Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 3rd, 2015

As we rapidly approach the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been all sorts of articles, tributes, memorials, and so forth expressed both in print and online. I’ve been busy myself with some of this sort of thing. I was asked if I would write up a short piece for Aeon Ideas about whether there were any alternatives to these bombings, and I figure it won’t hurt to cross-post it here as well.

Unusual photograph of the late cloud of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via

An unusual photograph of the late clouds of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via

The point of the piece, I would like to emphasize, is not necessarily to “second guess” what was done in 1945. It is, rather, to point out that we tend to constrain our view of the possibilities generally to one of two unpleasant options. Many of those who defend the bombings seem to end up in a position of believing that 1. there were no other options on the table at the time except for exactly what did occur, and 2. that questioning whether there were other options does historical damage. As a historian, I find both of these positions absurd. First, history is full of contingency, and there were several explicit options (and a few implicit ones) on the table in 1945 — more than just “bomb” versus “invade.” These other options did not carry the day does not mean they should be ignored. Second, I think that pointing out these options helps shape our understanding of the choices that were made, because they make history seem less like a fatalistic march of events. The idea that things were “fated” to happen the way they do does much more damage to the understanding of history, because it denies human influence and it denies choices were made.

Separately, there is a question of whether we ought to “judge” the past by standards of the present. In some cases this leads to statements that are simply non-sequiturs — I think Genghis Khan’s methods were inhumane, but who cares that I think that? But World War II was not so long ago that its participants are of another culture entirely, and those who say we should not judge the atomic bombings by the morality of the present neglect the range of moral codes that were available at the time. The idea that burning civilians alive created a moral hazard was hardly unfamiliar to people in 1945, even if they did it anyway. Similarly, I will note that the people who adopt such a position of historical moral relativism never seem to apply it to nations that fought against their countries in war.

Anyway, all of the above is meant as a disclaimer, in case anyone wonders what my intent is here. It is not to argue that the leaders of 1945 necessarily ought to have done anything different than they did. It is merely to try and paint a picture of what sorts of possibilities were on the table, but were not pursued, and to try and hack away a little bit at the false dichotomy that so often characterizes this discussion — a dichotomy, I might note, that was started explicitly as a propaganda effort by the people who made the bomb and wanted to justify it against mounting criticism in the postwar. I believe that rational people can disagree on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What options were there for the United States regarding the atomic bomb in 1945?

Few historical events have been simultaneously second-guessed and vigorously defended as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred seventy years ago this August. To question the bombings, one must assume an implicit alternative history is possible. Those who defend the bombings always invoke the alternative of a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, which would have undoubtedly caused many American and Japanese casualties. The numbers are debatable, but estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions — an unpalatable option, to be sure.

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, "Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs," NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar "view from above" photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 m from ground zero, and now known as the famous "Genbaku dome."

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, “Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs,” NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar “view from above” photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 meters from Ground Zero, and now known as the famous “Genbaku dome.” The photographs are not labeled with when they were taken; the “before” photos seem like they are from the late 1930s, the “after” photos are likely no earlier than September 1945, and may be from 1946.

But is this stark alternative the only one? That is, are the only two possible historical options available a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands, or the dropping of two nuclear weapons on mostly-civilian cities within three days of one another, on the specific days that they were dropped? Well, not exactly. We cannot replay the past as if it were a computer simulation, and to impose present-day visions of alternatives on the past does little good. But part of the job of being a historian is to understand the variables that were in the air at the time — the choices, decisions, and serendipity that add up to what we call “historical contingency,” the places where history could have gone a different direction. To contemplate contingency is not necessarily to criticize the past, but it does seek to remove some of the “set in stone” quality of the stories we often tell about the bomb.

Varying the schedule. The military order that authorized the atomic bombings, sent out on July 25, 1945, was not specific as to the timing, other than saying that the “first special bomb” could be dropped “as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945.” Any other available bombs could be used “as soon as made ready by the project staff.” The Hiroshima mission was delayed until August 6th because of weather conditions in Japan. The Kokura mission (which became the Nagasaki mission) was originally scheduled for August 11th, but got pushed up to August 9th because it was feared that further bad weather was coming. At the very least, waiting more than three days after Hiroshima might have been humane. Three days was barely enough time for the Japanese high command to verify that the weapon used was a nuclear bomb, much less assess its impact and make strategic sense of it. Doing so may have avoided the need for the second bombing run altogether. Even if the Japanese had not surrendered, the option for using further bombs would not have gone away. President Truman himself seems to have been surprised by the rapidity with which the second bomb was dropped, issuing an order to halt further atomic bombing without his express permission.

"Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph."

“Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph.”

Demonstration. Two months before Hiroshima, scientists at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, one of the key Manhattan Project facilities, authored a report arguing that the first use of an atomic bomb should not be on an inhabited city. The committee, chaired by Nobel laureate and German exile James Franck, argued that a warning, or demonstration, of the bomb on, say, a barren island, would be a worthwhile endeavor. If the Japanese still refused to surrender, then the further use of the weapon, and its further responsibility, could be considered by an informed world community. Another attractive possibility for a demonstration could be the center of Tokyo Bay, which would be visible from the Imperial Palace but have a minimum of casualties if made to detonate high in the air. Leo Szilard, a scientist who had helped launch the bomb effort, circulated a petition signed by dozens of Manhattan Project scientists arguing for such an approach. It was considered as high as the Secretary of War, but never passed on to President Truman. J. Robert Oppenheimer, joined by three Nobel laureates who worked on the bomb, issued a report, concluding that “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” But was it feasible? More so than most people realize. Though the US only had two atomic bombs in early August 1945, they had set up a pipeline to produce many more, and by the end of the month would have at least one more bomb ready to use, and three or four more in September. The invasion of the Japanese mainland was not scheduled until November. So by pushing back the time schedule, the US could have still had at least as many nuclear weapons to use against military targets should the demonstration had failed. The strategy of the bomb would have changed — it would have lost some of its element of “surprise” — but, at least for the Franck Report authors, that would be entirely the point.

Changing the targets. The city of Hiroshima was chosen as a first target for the atomic bomb because it had not yet been bombed during the war (and in fact had been “preserved” from conventional bombing so that it could be atomic bombed), because the scientific and military advisors wanted to emphasize the power of the bomb. By using it on an ostensibly “military” target (they used scare quotes themselves!), “located in a much larger area subject to blast damage,” they hoped both to avoid looking bad if the bombing was somewhat off-target (as the Nagasaki bombing was), and so that the debut of the atomic bomb was “sufficiently spectacular” that its importance would be recognized not only by the Japanese, but the world at large. But the initial target for the bomb, discussed in 1943 (long before it was ready) was the island of Truk (now called Chuuk), an ostensibly purely military target, the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbor. By 1945, Chuuk had been made irrelevant, and much of Japan had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, but there were other targets that would not have been so deliberately destructive of civilian lives. As with the “demonstration,” option had the effect not been as desired, escalation was always available as a future option, rather than as the first step.

"Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall."

“Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall.”

Clarifying the Potsdam Declaration. By the summer of 1945, a substantial number of the Japanese high command, including the Emperor, were looking for a diplomatic way out of the war. Their problem was that the Allies had, with the Potsdam Declaration, continued to demand “unconditional surrender,” and emphasized the need to remove “obstacles” preventing the “democratic tendencies” of the Japanese people. What did this mean, for the postwar Japanese government? To many in the high command, this sounded a lot like getting rid of the Imperial system, and the Emperor, altogether, possibly prosecuting him as a “war criminal.” For the Japanese leaders, one could no more get rid of the Emperor system and still be “Japan” than one could get rid of the US Constitution and still be “the United States of America.” During the summer, those who constituted the “Peace Party” of the high council (as opposed to the die-hard militarists, who still held a slight majority) sent out feelers to the then still-neutral Soviet Union to serve as possible mediators with the United States, hopefully negotiating an end-of-war situation that would give some guarantees as to the Emperor’s position. The Soviets rebuffed these advances (because they had already secretly agreed to enter the war on the side of the Allies), but the Americans were aware of these efforts, and Japanese attitudes towards the Emperor, because they had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code. No lesser figures than Winston Churchill and the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had appealed to President Truman to clarify that the Emperor would be allowed to stay on board in a symbolic role. Truman rebuffed them, at the encouragement of his Secretary of State, James Byrnes, believing, it seems, that the perfidy of Pearl Harbor required them to grovel. It isn’t clear, of course, that this would have changed the lack of a Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration. Even after the atomic bombings, the Japanese still tried to get clarification on the postwar role of the Emperor, dragging out hostilities another week. In the end, the Japanese did get to keep a largely-symbolic Emperor, but this was not finalized until the Occupation of Japan.

