Nagasaki and Pearl Harbor: The Same or Different?
On this date during World War II, a second atomic bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was dropped by the United States on Japan, this one on the city of Nagasaki. The Americans had originally intended to drop it on August 11 in the event that Japan did not agree to “unconditional surrender” after the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but bad weather expected for that day pushed the date up to August 9. The bomb was dropped at 11:02 AM from an altitude of 1,650 feet (500 m) above the city.
Interestingly, on 10 August 1945, the day after the bombing of Nagasaki, Yamahata Yōsuke began to photograph the devastation, still working as a military photographer. He walked through the darkened ruins and the dead corpses for hours. By late afternoon, he had taken his final photographs near a first aid station north of the city. In a single day, he had completed the only extensive photographic record of the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Unfortunately, the U.S. occupation forces imposed strict censorship on Japan, prohibiting anything “that might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility” and used it to prohibit all pictures of the bombed cities. What pictures were released by the U.S. government to the American people were after corpses had been removed and streets had been cleared following the attacks.
President Truman delivered a radio address to the American people at 10:00 PM Washington time on 9 August 1945. Strangely enough, although by this time the atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki, he did not mention it but did refer to the earlier Hiroshima bombing:
The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians… Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, and against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international law of warfare.
Two things are noteworthy. First, Hiroshima did contain a military base, used as a staging area for Southeast Asia, where perhaps 25,000 troops might be quartered. But the bomb had been aimed not at the “military base” but at the very center of a city of 350,000, with the vast majority women, children, and elderly males. In fact, more than 95% of the victims were noncombatants.
A U.S. survey of the damage at Hiroshima, not released to the press, found that residential areas bore the brunt of the bomb, with less than 10 percent of the city’s manufacturing, transportation, and storage facilities damaged. The two most important reasons Hiroshima had been selected for nuclear attack were: the hills surrounding the city on three sides would have a “focusing effect” (as the Target Committee put it on May 10-11), increasing the bomb’s destructive force; and Hiroshima (like Nagasaki) had not been subjected to conventional bombing by the United States (because it was not a key military target), making it an undamaged city ideal for testing the effects of a new weapon.
On the other hand, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was a U.S. Naval Base. During the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941, roughly 2,335 American military personnel (Army, Navy, and Marines) died and 1,143 were wounded. Nearly half of the servicemen that were killed were on board one battleship, the U.S.S. Arizona, when it exploded. In addition, 68 American civilians were killed and 35 were wounded during the attack. It seems likely that most, if not all, of the casualties in civilian areas were inflicted by “friendly fire,” American anti-aircraft shells falling back to earth and exploding after missing attacking planes.
At Pearl Harbor, twelve ships were sunk or beached and nine were damaged. Of ships sunk or beached, all, except the U.S.S. Arizona, the U.S.S. Utah, and the U.S.S. Oklahoma, were salvaged and later saw action. Of the American aircraft in Hawaii, 188 were destroyed and 159 damaged. Almost none was actually ready to take off to defend the base. According to Edward R.L. Doty, Hawaiian director of civilian defense, it was business-as-usual the next day in Honolulu, the city nearest Pearl Harbor.
Secondly, the United States had itself already abandoned obeying international law of warfare, even before Hiroshima. By 1945, the bombing of civilians was already an established practice. In fact, the earlier U.S. firebombing campaign of Japan, which began in 1944, killed an estimated 315,922 Japanese, a greater number than the estimated deaths attributed to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The firebombing of Tokyo alone resulted in roughly 100,000 Japanese killed.
Thus, it was hypocritical for Truman to use Japanese violation of international law to justify deploying atomic bombs. According to American historian Gabriel Kolko in The Politics of War (1990):
The basic moral decision that the Americans had to make during [World War II] was whether or not they would violate international law by indiscriminately attacking and destroying civilians, and they resolved that dilemma within the context of conventional weapons. Neither fanfare nor hesitation accompanied their choice, and in fact the atomic bomb used against Hiroshima was less lethal than massive fire bombing.
Leo Szilard, one of the low-level scientists who worked in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, voiced the same sentiments in an interview published in U.S. News & World Report in 1960:
Ever since the event, a controversy has raged about whether the decision to use the atomic bomb was justified or not, and what the real goals of its use were. According to Alex Wellerstein, an historian of science at the American Institute of Physics, “This was why, in 1947, Secretary of War Henry Stimson put his name on an article in Harpers that February 1947 titled ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb‘ — it was meant to be the ‘official’ response to the on-going debates and speculation.”
