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Let’s Debate the A-Bomb

Flags marking Veterans Day 2020.
These flags were erected along roads in and around an O’Fallon, Illinois, park to mark Veteran’s Day 2020. They reminded me of all the WW II veterans who might not have survived if the U.S. had to invade the Japanese mainland. Dropping the atomic bombs may have prevented the invasion, but the debate still rages 75 years later.

There are 3,764 angles one can explore involving the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 (Just kidding, I didn’t actually count. If anything, I underestimated the number because every survivor holds enough compelling details to fill at least a short book). For this blog I picked the debate over whether the bombs were necessary to end the war and whether a demonstration on an uninhabited island would have worked. Also some interesting odds and ends I picked up watching documentaries and googling the subject.

Second thoughts

The mushroom clouds signifying the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Separate photography B-29s accompanied the main aircraft Enola Gay over Hiroshima and Bockscar over Nagasaki. The Hiroshima photographs (left) were blurry and poorly exposed probably because of the violent evasive maneuvers the bombers took and the fact air crews had no inkling of the massive shock wave from the bombs. They learned quickly, and the Nagasaki stills and film were much clearer.

Many — not all — of the scientists who worked on the A-bomb developed second thoughts about using it, especially after Germany surrendered. That country before the war had contained a majority of the world’s nuclear physicists and everyone in the American and British bomb program considered themselves in a race to develop the weapon first. When the Nazis surrendered in May 1945, all the fear, anxiety, and urgency among the scientists disappeared because they knew Japan was nowhere near the same stage.

Scientists at the main research camp at Los Alamos as well as the Chicago Met Laboratory, the Oak Ridge, Tenn., uranium enrichment facility, and the Hanford, Wash., plutonium center began holding meetings and discussing the issue. One subset of the new atomic experts argued it was the responsibility of policymakers and not scientists to decide how to use the bomb. But other scientists began agitating against the weapon. Leading physicist Leo Szilard drafted a petition signed by 70 Manhattan Project scientists and technicians that urged President Harry Truman not to use the bomb until Japan was warned about the potential destruction and given an opportunity to surrender. The July 17, 1945, petition perfectly captures the future of the world living under the cloud of atomic warfare:

If after the war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.

Manhattan Project Army Commander Leslie Groves spiked the petition and Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson didn’t see it until later.

Not unanimous The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral  William D. Leahy, Roosevelt's Chief of Staff (9780399584800): O'Brien,  Phillips Payson: Books
I haven’t read this book, but author Payson O’Brien couldn’t have been more accurate. Leahy served as chief of staff to both presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Truman and wielded enormous behind-the-scenes power, but not enough to stop the bomb.

While General Groves was able to bury the Szilard petition, President Truman had plenty of other naysayers urging him not to use the A-bomb or at least demonstrate it first. Chief among those was Fleet Admiral William Leahy, the chief of staff to both President Roosevelt and President Truman and the chairman of the joint committee of military chiefs. The British documentary, Hiroshima – Date with History, said Leahy was “repelled” by thoughts of using the weapon. In his memoirs he wrote:

My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

Secretary of War Stimson and Army Air Force chief Hap Arnold also expressed reservations. And even the war’s biggest hero, Dwight Eisenhower, when briefed shortly before Hiroshima, said he hoped the bomb would not have to be used. “Ike” did not want the United States to be the first to use such a horrifying weapon.

The documentary Hiroshima – Date with History featured an interview with British Manhattan Project liaison Group Captain Cheshire, who was present for the launching of the atomic B-29s on Tinian. Speaking about a demonstration, Cheshire said, “I don’t know what was lost (by not dropping on an uninhabited island). If Japan had refused (to surrender), the next step would be dropping on a city.”

There was plenty to be lost. For one thing, no one knew if the bomb would work dropped from a high-altitude bomber (the Hiroshima bomb fell through the air for 45 seconds. Most of the Enola Gay crew thought it was a dud.) The successful “Trinity” test in the New Mexico desert was staged from a tower. After the single test, two new sets — one uranium, one plutonium — of the weapon’s innards were shipped to Tinian where they had to be fashioned into a bomb-like container an aircraft could carry.

Paul Tibbets, the commander of the 509th Composite Group, the special B-29 squadron trained to drop atomic bombs, had heard about what he called “rumblings and grumbling” about using the bomb without a warning demonstration. In a History Channel documentary, he argued a boxer would never tell his opponent in the ring where the next punch would land.


American military leaders had to weigh thousands of potential casualties for invading the Japanese homeland.
The horrific toll of the Pacific war weighed heavily on the minds of American military planners as they contemplated an invasion of Japan and using the atomic bomb.