Waiting for the Soviets. The planned US invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, was not scheduled to take place until early November 1945. So, in principle, there was no great rush to drop the bombs in early August. The Americans knew that the Soviet Union had, at their earlier encouragement, agreed to renounce their Neutrality Pact with the Japanese and declare war, invading first through Manchuria. Stalin indicated to Truman this would happen around August 15th, to which Truman noted in his diary, “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Aside from cutting Japan off from its last bastion of resources, the notion of possibly being divided into distinct Allied zones of influence, as had been Germany, would possibly be more of a direct existential threat than any damage the Americans would inflict. And, in fact, we do now know that the Soviet invasion may have weighed as heavily on the Japanese high command as did the atomic bombings, if not more so. So why didn’t Truman wait? The official reason given after the fact was that any delay whatsoever would be interpreted as wasting time, and American lives, once the atomic bomb was available. But it may also have been because Truman, and especially his Secretary of State, Byrnes, may have hoped that the war might have ended before the Soviets had entered. The Soviets had been promised several concessions, including the island of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (giving them unimpeded access to the Pacific Ocean) for their entry in the war, but by late July 1945, the Americans were having second thoughts. As it was, once Stalin saw that Hiroshima did not provoke an immediate response from the Japanese, he had his marshals accelerate the invasion plans, invading Manchuria just after midnight, the morning of the Nagasaki bombing.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the "standard" Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland. "Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand." In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the “standard” Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland.
“Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand.” In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

What should we make of these “alternatives”? Not, necessarily, that those in the past should have been clairvoyant. Or that their concerns were ours: like it or not, those involved in these choices certainly ranked Japanese civilian lives lower than those of American soldiers, as is typical in war. None of the “alternatives” come with any confidence, even today, much less for those at the time, and those making the choices were working with the requirements, uncertainties, and biases inherent to their historical and political positions.

But by pointing out the alternatives that were on the table, one can see the areas of choice and discretion, the different directions that history might have gone — perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. We should see this history less as a static set of “inevitable” events, or of “easy” choices, but as a more subtle collection of options, motivations, and possible outcomes.

34 Responses to “Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?”

  1. Gene Dannen says:

    Alex, I read this first in Aeon, and I’m glad you posted it here too. It is really, really excellent work.

  2. etudiant says:

    The surprising aspect here is the non role of the military. They appear to have had zero input into these deliberations.
    The other aspect is the malign influence of Sec of State James Byrnes. He appears to have been at the root of much post war evil as well.

    • It is one of the interesting aspects of the Kyoto argument — Groves did attempt to assert that targeting decisions were a matter of military strategy, and Stimson shut him down by going directly to Truman. It is perhaps an under-sung episode in the question of who has “custody” of the bomb in the United States. At the same time, of course, it was the on-the-ground military at Tinian who made a lot of the final targeting decisions, including the date of the actual bombings.

      • Gene Dannen says:

        Alex, let’s clarify that. Stimson over-ruled Groves about bombing Kyoto. But in almost all other respects, Groves was running the show. Groves was later quoted as comparing Truman to a little boy on a toboggan. Groves chose the slope for that toboggan.

  3. Bill Loring says:

    The main problem with any of these alternate actions is that they all result in more American military personnel killed. To force the Japanese to even begin to consider peace initiatives required Japanese people being killed, and lots of them. At the same time, Americans were being killed to carry out that action. The “unconditional surrender” terms that the Potsdam Declaration contained was not simply to get rid of the Emperor. It was to remove the current political chain in office including the military party, disarm the military forces and to occupy the nation to insure this was carried out. The Japanese were against the government being removed, especially the military and its control and completely against being occupied. The allies were totally against anything that seemed to smack of the peace agreement which took place at the end of the first world war with Germany. The US, in a rare instance of realpolitik realized that the Emperor could be left in place (subverting that objection to the surrender process) and used as a figurehead. The argument that there was no rush to drop the bombs in August since Operation Downfall was not to commence until the end of October is an illusion as well. Military pressure had to be maintained against Japan before Downfall in order to hinder the efforts to increase and prepare against invasion and this meant it would also cost US lives in keeping that pressure.
    No, we didn’t NEED to use atomic weapons….we could have invaded. Or, we could have accepted a Japanese surrender allowing them to keep their government and remain unoccupied with a rebuilding of the Japanese military forces as well as an argument used in post WW1 Germany that “we weren’t defeated, we were betrayed” or we could have done nothing and let the Soviets invade the main Japanese islands on their own or maybe in conjuntion with the Downfall landings leading to a divided nation similar to Korea. The fact remains that the Japanese were not going to go along with a surrender similar to what the Potsdam declaration stated as they HAD NOT ALREADY DONE SO. If they wanted to surrender under those terms, they could have at anytime, but they didn’t. Not until a mixture of nuclear weapons and the Soviets at their back door. Only then did they abandon any hope and grab at the ring that was offered when told they could keep their Emperor. Hirohito was able to use the atomic bombings as the ultimate face saving effort for peace saving his country from the casualties the Soviets would surely have caused or by the Downfall operations as well.

