The following talk was presented by Dr. Thomas Swift at the August Peace Event, August 10, 2014.
“The Decision to Bomb Hiroshima: Unleashing the Most Terrible Weapon in History”
How to Avoid Wars, especially Nuclear Wars)
By Thomas Swift, Prof. of History (Asia), Emeritus, CSU Sacramento
Thank you for inviting me.
Let us put ourselves back in America-at-war in summer 1945, a fierce war in which 400,000 Americans died and far more foreigners. I believe the decision at the time to drop atomic bombs on Japan unfortunately was a foregone conclusion. I will talk about this decision, and that the war and the bombs would not have happened had the United States been wiser in our relations with Japan in the previous forty years.
The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible events, moral and legal atrocities. More than 200,000 people, many were women and children, died horrible deaths. Killing civilians is against international rules of war, sadly ignored by all sides in World War II when it came to air attacks.
In the first place, why did Japan and the U.S. go to war? Was this inevitable?? My answer is No.
It was a desperate act on the part of Japan. General Tojo, when he made this decision, likened it to making a four story leap and hoping to survive the fall.
In 1941 Japan already had a bogged down, no-win war in China against the Nationalist government in China’s interior, with Communist guerrillas under Mao Tsetung harassing Japanese forces in their rear.
Why then did Japan add another enemy, the U.S., with twice its population, five times its industrial capacity, and vastly more resources?
And, how might the U.S. have avoided war with Japan? What did we do in the years from 1900 onward in our relations with Japan which should have been done differently?
(One could also ask the same question about other past wars which, once started, caused such tragedies). And of course ask beforehand, to avoid wars.)
First let us look at the decision of President Truman and his advisory committee to use atomic bombs on Japan. Henry Stimson, Secretary of War at the time and a participant in the decision believed this was “the least abominable choice”.
After the atomic bombs fell, most Americans, especially soldiers preparing to invade Japan, were supportive, even elated, hoping this would end the war. In retrospect, seeing photos and reading of the terrible suffering of Japanese men, women and children who died or were injured and, thinking of the implications of such a terrible weapon, many of us, including scholars and military men, have wished that it did not happen and questioned the decision. Was Japan on the point of surrender anyway? Would Russia’s entering the war have brought about surrender without the bomb? Air Corps generals later claimed our incendiary bombings on cities would have ended the war, our admirals hoped their blockade would have achieved this, and army leaders focused on invading Japan.
So, let’s look at the decision of Truman and his advisers, and the hectic situation at the time.
Truman became president on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died, and continued Roosevelt’s policies. Germany surrendered on May 7 after fighting until the whole country was overrun and cities devastated by air attacks. In the Pacific Japanese troops fought even more fiercely, usually to the last man.
Horrific fire-bombing of Japanese cities did not seem to dent Japan’s resolve. On the night of March 10-11 incendiary bombs dropped on Tokyo created a fire-storm. 120,000 people burned to death. In following weeks and months American planes attacked most other Japanese cities causing more death and destruction.
In early May President Truman appointed a committee to advise him whether to drop atomic bombs on Japan and if so on what targets.
In the same month the Battle for Iwo Jima had just been won and battles for Saipan and Okinawa were raging. The Battle for Okinawa lasted 82 days, cost 12,000 American lives and 38,000 wounded. Kamikaze planes sank 28 American ships. 110,000 Japanese soldiers were killed or committed suicide. Estimates of Okinawan civilians who died ran as high as 150,000.
Japan’s government was dominated by military men who had little interest in negotiation to end the war, especially if it meant surrender and occupation. They welcomed an American invasion of the homeland. They expected to defeat the invaders with 2 ½ million soldiers backed by civilians with bamboo spears and other weapons. Failing this, Japan’s military seemed determined to fight to the end as in Okinawa in accord with Japanese sense of honor. Surrender represented dishonor.
If, God forbid, tables had been turned, would we have fought on?
A peace faction within Japan’s leadership secretly—to avoid arrest by the military police—attempted a peace feeler with the U.S. asking the Soviets to be an intermediary, but the Russians refused to help Japan. The feeler proposed peace without occupation, which was in any case unacceptable to the U.S.
President Truman’s atomic bomb advisory committee was comprised solely of civilians in accord with the recommendation of General Marshall, our military chief-of-staff. Marshall did not believe a decision like this should be made by the military nor did he and President Truman believe this was an ordinary weapon to be under military control. Instead under the control of the President.
The eight-man advisory committee was headed by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. Other members were: Three university presidents. Three business leaders. And a former U.S. senator, Jimmy Byrnes, close adviser to President Roosevelt. All were engaged in the war effort. Four scientists involved in developing the bomb joined for the final meeting which ended on June 1.
