Dropping the Atomic Bomb - Other Choices - From Constitutional Rights Foundation
The war was over, but the debate over how it ended had just begun. In the years that followed, President Truman steadfastly defended his decision to use the atomic bombs. He argued that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender quickly, thus avoiding an invasion that would have cost the lives of thousands of Americans. "I'd do it again," Truman often said.
Truman's advisers had focused mainly on the choice between an invasion and dropping the bomb. From hindsight, scholars researching wartime documents have determined that there were several other options for ending the war:
1. Continue the conventional bombings and blockade. Truman could have relied on the relentless and devastating B-29 firebombing raids on Japan's cities combined with the naval blockade to wear down Japanese resistance and force their surrender.
Scholars critical of this approach point out that strategic bombing may have taken some time to force a surrender putting American pilots, troops and sailors at risk. In addition, many more Japanese civilians may have died using this option than were killed in the two atomic raids.
2. Demonstrate the atomic bomb. By demonstrating the atomic bomb, Truman could have shown the Japanese leaders, including Hirohito, that their nation faced total destruction if they did not surrender immediately.
Other scholars point out that the U.S. had only two atomic bombs ready for use and two more in development. The technology was brand new and delivering the bombs was very difficult. A failure of the demonstration might have actually encouraged Japanese resistance and in any case would have given them a chance to take countermeasures.
3. Wait for the Russians. Truman could have waited a few more weeks for the Russians to declare war on Japan. The threat of invasion and occupation by both the Americans and Russians may have had an even more shocking effect on the Japanese leadership than the atomic bombings.
Scholars critical of this approach say it is not clear what Japan might have done in response to a declaration of war by the Soviets. Japanese forces in Asia were already stranded and largely abandoned. It would have taken Soviet forces some time to threaten mainland Japan, and the Japanese already faced overwhelming force from the Americans. Some scholars believe that the United States still would have been faced with an invasion of Japan and the Soviets would have had more time to bring more of Asia under Communist domination.
4. Negotiate peace. Truman knew that Suzuki and Hirohito were trying to find a way to negotiate an end to the war. He could have discussed peace terms with them, but instead refused to consider anything but "unconditional surrender."
Official allied policy was for unconditional surrender for Japan, just as it had been for the Nazi regime. Some scholars question whether arranging negotiations might not have strengthened the war faction of the Japanese government by showing weakness on the part of the allies. They also might have encouraged greater demands on the part of the Japanese, including preservation of the military, and given them more time to prepare for invasion.
5. Keep the emperor. The Japanese leaders might have decided to surrender earlier if Truman and the Allies had assured them that they would neither abolish the position of the emperor nor try Hirohito as a war criminal.
Some scholars point out that the Japanese agreed to surrender only after the bomb was dropped and doubt that the concession about the emperor by itself would have led to immediate surrender.
In the end, Truman concluded that none of these choices would have ended the war as quickly as an atomic attack. At the time, Truman was under tremendous pressure from the American public to end the long, horrible war against a hated enemy as fast as possible and "bring the boys home." Few of the thousands of American troops being transferred from Europe to prepare for Japan's invasion criticized Truman's decision. For many, it saved their lives.
Did Truman make the right decision? More than 50 years later, this question remains unsettled.