Michael KreponThe Least Abhorrent Choice

The military cemetery at Nuttuno, thirty miles south of Rome, is serene and immaculately kept. Almost as many GIs are buried there – 7,861 – as at Normandy, painful testimony of how botched the Italian campaign was. I’m named after one of the soldiers buried there, my Uncle Mickey, who died at Anzio.

Gar Alperovitz argues in Atomic Diplomacy (1965) and in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995) that the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “did not derive from overriding military considerations.” In this view, the use of A-bombs was unnecessary, since Japan was already defeated, for all intents and purposes. Instead, Alperovitz contends, President Truman and Secretary of War Stimson used nuclear weapons to keep the Kremlin in line.

While considerations of post-war geopolitics had to intrude on the thinking of Truman and Stimson, their immediate, primary objective was to end a world war in which U.S. troops had been engaged in brutal combat for three and one-half years.

Stimson signed his name to the letter of condolence sent to my grandmother and to 300,000 others. The specter of additional casualties with the invasion of the Japanese home islands had to haunt Truman and Stimson. No one could confidently predict their number. What seemed clear from the fighting at Okinawa – subsequently documented in great detail by noted historians such as John W. Dower — was that powerful military leaders in Imperial Japan were not going to go quietly into the night. This was the determining factor for Truman and Stimson.

Cities and their inhabitants were tragic casualties of warfare in World War II; other cities in Germany and Japan had earlier suffered greater losses by different means than were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I write these words not in justification for the killing of any city and its inhabitants, anywhere, by any means, but in recognition that the rules of warfare were far different back then. I have paid my respects to those who died at Hiroshima on three occasions.

Truman claimed not to have agonized over his decision to use atomic weapons against Japan, but it’s worth noting that when any of his advisers subsequently proposed the use of A-bombs to end the Korean War, he quickly showed them the door. Stimson did agonize over this decision. He writes in his memoirs, On Active Service in Peace and War (1947):

The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. No explanation can change that fact and I do not wish to gloss it over. But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice. The destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Japanese war. It stopped the fire raids, and the strangling blockade; it ended the ghastly specter of a clash of great land armies.

I’ve read with care the arguments against the use of nuclear weapons to end World War II. But I have yet to find an adequate explanation, by Alperovitz or anyone else, of how Truman could have justified to himself additional losses – and Stimson could have justified signing additional letters of condolence – knowing that they had the awful means at hand to end the killing quickly.

Stimson resolved after the war ended that no other leader should be placed in the unbearable situation of authorizing the use of a nuclear weapon. He spent what remained of his life trying to eliminate the weapons he helped bring to fruition. The legacy of Hiroshima for him, and for me, is Never Again. Truman must have felt the same way during the Korean War. The legacy of Nagasaki is that, once the nuclear threshold is crossed, stopping subsequent use will require superhuman effort.


  1. Andy J (History)

    Wouldn’t the two weapons have been just as effective had they been dropped on deserted Japanese countryside?

    I agree that the weapons had to be used to end the war without an invasion of the home islands, but they needn’t have been used on a hundred thousand civilians.

  2. TJ (History)

    There has never been and their never will be an argument justifying the release of the second atomic bomb three days after the first one. That decision which came without giving the Japanese time to formulate a surrender was a war crime pure and simple.

  3. Jack (History)

    This is not the position I expected from you. As co-founder of the Stimson Center, I would have guessed your views would have been consistent with your recent publication Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty. This book cites articles claiming that the Russian invasion was the primary cause of Japanese surrender and the atomic bombs were not even considered.

    What are your thoughts about how much nuclear weapons actually contributed to Japan’s surrender? (Specifically, do you have any comments on the article “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima” available at http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/855/winning_weapon_rethinking_nuclear_weapons_in_light_of_hiroshima.html ?)

  4. Alan (History)

    Michael – weren’t there efforts by the Japanese leadership during/following the carpet bombing of Tokyo, and prior to Hiroshima, to surrender? I understood they were trying to send a message to the US via the Russians; the Russians were not passing it on, but the US were aware of it.

  5. blowback (History)

    The nuclear bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were all about the Soviet Union but not as a demonstration/threat to the Soviet Union of the capabilities of nuclear weapons since Stalin through his spy networks knew all about them. Rather, it was to accelerate the surrender of Japan to prevent the Soviet Union from entering the war against Japan and thus prevent Stalin from acquiring territory in the east.

    At Yalta, in 1943, Stalin had pledged that he would enter the war against Japan three months after Germany’s surrender and on August 8, the Soviet Union advised the government of Japan that a state of war would exist. Just after midnight on August 9th, three months almost to the minute after Germany’s surrender on May 8th, the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Manchuria and other territories, including southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, occupied by Japan wih an army of 1.5 million men, 25,000 artillery pieces and 5,500 tanks that would change the geopolitics of the Far East for ever. Truman knew an attack was going to come but probably not the nature of it, so the pressure was on Truman to finish the war before the Soviet Union could enter it. As it was, he failed and the Soviets occupied Manchuria and Inner Mongolia which they handed over to the Chinese communists making their victory in the Chinese civil war more likely. The Soviets also occupied north Korea and handed that over to the Korean communists under Kim Il-sung. The Soviet Union invaded and occupied sothern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islans which it continues to occupy.
    If the war with Japan had continued, the Soviet Union would have occupied the rest of the Korean peninsula and Stalin also had plans to invade the rest of Japan which would have resulted in it being partitioned like Germany.

    If it was just about reducing caualties for the western invasion of Japan, then there was no need to drop the first bomb before the Soviet Union entered the war, neither was there a need to drop the second bomb so soon after the first as Operation Olympic was not planned to start until October 1945 with the actual invasion taking place on November 1st, 1945.

    • Alan (History)

      Interesting. That would explain the Soviet reluctance to pass on Japanese messages to the US, and put considerable emphasis on how much the US actually knew about them. Your interpretation would suggest very little, otherwise they would have pounced on them.

    • Inst (History)

      It’s a theory I’ve been investigating for its entertainment value, that the Japanese should actually be grateful to the United States for killing over a hundred thousand non-combatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with novel explosives (though not grateful for killing over a hundred thousand non-combatants with firebombs and other conventional strategic bombing weapons), but there are a few holes in this.

      First, the Soviet attack in Manchuria was masterly, swift, and effective, but its attack on the Kurils was below expectations, as the Soviets did not have amphibious transport capability in the Far East. If the war had gone on, most likely the Soviets would have taken all of Korea, but it’s not that likely they would have managed to obtain a “North Japan”.

      Second, from recent articles at HNN, it appears that the Japanese high command were waiting precisely on the Soviet intervention to surrender; at that point in the war, defeat was inevitable, but the Empire of Japan government felt that it could shape the post-war environment to its maximum benefit, and this would require the Soviets to play a role in the Northeast Asia region. The Soviets had previously agreed at Yalta to enter the Pacific War within 3 months of the end of the Pacific War, so the invasion started on August 9th, the same date as the Nagasaki nuking.

  6. MJ (History)

    @Andy J – no, I seriously doubt it. Even the whole of the Japanese citizenry was ready to fight and die in the name of the emperor. If months of firebombing didn’t make them quit, why would proving that we could blow up the countryside do it? And if the first bomb that did kill so many people didn’t make them quit instantly, why would some irradiated trees do so?

    @TJ – Really? So if you’re the emperor of Japan, your country is clearly losing the war, and one bomb kills 100k+ of your people, you’re going to need three days to decide to surrender? That argument is baseless.

    Many forget (or don’t know in the first place) the probably hundreds of thousands that were killed in firebombing raids that took place starting more than 6 months before the A-bombs. Emperor Hirohito himself observed the damage to Tokyo caused by the incendiery bombings and still let his people die for months before surrender.

    I know there isn’t a firm estimate, but the numbers of predicted american losses from an invasion range something from several hundred thousand to a few million based on the events at Okinawa, etc. I think that is worth mentioning.

  7. anon (History)

    Personally, I find the debate about whether or not the U.S. needed to drop one atomic bomb, two atomic bombs, no atomic bombs, or any other device on Japan to be totally tedious and irrelevant. It happened. We can’t change that. The war ended. Maybe sooner than it would have, maybe not if we’d just waited for the Soviets. Maybe with fewer American casualties (maybe even with fewer Japanese casualties than would have occured with additional fire bombing and full-scale invasion).

    And we entered the nuclear age. Can we argue that we would not have entered the nuclear age if we had not used the bomb? I think not. Hence the debate is not, and should not be, about whether we should have used the bomb, but how we must prevent its use again in the future and, whether, and how, we should eliminate the continuing threat of use.

    Re-litigating the past seems like a waste of energy, when the stakes for the future are so high.

  8. Paul USMC (History)

    Michael, a very thoughtful, balanced and intriguing assessment of what demons and options in 1945 Harry Truman and Secy of War Stimson must have been wrestling with to plot a course to end the war.

    My uncle too was at Anzio. In one of the ironies of war, his foxhole at Kasserine Pass was hit by a panzer round and the two men with him died, he was wounded but thrown by the blast. He spend a couple of months in a Tunisian hospital, the rest of his unit was sent north for Normandy (half them died on D-Day b). As a boy, I was amazed once seeing him swimming in what my mom had said was 80 feet deep of water in an Adirondack lake on vacation and I asked him how he learned to swim so well: “When yer in the water Pauly, you gotta swim.”

    He had been on a ship sunk by Stukas off Anzio and was tossed into the sea, then eventually picked-up. Then, the rescue ship later got hit the next day by Stukas too, and it sank, again for a second time, he was in the water, swimming… He survived and had a family.

    I relate this tale because I find it is easy for us today who since the 1950’s in America at least have lived with unparalleled comforts and a high standard of living that was purchased in part by men like your uncle and mine who fought and made sure the Nazis saw only bad times.

    We do well to remember their personal experiences and the risks they faced, because looking back it is hard for us to comprehend the realities of 1939-45.

    The poster above who mentioned bombing “deserted countryside” to demonstrate the destructive power of Fatman and his brother misses the point that General Tojo was even after two cities went missing, not inclined to surrender.

    In the end, it took Emperor Hirohito to stun them and make that call. And even then, there was a bungled coup attempt by elements in the military before that became a radio address and surrender.

    We are never in the right bombing as we did in Japan civilians, innocent non-combatants, but Michael Krepon does artfully navigate this complex case very well and shows it was perhaps the “least abhorrent” option, perhaps.

  9. Distiller (History)

    Hmm. You have it, you use it. Especially after putting 2 billion USD into it. And it’s not like the fire bombing campaign hadn’t produced a lot if civil victims already before. The nuclear bombs just did it in a more compact format. Also pay back played a role I think.

    Both attacks had a military value, as the Japanese couldn’t know how many of these bombs the U.S. had, and if they would use it in a land battle after the landing on the main islands. The outcome of this land battle would have been far from certain, especially since the Japanese didn’t think highly of the U.S. land army and thought they’d have good chances in close combat, meaning it could have dragged on forever.

    Soviet considerations might have played a role, but I think it was more one step after another. And who could have thought that the nuclear bomb would remain a sole U.S. affair, and not proliferate?

  10. JP (History)

    “Almost as many GIs are buried there – 7,861 – as at Normandy, painful testimony of how botched the Italian campaign was.”

    Taking casualties does not mean the campaign was botched. We may live in a time when we can kick the crap out of fourth-rate opponents at relatively trivial cost in lives, but the fact remains that beating a first-rate opponent demands a significant blood price. Douglas Porch’s “The Path to Victory” makes an excellent case for the importance of the Mediterranean campaign.

  11. Barry Blechman (History)

    Sixty-six Japanese cities were destroyed prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including Tokyo, where more people were killed than in Hiroshima, and the Japanese did not surrender; they didn’t even consider surrendering for that reason. The Japanese Supreme War Council did not meet for three days following the bombing of Hiroshima; they met within 24 hours of learning that their appeals to Stalin had been rejected and that the Soviet Union was entering the war — and were meeting to discusss surrender when Nagasaki was bombed. No war has ever been won by killing civilians. The North destroyed Atlanta and occupied Richmond, the capital of the confederacy, and still the South fought on. The Confederacy surrendered only when their armies were surrounded and faced annihilation. Similarly, when the Soviets entered the war, the Japanese Army — deployed to face an American invasion — faced annihilation. Worse, Japan faced Soviet occupation of at least half of their territory, something they feared far more than American occupation. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while understandable when we put ourselves in Truman’s and Stimson’s shoes, were unnecessary. More importantly, the bombings created the myth of nuclear weapons as decisive instruments of national security. They’re not. They can kill civilians; they can’t win wars or protect nations. They are not the ultimate insurance as the French are so fond of saying. Ask Soviet leaders what good its nuclear weapons were in defending its sovereignty. It had more nuclear weapons than anyone else but, wait, it doesn’t exist anymore, does it? It’s long past time to put these myths to bed. Nuclear weapons threaten civilian lives; other than that, they are useless. They need to be abolished.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      So you do not think it was the nuclear standoff that prevented a third European War? Without Tripwire and Massive Retaliation what would have stopped the Warsaw Pact from pouring into the West during the 50’s and 60’s? Surely you won’t argue that Western conventional might alone would have done this? Esp considering the mismatch in the willingness of various NATO countries to build and maintain their conventional only parts of the alliance. Maybe by the mid 80’s the Western conventional technological edge might have held sway, but really nobody knew how stark the performance gap was between East and West at that time. I would argue that nuclear weapons serve a very important military purpose. They nullify any victory that can be had with conventional means. A lack of that check on conventional warfare is an issue I await the N zero crowd to deal with. At some point you all will have to deal with conventional arms control, and that will be a fascinating problem to crack.

    • joshua (History)


      Without taking a position on either of these issues, I think it is useful to distinguish between two questions. First, what were the motives and intentions of Truman, Stimson, and other high-ranking U.S. officials in dropping the bomb? Second, what there the motives of the Emperor and other high-ranking Japanese officials in surrendering? It’s probably best to consider these matters apart from one another.

    • Nukethrower (History)

      “They can kill civilians; they can’t win wars or protect nations.” Yes, nuclear weapons can kill civilians, but does it not follow that they can also kill military personnel and destroy equipment, such as those found on airbases, in army assembly areas and avenues of advance, and in ports? It is time advocates of nuclear abolition seriously examine their assumption that nuclear weapons have no military value. The blast effects alone can create military value. That does not mean they should be used in all cases, but their use needs to be weighed against the costs and benefits of using conventional weapons in accomplishing military missions.

      “Ask Soviet leaders what good its nuclear weapons were in defending its sovereignty. It had more nuclear weapons than anyone else but, wait, it doesn’t exist anymore, does it?” Are you kidding? Who was launching a military attack against Soviet sovereignty? NATO? The Baltic states? It is silly to suggest the Soviet government was supposed to launch their nuclear-armed ICBMs straight up and then allow them to come down on Soviet territory in order to wipe out advocates of independence for the various Soviet republics. Why don’t you ask Putin, who lived through the demise of the Soviet Union, what nuclear weapons are for given that Russia still possesses thousands of them?

      “Nuclear weapons threaten civilian lives; other than that, they are useless. They need to be abolished.” If nuclear weapons can kill civilians, then they can kill military personnel. And they can kill lots of troops very efficiently. Merely asserting that nuclear weapons are useless does not make them so. Advocates of nuclear abolition will have to try harder to build an analytic basis for arguing that nuclear weapons are useless against military targets in order to persuade serious students of military affairs that abolition is the best course of action.

  12. JP (History)

    The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with one bomb each, were qualitatively different from the destruction of other cities using entire air fleets, and the Japanese understood this. Sadao Asada has convincingly demonstrated the shock power that the atomic bombs had on Japanese officials, particularly the Emperor. It is important to note that Japanese Army leaders doggedly insisted on continuing the fight AFTER the USSR attacked, and only submitted to surrender after Hirohito forced them to, prompted by the atomic attacks. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, as they convinced the Japanese to end the war in which countless civilians – including their own but also Chinese – were dying every day.

    “No war has ever been won by killing civilians.” — tell that to the Romans, the Mongols, the Mauryans, etc.

    Nuclear weapons have prevented great power hegemonic war since 1945, and we’d better be very, very sure that such wars are impossible before we abolish them. I sure wouldn’t want to be the demographically declining Russians next to a billion plus Chinese without a strong nuclear force in my back pocket. What is it that inhibits China from occupying an almost empty Siberia, exactly?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      JP I think a lot of arms controllers don’t feel obliged to think that far in advance, just as the chicken hawks ie Neo-Cons do not feel obliged to consider the long term implications of their ideals being foisted on the world. let alone what happens when they fail. I’ve always been a fan of the arms control world, in the end they have to win in order for humanity to survive. However I like you see some major malfunction in how they approach the problem. For many of them they think that denial of the tools will be enough, and the fact that the tools can be acquired during a war is something that they find hard to believe, or outside the policy stance of their organization to consider. So they (and we) run into the malfunction of taking a less than well thought out stance that goes something like this. We are professional arms controllers, leave arms control to us. However the long term implications and real world results lie outside the policy of my organization and I only execute policy in the end. Thus, only the base policy is served and not any real world outcomes. A similar malfunction occurs on the right. And so it goes, leaving only schmucks like you and me to make our point from the peanut gallery. Escaping this is hard, no society has done so yet. And I think we can call the new peanut gallery known as the internet to be some form of progress.

  13. Scott Monje (History)

    The choice, as seen at the time, was not necessarily that we either use atom bombs or invade. There was a rough plan to drop a bomb every ten days or so for several months starting in September. But then, after achieving the shock value of the first two, military commanders began looking at how future bombings could be used to support the invasion plans. The Pentagon did not appear to fully view the atomic bomb as qualitatively different at this time. General John E. Hull of the War Department’s Operations Division put it this way in a telephone discussion on Aug. 13, 1945. “Not the same day or anything like that. We might do it a couple or three days before. You plan to land on a certain beach. Behind which you know there is a good road communication and maybe a division or two of Japanese troops. Neutralization of that at some time from H hour of the landing back earlier, maybe a day or two or three. I don’t anticipate that you would be dropping it as we do other type bombs that are in support of the infantry. I am thinking about neutralizing a division or a communication center or something so that it would facilitate the movement ashore of troops.” (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB162/72.pdf)

  14. Scott Monje (History)

    Regarding Truman’s attitude toward the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan, he wrote this to his wife from Potsdam, July 18, 1945. “I was so scared that I didn’t know whether things were going according to Hoyle or not. Anyway a start has been made and I’ve gotten what I came for–Stalin goes to war August 15 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! That is the important thing.” (Robert H. Ferrel, ed, Dear Bess, 1983 & 1998, p, 519.)

    • blowback (History)

      Six days that changed the world.

      From Wikipedia:
      “The date is sometimes known as Victory over Japan Day, although that designation is more frequently used to refer to the date of Emperor Hirohito’s Gyokuon-hōsō (Imperial Rescript of Surrender), the radio broadcast announcement of the acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration at noon Japan standard time on August 15.”
      Did Truman miscalculate, since he expected the Soviet Union to declare war on August 15th rather than August 8th when the Soviet Union informed the Japanese government of its intentions or did Stalin mis-inform Truman of his intentions?
      Did Truman expect Japan to have announced its surrender before Stalin could take the Soviet Union into the war against Japan or was he expecting the Soviet Union’s mere declaration of war to tip Japan into surrender?
      How much did the Americans know about the overwhelming scale of the Soviet operation? Certainly the Japanese knew that the Soviets were planning something from monitoring the Trans-Siberian Railway but had no idea of the scale of it.

      BTW, also according to Wikipedia, the commander of the Soviet forces, Marshal Vasilevsky, advised Stalin on August 3rd that, if necessary, he could attack on the morning of August 5, a day before the first bomb was dropped. What would have happened if the Soviets had been ready at the end of July and launched their attack then? So did Stalin also miscalculate?

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Beats me, blowback.

      My point is that three weeks before Hiroshima, Truman saw Soviet entry into the war as an achievement.

    • Inst (History)

      It seems strange given that Stalin was obliged to attack around the 9th by agreements made at Yalta.

  15. Anonymous_Snowboarder (History)

    To those who say the US should have given Japan more time to surrender (or that they had been trying through back channels) I say – what does it take for the Emperor or head of the military to go on radio and say “We surrender unconditionally to the United States.” It need not take three days. It need not take more than a few hours. Japan could have avoided the second strike and could have avoided them all had they similarly expressed publicly a desire to discuss terms of surrender in the days and weeks prior. They did not.

  16. krepon (History)

    Your Uncle deserves a screenplay.
    Thanks for your service–

  17. George William Herbert (History)

    I have a slightly more personal connection than the gentleman whose uncle was at Anzio – my great-uncle, Bevan Cass, was in the Sixth Marine Division and scheduled to hit the beaches in Kyushu had the war not ended.

    Given casualty numbers for other US seaborne invasions, there’s a significant chance that his subsequent long career in the Marines and, after his retirement from active duty the Marine Corps Association, and the entirety of my knowing him from when I was born 20-something years later was made possible by the atomic bombings. Possibly that is slightly pessimistic – according to family legend, he then went on to survive combat landings in Korea and Vietnam – but the casualty estimates for Operation Cornonet were Okinawa and Iwo Jima-like.

    I understand that this particular decision brings up some very strong emotions, and I appreciate that people’s core values are at stake in discussing it.

    With that said – I think it’s become a form of looking at onesself in the mirror, or a variant on the theoretical psychology test where you throw the train switch or not, to chose whether the five workmen or the one little girl gets run over by the oncoming train.

    The particulars that individual people chose to assign relevance in discussing it seem to say as much about the person’s worldview as about the history of the situation. I suspect that the view in retrospect is much clearer, on Japan’s intention and actions, and on the Soviet Union’s intention and actions, than it was at the time. I also think that there hadn’t been any sort of strategic geopolitical context depth given to the “What is a nuclear armed world like” question beforehand, by modern standards. Not that nobody tried – but it took decades to form a consistent worldview (and, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear that Iran, North Korea, China, Myanmar, Syria, or all of Russia share the “western” viewpoint there today). Looking back from the context we do (as westerners) share, to a time before that context, we can’t really think about the situation the way they did. They didn’t have all our experience to go by on what they were getting in to. They weren’t negligent, but they were busy – a major war was on, and the previous President died relatively suddenly – and there wasn’t time for some decades of nuclear theory and deterrence theory to develop as the bomb teams reached the deployment point.

    I have to wonder, if twenty or fifty years from now we’ll be looking back at arming the Afghan guerillas with Stinger missiles in the 1980s or the use of drones for unmanned airstrikes in the 2000s in such terms. Who can really tell what context will turn out to matter for the long history?

  18. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Alperovitz and fellow revisionist historians have done a good job of deflating assertions of certainty that the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, decisive, and untainted by motives other than simply ending the war, or that other factors, short of a US invasion of the Japanese home islands, would not have brought Japanese surrender. But that’s about all they have achieved.

    They certainly have not proven that the bombings were not decisive, that Truman and most of those involved in making the bombs and in the decision to use them were motivated first and foremost by a desire to bring the war to a speedy conclusion, that absent the bombs the war would not have dragged on, into a bloody invasion, that the bombing of Nagasaki was unnecessary to achieve the desired effect, or that any sort of demonstration short of the actual demonstration of the bomb’s power against live human cities would have had that effect.

    The truth of the time would seem to have been much simpler. The actual use of the bombs was never much debated. When they were ready, they were used. That was always the plan.

    The time was ripe, and Hirohito chose surrender, citing the “new and unusually cruel weapon.”

    The revisionist argument is more important for what it tells us now about nuclear weapons than for history which, as we know, cannot be undone.

    We mourn the victims. We owe a debt to them, too. If they had not borne this atrocity, how many more would have? If the world had not witnessed the burnt flesh, would we have survived the Cold War and 65 years of nuclear confrontation?

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki died for us.

    Truman claimed not to have been troubled by the decision to use the bombs, and I believe him. It was done. But he could not have helped being troubled by what he saw afterward. I don’t think he, or anyone, really got it before they saw what had happened.

    Fast forward to Korea, and Russia already has the bomb. Deterrence was already in effect.

    Now, MK says that “once the nuclear threshold is crossed, stopping subsequent use will require superhuman effort.” I think that’s right. One use of a nuclear weapon in war will let loose the madness of anger, mixed with the madness of fear, mixed with the madness of apocalypse. Deterrence will then already have failed, and we will be through the looking-glass.

    Short of this, I believe that deterrence is a very strong regime. But this is its fatal flaw: once broken, it is shattered, and there is nothing to stand in its place then. This is why we must abolish nuclear weapons.

    Some here wonder what will hold the peace after nuclear abolition. Well, the answer is obvious: nuclear weapons will!

    We cannot uninvent them. We cannot uninvent the means of producing them. We are unlikely to do away with nuclear power, and that will keep the needed materials within relatively short reach. Even if we did retire all nuclear reactors, restarting the production of nuclear weapons would always be possible, and realistically, would not be more than a few months (probably much less) away, should one of the major powers choose to do so.

    Which is why nuclear abolition will require a strong treaty regime with strong verification, and can’t be accomplished too quickly.

    But under such a regime, nobody will be so foolish as to think that the path is clear for another war of conquest, because that would only succeed in undoing abolition and bringing the monsters back from the darkness. (And no, you can’t hope to take over the whole world, and prevent anybody else from re-arming, with just a few nukes that you hid in a cave.)

    Alright, that’s my contribution to this interesting discussion.

  19. John Schilling (History)

    Alan –

    There were no efforts by “the Japanese leadership” to surrender at any time prior to Hiroshima. There were efforts by the Japanese to arrange a diplomatic settlement that would allow them to avoid surrendering, say by playing the Russians off against the Americans. Some individual Japanese were more inclined to actually surrender, including many of the diplomats charged with negotiating a not-surrender, but they were not Japan’s leaders and lacked the power or authority to do anything about this. And all of this was clearly understood at the time; the Americans, British, and Russians all compared notes on the subject. If the Russians were holding back it hardly mattered on account of the US intelligence services by that time found the Japanese diplomatic ciphers slightly harder to work out than Pig Latin.

    In July of 1945, there was no general willingness of any significant segment of Japanese society to actually surrender, and no credible path to actual surrender that didn’t involve hundreds of thousands of (additional) dead civilians. Also in July of 1945, there was no credible not-surrender negotiated settlement that would not lead to a disturbingly high probability of fighting World War 2.1 in a very few years. The Japanese fundamentally did not feel they had been beaten, and that’s a dangerous mindset in people who have been beaten but still have weapons and/or factories.

    As far as the prospect of nuclear “warning shots” are concerned, to what point? The Japanese already knew we had the means to destroy them utterly. The atomic bomb, detonated over a city, made it clear that we could and would destroy them utterly at negligible cost or risk to ourselves. An atomic bomb detonated over a desert, would have made it lear that no matter what we *could* do we would be extremely reluctant to actually destroy them even if we could do it without cost or risk. One of these things offers hope and encouragement to people who imagine that resolute defiance with a side order of diplomacy will win them a not-surrender negotiated settlement, one does not.

    If there is a legitimate question, I think it is whether the demand for actual Japanese surrender was worth the cost, when a negotiated settlement short of surrender might have been achieved a megadeath or so earlier and would only probably have resulted in a rematch next season. Given the demand, by all allied powers, for unconditional surrender, it is hard to credibly argue for a less abhorrent choice than a pair of atomic bombs detonated over cities.

    And this is not merely a matter of historic interest. Two lessons to bring forward:

    1. There is a difference between surrender and negotiated settlement. The border can be fuzzy, but you really want to know which you are trying to achieve. Surrender is much more costly. It’s also much more likely to permanently resolve the issue.

    2. Warning shots, while almost invariably intended to demonstrate resolve, may well be perceived as demonstrating the exact opposite. If you genuinely are willing to destroy cities to solve the issue du jour, there is one way to unambiguously demonstrate this fact.
    Otherwise send diplomats, not bombs.

    • Alan (History)

      John – thank you for your very informative reply. With regard to “warning shots”, do you think that, rather than the Japanese, an element in the motivation to use the bombs was actually to fire a warning shot at the Soviets?

  20. Scott Monje (History)

    Just to make the issue even murkier, the latest theory about the Japanese decision to surrender is that they waited on purpose until the Soviet Union entered the war in order to avoid total dependence on the United States in the postwar period. (Yukiko Koshiro, “Eurasian Eclipse: Japan’s End Game in World War II,” American Historical Review 109:2 [April 2004].)

    When discussing the option of switching from the agreed goal of “unconditional surrender” to a lesser goal, it is worth keeping in mind that one purpose of the original goal was to avoid creating suspicions among allies (i.e., the Soviets) that you were switching sides and thus creating whole new potential conflicts. It may seem superfluous now, but it was a real concern at the time.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Not to mention what happened in Eastern Europe, and Korea. If the Soviet Union had a chance, Japan might have been another split country. Which leaves two interesting ponderables to wonder about. Would Victor Belenko’s flight in ’76 been from Hokkaido and not to it, and more seriously would we face a Japanese malfunction along the lines of the current Korean split? To those who do not back the bomb as a war ender, I ask you this. If the choice was todays Japan with the bomb, vs a Japan ala Korea without it, does not that kind of choice enter into legit conduct of war? Granted it’s a convoluted argument using hindsight. But some of you folks are saying the bomb was used for politics … Okay, that’s just Clauswitz. I mean in the end, no matter your moral stance on war, it is used as an extreme means of conducting politics.

  21. JP (History)

    The Koshiro thesis makes no sense. The Japanese leadership was obsessed with avoiding total defeat, and with using the Soviets to mediate with the Americans, not with shaping the nature of the total defeat they’d suffer (pretty much a contradiction in terms anyway) and using the Soviets against the Americans. If Japan’s traditional, geographically proximate enemy (the USSR) increased its power dramatically, then Japan would be MORE, not less, dependent on the USA after the war than if the Soviets stayed out. The proof of this is… historical reality! The Soviets increased their power in the Far East, and the Japanese were totally dependent on the US for protection from the Soviets. And furthermore, waiting for the Soviets to enter the war would raise the ominous prospect of a Soviet occupation zone in Japan, which in addition to its immediate horrors would also increase the long-term dependence of Japan on the USA just as the division of Germany did to Germany.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      If you mean they would have preferred winning to losing, well sure, but that option was running out. The Koshiro argument–right or wrong–is that the Japanese would be totally dependent on the United States if the Americans came and occupied all or most of East Asia. If the Soviets moved in, then the United States would need them. The historical reality that unfolded includes, among other things, the Americans dropping plans to break up the giant corporations as the Cold War heated up and then ending the military occupation and permitting the first stages of rearmament after the Korean War broke out.

    • Carey Sublette (History)

      Agree with JP: the notion that Japan wanted the USSR to enter the war, or even suspected that it might, conflicts with Japan’s strategy of stripping the Kwangtung Army in Manchuria and Korea of its fighting power and concentrating all of the army’s residual fighting strength in the southern island of Kyushu, leaving the northern island of Hokkaido virtually undefended. Intending to cede territory, including your own home territory, to a new enemy is a very odd strategy for improving your position at the end of a war.

      Regarding Alan’s question whether “an element in the motivation to use the bombs was actually to fire a warning shot at the Soviets” — consider this:

      We have a political decision made in 1942 to build a bomb to use against the Axis powers as soon as it was available, and unlimited resources were devoted to supporting that decision. That decision is never revisited or reconsidered at any level during the rest of the war. No meeting was ever held to decide whether the bomb should be used or not, it was always assumed at all levels – including President Truman that it would be. The only reviews conducted and decisions made were on what would be the most effective use.

      As the actual use of the bomb approached, and the Soviets grew increasingly uncooperative with Truman, he and Stimson discussed what effect the bomb would have on Soviet behavior, and Truman was optimistic that it would make them more cooperative.

      The discussion of its effect on the Soviets had no role at all in the decision to use the atomic bomb. It had no effect at all on the planning for use. No actions were taken as a result of this discussion. The was no indication at any point that use was up for reconsideration, or that anyone above the level of Naval Undersecretary thought that it should be.

      It would be incredible for Truman and Stimson not to raise and discuss this issue. It was an unavoidable issue of statecraft, and not thinking to discuss it would be an astonishing act of nonfeasance.

      Attempts to turn an unavoidable discussion of the consequences of an act of grave import, already decided upon, into the “real” motivation for the act are the work of polemicists, not historians.

    • Scott Monje (History)


      I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think it’s pretty clear that many Japanese officials believed the Soviets would intervene at some point. They had been watching the military build-up across the border pretty closely, and Moscow’s refusal to renew the neutrality pact confirmed it for them. Why they left their northern flank so exposed is an interesting question for investigation, but I’m not sure it disproves anything. No one is saying the Japanese “wanted” the Soviets to invade or wanted to cede territory to them. It’s a question of adapting to the inevitable. The concept is called “strategic surrender,” maneuvering to surrender on the best possible terms once the option of not surrendering is no longer feasible. (When Paul Kecskemeti of the Rand Corporation introduced the concept in 1958, the Pentagon, Congress, and the White House all decried the use of government funds to promote defeatism. Washington doesn’t change much.) By the way, I agree fully with your other comments.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      I think the point about the Stimson-Truman discussion is that nobody can claim it never even occurred to them to think about the bomb in terms of postwar power relations vis-a-vis the Soviets. That may seem a pretty basic point, but it punctures a hole in a thick wall of denial and mythology about American innocence in the origins of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

      I agree that it is absurd to claim this was the “real reason” for Hiroshima-Nagasaki, and that the balance of evidence suggests that the overriding concern was to end the war, and that non-use of the bomb was never seriously considered.

      However, as much as it is impossible for us to go back and examine in depth the minds of Truman and his inner circle, it does seem plausible that they were somewhat influenced by hubris in possessing this “winning weapon,” and by a desire to stick it to “that bastard,” Stalin.

      Would history have gone differently if they had been completely innocent of this motivation? Perhaps not, but not only can’t we know, we can say that this would have been an impossible alternative. It would have been almost inhuman of them not to have felt some level of delight in wielding a weapon of such awesome power, particularly at the bitter end of such a terrible war, and in confronting such a difficult and untrusted ally.

    • Carey Sublette (History)


      Kecskemeti’s book is an under-appreciated masterpiece on which I have relied extensively (I also recommend Leon Sigal’s “Fighting to a Finish”) but it offers no support at all for Koshiro’s thesis — Japanese officials expecting Soviet attack instead of mediation are entirely absent from his account.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      No, sorry, I only mentioned Kecskemeti for the notion that surrender can involve more than simply giving up. I’m not sure I’m convinced by Koshiro either, but I don’t think she’s been refuted by the comments that have been made so far. One of her issues is that the earlier histories are based on evidence from the War Crimes Trials, which she says was slanted (by the Japanese themselves). She uses sources that have become available only in the past few years. That having been said, she doesn’t have anyone who comes right out and says, “Let’s wait for the Russians to attack and then surrender.” She does have people who call for surrendering to the Americans before the Russians attack (as early as 1943, in fact) and people who had been calling all along for placing Japan “between” the Americans and the Russians and using them against each other. She also has people saying that a Russian attack on Manchuria would divide the KMT from the CCP and split the CCP between Maoists and Stalinists. In February 1945 the Imperial Headquarters concluded that the Kwantung Army was incapable of stopping a Soviet incursion. In April they acknowledged the build-up of Soviet forces on the Manchurian border but did nothing to counter it. She says they accurately predicted that the US would invade at Kyushu in the late fall and that the Soviets would invade Manchuria a few months prior to that. She seems to think they were leaving the way open for the Soviets. I would imagine it’s at least as likely that they thought the defense of the homeland was more important than the defense of the colonies (and that the Soviets didn’t have the amphibious capabilities to take Hokkaido). But given that situation, they may still have hoped for rivalries to arise between the Americans and the Soviets, just as Truman and Stimson probably hoped the bomb would intimidate Stalin even if they didn’t drop it for that reason. In any event, what were they going to do to stop it? Surrendering the whole empire to the Americans was indeed an option (although the Soviets might have attacked anyhow). But if their own treatment of Korea and Manchukuo is indicative of how they expected occupied countries to be treated, then they might well have had reason to pause. (We always assume everyone really wants to be occupied by us, but it’s not always true.)

  22. Alex W. (History)

    One of the many nice points Michael Gordin makes in his book, “Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War” (Princeton University Press, 2007), is that there are really two different questions when we think about whether they were “justified.” The first is military justification (was it necessary to end the war without invasion), the second is moral justification (was killing tens of thousands with an atomic bomb worse than killing tens of thousands with firebombing or machine guns).

    Gordin makes the argument that the first question is actually a moot one, because the military certainly wasn’t thinking about the atomic bomb (almost none of them knew about it), and wasn’t planning around it at all. (They were still planning to invade up until Japan actually surrendered.) He argues it wasn’t much of a factor in Truman’s considerations at all, or any of the military advisors, with almost the sole exception of Stimson.

    As for the moral question, he argues in part that the context of World War II as a whole makes it pretty hard to distinguish the atomic bombs as uniquely morally wrong, even if one just takes into account the Pacific theater, or only Allied actions. He argues that drawing the distinct moral line between a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb and the firebombing raids is pretty difficult to do. (It gets a little bit easier when one is talking about a world in which there are two nuclear superpowers, armed to the gills with thermonuclear missiles.)

    It’s an interesting argument, and an interesting book — one that tries to break out of the ruts we’ve dug ourselves in with regards to talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and show exactly what assumptions lay behind the creation of those ruts in the first place.

    Separately, the main, obvious, problem with the “demonstration” argument is it is inherently untestable after the fact. We do know (to some degree of “knowing”) that the two bombs did (along with the Soviet invasion) appear to lead the Japanese high command to sue for peace. We don’t have any clue what a demonstration would or wouldn’t have done. We don’t have any way of knowing. We have no specific reason to think it would succeed.

    We do know that if it didn’t succeed, it would have knocked the US atomic bomb supply down by one more. Would one bomb have done it, after a demonstration? There’s literally no way to know. Would the Japanese high command have believed a demonstration? Would they have based their wartime policy on it?

    Looking at it from the other side of the gun, would the US have surrendered if the Japanese or the Germans had set off an atomic bomb over some uninhabited area? Personally, I doubt it. Would the US have surrendered if the enemy powers had destroyed one city, then another, then pledged more? That seems a lot less impossible to me.

    The third bomb would have been ready by the end of August. Whether they would have used it then or saved up for a few more weeks and dropped two or three more in clusters is unclear — the idea was certainly floated.

    • Carey Sublette (History)

      “The third bomb would have been ready by the end of August.”

      The third bomb would have been available for delivery 17 August if the core shipment on 11 August had not been halted by the expectation of imminent surrender.

      The original schedule (weather permitting) would have had the first bomb dropped 1 August, the second about a week later, and the third on 17 August or so — roughly one a week. On 15 August Los Alamos had already received enough plutonium for a fourth bomb core so if the same priority of getting bombs out to Tinian as soon as possible had been maintained it might have been available by the end of the month.

      In planning the attacks (we must always avoid the Historian’s Fallacy of assuming later knowledge for the participants) they were looking at basically a one-a-week drop schedule through August. The impact of planning a demonstration drop would thus be simply a one week delay in urban attacks.

      But no serious consideration was ever given to a demonstration.

  23. Adil (History)

    The use of A-Bomb was justifiable or not – is a matter of perspective. What is important is that the experience of Hiroshima did not change the leadership mindset. NWs will continue to have political amd military utility for the foreseeable future.

    Michael! Your views did surprise me, as these tend to drift towardfs realism.

    • krepon (History)

      You’ve forgotten: The original motto of the Stimson Center (subsequently modified) was “pragmatic steps toward ideal objectives.”

  24. Chris (History)

    My father served in the British army at Anzio but unlike your uncle came home in 1946 – I was born the following year. He will be 90 on Tuesday next. If the war in the Pacific had not ended as it did in 1945 he would almost certainly have had to fight in the Far East after the allied victory in Europe. Unsurprisingly, I have no doubt that Truman and Stimson made the right decision.

  25. Ward Wilson (History)

    Dear Mr. Krepon,

    The moral issue that concerns you is not, in my opinion, the important issue here.

    You are worrying about whether America is good (“were we wrong to drop the Bomb?”). This is, in my view, unnecessary. Of course America is good. Although we have done bad things we remain honorable and praiseworthy. (It is wrong to bomb innocent civilians indiscriminately but in war bad choices often get made. It happens.)

    Focusing on moral questions obscures the central issue: did nuclear weapons work? Not “do they flatten large areas?” but “when they flatten large areas do leaders care?” This is the vital question. And here the evidence from Hiroshima is overwhelming: Japan’s leaders weren’t coerced by the bombings.

    The part of Stimson’s memoir that bothers me is not his moral judgment but his presumption that the bombs won the war. That assertion simply isn’t supported by the evidence. If you’re not familiar with the evidence (and most people aren’t) I happily direct you to the piece I wrote in International Security in 2007 called “The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima” which demonstrates that Japan’s leaders were hardly affected by the atomic bombings. If you remain unconvinced, I’ll gladly to send you the draft chapter from my forthcoming book which demolishes the case that the bomb “won the war” in detail.

    Again, whether the United States was morally justified in bombing Hiroshima is a secondary matter. Moral questions, by and large, do not determine which countries survive and which do not. Whether nuclear weapons work, whether they coerce or deter (or even force surrender) is the vital question.


  26. Daryl Kimball (History)


    By the time the atomic bombs were dropped, the war was all but won. The bombings were unnecessary and gratuitous. There were alternatives that the President and his close advisors did not explore for various reasons.

    Stimson and Truman made the wrong decision and their memoirs represent a post-hoc rationalization of their actions.

    Certainly one lesson is “never again,” but let’s not delude ourselves that these were or are “winning” weapons.

  27. JP (History)

    “By the time the atomic bombs were dropped, the war was all but won.”

    That must be why the Japanese concentrated 900,000 men and 2,000 kamikaze aircraft in Kyushu to fight the expected US invasion.

    “There were alternatives that the President and his close advisors did not explore for various reasons.”

    The alternatives – blockade, conventional bombing, invasion – would have killed many more Japanese and Americans than the atomic bombings did.

  28. Carey Sublette (History)

    A little perspective on the statement that “By the time the atomic bombs were dropped, the war was all but won.”

    On 16 April 1945 the war in Europe was all but won – the Soviets had surrounded the capital of Berlin.

    But the Battle for Berlin lasted from that date until 2 May 1945 with around 300,000 Soviets and Germans killed (soldiers and civilians), another 300,000 Soviet non-fatal casualties, with an undetermined but very large number of German non-fatal casualties.

    For a round number let us say roughly one million people killed or wounded.

    There is an old saying “It’s all over but the fighting.”

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