The official justification for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was set out by Henry Stimson, the former US secretary of war, in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s. There had been ‘no other choice’, he said. Had the bombs not been dropped, a bloody invasion of Japan would have been inevitable, and might have ‘cost over a million casualties to the American forces alone’. But in the atomic bomb the US possessed ‘a weapon of such a revolutionary character that its use against the enemy might well be expected to produce exactly the kind of shock on the Japanese ruling oligarchy which we desired, strengthening the position of those who wished peace, and weakening that of the military party’.
The article was written in urgent response to a growing public feeling, unwelcome to those who had presided over the development and use of the atomic bomb, that the nuclear attacks had been unnecessary to Japan’s defeat and had brought horrific suffering to a vast number of civilians. In July 1946 the US Strategic Bombing Survey had concluded that – thanks to the destruction of its economy by conventional bombing and a comprehensive blockade – ‘in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.’ Eminent scientists, including Einstein, had issued statements deploring the use of the bomb, while the 31 August 1946 issue of the New Yorker had been entirely devoted to John Hersey’s unsparing account of what the nuclear attack had meant for civilians in Hiroshima. Stimson’s 7300-word testimonial – which was in fact written by McGeorge Bundy, later national security adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, with input and edits from a number of senior officials intimately involved with the Manhattan Project – was an authoritative counterattack, and it was entirely successful. The message that the bomb had saved a million American lives, in the words of the historian Paul Ham, ‘put the American mind at ease, [and] slipped into folklore’. When, in 1994, the Smithsonian Institution announced plans to exhibit Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber which had destroyed Hiroshima, along with contextual commentary casting doubt on the necessity and morality of the mission, there was a storm of outraged protest and the exhibition was cancelled. Even today, conversations on the topic with otherwise well-informed Americans tend to elicit reminiscences of how fathers and other relatives, veterans of the Pacific and European wars, had nurtured mordant expectations that they wouldn’t survive the prospective invasion of the Japanese home islands. They had been saved by the atomic bombs that had brought about Japan’s surrender.
But Stimson, or his ghostwriter, had been highly selective in the evidence presented. There was no mention of the debate in the summer of 1945 among senior US officials over whether to modify the demand for unconditional Japanese surrender, which US intelligence had reported was the principal reason the enemy were refusing to throw in the towel. Military estimates of potential US casualties from an invasion had been far lower than a million. Nor did the article make reference to the argument among officials about whether to give the Japanese warning of the impending nuclear attack, or to stage a demonstration of the bomb’s power, rather than killing hundreds of thousands of people. Stimson’s claim that the bombs had ‘destroyed active working parts of the Japanese war effort’ was not true: they had deliberately been aimed at people’s homes.
The Harper’s article was so successful in instilling the notion of a million lives saved that dissenting statements, even from eminent military authorities, failed to gain traction. ‘The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan,’ Admiral William Leahy, wartime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his 1950 memoir. ‘The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.’ Eisenhower later said it had been his belief at the time ‘that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary’. At one time or another almost all the senior American commanders in the Pacific war voiced similar sentiments. Among them was Carter Clarke, a former brigadier general who declared to an interviewer in 1959 that ‘when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it … we used [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] as an experiment for two atomic bombs.’ Clarke spoke with particular authority. During the war, he had headed the Special Branch of the Military Intelligence Service, set up in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This secret group had the sole responsibility for analysing intercepted enemy communications, including high-level Japanese discussions indicating growing despair in the last months of the war. As Clarke once put it to me, ‘They were having kittens with bonnets on!’
But next door to the closely guarded Special Branch office in the Pentagon was another office, equally well guarded: that of the Manhattan Project. Neither group knew of the other’s existence. So when the news broke, via an announcement by Truman, of the bombing of Hiroshima, complete with promises of more to come, the reaction among Clarke’s supremely well-informed intelligence officers was shock and outrage. When I talked to them forty years later, veterans of the organisation recalled the shouts of ‘Why?’ and ‘How could they do that?’ echoing round the office.
