Meditations | Redactions

The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Consensus View?

by Alex Wellerstein, published March 8th, 2013

One of the great historical arguments of the late-20th century was whether the decision to use the atomic bomb was justified or not, and what the real goals of its use were. I've sometimes seen this dismissed by partisans (usually in favor of the use of the bomb) as being a recent sort of argument, only made by people who were well distanced from World War II, but this isn't the case. People were arguing loudly about this almost immediately. The ambivalence about the use of the bomb was nearly immediate, and even the Japanese were aware of such discussions taking place in the United States a month later.

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. General Groves, of course, had a heavy role in the composition of the article, not only because he was the guy who had all of the documents at hand, but because it was his legacy on the line, too. In fact, Groves seems to have been fairly responsible for pushing Stimson to publishing something on the subject, even offering up multiple pre-fab drafts drafts for Stimson in November 1946:1

Click the image for the full set of drafts.

Click the image for the full set of drafts.

Personally, I don't wade into these questions much, professionally, or even here on the blog. They honestly don't interest me very much. Maybe it's a sign of how post-post-Cold War I am? I don't know. To me it has always seemed like splitting very fine hairs, trying to make distinctions without much difference. In my mind, the atomic bombings were plainly not ethically very different than the previous firebombings of Japan or Germany. To argue about whether they were justified or not seems to me to be the wrong question — a question that misleads us into mistaking what the core issue was.

For me, the better question is, under what circumstances do we believe the use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians is justified?  That gets one into much more interesting ethical territory, in my opinion, than asking why the bombs were used, a question that seems to presume that the motivations are somehow the most important thing to ask about. It also keeps us from having the same old discussion that people have been having for nearly 70 years. Maybe it's my post-postness talking, here, but whether people in the past had better or worse intentions before setting a hundred thousand people on fire seems like the least interesting historical question to pose in the face of such actions.

1945: Tokyo at left, Hiroshima at right. Is there a significant moral difference?

Ruins of 1945: Tokyo at left, Hiroshima at right.

Nevertheless, I do pay some attention to these arguments, mostly because I get asked about this sort of thing from time to time (one of the hazards of being an historian of such matters) and it helps to have a snappy answer or two. So I was really interested to hear, at a workshop in DC a few weeks ago convened by the Atomic Heritage Foundation (more on the workshop and its purpose in a later post), the retired NRC historian J. Samuel Walker give a brief talk on the current state of the historiography over the "decision to use the bomb." Walker wrote an article on this subject in 1990a book in 1997, and another historiographical review in 2005.

I hadn't met Walker before this, but I've reviewed two of his books (one on Three Mile Island, another on US nuclear waste policy), and had appreciated and drawn upon his work as an historian. Walker is, as he put it, "a flaming moderate," and it comes out in his work. Both of those books are great — for TMI, he has a nice balance of technical detail with political/bureaucratic considerations (and a great chapter on the long-term effects on the nuclear industry); for nuclear waste, he does a great job of being strictly factual while pointing out exactly where he saw the US government underestimating the problem and failing to appreciate how much they were losing public faith. As with all moderates, he runs the risk of disappointing partisans of all sides, but that's the nature of it.

Portraits from Time magazine covers, 1945: Stalin, Truman, Hirohito.

Portraits from Time magazine covers, 1945: Stalin, Truman, Hirohito. Each kind of tacky in their own way, each kind of brilliant in their own way.

Walker mapped out two major poles on the "decision to use the bomb" question. (I should say up front that this is my synthesis of Walker's synthesis, re-written from memory. So it's possible I may be inadvertently mangling this a bit, though I don't think I am. There are other sub-arguments to this debate, of course, but to me this boils it down to the really crucial bits nicely.) The first is the "traditional" argument, which roughly follows the position put forward by Stimson in 1947. At its core, it argues, in brief:

  • that Truman made a decision to use the bomb on the basis of ending the war quickly;
  • the as far as the US was concerned, Japan would not surrender on acceptable terms without either the bomb or invasion;
  • and that of those two options, the bomb was the option that would cost the least number of American and Japanese lives;
  • and, as the Japanese Emperor acknowledged in his surrender statement, the bomb did in fact end the war promptly.

