Dropping the Atomic bomb on Japan

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Dropping the Atomic bomb on Japan Katie Denny

November 27, 2004

Currently, the United States of America is in the aftermath of a military action in which the U.S. used a preemptive strike with a weapon of unmatched technology and power. The United States went after an enemy who had attacked without warning (the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001)… or at least they went after whom they thought had attacked us. By heading into Iraq, the U.S. was attempting to finish what could become a messy, complicated war. The United States has tried this before, lets see how it worked.

On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an unprecedented atomic bomb on Japan, which effectively ended the second World War. The dropping of the atomic bomb was a momentous event in history. The decision to drop the bomb has been scrutinized as to its necessity and morality, and the question has arisen: if the United States had to do it again, would they drop the atomic bomb? The official government story is that the atomic bomb was the quickest way to end the war and saved millions of lives. Another option says that the United States dropped the bomb in large part to threaten the Soviet Union. What caused the United States to build the bomb and why was it that it was deemed necessary? What other means of battle were there, and why were they unable to end the war? Why was the atomic bomb dropped, and if offered the chance to replay history, would it happen again? Even if they knew then what they know now, I believe that the United States would again drop the bomb.

Japan is small island country with few natural resources, lacking especially in iron and oil. Starting before World War I, Japan moved to ease these limitations by working to acquire new territory. Within a period of 15 years (1894-1909), Japan took over the Pescadores Islands and Formosa, defeated the Russians, and annexed Korea [Smurthwaite p.12]. These actions forced the rest of the world to recognize Japan as one of the strong powers in the East. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles (January, 1919), they gained the former German territories in the Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands [McKay p.926, Smurthwaite p.7]. This extended their empire 3,000 miles into the Pacific and put pressure on the United States by threatening the U.S. bases in the Philippines. To further expand its empire, Japan declared war on China in July of 1937 and invaded Manchuria. In response to international calls to withdraw, they instead withdrew from the League of Nations. During this period and on through the second World War, Japan’s army dominated the Japanese economy and government, with the result that Japan was at war constantly up until 1945.

While Japan was actively expanding in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the United States was turning in on itself. The end of World War I left the U.S. isolated from the diplomatic world when Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. The United States did not desire any land or territory, instead they just wanted world peace and figured that isolation was the best way to go about it.

Beginning in June of 1938, the Japanese and Americans made conscious efforts to stay on peaceful terms, but their differences were too large. In the summer of 1941, Japan declared its intention to create the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, with “hostile intent for those countries that did not comply” [Smurthwaite p.14]. In response, the United States orchestrated a restriction of trade with Japan, especially threatening Japan’s oil supply. Japan was at a crossroads; they would either have to back down or they would be forced to make war. On December 1, 1941 Japan made the fatal decision to launch to launch a preemptive attack on the U.S. Navy, and six days later at 7:49 am Japan attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and attack that continued on to air bases at Wheeler, Bellows, and Hickham Fields [Smurthwaite p. 25].

Between December 7, 1941 and May of 1942 Japan attacked and conquered Guam, Makin and Tarawa in the British Gilbert Islands, Wake Island, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Burma, Borneo, and New Guinea. At that point Japan had reached the full extent of its expansion [Smurthwaite pg’s 34-58].

In mid 1942, the U.S. was finally able to retaliate, and the first showdown between the two enemies occurred in the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942 and continued on to June 6, 1942 [Smurthwaite p.69]. This battle was jut the first of many between the U.S., fighting a war of vengeance, and Japan, fighting a war to defend its newly conquered territory and unique culture against western imperialism. The Americans plan was to continue war with the Japanese navy through a series of sea battles and to fight the Japanese army by ‘island hopping’ until they were within air range of Japan so that they could attack the Japanese homeland directly. Gradually, the Allies worked their way across the Pacific toward Japan. By early 1945 their air bases on Guam, Tinian, and Saipan were able to launch raids on Japan itself. At this point, General Curtis LeMay took the fighting to the next level and began bombing Japan with incendiary bombs (described later).

