I wrote this paper 3 years ago for a class I took on Chinese and Japanese
History (19 years old) and submitted it recently for a World Wars Conference at University of Houston-Downtown. Personally, I have grown as a writer and am disappointed with this essay as I could have done a lot better, but it got me admitted into a professional conference and I had a great time researching for this assignment as well as writing it that I decided to share it with my readers. Please enjoy.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are taught in the school books as a tremendous victory for the United States because of how they essentially stood up to the Japanese and finally were able to end the war. However today, some U.S. Citizens criticize the government for the bombings and share a belief that the United States was wrong for the bombings and that alternative options should have been taken in order to end the war. And the empathetic stories of survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only exacerbate the argument that what the U.S. Government did was a bit extreme. While one cannot turn back time and undo what the United States did, it can still be explored if there were indeed different opportunities for both Japan and the United States in order to at least prevent using the atomic bomb.
From the United States’ perspective there were many warnings sent to the Japanese urging them to surrender or face the consequences. However by using this secret weapon, the U.S. government had knowledge that the attack would bring about many casualties to not only Japanese military targets but also innocent civilians. This was an arduous decision indeed, but there is evidence (such as a letter from President Truman) that the U.S. had justifiable reasons for doing what they did. From the Japanese perspective, the ones who were not militarily involved in the war will say otherwise. This leaves current students who are interested in the study of World War II and historians wondering if the decision made was the correct way to go or if there was another way to end the war without having to produce so many casualties.
In order to get a good glimpse of this past, first one must understand what drove the United States to come to the drastic decision that would change the face of history itself. Starting with December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked a United States deep naval base located on Hawaii called Pearl Harbor, much to the surprise of many. The reason for it being such a surprise was because no one would have seen a reason for Japan to attack the United States.
During this time, Japan was in a war with China and had already occupied rural parts of China. And according to a National Geographic documentary, the Japanese wanted the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines because of its strategical location1 so they could conquer all of China. And the United States came into the picture because they stood in Japan’s way of all this. So by attacking the United States, the Japanese hoped to essentially cripple them in order for Japan to get the U.S. to back off while Japan could conquer China and by the time the United States healed themselves, China would already be conquered and nothing could be done about it.2
Unfortunately for Japan, the attack on Pearl Harbor turned out to be counterproductive in the sense that instead of getting the United States to back off, what it did was unite Americans to fight in the war until the Japanese were defeated. And Japan was far from wanting a war with the United States because they were well aware that they would have a great difficulty in winning the war. The Japanese knew that the more the war went on, the more America would be able to mobilize and inevitably destroy Japan. So in other words, Japan was well aware they were writing a check they could not cash but it didn’t stop them from proceeding with the attack.
Adding on to the fact of Japan being the major aggressor in this war, they even behaved barbarically during the stages of the war and had this murderous mentality in doing so. For example: Japanese soldiers would kill prisoners and even successfully attempted suicide missions with the mindset of suicide being a better option than giving up. But it is important to note that the United States behaved just as bad by mutilating their Japanese prisoners. In fact, most Americans viewed the Japanese as inhumane, barbaric,3 and even traitorous (because the leader of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Isoroku Yamamoto, was a Harvard Graduate)4. With all that said, one can infer that the hatred the Americans had against the Japanese could have played a part in the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in the sense that the United States essentially had a vendetta against Japan.
Since no side was willing to back down during the war and with “Japan having vowed to fight to the bitter end in the Pacific, despite clear indications (as early as 1944) that they had little chance of winning”5 it was pretty self-evident that something big was to occur in order for it to finally come to an end. And because in “September 1939, the United States was uniquely positioned to move forward on a bomb project”6, the war was soon to be over. By 1945, the United States give Japan an ultimatum: “Surrender unconditionally or face prompt and utter destruction.”7 With that said, Japan was hesitant upon surrendering “unconditionally”, the reasons for this was because of the fear they had of what may happen to their Emperor Hirohito. And granted, the United States did not plan to do anything to the Emperor but when Japan sent a message to the United States saying that there would be an agreement of peace under the condition of having nothing happen to their Emperor, Joseph Ballantine (one of the advisors of President Truman) said, “We can’t agree to that, because the prerogatives of the emperor include everything, and if you agree to that, you’re going to have endless struggle with the Japanese.”8 It should also be noted that in a post-war interview, Truman stated that a promise to the Emperor Hirohito was presented “through regular channels” that he would not be tried as a war criminal and his title would not be taken away from him but this was wrong; the United States never spoke to the emperor of this and “Truman had somehow forgotten the central issue determining the fate of the war”.9
Finally on August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima, located about 500 miles from Tokyo, suffered “prompt and utter destruction” with an “explosion wip[ing] out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people; tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure.”10 With that in mind, it would seem as though an immediate surrender would have taken place but because the Japanese failed to do so, another bomb (More powerful than the one used at Hiroshima)11 was dropped on the city of Nagasaki three days later. Based on the destruction and devastation caused by the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, one may ask the question whether or not a second bomb was necessary. The answer to that is perhaps, but there is no clear evidence to support that decision.
At the time, the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did seem necessary to some because vengeance played an extreme part in executing the bomb with Truman saying: “We have used [these bombs] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare.”12 Despite the annihilation of a majority of the city in Hiroshima, it was Prime Minister of Britain, Winston Churchill who said, “there never was a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not”13 So it is no surprise that when President Truman first heard that the bomb on Hiroshima was dropped, his response was not one of pain or remorse. This was before Truman had knowledge of what the bomb was truly capable of and the impact it had on the civilians in Hiroshima however.
This leads historians of today to wonder if the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still necessary and the truth is that the day after the first bomb on Hiroshima was dropped, a senator from Georgia named Richard Russell, sent President Truman a telegram essentially telling him that more atomic bombs should be used but Truman rejected this idea saying:
“I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare…but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner. For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation, and for your information, I am not going to do it unless it is absolutely necessary…My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan”14
Meaning that the United States had essentially made their point by dropping two bombs on Japan and there was no need for there to be more bloodshed. However in a postwar interview, when Truman was asked whether or not any other bombs were planned to be used against Japan as well, Truman responded, “Yes. The other two cities on the list [Niigata and Kokura] would have been bombed.”15
1 National Geographic’s Documentary (Netflix)
2 Catton’s Lecture (Second World War in Asia)
3 Catton’s Lecture (Second World War in Asia)
4 National Geographic’s Documentary (Netflix)
6 “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb”
7 Catton’s Lecture (Second World War in Asia)
8 “Racing the Enemy”
9 “Racing the Enemy”
12 “Truman Speaks”
13 “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb
14 “Racing the Enemy”
15“Racing the Enemy”