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.
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.
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.
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.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 Chuuk (now called Truk), 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.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.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.