Was dropping the bomb on Japan unnecessary?

We’ve all heard the arguments for and against the bombing:

Dropping the bomb saved millions of lives that would have been lost in an invasion of mainland Japan.

It was completely unnecessary because Japan was on the verge of surrender when the bombs were dropped.

What’s you opinion?

It’s hard to say, and there are certainly arguments for both sides, but I think if I were Truman, I would have given the same order he did. The battle for Okinawa had been a really bad one. There had been 48,611 American casulties, with 12,250 dead. Japanese deaths had been estimated at 109,629, not counting those killed when the Yamato was sunk, or the large number of kamikaze deaths. Casulties in the Pacific theater were huge. General Marshall estimated that casulties of an invasion of the home islands would number at least 1 million American casulties. Some of Gen. Marshall’s advisors suggested that strategic bombing and blockade could have forced Japan’s surrender, but no one was willing to estimate how long this would take, and supplying and provisioning the American troops surrounding Japan was a massive, expensive undertaking. The Japanese were reinforcing landing sites in Kyushu, where the invasion was going to take place. Operation Olympic would have been costly. However, the planners said to President Truman, there is an alternative. We’ve perfected a bomb, that instead of using a chemical reaction to create an explosion, can use nuclear fission, and therefore is more powerful than a standard explosion device would be. We estimate yield at approximately 10 Kilotons of explosive. If we detonate this bomb in a city, it will in all likelyhood do a good deal of damage, effectively destroying the city. Although, when using nuclear isotopes, there is always a risk of radiation, we’ve been able to determine that radiation levels won’t be high enough to worry about…The only people who would be at risk from radiation poisoning would be in the blast radius itself. We can hope that the use of this weapon, along with the threat of more uses, will demoralize the Japanese to the extent that they will surrender, and there will be no US casulties.

There is another risk if we fail to use this weapon. While the Soviets have been formally neutral in this war so far, there are indications, including statements made to you at Potsdam during the conference there, that they will not remain so. An extended period of fighting would, in all likelyhood drive the Soviets into the war, seeking territorial expansion and control while we are fighting the Japanese in the south. To some extent, this will benefit the United States, because it will draw the Japanese away from us, but, in the long run it will be harmful, because the Soviets will probably attempt to exert and maintain control over the parts of Japan they capture, much as they seem to be doing in much of Eastern Europe. A strong Soviet presence in Japan, furthermore, would serve to benefit the communist guerillas in China, backed by the Soviets, who are attempting to overthrow the legitimate government.

That was essentially the situation facing the President at the time, based on the information he had. In hindsight, it might have been a mistake, but from his perspective, it seemed the best thing to do.

Dropping the atomic bomb.

*I was sure that there was an even longer thread, but it might have disappeared in the great UBB to vBB migration. :::shrug::: *


Japan was finished. Why was there ever an assumption that an invasion was necessary? Japan’s Army was stranded in Northern China, with no way to get home. The US had complete control of the sea lanes and air space, the Japanese were lucky if they could get a pick up truck from Osaka to Tokyo. They were entirely dependent on imports for thier industry, and imports were zilch. We roasted 100,000 civilians in a single night in Tokyo, using ordinary tactics and weapons. They were finished. All that was needed was to bide our time, keep the noose tight, and they would capitulate. Invade? Why?

By this action we became the first, and at this point only, country to actually use a nuclear bomb. It was an honor we could have done without.

Just like those japanese soldiers who held out for 40 years because they coulden’t believe japan surrendered? Was it the first or the second bomb that made them on the verge of surrender?:slight_smile:

Two points.

Well, to carry the point a bit farther…Who cares if they surrendered or not? They were helpless! A legitimate military action is defense against an aggressor. To slaughter civilians pointlessly is an act of barbarism.

Its rather like Monty Pyton and the Holy Grail, where the Black Knight has got his arms and legs hacked off, and is threatening to bite the other guys legs off.

Technically, the Seminoles never surrendered either. Shall we go shoot a couple? Hey, the only good blackjack dealer is a dead blackjack dealer…

Because the Japanese hadn’t given any indication that they were planning to surrender soon, and it would have been really expensive to keep the troops supplied and in the Pacific for any extended period of time. Those people in the General Staff who supported a blockade weren’t able to say with certainty how long it would take.