This is, of course, the argument that most people are familiar with. The other pole, according to Walker, is what is often called the "revisionist" take, a term acknowledged as potentially disparaging, and is expressed most forcefully in the work of Gar Alperovitz. At its core, it argues, in brief:

  • that Japan was already defeated at the time the decision to use the bomb was made, and that US intelligence already knew this;
  • that Japan had been suing for peace and was ready to surrender without an invasion;
  • that 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;
  • and that 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.

There are, of course, more details that people have hashed out over the years, including the infamous "how many casualties in an invasion" question. In the 1990s in particular, these were fiercely debated. It was, of course, the immediate post-Cold War, and everybody was still in a mood of assessment of trying to make out what the Cold War's legacy actually was.

So where are we now, firmly in the 2010s? Walker reported that in his assessment, the scholarly debate had cooled down quite a bit, and that a new consensus was emerging, something that could be visualized firmly in between the two poles. There were problems, he argued, with both the "traditional" and the "revisionist" views. Specifically:

  • It's not really clear that Truman ever made much of a "decision," or regarded the bomb/invasion issue as being mutually exclusive. Truman didn't know if the bomb would end the war; he hoped, but he didn't know, couldn't 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 be X if the bomb was dropped, and Y if it was not. There is no evidence that, prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Truman was particularly concerned with Japanese causalities, radiation effects, or whether the bombs were ethical or not. The entire framing of the issue is ahistorical, after-the-fact, here. It was war; Truman had atomic bombs; it was taken for granted, at that point, that they were going to be used. 
  • Defeat is not surrender. Japan was certainly defeated by August 1945, in the sense that there was no way for them to win; the US knew that. But they hadn't surrendered, and the peace balloons they had put out would have assumed not that the Emperor would have stayed on as some sort of benign constitutional monarch (much less a symbolic monarch), but would still be the god-head of the entire Japanese country, and still preserve the overall Japanese state. This was unacceptable to the US, and arguably not for bad reasons. Japanese sources show that the Japanese military was willing to bleed out the country to exact this sort of concession from the US.
  • American sources show that the primary reason for using the bomb was to aid in the war against Japan. However, the fact that such weapons would be important in the postwar period, in particular vis-à-vis the USSR, was not lost on American policymakers. It is fair to say that there were multiple motivations for dropping the bomb, and specifically that it looks like there was a primary motivation (end the war) and many other "derivative" benefits that came from that (postwar power).
  • Japanese sources, especially those unearthed and written about by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, make it clear that prior to the use of the atomic bombs, the Japanese cabinet was still planning on fighting a long battle against invasion, that they were hoping to exact the aforementioned concessions from the United States, and that they were aware (and did not care) that such an approach would cost the lives of huge numbers of Japanese civilians. It is also clear that the two atomic bombs did shock them immensely, and did help break the stalemate in the cabinet — but that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria also shocked them immensely, perhaps equally, maybe even more (if you have a choice between being occupied by Truman or occupied by Stalin, the decision is an easy one). But there is no easy way to disentangle the effects of the bombs or the Soviet invasion, in this sense -- they were both immensely influential on the final decision. That being said, using the bomb as an "excuse" (as opposed to "we are afraid of Russians") did play well with the Japanese public and made surrender appear to be a sensible, viable option in a culture where surrender was seen as a complete loss of honor.

So what we're left with is something that, in my view, looks a lot more plausible than either the "traditional" or "revisionist" options, both of which assume way more prescience than actual historical actors usually have. (Much less Truman, of all people. In my view, even wondering what Truman thought about this is the wrong question to ask -- Truman was many things, but he was not a thoughtful guy. He makes Eisenhower look like a French philosopher by comparison.)

One of the more post-modern Time magazine covers — where the atomic bomb unseats Truman as Man of the Year.

One of the more post-modern Time magazine covers — where the atomic bomb unseats Truman as Man of the Year. Or something.

The are genres of historical explanation that people find compelling. This is something that goes a bit beyond the historical facts themselves: it is the superstructure in which we interpret the facts, or, to put it another way, it is how we think about everything that's going on that doesn't end up in the archival record.

