Did the Atomic Bomb End the Pacific War? – Part IIHistorians/History
tags: Cold War, Hiroshima, Japan, human rights, Harry Truman, atomic bomb, Nagasaki, World War 2
Paul Ham is the author of Hiroshima Nagasaki, as well as two histories that examine Japanese atrocities during the Pacific War: Sandakan and Kokoda. He teaches at SciencesPo and at the École de Guerre in France.
For Part I of this article, published August 2, 2020, see here.
General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito, Tokyo, September 27, 1945
Little Boy fell out of a warm, blue sky at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945 and exploded directly above Shima Hospital, in the centre of Hiroshima, instantly killing all patients, doctors and nurses. The heatwave charred every living thing within a 500-meter radius, and burnt flesh to the bone at 2 kilometers. Those who saw the flash within this circle did not live to experience their blindness.
The ground temperature ranged briefly from 3000 to 4000 degrees Celsius; iron melts at 1535 degrees Celsius. Water in tanks and ponds boiled. Trees exploded. Tiles melted. Shock and blast waves rippled over the city, punched the innards out of buildings and homes, and bore the detritus on the nuclear wind. Some 75,000 people, mostly civilian men, women and children, were killed that day, about 25,000 fewer than perished in one night during the firebombing of Tokyo.
Honkawa National Elementary School was 350 meters west of the detonation. It was completely razed, and all except two of its 400 children killed immediately. Most of the victims were incinerated where they played in the playground. In total, that morning, the bomb burnt, blasted and/or irradiated to death some 8,500 school children aged between 12-17.
Tens of thousands of survivors would later undergo multiple skin grafts to rebuild their bodies and faces. Parents of children monstrously disfigured by the bomb removed all mirrors from their homes. In coming years more than 200,000 people would succumb to burns, radiation sickness and/or cancers: death by bomb-related leukemias would peak in the early 1950s.
At first, Tokyo’s leaders refused to believe that America had dropped an atomic bomb. No photos of the mushroom cloud or devastated city were then available; television, of course, did not exist.
The official line, dispatched on the night of August 6th, was that waves of US bombers had struck the city. This squared with the experience of millions of people; a day earlier, American leaflets had warned 12 mid-size Japanese cities of their imminent destruction (Hiroshima, being preserved for the atomic attack, was not among them).
The next day the full Japanese cabinet met in the Tokyo bunker. The Foreign Minister, Shigenori Togo, the most reasonable man in the room, had satisfied himself that Truman was telling the truth: the bomb was indeed atomic. He argued for a swift surrender in line with the Potsdam Declaration.
Togo’s position met with fierce dissent; the war faction, led by Anami, insisted they await the results of the investigation into the weapon.
As the truth emerged, far from being “shocked into submission,” as US politicians and press later claimed, Anami and his fellow hardliners dismissed the atomic threat. Togo was sidelined, his proposed course of surrender not even listed as an agenda item for further discussion.
The three hardliners persisted in their delusion that fighting on would force negotiations – over Japan’s claim on Manchuria, a right to conduct their own war crimes trials and other pie-in-the-sky notions that bore no connection with reality.
To them, another city had died in a country that had hitherto suffered the loss of every major city. The elderly, hard-of-hearing Prime Minister Suzuki acquiesced in the hardliners’ course, and pledged to fight on.
A more ominous threat, in Tokyo’s eyes, had been gathering for weeks on the Soviet side of the border with Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The Russians underscored their deadly intentions on July 28, when Tokyo received news of a further 381 eastbound Soviet military trains, carrying 170,000 troops, hundreds of guns and tanks, and – vital for an invasion – 300 barges, 83 pontoon bridges and 2,900 horses.
That should have alerted the Big Six to the fantasy of Stalin’s neutrality. Over the past four months more than a million Red Army troops and tons of materiel had travelled more than 6,000 miles to the Pacific theater, in one of the greatest military redeployments in the history of war.
The Russians sharply accelerated their mobilization after the Kremlin received news of the destruction of Hiroshima. It infuriated Stalin that his supposed allies had excluded him from the ultimatum to Japan.