…in 1939 President Roosevelt warned the belligerents against using bombs against the inhabited cities, and this I thought was perfectly fitting and natural. Then, during the war, without any explanation, we began to use incendiary bombs against the cities of Japan. This was disturbing to me and it was disturbing many of my friends.
According to J. Samuel Walker, the official or “traditional” argument, goes like this:
- Truman made a decision to use the bomb on the basis of ending the war quickly;
- As far as the U.S. was concerned, Japan would not surrender on acceptable terms without either the bomb or invasion;
- Of those two options, the bomb was the option that would cost the least number of American and Japanese lives;
- As the Japanese Emperor acknowledged in his surrender statement, the bomb did in fact end the war promptly.
The traditional argument has been opposed by the “revisionist” argument, which originated at about the same time:
- Japan was already defeated at the time the decision to use the bomb was made, and U.S. intelligence already knew this;
- Japan had been suing for peace and was ready to surrender without an invasion;
- The real reason the bomb was used was so to demonstrate its power to the Soviet Union, in an attempt to exert more influence on them in the postwar;
- The Japanese Emperor’s surrender statement invoked the bomb only as a politically-acceptable “excuse” for his people, when actually he surrendered primarily because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
At the same time, there were also strategies that may have proved equally effective in prompting a Japanese surrender without using atomic bombs.
Walter Trohan, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune with impeccable credentials for integrity and accuracy, published an article on 19 August 1945 in that newspaper and in the Washington Times-Herald in which he revealed the following:
Release of all censorship restrictions in the United States makes it possible to report that the first Japanese peace bid was relayed to the White House seven months ago.
Two days before the late President Roosevelt left the last week in January for the Yalta conference with Prime Minister Churchill and Marshal Stalin he received a Japanese offer identical with the terms subsequently concluded by his successor, Harry S. Truman.
The Jap offer, based on five separate overtures, was relayed to the White House by Gen. MacArthur in a 40-page communication. The American commander, who had just returned triumphantly to Bataan, urged negotiations on the basis of the Jap overtures.
The offer, as relayed by MacArthur, contemplated abject surrender of everything but the person of the Emperor. The suggestion was advanced from the Japanese quarters making the offer that the Emperor become a puppet in the hands of American forces.
Two of the five Jap overtures were made through American channels and three through British channels. All came from responsible Japanese, acting for Emperor Hirohito.
President Roosevelt dismissed the general’s communication, which was studded with solemn references to the deity, after a casual reading with the remark, “MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician.”
Officials said it was felt by Mr. Roosevelt that the Japs were not ripe for peace, except for a small group, who were powerless to cope with the war lords [the Japanese high-command], and that peace could not come until the Japs had suffered more.
The Jap overtures were made on acknowledgment that defeat was inevitable and Japan had to choose the best way out of an unhappy dilemma — domination of Asia by Russia or by the United States. The unofficial Jap peace brokers said the latter would be preferable by far.
In July the Tribune reported that a set of terms were being drafted for President Truman to take to Potsdam…
These terms, which were embodied in the Potsdam declaration did not mention the disposition of the Emperor. Otherwise they were almost identical with the proposals contained in the MacArthur memorandum.
The Trohan story was ignored by other news media and almost immediately dropped off the public radar. Historian Harry Elmer Barnes, in his essay “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe,” published on 10 May 1958 in the National Review, corroborated Trohan’s account:
The government has never made this sensational episode public, so it may fairly be asked how we know the above statement about MacArthur’s communication to Roosevelt to be a fact. It so happens that MacArthur’s document passed over the desk of a high-ranking military officer in Washington [now known to be Admiral William D. Leahy, FDR's chief of staff] who was greatly disturbed at what he feared might happen at Yalta. He wished to get MacArthur’s communication on record so it could not be destroyed by Mr. Roosevelt or his associates or hidden away from the public for many years as “top-secret” material. Hence, he called in his friend, Walter Trohan of The Chicago Tribune, and suggested that Trohan make an exact copy of the Japanese overtures. But he first bound Trohan to absolute secrecy and confidence until the end of the war. Trohan kept his promise…
The authenticity of the Trohan article was never challenged by the White House or the State Department, and for very good reason. After Gen. MacArthur returned from Korea in 1951, his neighbor in the Waldorf Towers, former President Hoover, took the Trohan article to Gen. MacArthur and the latter confirmed its accuracy in every detail and without qualification.