It may be useful for the participants in this debate to refer to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation’s FAQ and the rest of their web site for the effects of the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Participants may also wish to read the monograph The Final Months of the War with Japan as to what was known at the time and what of that was willfully ignored. It is clear, incidentally, that a blockade (combined with strategic bombing) was proposed and was given serious consideration.

To not finish off a helpless opponent is arrogance. They started the war, not finishing it would have only dragged it on probably costing more than the fight with japan itself.

As to whether the use of A-bombs against Japan was necessary:

IMO, for Hiroshima, probably not. For Nagasaki, definitely not.

As others have pointed out, Japan already was subject to nightly aerial bombardment with conventional munitions, with hundreds of thousands of civilians already dead. Obviously, use of an A-bomb delivered by a single B-29 involved less risk to American servicemen than a wave of hundreds of planes delivering incendiaries, but from the civilian standpoint, it’s hard to see how death by incendiary could have been more ‘moral’ than death in an atomic blast.

It has been argued before, and I believe rightly, that a demonstration blast over the coastal waters of Japan, coupled with a warning that additional weapons existed and could be used, might have been enough to force surrender. I often wonder whether, if Truman had actually been at Alamogordo to witness the first test, he would still have approved its immediate use on a Japanese city.

In any event, while the Hiroshima bombing might have been justified on strategic grounds, the attack on Nagasaki appears gratuitous. Given that there were no direct contacts between the US and Japan, and given the nature of bureaucracies, allowing only three days for surrender between the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems insufficient. My opinion (and it is only personal opinion) is that the Nagasaki bombing took place more to allow a comparative test of the different bomb technologies than to actually achieve a strategic goal.


Actually it is also quite legitimate to destroy whatever power controlled the aggressive nation at the time. At some point Germany lost the ability to mount any kind of offensive. Should we have stopped before taking the whole country?

Nothing less then unconditional surrender was acceptable to the allies at this time.


Rocket88 wrote:

Given that two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan were insufficient to force Japan’s surrender, I don’t think this is a particularly persuasive argument in light of historical events.

The Supreme War Council had been evenly split on the issue of surrender prior to Hiroshima and the deadlock continued even after the bombing of Nagaski. It took the personal intervention of Emperor Hirohito to break the deadlock and accept the Allied surrender terms put forward at Potsdam. Even then a military revolt attempted to capture the Emperor and refute the surrender.

While there were ‘peace’ and ‘war’ factions in the Supreme War Council, it is instructive to note what terms the ‘peace’ faction - endorsed by Hirohito - hoped to obtain: no occupation of Japan, no relinquishing of conquered territory without a referendum, no war crimes trials, reduction but not elimination of Japanese armed forces and preservation of all structures of the Japanese government.

To end the war with Japan? No, it wasn’t necessary.

But I believe it was absolutely necessary for a larger, more important psychological purpose. I don’t think the world would ever have accepted or believed the horror of nuclear warfare without ever having really seen it. Just saying how awful it was would have left too many people skeptical, and still ready to use it.

Without having used it on Japan, I think it is likely we (humans in general, not necessarily Americans specifically) would have used it later somewhere else…Cuba, for instance. And given the fact that as the years passed the weapons just got more powerful, better we dropped the first ones, and not the ones we had 15 or 25 years later.

Human beings are stubborn fools. We had to see it with our own eyes to really believe that any one bomb could be THAT incredibly destructive, even evil.

It is pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the victims there that has kept us from ever using it again. Mushroom clouds in the desert would never have been as effective. I believe that wholeheartedly.


Good point, Stoid.

Yet another opinion is that without the two bombs and the certain knowledge (of the Allies) that Japan was doomed, the USSR would not have declared war on the Empire of Japan and that was what finally convinced the Japanese to surrender.

Stalin made their cause hopeless, not nuclear warfare.

If Japan really was on the verge of surrendering, why was 1 bomb not enough to get them to do so? Three days later, they were still fighting. There’s no question that their situation was hopeless and they SHOULD have surrendered in their own best interests, but I’m not aware of any solid reason to think they were actually about to.