What I find compelling about Walker's "consensus" view is that it is much more of a muddle than either the "traditional" view or the "revisionist" view. The "traditional" view makes it look like Truman et al. were making carefully reasoned decisions based on an ethics of the bomb that had not developed, based on questions that were not yet being asked. I don't really believe for a minute that Truman worried much about the first use of the atomic bomb. But the "revisionist" view makes him still look too clever by half — too scheming, too anticipatory, too prescient about both the Japanese war and the Cold War. That's not the Truman I know. The "consensus" view is much more human looking: the people in it are half-way acting consciously, half-way caught up in things that had been going on for a long time and were by then out of their active control. Of course, in retrospect, everyone wants to re-write history to make them look better, especially when they're being criticized for past actions. That's part of being human, too.

Walker also posited that along with this emerging consensus, there was also a cooling in the tone of the debate. This was immediately proved to be somewhat premature, as Peter Kuznik, another attendee to the workshop (who I consider a friend), vigorously defended the "revisionist" point of view. Well, so it goes -- there's no better way to prove an argument among scholars than to propose that there really isn't much of an argument anymore. Still, I found Walker's synthesis a useful way of framing the field of historical argumentation, summing up a number of disparate positions (each with books and books of documents and footnotes debating each tiny point) in a fairly convenient format. And what can I say -- I'm a sucker for moderate, synthetic arguments.

  1. Citation: Leslie R. Groves to Harvey H. Bundy, drafts of "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb" (6 November 1945), Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 5, Folder 20, "Miscellaneous." []

21 Responses to “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Consensus View?”

  1. phuzz says:

    It’s quite similar to the general argument against conspiracy theories of all types, namely that the government (or other entity) just isn’t competent enough to (for example) cover up the existence of aliens.
    In the same way the moderate argument argues that the decision to drop the bomb was taken by human beings with an incomplete view of the circumstances, as opposed to historians with all the facts and perfect hindsight.

    • I agree, though I would perhaps say that I believe that individuals, and small groups, can be very competent. But when you start scaling things up, the amount of error and incompetence necessarily increases. So you can certainly can have small-scale conspiracies. But large-scale conspiracies that require paying off thousands of people in perpetuity… those don’t really work.

      • (I should say, I’m not implying that I endorse any particular conspiracy theories. But I think there are some categories one can rule out without even really thinking much about them — e.g. the Apollo moon landing hoax theory — because they are just inherently impossible, because they would require the cooperation of so many people as to be ridiculous. There are others that are not inherently implausible — e.g. that the CIA or FBI or the Mob or whomever could have had some role in the Kennedy assassination, which wouldn’t require nearly as much large-scale cooperation — and can be evaluated on the basis of whether there is evidence for them or not.)

  2. Alex-

    Nice synthesis of Walker’s snythesis…in my classes, I use his interpretation of events and “what ifs” as I find they convey the messiness and draw nicely on the recent scholarship without getting bogged down in the counterfactuals and post-event musings. I’m less of a fan of Kuznick’s work, even less so after reading about the (mis) interpretations he and Oliver Stone have recently put forth. I don’t find there is much of an argument left – scholars can go back and forth over the details – but the basic points that come with Walker’s moderate POV are well established.


  3. The moral debate is probably going to continue until the end of time. However I think it’s now possible to disentangle the effects of the Soviet invasion versus those of the bombs and there seems to be compelling evidence that it was the Soviet invasion that was decisive.

    Ward Wilson talks about it in his new book “5 Myths about Nuclear Weapons”. He looks at the minutes of meetings held by the Japanese top brass and it’s pretty clear that the Soviet decision to invade had a much bigger influence on Japanese thinking than either of the bombs because it suddenly exhausted both military and diplomatic options for surrendering on their own terms. Here’s a link to a Salon piece where I discuss this:

    • I’ve seen the arguments and evidence pro and con, and I still just don’t see how you can disentangle them from the question of why the Japanese government acted when it did. I’m not discounting the importance of the Soviet invasion, at all. But I don’t think one can really argue that the atomic bombs had zero role in their final decision; I don’t think the evidence is there to support that.

