The Third Shot and Beyond (1945)

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 25th, 2012

Counterfactual history — or alternate history — is not a genre that most professional historians indulge in. We're quick to sneer at it, for good reason: it's pure fantasy, and about as relevant to history as Star Trek is to serious physics. (Star Wars is, unfortunately, another story.)

But sometimes the genre of What If? can be somewhat useful at pointing out assumptions in the current historical narrative. Controversial topics can cause us to get stuck in narrative ruts, parroting back the same sequence of events, taking for granted what did happen and losing sense of the contingency — the way in which things might have turned out otherwise.

Hiroshima, October 1945. The domed structure in the far background, at right, was nearly directly under the bomb when it exploded. When showing such photos to students, I always point out that the reason there aren't any corpses isn't because they were vaporized — it's because these photos were taken after they were already removed.

In the comment section of a post on here from last week, Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center (and Arms Control Wonk) posted an interesting hypothetical question:

What do you think would have happened differently had Japan not surrendered and if the US kept using atomic weapons when they were ready? We know what would have been the same: Japan would have lost the war. We can readily imagine what would have been different in Japan: more smoldering, radioactive rubble. But what would have been different outside of Japan?
I strangely wonder about the question. I suspect that there would have been an open revolt at Los Alamos. Would Truman have said, “enough”? Would attitudes about the Bomb in the US & Russia have been any different? Attitudes toward the US?

It's worth noting explicitly that this is a very different question to the "what if we hadn't dropped the bomb at all?" question, which is more common and has some pretty well-worn narrative ruts (deaths of bomb vs. invasion, whether demonstration would have worked, the importance of the Soviets invading Manchuria vs. the bomb, etc.). This query presumes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened as they did, but instead of surrendering shortly thereafter, the Japanese had kept on going, and Truman had OK'd the dropping of more bombs.

I gave some gesture at a response, synthesizing some interesting work that I thought was relevant to the issue. I also managed to get Michael Gordin, author of Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War, to chime in as well. You can read the responses at the post linked to above.

How realistic is the question? Pretty realistic, as it turns out. As Michael G. argued in his book, the notion that "two bombs were enough" wasn't actually dominant at the time — some people thought it would be "enough," but most people, naturally, had no idea how many would be "enough." In early August 1945, nobody knew whether the atomic bombs would be the "war-ending weapons" that they were later (controversially) touted as being. Only after surrender do you really get into the idea that two are "enough," if not too much.

This week's document is one of the more vivid demonstrations of this fact. It is a transcript of a telephone conversation between General John E. Hull, who was involved in Allied planning in the Pacific theatre, and Colonel L.E. Seeman (here incorrectly noted as "Seaman"), an assistant of Groves, on August 13, 1945. The subject is the "third shot" — the next bomb ready for use after Nagasaki, which was anticipated to be ready by August 23 — and the shots beyond that.1

Click for the PDF.

From the transcript:

  • S[eaman]: ... Then there will be another one the first part of September. Then there are three definite. There is a possibility of a fourth one In September, either the middle or the latter part.
  • H[ull]: Now, how many in October?
  • S: Probably three in October.
  • H: That's three definite, possibly four by the end of September; possibly three more by the end of October; making a total possibility of seven. That is the information I want.
  • S: So you can figure on three a month with a possibility of a fourth one. If you get the fourth one, you won't get it next month. That is up to November.
  • H: The last one, which is a possibility for the end of October, could you count on that for use before the end of October?
  • S: You have a possibility of seven, with a good chance of using them prior to the 31st of October.
  • H: They come out approximately at the rate of three a month.

That's a lot of bombs. (Incidentally, this also lets you estimate the maximum stockpile size throughout much of the late 1940s. In practice, bomb production fell off in the confusion at the end of the war, and didn't pick up again until 1948 or so.)

  • H: That is the information I wanted. The problem now is whether or not, assuming the Japanese do not capitulate, continue on dropping them every time one is made and shipped out there or whether to hold them up as far as the dropping is concerned and then pour them all on in a reasonably short time. Not all in one day, but over a short period. And that also takes into consideration the target that we are after. In other words should we not concentrate on targets that will be of the greatest assistance to an invasion rather than industry, morale, psychology, etc.
  • S: Nearer the tactical use rather than other use.