By June 1945 there were already divisions within the Japanese Supreme War Council (“the Big Six”) discussing how to end the war with the Americans, with the largest reservation to surrender being the desire to allow the Emperor Hirohito to remain on his throne. On 12 July 1945, Japan sent a message to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan’s codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary on July 18 to “the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” Allen Dulles, at the time chief of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in Switzerland (and later director of the CIA), said in his book The Secret Surrender (1966) that he had relayed a similar message:
On July 20, 1945, under instructions from Washington, I went to the Potsdam Conference and reported there to Secretary [of War] Stimson on what I had learned from Tokyo – they desired to surrender if they could retain the Emperor and their constitution as a basis for maintaining discipline and order in Japan after the devastating news of surrender became known to the Japanese people.
By just inserting into the Potsdam Declaration the provision that the Japanese could retain their Emperor, which is what eventually happened anyway after the war, the U.S. could have saved both American lives and the lives of those Japanese residing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson noted in his memoirs published in 1948, “history might find that the United States, by its delay in stating its position [in regards to the Emperor], had prolonged the war.”
Most likely, the decisive factor leading the Japanese to surrender was not the dropping of the two bombs but the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Acting in accordance with the Yalta agreements but in violation of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, Soviet Foreign Commissar Molotov informed Japanese ambassador Sato at 11:00 PM Moscow time on 8 August 1945 that the Soviet Union had declared war on the Empire of Japan effective the next day. At one minute past midnight Moscow time on 9 August 1945, Soviet forces invaded Japanese-held Manchuria. For the Japanese, these events dashed any hope of ending the war through Soviet mediation.Japan’s Supreme War Council met for the first time since the Hiroshima bombing at 10:30 AM Tokyo time on August 9 to decide what to do about the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. In the middle of the meeting, shortly after 11:00 AM, news arrived that the Nagasaki bomb had exploded. Even after the details of the Nagasaki bomb were made clear, it was largely ignored. Half the members of the council insisted that Japan should continue fighting. The debate was deadlocked between the pacifists and militarists. The meeting broke up without a decision.
The Supreme War Council reconvened at 11:30 PM on the same day, August 9. Again, no consensus emerged. Around 2:00 AM (August 10), one member of the divided council, Admiral Kantaro Suzuki, shocked everyone by asking the Emperor Hirohito what he thought they should do. Asking the Emperor, who was regarded as a god, to speak was unprecedented if not sacrilegious.
As surprising as the move was, Hirohito was prepared. He said the terms of the Potsdam Declaration should be accepted:
I have given serious thought to the situation prevailing at home and abroad, and I have concluded that continuing the war means destruction of the nation and a prolongation of bloodshed and cruelty in the world. The time has come when we must bear the unbearable… I swallow my tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamation.
The nuclear catastrophes were — not the ending of a World War — but the theatrical opening of the Cold War, aimed at sending a message to the Soviets. Many low and high ranking officials in the U.S. military, including commanders in chief, have been tempted to “nuke” more cities ever since.
The tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not just Japan’s, but it is the world’s. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all nations to prevent another nuclear disaster for the safety and well-being of all humanity.
- Gar Alperovitz. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (Vintage, 1995).
- H.H. Arnold. “Third Report of the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces to the Secretary of War,” 12 November 1945 (Baltimore, MD: Schneidereith & Sons), pp. 36-37.
- Harry Elmer Barnes, “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe,” National Review (10 May 1958) pp. 441-43.
- Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “The myths of Hiroshima“, The Los Angeles Times, (5 August 2005),
- Allen W. Dulles. The Secret Surrender: The Classic Insider’s Account of the Secret Plot to Surrender Northern Italy During WWII (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) p. 219.
- George Gallup. The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935-1971. Volume One. (New York: Random House, 1972) p. 521.
- Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).
- Gabriel Kolko. The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943–1945 (New York: Random House, 1968; 1990 ed. with new afterword).
- Stephen Large. Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography (Routledge, 2002) p. 126
- Doug Long. “Hiroshima: Was It Necessary?” Accessed online on 6 August 2013 at http://www.doug-long.com/hiroshim.htm.
- Greg Mitchell, “Sixty-Eight Years Ago: Truman Opened the Nuclear Era With a Lie About Hiroshima”, The Nation, (6 August 2013). Accessed online on 12 August 2013 [archived here].
- Henry Stimson and McGeorge Bundy. On Active Service In Peace and War (New York: Harper, 1948) p. 629.
- Leo Szilard, “President Truman Did Not Understand“, U.S. News & World Report (15 August 1960) p. 68-71.
- Walter Trohan, “Bare Peace Bid U.S. Rebuffed 7 Months Ago”, Chicago Tribune (19 August 1945) p. 1.
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