The committee’s unanimous advice to President Truman was:
#1 The bomb—if it worked--should be used against Japan as soon as possible.
#2 It should be used against war plants surrounded by workers’ homes or other buildings susceptible to damage, in order: “to make a profound psychological impression on as many inhabitants as possible.”
#3 It should be used without warning people of targeted cities—to prevent allied prisoners being moved there and to avoid the appearance of an empty threat if the bomb failed to explode.
The committee focused on ending the war as soon as possible to save American lives. Also of concern were the lives of allied military and civilian prisoners, American, British, Australian, New Zealanders and Dutch—at risk of death by starvation or brutality in Japanese prison camps. Many American prisoners in the Philippines had died or were near starvation when we liberated it. Chinese were also dying in the awful war in their country.
On July 16 an atomic bomb test was successful.
Atomic bombs then became part of America’s all-out effort to make Japan surrender. These included a naval blockade, destroying Japanese cities by air raids, asking the Soviets to enter the war, and using a million men to invade Japan if all else failed to break Japanese determination.
On July 26 Japan was sent an ultimatum to surrender unconditionally and accept occupation--or face utter destruction. The Japanese government ignored it. [Potsdam Declaration]
Japan’s top decision-making body was the six-man Liaison Council. It was comprised of four military men: War and Navy cabinet ministers, Army and Navy chiefs. And two civilians, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. At times the Emperor would be invited to join.
The Council met after Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 and deadlocked on the question of surrender. Those favoring surrender, the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and a hesitant Navy Minister, had one condition—that the emperor must remain on the throne. The War Minister and Army and Navy chiefs-of-staff were adamantly opposed to surrender. On August 8 the Soviet Union entered the war. On August 9 another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Prime Minister asked the emperor to join the Council. Emperor Hirohito, fearing the annihilation of Japan and its people, with his divine prestige, decided on surrender if Japan’s imperial institution would not be abolished. The American answer was yes, but didn’t guarantee that its status would not be changed.
It was fortunate that the Emperor had concluded that Japan must surrender, and that he had been invited to attend the meeting of the Liaison Council, split on the question of surrender.
Japan’s prewar constitution vested sovereignty in the emperor. Legally he was an absolute monarch. This accorded with a myth that he was descended from the Sun Goddess, thus himself a deity. Belief their nation was headed by a deity gave Japanese a feeling of uniqueness and superiority over other nations, something like our American belief that we are favored by God--but much stronger. In reality the prewar Emperor usually was a figurehead like the British monarch. But in times of crisis he and his divine prestige could be involved in decision-making.
When they learned of the surrender decision, a number of military men led a revolt the night of August 14. They attempted to gain control of the Emperor and his recorded surrender speech, which was to be aired the next day. They believed he was misled. The revolt failed but showed the determination of many military men to fight to the end. General Anami, the War Minister who had been adamantly opposed to surrender, refused to disobey the emperor. After the Emperor’s speech which called on Japanese to accept surrender and “endure the unendurable,” General Anami and a number of other military men committed suicide.
At the time President Truman and his advisers, in the heat of the war, were focused on ending the war as soon as possible to save American lives. After the bombs had been dropped some expressed sorrow, but not that the atomic bombing was a mistake. Later, Secretary Stimson said he felt it was the “least abhorrent choice.” After information about the widespread destruction and deaths became known, President Truman responded to Senator Russell, a hawk, with [Quote] “My object is to save as many American lives as possible, but I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.” Three years later during the tense Blockade of Berlin by the Soviets, he said he hoped he never again would have to OK the use of an atomic bomb. Secretary Stimson, during the earlier decision-making discussions, had expressed his concern that this invention could mean “the doom of civilization.”
This horrible event would not have happened had our countries not gone to war.
What did the United States do in the 40 years prior to World War II which pushed Japan toward war with us?
To repeat, Japan’s decision for war was a desperate one--taking on the powerful United States when Japan was already fighting a stalemated war in China..
In the 19th century the U.S. was Japan’s favorite foreign nation. What changed?
American racism against Japanese immigrants from 1900 onwards was deeply resented in Japan, sometimes resulting in angry newspaper editorials calling for war with the U.S. Japanese militarists in the 1930s used American racism to stir up anger against America.
Japanese also felt hurt and threatened when the U.S. Congress, in 1930 at the onset of the Depression, passed a very high tariff on foreign imports. Japanese felt it especially targeted them. Congressmen, in passing the act, attacked “cheap Japanese goods” as taking jobs from American workers.
Other Western nations also raised high tariff barriers, making trade with them and their colonies difficult.
Living in a resource-poor nation, this panicked Japanese. They have a saying, we must “trade or die.” Japan has to import most raw materials and some food. In the prewar era these came mostly from the U.S., for example 85% of their oil. They also imported high tech items because Japan was still a developing nation. Japan had a chronic trade deficit with the U.S. in the prewar era. Our tariff act of 1930 made this worse.