Also, Truman and his staff may well have been willing to use the bomb as an indirect means to intimidate Stalin over such things as control of East Germany, knowing that the Cold War was already underway even though the US and USSR were still allies.

This approach to the issue is, IMO, too simplistic. First, I would hardly call the Japaneese “helpless” in the summer of 1945. Additionally, it fails to take into consideration the fact that thousands of American lives would have been lost attempting to pacify the Japaneese archipelago. Similarly, it neglects the very real desire most Americans had for revenge. Whether or not revenge is a proper emotion with which to enter into a decision of the magnitude Truman did in August '45, is another question, though. He obviously took it into consideration, as he explained to the American people on Aug. 12, 1945:

“We have used (the bomb) on the people who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war…”

Most Americans who would have born the brunt of the pacification of Japan in 1945 and 1946 were thankful for his decision. Paul Fussell, the reknowned literary historian and critic, has written as much in his 1988 essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” (sadly, I have this only as an offprint without a citation of the book from which it was taken). Fussell, who fought in and was injured in WWII, was part of a division scheduled for a potential 1946 invasion of Honshu. He writes,

"When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practical phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to live to adulthood after all. The killing was all going to be over, and peace was actually going to be the state of things…

"The purpose of the bombs was not to “punish” people but to stop the war. To intensify the shame (Glenn) Gray insists we feel, he seems willing to fiddle with the facts. The Hiroshima bomb, he says, was dropped “without any warning.” But actually, two days before, 720,000 leaflets were dropped on the city urging everyone to get out and indicating that the place was going to be (as the Potsdam Delcaration has promised) obliterated. Of course, few left.

“Experience whispers that the pity is not the we used the bomb to end the Japaneese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one. If only it could have been rushed into production faster and dropped at the right moment on the Reich Chancellery or Berchtesgarden or Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia (where Colonel Stauffenberg’s July 20 bomb didn’t do the job because it wasn’t big enough), much of the Nazi hierarchy could have been pulverized immediately, saving not just the embarrassment of the Nuremberg trials but the lives of around four million Jews, Poles, Slavs, and gypsies, not to mention the lives and limbs of millions of Allied and German soldiers. If the bomb had only been ready in time, the young men of my infantry platoon would not have been so cruelly killed and wounded.”

Clearly Fussell is a very skilled writer and writes from a perspective very close to the heart of the matter. In his wonderful book, Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Michael Walzer specifically considers arguments in favor of the bombings such as those put fort by Fussell, but rejects them:

“It had to do with our war aims. The military estimate of casualties was based not only on the belief that the Japaneese would fight to the last man, but also on the assumption that the Americans would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender. The war aims of the American government required either invasion of the main islands…, or the use of the atomic bomb. Given that choice, one might well reconsider those aims. Even if we assume that unconditional surrender was morally desirable because of the character of Japaneese militarism, it might still be undesirable because of the human costs it entailed… If people have a right not to be forced to fight, they also have a right not to be forced to continue fighting beyond the point when the war might be justly concluded. Beyond that point, there can be no supreme emergencies, no arguments about military necessity, no cost accounting in human lives. To press the war further than that is to re-commit the crime of aggression. In the summer of 1945, the victorious Americans owed the Japaneese people an experiment in negotiation. To use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting such an experiment, was a double crime.” (pp. 267-8)

I think Walzer makes important points. They are arguments for peacetime, though, that during war, take a backseat to emotion and the polarization of finer sentiments created by combat. In 1945, I don’t think it was politically or emotionally possible for any American leader to calmly sit down and engage in an “experiment in negotiation” with Japan. The next most expedient and least costly solution for the Americans, the victors of the war, after all, was the use of the bomb. I do not see waiting out the Japaneese through months or years of sanctions as a credible alternative. Nor do I think that by illustrating our power by dropping a bomb off the coast, we would have forced the Japaneese to surrender unconditionally. Moreover, fallout, one of the dangers of atomic warfare we came to understand later, would have done plenty of damage in any case. Regardless of how much war is discussed and debated during peacetime, it will never be sanitized. And decisions on when and how to manipulate technology for killing, will continue to be contentious and the source of moral debate.

The moment that the enemy becomes helpless, the enemy becomes the victim. From that point on, military action becomes immoral: it is no longer taken out of grave necessity, in self defense.

