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From You Know What They Say…: The Truth About Popular Beliefs
(Harper Collins, 1990)


Debunking a Convenient Myth About the Destruction of Hiroshima & Nagasaki

By Alfie Kohn

Many nations have tested nuclear weapons, but only one has ever used them. That nation is the United States; the bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 incinerated more than 100,000 residents of those cities and left perhaps twice that number dying slowly from radiation poisoning. In the absence of a compelling justification, these acts would surely have to be numbered among the most horrific crimes in human history. But, as President Harry Truman and countless other Americans have maintained, there was such a justification: short of using the A-Bomb, only a full-scale invasion of Japan would have convinced its leaders to surrender, and that would have resulted in an even higher death toll.

How many lives actually would have been lost in such an invasion is not clear. While Truman threw around figures like 500,000 and even one million American dead, the historian Barton Bernstein writes that military planners at the time put the number between 20,000 and 46,000. But far more disturbing than this discrepancy is the strong possibility that neither an invasion nor a nuclear attack was actually necessary to get Japan to surrender.

By June 1945, U.S. firebombing already had wiped out substantial portions of Japan’s six largest cities and the people who lived there. As many as one million residents of Tokyo were left homeless from such bombing in March. No oil shipments were getting into the country, which was utterly dependent on imported fuel, and, by early August, 90 percent of Japanese merchant shipping had been destroyed.

It is true that the Japanese were famous for fighting to the death; indeed, there were some elements in the country’s military who resisted the idea of surrender even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there is good reason to believe that the men in charge were on the verge of calling it quits before the Bombs were dropped. The only thing holding up a surrender, which almost surely would have come before an invasion, was the Japanese concern that their Emperor retain his title. This condition, of course, the U.S. ultimately accepted.

In 1944, the War Department* set up a study group called the Strategic Bombing Survey to investigate the effects of aerial attacks. A report issued from that office in 1946 contains the following conclusion:

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs did not defeat Japan, nor by the testimony of the enemy leaders who ended the war did they persuade Japan to accept unconditional surrender. The Emperor, the Lord Privy Seal, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and the Navy Minister had decided as early as May of 1945 that the war should be ended even if it meant acceptance of defeat on allied terms…. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, 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 completed.

Recently, another 1946 document was discovered in the National Archives. This one, a secret intelligence study by the Army’s top planning and operations group, came to essentially the same conclusion: an invasion “would not have been necessary” and the A-bomb was not decisive in ending the war; the Japanese surrender had more to do with the possibility that our ally, the Soviet Union, was about to get involved in the Pacific war.

This view was echoed by key U.S. military leaders. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….In being the first to use [the atomic bomb] we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” said Admiral William D. Leahy, who was the President’s Chief of Staff and the nation’s senior military officer. Much the same opinion was offered by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Japan was already thoroughly beaten [by late July]…It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”) and by Winston Churchill.

One might object that these assessments were merely speculative. The fact is, however, that U.S. policy makers knew beforehand that Japan was ready to surrender. In July, American intelligence had intercepted a cable from Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to his ambassador in Moscow that referred to “His Majesty’s strong desire to secure a termination of the war ….Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.” (“Unconditional surrender” refers to the issue of the Emperor’s being allowed to remain in place.)

Even to the extent that any doubt remains about whether the Japanese would have given up, the most damning evidence against Truman may be the way he approached the decision. The fearsome new weapon was not treated as an option of last resort. It would be easier to accept the argument that he had no choice but to drop the Bomb if other possibilities — such as demonstrating its power to Japanese leaders on an unpopulated island and demanding surrender — had been carefully considered. They were not. There was never a serious attempt to find a strategy short of obliterating the children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Yale sociologist Kai Erikson put it, using nuclear weapons was not, “by any stretch of the imagination, a product of mature consideration….We have it on the authority of virtually all the principal players that no one in a position to do anything about it ever really considered alternatives” to dropping the Bomb on Japan.

This leaves us to agonize over one of the most important questions of the century: why? A review of the historical record suggests two reasons. First, so much money had been sunk into the development of the Bomb that many policy makers came to feel its use was inevitable. We had managed to invent a weapon of unprecedented destructive power and we were determined to try it out — it was that simple. The fact that we wiped out a second city after having made our deadly point at Hiroshima lends credence to this idea: the second bomb was made of plutonium instead of uranium, and it has been suggested that the civilians of Nagasaki died in what was, in effect, a grotesque scientific experiment.

Second, the Bombs were dropped as the U.S. was busy preparing to take political and economic control of much of the post-War world. Thus, the intended audience of what we did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been the Soviets rather than the Japanese; August 6, 1945 could be seen as the opening salvo of the Cold War.

This theory, along with detailed documentation for it, has been offered by Gar Alperovitz in his book Atomic Diplomacy. He points, for example, to the fact that the powerful Secretary of State James Byrnes did not suggest to Truman that the Bomb was necessary to win the War; he emphasized instead that it “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.” In fact, Alperovitz argues, the Bomb also gave U.S. policy makers “sufficient confidence” to consciously and unilaterally breach “specific understandings Roosevelt had reached with the Soviet leadership” with respect to the future of Europe. This, needless to say, is not the version of the Cold War taught in high school history classes (although it is being given more credence these days by mainstream historians).

In sum, by the middle of 1945, most remaining Japanese soldiers were fighting chiefly to preserve their Emperor. But Truman had by that time agreed to accept a surrender that left the Emperor in place, which means, in Alperovitz’s words, that “at the time he permitted the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings he was aware — on the best advice available –- that the war could in all likelihood be ended on terms which he had already deemed acceptable.” The idea that the A-Bomb had to be used in order to save lives would therefore seem to be a fiction that most Americans have preferred not to question.


On invasion casualty estimates: B.J. Bernstein, “A Postwar Myth,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June/July 1986, 38-40; R.E. Miles, Jr., “Hiroshima,” International Security 10 (1985): 121-40.

On extent of damage to Japan: W. Reissner, “Why Truman Used the Atom Bomb,” Intercontinental Press, 19 August 1985: 501-3.

Strategic Bombing Survey: Report 2 – “Japan’s Struggle to End the War,” 1 July 1946. See

National Archives Document: see G. Alperovitz, “Did We Have to Drop the Bomb?” New York Times, 3 August 1989, A23.

Various quotations and evidence on Japan’s readiness to surrender: see R.J.C. Butow, Japan’s Decision to Surrender (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1954), esp. pp. 130-35; and G. Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy, 2nd ed. (New York: Penguin, 1985) (which will lead you to hundreds of other sources).

Erikson’s analysis: K. Erikson, “Of Accidental Judgments and Casual Slaughters,” The Nation, 3/10 August 1985, 65, 80-85.

*The name was subsequently changed to imply that all American military actions are, by definition, a matter of defense.

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