As the 70th and 75th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approached, young “revisionist” historians questioned the conventional wisdom the bomb had to be used to convince Japan to surrender. They argued these points:

  1. Japan had been sending out peace feelers since late 1944 including discussions with Americans in Switzerland.
  2. Japan was a rotten cherry ready to drop from the tree. Its navy was sunk; its air force mostly destroyed; 66 of its cities leveled by bombing; and famine was spreading across the land.
  3. Japan would have surrendered immediately if the Allies had guaranteed the maintenance of the imperial house, something they did anyway after the war.

The 2015 documentary Hiroshima – The Real History presents the revisionist’s case. Of course any documentary about the A-bombs has to portray the hideous and nightmarish experiences of Japanese residents. The idea being that those stories by themselves lay out a powerful argument against nuclear weapons, which is true. Besides the factual arguments, the revisionists also love to speculate. They insist — cynically — the military wanted to actually use the bombs to gauge how much damage they would cause on a city. Even worse, these historians say Hiroshima and Nagasaki were monstrous laboratories to test the effects of atomic blasts and radiation on humans.

A-bomb survivors — called hibakusha by the Japanese and frequently shunned by their compatriots — referred to themselves as ants or insects under a microscope. In a way they were. The longest medical research project in history has been tracking the health of bomb survivors since 1945, and many of the exams were physically and emotionally invasive.

Good reasons

The military leaders who urged Harry Truman to use the bomb were not the cynical monsters portrayed by the revisionists. Here are the facts on the ground they were dealing with in only eight months of combat:

Peleliu – 10,786 American casualties; all but 19 Japanese soldiers out of 11,000 killed.

Phillippines reconquest – 23,500 American casualties; 430,000 Japanese dead, wounded, missing.

Iwo Jima – 26,000 American casualties; all but 200 Japanese soldiers out of 18,000+ killed.

Okinawa – 75,000 American casualties; more than 110,000 Japanese killed including Okinawan conscripts.

Planning for Operation Olympic, the invasion of the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū, was already underway in early 1945 with a scheduled jump-off for Nov. 1, 1945. With the experiences of the battles I just listed, noting casualties dramatically increased the closer the Allies came to Japan, military leaders pegged Olympic killed and wounded at 1 million, and that’s just for the American and Allied side. You can imagine the ghastly Japanese casualties. There would be no surprise. Japanese generals knew exactly where the Allies would land.

The casualty figures were not far-fetched. The Hiroshima documentaries showed Japanese schoolchildren training with sharpened bamboo sticks and practicing crawling under carts (tanks) with a simulated explosive pack on their backs. Around 4 million soldiers were training to repel the invasion, and the Japanese had stockpiled 3,000 aircraft, every one planned for kamikaze human guided missile attacks. Japanese military leaders argued to the civilian government leaders that Japan’s mystical “spirit” and emperor worship would win out over the Allies’ material advantages. Specifically, despite no evidence in the recent battles, the militarists insisted Allied troops couldn’t withstand the coming casualty count and would wind up asking them for favorable surrender terms.

If you were a senior military leader looking at the horrific casualty estimates for Operation Olympic and then presented this single bomb that could wipe out an enemy city (or army) with one aircraft, what would you do? Sitting in their comfortable office chairs on a college campus, the revisionists say the Japanese were ready to surrender.

Were they? In the summer of 1945 Japan was governed by the six-member War Direction Council — three generals and three civilians including the prime minister and foreign minister. If you think this set up lent itself to frequent stalemates, you would be correct. Even after the Hiroshima bomb and Japanese scientists confirming it was an atomic explosion, the War Direction Council split 3-3 on the question of surrendering. One of the council members argued the Americans would run out of A-bombs. Even the Hiroshima mayor, who was the mayor of rubble and corpses by this time, urged defiance. The loss of human life just wasn’t a consideration for Japanese fanatics.

The last meeting of the war council was on Aug. 9, the day Nagasaki was bombed and a day after the Russians invaded Manchuria and routed the Japanese army there. Mokusatsu is a Japanese word meaning “ignore or treat with silent contempt.” Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki Nokusatsu had used “mokusatsu” to answer the Potsdam ultimatum issued by Truman and British leader Winston Churchill in July. There would be no more mokusatsu. Prime Minister Nokusatsu, horrified at the militarists’ eagerness to commit civilization suicide, went over their heads and appealed directly to Emperor Hirohito. The emperor — considered a god man by the Japanese — took the side of his prime minister and in his first radio broadcast, told his subjects they “must endure the unendurable” and surrender.

Most Japanese were ignorant of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time. Interestingly, many Japanese, notified that the emperor would be speaking on the radio, thought he would be announcing a Japanese invasion of Hawaii or the bombing of New York City. I can imagine the shock of a surrender announcement.

Posted in Hiroshima, U.S. president, veterans, Pacific, U.S. Navy, WW II, military, U.S. government, War History, weapons

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