What you may not know about Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I’ve gotten into a few arguments over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and whether there was any possible justification for them, so I was fascinated to read this article in the Weekly Standard. The author discusses transcripts of radio intercepts from 1945, some of which were only released fifty years later in 1995, and most of which I had never read before. It’s fascinating reading if you’re interested in the last days of World War II: it knocks down — or at least radically modifies — just about every major theory that I’ve heard advanced regarding the end of the war:

  • The bombings saved hundreds of thousands of lives, because the Japanese would have fought to the end in a land invasion? But it’s far from clear that a land invasion would have happened at all, even if the bomb had not been dropped. MacArthur still favored an invasion, but it looks like he was the only one. According to this new information, President Truman saw dropping the bomb not as a means to prevent a land invasion, but as the only way to end the war at all.
  • Japan was looking for ways to surrender, and the atomic bombings were completely pointless? Intercepted radio messages from diplomats (of various neutral countries whose codes the U.S. had cracked) suggest otherwise. These diplomats, who were stationed in Japan, wrote home assessing the probability of a Japanese surrender. It’s true that some did suggest the Japanese were interested in negotiating peace, but a lot more wrote home to say that in their opinion, the Japanese would never surrender no matter what. (Their definition of “no matter what” did not, of course, include the then-unknown devastation of a nuclear bomb). And in fact, even after the second bomb, the Japanese were still looking for ways to end the war without a real surrender. On August 10, the day after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, they gave an offer to surrender “with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler” — in other words, the emperor would still rule in Japan, and could still commit his country to any action he chose, such as unilaterally starting another war once his military had been rebuilt. Only once this was rejected did the Japanese accept surrender terms that stripped the emperor of real power. It’s clear that without the atomic bombs, Japan would never have given up on those terms — or, most likely, on any terms at all, short of invading Japan itself. (And see above for why the invasion was unlikely).
  • Japan would have surrendered after the first bomb, and so the second bomb was simply a pointless massacre? Possible; the article mentions nothing about intercepts from Japan between August 6th and August 9th, so there’s not really any new evidence for or against this one. I guess I shouldn’t have said that the article knocks down every theory about the end of the war. For myself, I’m still inclined to think the second bomb had a larger psychological impact than the first one, and therefore that Japan would not have surrendered after just one bomb, or at least not before a land invasion and the concomitant high casualties on both sides. For proof of my theory, I offer the fact that it was on August 10th, not on August 7th, that the emperor ordered his cabinet “Find terms for surrender NOW“.

Whatever your previous theory about the end of World War II and America’s bombing of two Japanese cities, I think you’ll find it modified after you read the article. In the traditional blogger’s phrase, go read the whole thing.