What if … Atom Bombs Weren’t Used

(This is an opinion piece. You might want to skip this post if such things offend you).

It is interesting to see that sixty-five years from the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the issue is still controversial. It is not extremely surprising to me at least because I belong to that small minority who believed the surrender of Japan would have arrived even without the use of the atom bombs. Holding this view point as I do, I had a few debates back in college, beyond college, and in workforce. And writing this post flared up the debate again … this time with my girlfriend. She wrote this beautiful piece below to help ‘elucidate’ a few points. I guess it elucidates me not to date history majors (:P love you). Anyhow, two of us went over the piece, abridged it, and I suggested we put a few photo-related themes in. And here it is:

These days, we often forget that the atomic bombs were nearly used on Japan during the Second World War. With the anniversary of the Soviet declaration of war on Imperial Japan (or as they call it in Orwellian jargon of Socialist Democratic Republic of Japan, “Fraternal Help for Pacification”) looming, it is hard to remember another more obscure non-event that would have also happened sixty-five years ago today, had it not been for President Truman’s decision two weeks prior. The bible-quoting haberdasher from Missouri wrote in his diary on July 25th 1945 that with an atomic bomb, military objectives and soldiers and sailors will be targets indiscrimately along with women and children. He overruled the Department of War which was advocating its use, by writing: “It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, and it should not be made useful.”

X-Day, November 1st 1945

The Battle of Okinawa and its devastating aftermath prompted the United States to look for alternatives to subdue mainland Japan. But with Truman vehemently against the atomic bomb and the Soviet invasion of Japan imminent, the United States had no choice but to go forward with the plans for Operation Olympic. In the ensuing decades, much had been made of heroism on the beaches of Miyazake, from Carl Mydans’ photos of X-Day landings to Clint Eastwood’s box-office hit Our Boys of Kyushu, but it was tragic and demoralizing that Japan’s strategic geography, its awaiting guerillas and kamikaze troops meant the Allies casulties were high. Despite these setbacks, the war in the Pacific was over in eighteen months. With the Soviets invading from the north, and the Americans blockading the ports, the Japanese morale was soon cracking. That winter, Emperor Hirohito sat in pallor as his youngest brother denounced him in the privy council. But the martial law imposed to quell riots in Tokyo and Yokohama was the signal to the wider world that Japan would fight to the bitter end. That end arrived on 24th January 1947, with Emperor Hirohito signing the instrument of surrender inside the war-ravished Imperial Palace in front of General MacArthur and Marshal Vasilevsky.

MacArthur, Hirohito and Vasilevsky after Japanese surrender

The next day, the flag used by Commodore Perry when he entered Tokyo Bay in 1853, was flown atop the Imperial Palace. Hidden behind that iconic W. Eugene Smith photo of flag rising — which now graces the National Pacific War Memorial in Chesapeake, Virginia — were deeper discomforts that there might be an ‘influence gap’ between the U.S. and the Soviets. With the war for mainland Japan consuming most of American manpower, Truman failed to prevent Turkey, Iran, Greece, Italy and Korea from falling into the communist camp. Churchill bemoaned this failure in his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, London. Encroaching Soviet sphere withered away America’s last remaining shreds of isolationism, but like Wilson before him, Truman was too occupied by a single issue to fully grasp America’s place on the world’s stage. In his magisterial book “Colossus: the Price of America’s Empire”, Niall Ferguson wrote, “Truman’s moral decision not to use the Atom Bomb — which rehabilitated his posthumous reputation — was revealed only after his presidency, the end of which was prematurely facilitated by hesitance and spinelessness he displayed towards the blockaded citizens of West Berlin.” That November, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York — an isolationist who reverted his stance to vehemently urge America to join Britain in her courageous but eventually doomed Berlin Airlift — had all the good reasons to be smiling manaically from ear to ear when he held up a newspaper predicting his victory four hours before the polled closed.

Dewey campaigned as a decisive leader and won

In 1950, Japan was divided into North and South Japans with Tokyo itself jointly administered between the Soviet Union, China and the United States. In 1955, the Chiyoda Wall dissecting the Imperial Palace went up; in the years that followed, its importance was underlined in two famous presidential speeches made in front of it: Adlai Stevenson’s “Today we are all Japanese,” and Ronald Reagen’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall”, but back in 1955, so palpable were the fears that the Soviet Union would drive 20 miles down the 36th parallel delimitation line to invade Tokyo that the wall came as a relief.