Japan either had to export to obtain money to buy imports (an option being narrowed) or conquer territories in order to obtain raw materials and food. This eventually led to war with the U.S.
Right wing Japanese, especially younger military officers, believed a larger empire would provide needed imports. With this as a rallying cry, they brought about the end of political party governments.
When the world depression hit, they attacked politicians for aiding Japanese corporations, but not giving help to hungry workers and farmers. Farmers were hit by low prices in 1930 and crop failures in 1931.
In 1931, against the wishes of the civilian government, Japanese Army officers in Manchuria, China’s resource-rich northeast, created an incident, blamed it on Chinese troops, attacked them, conquered the region, and created a puppet government. (Japanese troops were there to protect a railroad owned by Japan. Other countries, including the U.S., also stationed troops in China to protect their interests.)
In the League of Nations, precursor of the UN, the United States and other Western nations sharply attacked Japan’s “aggression” in Manchuria. Japanese felt Westerners were hypocrites as their nations had conquered colonies across Africa and Asia, thus had access to vast resources. The United States had the Philippines and a large continent taken from Native Americans. Western nations also controlled much of China’s economy as a result of “unequal treaties” they had forced on China.
Feeling attacked and preached at by people with double standards, Japanese delegates angrily walked out. Japan had been a prominent member in the 1920s, but now resigned from the League.
Unable to control the military, the prime minister had resigned. His successor was more cooperative, but inadequately so, and was assassinated by rightists. Other assassinations included a corporation head. The public, angry at a government which aided corporations but not starving people and acted weak against the West, did not object. This ended Japan’s dozen-year tradition of government by political parties. Hereafter most prime ministers were military men.
After conquering Manchuria, Japanese Army units gradually took over adjacent Chinese provinces.
Meanwhile General Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nationalist Party, had defeated warlords and was restoring a central government in China. In 1937 an incident between Nationalist and Japanese troops developed into all-out war. After hard fighting the Japanese Army conquered much of north and central China. They drove General Chiang’s forces into the interior, hard to reach because of few roads. After two years Japanese forces had a no-win war with the Nationalists, with Communist guerillas under Mao Tse-tung harassing them from their rear.
Japan had to greatly increase production for war. Although U.S. law at the time prohibited export of weapons of war to combatants, American businesses unfortunately supplied much of the raw material for Japan’s war in China-- 85% of Japan’s oil and much of its metal, largely in the form of easy-to-process scrap metal. (The U.S. was a major exporter of oil in the 1930s.)
Our government should have embargoed, that is, stopped, these exports earlier--when war began in China. Then Japan would not have been able to conduct a wide war in China or become so emotionally committed. The Japanese came to justify their war in China saying they were working to save China from Western imperialism and from Maoist Communism.
Had we stopped these shipments earlier, Japan also would not have been able to war with the U.S. Ironically, Japan used stockpiles of oil and metal from the U.S. for its war against us.
In 1940 and 1941 the Japanese Army moved south into Vietnam, a French colony, under a pro-German government after France surrendered to Germany. Japan’s Army did this to cut off a supply route to the Chinese Nationalists and to gain control of resources in Vietnam, such as rubber. The U.S. responded by cutting off trade. In summer 1940 scrap metal. In summer 1941 all trade including oil. The Dutch in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, followed suit.
Japan now had an estimated two years supply of stored oil. If oil from the U.S. could not be restored, Japan’s option was to conquer the Dutch East Indies, also a source of oil. Japanese assumed this would mean war with the U.S.
Japan was not yet committed to war with us in autumn 1941 and tried desperately in negotiations to get the U.S. to restore oil shipments crucial for its navy and for its war in China. But the American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, described by cohorts as a pious, self-righteous man, disliked the Japanese, making negotiations difficult. Japan offered to withdraw from Vietnam. Hull now insisted it also withdraw from China, difficult for Japan, because they felt committed and justified in their war in China.
Prime Minister Konoye refused to lead Japan into war, and resigned in October 1941. General Tojo, the War Minister, was named Prime Minister. The clock was ticking for Japan with oil supplies diminishing. Japan’s Ambassador in Washington was ordered to continue trying to get the U.S. to restore oil shipments.
General Tojo, at the Emperor’s request, ordered the Japanese Ambassador to present a final offer to the United States. Japan would withdraw from French Vietnam and most of China. Japan would retain and garrison certain territories in north China for 25 years. And Japan would agree to free trade in China and Asia-- if the U.S. and Western countries would reciprocate by eliminating their trade barriers.
Hull bluntly rejected the offer out of hand, ending negotiations on November 26. General Tojo and his cabinet decided on war.