    • Hi Bill —

      We don’t know what the Japanese high command would have accepted, were the conditions of Potsdam more articulated. That is the point. Maybe they would have been as you said. Maybe not. Clarifying the terms of surrender with respect to the Emperor would have been an “easy” thing to do that would not have affected the later timeline one iota, so there is very little reason to not do it — unless you were actually afraid they might surrender, wanted to punish them in some way (the latter of which seems to have been one of Truman’s motivations), or only believed it was there to serve as a “justification” for the bombs (as Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues).

      Here is the line that the War Department’s Operational Division wanted added to the Potsdam Proclamation: “The Japanese people will be free to choose whether they shall retain their Emperor as a constitutional monarchy.” They wanted to do this because, as they explained:

      The primary intention in issuing the proclamation is to induce Japan’s surrender and thus avoid the heavy casualties implied in a fight to the finish. It is almost universally accepted that the basic point on which acceptance of surrender terms will hinge lies in the question of the disposition of the Emperor and his dynasty. Therefore, from the military point of view it seems necessary to state unequivocally what we intend to do with regard to the Emperor.

      The Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted the following line to be in it: “Subject to suitable guarantee against further acts of aggression, the Japanese people will be free to choose their own form of government.”

      Can one really, with a straight face, justify asserting that to add that line would have caused more American deaths? I find it a ridiculous notion.

      As to your other points: there are many other ways to increase military pressure which are far less deadly. (Even firebombing campaigns are not as deadly as atomic bombing campaigns. Tokyo was itself an anomaly in terms of its casualties, even among firebombing campaigns, and was not as fatal as the atomic bombs per capita.)

      Delaying the use of the bombs until after the Soviet invasion of Manchuria would not have affected the timeline, or the total deaths, significantly.

  4. Paul Watts says:

    Not long ago, I would have been sceptical about the premise that the atomic bomb didn’t have much influence upon the Japan surrender until I stumbled across this: (from 18:15 to 35:30)

    Ward Wilson, speaking at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, makes a interesting case that it was Russia’s declaration of war against Japan that forced their surrender and the bomb didn’t have the shock or awe effect that the Western forces presumably hoped for.

    With the benefit of hindsight, it seems to be a tragedy that the bomb wasn’t delayed for a while. There are so many ‘what if’ questions from World War II.

    • Jim says:

      One of the problems with the shock and awe of the weapon was that many of the witnesses in awe of it were soon dead or quite ill. Worse, the damage to local infrastructure was so great that it took a while to communicate the event’s details to Tokyo, and can you imagine how you would describe something no one had ever seen before to someone who had not seen it? You would sound like a mad man.

  5. Derick Schilling says:

    Regarding the question of what effect modifying the Potsdam conditions would have had: if I recall correctly, in mid-July 1945 Sato, the Japanese ambassador to the USSR, cabled Togo, the foreign minister, stating the only hope for Japan was to surrender with a guarantee that the Emperor could be retained. Togo replied on July 21 that this was “unacceptable,” but that Japan could not yet state its peace terms. (This exchange was intercepted and read by US intelligence.)

    Then, when the “Big Six” met on August 9 to discuss Hiroshima and the Soviet declaration of war, the meeting ended with a 3-3 split over possible surrender terms. Prime Minister Suzuki, Foreign Minister Togo, and Navy Minister Yonai favored accepting the Potsdam Declaration on the condition that the Emperor be maintained, while Army Minister Anami, Army Chief of Staff Umezu, and Navy Chief of Staff Toyoda, insisted on the additional conditions that Japan would disarm its overseas armies itself, Japan would not be occupied, and there would be no Allied trials of Japanese war criminals. These conditions explicitly contradicted provisions of the Potsdam Declaration and would never be accepted by the US, ie, they were “deal breakers.”

