Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes


Question for Discussion:
Did the United States need to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in order to end World War II?

Reading: Williams, Once Again the Policeman, The Curators Cave In:
Smithsonian editorial ;
; U.S. Bombing Survey (1946); Alperovitz "More on
Atomic Diplomacy"
; Weber, Was Hiroshima Necessary?

Video: The Day after Trinity, Atomic Cafe

Daily Class Web Links

The Impact of the Atomic Bomb on Japan

The U.S. Decision to Drop the
Atomic Bomb

The Atomic Bomb and the Nuclear
Arms Race

Daily Class Outline

1. Critical Thinking about History

  • Why did the U.S. start the Iraq war in 2003

  • Why do Historians understanding of the Iraq war
    differ from popular understanding of the Iraq war ?

  • Does is matter what Historians Think?

  • What can we learn from the history of the Iraq War?

2. The Atomic Bombing of Japan

3. The Enola Gay Exhibit Controversy

4. The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

5. The U.S. Decision to drop the Bombs

6. The Atomic Bomb and the Cold War



Daily Class Questions

1. Do you accept Stimson's argument that after spending so much money producing an atomic bomb that it was necessary to use it in order to justify all the money spent to build it?

2. Do you accept Stimson's argument that dropping the atomic bomb prevented an American invasion of Japan?

3. If Truman had already concluded that Japan was ready to surrender, why did he decide to drop the atomic bomb on Japan?

4. What do you think Stimson meant when he wrote in his diary that "the atomic bomb was the United States' master card in dealing, not just with Japan, but with the Soviet Union as well"?

5. Why did Truman use the atomic bomb on Japan when he wrote in his diary that Japan would surrender as soon as the Soviet Union entered the war? Why didn't he wait for the Soviets to enter the war?

6. Why did Truman tell the American people that it was necessary to drop the atomic bomb on Japan to end the war when many top military leaders such as Eisenhower, Leahy, and Bard told him that it wasn't necessary to
drop the bomb?

7. Why didn't Truman allow the Japaneese to make a conditional surrender, with the terms that they could keep their Emperor, knowing that this would have allowed the war to end in June 1945?

8. What did Secretary of State Byrnes mean when he argued that "rattling the bomb miht make Russia more manageable"?

9. Why if most American historians have concluded that it wasn't necessary to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in order to end the war do so many Americans continue to believe that dropping the bomb ended the war?

10. What does it mean that the American military's own study, "U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey," in 1946 concluded that it wasn't necessary to drop the bomb on Japan" is ignored by President Truman and other Americans who still insist that we were forced to drop the bomb?

11. Why are so many Americans so uncomfortable with the growing evidence that the United States didn't need to drop the bomb to end the war against Japan?

12. What are the larger conclusions that Americans would be forced to draw if they accepted this evidence that the U.S. didn't need to drop the bomb in order to force Japan to surrender?



Daily Class Notes

Critical Dates for Understanding Truman's Decision

1. Truman delays Potsdam meeting with the Soviets until he is informed that the atomic bomb was successfully tested. The atomic bomb exploded in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16th, and the Postdam meeting began on July 17th, 1945.b

2. At Postdam, Truman gets the Soviets to agree to enter the war a week later than they had originally promised, moving the date from August 8th to August 15th, 1945.

3. After Soviets agree to enter the war against Japan on August 15th, Truman then orders that the Atomic bombs be dropped on August 6th and 9th, 1945.

4. If Truman thought that the war would be over as soon as the Soviets entered the war against Japan, why did he drop the atomic bombs on Japan before the Soviets could enter the war on August 15th, 1945?

5. Recognizing that the United States had misled them, after the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, the Russians entered the war against Japan on August 9th. After the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and the Russian entry into the war on August 9th, the Japanese surrendered on August 10th and the U.S. accepted their surrender on August 15th--the day the Russians were scheduled to enter the war against Japan.

6. In order to keep the Russians out of any peace settlement with Japan and prevent any Russian claims on Asia, the United States accepted the Japanese offer of conditional surrender on August 10th.The Japanese surrender wasn't an unconditional surrender, which President Truman had demanded of the Japanese since May 1945. 

