Michael KreponThe Lesson of Nagasaki

Hiroshima gets all the attention, but Nagasaki teaches the more important lesson. The need to destroy Hiroshima will be forever debated, but the counterarguments were unpersuasive to President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. A world war had taken the lives of tens of millions. Noncombatants were not spared. When a war-ending weapon was finally available – too late to make unnecessary the Normandy landing, but just in time to substitute for the invasion of Japan’s home islands – Truman and Stimson chose to end the carnage as soon as possible.

The arguments in favor of the first explosive use of an atomic bomb do not apply to the second. Japan’s War Cabinet was absorbing the twin shocks of Hiroshima and Russia’s declaration of war against Japan. At a minimum, Truman and Stimson should have waited more than three days before obliterating Nagasaki and killing its inhabitants. The argument used to justify the fate of Nagasaki was that Japan’s dead-enders needed to know that more atomic bombs would rain death and destruction unless they surrendered. This justification is not persuasive because everyone understood that the immense machinery of U.S. war production would be working overtime to make more atomic bombs, and that it was just a matter of time when they would rain more destruction over Japan.

The need to surrender would sink in after Hiroshima and the Russian announcement. Would this take three days, five or ten? Whatever: After Hiroshima, it was worth the wait. That Nagasaki was sacrificed without waiting is a testament to the inexorable danger inherent in war plans involving nuclear weapons. Truman and Stimson chose not to intervene with their agreed plan to keep up the bombing until Japan surrendered. The United States possessed two A-bombs and detonated two A-bombs. If three were available, and if the Emperor was unable or unwilling to assert himself over dead-enders, then a third city would have been targeted.

The fate of Nagasaki demands that leaders delve into nuclear war-fighting plans. They rarely do. Before assuming office, newly elected U.S. Presidents receive briefings on the nuclear codes and the “football” that will become constant company, but these briefings are more about process than substance. Presidents usually don’t dwell on targets, since there are so many of them as to be incomprehensible. The natural human reaction to even the briefest introduction to Armageddon is to shudder inwardly and to hope fervently that targeting plans remain in locked safes.

Because nuclear weapons have not been used on battlefields since Nagasaki, it is safe to presume that this instinct has been widely shared – and not just by leaders, but also by those who found themselves well down the chain of command at terrible junctures in our nuclear history – those who looked bleakly into the abyss without the means or the time to check with higher authority. We now know the names of some of these heroes. One is Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, who chose not to fire a nuclear-armed torpedo while his submarine was being depth-charged to the surface during the Cuban missile crisis. Any human being who does not recoil at the point of decision to fire a nuclear weapon is, by definition, the most dangerous person on the planet. And yet nuclear war-fighting plans are predicated on these decisions.

The second most important line of defense against mushroom clouds is an intuitive understanding that controlling escalation once the nuclear threshold has been crossed is very likely to be a complete fiction. Leaders in the United States, Russia, and Pakistan who continue to assert the right of first use do so only by clinging to this extraordinarily thin reed.

Once the first mushroom cloud appears in a contest between nuclear-armed combatants, pressures to retaliate in kind will be immense. And once these Gates of Hell have been opened, mere mortals are likely to be powerless to close them. Mushroom clouds do not open lines of communication that have broken down, resulting in warfare. Under what pretense, then, do U.S. and Russian leaders insist on having four-digit-sized nuclear arsenals? What will Chinese, Pakistani, and Indian leaders do with three-digit-sized arsenals if a mushroom cloud appears by accident, miscalculation, or fateful decision?

The historical example of Nagasaki speaks volumes about how hard it is leaders to grind the machinery of warfare to a halt once the first mushroom cloud appears. Nagasaki therefore demands our attention as much as Hiroshima. The fundamental lesson of Nagasaki is that a second nuclear detonation follows the first.

On the 71st anniversary of Nagasaki, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin can spend no better time than to take a very hard look at the nuclear war-fighting plans their armed forces have prepared. And then pick up the phone to agree on parallel reductions in their massive nuclear arsenals.

Note to readers: This op-ed originally appeared in USA Today.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I am not sure Truman had a good grasp of what he was authorizing. Truman seemed to believe the bomb would be aimed at military targets, rather than cities with “women and children.” The original unsigned order gave the military a blank check to use as many atom bombs as were available as soon as they were ready.

    Only after the second city bombing happened, did Truman retract this initial order and require that future nuclear bombings would be authorized only by the President. Apparently, it took a while for Truman to understand, first that cities would be bombed, and second that the city bombing would continue automatically, unless he ordered it to stop.