    It was only after the personal intervention of the Emperor on the night of August 9 that a consensus was reached to make a surrender offer on the condition that the Emperor retain his “prerogatives” as a “Sovereign Ruler.”

    This suggests to me that it’s unlikely an offer in late July to retain the Emperor as a constitutional monarch would have had much effect. The question that intrigues me is whether an explicit warning by the USSR that it would enter the war if the Potsdam terms were rejected would have shocked the Japanese into making a surrender decision. If the Japanese had made a serious surrender offer at the end of July, would this have resulted in a world with no Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombing, in which a few hundred scientists would have emerged to tell a remarkable tale about a night in the New Mexico desert?

    • The question for me is not whether it would have actually led to capitulation — it might have, it might not. The question is why they would explicitly avoid giving it a shot, when they knew that this was a sticking point with the Japanese. It was not a bunch of peaceniks who proposed this idea; it was people like Stimson, Churchill, the War Department’s Operational Division, the Joints Chief of Staff.

      But let’s add another wrinkle. Let’s say they add that line to Potsdam, the Japanese still ignore it. Hiroshima happens. What do the Japanese do next? Their main objection, even after the Soviets, even after Nagasaki, was to the question of the Emperor in the postwar. If that had been resolved easier, would it have smoothed the overall capitulation? Would it have avoided some of the conventional bombing which occurred after Nagasaki? Could it have avoided Nagasaki?

      We don’t know, and can’t say. I think it is very hard, though, to make an argument in favor of doing things the way they were actually done, in this instance, since they seem deliberately calculated to make surrender a harder thing for the council to accept. This is not just my opinion — it is the opinion of many people in the government and military then, and many postwar analysts.

      As for the Soviet angle, that’s an interesting question. Of course, the Soviets would never have done such a thing, because they didn’t want the war to end quickly at that point (they wouldn’t get their concessions if it did).

      • Derick Schilling says:

        My sense is that they avoided making an explicit reference to retaining the emperor because (1) US public opinion favored hanging Hirohito, not retaining him (2) fear that departing too much from unconditional surrender would make the Japanese believe our will to fight was slackening, in which case they’d simply wait for more concessions.

        In general, I think many policymakers in the US didn’t care in July 1945 if they were making surrender “a harder thing” for the Japanese Supreme Council to accept. They’d either surrender, or face the consequences. We weren’t making decisions to make life easier for them, and we were thinking more about “how can we get the Japanese to surrender on our terms” and less about “how can we avoid dropping nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.”

        • Jonah Speaks says:

          Some interesting points here. Warn the Japanese about the impending Soviet invasion? Maybe the Soviets would not, but the U.S. could. They could be vague about the when, where, and how, so as not to jeopardize Soviet operational plans. Also, the Japanese could be left guessing on whether the Soviets would really do it, so they would not preemptively attack. Also, warn them, perhaps with film clips, perhaps more dramatically with a live demonstration, of the new atomic weapon. This would create the “stick.” Then offer them the carrot, emperor retains his throne, provided Japan makes the surrender easy for all concerned.

          “US public opinion favored hanging Hirohito” – haven’t read the 1945 polls, but if the Americans thought that, the opinion was rather soft. Would they want Hirohito hanged, even at the cost of thousands or hundreds of thousands of deaths of American servicemen? Very doubtful. Also, I never heard of Truman losing votes because he failed to hang Hirohito.

          Even after the two atomic bombings and the Soviet invasion, the Japanese still stalled the surrender until after they received diplomatic reassurance about the emperor’s fate. This suggests that the clarifying the emperor’s fate was crucial, whether or not it was alone sufficient, to obtaining “unconditional surrender.” Perhaps the atomic bombings and/or the Soviet invasion were unnecessary, perhaps only a warning would have been enough.

          • Derick Schilling says:

            In Downfall Richard B. Frank mentions a May 1945 poll in which “a very large majority” held Hirohito personally responsible for the war. 33 percent of the respondents wanted him hanged, 11 percent imprisoned, and 9 percent favored exile. Only 4 percent of those polled wanted to keep him as a figurehead, and just 3 percent thought he could be a political asset to the US after the war. John Dower writes in Embracing Defeat that a poll taken six weeks before the end of the war showed 70 percent of Americans in favor of either executing or “harshly punishing” Hirohito.

            Your question about whether people would have wanted Hirohito hanged at the cost of tens of thousands of American dead is a good one. My guess is that few people thought of it that way, as a choice between options.

