Today, I’m featuring a guest post from James Chen. In this essay he explores how the Truman administration’s decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 was not only morally reprehensible, but made no strategic military sense. Please feel free to offer your thoughts on this essay in the comments section. I’ll be back next week. – Natylie
According to the standard history textbooks in U.S. high schools, Hirohito, the Japanese emperor, announced the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, after two atomic bombs had been dropped – one at Hiroshima and one at Nagasaki – by the Americans, thus ending the second world war in the Pacific theater.
There have been constant debates regarding the decision made by President Truman to drop the atomic bombs. Most of the discussions on the subject are focused on the necessity of the use of the bombs. On one end of the spectrum, the supporters of the decision emphasize the sparing of American soldiers’ lives and the seemingly apparent effect of the bombs pushing Hirohito to announce the surrender. On the other end, the opponents claim the emperor had already sensed the inevitability of defeat and would have surrendered, given the face-saving term of keeping the emperor, without the horrible effect of the bombs.
By analyzing all the articles on both sides, in general, the supporters are usually arguing based on incorrect or insufficient historical data, and even fallacious logic. However, most of the opponents frequently fall into believing a myth, ignoring the war criminality of Emperor Hirohito, and/or disrespecting the consensus arrived at among the allies at the Potsdam Conference: seeking unconditional surrender from Japan.
So, some discussion on the fundamentals and the revelation of historical facts should precede meaningful analysis and a final conclusion on the matter.
The first fundamental question to ask is, “How does one make any enemy surrender in a war?”
There are basically two ways to make an enemy surrender:
a. By providing acceptable (face-saving) terms or by credibly threatening to end the leader’s life, which was a common practice throughout human history in wars involving feudal kingdoms and empires, before the birth of modern democratic republics. The empire of Japan was one archetypal example of a feudal monarch.
b. By rendering your enemy unable to conduct the war. This can be achieved in several possible ways: by eliminating the leader’s command structure; by destroying a significant portion of his fighting forces, weapon manufacturers, infrastructure, transportation and communication, industrial resources, fuel, food and water supplies; or, occupying a critical portion of his territory.
The second fundamental question is whether the Truman administration followed these guidelines to win the war. In the summer of 1945, the top U.S. government officials from the newly sworn-in president on down didn’t seem to follow these essential guidelines to win the war against Imperial Japan, though the end of war was so near.
In my estimation, they made at least five crucial mistakes:
The first mistake was not recognizing the significance of the Japanese effort to relocate their capital. It’s indisputable that from the summer of 1942 through 1945, the American Navy in the Pacific, almost single-handedly, had reduced the powerful Imperial Japanese navy down to a wreckage. All the Japanese cities were within bombing range of the Americans, using either land-based heavy to medium bombers or carrier based light bombers. However, the Japanese Army was still in nearly full strength in Manchukuo and the occupied territories of China.
Although the Japanese government was sensing ultimate defeat in the future, there was no imminent need to comply with the Allies’ unconditional surrender demand. An intense negotiation was in progress with the Soviet Union in the hopes that the Soviets would continue to stay neutral. In the meantime, due to fear of possible destruction or occupation of Tokyo by American forces, the Japanese government had already started the relocation process of moving the central government from Tokyo to Hsinjin (New Capital in Japanese, nowadays Changtsun), Manchuria, to continue their fight with nearly one million untouched Kwantung Army soldiers.
The Japanese imperial military thinking followed the doctrine of the traditional Chinese military: when an empire still has the strength to fight offensively, it should not remain in defensive mode; when it still has the ability to defend itself, it should not try to retreat; when it still has the option to retreat, it should not consider surrendering. For the emperor, when surrendering is allowed, there’s no need to fight to the death, nor to commit suicide. It is fair to say that the Japanese government would not have considered surrendering unless Manchuria was invaded. Consequently, dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki would just waste a bomb and slaughter a huge number of civilians for no purpose.
The second mistake was continuing to indulge in an unproven myth to the point where no effort was made to destroy the Japanese commanding structure.
For reasons seldom discussed, there was a major myth clung to in the U.S. Department of War during this time – a myth that neither the Chinese nor the Soviets embraced. That is if the Japanese Emperor were harmed, the Japanese would fight to their last. This represented completely illogical thinking for there’s never been such a phenomenon observed nor recorded in the whole of human history.
History actually shows the opposite to be true. Whenever the head of a feudal monarchy was killed, the monarchy either collapsed or suffered an existential crisis. By not threatening Hirohito’s life directly then, the American government was violating the essential guidelines of war and choosing to slaughter more Japanese soldiers and civilians unnecessarily, while prolonging the conflict.