      • Yes, I agree that it’s hard to make a final call, but you should definitely take a look at the Wilson book if you can. The bombs did not have zero impact but Wilson simply compares the reaction of the Japanese leaders (evidenced by their own words) to the bombing with their reaction to the invasion. His basic argument is that even after the bombs were dropped the Japanese army was intact (and ready to repel an invasion) and there was still the possibility of negotiating with the Americans through the Soviets. With the Soviet invasion both these options instantly disappeared so psychologically it was really a tremendous blow.

        • Marc says:

          “His basic argument is that even after the bombs were dropped the Japanese army was intact”

          It must have occurred to the Japanese leaders that atomic bombing could be directed against their armies in the battlefield with devastating results. That consideration must have been a factor.

  4. The only caveat I would make to this consensus, from the Japanese history side, is that “the Cabinet” wasn’t a completely unified body, despite the best efforts of the Army and Navy to dominate the process: if there weren’t members who were already looking for a way to find a negotiated settlement because they believed the war lost, then the post-bomb/soviet vote wouldn’t have been split and the Cabinet wouldn’t have given the Emperor the opportunity to decide the matter. Otherwise, that pretty well describes my take on the subject as well. As an historian, that is.

    As a matter of the Law of War, I agree that the bombings weren’t fundamentally different from other mass bombings and the post-war development of new protocols regarding bombing of populated areas suggests that a lot of other people saw it similarly.

  5. Ben Johnson says:

    I’m a little surprised that cost of the bomb wasn’t listed in either argument. My memory is spotty here but I want to say that Groves was especially hopeful that the bomb actually work, otherwise he’d be sent up for wasting $2 billion on a pipe dream.

    As grim as it is, I would be shocked if no one thought that NOT dropping the bombs would be a shame, given the amount of money we spent to get them.

    • That’s an argument for why Groves was interested in it, sure. It’s sometimes been offered up as the argument for why he insisted on Nagasaki so soon, before the Japanese would have had time to even really investigate what happened at Hiroshima. I think accountability was a big force for Groves’ own personal motivation, but it doesn’t really explain Stimson or Truman. I would file that under “other motivations for Groves” but even with him I doubt it was the primary motivation, much less the sole motivation.

  6. Bradley Laing says:

    —-I am currently reading about WW I, and two things happend at the end of it: The Kaiser fled to Holland, and the German Army remained as an institution. Years later, the german army moved heaven and earth to get around the restraints on their military, including helping the Soviets build an aircraft industry.

    “Defeat is not surrender. Japan was certainly defeated by August 1945, in the sense that there was no way for them to win; the US knew that. But they hadn’t surrendered, and the peace balloons they had put out would have assumed not that the Emperor would have stayed on as some sort of benign constitutional monarch (much less a symbolic monarch), but would still be the god-head of the entire Japanese country, and still preserve the overall Japanese state. This was unacceptable to the US, and arguably not for bad reasons. Japanese sources show that the Japanese military was willing to bleed out the country to exact this sort of concession from the US.”

    —Is there any evidence that either the example of the Kaiser fleeing the country, or the example of the German Army getting out of the Treaty of Versailes, was cited by anyone with respect to the Japanese military wanting either “preserving the…Japanese State,” or keeping the Emporer as “the god-head of the entire japanese country”?

  7. J B says:

    With such a divisive subject, I find it very hard for myself to not-contaiminate the thought process with the near-innate belief that the United States had to win that war.

  8. At least the debates about the decisiveness of the Bomb vs Soviet DOW had the positive historiographic effect of widening the picture a bit. This was a hot topic when I was finishing grad school circa 2000. It got people to consider Stalin’s aims and to take seriously the Japanese efforts to make peace through Russia. But it also added to the “decision” literature because it suggested US was trying to get the bombs in before Russia got in the game, not necessarily as message-sending atomic diplomacy (a la Alperovitz) but to end the war before the Russians could horn in on a settlement, on the model of Berlin. Making the notion that that it was even a “decision” seem even less compelling.

  9. Michael Dennis says:

    An excellent historiographic essay on the Japanese surrender is Bernstein, B. J. (2007). Introducing the Interpretive Problems of Japan’s 1945 Surrender: A historiographical essay on recent literature in the West. In T. Hasegawa (Ed.), The end of the Pacific War: Reappraisals (pp. 9-64). Stanford Stanford University Press.