"The other use": what a euphemism! Though perhaps no worse than "strategic bombing," which is a nicer formulation than "terror bombing" (as it was, for awhile, originally called, in the context of firebombing). This idea of one-bomb-as-you-get-them or holding them up and then "pour[ing] them all on" is one of the ones that has stuck with me. A "rain of ruin" indeed. It's tempting to imagine this as periods of peace punctuated by periods of terrible destruction, but it's probably worth noting that there would have likely been firebombing during those "peaceful" periods as well, so there'd be a lot of terrible destruction to go around.

  • H: That is what it amounts to. What Is your own personal reaction to that?
  • S: I have studied that a good deal. Our own troops would have to be about six miles away I am not sure that the Air Forces could place it within 500 feet of the point we want. Of course, it is not that "pinpoint". Then the stage of development has to be considered. The work it is liable to be used for the more or less has to be explosive effect. It would be just a gamble putting or sending those troops though.
  • H: Not the same day or anything like that. We might do it a couple or three days before. You plan to land on a certain beach. Behind which you know there is a good road communication and maybe a division or two of Japanese troops. Neutralization of that at some time from H Hour of the landing back earlier, maybe a day or two or three. I don't anticipate that you would be dropping it as we do other type bombs that are in support of the infantry. I am thinking about neutralizing a division or a communication center or something so that it would facilitate the movement ashore of troops.
  • S: That is the preferable use at this time from that standpoint. The weapon we have is not a penetration weapon. The workmanship is not as good as possible. It is much better than average workmanship. We are still developing it though.
  • H: From this on more or less of the timing factor, how much time before the troops actually go into that area do you think would be the safety factor? Suppose you did get a dud or an incomplete explosion, what safety factor should you consider, one, two, three days?
  • S: I think we are sending some people over to actually measure that factor. I think certainly by within 48 hours that could be done. Everything is going so fast. We would like to train people and get them in a combat spirit to do that. I think the people we have are the best qualified in that line. Of course, as you say, if it is used back in a kind of reserve line or in a reserve position or a concentration area but that you wouldn't be up against right away.
  • H: I don't think you would land at eight o'clock in the morning and you would drop it at six o'clock, out the day before, even from the tactical standpoint without regard to when it fails to go off or something like that.
  • S: Another thing you may be likely to consider is that while you are landing you might not want to use it as it could be a dud. It is not something that you fool around with.

Atomic bombs: "not something that you fool around with." Truer words never spoken, eh? I'm not sure how they were planning to measure acute, on-the-ground radioactivity in the places they'd just bombed, given that the war wasn't over yet. (They did send over people in September 1945 to learn about things like that, after the war was over.) In any case, imagine if they had, haphazardly, sent American troops through recently atomic-bombed zones as part of the invasion. What would the legacy of American use of the bombs been, then?

The concern with the possibility of a "dud" is also counter to the usual historiography. What if one of them hadn't gone off? The Los Alamos folks had calculated that the possibility of a bomb failing was pretty high; neither of them did fail, so it's easy to see them as resounding successes, but the sample size here (n = 3) is awful small.

  • H: I would appreciate if you would discuss that angle with General Groves. I would like to have his slant on it. That is the question, how do we employ it and when do we employ it next? It has certainly served its purpose, those two we have used. I don't think it could have been more useful than it has. If we had another one, today would be a good day to drop it. We don't have it ready. Anyhow within the next ten days the Japanese will make up their minds one way or the other so the psychological effect is lost so far as the next one is concerned in my opinion, pertaining to capitulation. Should we not lay off a while, and then group them one, two, three? I should like to get his slant on the thing, General Groves' slant.

Again, the possibility of "pour[ing]" them out in groups, linked towards guessed psychological reactions. I also find Hull's comment about "today" (August 13) being a good day to "drop it" interesting. August 13 was about four days after the last bomb; presumably Hull's "feel" for this was that every three or four days would have been a good rhythm for atomic bombing.

  1. Telephone conversation transcript, J.E. Hull and L.E. Seeman ["Seaman," sic], (13 August 1945), copy in the National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. The NSA's page on "The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II" is a really quite excellent collection of documents on this subject — I strongly recommend it to anyone teaching about the Manhattan Project. []

29 Responses to “The Third Shot and Beyond (1945)”

  1. Will Thomas says:

    Alex, this is really fascinating. Another angle on this is that it’s also a strange alternative to the D-Day preparations for a suddenly nuclear world. In Britain, diverting RAF Bomber Command from city bombing to do more “pinpoint” work against transportation networks to aid the Allied landings was controversial, and Harris fought it and lost. (There is a history of science element here as Solly Zuckerman — later the UK’s first science adviser, and a proponent of nuclear restraint — was involved in planning the D-Day bombing ops.) But, in this case, an ostensibly “strategic” weapon, at least as we think of it, is being considered to do the same anticipated tactical job.