Was this a plan of Hull and Roosevelt to drive Japan to war? I don’t think so. To my knowledge there is nothing in their records or those of their advisers or confidants to affirm this. I think Hull’s unwillingness to negotiate was caused by his self-righteous personality and his dislike of the Japanese.
This could have been another opportunity to avoid war even if our government felt the Japanese offer was not negotiable.
According to Japanese navy admirals, if war did not begin in two months, it would be too late because of the diminishing stockpile of oil. Perhaps I am naïve, but I wonder what would have happened if Hull had at least put on a pretense of negotiations, hoping to stall the Japanese until their supply of oil was so low that war with the U.S. would have been unthinkable.
In summary, given the fierceness of the war and American feelings in summer 1945, both of the public and our leaders, I think unfortunately atomic bombing of Japan was inevitable.
But the war and the bombings would not have occurred if the U.S. had acted differently toward Japan in the 40 years leading up to the war. American racism caused Japanese to think of us as an enemy, and American trade protectionism pushed Japan’s military to seek control over resources in China and Southeast Asia, eventually leading to war between our nations. By supplying oil and scrap metal to Japan we enabled Japan to have a wide war in China, expand into French Vietnam, and even prepare for possible war with the U.S.
What can we do in the present to make our world safer? Express our views to our friends, the media, and our representatives in government regarding American policies toward other countries and of course regarding nuclear disarmament.
Our government’s policies toward the Middle East, and toward Russia and China remind me of our prewar policies toward Japan—policies which ignore consequences by ignoring other nations’ feelings and national interests. Russians and Chinese think we view their countries as enemies which must be militarily contained, causing them to see us as potential enemies. Thus China, for example, is responding by building a larger military establishment, including aircraft carriers, and probably by improving its nuclear weapons delivery systems.
The U.S. has spy planes along their borders, military bases nearby, nuclear subs and other warships in the seas near them, and military alliances with neighboring countries. We were not supposed to involve Eastern European countries in an alliance against Russia. President Reagan promised Gorbachev, at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that freed Eastern European countries would be neutral. Instead President Bush reneged on this promise and invited Eastern European nations to join the NATO alliance. President Bush also planned for a missile site in Poland. How would we respond if a foreign power treated us this way, including recruiting countries around us as military allies?
Regarding nuclear weapons, we should work for a nuclear free world. The atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, tiny compared with nuclear weapons today, caused terrible deaths and injuries to so many. The existence of nuclear weapons is a negative regarding everyone’s peace and safety. Nuclear war would bring death to millions of people, if not destroy the planet. Yet during the Cuban Missile Crisis we almost engaged the Soviets in nuclear war.
Both our countries on a number of occasions have had mistaken reports of nuclear missile launches and almost retaliated. Accidents and terrorists trying to steal nuclear weapons also could cause disaster. For everyone’s safety we must work for a nuclear free world. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons. Why not all nations?
In conclusion, once war begins ensuing horrors are inevitable. Thus it is so important to avoid wars. And the worst conceivable war would be nuclear war, which could occur either on purpose or by mistake, destroying much or all of our world.
Thank you for your efforts on behalf of peace and nuclear disarmament.
Supplementary information for use during Q&A in response to questions:
Nuclear War Scares: Examples:
Russia: On January 25th, 1995, a team of scientists launched a research rocket from Norway. Russian radar stations quickly picked up the launch, and believed it was the launch of a Trident missile from an American nuclear submarine. They believed explosion of the missile’s eight warheads in the atmosphere were designed to knock out Moscow’s satellite command and control system, as a prelude to a full-scale nuclear attack. An alert was immediately sent to the Russian high command, and the Russian President, Defense Minister and Chief of the Armed Forces held a tense video-conference. One can only imagine the tone and content of this conversation. After eight minutes, the Russian computers calculated that the missile would actually splash down in the Norwegian Sea. It was not aimed at Russia. Russian nuclear doctrine stated that there should only be 10 minutes before detecting a launch to deciding on a course of action. Therefore, President Yeltsin had perhaps only 2 minutes before he would have had to choose: launch his own missiles and start a global war, or risk complete destruction of Russia.
U.S.: On November 9th, 1979, a warning appeared on the computers of four American command centers (including at the Pentagon and at the Strategic Air Command’s bunker deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain) that a massive Soviet ICBM strike was en route to the United States. Minuteman nuclear missiles were readied to launch a retaliatory attack, and the National Emergency Airborne Command Post airplane took off, although the president was not on board. Senior officers quickly convened a threat assessment conference. However, after six tense minutes, early warning satellites and radar showed that no Russian missiles had been launched. It was later discovered that a training tape depicting a massive Soviet attack had accidentally been loaded into the early warning computers, and had generated the false alarm. After an investigation of the incident, a new off-site facility was created on which to run training tapes.