7.  Had the United States allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor  the Japanese would have surrendered much earlier, as early as June 1945 when the Japanese offered a conditional surrender through Russian and Italian intermediaries.


The Real Reason Truman dropped the Atomic Bomb

"Secretary of State James Byrnes wanted to use the atomic bomb to end the war before 'Moscow could in so much on the kill.' Byrnes did not argue that is was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of the Japan in order to win the war.... Byrnes's...view was that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable."  President Truman wanted to end the war before the Russians could enter the war against Japan in Asia.  Truman didn't want Russia to play a major role in determining the post-war peace in Asia.

   While at the Potsdam meeting, Truman National Security Advisor, James Byrnes advised Truman that a combat display of the weapon might be used to bully Russia into submission, and the the bomb "might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war."
                                                *******

Or, consider a diary entry by Walter Brown, an assistant to Secretary of State Byrnes which clearly suggests Truman and Byrnes saw the bomb as a way to reduce Soviet political influence in Asia. Brown noted that Byrnes, whom Truman had designated his main adviser on the issue, was 'hoping for time, believing that after (the) atomic bomb Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill, thereby being in a position to press for claims in China'.

In other words, to ensure that the Americans had an advantage in the US-Soviet scramble to grab China, a quarter of a million Japanese, mostly women and children, had to die.
                                            ********

When General Marshall dispatched Truman's order to drop the atomic bomb, Marshall already believed that Japan had lost the war. Shortly before he died, Marshall told an interviewer that the atomic bomb had precipitated the surrender only "by months."


First let's go to the Pro and Con Arguments on Dropping the Atomic Bomb site on the internet. There you will find competing perspectives on whether the United States needed to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Notice that the arguments for dropping the bomb on Japan focus on saving American lives in the event of an invasion of Japan, quickly ending the war, and preventing the Soviets from playing a major role in the post-war peace settlement with Japan. However, one of the major arguments against using the bomb was to intimidate the Soviets in a game of "power politics between the U.S. and the Soviet Union." I will argue that, in fact, as one of the pro arguments for dropping the bomb states, "the bomb's use impressed the Soviet Union and halted the war quickly enough that the USSR did not demand joint occupation of Japan." The conventional arguments for dropping the bomb--to prevent an invasion and to force Japan to surrender--are not the real reasons for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. The truth is that President Truman made a conscious and calculated decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in order to intimidate the Soviet Union and force the Russians to accept American leadership and domination of the post-war world. The larger unanswered question is why President Truman did not tell the American people the truth and instead fabricated a story about saving American lives and the bomb being necessary to force Japan to surrender.

Let's look at the conventional arguments used to support the atomic bombing of Japan that McGeorge Bundy restates in his essay, "Danger and Survival." In order to understand McGeorge Bundy's position, we need to remember that he co-wrote an influential article with the Secretary of War Stimson in 1946 justifying the use of the atomic bomb. His current essay merely rehashes the points he made supporting dropping the atomic bomb in 1946. In fact, in 1946, President Truman encouraged Stimson to write a defense of his decision to drop the bomb. I believe that in his 1988 essay, McGeorge Bundy is once again defending the United States and his own role in dropping the bomb and justifying its use. Therefore, we must recognize that McGeorge Bundy's arguments are biased and used to justify and support his own role in the United States' efforts to convince Americans and others that it had to use to bomb to end the war against Japan.

McGeorge Bundy argues that the President Truman and the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in order to end the war and win a complete victory as fast as possible. He argues that dropping the bomb saved hundreds of thousands of American lives that would have been lost if the United States was forced to invade Japan. McGeorge Bundy also argues that the atomic bomb was used just like any other weapon of war; the U.S. military did not see the atomic bomb as anything other than an instrument of war. In fact, he argues that there is little difference between the conventional destruction of Tokyo that killed 100,000 people caused by conventional American saturation bombing and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima which also killed 100,000 people. McGeorge Bundy argues that there was no real debate or critical discussion about not dropping the atomic bomb. He claims that the President's advisors and the American military were unanimous in their support for dropping the bomb. He concludes that the bomb was dropped in 1945 to "shorten the war, and in that they succeeded." For McGeorge Bundy, as for many Americans since, there is little reason to question why the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.

