to Use the Bomb
The modern nuclear arsenals and the struggle to control nuclear weaponry
have brought new significance and controversy to the American use of
the atomic bomb in World War II. This reading selection describes the
circumstances surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb. There
is considerable debate among historians about the necessity of using
the bomb to force Japan's surrender; there is perhaps even greater controversy
concerning the moral principle involved in subjecting the two Japanese
cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this weapon. This latter point is
raised, but not answered, at the end of the essay.
World War II was the second world-wide war in less than a generation's
time. The World War I had erased any romantic illusions about the nature
of modern war; World War II saw the complete mobilization of entire populations
and economies in the waging of the war. It was fought with grim determination
on every side. In such conditions, each side carried out acts of great
brutality in the frustration and necessity of achieving victory.
For the first time outside a civil war, fighting spread beyond the armies
to whole populations: Hitler used aerial bombing to try to break the
spirit of the British; the Japanese used aerial bombing and soldiers
against the Chinese civilian population; both Japan and Germany used
their military forces to subdue resistance in occupied nations; and the
allied forces used bombing to carry the war beyond the battle front and
break the opposition of enemy populations. By the end of the war, technology
had advanced to the point where such bombings were terrible: the allied
bombing of Dresden killed tens of thousands of people, and the American
firebombing of Tôkyô in March 1945 probably killed more than
During this period, wartime technology raced ahead, as each side attempted
to be the first to develop the techniques and equipment that would enable
it to win. Many nations sought to decipher the secrets of atomic energy,
but the United States was the first to develop the ultimate weapon, the
Prelude to the Bomb
On April 1, 1945, the Allies invaded the southern
Japanese island of Okinawa, and their victory there after bitter and
bloody fighting with heavy losses on both sides proved that Japan could
not win the war. It also proved, however, that invasion of the Japanese
homeland would cause massive casualties on both sides. As American ground
forces swept Okinawa clean of Japanese troops, the local civilians were
caught in the middle. Subjected to gun fire, bombing, and infantry combat
by the American advance, they were prevented from surrendering by the
Japanese troops. Okinawa only served to confirm everyone's idea of how
the final battle for the main islands of Japan would be fought.
The surrender of Okinawa caused the Japanese cabinet to collapse and
a new, pro-peace prime minister and foreign minister pressed the army
to allow negotiations. The Japanese military, however, trapped in its
own mystique of rigid determination and self-sacrifice in the name of
the nation and emperor, insisted on strict terms.
Just at this point, the atomic bomb became a reality. The first successful
test of the atomic weapon was held on July l6, 1945. The United States
now had the choice of using it to try to end the war in another way.
All other forms of attack, from the grim battle for Okinawa to the terrible
fire bombing of Japan's cities, had failed to deter the leaders in Tôkyô.
Perhaps the atomic bomb would resolve the crisis without a need for invasion.
President Truman, who had already left for Potsdam to meet with Churchill
and Stalin, left instructions that the bomb was not to be used against
Japan until after the Allies had agreed on and issued a declaration.
The Potsdam Declaration of July 26, issued by the Allied powers and
calling for "unconditional surrender," was not acceptable to
the Japanese military, despite the declaration's threat that failure
to surrender would be met by "complete destruction" of the
military and the "utter devastation of the Japanese home land." Following
ten days of Japanese silence, the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6,
1945, on the city of Hiroshima.
The Impact on Japan
It was reported the next day to the Japanese Army
General Staff that "the whole city of Hiroshima was destroyed instantly
by a single bomb." On August 8 the army was further rocked by the
news that the Russians, who had remained neutral to Japan throughout
the war, had attacked Japanese forces on the Asian mainland. But despite
the prime minister's insistence that Japan must accept surrender, the
army insisted on total, last-ditch resistance. The news, midway through
this conference, that the city of Nagasaki had also been destroyed by
another atomic bomb, did not sway them from their determination.
Finally, the Japanese prime minister and his allies agreed that the
only course was to have the emperor break the deadlock by expressing
his view. The emperor's statement that Japan's suffering was unbearable
to him and that he wished for surrender broke the military's opposition
and began the process of ending the war in the Pacific.
Assessing the Decision
Was it necessary to use the atomic bomb to force
Japan to surrender? This is a subject of heated debate among historians.
Some point to the existence of a pro-peace faction in Japan, resisting
the army and growing in strength. This faction had already tried to express
Japan's interest in peace through the Russians, whom they believed were
still neutral. In fact, the Russians had secretly agreed at the Yalta
Conference in February 1945 to attack the Japanese.
Moreover, Japanese offensive capabilities were exhausted. The navy and
air force were almost totally destroyed by the summer of 1945, and the
Japanese islands were completely cut off from the rest of the world.
The Russian attack of August 8 on Manchuria met little or no resistance.