The Soviet leader now accurately construed the bomb as an act of hostility, or certainly a warning, directed in part towards the Soviet Union. No doubt Byrnes had intended the bomb as a means of managing Russian aggression; the word “deterrent” would await the Cold War.
Most of all, Stalin feared the loss of prizes supposedly agreed upon at Yalta back in February: “Russia’s own self-interests now demand that she actually share in the victory,” warned a US “Magic” Intelligence Summary in late July, “and it seems certain that she will intervene ... although it is impossible to say when.”
“When” was right then: early on August 9th, Japan time, Tokyo received news of the Soviet declaration of war, shocking the Big Six out of their dreams of Russian neutrality. For once, the three moderates had the upper hand. For once, they could impose on the hardliners.
Togo again urged them to surrender in accordance with Potsdam’s terms, with one condition: “that the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration shall not have any influence on the position of the Imperial House.”
Hirohito’s life and throne must be preserved come hell or high water – or nuclear war!
The moderates decided on a desperate move to overrule the hardliners: they would privately seek Hirohito’s support. At 7:00 am Prime Minister Suzuki requested a meeting with the divine presence.
Rarely did Japanese prime ministers meet His Majesty in person, and never at such short notice. But these were perilous times: Japan was being invaded, and the Russians were coming. All dreaded a communist foothold on the homeland!
His Majesty listened. The Soviet invasion was uppermost in the discussion, the atomic destruction of Hiroshima barely mentioned and of little importance. Hirohito agreed to intervene to press Japan to accept the terms of Potsdam, on the condition that his dynasty be preserved. Far better to surrender to the “least bad” enemy – the Americans - than risk the prospect of a communist invasion.
Suzuki scheduled an immediate meeting of the Supreme Council and the full cabinet for 10:00 am that day, to discuss the terms of a surrender. None was aware that an hour later the B-29 Bockscar, bearing the plutonium bomb, would reach Nagasaki.
As the bombing of Nagasaki incinerated Japan’s largest Christian community, the Japanese leaders droned on about how they could continue prosecuting the war.
The Soviet invasion was their chief concern; Hiroshima was hardly mentioned. They were unaware of the fate of Nagasaki.
The moderates insisted that the Russian attack gave Japan no choice: surrender they must, but save Hirohito. When Suzuki later heard that the Russians had overrun the Imperial Army in Manchuria, he responded: “Is the Kwantung Army that weak? Then the game is up.”
And yet the two factions were again divided. The war faction would surrender only if America honored four conditions: preserve the Imperial house; permit Japanese forces voluntarily to withdraw; let the Japanese government try alleged war criminals; and agree not to occupy the Japanese homeland.
The moderates knew these conditions were fantasies, but the militants, Anami, Umezu and Toyoda, controlled the armed forces, whose officer class continued ferociously to resist any talk of surrender on pain of death to anyone who capitulated.
The obliteration of Hiroshima had done nothing to persuade the Japanese militarists to lay down their weapons; they scorned the bomb as a barbaric and cowardly attack on defenseless civilians.
Interrupting this epic debate, a messenger arrived. He bowed low and brought news of Nagasaki’s destruction - by another “special bomb.” The Big Six paused, acknowledged the news, and resumed their discussion about the Soviet invasion.
The messenger bowed apologetically and was sent on his way. Nagasaki, like Hiroshima, had barely scratched the surface of Tokyo’s glacial deliberations.
“[N]o record ... treated the effect [of the Nagasaki bomb] seriously,” noted the official history of Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters.
The meeting ended in a stalemate: neither side gave ground. What, then, were they to do? Only the descendant of the Sun Goddess could break the impasse.
At 11:50 pm that night, August 9th, the Emperor, the Big Six and Baron Kiichiro Hiranuma, an extreme nationalist and President of the Privy Council, met in the Imperial shelter. Each wore formal morning wear or a carefully pressed military uniform. They carried white handkerchiefs and sweltered in the badly ventilated shelter.
Cabinet Secretary Sakomizu read the Potsdam Declaration. The reading was “very hard,” he later wrote, “because the contents were not cheerful things to read [to] the Emperor.”