Too much is made, I think, of the formal fact of a “surrender”. To belabor the point, it hardly matters if they are under the delusion that they are waging war, if they have no effective military power.

(A large part of the bombing attacks on population centers derived from the fact that there were no military targets left worth taking out.)

The concept of “forcing them to surrender” is a euphemism. We knew then as we know now, in Japan the general population was in thrall to the ruling elite, they had no voice to raise. Did we imagine that those military fanatics would surrender in order to save the ordinary people from suffering?

Further, the attack had elements of bluff to it: we only had two atomic bombs, best estimates were it would take about six months to build any more. If they refused to submit, our options would have been no more improved than they were: invade or simply wait for them to crumble.

So why couldn’t we just wait? I have heard it suggested that waiting would have been too expensive, I trust that argument will meet the contempt it deserves.

How long could it have taken? Japan was utterly dependent on imports (except coal and iron ore, as I recall). If we did nothing at all, simply kept our grip and waited, the end result would have been much the same.

We didn’t have to. We did it anyway. Revenge, as usual, inflicted on the helpless.

No opinion yet, I’m still thinking.

  1. Captain Amazing argues that one of the reasons we had to drop the bomb because the Russkies would otherwise intervene in the war and scoop up territory.

In actuality, the Russkies, at U.S./British insistence at the Potsdam conference, agreed to enter the war against Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. They actually did declare war against Japan on August 9th, IIRC, the last day they could under the agreement.
'Course, when they did, they invaded the northern half of the Korean peninsula, and look what good that did everybody :eek:

  1. While the Japanese home islands were under an almost total blockade, Japan still had large numbers of troops in China, Manchuria, Indonesia, Indochina, etc., etc. We had only liberated a bunch of Pacific islands. I don’t know for a fact, but I believe these forces had sufficient access to food, oil, etc., to continue to function as fighting forces. Had the U.S. simply blockaded Japan, it may have added months/years until the time that the peoples of those lands, as well as Allied POW’s, were freed.


The use of nuclear weapons was the best possible path to take.

We note that it was not necessary; strictly speaking, the war was not necessary, the U.S. could have performed the geopolitical equivalent of dropping its pants, bending over, and grabbing its ankles at any time. There were, however, grave moral issues involved in doing such a thing. The Rape of Nanking was hardly a well-kept secret of the Japanese government.

The expected casualties among Americans troops, and among both Japanese troops and civilians, are not to be lightly dismissed, especially in light of the fact that we know that the Japanese home islands were not successfully miliarily interdicted. It may well have been the case that an invasion would have brought about the collapse of morale among Japanese civilians to the point that they became willing to rise up against their government, or at least have ceased to offer effective support to the military. It also may not have been. It should be noted that the propaganda picturing the Japanese people as working together with a literally religious fervor to support their emperor and their government was an exercise of the Japanese, not of the Allies. When someone works hard to convince his enemies that he is a violent sociopath, he has estopped any complaint if others take him seriously and return violence in proportion, not to the reality, but to the image that he has presented.

As to a blockade, it would have incredibly expensive, both in cash and in lives, and probably rather ineffective. The armchair politicians and generals, able to conjure up an endless string of electoral and military victories by a languid wave of the hand, may not sufficiently appreciate this; however, I urge the Teeming Thousands to visualize an alternative reality in which, about, say, 1950 a bored and enervated American blockade fleet, without secure bases closer than Okinawa, must search out and stop Soviet clandestine assistance to an unoccupied Japan.

Let us remember that, even in the final days of the war, the Japanese “peace” proposals were unrealistic to the point of ludicrousness. The “peace” party’s position was essentially: Let’s forget about the unpleasantnesses of the last few years. The aftermath of World War I – a period that may more justly be styled “The Twenty Years’ Truce” – demonstrated quitely clearly the awful hazards of defeating and, yes, humiliating a enemy without taking care to eliminate the institutions that made it dangerous.

Dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an expensive and deadly bluff, intended to obviate far more expensive and deadly alternatives. It succeeded. To fantasize about a world where neither the bluff nor the alternatives were necessary is just that, a fantasy. That alternative perished sometime between Sekigahara and the Sino-Japanese War.