But let's look at the mounting evidence that the conventional arguments supporting dropping the atomic bomb are misguided and disingenuous. In fact, as a result of recent work by American historians, the Smithsonian museum was prepared to open its exhibit on the Hiroshima bombing by carefully looking at both sides of the debate over whether we should have dropped the bomb. But conservative politicians, numerous veteran groups, and other concerned Americans forced the Smithsonian to rework its planned exhibit to focus and highlight the arguments supporting dropping the bomb and discount the arguments against. Why after fifty years would Americans still be so emotionally and politically divided over the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima? I will argue that these divisions are the result of the nagging suspicion that the United States government lied to the American people about the true reasons for dropping the bomb. Americans are forced to accept the conventional arguments supporting dropping the bomb or admit that their President lied to them about the real reasons for dropping the bomb. This creates a complex and difficult dilemma for many Americans.

Let's now look at the growing and substantial evidence that the United States did not need to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in order to end the war. In 1946, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey examined the evidence and concluded that that "certainly prior to December 31, 1945, and in all probability prior to November 1, 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 contemplated." In June 1945, the United States had intercepted Japanese cables to the Soviet Union seeking help with their offer of surrender. In addition, American diplomats and negotiators in June 1945 told President Truman that the Japanese were seeking to surrender on one condition--that they be allowed to keep their emperor. But President Truman and the United States refused these initial Japanese offers, demanding that Japan surrender unconditionally and agree to give up their emperor.

In June and July 1945 American planes, using saturation bombing, firebombed and destroyed 59 out of Japan's 66 largest cities, killing over one million people and leaving 20 million homeless. If American planes controlled the skies over Japan, why did we just continue to bomb Japanese cities with conventional bombs in order to force them to surrender? We now know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of a small number of Japanese cities sparred from this saturation bombing in order to determine the effects of an atomic bomb on a city. Clearly, American bombing and the complete American naval blockade of Japan in the summer of 1945 was slowly strangling Japan.

In June 1945, top American military commanders advised President Truman not to use the atomic bomb. General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of American forces in Europe, told Secretary of War Stimson "that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary." In July 1945 Eisenhower met with Truman and advised him not to use the bomb. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Leahy, also advised Truman not to drop the atomic bomb, arguing that Japan was already defeated. Moreover, the Army Air Force Chief, General Henry Arnold, believed that Japan would have surrendered without the use of the atomic bomb and without an American invasion of Japan. So when McGeorge Bundy and others argue that the military unanimously supported the dropping of the atomic bomb, he is simply wrong.

As a result of President Truman's own argument that he dropped the bomb in order to avoid a costly American invasion of Japan, many Americans believe the bomb was necessary because it saved American lives. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy in their 1946 article defending the dropping of the bomb argued that it prevented up to one million American casualties that would result from an American invasion. But there is no military evidence that the casualties would be this high. In fact, the highest military casualty figures for an American invasion of Japan are 46,000. But this is really beside the point. There is no real evidence that American leaders were seriously preparing an invasion of Japan. Our military leaders and diplomats were telling President Truman that they were ready to surrender. So why do American Presidents and other Americans continue to use this argument that the bomb prevented a costly American invasion?

Let's now look at the real reason President Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. In his own diaries as early as June 1945, Truman indicates that he knows that Japan is trying to surrender. In his July 1945 diary Truman writes that: "Stalin will be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about." In writing to his wife on July 18th, Truman said: "I've gotten what I came for--Stalin goes to war on August 15th with no strings on it...I'll say that we'll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won't be killed." But if Truman realized that the Japanese would surrender soon after the Russians entered the war, why did he drop the atomic bombs about one week before the Russians declared war against Japan? If he wanted to end the war quickly and save lives as he said he did, why didn't he simply wait for the Russians to enter the fighting against Japan on August 15th? This is the critical question to ask in order to understand the real reasons the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.