One by one the Big Six gave their opinions. The fear of Russia, not atomic bombs, guided the debate. The hawks’ four conditions must be met, warned War Minister Anami, whose complete control of the army fortified his desertion from reality. None dared challenge him.
Anami concluded his speech with a death sentence: “We should live up to our cause even if our hundred million people have to die ... I am sure we are well prepared for a decisive battle on our mainland even against the United States.”
“I absolutely agree,” chimed in the equally belligerent Umezu, Chief of Army General Staff. “Although the Soviet entry into the war is disadvantageous... we are still not in a situation where we should be forced to agree to an unconditional surrender.” He insisted on the four conditions “at the minimum.”
The wretchedness of the Japanese people impinged little on this samurai elite, spellbound by the whisper of the ancestral Bushido code “to die!”
“The sudden death of ten key men [who led Japan] would have meant more than the instant annihilation of ten thousand subjects,” noted the historian Robert Butow: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in another world.”
In this light, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did nothing to dent the Japanese regime’s determination to defend the homeland, and later perversely fueled their craving for an honorable defeat: they would withstand even nuclear Armageddon!
A little after 2am, Prime Minister Suzuki rose, bowed to His Highness and made a statement that changed the course of Japanese history: “The situation is urgent ... I am therefore proposing to ask the Emperor his own wish [seidan – sacred judgment]. His wish should settle the issue, and the government should follow it.”
Under Japanese custom, the Emperor did not decide anything “by himself.” He was expected to follow the government’s advice rather than suffer the indignity of speaking his mind. Only once previously, in 1936, had Hirohito been asked to intervene in state affairs, to quash an officers’ uprising. Now the Voice of the Sacred Crane was prevailed upon to speak again: what the Emperor said would end or prolong the war.
The peace faction, however, had laid the groundwork and knew the Emperor’s mind.
Hirohito leaned forward and said: “I have the same opinion as the Foreign Minister… the time has come to bear the unbearable, in order to save the people from disaster...”
That is, Japan should surrender in line with Potsdam’s terms, on condition that the Imperial House be permitted to exist.
A white-gloved hand wiped away His Majesty’s tears. “We have heard your august thought,” said Suzuki, sobbing.
Hirohito departed. Suzuki moved that His Majesty’s “personal desire” be adopted as “the decision of this conference.” For the first time, the war faction was effectively silenced.
Hirohito had deigned to express his feelings, not to instruct his subjects. Nor had the Emperor mentioned the atomic bombs or their victims. The preservation of the Imperial line, and the specter of the Russian occupation of Japan, permeated the debate.
Domei News dispatched Tokyo’s formal surrender to Washington via the Swiss Chargé d’Affaires in Berne. American radio picked up the message at 7:30 am on August 10 – a day, incidentally, when Admiral Halsey’s carrier-borne planes subjected Japan to “the most nerve-wracking demonstration of the whole war”: the sustained obliteration of many of Japan’s remaining war factories and airfields.
So the war was over? Not yet…
Japan’s insistence on that single condition – the Emperor’s right to exist - perplexed Truman and his cabinet, committed as they were to extracting unconditional surrender.
The President canvassed his colleagues’ views. Should they accept the condition?
Yes, said a near-consensus: Henry Stimson, the war secretary, explained that America needed Hirohito to pacify the Imperial army and avoid “a score of bloody Iwo Jimas and Okinawas…”
No, said Byrnes. The wily Secretary of State saw no reason openly to accept the Japanese demand, for which a furious American public would “crucify” the president. Why, Byrnes, asked, should we offer the Japanese easier terms now that the Allies possessed bigger sticks, chiefly the atomic bomb?
Byrnes understood the Emperor’s value in managing post-war Japan. He agreed the Imperial House should be allowed to exist. But it should be seen to exist at America’s pleasure, not at Japan’s insistence.
“Ate lunch at my desk,” Truman noted later, mightily pleased with Byrnes’ contribution: “They wanted to make a condition precedent to the surrender ... They wanted to keep the Emperor. We told ’em we’d tell ’em how to keep him, but we’d make the terms.”
However Truman dressed it up, here was the first presidential admission that America would accept a conditional peace.