    • Of course, as you know, some of the smallest “tactical” weapons of the Cold War were more or less the same yield as these bombs (and some were quite larger). The (in)famous “atomic cannon” warhead (the W9) was a 15 kt gun-type HEU weapon — basically a Little Boy but modernized and launched out of a gun. Just what you want your field commanders to have at their fingertips…

  2. krepon says:

    Thanks, Alex.
    Three atomic bombs dropped per month, thru the Fall of 1945. Think of the repercussions.

  3. Tony says:

    Interesting … but was this even possible? I recall reading (in Rhodes et al) that US plutonium production wasn’t anywhere near being an assembly line process.

    We had three bombs ready to go (Little Boy, Fat Man and the bomb material delivered by the Indianapolis I recall) and enough fissile material for five or six more, but after that, not much.

    I suppose Hull and Seeman were assuming that we could have produced more had the Japanese not folded after Nagasaki, but still, that’s sort of getting ahead of themselves.

    Then again, I could be remembering wrong, and my copy of Rhodes is back at home and I’m at work and shouldn’t be screwing around like this … interesting piece though Alex.

    • Hi Tony,

      I’m unsure myself at what their actual fissile material production rate was during the late part of 1945. (It fell apart somewhat after the war ended, so their postwar production rate is not necessarily the best benchmark.) Carey Sublette says that the Hanford reactors were designed to produce 6 kg per month of plutonium, so that’s three-ish bombs a month, assuming that worked. Later on the page though he says that by February 1945, the theoretical production was 21 kg of Pu per month, which is even more conservative about the three per month. All of this assumes, of course, optimal operation. So maybe they were getting ahead of themselves.

      A big question would be whether they were assuming that they would either try to use HEU in the implosion arrangement, or composite pits, both of which had been explored by Los Alamos and both of which would have expanded their stockpile options greatly. As it was, composite pits didn’t get tested until 1948, but I wonder what would have happened if the war had dragged on. It seems like they were producing at least 6ish kg of U-235 a month at that point, which would have been pretty slow going for gun-type designs (one bomb a year!) but for composite or HEU designs, would have been another bomb to count on, assuming they figured out whatever is necessary for the conversions. (I don’t know what the K-25 output was at that point, which might have been much greater than the 6ish kg per month, which is a Y-12 figure.) But I doubt they were taking that into consideration, above.

      Little-known fact: after Trinity, Oppenheimer had suggested to Groves that they could take the material from Little Boy and turn it into 8 HEU Fat Men; Groves had turned the idea down because it would cut into the speed of things, despite the fact that it would have greatly increased their atomic arsenal.

    • Kicking around a bit more: on July 23, 1945, it was reported to the Secretary of War (still at Potsdam) that they would have additional bombs “ready at accelerating rate from possibly three in September to we hope seven or more in December. The increased rate above three per month entails changes in design which Groves believes thoroughly sound.” This is, I believe, coming from Groves himself.

      So that’s kind of an interesting data point. I wonder whether the design is for the bomb or the plants, and what it was? The natural guess would be for using HEU in an implosion assembly in some way, but I don’t really know.

      • Tony says:

        Yes, it’s good to remember that things were winding down, war effort wise.

        I remember reading in Dark Sun that a lot of our immediate post war nuclear posture towards the Soviets was largely a bluff; that we let them think that we were cranking out A Bombs like tuna cans, when we actually only had a few ready to go.

        Anyway, back to this conversation, they could have been assuming that they could have “turned the tap back on” if the Japanese did not capitulate, which probably wasn’t far off from the truth.

      • Cthippo says:

        I don’t think Groves would have promised more than he really believed he could reliably deliver. At the time, the size of the stockpile, or at least rate of production, would have been the big question and it would be quickly obvious if Groves guessed wrong on it. If anything, I suspect the good general would have erred on the side of under promising and over delivering.

        As for the source of the fissile material, I suspect it was increasing capacity at K25 which was just starting to come online at that time.