            I agree that Truman seems to have paid no political price for keeping Hirohito on the throne. But I think there was a difference between publicly guaranteeing the emperor’s retention before the Japanese made any overt surrender moves, and keeping him as a figurehead after the Japanese surrendered.

  6. Jonah Speaks says:

    Years afterward, Teller said his only regret was not taking the demonstration option more seriously. He had been assigned to work on the demonstration, but at the time he did not give it much thought. Later he viewed dropping the bomb over Tokyo Bay as the best demonstration – if it was a dud, it would simply drop into the water unnoticed. If it worked, it would explode in full view of the emperor and 10 million Japanese.

    Also in the Franck report is this sentence: “After such a demonstration the weapon could be used against Japan if a sanction of the United Nations (and of the public opinion at home) could be obtained, perhaps after a preliminary ultimatum to Japan to surrender or at least to evacuate a certain region as an alternative to the total destruction of this target.”

    Unfortunately, the evacuation option was not described in more detail. One can think of two evacuation options: 1) Allow time for evacuation, then bomb the city or other target. 2) Order the evacuation, and then refrain from bombing the area(s) if it has been evacuated. Either option would have reduced civilian casualties. Given the unwillingness of the elites back then to provide even a demonstration warning, the evacuation option likely would have been dismissed out of hand, even if it had been expressed clearly.

    Japan could not have struck back with nuclear weapons of its own, but today many nuclear powers can do so. Between nuclear-armed nations, a war of evacuations makes more sense than a war of nuclear bombings. A war of mutual evacuations leads to mutual costly inconvenience, but has the potential for resolution of conflict without mass destruction of people, property, and environment. It is an alternative to nuclear war that is well worth considering.

  7. Max says:

    The most regrettable aspect is how quickly the second bomb was dropped.

    I’m skeptical that tweaking the Potsdam Declaration would have made a difference. The most distasteful term was the occupation. That’s where a concession, if one could be devised, could perhaps have brought a quicker end.

  8. Much much more attention should have been paid by America’s political and diplomatic leaders to how the atomic bomb would “begin the peace” as well as how it would “end the war” militarily.

    The mere fact that these decisions to rush dropping the bomb are still be second guessed by the general public, as well as tenured profs, 70 years later itself speaks to the costs to American exceptionalism prestige the rush permanently caused.

    Drop in haste, repent at leisure….

  9. I’m always curious thinking what would have happened had the Japanese surrendered before they had a chance to drop the bomb (for whatever reason). What would be made of the huge investment spent, not to mention a future going forward without the creation myth of “the power of the atom delivered by the hand of god to America to smite evil and end all wars etc etc”. A world with the bomb but without “Hiroshima and Nagasaki”.

    • Those working on the project did worry about this a bit — about the possibility that the war might end before they used the bomb, and then where would they be? Would they try to keep it secret, or find some other way to tell the world about how dangerous the future was likely to be? They never made any concrete plans about what they would do or say in that event, but it was on their minds as they crafted the “publicity” they planned to release after the first use of the bombs. It was not an impossibility, but it didn’t appear to be an imminent problem.

      • Peter says:

        I suspect it would have been much more difficult to keep the Manhattan Project a secret after the end of thr war. People would have been more willing to talk, without wartime urgency keeping them silent.

    • Cheryl Rofer says:

      On the other hand, the Soviets were working toward a bomb, using the Manhattan Project plans. They would still have vetoed the Baruch Plan, and they would have exploded their test in 1949, as they did in our factual world. So we would still have had the arms race and all that entailed.

  10. Bill Loring says:

    I think too much credence is being given to “if only we had told them they could keep their Emperor”. After the Potsdam Declaration on July 28, Admiral Mitsumasa told his secretary that there was no need to rush. After the war Koichi Kido who was Hirohito’s political advisor said that the atomic bombs presented a face saving method of ending the war when it did, before the Soviets invaded Japan. Hirohito was put onto a pedestal of ending the war rather than allowing his people to die needlessly thus assuring his position postwar. Herbert Bix’s book ‘Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan’ offers interesting perspective here.

  11. John says:


    My father was a PFC in the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater in 1945. When he talked about the war – which was very rarely – he said that I’m alive today because the bombs ended the war before he would’ve had to wade ashore from 400 yards out had the invasion of the Japanese main islands gone ahead. Therefore, I’m able to comment on your blog today because of Little Boy and Fat Man. This was his “boots on the ground” perspective.

