“It was not one atomic bomb, or two, which brought (Japan’s) surrender; it was the experience of what an atomic bomb will actually do to a community, plus the dread of many more, that was effective,” said Dr. Karl Compton, a prominent American physicist and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1930 to 1948. Compton was one of eight members of the Interim Committee appointed to advise President Harry S. Truman on the use of the atomic bomb.
But it was actually on U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s final recommendation that “the bomb” was used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and then on Nagasaki on August 9.
In a Harper’s magazine article two years after the bombs fell, Stimson said: “All the evidence I have seen indicate the controlling factor in the final Japanese surrender was the two atomic bombs.”
What the Japanese didn’t know, according to Stimson, was that the U.S. had only the two bombs used on the Japanese cities at its disposal and it would take time to build more. If the war continued until November 1, which was the anticipated date of the invasion of the Japanese homeland, there wouldn’t be other A-bombs available to cower the enemy into submission.
Despite the lack of other bombs, Truman said in an Associated Press article, dated one day after the bomb fell on Nagasaki, that only a Japanese surrender would stop the “use of the terrible new atomic bomb.”
Stimson said the A-bomb was more than a weapon of mass destruction — it was also a powerful “psychological weapon.” He was right in both instances as shown by the surrender occurring so quickly after the bombs fell.
Just as 24,000 Canadians were being shipped to the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO), Emperor Hirohito, facing the prospect of what he believed to be the potential for more destruction, announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies, ending the Second World War on August 14, 1945.
In hindsight, many have argued that dropping the “bomb” was unnecessary. But at the time, it was welcomed by those expecting to continue the fight during the invasion of the Japanese homeland — an invasion that was predicted to result in the death or the infliction of at least tens of thousands of casualties.
Years ago, I talked to a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot who had been stationed in the PTO during the war. He was adamant in his belief that dropping the bomb saved thousands of Allies lives and brought the war to a quick end. It is a belief I have heard continually expressed by other veterans.
Six years into the Second World War, it wasn’t only fighting men and women who were weary of war, but also politicians and the public. The top policy makers in the U.S. worried about ending the war quickly, not the morality of their decision to drop the bomb.
“We have used it,” said Truman, “in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lifes of thousands of thousands of young Americans.”
Canadians, who experienced the horrors of Japanese prisoner of war camps, following the December 1941 debacle at Hong Kong, and then were freed from sure death in the camps with the A-bombs’ release, also didn’t consider the morality of the decision. The 42,000 Canadians expected to take part in the invasion of the Japanese homeland, were also grateful that their services were no longer required.
Today, historians have the advantage of access to documents that the Second World War fighting troops would never have seen, nor, for that matter, cared about. They were more interested in their survival than the thoughts and actions of their political masters, although they did recognize the overall intent of their cause was the ultimate defeat of the tyranny posed by the Axis powers.
The historical record seems to indicate that the dropping of the bomb may have been unnecessary, as Japan was on the verge of surrender. A strategic bombing survey conducted by the American war department immediately following the war concluded that Japan would have surrendered before November 1 without the use of the bomb. Japanese cities were being shattered by conventional bombing. During 10 days in March 1945, 11,600 B-29 incendiary bomb sorties had wiped out large sections of Japan’s four largest cities, killing at least 150,000 people and making another million homeless.
Yet, the Kamikaze attacks on American ships and the fight to the death battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa clearly showed that the Japanese will to fight had not been destroyed. In addition, the lessons learned from Nazi Germany showed that the destruction of cities by conventional air attacks did not destroy moral nor the will to continue fighting. It was not until the death of Adolf Hitler and the capture of Berlin by Soviet (Russian) troops that Germany surrendered to the Allies.
The morality of dropping the A-bomb on civilians did play on the minds of policy makers. Some of Truman’s advisors even argued for a type of demonstration of the bomb’s destructive power. “It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisors knew it ... (it) is certain that the very claim the bomb prevented half a million deaths is unsupportable,” wrote J. Samuel Walker, a U.S. government historian with the nuclear regulatory agency in 1990.
In 1978, historians found confirmation in Truman’s diary that surrender had been discussed before the bombing of Hiroshima. In an entry, Truman wrote of a “telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” The entry came after a cable had been deciphered from Hirohito to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, asking the Soviets to intervene on behalf of peace talks with the Americans. The only stipulation was that Hirohito be allowed to continue as emperor after the war.
“This was a condition, of course, that Truman gave to Japan — after he dropped the bomb,” diplomatic historian and author Kai Bird told a reporter for the Globe and Mail, following the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.
During the Potsdam Conference, where Soviet dictator Stalin, Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to divide up Europe into spheres of influence, Stalin did promise to join in the war against Japan. But territorial gains in Manchuria and Korea, not peace, was at the top of his agenda. In fact, two days after Hiroshima was destroyed by the A-bomb, the Soviets declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria.
The fact that the bomb was used in 1945 can be seen as a great injustice perpetrated against all of humanity, as the threat of nuclear destruction looms like the sword of Damocles over the head of everyone living on this fragile planet.
The Second World War ended abruptly with the use of the bomb, but to this day, its impact reverberates around the globe. The ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still haunt the world.