The United States got their first taste of the Japanese all-out fighting style when they landed on the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima (south of Japan) in early 1945. The Allies’ goal was to move their base of operations close enough to Japan so that they could successfully complete their air raids [Nobile p.8]. Taking over these two islands was supposed to be a small battle, but it was here that the Japanese showed the world that they were not going to ever give up. Japan knew that the Allies were coming, and in an operation they had dug miles of underground tunnels. The battle of Iwo Jima, ending on March 26 of 1945, left the U.S. Marine Corps with 6,800 dead and 20,000 wounded. 110,000 Japanese soldiers and 80,000 civilians died [Wheeler (b) p.193]. these island were aptly described as a “piece of Hell” [Nobile p.8], and exemplified the Japanese ‘fight to the death’ fighting style.

In retaliation for the loss of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and because the U.S. was now within Japanese air range, the Japanese began their Kamikaze ‘suicide attacks’. In April and June 1945, there was a total of 1,800 individual suicide attacks, which hurt both the Allies (because they lost 28 ships and 176 were damaged) and the Japanese (because they were losing their few remaining pilots).

In the spring of 1945, the spirits in America were bright because the war in Europe had ended and it looked as if Japan had lost and was ready to give up. When the Japanese did not give up by summer, the three Allies (US, Britain, and Russia) issued the Potsdam Proclamation (on July 26, 1945), and ultimatum which ordered Japan to submit to unconditional surrender “or face prompt and utter destruction” [Craig p.66]. This ultimatum was rudely ignored, and so it was planned that on November 1, 1945 the Allies would invade Japan. Initially 767,000 soldiers would land on the beaches of southern Japan and on March 1 or the following year 1,534,000 men would land on the beaches near Tokyo, poised and ready to fight [Nobile p.48]. this plan was not carried out, however, because on August 6, 1945 the B-29 “Enola Gay” dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki “to impress the Japanese with the fact that the United States was actually in production of the weapon and that the future held only the prospect of more and more atomic warfare” [Craig p.75-76]. Six days after Nagasaki, citing “a new and most cruel bomb” as one of the reasons [Weintraub p.594], Japan surrendered [Rhodes p.745], although under the condition that their emperor be allowed to remain.

The making of the atomic bomb was prompted by three main reasons. First, it was scientifically possible. Scientists everywhere are thrilled and excited when they are presented with an idea that they know will work, and it was no different when scientists became aware that nuclear physics offered the possibility of an atomic bomb. If it is doable, then why not carry it out? Second, the Germans had also developed the idea of nuclear fission and atomic power, and they too were working on adding an atomic bomb to their own weapons. With another country working on a weapon that could potentially change the whole nature of warfare, the Allies naturally wanted to beat them to it. third, the course of the war with Germany and eventually with Japan added incentive to the bomb process. In both cases the enemy did not surrender quickly. Imagine being stuck in stalemate. To have a weapon powerful enough to devastate an entire city would be a great way to end the war quickly. The intimidation factor would allow for the U.S. to astonish and instill fear in the rest of the world, making other countries think twice about attacking them or their allies. Finally, the most human reason for constructing such a lethal bomb was that it would save the lives of thousands of American soldiers scheduled to invade Japan.

The making of the atomic bomb started in England in 1939, shifted to the U.S. in 1941, and moved forward steadily until it was dropped in 1945 [Rhodes p.388]. In the end, the bomb project (the Manhattan Project) cost upward of 2 billion dollars, employed thousands of people, and required the vast knowledge of many leading scientists.