  4. […] much of a post, given the nature of my frenetic academic life these days, but Alex Wellerstein’s post at Nuclear Secrecy raises fascinating question about the WWII-ending atomic bombings: what if the Japanese […]

  5. kme says:

    Is there any information in the historical record on the Japanese side of this equation? Do we have access to any of the deliberations of the Japanese executive government? It would be interesting to know if the decision to capitulate was a close one, and what arguments were made for toughing it out.

    • There is quite a record, and it’s part of the very long and drawn out argument of “how important was the atomic bomb, as opposed to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria” question. One of the main articles on this (it’s a crowded and still intensely controversial field) is Sadao Asada’s, “The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender—A Reconsideration” (1998). Asada basically puts it as an internal conflict within the Japanese cabinet, with some factions arguing for immediate surrender, some wanting to prolong it out (to perhaps get some kind of more negotiated peace). In Asada’s view, the “twin shocks” of the bombs and the Soviet entry “galvanized” those seeking surrender and allow them to break the deadlock, and that while the Soviet entry was strategically more important, the bombs came as more of a surprise and thus had greater “shock” value. The bombs also gave the Japanese army a way to “save face” — it’s one thing to lose against a “normal” enemy, it’s another to be attacked by city-destroying wonder weapons for which there is no defense.

      The impossible (counterfactual) situation is to know what would have happened if they had just demonstrated the bombs, or not used them, or just used one. This is the debate I don’t really want to get into; I don’t see it actually drawing our attentions to the right places, we just end up going round and round in guesses and interpretations. I think it’s a little hard to deny that the atomic bombs had a profound effect on the Japanese cabinet, but that’s not quite the same question as whether they were “necessary.”

      I don’t regard the atomic bombs as being morally much different from the city-destroying firebombing campaign, personally, so it’s also not a key issue for me. Once you start massacring civilians by the hundreds of thousands, as a matter of national policy, what difference does it make if you are doing it with one big bomb or a thousand small ones? But I understand, of course, that this is an area of quite a lot of debate and dispute.

      • Ward Wilson says:

        The problem with the existing debate about the “revisionist” view is that it is not really about nuclear weapons. It is a debate that focuses on whether the bombing was necessary or not. The end point of the argument is, “And so the bombing wasn’t necessary and therefore the United States was wrong to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Like most debates from the Sixties about foreign policy (and the revisionist debate begins in 1965 with an article by Gar Alperovitz) It’s a debate about morality, about whether the US is a good country or not, not about nuclear weapons.

        If you’d like to read an article about whether the bombing was effective, whether it coerced Japan into surrendering, you could try this from International Security: “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima.”

  6. Ward Wilson says:

    The problem here, as usual, is that people focus on the Bomb. It holds us transfixed like an evil snake charmer. Elementary issues go unaddressed because we’re busy staring at the Bomb.

    The US conducted quite a thorough bombing campaign against Japan in the summer of 1945. Sixty-eight cities were bombed, with the highest casualties coming at Tokyo on the night of March 9/10 (a conventional raid.) [One of the questions this raises is why, if Japan surrendered because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, didn’t they surrender because of any of these other 66 city attacks? But I digress.]

    After Nagasaki was bombed, Japan had nine large cities (populations over 100,000) that had not been bombed. They were Kyoto (1,089,726), Sapporo (206,103), Hakodate (203,862), Yokosuka (193,358), Kanazawa (186,297), Kokura (173,639), Otaru (164,282), Niigata (150,903), and Fuse (134,724) [Figures are for 1944 from Japan Statistical Yearbook]. Sapporo, Hakodate, and Otaru were on the northernmost island of Hokkaido and were, therefore, beyond the range of U.S. bombers operating from Tinian Island. So six targets were available. US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had removed Kyoto from the target list because of its religious and cultural importance. So five targets were available. Compared with the number of cities that already lay in ruins, five more would have been, well, small potatoes. Of course, it would have been possible to re-bomb some cities that had already been bombed, but on average these were already 50% destroyed.

    So the fact is that whether or not more atomic bombs could have been made available, there was little left to bomb. And certainly what little there was to bomb was no longer strategically important. If you want to argue that the Japanese surrendered because of horror of atomic bombings, then perhaps five more cities being destroyed with nuclear weapons might have made an impression. (Although Japan had already withstood having 68 of its cities reduced to ashes, why would five more make much of a difference?)

