In August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The bombs killed as many as 135,000 people, mostly civilians. President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was one of the most controversial decisions in World War II.
As the years have passed, the controversy has intensified. More and more people both in America and aboard, have condemned both President Truman and America for that decision. This criticism of President Truman is based on limited historical knowledge. We need to look at both the situation President Truman confronted and the basis for his decision to drop the atomic bomb.
Harsh criticism of President Truman’s decision is from a flawed analysis aided by some very bad history. Some of that history was written by members of the so-called “Atomic Diplomacy” school. These controversial historians allege that Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan even though he knew Japan was on the verge of surrender. According to these so-called historians, Truman did this to intimidate the Soviet Union in the already developing Cold War.
That suspect interpretation of history be refuted fully. President Truman wanted to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima for legitimate reasons. Both cities were major military and industrial targets. He bombed the cities to avoid an American led invasion of Japan. Truman knew, in his own words, “An Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
Okinawa was the largest battle in the Pacific in World War II. The 80 day plus campaign for the island caused horrific fatalities. Casualties from the battle were over 100,000 Japanese and 50,000 Allied troops. President Truman’s assumptions and decisions on using atomic weapons on Japan were legitimate. He knew if we invaded Japan the death toll would skyrocket into the millions.
By July of 1945, the Japanese had been the targets of months of devastating attacks by American B-29s bombers. Tokyo, their capital, and other major cities had suffered extensive damage. The home islands had a naval blockade surrounding them. This made food and fuel scarce.
Japanese military and civilian losses had reached 3 million. There seemed no end in sight to the war even with the heavy casualties. Despite all this Japan’s leader, especially its military, clung to notions of honor called “Ketsu-Go” (decisive battle).
In fact, at this time, the Japanese government had mobilized a large part of the civilian population. They were brought together in a national militia that would be deployed to defend the home islands. Their mission was to slow or stop an Allied invasion even it meant death.
The Japanese military still wanted to fight on after the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese military leaders wanted to pursue the desperate option of a last stand defense.
The all-out Allied invasion plan of the Japanese home islands was called “Operation Downfall.” Estimates from casualties of past amphibious landings of Japanese held islands guessed that millions people, both Allied soldiers and Japanese civilians, would die in the invasion.
The atomic bombs forced Emperor Hirohito to understand clearly that the defense of the homeland was useless. This was something his military leaders refused to comprehend. It was the unprecedented intervention of a Japanese emperor to break the impasse of the Japanese government. Finally, Japan surrendered. The dropping of the atom bombs allowed the emperor and the Japanese government to end the war.
All other scenarios to secure an American victory would have resulted in millions of Japanese and Allied deaths. Hard as is to accept the loss of Japanese civilians would have been far greater without the dropping of the bombs. There were thousands of Allied prisoners of war that the Japanese would have killed in case of an invasion.
President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb is the least awful of all the options available to him a Commander-in-Chief. Even in retrospect, 70 plus years later, far removed from the pressures President Truman faced in 1945, his critics have no other options that would be been better and less costly in casualties.
The judgment is clear and decided. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima shortened the war, stop the need for a land invasion, and saved countless of lives, both Allied and Japanese. Finally, the atom bombs ended the Japanese brutalization of the people of Asia. Dropping the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World War II was the right decision.
Feis, H. The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.