The bitter, inhumane fight for Iwo Jima and Okinawa was a shock to the U.S. . Why would the Japanese fight so viciously for two small islands? They fought because it was honorable. They went into battle with the mindset that “even if we are defeated, the noble spirit of this Kamikaze attack corps will keep our homeland from ruin. Without this spirit, ruin would certainly follow defeat” [Nobile p.8]. in an ancient war betweenteh strong Chinese and the weak Japanese, a strong typhoon, a ‘divine wind’ sunk the Chinese ships as they waited to attack Japan, thus saving Japan from inevitable defeat. ‘Divine wind’ translated to Kamikaze, describes the Japanese mindset that if they are goin to die, then they are going to take out as many people as possible. This way of fighting increased the death toll for both sides. The Japanese soldiers viewed dying in battle as honorable: “Without regard for life or name a samurai will defend his homeland” [Nobile p.8]. not only did they fight for honor, but they fought for their emperor. Emperor Hirohito was a god to the Japanese, and they would do anything for him, including fighting to the death.

This love for their emperor prolonged the war. On July 28, 1945 Prime Minister Suzuki said that Japan would ignore the Potsdam Proclamation, primarily because the Proclamation did not ensure the role of the emperor after the war. The Japanese knew that they were not going to win the war, but they wanted to hang on long enough to find the best terms of surrender. Until they were able to find acceptable conditions of surrender they fought hard:

“By the end of the war every male (age 15-60) and every female (age 17-45) were armed with everything… taught to strap explosives to their bodies and throw themselves under advancing tanks.” [McCullough p. 439]

This attitude was especially evident after Okinawa had been taken, and the suicide attacks began. There was even a special plane, called Ohka, that was used specifically for the suicide attacks. These Ohka suicide attacks did not work particularly well, over 100 were sent up and only one ship was sunk [Nobile p.10]. Still, the threat of their fighting style had great psychological effects on the Allied soldiers in the field and on the morale at home in the United States. The families of the U.S. soldiers did not accept the Japanese fighting style, and when news of the suicide attacks were reported it was taken so poorly that the U.S. government blocked out the reports from the news [Nobile p.9]. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Japanese would not give up.

After the Japanese ignored the Potsdam Proclamation, they asked Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union for help in setting acceptable terms of surrender [Chappell p.102]. however, Great Britain and the United States would not give terms because of the great damage inflicted during the war and because of the public hatred for the Japanese and their emperor. Although some people in the United States thought that Emperor Hirohito should be spared because the Japanese were just sticking by their religion, most thought that he should be tried as a criminal for all the deaths he caused. Because both Allies and Japan were so stubborn, the end of the war was put off. The Allies would not back off because they were not certain that the Japanese would surrender, even with conditions. They were also concerned that if they gave in to conditional surrender that the Japanese would see that as an opportunity to keep pushing for more conditions in their favor.

Even before the bomb was dropped, Japan was struggling. The fire bombings in March and April of 1945 (see below) had completely destroyed Tokyo and many other major cities, and it appeared to some Americans that with one more battle the Japanese would surrender. In later years, these people viewed the atomic bomb as unnecessary because they thought that if the Allies simply continued their firebombing raids on Japan and establishing a blockade, then the war was as good as won for the Allies. The soldiers and the government thought that it would not be that easy. The Japanese had not given up yet, and they had given mixed signals and little indication to believe that they were going to surrender any time soon. Given the Japanese fight mentality, the military thought that it would take drastic measures by the United States to get Japan to surrender. Fortunately, the Allies had a drastic weapon; on July 16, 1945 the atomic bomb had been tested successfully in New Mexico (the Trinity test) and was ready to be used.

This option was favored by many people as opposed to invasion, for if there was to be an invasion, the United States would be putting its own soldiers in danger. The American soldiers knew that the Japanese would continue to fight their Kamikaze style of fighting, which would kill thousands of American soldiers.

“No matter how you slice it you are going to kill an awful lot of civilians. Thousands and thousands. But if you don’t destroy Japanese industry, we’re going to have to invade Japan. And how many Americans will be killed in an invasion? Five hundred thousand seems to be the lowest estimate. We’re at war with Japan. Would you rather have Americans killed?” [Wheeler (a) p.167].

