-1990s. Examining this issue requires consideration of both its moral and strategic/military dimensions.

To grasp the moral aspects of the atomic bombings, it is crucial to consider the broader context of civilian casualties during World War II. Richard Frank highlights the staggering numbers: for every Japanese civilian death, there were approximately 18 other deaths, primarily of Asians, especially Chinese. Recognizing this broader perspective reframes the discussion and prompts a consideration of the lives imperiled by Japan’s actions.

Contrary to the commonly held notion that the bombs primarily saved American lives, it becomes clear that they also spared the lives of countless civilians across Asia. From the American political standpoint, the focus was understandably on the well-being of American citizens. However, when examined from the perspective of scholars in other Asian nations, the bombings are viewed as a deliverance that halted an ongoing wave of death and suffering.

From a strategic standpoint, although the Japanese government recognized the dire state of the war by 1944, surrender was a concept that deeply conflicted with Japan’s historical warrior culture. A secret war diary revealed the acknowledgment of a potential loss, but surrender remained a challenge due to the nation’s deeply ingrained aversion to capitulation. Additionally, it is essential to understand the extent to which the Japanese military held sway over the civilian government.

In January 1945, the Japanese formulated a strategy called ketsugo, which involved first inflicting significant casualties on an anticipated American invasion of Southern Kyushu and then transitioning to a diplomatic phase. The Japanese military was convinced that by defeating this initial invasion, they could force a favorable negotiation. This approach, however, was founded on a misperception of American casualties, intentions, and resolve.

The full story of the Japanese buildup on Kyushu and their strategic miscalculation became clear only after the release of critical intelligence material in the mid-1990s. This material included two main streams of information: one focused on military developments in Japan and the other on diplomatic exchanges. These insights provided a deeper understanding of Japan’s strategy and its implications for the wartime narrative. Simply put, the debates over the intervening decades have suffered from a lack of essential intelligence about how the Japanese saw the war and how they believed America would respond to Japanese defensive operations on the home islands.

Dr. John Moser and historian Richard Frank discuss this story in today’s episode of The American Idea, shedding necessary light on a debate that has been largely based on incomplete knowledge of the facts and faulty narratives.

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