By the time I interviewed them, in the 1980s, the official story had already come under attack from scholars. The historian Gar Alperovitz had launched a powerful opening salvo in 1965 with the publication of Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, in which he argued, drawing on Stimson’s posthumously released diaries, that the true objective of the bombings had been to intimidate the Soviet Union and render Stalin more amenable to American demands regarding Eastern Europe. Alperovitz pursued the story relentlessly over subsequent decades. His book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth finally appeared in 1995, setting out the case that the bombings had been pointless when it came to the defeat of Japan but had marked the starting point of the Cold War.
Evan Thomas, author of several respectful works on various pillars of the Washington establishment, will have none of that. Summarising a selection of critiques of the bombing, he declares that ‘the facts are otherwise.’ His consideration of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war is limited to remarks made almost in passing, yet he forthrightly concludes that ‘the atomic bombs not only saved many thousands and possibly millions of Japanese lives, they saved the lives of even more Asians beyond Japan.’ In short, Thomas closely follows Stimson, whose verdict was published three-quarters of a century ago. His story is centred on sympathetic portraits of three individuals: Stimson himself, Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz, the air force general in command of the nuclear bombing force, and Shigenori Togo, Japan’s foreign minister.
The two Americans were, to judge from their letters and diaries at the time, subject to fits of doubt and conscience about the slaughter their bombers inflicted on civilian populations in Germany and Japan, even before the advent of nuclear weapons. Both had clung to the supposition, central to American doctrine, that ‘precision bombing’ of military targets was not only desirable but feasible. But years spent pursuing this objective in Europe had demonstrated that it didn’t work, since the bombs, wherever they were aimed, still tended to fall far from their targets and on the surrounding population. The British, by contrast, had abandoned the pretence of precision early on and taken to targeting cities with the objective, euphemistically termed, of ‘dehousing’ the population at large. Eventually the US bombing force in Europe, commanded by Spaatz until he was reassigned to the Pacific after Germany’s defeat, followed the British lead, sharing in the destruction of Dresden in February 1945, igniting a firestorm that killed nearly 25,000 people. The atrocity apparently haunted Spaatz, though when he arrived in the Pacific he found his massive bomber fleet routinely burning down Japanese cities. The strategy had been adopted by his subordinate commander, Curtis LeMay, after earlier attempts to precision-bomb military targets from a high altitude, for which the B-29 bomber had been developed at enormous cost (more than the Manhattan Project), had utterly failed. In March 1945 a fire raid on Tokyo by B-29s – flying so low that their crews could smell burning flesh – destroyed much of the city and killed upwards of a hundred thousand people. With no interference from Spaatz, LeMay progressively laid waste to one Japanese city after another, more than sixty of them by early August 1945.
Stimson, who had half-heartedly pressed for an investigation of the American role in the Dresden atrocity, was meanwhile enthusiastically supervising the development and plans for use of the atomic bomb, though permitting himself some private agonising over the prospect of ‘the terrible’, ‘the awful’, ‘the diabolical’. As a recipient of Clarke’s intelligence reports, he was cognisant of Japanese peace moves, and understood that the major obstacle was Emperor Hirohito, who felt implicitly threatened by the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender. An intercepted message to Tokyo’s ambassador in Moscow on 12 July 1945 stated: ‘His Majesty the Emperor … desires from his heart that [the war] may be quickly terminated, but so long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender, the Japanese Empire has no alternative but to fight on.’ In response, Stimson supported an initiative to let the Japanese know that the emperor would be left unmolested on his throne. This was to be conveyed in an official message from the Allied leaders at a summit in Potsdam scheduled for mid-July.