These words spoken by Major General LeMay put it simply: if we invaded then the deaths would be high on both sides, but if we dropped the bomb then our soldiers would be safe. If America was to invade Japan the estimated number of casualties ranged from a low of 250,000 to as high as 1 million Americans [Nobile p.48]. In the United States the families of the soldiers waited eargerly for the end of the war [Nobile p.48]. The families wanted their sons, husbands, and fathers to return home safely, and were willing to let the government do whatever was necessary. Even though the atomic bomb could be considered a diabolical weapon, many people in the United States felt that after what Japan did to Pearl Harbor the Japanese deserved everything they would get [Chappell p.105].

Another option that the United States had in their arsenal was poisonous gas. This option was never really given a chance because after the history of World War I the public viewed gas as a diabolical weapon and it was scorned to the point that it was no longer used in warfare. Towards the end of World War II, when poisonous gas could have aided the Allied soldiers on Okinawa and Iwo Jima, military strategists vied the public as a constraint on their actions, and did not use poisonous gas [Chappell p.90]. The editors of Time Magazine made the point that “Americans should stop debating the morality of particular weapons and instead consider their practicality” [Chappell p.91]. However practical it was, poisonous gas was still considered an inhumane weapon and even after Japan’s brutal attack on Pearl Harbor it was not used. Keeping this in mind, the Allied military kept the atomic bomb in the utmost secrecy. The security was so great that even the president did not know all there was to know, and some Manhattan project employees of two and a half years did not know what they were building (Nobile p.110). Although this secrecy was in large part required to keep knowledge of the bomb from falling into enemy hands, it also served to keep the public from having any chance at condemning the atomic bomb and thus prolonging the war.

Although the atomic bomb was a terrible weapon, it had precedents. At the beginning of the war it was proposed by the United States government to try to keep the war out of the air and on the ground. In Europe, this tactic had long ago been abandoned and in frustration over the Battle of the Bulge and other continuing resistance the Allies firebombed Dresden, Germany, on February 13, 1945, killing 130,000 people [Rhodes p.593, 601]. In the Pacific, this proposition was broken when General LeMay became unhappy with the way the war efforts were headed and he decided to emulate the attacks on Germany. On the night, March 9, 1945, over 300 B-29’s attacked Tokyo for three straight hours, dropping firebombs and igniting the city. This attack proved to be highly effective, killing 83,793 Japanese and injuring 40,918 [Buderi p.240]. One night of firebombing destroyed 267,171 buildings and left one million people homeless [Wheeler (a) p.169]. This form or warfare did not separate soldiers from senior citizens or women and children from soldiers; it killed everyone in the way. These high numbers and brutal killing tactics set a precedent for the atomic bomb. The astonishing number killed by the fire bombings were high enough that the projected 20,000 deaths due to the atomic bomb predicted by the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer [Rhodes p. 648] were not that mind boggling.

On July 16, 1945, at 5:29 a.m. the first nuclear explosion occurred in New Mexico. This successful test of the plutonium implosion bomb proved to the scientists that they had created the most powerful war weapon [Nobile, p.50]. The type of bomb that was tested here, later dubbed the “Fat Man”, was a different type of atomic bomb than was actually dropped on Hiroshima. The positive results of the Trinity test gave the scientist the confidence that they needed to believe that the “Fat Man” would work. Also during the middle of July, far away from New Mexico, the Potsdam Conference was held. It was at this meeting that hints were dropped by President Truman alluding to the fact that the United States did have an atomic bomb. From this point on the United States proceed with confidence, knowing that they had the power to end the war.