To achieve it, Byrnes recast the US compromise as a demand: the “Byrnes Note,” a little masterpiece of amenable diktat, written on a single sheet, demanded an end to the Japanese military regime while promising the people self- government; stripped Hirohito of his powers as warlord while re- crowning him “peacemaker” … in the service of America:
“From the moment of the surrender,” the Note stated, “the authority of the Emperor shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.”
That was exactly what Tokyo’s moderates were desperate to hear: confirmation that their Emperor would live, which, had it been offered earlier, would surely have given them the best weapon, and Hirohito’s support, to defeat the hawks.
The Byrnes Note flashed to Tokyo, via Switzerland, on August 11th, and the wait began: “We are all on edge waiting for the Japs to surrender,” Truman wrote. “This has been a hell of a day.”
Before the Note arrived, the Japanese War Ministry was in a ferocious mood. That day Anami issued an explosive exhortation to arms: “Even though we may have to eat grass, swallow dirt and lie in the fields, we shall fight on to the bitter end, ever firm in our faith that we shall find life in death.”
No sign there of Japanese submission. The people’s spirit would prevail, even after Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s annihilation, even against a nuclear-armed America.
On 12th August, Tokyo Radio issued orders to the people – “Defenses Against the New Bomb” – on how to withstand a nuclear attack: civilians were told to strengthen their shelters and “flee to them at the first sight of a parachute” (a reference to the parachute attached to technical instruments dropped in advance of the weapon).
The cities of Kyushu should expect to be atom-bombed “one after another”; the island’s ten million spiritual weapons (that is, the people) must stand and fight America’s “beastliness.”
Gloves, headgear, trousers and long-sleeved shirts made of “thick cloth” should be worn at all times; “stay away from window glass even if the shutters are pulled down”; carry emergency air-defense first-aid kits, with burn ointment.
Girding the nation for atomic war, Governor Nagano of Nagasaki commissioned the design of a special “field cap,” rather like a ski-cap, with flaps over the ears and a visor over the eyes to protect civilians “from the terrific blast and high heat” of future atomic bombs.
Radio broadcasts promoted the miraculous resurrection of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose people had recovered phoenix-like from the ashes: the citizens of Nagasaki were “rising again all over the city with resolute determination.”
The volunteer corps were working with “tears in their eyes and determination for revenge.” Miss Shizuko Mori, 21, offered a shining example: hadn’t the Nagasaki telephonist stayed at her post after the blast and, ignoring the deaths of members of her family, continued to connect the lights on her console? “I shall fight through even though I remain the only one alive,” she was quoted as saying.
Into this deluded world fell the Byrnes Note. While granting the moderates what they wanted, it perversely strengthened hardline resistance: Umezu and Toyoda argued at a meeting on the 12th that acceptance would “desecrate the Emperor’s dignity” and reduce Japan to a “slave nation.”
So Tokyo fiddled as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burnt, irradiated and blown away.
On the morning of the 13th, determined to break the impasse once and for all, Prime Minister Suzuki convened what proved to be the final meeting of the War Council. The six ministers ruminated for five hours, lapsing into arcane digressions – “we should accept in a spirit of a worm that bends itself” – among ancient references to samurai glory.
Reality loitered like an unwelcome ghost, laying a chill hand on the saner officials: Togo grasped the point of the Byrnes Note, insofar as it preserved the life of the Emperor, even if it stripped him of his divine power. Togo urged an immediate surrender.
Anami was furious: accepting the Byrnes Note would destroy Japan, he snapped. The weight of his conflicting loyalties – to Emperor and army – plunged the War Minister into incoherent bluster, the last, bitter gasps of a broken man.
They decided to ask Hirohito for another go-seidan, or “sacred judgment.” Hirohito, no doubt relieved that he would not be hanged as a war criminal, swiftly obliged: Japan must bear the unbearable and end the war.
Anami was silenced once and for all. He would never defy the wishes of his Emperor. The next day he committed seppuku, or ritual disembowelment; scores of officers imitated his example.
At 11 pm on August 13th Tokyo telegraphed Japan’s acceptance of the Byrnes Note – in effect, a conditional surrender - to Bern and Stockholm, thence to the four Allied powers.