    Making sure that only the President (not multiple military officers) can order nuclear weapons is only a single check on this vast power. A second check would be to require that at least one or two or three others must concur in the decision. Currently, there is no second check.

    • Steve Kas (History)

      Jonah, you provide no historical evidence which suggests, let alone proves, that Truman did not expect civilians to be targeted with the second bomb. And frankly, your assertion strikes me as absurd. After all, women & children and elderly people were the prime human targets when Hiroshima was bombed. Plus, the ruthless & relentless fire bombing of Tokyo had begun nearly one year earlier, killing over 100,000 people. It is also very likely that Truman — like many if not most Americans at that time — saw the Japanese population as sub-human, as less worthy of protection & consideration than the lives of Europeans.

    • Cameron (History)

      Steve, while I agree with you regarding the evidence regarding shock at targeting civilians, keep in mind that we firebombed Dresden too. The depiction of race and dehumanization of enemies is a lingering issue in our military policy, but it isn’t limited to Japan.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Steve, On Truman’s view of how the bomb would be used, see e.g., http://www.doug-long.com/hst.htm In particular, see 7/25/45 Diary Entry and 8/9/45 Letter to Senator Richard Russell. I don’t gainsay what Truman should have known. He was President, he should have known, if only because, as he liked to say, “The buck stops here.”

      I don’t doubt that Americans were racist, but that does not explain why the bomb was used against Japan. The original reason for developing the bomb was to defeat Hitler. The bomb was not used against Germany, because Hitler was already defeated by the time the bomb was developed.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    I thought that one of Richard Nixons’ cabinet members was so afraid Nixon would launch a nuclear war that he unilaterally decided that the military should check with the cabinet officer first, before following any orders to launch.

    Do I understand what happened?

    That there was a check on the power to launch a nuclear attack?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Secretary of Defense Schlesinger

  3. Tom Burdick (History)

    Civilian casualties were not a blocker, witness the fire-bombing of Tokyo and no moves toward peace. We didn’t want to destroy port facilities and airfields that we would need after the war. We could have targeted the few large military bases but they were mostly out of reach of our bombers and were defended.

    Many B-29’s had been lost so we had to pick undefended targets, can you imagine if the Enola Gay or Bock’s Car had been shot down with an atomic weapon on board?

    The Manhattan project was in fact too secretive and Japan initially had no idea what technology we were using. At first, their leadership thought it was an enormous conventional explosion. The few witnesses and reports from Hiroshima were unable to describe the full extent of the damage.

    We assumed they might think we had only one bomb, so two attacks were always necessary and in fact caused the panic and sense of doom that the Japanese general staff needed for its senior officers to side with the Emperor and surrender.

    Even so, militant junior officers nearly stopped them by assassination and almost stealing the audio tape of the Emperor’s concession speech on its way to the radio station.

    If we wanted to just demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb, we could have exploded one a few miles off Tokyo, over the ocean. That really was the only targeting alternative that may have worked.

    We had to use all the weapons we had, to maximum effect, and hope for a quick capitulation, the Russians would certainly have attacked and occupied the northern islands of Japan before we could deliver more atomic bombs.

    Our strategic thinking had reached a critical mass also.

  4. Nick Nolan (History)

    August 6 – bombing of Hiroshima

    August 7 – Japanese nuclear scientists determine that the bomb was indeed nuclear device. Imperial Navy estimates that US has only one or two more bombs and Japan could endure the attacks.

    August 9 – Bombing of Nagasaki. USSR declares war to Japan & Manchurian Strategic Offensive started. Hirohito worried because USSR declared war and held an Imperial conference that authorized minister Tōgō to surrender with only one condition: status of the Emperor must be preserved.

    August 15: Japan Surrenders. Even after Hirohito made the personal decision to surrender, the intention was to continue the war if the kokutai (Imperial institution and national polity) would not be preserved.

    US had already firebombed most Japanese cities to the ground and killed between 300,000 and 900,000 civilians. Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were noting utterly horrible to US or Japan, it was just speeding things up. Japan could have endured had it chose to do so (relatively few good targets left for big bombs) but they were really worried about Russian invasion.

  5. Michael Krepon (History)


    I found your piece overly academic and unrealistic. There was a war on and people were being killed. Any pause such as you suggest would only lead to more Americans being killed. The U.S. was fighting against a fanatical enemy who though thoroughly beaten refused to surrender. Japan instead resorted to kamikazes and fighting to the last man in places such as Okinawa to kill as many Americans as possible. This was total war where the U.S. was hitting the enemy with everything it had as fast as it could to force a surrender. Had Truman suggested a delay that would kill even 100 more Americans in order to save 10,000 Japanese, he would have been impeached.