President Roosevelt died in April 1945, leaving his Vice President Harry Truman in charge and in the middle of World War II. Truman came into the presidency with no idea of the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project. He was also left in a precarious situation because President Roosevelt died in the midst of diplomatic uncertainly about what to do if the United States stuck by the terms of unconditionally surrender. The atomic bomb project was going strong, and so Truman had little to do with the actual making of the bomb. Although he was not a large part of the production of the bomb, he held all of the power concerning the bomb. Even when he was in charge, though, he still did not have complete knowledge or control of the Manhattan Project. For example:

“A petition drawn up by Leo Szilard, urging on grounds of morality that Japan be warned in advance, had been signed by 70 scientists but was not delivered to Washington until after Truman had left for Potsdam. Truman never saw it. But neither did he see the counter opinions voiced by those scientists urging that the bomb be used.” [McCullough p.44].

Truman was aided by many of his staff such as Henry Stimson and Carl Spaatz, who helped him make the decisions to drop the bomb. “I know that FDR would have used it in a minute just to prove he had not wasted two billion dollars”, said William Leahy [McCullough, p.440]. This decision was supported by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain,

“To avert a vast, indefinite butchery, to bring the war to an end, to give peace to the world, to lay healing hands upon its tortured peoples by a manifestation of overwhelming power at the cost of a few explosions, seemed, after all our tolls and perils, a miracle of deliverance.”

Truman was caught up in the flow of the project and allowed it to continue. The dropping of the bomb was the next and final step of the plan.

“It is very possible there was no one clear cut moment when he [Truman] made up his mind, or announced that he had. Most likely, he never seriously considered not using the bomb. Indeed, to have said no at this point and called everything off would have been so drastic a break with the whole history of the project, not to say the terrific momentum of events that summer, as to have been almost inconceivable.” [McCullough p.440]

President Truman himself even said “I never had any doubts that it should be used” [McCullough p.442]. Another minor factor in the dropping of the bomb was the Soviet Union, whom the United States wanted to intimidate.

Throughout the course of the war many important decisions had to be made. But what would have happened if these decisions had been made differently, would the atomic bomb still have been dropped? How could the dropping of the atomic bomb have been avoided?

(1) Japan could have surrendered. Japan knew that they were not going to win, but were holding out for the best terms of surrender that they could get. If they had accepted the Potsdam Proclamation, hoping the best for their emperor, they could have spared themselves great devastation. However, their never-give-up fighting style continued throughout the war and until their country was thoroughly devastated by the bomb. The United States could have been more diplomatic and eased their “unconditional surrender” demand, which would have allowed for Japanese surrender. But then again, this might not have worked. Even after the emperor had made the decision to surrender, and recorded a message announcing to his countrymen, many Japanese refused to believe that was him speaking [Weintraub p.622]. There was even an attempted coup to keep the recording from being played [Weintraub p.589-604].

(2) On the Allies’ side, the scientists that did not want the bomb to be dropped could have gone on strike or sabotaged the project. This did not happen because the majority of the scientists (87%) still wanted the bomb to be dropped [McCullough p.440].

(3) The fire bombings could have been either more or less successful and the atomic bomb would not have been dropped. If the bombings had not killed as many people as they did, President Truman might have been uncertain about taking responsibility for the number of deaths predicted for the atomic bomb. If they had been more successful, the fire bombings themselves might have ended the war before the atomic bomb could have been dropped.

(4) The Allies might have decided that warning or a demonstration of the atomic bomb was sufficient. This could have scared Japan to the point of surrender, but it is also possible that the demonstration bomb, never tested from a plane, would not have worked, leaving the Allies in an awkward position. There was also not an ample supple of uranium and plutonium available for very many tests or demonstrations.

(5) Word of the atomic bomb could have leaked and been subjected to public scrutiny. The public could have deemed it a diabolical weapon that was inhumane, forcing the government to ban it from warfare. The government kept the atomic bomb under such secrecy that if they did not want you to find out about it, you would not, so this option could not be tried. There is considerable doubt that a war-weary public would have objected anyway.