The third mistake was not knowing how and where to use the atomic bomb.
The Department of War had no comprehensive planning regarding how to use the atomic bombs to achieve the strategic goals of war – i.e. to shorten the length of war while reducing allied casualties.
Emperor Hirohito had already demonstrated he had no remorse over the high number of Japanese civilian casualties incurred after the incendiary bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 by American bombers. Furthermore, he again demonstrated his disregard by refusing to surrender after President Truman had threatened a “prompt and utter destruction” to his country.
Bombing militarily irrelevant cities would not reduce allied casualties and killing civilians would not shorten the war since it clearly was not going to make a self-proclaimed divine emperor blink.
The fourth mistake was not sufficiently coordinating with other allied forces, mainly the Soviets.
During the Yalta conference in February of 1945, then-President Roosevelt acquired consent from Stalin to send troops to the Far East to help the Americans defeat the Japanese. During the Potsdam conference a few months later in July, Stalin affirmed this promise to President Truman to invade Manchuria in early August.
If the American government would have made efforts to support the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, they would have quickly observed the Japanese government changing their stance regarding surrender since, by that time, the Japanese would have realized their retreat was going to be cut off and their Kwantung Army destroyed.
The fifth mistake was trying to start another war.
Instead of solely focusing on finishing the on-going war as quickly and justly as possible, the Truman administration appears to have had another priority – starting what would become the Cold War with the Soviets. Truman had the Potsdam conference postponed for two weeks in order for the first atomic bomb testing in history to be conducted. Then, during the conference, Truman was informed of the successful explosion. The meeting subsequently turned more confrontational. A couple of weeks later, on July 26, the United States, the British Empire and the Republic of China issued the unconditional surrender declaration to the Japanese government. It would have been much more effective had the Soviet Union been included in the declaration.
But Truman seemed to care more about ending the war soon enough that the Soviets would take less territory from Japan, demonstrating the power of the atomic bomb to intimidate the Soviets (who would be emerging from WWII as the world’s other superpower), and keeping the Japanese imperial system intact so it could serve the same purpose as that of the Anti-Comintern Pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire in 1936. This would finish the current war in such a way as to usher in the cold war – a situation benefiting American capitalists whose profits had skyrocketed from war mobilization.
The third question to be asked is how did history really play out?
After having been informed of the Potsdam Declaration, urging the unconditional surrender of Japan, Emperor Hirohito did not convene any cabinet meeting on the subject of surrender.
Meanwhile, on August 6, without waiting for the incoming invasion of Manchuria by the Soviets, President Truman rushed to drop the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, killing 100,000 Japanese, of which the absolute majority were civilians. It was hardly a military target. Unsurprisingly, Emperor Hirohito did not even bother to respond.
On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, with the mighty Red Army crossing the border into Manchuria after midnight.
The Japanese cabinet of six convened at 10:00am, August 9, ten hours after the Soviet invasion, following the traditional doctrines of war i.e. when retreat is not possible, surrender is the next step.
Unfortunately, another unnecessary bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki at around 11:00am, killing another 60,000 hapless civilians. Hence, the two atomic bombs were dropped in the wrong places, at the wrong times, on the wrong groups of people, for the wrong purpose.
On August 15th, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender to the Japanese people and the Allies. Afterwards, General MacArthur exonerated the indisputable culpability of Emperor Hirohito, suggesting the emperor only had the power to end a war, but no power to start a war. And, Japan was quickly rehabilitated into an Anti-Soviet bastion.
Dropping two atomic bombs on noncombatants is horrible. However, it possibly would have been worse if the Soviets had not invaded Manchuria on August 9, 1945. According to U.S. government documents, the Truman administration had a total of twelve atomic bombs in hand. Had Hirohito not had reason to finally surrender, there could have been a total of 12 cities destroyed and around one million Japanese, mainly civilians, killed.
All of the foregoing facts beg the question: could Hirohito have interpreted the bombing of irrelevant civilians as a message, “Don’t worry, we won’t hurt you if you don’t surrender?” We’ll probably never know for sure, but upon closer scrutiny, the whole approach to Japan by the Truman administration doesn’t make much logical or strategic sense for the purpose of ending the war as quickly as possible with the fewest allied casualties.
One thing is for sure: If the Americans cannot learn history in a serious and critical way, our days of being the leader of the world are numbered.
James J. Chen has had a life-long interest in history, politics, and the humanities. He has begun writing on these topics, with a particular emphasis on the the U.S.’s role in the evolution of the modern world. He lives and practices medicine in the San Francisco Bay Area. His website address is: https://jamesjchen.wixsite.com/save-the-country.