    Truman and Stimson were not exerting direct control over operations in the Pacific and given the communications of the era, I doubt that they could. The use of the atomic weapons had already been authorized and the specific timing of their use was determined by operational considerations. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 due to delays caused by the weather. The Nagasaki weapon had been on Tinian since August 2 but since the U.S. only had one bomb assembly team, it could not be prepared until after the Hiroshima bombing. The Nagasaki weapon was originally scheduled for use on August 11 but an unfavorable weather forecast led it to be accelerated to August 9. Truman and Stimson knew none of these specifics. If the weather had been favorable Hiroshima could have been bombed on August 2 and Kokura (the primary target for the Nagasaki weapon) bombed as early as August 5 or 6.

    You say that the atomic bombing should have been coordinated with the Soviet declaration of war. But the Soviets had not informed the U.S. of the specific date of its entry into the Pacific War. It is reported that the Soviets moved up their war declaration by several days after the Hiroshima bombing. Stalin didn’t want the war to end until he made territorial gains in the Pacific. Nor would Truman or Stimson have known of the great political impact that the Soviet declaration of war would have on the Japanese.

    There was in fact a third bomb (and come September a fourth, fifth and sixth weapon at least). Its plutonium core was to be shipped from Los Alamos August 12 or 13 for use on August 17 or 18. However with the Japanese message on August 10 that they would agree to unconditional surrender if the emperor remained, Truman did intervene that day and stopped the shipment of this plutonium core. Even then ending the war wasn’t easy and U.S. combat operations continued through August 14. The Soviets kept fighting until the end of the month to make gains in Sakhalin and Kurile Islands. I think Truman and Stimson stopped the atomic bombings at the appropriate time. To pause operations on the speculative hope that the Japanese might want to surrender while Americans continued to die in combat would have been unwise.

    Greg Jones

    • Michael Krepon (History)


      “You say that the atomic bombing should have been coordinated with the Soviet declaration of war…”

      No I don’t. Have another look. I argue that the first bomb and the Soviet declaration of war could have given Truman and Stimson pause to allow both to sink in. But this would have required intervention, which they had earlier decided not to do.

      The dates and weather and availability of bombs are all beside the point — or at least my central argument: When it comes to the employment of nuclear weapons, it’s a mistake to delegate to operational commanders. That’s how the second bomb follows the first. And the third… etc.


  6. Gregory Matteson (History)

    One consideration that has so far not entered this discussion is the imminent humanitarian catastrophe, of unprecedented proportions. The production, and distribution of food and fuel in Japan had ceased; by the way it gets really cold in Northern Japan, and winter was fast approaching. The militant hold-outs were risking a mass die off of Japanese civilians that would have dwarfed the bombing casualties.

    One humanitarian act of the United States that is often overlooked is the millions of tons of supplies that were rushed into Japan as soon as they surrendered. It would have been so easy to let nature take it’s course given the bitter ethnic and racial hatreds of the Pacific War. We acted contrary to the dismal record of World History.

    In my opinion, we cannot Monday morning quarterback a maximal effort to stampede the Japanese into surrender.

  7. Alice Slater (History)

    Michael-if you really want to see some sanity brought to the use of the lethal arsenals pointing death and destruction on the world, shouldn’t we be practical and look beyond the need to eliminate the arsenals to learn what’s keeping them in place and on hair trigger alert? Hasn’t it been perfectly obvious that since Reagan and Gorbachev met in Rekjavik and failed to rid the world of nuclear bombs because Reagan wouldn’t give up Star Wars, and Clinton and Putin failed to cut to 1,000 bombs each because Clinton refused to stop putting in missile base infrastruture in Poland and Romania, and Bush actually walked out of the ABM treaty and put the missile bases in? Not to mention that since 2004 China and Russia have been proposing a treaty to ban space weapons and the US blocks all discussion as well as rejecting Russia’s proposal to do a cyberwar ban? Or that weve expanded NATO to Russia’s borders despite promises that it wouldn’t move east beyond a unified Germany? Isn’t it time to face up to the self-defeating US drive for hegemony which is pushing us to the brink of nuclear war? We can’t just talk about getting rid of nukes. In the 21st century we have to address fulfilling our UN promise to “end the scourge of war” and turn off the corrupt military-industrial complex, currently led enthusiasticallyby one of its greatest promoters who has been in the revolving door of the military and industry, Ashton Carter. We need a big US brainstorm about how to change the conversation about American exceptionism and military superiority. It will do us no good to continue on this mindless path!!

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      It’s always Washington’s fault.

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