The Emperor repaired to his office to record his famous speech announcing Japan’s defeat. His address to a spellbound, traumatized nation never used the word “surrender.” On the contrary, the Japanese had suffered the loss of a great ideal. Forces beyond their control had thwarted Tokyo’s benign motives… Herein lay the genesis of the myth of Japanese “victimhood.”
There was another reason why Tokyo had “decided” to end the war, the Emperor said. “[T]he enemy had begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.”
The Emperor, the cabinet, and the Big Six had hardly acknowledged the atomic bomb during their endless debates. Only Togo had pressed for a direct surrender to the weapon, but was swiftly trounced.
The stick that hastened Japan’s surrender was the Soviet invasion on August 9th; the carrot was the Byrnes Note of August 11th, and its effective promise to preserve the Imperial line.
Yet perversely the bomb now made its official, public debut: Hirohito’s phrase, “a most cruel bomb,” consoled the Japanese people and portrayed Japan as the wronged nation, even victim. The weapon handed Japan a chance to claim the moral high ground and “save face.”
If anyone doubts this, listen to what Hirohito had to say two days later, when he gave another speech of “surrender” – again, he never used the word - to the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Imperial forces. In urging them to lay down their weapons, the Emperor gave a single reason:
“Now that the Soviet Union has entered the war against us, to continue [fighting] … would be only to increase needlessly the ravages of war to the point of endangering the very foundation of the Empire’s existence.” This speech did not mention the bomb.
In the eyes of the Japanese forces, then, the decisive factor in their surrender was the Soviet invasion, combined with America’s acceptance of Tokyo’s condition that Hirohito’s life and dynasty be spared.
So what in fact did Little Boy and Fat Man achieve?
The atomic bombs had not “shocked Japan into submission,” as Washington later claimed and many people still think.
The bombs did not secure unconditional surrender.
Nor had the weapon saved the lives of a million American servicemen. Truman had effectively shelved the invasion plan, regardless of whether the bomb worked. He could not say this after the war because it would have emasculated the fiction, peddled by the press, that the bomb “saved a million lives,” implying 3-4 million servicemen dead, missing and wounded.
Incidentally, the “one million” casualty figure made its first official appearance in an article in Harper’s magazine, in February 1947, bearing the signature of former War Secretary Henry Stimson, who was pressed to sign it: “I was informed that [the invasion of Japan] might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone.” His claim served its desired effect: to soothe rising public disquiet over the use of the bomb.
In the end, the combination of the Russian invasion, the crippling US air war and naval blockade, and, most decisively, the Byrnes Note’s implicit promise to let Hirohito live, compelled Japan to surrender.
The bomb did, however, achieve this: it brought forward by a fortnight the Soviet invasion and gave Hirohito a propaganda prop to justify his country’s surrender, and the regime face-saving solace in their defeat.
Let us call the bomb what it was, for now and all time. By any objective definition – legal, philosophical, Christian - it was a war crime, committed by a small group of American politicians, generals and scientists who set aside two Japanese cities for nuclear destruction, both of which were overwhelmingly populated by civilians, mostly women and children, the old, the sick and the wounded.
Those of a soulless legal bent will argue that no international treaty specifically protected civilians from attack by aircraft during World War Two, so the nuclear strikes as well as the “conventional” terror bombings that targeted residential areas in Japanese and German cities were not officially war crimes.
This is mere brutish sophistry, all letter and no spirit. The first Geneva Convention of 1864 called for the “protection of persons not or no longer taking part in hostilities” and every subsequent UN convention has outlawed deliberate attacks on civilians.
Many people continue to swear blindly that the bombs alone ended the war, that they were America’s “least abhorrent” choice, and that they saved a million or more lives. These are plainly false propositions, salves to uneasy consciences over what was actually done on August 6th and 9th, 1945 when, under a summer sky, without warning, hundreds of thousands of civilian men, women and children felt the sun fall on their heads.
Taken together, or alone, the reasons offered in defense of the bomb do not justify the massacre of civilians. We debase ourselves, and the history of civilization, if we accept that Japanese atrocities warranted an American atrocity in reply.
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