    That’s not to say that I disagree with anything you’ve written above. It’s clear that to limit the end-game discussion to a “drop or don’t drop” decision is too narrow. And I can’t judge whether any of the alternative scenarios would’ve brought the war to and end sooner and at what cost and how those scenarios would’ve effected my father’s fatalistic prediction.

    But I’m not certain one can make the argument that use of bombs was intrinsically amoral. I don’t understand how the number of weapons somehow equates (inversely) to their morality. Use one bomb? Bad. Firebomb a city with tons of explosives? Just your typical day at the war.

    As an amateur who’s interested in Cold War history from nuclear weapons development to espionage, I very much enjoy learning from your writing.

    • I’m not making the argument that they were amoral or immoral. I’m trying to break people free of the idea that they were inevitable, or that the way things did happen was the only way they could have happened. When people believe things were fixed in stone the way they were, it shuts down their ability to talk meaningfully about a complicated piece of history. When you add more depth, it allows for finer lines to be drawn, which gets one out of the “all or nothing” approach. The “all or nothing” (bomb or no bomb, or bomb vs. invasion) leaves very little room for the subtleness of real life, I think.

      As for your father’s view on things: this is what the troops were told. It is part of the mythos of the bomb, of the narrative justifying its use. It does not mean it is necessarily good history, which requires a deeper digging. I completely understand why veterans thought dropping the atomic bomb was a good thing — I just don’t think, if we are serious about the history, we can end the story there, with that point of view.

      And I certainly don’t think that firebombing is any more moral than the atomic bombings (though most firebombings were not as devastating as Tokyo). I take a very different message away from the history of the firebombing of Tokyo — that it only makes the moral arguments more murky to point out that the atomic bombs were not the first time we did such a thing, that we waged the kind of war where more than a few times we resorting to the deliberate, mass burning of civilians to accomplish our desired ends. I have written a bit about this here, among other places on the blog.

      In any case, I am not interested in a simple moral tale, or a simple polemic. I don’t think the actual history supports anything too simple, either for or against.

      • John says:

        Thanks, Alex. I should’ve been more clear. I know what my father told me and I understand your point about inevitability or the lack thereof. The rest of my reply was not directed at you but more about points raised by others regarding use of the bombs. Sorry for mixing the context of my comments.

    • Troy says:

      My grandfather had survived Peleliu and Okinawa and would have been in the invasion of Kanto, so we’re in the same boat.

      But I’m pretty sure the Japanese would have surrendered in August or September anyway as the Russians were steamrolling them in Manchuria and Korea.

      Getting Stalin to mediate an armistice was the only card the peace faction had. And the war faction would lose what little face they still had after getting crushed by the Russians. Manchuria and N China was what started the conflict in the first place, and keeping Manchuria Japanese was actually still a war aim in ’45 for the militarists.

      Your point about the difference between an atomic bombing B-29 mission vs. an incendiary B-29 mission is entirely valid. I don’t see much of a moral difference either, never have in 20 years of arguing this online now.

      We did horrible things that year of war, but that’s what war is. What matters is what’s in your heart when committing these acts of inhumanity. Glee would be bad, hope that it is shortening the war and reducing the overall suffering in the Utilitarian analysis would be good.

  12. Ross Mallett says:

    There was another alternative, one that was seriously considered, and in fact was eventually adopted: saving the atomic bombs for tactical use during the invasion of Japan. Massing them to blast a path for the troops through the Japanese defenses on Kyushu. After Nagasaki, General Marshall cancelled the remaining attacks on cities in favour of this alternative.

    • I don’t think there’s any evidence that Marshall did this. Truman announced at a cabinet meeting that he wanted no more atomic bombs dropped without his express authority, and while Marshall did pass that message on to Groves, I have never seen anything that suggested it originated with Marshall. They never made any concrete conclusions about what would happen with a third (or more) bombs if they were going to use them again — some talked about tactical use, some argued for bombing Tokyo, some assumed that the other remaining cities on the target list (Kokura and Niigata) would be next, and so on, but as far as I know, it never got beyond this “talking” stage to any actual “planning” stage.

      If you have anything that suggests otherwise (aside from the Seeman/Hull conversation linked to above), I would be interested in seeing it.

      • Ross Mallett says:

        I have one piece. An interview Marshall gave in 1957.