    While it doesn’t pertain exactly on why the US dropped the bomb it does get at how the use of the weapons affected the Japanese surrender process. The whole volume is rather amazing since the Japanese sources reveal a world utterly different from the one we generally saw in the US literature. Also fascinating is Koshiro, Y. (2004). Eurasian Eclipse: Japan’s End Game in World War II. American Historical Review, 109(2), 417-444 which really makes our debate on use look incredibly divorced from the Japanese reality on the ground. Her archival work is nothing short of miraculous.

  10. J C says:

    I really like your multiple explanations explanation. After all, there was a lot of compartmentalization of the sorts of military and intelligence and diplomatic information covered by the various arguments. Did anyone know about everything, from negotiations with Japan to the effects of the weapon? Probably not.

    There is also another explanation you might want to track down some time. I no longer have (or just can’t find) the citation, but there was a thick paperback book (that read like a textbook) produced by the USGPO called “Stategic Air War Against Japan”. The author, an Air Force historian as I recall, argued that Hap Arnold thought the main purpose of using the A bomb was to delay the Army’s invasion plans. He thought Japan was almost finished.

  11. John Coster-Mullen says:

    In the “Enough!” speech I delivered at Wright-Patterson in 2004, I maintain that Stalin was stalling on his declaring war on Japan. While he promised to both Roosevelt and Truman that he would do so, he never gave them a firm timetable or date. Several books have mentioned that, while Stalin knew much about the Manhattan Project through espionage, he did not know the target or date thus Hiroshima took him by surprise as much as it did the Japanese. After Hiroshima, it was reported Stalin locked himself in his office for an entire day and when he emerged he set the wheels in motion to finally declare war on Japan. Hiroshima, the Russian declaration of war, and Nagasaki have to be viewed together as a three-legged stool.

    In my view, Little Boy was thus the catalyst that started the chain reaction which culminated in surrender.

    • Gregory McKenna says:

      Stalin told both Roosevelt AND Truman multiple times, consistently, that the Soviet Union would declare war three months after victory in Europe. The records for August Storm say quite explicitly the invasion was scheduled for August 15th, which is a little over that time period. So Stalin did give them a roughly realistic timetable.

      Of course, Stalin did advance the date in response to the atomic bombs… but also because the Soviet completed their preparations early.

  12. […] all know, or think we know, why Hiroshima was bombed. This is because the bombing of Hiroshima is synonymous with the use of […]

  13. […] Such ends Szilard’s story. It’s a curious one, and doesn’t go where you might think based on the title alone. Szilard seems to be making a strong point about the way in which war crime tribunals always favor the winners, and that if you apply the Nuremberg standards to the United States’ conduct during World War II and the early postwar, it is clear that no one, even a dissident like Szilard, would be safe. It isn’t a hand-wringing, self-flagellating confession. There is none of the “physicists have known sin” moralizing of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It isn’t even a discussion of what happened regarding the atomic bombing, whether it was justified or not, whether it was terrible or not. It is a gentle story, albeit one that subtly introduces a revisionist argument about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one that continues to be debated to this day. […]

  14. Kalimac says:

    This is the other post that most impressed me. I researched this question in a history seminar I took nearly 40 years ago, and came to pretty much the same conclusions. My one disagreement is that this is a consensus view. It’s not: it’s a complete refutation of Alperovitz. Reasons:

    1) The traditionalist view has long since acknowledged that the bomb was dropped more by inertia than by a conscious decision by Truman. Truman talked as if he’d made the conscious decision because a) in a sense he had, because he had the power to cancel it, and b) however the decision was made, it was his responsibility, and the man with the “the buck stops here” sign on his desk was determined to take that responsibility.

    2) The idea that the bomb was dropped because we had it anyway and had gone to all the trouble to build it is incompatible with Alperovitz’s belief that it was dropped to impress the Soviets.

    3) The fact that the US planners were aware that the dropping of the bomb would affect US-Soviet relations is not an incorporation of Alperovitz’s “impress the Soviets” theory into a consensus, because it’s essential to Alperovitz’s argument that the “end the war quickly” explanation was purely a smokescreen with no reality, since – according to him – the US knew the war would end quickly anyway.