Conventional wisdom about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan is that it was necessary to bring about a speedy conclusion to the war and save lives. Even today many people genuinely believe that the bomb was necessary to bring about a Japanese surrender and to avoid the need for an invasion of Japan by the US, which might have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In fact, this just isn’t true.
By the time the bomb was ready for use, Japan was ready to surrender. As General Dwight Eisenhower said, Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face, and ‘it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.’ So if Japan was ready to surrender, why were atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
A significant factor in the decision to bomb was the US’s desire to establish its dominance in the region after the war. Those planning for the postwar situation believed that this required US occupation of Japan, enabling it to establish a permanent military presence, shape its political and economic system and dominate the Pacific region without fear of Japanese resurgence. But Japanese resurgence was no longer the US’s key strategic concern; its main concern, above all, was the Soviet Union in the postwar world, both in Asia and in Europe.
The Soviet Union was the US’s wartime ally against Germany. Ultimately their economic systems were incompatible; the US would not accept that any part of the world economy should be closed to it, and those seeking an alternative to the market economic model of the US tended to look to the Soviet Union. This looming antagonism was heightened by the increased power and prestige of the Soviet Union following its role in breaking the back of Germany’s military machine. The US consequently wished to prevent a Soviet advance in Asia and subsequent Soviet influence on Japan. One is forced to conclude that the US wanted to demonstrate its unique military power – its possession of the atomic bomb – in order to gain political and diplomatic advantage over the Soviet Union in the postwar settlement in both Asia and Europe.
Whilst many leading US politicians, diplomats and military figures thought it unnecessary to bomb Japan, the group around the US president at the time, Harry S. Truman, pressed strongly for it. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for example, described the atom bomb as the ‘master card’ in US diplomacy towards the Soviet Union.
By early 1945 it was clear that while the Japanese government wasn’t offering unconditional surrender, it was seeking a negotiated surrender. Its condition was that Japanese Emperor Hirohito should be maintained without loss of face. Generally the western leaders thought this was acceptable but this wasn’t conveyed to the Japanese government. Records suggest that Truman kept this out of the Potsdam Declaration – the postwar settlement being worked on by the Great Powers – because the US atom bomb test had just been successfully concluded. The US leadership did not inform the Japanese that its surrender terms were more or less acceptable because it wanted an excuse to use the bomb – to demonstrate its awesome power in a world where only the US had this weapon. Its only opportunity to do so was before the Japanese surrendered.
The Soviet Union had promised to enter the war on Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe. That day was rapidly approaching and the US had two reasons for wishing to use the bomb before this took place. Firstly it was likely that Soviet entry into the war would trigger a Japanese surrender, thus removing any justification for using the atom bomb. Secondly the US wished to prevent any possibility that the Soviet Union would occupy Japan while US troops were still far away. So the US dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima on 6th August. On 9th August the Soviet Union entered the war in Asia, as promised. Later the same day, before Japan had had time to grasp and respond to the ghastly results of the Hiroshima bomb, the US dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki.
The US government got what it wanted, but at the most appalling human cost.