        “There were supposed to be nine more bombs completed in a certain time. And they would be largely in time for the first landing in the southern tip of Japan. There were three corps to come in there as I recall. They didn’t know about it at the time but I had gone very carefully into the examinations out in New Mexico as to the after-effects of the bomb because we were having in mind
        exploding one or two bombs before these landings and then having the landing take place and reserving the other bomb or bombs for the later movements of any
        Japanese reinforcements that might try to come up. And it was decided then that the casualties from the actual fighting would be very much greater than might occur from the after-effects of the bomb action. So there were to be three bombs for each corps that was landing. One or two, but probably one as a preliminary, then the landing, then another one further inland against the immediate supports and
        then the third one against any troops that might try to come through the mountains from up on the Inland Sea. And that was the rough idea in our minds.”

  13. Darrell Dvorak says:

    I’ll apologize in advance to John Coster-Mullen for quoting him without his permission, but I thought it important to respond to this chain while it is still fresh. John may not be an expert about all things concerning the atomic bombs, but he has certainly has spent a lot of time researching their history, so I believe his comments are worth considering. (Also, they were previously published in a semi-public forum.):

    “Yes, Japan would eventually have surrendered after an invasion by the Allies. As has been stated previously by many, including me, Stalin stalled for a long time about joining the war. Yes, he had made promises to Roosevelt at Yalta and also to Truman at Potsdam that he would eventually declare war and join the war in the Pacific, but he never gave either a firm date.

    “The problem here is…when. Although Stalin had numerous spies inside the MP, he did not know either the [bombing] target or the date. Hiroshima took Stalin by surprise as much as it did to the rest of the world and Japan. According to some accounts, he locked himself in his office for an entire day after Aug 6. When he finally emerged he announced his decision to finally enter the war. The declaration was handed to Sato in Moscow at the same time Sweeney was heading westward across the Pacific on his way to Kokura/Nagasaki. Hiroshima forced Stalin’s hand. Little Boy started a chain reaction of events that culminated with the Japanese surrender on the 15th. There is no indication whatsoever that Stalin would have entered the war earlier than the 9th…. [deletion]

    [deletion] “An Allied invasion would have definitely occurred without those Bombs and every man, woman, and child would have vigorously defended Japan (as we would have also done in the US if the roles were reversed) with tens of millions killing themselves and Allied troops during the process. They would have been dug into all those millions of caves scattered throughout Japan and the war would have dragged on until every one of them was killed. It might have taken not only years, but decades.

    “Besides, just because the Russians were pushing the Japanese troops across China and back to Japan, the Russians would have needed to mount an actual invasion of Japan. We had been massing troops, ships, and supplies for many long months in preparation for our invasion in November. The Russians hadn’t even started the process.”

    Note that John doesn’t rely on personal written records and reminiscences, which are subject to their own (mis)interpretation and shadings. In my opinion, John concludes that not dropping the bombs would have ultimately ended in many more casualties, including Allied forces and civilians, and that the responsibility for their use was ultimately the Japanese Emperor’s. In my opinion, historical inquiry about the bombs is vital, but it should have empirical limits.

    • Truman was under the impression that Stalin would have entered the war by August 15th. It is not so far off from the Soviets’ own planned schedule. While the Hiroshima bombing did cause the Soviets to advance their schedule, it was only by a matter of days. And it was still months until a US invasion.

      If, as some have argued (e.g. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and Ward Wilson), the Soviet invasion is what caused Japan to surrender, then it would have happened even without the atomic bombs at almost exactly the same time it did occur.

  14. ori says:

    Great post, Alex, sa always!

    something I wanted to ask (after a discussion about this I had yesterday, and I wasn’t sure)- In case of heaqvy clouds around nagasaki as well as kokura, would Bockscar land back with the bomb, or were they instructed to through it any way, in order not to take the risk of landing with it, risking an explosion in case of accident?

    I’m sure the answer to that question is somewhere here on you’re great blog, but in a quick search I did I couldn’t find it.


    • They would not have been able to return with the bomb if they had aborted at Nagasaki — they barely had enough fuel to make it back without it, and it added a significant amount of weight to the plane. They would have jettisoned it in the sea, to prevent it being recoverable.

  15. JIm says:

    From the standpoint of History, there is a famous saying attributed to many that goes along the lines of: “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” The problem is that simplistic views of history miss the boat on what we really need to know. History without understanding why is just a list of dates and facts. Understanding these alternatives, that one they exist, and two the reasoning for them being rejected, helps us to form a more complete picture of the past and be able to apply it to our today and future.