(6) There was one man throughout the making and dropping of the bomb that could have called the whole thing off, President Truman. He was thrown unexpectedly in the office of President and the role of decision maker. If it was not for the great momentum that the Manhattan Project had gained throughout the course of the war, Truman could have called off the dropping of the bomb at any moment. However there seems to have been little regret on his part, “The final decision of where and when to use the bomb was up to me. Let there me no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.” [McCullough p.442]

None of these six things stopped the bomb. Despite any moral question the momentous was just too great. Certainly there is plenty of precedent for this kind of “push” to use a new and terrible weapon. In the course of warfare, no new weapon had ever been banned before it was used. For example, gun powder, submarines, biological warfare, flamethrowers, and fire bombings, were all used and still are used in warfare. Even poisonous gas was used before it was outlawed. Why would the atomic bomb be any different? As Richard Rhodes states, “Once Trinity proved that the atomic bomb worked, men discovered reasons to use it” [Rhodes p.696]. Thus I conclude that in the summer of 1945, the dropping of the atomic bomb was essentially inevitable.

The atomic bomb – built because the scientists could. It was necessary because the other means of battle would not quickly end the war. It was dropped because it was though to be the only way that Japan would surrender. Under these circumstances, the United States, left with no other choice of paralleled power, would again, drop the atomic bomb.

Looking at the actions of the United States during World War II, one can draw many parallels between the war in 1945 and the actions that were taken in the early 2000’s. At the start of both wars, WWII and the war in Iraq, the American public was kept out of the decision making process. In the second world war American citizens were unaware of the power that was being harnessed in the atomic bomb, in 2001 citizens were not fully informed. When the Bush administration made the decision to attack Iraq the public was, once again, unaware of the fact that there really were not weapons of mass destruction in the middle east and that it was not really Iraq that attacked us in the first place. Citizens were not necessarily lied to, they were just given misguided information in an attempt to keep their perspectives out of the decision making process (as to what military actions should be taken).

Shortly after the attacks of September 11th, the United States took quick and abrupt military action. There was no time for diplomacy to take effect and work things out in a more peaceful manner. The same was done with the dropping of the atomic bomb. While our enemies were trying to come to terms with what they could accept as conditions to stop fighting, the U.S. came in with the heavy artillery without giving diplomacy a chance to work out a peaceful resolve. This lack of patience can also be seen in America’s great sense of pride, both now and during WWII. The United States has the mindset that because we think we are the most powerful nation in the world that we can do whatever we please without regard for how our actions are affecting the rest of the world.

This extreme sense of pride has led us to harm relations with many of our allies. In World War II the United States pretty much severed ties with the Russians. More recently, we pretty much alienated the rest of the world, more specifically Europe. Prior to our rash actions we were allied with France, Germany, Britain and Japan as the economic and military powers, today it seems like we have alienated many of our prior alliances.

The conclusion of World War II lead to the cold war in which countries built up their artilleries, with a particular focus on the United States. For the first time since the early 1800’s American soil was in danger. Prior to the cold war, America had been involved in numerous wars, but none had actual threatened war in America… until now. Today we are faced with a particularly ‘hot’ war, and for only the second time since the 1800’s the United States soil and citizenry is under target.

It is said that the reason we study history is so that it does not repeat itself… here we find ourselves in a situation which is in many ways similar to a place in which we have been before. It should be interesting to see how this time around plays out.


Buderi, Robert. The Invention that Changed the World, Simon and Schuster,

Chappell, John D. Before the Bomb, the University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Craig, William. The Fall of Japan, Wildcat Publishing Company, Inc. 1997.
McCullough, David. Truman, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, John Buckler. A History of Western Society: Volume C, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.
Nobile, Philip (editor). Judgment at the Smithsonian, Marlow and Company, 1995.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Schuster, 1986.
Smurthwaite, David. The Pacifric War Atlas: 1941-1945, Mirabel Books, 1995.
Weintraub, Stanley. The Last Great Victory: The End of the World War, July/August 1945, Truman Talley Books, 1995.
Wheeler, Keith (a). Bombers Over Japan, Time Life Books, 1967.
Wheeler, Keith (a). The Road to Tokyo, Time Life Books, 1967.
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