J.Robert Oppenheimer and General Groves at Trinity Test Ground Zero, 1945. The white canvas overshoes were to prevent fallout from sticking to the soles of their shoes.
From Murray Sayle, ‘War crime or war winner? The Truth about the Bomb,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 15.07.95
…the head of the Manhattan Project, Major-General Leslie Groves, a determined military man feeling responsible for spending $2 billion on the bomb and worried that the war might end first, at that point was pushing strenuously for its immediate use. When Leo Szilard, who had drafted Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt warning of a German bomb six years earlier, drew up a scientists’ petition opposing the use of the atom bomb against Japanese cities, Groves had the petition classified top secret, thus restricting its impact to a tiny circle…Szilard’s petition got as far as Groves’s office, where it stayed. …
What did the first atom bombs achieve? Well, it will be instantly answered, they ended the war, didn’t they, and so saved many lives – the estimates vary from 50,000 to several million – both American and Japanese, and considering that there was still fighting going on in Borneo and elsewhere, and ill-treated prisoners of war were still dying, probably many Australian lives as well. Anyone around at the time will remember the striking evidence for this conclusion. With the Japanese still full of fight, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, another on Nagasaki on August 9, and the very next day the Japanese Government announced that it would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration – that is, unconditional surrender, subject to some guarantee for the future of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito.
At the time (as I remember well myself) this looked like obvious, iron-clad evidence that the bombs had ended the war, thus greatly simplifying the moral question about their use. Unfortunately, 50 years on this is still the only evidence that the bombs did in fact end the war and thus save all those valuable lives. And there is much better evidence, long obscured by the Cold War, that points to quite a different conclusion.
Well, if the atom bombs did not end the war, what did? It has long been known that by mid-1945 Japan was in much worse shape, both economically and militarily, than was generally realised at the time. American submarines had sunk almost the whole Japanese merchant fleet, cutting off food, raw materials, oil and reinforcements for the home islands; American B-29 fire raids had destroyed 40 per cent of Japanese housing, most of its industry, and had burnt out 68 major cities even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atom-bombed. As early as June 1946, the economists of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, after visiting the ruined Japanese cities and interviewing most of the surviving Japanese leaders, gave their opinion that:
“Certainly prior to December 31, 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1, 1945 (the planned date of the American invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost home island), Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
However, Russia had indeed entered the war – at dawn on August 8, 1945, with 1.6 million men, fighter-bombers, parachute troops and a huge tank army – and although this was little-reported at the time compared with the enormous official publicity lavished on the atom bombs, modern scholarship increasingly sees the Soviet invasion of Manchuria as the real, immediate cause of Japan’s surrender. My own research, conducted over the 20 years I have been in Japan, fully endorses this conclusion.
It came about like this. While publicly declaring that Japan would fight to the end and “killing with silence” (an Oriental way of saying “no comment”) the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender issued at Potsdam on July 26, 1945, Japan was secretly trying to arrange a negotiated peace, with the Soviet Union, still officially neutral, to act as mediator. This may seem an absurd idea until we recall that the US had mediated the end of the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. These half-hearted “secret” approaches (all the Soviets were asked to do was to receive Prince Fumimaro Konoe, a former prime minister and distant relative of Hirohito) were, however, no secret from the American leaders, who were reading the Japanese diplomatic messages passing between Tokyo and Moscow – the so-called MAGIC intercepts. Only declassified in full as recently as last year, the MAGIC summaries gave tantalising hints that there was a a pro-peace party in Tokyo, centred on the Foreign Ministry, to which Emperor Hirohito apparently belonged, but no indication of whether the peace party was strong enough to overcome the Army leaders who wanted to fight a “decisive battle for the Homeland” (after the expected American invasion) and then, having won it, to negotiate a peace that would guarantee, as a minimum, the continuation of the monarchy with Hirohito as monarch – something less than unconditional surrender.