    If Japan’s leaders knew their business and were making decisions based on strategic significance (rather than emotion) they would almost certainly have ignored a wider campaign of city bombing with nuclear weapons. They had already called on their citizens to oppose the coming U.S. invasion with untrained attacks by civilians with bamboo spears, a plan that was estimated to cause hundreds of thousands of additional casualties. So they had already demonstrated at least a rhetorical willingness to tolerate high civilian casualties. Given that more than 80% of Japan’s large cities had already been destroyed (and a considerable proportion of cities larger than 30,000 as well–only six cites of this size remained unbombed) surrendering because of city bombing would have had little point. By August 1945 there was little point in closing the barn door, the city bombing horse was long gone.

    Nuclear weapons are frightful weapons. They inspire awe. But they do not change the world. They do not transform every strategic situation or inspire a fear that makes leaders change everything about the way they do their job. What sort of thing would have the ability to suddenly and completely change everything? That would be the province of magic.

    • Hi Ward,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      I agree with much of what you’ve written here. I don’t really see, from a phenomenological or moral standpoint, too much difference from city bombing with napalm and city bombing with nuclear weapons. (Nuclear weapons do have some additional effects, like radioactivity, but I suspect the number of long-term injured as a result of radiation is pretty similar as long-term injured as a result of conventional bombing, but this is just supposition.)

      But where I might differ is in your final conclusion, where I take a more constructivist position. Things change the world if we think that they do. If the presence of the atomic bomb changed how the Japanese, or Americans, thought of their relative position, then they did change the world. If they don’t, then they don’t.

      I am more or less persuaded that at the very least, the Japanese high command understood that the atomic bombs gave them a good excuse to surrender. That isn’t the same thing as compelling them to surrender. If the atomic bomb is an acceptable excuse to surrender without violating bushido, then it works. Even if very little had changed from a strategic standpoint.

      (The Cold War version would be, If atomic bombs keep you from escalating conflict, then they work. It doesn’t even matter whether you had them ready to use, or if they would have done the damage people imagine them to and so on. For a post-Cold War version, If North Korea’s putative arsenal changes the world’s stance towards them, then it works. It doesn’t matter if their plutonium is just sitting around in a huge slag pool. Now, of course, we can argue about whether they actually changed behavior, as John Mueller has done, but that’s a different question than arguing whether they should change behavior.)

      • Ward Wilson says:


        Many people argue what you do. Once the myth of nuclear weapons is established, then it is reality. But I have my doubts. It’s only necessary to think of the many (many) instances from history in which a general wins an unexpected victory (because of unusual circumstances) decides it’s proof he’s a genius (that everyone will be cowed by his magnificent reputation) and then comes to grief. I don’t want to be protected by a reputation from a single victory. I don’t want the empty suit of armor. I want the real warrior. I want actual capabilities, not imagined capabilities. Relying on reputation strikes me as a prescription for disaster.

    • JH says:

      Hi Ward,

      You are mistaken though when it comes to the range of the bombers and the targets:

      After Nagasaki was bombed, Japan had nine large cities (populations over 100,000) that had not been bombed. They were Kyoto (1,089,726), Sapporo (206,103), Hakodate (203,862), Yokosuka (193,358), Kanazawa (186,297), Kokura (173,639), Otaru (164,282), Niigata (150,903), and Fuse (134,724) [Figures are for 1944 from Japan Statistical Yearbook]. Sapporo, Hakodate, and Otaru were on the northernmost island of Hokkaido and were, therefore, beyond the range of U.S. bombers operating from Tinian Island. So six targets were available. US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had removed Kyoto from the target list because of its religious and cultural importance. So five targets were available. Compared with the number of cities that already lay in ruins, five more would have been, well, small potatoes. Of course, it would have been possible to re-bomb some cities that had already been bombed, but on average these were already 50% destroyed.

      Sapporo, Hakodate and Otaru could all be reached by the B-29s operating out of Tinian: and . The distance from Tinian to Sapporo is just under 2,000 miles and a B-29’s range (i.e. being able to fly out, bomb a target and come back) is listed as being over 3,000 miles. Indeed some B-29s got in trouble over Japan and had to make emergency landings in the USSR (which would be further than flying to Hokkaido), where they were reverse engineered as the Tu-4 (much to Tupolev’s displeasure since he designed aircraft for a living and loathed the idea of being ordered to copy an existing aircraft) and then returned to the USA. The crewmen were interned since the USSR was neutral in the war against Japan at the time and Stalin wasn’t about to give the Japanese a reason to start hostilities before he finished with Germany (although the USSR did allow the US airmen to “escape” into Iran which was being occupied by the Soviets, British and Americans at the time, whereupon they returned to the USA).