In July 1945, Truman delayed the Potsdam meetings between himself, Churchill, and Stalin until he heard whether the atomic bomb worked. Being informed of the successful test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16th, Truman agreed to allow the Potsdam meetings to begin on July 17th. During his meeting with Stalin, Truman got the Russians to delay their entry into the war against Japan a week; they agreed to enter the fight against Japan on August 15th and not on August 8th has they had originally agreed to. After Truman got the Russians to delay their entry into the war, he then gave the order to drop the atomic bombs in the weeks before the Russian entry into the war. But why did he do this, knowing that the Japanese were already defeated and that Russian entry would force the Japanese to accept an unconditional surrender?

Clearly, President Truman wanted to quickly force the Japanese to accept an American unconditional surrender before the Russians could get involved in the war and demand a role in the post-war peace in Asia. Recognizing that the United States had misled them, after the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, the Russians entered the war against Japan on August 9th. After the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and the Russian entry into the war on August 9th, the Japanese surrendered on August 10th.  In order to keep the Russians out of any peace settlement with Japan and prevent any Russian claims on Asia, the United States accepted the Japanese offer of conditional surrender on August 15th.The Japanese surrender wasn't an unconditional surrender, which President Truman had demanded of the Japanese since May 1945. The United States allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor, which if we had done in June 1945 the Japanese would have surrendered much earlier. So why then did we drop the atomic bombs on Japan?  To keep the Russians out of the war against Japan and out of Asia.  When the atomic bombing didn't succeed in getting an unconditional surrender, the United States accepted a Japanese conditional surrender in order to keep the Russians out of the war.

Truman explained his actions at the Potsdam conference this way: "One of the main objectives of the Potsdam Conference was to get Russia in as quickly as we could and then to keep Russia out of Japan--and I did it." Truman's Secretary of State James Byrnes wanted to use the atomic bomb to end the war before Moscow "could get in so much of the kill." Byrnes told Leo Szilard in May 1945 that "rattling the bomb might make Russia more manageable." Truman himself refers to what the Russians would later call dangerous "atomic diplomacy" by describing his strategy for dealing with the Russians: "He doesn't know it but I have an ace in the hole and another one showing--so unless he has two pairs (and I know he has not) we are sitting all right." For Truman and Byrnes, dropping the atomic bomb on Japan would quickly force Japan to surrender on American terms before the Russians could get into the way and would also demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the United States had the will and the power to use the atomic bomb against its enemies. So why didn't President Truman go to the American people and tell them the truth about why he dropped the atomic bombs?

After dropping the atomic bombs, President Truman and the United States immediately faced harsh criticism from Americans and Europeans, some who compared the American bombing with the German holocaust. Facing this criticism and worried about re-election, Truman lied to the American people about the real reasons the United States dropped the bomb. Instead of telling the truth, Truman and other top American officials created a series of lies that have become the conventional arguments for dropping the bomb. McGeorge Bundy participated in the creation of these falsehoods in 1946, and is still spreading these lies in his 1988 essay. Many would now ask why so many Americans still believe these lies despite the growing historical evidence that the United States did not need to drop the bomb in order to defeat Japan.

In conclusion, the American atomic bombing of Japan was the first act in a growing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In order to win support for American's involvement in the Cold War, President and top government officials often lied to the American people, feeling that Americans could not be trusted to understand and accept the real reasons for American actions. The atomic bombing of Japan is the first of many lies Presidents and American officials will tell the American people. The larger question must be raised: What is the impact on American democracy of American leaders lying to the American people and no longer trusting them to support American Cold War policies. Can America be a democracy when its government lies to the American people and prevents them from freely and openly debating American foreign and domestic policy? Can America be a democracy when its leaders no longer trust Americans to make the rights decisions in order to support American global economic, political, and military dominance? These are the larger troubling questions raised as a result of the debate over the American atomic bombing of Japan. Rather than face the larger, disturbing truth that American Presidents have lied to them, many Americans continue to support these lies. If we didn't drop the atomic bomb to save lives and force the Japanese to surrender, then why did we do it, and why did the President lie to the American people? These are dangerous and forbidden questions that the debate over the Smithsonian exhibit proves Americans are still unwilling to ask.


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Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 1 June 2000:  Last Modified: 16 October, 2012
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/1025/index.htm


American History 1025