Matters came to a head in Tokyo on the night of August 8, two days after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima. With all communications with the ruined city knocked out, very little information reached Tokyo, 1,000 km away, about what had happened. What there was came via the Japanese Army which downplayed the damage and insisted (correctly) that no military installations affecting Japan’s ability to continue the war had been damaged. Nevertheless, Hirohito, via his confidential adviser Lord Privy Seal Marquis Kido, summoned a meeting of the Supreme War Council, known as the “Big Six”, for 10am the following morning, August 9, to meet in the air-raid shelter under his burnt-out palace.
We will never know what they might have decided about Hiroshima because overnight news came through that the Soviets had invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, scattering the poorly equipped Japanese armies there. This meant that virtually the entire world was now fighting Japan but, more immediately, the plan to ask the Soviets to mediate peace negotiations with the Allies was now in ruins and there was now a real threat that Japan itself might be partitioned and partly communised, as had just happened to Germany.
News of the atom-bombing of Nagasaki came through while the meeting was in progress but had no effect on the deliberations. The “Big Six” were still unable to agree and the same thing happened when the full Cabinet met that afternoon. Finally, late that night, the still-divided Cabinet agreed to ask Hirohito, who had not said a word, what he thought. Asked for his opinion (against all Japanese constitutional practice), Hirohito said the time had come to “endure the unendurable” and accept the Potsdam terms. After a last appeal to continue the fight from the War Minister, General Korechika Anami (“We can still achieve something and get better terms than these,” he claimed), the Emperor helped draft the surrender declaration. It was Anami who, in Hirohito’s name, issued the orders to Japanese units in the field to lay down their arms. His duty to his Emperor done, as he saw it, Anami killed himself.
What part did the atom bomb play in all this? According to the Strategic Bombing Survey, “the atom bombs did not change a single vote on the Supreme War Council, although they did add to the general gloom”. The problem here is that Japan’s surrender was, as historians say, “over-determined”; there was quite enough gloom in Japan already, without the need to add more. The view that the Japanese military was intimidated by either the atom bombs or Truman’s threat of more and more powerful ones (a piece of bluff) into seeking peace is simply an exercise in ill-informed guesswork.
If World War II taught us one lesson, it is that military leaders safe in bunkers can accept enormous civilian casualties without flinching, and no-one asks the bombed civilians whether they are in favour of peace or not (but, even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the survivors were ready to fight on). What really ended the war was a threat to something the Japanese leaders saw as more important than the deaths of mere civilians (more than half a million had already died in the fire raids) – the political destruction of the Japanese nation itself. A quick surrender before the Soviets arrived seemed the best way out, and history, and the Cold War, have proved that they guessed correctly.
What can be said for atom bombs on their one use in real war? Against an already beaten opponent, who was universally detested, facing starvation, without any allies or means of reprisal – and whose flimsy cities were made of inflammable wood, paper and straw – they might have added something to the imminent and inevitable outcome, but at the cost of resentment and guilt feelings which still fester today half a century on. These preconditions occur very seldom in the real world, not surprisingly, so no-one has found another situation in which the use of nuclear weapons seemed to outweigh their enormous downside of universal revulsion, plus the risk of uncontrolled escalation.
Against a non-nuclear opponent, their use discredits any cause they are supposed to be upholding, particularly if the cause is the democratic one of personal justice and individual, rather than group, racial or national responsibility. Against a nuclear opponent, they promise universal, mutually assured destruction, known by the appropriate acronym MAD. Atom bombs are not, in short, practicable weapons of war, except for the purposes of terror, or terrorists, their likeliest next users. Robert Oppenheimer once said that unless nuclear weapons were controlled, or better still eliminated, men would one day curse the name of Los Alamos. All too probably, he may yet be proved right.
For a thorough and excellent discussion of this subject, see Desultory Heroics:
The Real Reasons America Used Nuclear Weapons Against Japan