      And Sapporo was indeed considered as a target. The original targets under consideration in April 1945 were Tokyo Bay (for a non-lethal demonstration), Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Kokura, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Sasebo. A number of these were scratched since they had already been burnt to the ground. Then in May the list under consideration was (in order): Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, the Kokura Arsenal and Niigata with the Emperor’s Palace discussed as a possible target but rejected. This list was then narrowed down to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama and Kokura Arsenal with Niigata under consideration. At the end of May this list is then narrowed down to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Niigata. A couple days later Stimson rules out Kyoto as a target. By late July the target list is Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. Nagasaki is then added as the final target in the list.

      For the missions themselves Hiroshima was the primary target and Kokura the secondary in case Hiroshima couldn’t be bombed. After Hiroshima was bombed the next target was Kokura as the primary target and Nagasaki as the secondary target. So were it not for clear skies over Hiroshima and cloudy ones over Kokura the Kokura would definitely have been bombed at some point by August 9.

      Now according to Richard B. Frank in his book Downfall (p. 303) after the bombing of Nagasaki the commanders in the Pacific made their own recommendations on targets for future weapons. Specifically, Admiral Nimitz, General Carl Spaatz (commander of the United States Strategic Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific) and General Nathan Twining (commander of Twentieth Air Force, formerly XXI Bomber Command, based on the Marianas and containing the B-29s on the islands including those of the 509th Composite Group tasked with dropping the atomic bombs) met with General Farrell and Captain Parsons (both of who were on the Target Committee for the atomic bomb). By the afternoon of August 9 all of these folks were urging Washington to review the target lists in light of the bombs so far having “far exceeded optimistic expectations”. On August 14, General Twining submitted a new list of six targets (in order): Sapporo, Hakodate, Oyabu, Yokosuka, Osaka and Nagoya.

  7. Dan says:

    Interesting discussion, it is perfectly possible Japan would have held out a little longer and a third or fourth bomb is certainly possible, but in the same way as others would argue they would have surrendered soon anyway it becomes increasingly unlikely they would not have surrendered soon regardless as war continues.

    As well as further nuclear bombings there were multiple other reasons to surrender.

    1. Conventional Bombing raids, Japn had completely lost command of the air and was being faced with daily long range raids which were being reinforced by both new production and further aircraft being re-deployed from Europe including the newly arrived RAF heavy bomber units.

    2. That Russian invasion which in OTL happens between Hiroshima and Nagasaki leads to the destruction of a. 600,000 Kwantung Army, and before the surrender in OTL, has Soviet troops taking Sakhelein and the Kurils, getting an amphibious force into Korea, taking most of Manchuria and Mongolia, with no surrender, all of Korea would have presumably been occupied by the end of September. The debatable point would be could the Soviets have got any forces onto Hokkaido during October before the proposed US invasion further South on November 1st.

    3. The blockade, the Japanese Islands were dependant for supplies of oil and other raw materials from mainland Asia, and for supplies of food both from mainland Asia and from inter island shipping between the various Islands. The USN submarine fleet was methodically sinking every part of the Japanese merchant marine, and the effects of the blockade were becoming critical.

    Bottom line dropping a 3rd bomb is clearly feasible, the Ida that the Japanese would hold out through Christmas 1945 seems very unlikly

    • Ward Wilson says:


      The plans for the 16th Army (the Soviet force tasked with taking the southern half of Sakhalin Island) called for them to drive the Japanese forces out of Sakhalin in 10 to 14 days and then be prepared to immediately invade Hokkaido. This is why the Russian entry into the war changes the time scale for surrender. Japan’s leaders were suddenly not looking at three months until an invasion of the Home Islands, they were looking at the week after next.

      The Soviets not only could have gotten forces onto Hokkaido, they were planning on it. And the Japanese 5th Area Army that was supposed to be defending that island were all dug in on the east side of the island (facing the direction the Americans would come from.) They had nothing on the west (where the 16th Army was scheduled to invade.)