But Stimson and other powerful figures who favoured this approach were outmanoeuvered by James Byrnes, a wily politician from South Carolina whom Truman had appointed secretary of state. As a senator, Byrnes had shepherded Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation through Congress, and as head of the Office of War Mobilisation controlled much of the country’s industrial economy. A master bureaucratic infighter, he had no truck with half-measures on the bomb’s use, such as prior warning or a demonstration. Any failure to deploy a potentially war-winning weapon, he asserted, would spark public outrage and lead to furious investigations in Congress regarding the $2 billion it had cost to develop. As is usually the case, domestic political considerations were the dominant factor in determining foreign policy. ‘The president would be crucified,’ Byrnes declared, if he settled for anything less than unconditional surrender. He steered an Interim Committee on bomb policy, established by Stimson, to decide that the weapon would be used as soon as it was available, without warning, on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes. Stimson was mollified by the suggestion that the target would principally be military, and took pride in removing the shrine-city of Kyoto from the target list.
Accompanying Truman to the Potsdam meeting with Stalin and Churchill, Byrnes edited a proposed declaration setting out terms for a Japanese surrender. Stimson and colleagues had drafted a passage indicating compromise on the issue of the emperor, but Byrnes struck it out. Accordingly, the Potsdam Declaration offered no specific mention of the bomb, threatening only ‘prompt and utter destruction’ if the demands for unconditional surrender weren’t met. The terms did include a promise that occupying forces would be withdrawn once Japan had secured a peaceful and democratic government ‘in accordance with the freely expressed will of the people’.
Thomas’s insistence that the bomb was necessary to bring about Japan’s surrender is largely contradicted by his own evidence. In the most interesting and vivid part of his book, he takes us into the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden bunkers at the heart of the devastated Japanese capital, suffused with the ashes of a hundred thousand inhabitants incinerated in LeMay’s fire raids, where a sweating, tiny ruling circle, the so-called Big Six, argued and intrigued. They all knew Japan had lost the war. Food was running out; the economy, with supplies of raw materials shut off by a comprehensive blockade, was almost at a standstill. The navy was at the bottom of the sea, while the air force was resorting to decrepit wooden machines often fuelled with oil extracted from pine roots. Most threatening of all to this elite group was the possibility that the Japanese people, driven beyond endurance by their ongoing misery, might revolt. As early as February 1945, Hirohito’s influential adviser Prince Konoe had advocated peace for fear that the population might turn to communism.
But there were dissenters. Both the war minister, Korechika Anami, and the army chief of staff, Yoshijiro Umezu, were adamant that they should deal a bloody nose to an American invasion by mobilising twenty million Japanese for a suicidal ‘final battle’ in order to extract more generous peace terms. They successfully insisted that the Potsdam Declaration be treated with ‘silent contempt’. Among other incentives for maintaining a hard line was a realistic fear of lethal protest from fanatical junior officers. Emperor Hirohito, by hallowed custom presiding in silence over the meetings, was manoeuvring with close advisers to bring the war to a close so long as his own position remained secure. For all sides, the most urgent question was the attitude of the Soviet Union, which had so far been neutral in the Pacific war. The emperor’s advisers hoped to enlist Stalin as mediator in peace talks with the Western Allies in return for major territorial concessions. The hardliners also hoped Stalin would remain neutral, knowing that a Soviet attack would doom any possibility of success in confronting an American invasion.
‘Little Boy’ exploded over Hiroshima at 8.15 a.m. on 6 August 1945, wiping most of the city off the face of the earth and killing eighty thousand people instantly. But the ‘shock’ to the leadership in Tokyo envisaged by Stimson and assumed by Thomas failed to materialise. Togo, Hirohito’s foreign minister, relayed Truman’s announcement of the event and his threats of more to come, but the Big Six’s reaction amounted to little more than a decision to register a strong protest with the International Red Cross. Anami was sceptical as to whether it really was an atomic bomb that had been used, and demanded further investigation. After all, the Americans had already destroyed more than sixty cities, and one more didn’t make a great deal of difference. True, Hirohito reportedly observed that ‘now this has happened, we must bow to the inevitable. No matter what happens to my safety, we should lose no time in ending this war so as not to have another tragedy like this.’ But as the Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has found, the statement is sourced to a postwar report by Hirohito’s senior courtier Marquis Kido, who would have had every reason to portray the monarch exhibiting a tender regard for his people, an emotion previously unexpressed while they burned and starved. At a meeting with Togo the next day, Hirohito was allegedly ‘petrified’ at the prospect of another bomb, aimed at him. Thomas claims they considered accepting the Potsdam terms, but there was no change in policy, which was still to rely on the Soviets to mediate an acceptable peace. The Nagasaki bomb was treated with even greater insouciance, the news barely causing an interruption when it arrived during a meeting. Far from accepting defeat, Anami blustered that ‘a hundred atomic bombs’ would not make Japan cave in.
Reaction to the sudden Soviet attack in Manchuria, hours before the Nagasaki bomb, was another matter, and casts the story of the surrender in a very different light. The military high command was shocked. (Japanese military intelligence had correctly divined the attack but was ignored.) There was now no hope that Stalin, who had been stringing the Japanese along while he readied his forces, would help them in their hour of need. As the Red Army crashed through the once mighty Japanese Kwantung Army, overrunning an area the size of Western Europe and racing to claim territory ever nearer the homeland, it fanned fears that communism might be imposed in Japan itself. Togo, his strategy of reliance on peaceful Soviet intervention in tatters, now urged acceptance of the Potsdam terms. While the military hardliners still argued for fighting on, Hirohito defied custom and finally made a proactive intervention, agreeing with Togo on the grounds that there was no hope of victory and it was now time ‘to bear the unbearable’. But the message accepting the Potsdam terms, dispatched on 10 August, contained the proviso that it would not ‘comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler’.
Though US headlines delightedly declared ‘War is over,’ and crowds danced in the streets of American cities, the Truman administration was divided. Stimson and Leahy were all for accepting the Japanese proviso as inconsequential. Stimson argued the urgent need ‘to get the homeland into our hands before the Russians could put in any substantial claim to occupy and rule it’. Byrnes, firm in his insistence that American voters would not forgive any concessions after years of Hirohito’s vilification, finally came up with an acceptable formula: the emperor could stay on his throne, but ‘subject to the authority of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers’. It was an artful compromise, bellicose in tone but conceding on what had long been the major impediment to surrender. The concession might not have been politically possible if Truman hadn’t first dropped the bombs. Even so, Japan’s diehard military faction held out, saying they could never accept this degree of foreign control and that they would fight on for better terms. An intercepted message from headquarters to military attachés in Europe pledged determination to fight to the bitter end, though admitting that the Soviet attack posed a major threat. There was no mention of the atomic bombs.
But inside the ruling circle, the realists were gaining ground. The navy minister, Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, said he was now in favour of accepting the American peace terms, ‘not because I am afraid … of the atomic bombs or Soviet participation in the war. The most important reason is my concern over the domestic situation.’ Finally, on 13 August, a week after Hiroshima, Hirohito told a sobbing cabinet it was ‘impossible for us to continue the war any longer’, and offered to make a public announcement of surrender over the radio. Enraged, a faction of fanatical army officers began the long-feared coup, but it petered out within hours when senior generals, including Anami, refused to support it. The recording of Hirohito’s surrender speech was smuggled out of the palace, evading the coup plotters’ attempts to intercept it. Hirohito’s stated explanation for the decision stressed his desire to relieve his people’s suffering, and did refer to the atomic attacks: ‘The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.’ But a second speech, broadcast to the Japanese armed forces two days later and unmentioned by Thomas, omitted any mention of the bomb: ‘Now that the Soviet Union has entered the war against us, to continue the war under the present internal and external conditions would be only to increase the ravages of war.’ The Japanese people, whom leaders both in Tokyo and Washington had assumed would fight to the death, made no protest over the surrender. The Japanese literary scholar Masao Miyoshi had been an air force cadet in 1945, training to be a kamikaze pilot. Years later, asked by an interviewer whether he had been shocked when the emperor surrendered, he said that ‘all the cadets were thrilled not to have to fight. They threw their hats in the air and cheered.’
The folklore endures. Among the exhibits at the US Air Force’s enormous museum in Dayton, Ohio, is Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the Nagasaki bomb. It is proudly identified as ‘the aircraft that ended World War Two’.
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