The idea of using the atomic weapons seems ridiculous now, knowing as we do the atom’s perverse effects. But back in the 1950s, everyone entertained those ideas; Generals MacArthur and Le May nearly prevailed upon President Dewey to use them when the Soviets invaded Korea and Hungary and squashed revolts there. There were proposals to use nuclear weapons to shot down Russian satellites, to quell insurgants against American-supported dictators in South America, and to control weather. Senator Joseph MacCarthy of Wisconsin denounced Dewey as a red agent for his refusal to use them against the Russian fleet. Only with President Steveson’s gentle explanation after the Cuban Missile Crisis, did we finally come to terms with the dangers of what Oppenheimer called, “Destoryer of Worlds”. Even then, we didn’t fully understand the true horror of nuclear weapons until Richard Nixon annihilated North Vietnam.

To yearn nostalgically for the destruction of multiple Japanese cities is definitely a taboo, but it is always tempting to indulge in some alternative history. Atom bombs would undoubtably have ended the war before the Soviets joined it, and would have led to the American occupation of entire Japan, not just its southern parts. And without the constant anxieties about the Soviet presence in the Far East, America would not have gone into Vietnam. Without the costly war for Japan, American would have prevented the communist encroachments in China and East Europe. On the other hand, a Japan devastated by nuclear bombs and its population alienated by such inhumanity would not have warmed up to Americans occupiers who dropped the bombs. It is equally hard to imagine a modern futuristic Japan without the industrial centers in the south. But all these counterfactuals aside, this much is certain: despite its high human costs and less-than-satisfactory outcome, Operation Olympic was America’s finest hour.

37 thoughts on “What if … Atom Bombs Weren’t Used

  1. Very interesting. I really enjoyed the alternate history and seeing “iconic photos” from a different timeline.

  2. I posted these following quotes on your previous post on the atomic bombing of nagasaki: “Here are some quotes from top US military figures that will hopefully help you rethink your opinion about whether Truman’s decision to drop the bomb really was a necessary, last resort option to end the war.

    – “…in July 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…” – Dwight Eisenhower, Mandate For Change, pg. 380

    – In a Newsweek interview, Eisenhower again recalled the meeting with Stimson: “…the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” – “Ike on Ike,” Newsweek, 11/11/63

    in a memo to President Truman on May 28, 1945
    -”I am convinced that if you, as President, will make a shortwave broadcast to the people of Japan – tell them they can have their Emperor if they surrender, that it will not mean unconditional surrender except for the militarists – you’ll get a peace in Japan – you’ll have both wars over.”

    after the bombing of Hirosima on August 8, 1945
    -”The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.”

    -”I told MacArthur of my memorandum of mid-May 1945 to Truman, that peace could be had with Japan by which our major objectives would be accomplished. MacArthur said that was correct and that we would have avoided all of the losses, the Atomic bomb, and the entry of Russia into Manchuria.” -Herbert Hoover

    – “MacArthur’s views about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were starkly different from what the general public supposed. . . When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.” -Norman Cousins, The Pathology of Power, pg. 65, 70-71.

    “MacArthur once spoke to me very eloquently about it….He thought it a tragedy that the Bomb was ever exploded.” -Richard M. Nixon

    The day after Hiroshima was bombed MacArthur’s pilot, Weldon E. Rhoades, noted in his diary:
    “General MacArthur definitely is appalled and depressed by this Frankenstein monster [the bomb].”

    in a press conference on September 20, 1945
    “The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”

    ADMIRAL WILLIAM LEAHY (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff):
    “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” – William Leahy, I Was There, pg. 441.

    “It always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” -H.H. Arnold, Global Mission, pg.598

    ADMIRAL WILLIAM F. HALSEY (Commander, U.S. Third Fleet)
    “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it. . . . [The scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. . . . It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before.” -stated publicly in 1946

    JOHN McCLOY (Assistant Secretary of War)
    “I have always felt that if, in our ultimatum to the Japanese government issued from Potsdam [in July 1945], we had referred to the retention of the emperor as a constitutional monarch and had made some reference to the reasonable accessibility of raw materials to the future Japanese government, it would have been accepted. Indeed, I believe that even in the form it was delivered, there was some disposition on the part of the Japanese to give it favorable consideration. When the war was over I arrived at this conclusion after talking with a number of Japanese officials who had been closely associated with the decision of the then Japanese government, to reject the ultimatum, as it was presented. I believe we missed the opportunity of effecting a Japanese surrender, completely satisfactory to us, without the necessity of dropping the bombs.”

    “Especially it is good to see the truth told about the last days of the war with Japan…..I was with the Fleet during that period; and every officer in the Fleet knew that Japan would eventually capitulate from…the tight blockade. “I, too, felt strongly that it was a mistake to drop the atom bombs, especially without warning.”

    REAR ADMIRAL LEWIS L. STRAUSS (special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy)
    “It [the atomic bomb] was not necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion…..it was clear to a number of people…that the war was very nearly over. The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate…..it was a sin – to use a good word – (a word that) should be used more often – to kill non-combatants….”

    “We brought them down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.”

    LIEUTENANT GENERAL CLAIRE CHENNAULT (Commander of the “Flying Tigers”)
    “Russia’s entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped. “

    • “an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone”

      Yes, because “hunger alone” is oh-so clean.

      Bombings (of all kinds) kill people indiscriminately, yet hunger kills children first (along with other most valnuarable).

    • in hindsight or in an effort to shore up their own reputations…funny their feelings before the bombing was that casualties wouldve been far higher and that Japan wasnt actually willing to surrender- note that even after the Emperor agreed to surrender hardcore elements of the govt/military tried to prevent it- even a major trying to intercept the recording hirohito made to be played for the people…. wistful thinking from others wont change facts nor history- claiming that no one was in favor etc etc is absurd… esp. MacArthur who just a few yrs later wanted to use them on the Chinese during the korean war!!!

  3. If I were going to imagine a silly alt-history, I’d have had aliens. Or giant naked women. Or motile plants with a hive mind.

    What pap.

    I am especially amused at the quoting of Mac about the atomic bombing. Seriously? Ever heard of Korea?

    Lordy, stick to non-fiction.


    • MacArthur’s opposition to using the atomic bomb on Japan is historical fact. He wasn’t even consulted on its being used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  4. If MacArthur wasn’t consulted, how could he be opposed to using the atomic bomb? He sure wanted to use them in Korea.

    This article seems to indicate that dropping the atomic bombs was to keep the Soviets from entering the war. However, they did enter the war. It did prevent them from co-occupying the mainland which would have been a disaster.

    • MacArthur was disgusted after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. His main point, which is valid and seldom discussed, is that the Potsdam declaration called for an unconditional surrender. Japan had been trying to find a way to surrender for some time, but an unconditional surrender would have meant that the emperor could have been deposed: this was unacceptable to the Japanese. After the two atomic bombings, we ended up accepting a conditional surrender which kept the emperor in power and saved his family from war crime tribunals. So if a conditional surrender was acceptable to us in the first place, why did we have to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and kill all those people?

      With regards to Korea, MacArthur wanted the atom bombs used on Chinese military bases, not civilian centers. As it was, conventional bombing had destroyed most of their cities.

      • so I just read the very interesting article Max Kennerly posted above about Korea (http://hnn.us/articles/9245.html), and I stand corrected about MacArthur in Korea. It turns out he wanted to drop 30 atom bombs in Manchuria to make life unlivable there for 60-120 years. I think a way to explain this discrepancy is that in World War 2 he knew Japan was finished and that there was no need to drop the bombs when they were prepared to make an acceptable surrender to us. In Korea, after China enter the fray, the war was just getting warmed up, and he was seeking victory at all cost. I’m not defending his wanting to use the 30 atomic bombs there, by the way; the idea sounds totally abhorrent. Everyone should read the article.

  5. I must repeat my comment from before, the best alternative history is Thurber’s: “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomatix.”

    I’d also suggest that it is the most believeable.

  6. why dont you all shut up and let the guy have an opinion – we DO live America, where we are guaranteed such things. Jeez.

  7. I’ve enjoyed reading your foray into alt-history if a vote counts.

    Note that dating a history major is far preferable to loads of other choices – actresses and nurses are definitely overrated.

  8. I loved the way the article managed to gloss over the death and serious injuries to what were estimated at the time to be half a million American soldiers, which would have attended a longer war by saying only:

    “Despite these setbacks, the war in the Pacific was over in eighteen months.”

    Any reasonable assessment might have weighed these incremental American losses, and the loss of more Japanese lives and others associated with eighteen additional months of war against the destruction caused by the two A-bombs.

    Instead the sophomoric framework of this essay assigns all of those deaths a zero weight in pursuit of its assertion of a self-aggrandizing moral superiority.

    I’m having trouble imagining how embarrassed I would be if, even as a student, I had published a piece of drivel like this.

  9. You have to put yourselves into the mindset of those who had to decide, knowing what they knew at the time. The U.S. public has never been very willing to suffer lots of casualties — one reason Eisenhower supported letting the Russians take Berlin was the casualties that was going to involve. Recent island invasions had proved that the Japanese were capable of extremes in defense — fighting to the last man, suicide attacks, kamikaze, etc. The only rational position was that an invasion would involve a great many casualties — on both sides. Everyone knew the war would soon end, but there was no way to know how the Japanese would have reacted to specific proposals. U.S. policy was “unconditional surrender” — in the post-Pearl Harbor era, that was the only politically feasible position. To think that negotiations would have been successful, while possibly true, was IMHO an impossible position to take at the time. An interesting scenario, nothing more.

    • Actually, Japanese forces dug in and did NOT conduct Banzai attacks ala Guadalcanal. They did exact horrific death tolls at Peleliu, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, and other places. To get a feel for it, read “With the Old Breed” by Marine E.B. Sledge, who fought at Peleliu and Okinawa, both brutal WWI style battles in the Pacific. About half his company were killed in each battle.

      The Navy pressed for a blockade, sure it would work. LeMay pressed for 10,000 and 20,000 bomber raids onto villages, sure it would work, stripping Europe of all the bombers there after VE Day. The Army pressed for an invasion.

      A catastrophic blood bath would have ensued. True, the Japanese were beaten and knew it after Midway, and certainly after the invasion of the Philippines and the defeat of their naval task force to stop it. Their strategy was to inflict such massive casualties that they could keep *SOME* of their conquests and maintain a Western Pacific Empire.

      It is unlikely Stalin would have invaded Japan’s mainland — the USSR had no real effective navy, and was not really interested in anything besides Korea and Manchuria, where they rapidly rolled up the Japanese troops.

      Not dropping the A-bombs would have produced a million US War Dead (all of WWII produced half a million dead) … and eventual use anyway. Because Americans would not have tolerated massive casualties and would have used the A-Bombs to kill about half of Japan. As it was, firebombing of Tokyo killed about 250,000, more than the two A-bombs combined.

      Dug in troops with hard, well-prepared defensive positions, are impossible to dislodge without massive casualties (the Israelis in Lebanon found that out) unless the mass population is held hostage. This is the reality of cement, barbed wire, machine guns, and mortars.

  10. Good morning
    Great story love it, could I please have your permission to post this on both Changing the Times (www.changingthetimes.net) and Today in Alternate History (www.todayinah.co.uk) fully accredited to you of course?
    This is a wicked story!
    My name is Steve please email me your approval

  11. Good morning
    Re – What if … Atom Bombs Weren’t Used
    Great story love it, could I please have your permission to post this on both Changing the Times (www.changingthetimes.net) and Today in Alternate History (www.todayinah.co.uk) fully accredited to you of course?
    This is a wicked story!
    My name is Steve please email me your approval

  12. While the humarintarian questions implicit in the topic are certainly worth careful consideration, this sort of alt-history path is just too heavily and frequently tread. Too many Harry Turtledoves already – this blog has already been a strong and insightful resource for thought and learning without resorting to sensationalism.

  13. Bah to all the haters. I’m not a history major, but I really appreciated reading this alternate version. I wonder if the outcome would really have been quite this different had the bombs not been used, but the thing is, one never knows. My position is that bombing non-military target population centres like Hiroshima and Nagasaki is terrorism pure and simple: a tactic the US later on went to war – against.

  14. I really think we’re missing something with the A-bomb discussions:
    The _ONLY_ difference between the A-bomb and other raids we’d done is that it only took 1 airplane. From a strategic and tactical standpoint, that’s massive, but from a moral standpoint it’s not. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I believe, aren’t even in the top 5 in numbers of civilians killed in a single bombing raid.

    I’m not defending them. I’m saying that the moral grounds against using nuclear weapons strictly from a number-of-killed-civilians doesn’t hold much water in this context.

    Also, when, in human history, has anyone ever invented a weapon and not used it?

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