      I’m not persuaded that Japan would have surrendered absent the Soviet entry into the war. Japan’s leaders were romantics who were raised on a tradition of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. “Kamikaze” means “divine wind” and is the name given by the Japanese to the storms that destroyed not one, but two Mongol invasion fleets each of which would surely have led to Mongol domination of Japan. The Russo-Japanese war was also a conflict in which Japan did badly and then won at the last minute with a stunning naval victory in Tsushima Straits. So holding out while you try to engineer a last minute victory against all odds was not just a familiar strategy, it was built into their cultural DNA.

      People talk about a popular uprising because food supplies were getting perilously low. And it’s true, absenteeism was escalating. And people had looked sullenly at the Emperor in March when Tokyo was bombed and he drove around viewing the ruins. And there were reports of unrest. But I can’t think of a determined wartime government that was coerced into surrendering by civilians.

  8. J B says:

    With significant and valid ‘military targets’ fast running out, the policy of sparing the two ‘off limit’ targets of Kyoto and the Imperial Palace would probably be readdressed.

    I believe the post-war balance of power ( in theory, the USA/France/UK/Russia as co-equals) would be significantly different if a delay in surrender allowed significant Soviet gains.

  9. […] cut to the chase. How many bombs did the USAAF request of the atomic general, when there were maybe one, maybe two bombs worth of fissile material on hand? At a minimum they wanted 123. Ideally, they’d like […]

  10. Interesting comments about the bombing of Japan in 1945, some seem at odds with the reports of the Air Force and particularly with those of Gen. Curtis LeMay who the General Arnold put in charge of this task after the first General was replaced, and until Gen. Spaatz came in at the end and took over. LeMay had invented fire-bombing of all the major industrial cities, even running out of incendiaries until the Navy delivered those they though LeMay really didn’t need. The post-war reports of debriefed Japanese officers regarding the planned invasion of the southern island, closing schools, arming children and old citizens with sharpened sticks, transferring Army to the island, keeping Kamikazi aircraft and boats ready for the invasion fleet expected in November, leave little doubt that the Japanese would fight to the death as they did on Okinawa, to the chagrin of tour invasion planners, and they expected a million American casualties… three times what we had lost so-far. In researching my just-published book “Goodbye Beautiful Wing” (AMAZON OR B&N) I retell LeMay’s own account of his failed attempt to bomb the Japanese into submission by destroying all major cities. The surrender of their huge Japanese I-class submarine aircraft carriers at the end of the war make it clear the Japanese planned to bomb San Francisco with radiation-scattering bombs, using the 1100 pounds of weapons-grade uranium we captured in May 1945 in the surrender of German U-234, ordered to Japan — until the death of Hitler.
    It seems to me that the real reason that Hirohito opposed the Japanese Generals who wanted to continue the war is probably because he realized the Americans would soon drop a big one on Tokyo, Imperial Palace not withstanding.

    • There is really zero evidence of any substance that the US captured enriched uranium from the U-234. Germany was simply not in any position to enrich that much material; that is considerably more than was used in Little Boy. It is silly to imagine that it would be enriched uranium.

  11. […] ultimate “What If?“ of the atomic bomb is, “what if they didn’t drop the bomb?” The ultimate […]

  12. […] commentator, Princeton’s Michael Gordin (whose work I have previously praised), poked at our papers in variously interesting ways. One thing he did ask was where the […]

  13. […] that the war would be ending soon. This was still a few days before the Japanese capitulation — which was not entirely expected. One wonders how the view of the bomb would have changed if Japan hadn’t surrendered and the […]

  14. […] the worst anti-climax being told not to prepare another atomic bomb for use! What I like about Ramsey’s letter is it hammers home, again, how primitive the first atomic […]

  15. […] know. The US was still planning to invade in November 1945. They were planning to drop as many atomic bombs as necessary. There is no contemporary evidence that suggests Truman was ever told that the causalities would […]

  16. […] third, however, has been largely overlooked. The third core was the one that was destined to be the Third Shot dropped on Japan, had there been a Third Shot. Instead, it has a different story — but it was still not a peaceful […]

  17. Dwight R. Rider says:

    I recently completed a paper that I think might add a bit to the discussion as it discusses some events that occurred at the Japanese Imperial Headquarters in the final days of the war that have never been revealed before. Unfortunately the events I discuss that apply to the discussion are burred in the report, but on the good side, the paper is free. You can find the paper at: