The Bomb Was Not Necessary


Mr. McLaughlin received his PhD in history from Drew University in 2008. His dissertation focused on General Albert C. Wedemeyer.

With the sixty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb almost upon us, there is undoubtedly going to be a flood of commentary on the wisdom of its use by the United States during World War II. The justified scolding of Charles Pellegrino and his The Last Train From Hiroshima and Nagasaki is likely only the opening salvo.

Venturing into the arena of discussing the wisdom of the use of the atomic bomb is fraught with danger. It is somewhat akin to asking for the creation of an "impartial panel" to rationally discuss the issue of abortion, immigration reform, or the merits of the Obama health plan.

Virtually overlooked in the often heated debate is the question of whether the use of the bomb was justified from a strategic viewpoint. In other words, could we have induced Japan to surrender without the use of the bomb? This writer says yes.

For anyone looking for a recent accumulation of articles both pro and con, a useful starting point would be the 2005 essay by J. Samuel Walker in that April’s Diplomatic History. Clearly, the issue of the bomb is still an important story and will be with us for some time. Walker references a 1999 poll by Newseum, a museum of the news media, of sixty-seven American journalists who ranked the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 at the top of all the news stories of the twentieth century. It would not be surprising if the story had the same rank at the end of this century. Walker, like almost all the others who venture into this arena, concentrates on the ethics and morality of President Truman's decision to utilize the bomb. Whether it was necessary to win the war is not discussed.

Walter Trohan, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune with impeccable credentials for integrity and accuracy, reported that two days before President Roosevelt left for the Yalta conference with Churchill and Stalin in early February 1945, he was shown a forty-page memorandum drafted by General MacArthur outlining a Japanese offer for surrender almost identical with the terms subsequently concluded by his successor, President Truman. The single difference was the Japanese insistence on retention of the emperor, which was not acceptable to the American strategists at the time, though it was ultimately allowed in the final peace terms. Trohan relates that he was given a copy of this communication by Admiral Leahy who swore him to secrecy with the pledge not to release the story until the war was over. Trohan honored his pledge and reported his story in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald on August 19, 1945. According to historian Anthony Kubek, Roosevelt, in the presence of witnesses, read the memorandum and dismissed it with a curt "MacArthur is our greatest general and our poorest politician." [1]

Specifically, the terms of the Japanese peace offers of late January 1945 were as follows:

  1. Full surrender of the Japanese forces, air, land and sea, at home and in all occupied countries.

  2. Surrender of all arms and ammunition.

  3. Agreement of the Japanese to occupation of their homeland and island possessions.

  4. Relinquishment of Manchuria, Korea and Formosa.

  5. Regulation of Japanese industry.

  6. Surrender of designated war criminals for trial.

  7. Release of all prisoners.

Other than retention of the emperor these terms were identical to the final surrender terms. Harry Elmer Barnes, in his essay “Hiroshima: Assault on a Beaten Foe,” published in the May 10, 1958 issue of the National Review, tells the same story. Barnes said that the Trohan article was never challenged by the White House or the State Department, and says that after MacArthur returned from Korea in 1951, his neighbor in the Waldorf Towers, former President Hoover, took the Trohan article to General MacArthur and the latter confirmed its accuracy in every detail. The Trohan story was ignored by other news media and almost immediately dropped off the public radar.

Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias of the Office of Naval Intelligence, in his book, Secret Missions, tells how Naval Intelligence learned of the desperate condition of the Japanese and their real desire to conclude a peace. There were other "leaks" some coming through the Russians and the Chinese. But all this information made no impression on Roosevelt or Truman, and they gave it no more importance than the MacArthur memorandum. They continued to prepare for a land assault on the home islands that was obviated only by the dropping of the bomb and the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945. No historian disputes the desperate condition of Japan in the spring of 1945 or that numerous "peace feelers" were being sent out. The traditional interpretation has been that these "peace feelers" were either unauthorized or not bona fide. Would it not have been possible to at least respond to them in some formal manner acknowledging their existence and then demand a clear cut response to a definite counteroffer, instead of ignoring them completely? Any such counteroffer should have allowed for the retention of the emperor but insisted on compliance with all the other terms announced at the Potsdam conference.

The real significance of this tragic error of judgment of Roosevelt and Truman is that, in addition to the needless loss of life of innocent civilians on the Japanese homeland, two of the most vicious and costly battles of the Pacific, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, could have been avoided. In addition, the bribing of the Soviet Union to enter the war allowed them to enter Manchuria, strip that area of close to a billion dollars of industrial equipment, and capture enough Japanese arms and ammunition to supply ten divisions, equipment which they then turned over to Mao, thus contributing substantially to the defeat of the Kuomintang. The loss of China had other tragic consequences, namely the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

There is some justification for holding former President Truman less responsible for this tragic blunder. After all, he was new on the job. He was kept completely out of the loop on all important presidential decisions; he was in awe of General Marshall and the decision to go with the bomb had the unanimous support of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs and the majority of the senior presidential advisors. The same reasoning, of course, would not apply to President Roosevelt.

We are all familiar with the nursery rhyme "for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost," and so on. Was Roosevelt's curt dismissal of MacArthur's warning the "nail" that cost us the loss of not only thousands of soldiers and sailors at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but also the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Korean War, and Vietnam?

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Arnold Shcherban - 8/28/2010

I feel embarrassed to explaining such an elementary logical connection to allegedly educated and knowledgeable man as you, Mr. Mejia, should be to participate (to any significant degree) in the debates occurred on HNN pages, but "the necessity of the bombs'use" and the "war crime" I indicated are two mutually negating conclusions.

Carlos Mejia - 8/21/2010

How are the U.S. government's alleged knowledge and Truman's alleged hypocrisy relevant to the necessity of the bombs' use?

Arnold Shcherban - 8/21/2010

American government knew at the time that it committed a war crime by dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This is clearly indicated by the lie President Truman has resorted to
when explaining the nuclear attack after the bombings (before the American and world public received the horrible description of the reality from the US reporters): "The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base," he said. "That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians."

The Paramount of murderous hypocrisy achieved by any modern political leader, indeed...

Donald Staringer - 8/20/2010

The wrangling continues and properly so. The “revisionists” and “tradionalists” put forth their interpretations and attempt to absolve their vision of the truth.
The tradionalists who accept the official story completely put forth: Japanese build up of forces for the US invasion, their military leadership’s intransigency, Japanese fanaticism demanded a “psychological shock” to end the war quickly and save American lives, acceptance of “total war” doctrine, A-bombed cities were “legal military targets,” demonstration bomb unsure, only two bombs at the time, keep Russians out of Japanese occupation of Japan and send them a message re Europe, the $2 ½ billion cost of Manhattan project, etc.
On the other hand, revisionists point out the defeated nature of the Japanese position, the unwillingness of US leadership to consider the position of the Emperor until after the bombing, the role of Russian entrance, decision not to warn the Japanese we had an atomic bomb, the fact of the Nov 1st invasion left plenty of time for negotiations, the lack of effort to closely examine Japanese peace feelers, the mass death of innocents, our capability of producing more bombs prior to the invasion date, etc.
As more information comes out it will probably only skirt the essential arguments suggested here and the record will be examined anew by future generations according to their moral and psychological proclivities

Carlos Mejia - 8/20/2010

Which War Department report? What are the sources for what Truman and the Japanese military "knew"? Who "noted" the "discussions and conditions of a Japanese surrender," and why does it matter? Which "more and more investigations"?

Arnold Shcherban - 8/20/2010

Oh,surely... that just shows the barbarian side of your American absolutism and exclusivity.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/19/2010

After the nuclear bombs were detonated the War Department interviewed civilian and military leaders in the country. As the report, which was released in 1946, noted:
“Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."
President Truman and others most certainly knew this prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American intel had infiltrated and broken Japanese code, and the Japanese military knew they were being intercepted by our military forces. Over in Moscow, as early as June 1945, the Japanese ambassador there was already working on a peace agreement with the allies. Discussions and conditions of a Japanese surrender were noted a full year before Truman dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
More and more investigations are coming to the conclusion that the main
goal of the A-bombing was to scare the light out of USSR, thus killing its possible demands for shared with Americans Japan's occupation and making it much more timid in its post-war actions in South-Eastern Asia.

art eckstein - 8/13/2010

A reading of Sadao Asada's groundbreaking article in Robert J. Maddox's Hiroshima and History (U of Minnesota Press, 2007--based on heretofore unused *Japanese* archives--reveals that the Japanese Army chiefs were unmoved by Hiroshima, and wanted to continue the war. That's how "defeated" they were. They believed, and had made huge preparations to ensure (650,000 soldiers, plus another 250,000 on the way), that the American invasion of Honshu in autumn 1945 would be so bloody that the Americans would accept a compromise peace, thus saving Japanese honor and power. They thought the invasion might even be defeated. They had some reason to think it: note that the Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima numbered only about 25,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. Government had prepared 500,000 purple-heart decorations (serious wounds) for the November invasion of Honshu; so many that in the event they weren't used up until the first Gulf War. It took the second, Nagasaki bomb to give the Emperor the power to intervene and end the war. The Army chief committed suicide rather than surrender. And even after Nagasaki there was a serious attempted coup d'etat by younger officers that would have stopped the surrender.

See Sadao Asada: "The Shock of the Atomic bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender--A Reconsideration", in Maddox.

On the horror that awaited U.S. forces on Honshu, see the new book by D. M. Giangreco.

There is no reason to believe that conventional bombing would have forced a Japanese surrender before the invasion of Honshu (set for Nov. 1, 1945). The Army (if only the Army) would have been fed.

These are facts.

Carlos Mejia - 8/12/2010

What is "'undisturbed' history"? And, if Japan's ability to fight was "destroyed" than why was the Japanese military sending tens of thousands of combat troops to the very island where the American invasion was slated to land? Also, isn't Japan described more accurately as an archipelago?

ted bohne - 8/12/2010

Japan's "post-war" leadership was that of the US. The Japanese sought only to protect the Emperor, not lay down a list of demands. This sounds like yet another yank with desperate need to see the US as infallible. Again, unvarnished history shows just the opposite as true.

ted bohne - 8/12/2010

well, Japan's Navy and air forces were largely on the bottom of the pacific. The USAAF bombed most of the cities in Japan using incendiary bombs which caused more casualties immediately than did the nukes. Japan is an island. The US virtually destroyed japan's ability to fight. Many official documents that are available on the internet also demonstrate that the Japanese authorities were prepared to surrender but were in desperate need to hold a centuries old issue with the Emperor being a virtual Deity intact. Clearly Mr. Maddox is one of those with a desperate need to see the US as infallible when actually, the exact opposite is proven true by "undisturbed" history.

rick w. peuser - 8/12/2010

Why would the US Government spend millions of dollars in R&D to develop and build the bomb and then not use it? That would not make sense.

I am not trying to minimalize the devestation and horror from the decision to use it, but the logic was, at the time, it took so much resources to build so we will use it.

My preference would have been Tokyo Bay to show the destructive force that would be unleashed.

art eckstein - 8/12/2010

Professor Dresner is correct on all points.

In addition, perusal of Sadao Asada's groundbreaking article in R. J. Maddox's Hiroshima and History (U of Minnesota Press, 2007--based on heretofor unused Japanese archives--reveals that the Japanese Army chiefs were absolutely unmoved by Hiroshima, and wanted to continue the war. That's how "defeated" they were. They believed, and had made huge preparations to ensure (650,000 soldiers, plus another 250,000 on the way), that the American invasion of Honshu in autumn 1945 would be so bloody that the Americans would accept a compromise peace, thus saving Japanese honor and power. They thought the invasion might even be defeated, and they had some reason to think it: note that the Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima numbered only about 25,000. It took the second, Nagasaki bomb to give the Emperor the power to intervene and end the war. The Army Chief of Staff committed suicide rather than surrender.

See Sadao Asada: "The Shock of the Atomic bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender--A Reconsideration", in Maddox.

On the horror that awaited U.S. forces on Honshu, see the new book by D. M. Giangreco.

There is no reason to believe that conventional bombing would have forced a Japanese surrender before the invasion of Honshu (set for Nov. 1, 1945).

Carlos Mejia - 8/11/2010

Before one can conclude that there was a "tragic error of judgment" or a "tragic blunder," three basic questions need to be answered:
1) What happened to MacArthur's 40-page memorandum?
2) How did MacArthur verify that the Japanese surrender offer was genuine (i.e., not a ruse or a delaying tactic) and serious (i.e., that it came from the Japanese military's high command)?
3) Where are the corroborating Japanese sources regarding this surrender offer?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/11/2010

Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fought before Truman was confronted with the bomb decision, so the lives lost in those battles do not count as lives which could have been saved.

Thousands of Americans and other allies in Japanese captivity were close to death at the time of Hiroshima, and many of them survived because Truman dropped the bombs and they were liberated quickly thereafter.

The number of Japanese lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been repeatedly exaggerated by Peace Movement types who have harped on these bombings for decades, and they fudged the numbers in many reference books. This has long been a staple item in the catalogue for hate-America-first folks. Some Australian POWs confined four miles from ground zero at Hiroshima, for instance, were not killed and lived on for decades. Likewise, the number who died years later but died early as a result of atomic wounds turned out to be much smaller than had been forecast, and good statistics are lately available on them. It was something less than 2% of the number killed immediately.

If Japan was so ready to surrender, why did it take two bombs to get them to sue for peace?

When one considers the tenacity with which Japan fought at Okinawa, it suggests every subsequent landing on their home islands would have been very costly to us and them. Strictly on the basis of the potential numbers in jeopardy, it has always seemed to me that Truman's action saved lives.

Edmond Dantes - 8/11/2010

While discussing this subject a friend told me to read Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa.

Ruel J. Eskelsen - 8/10/2010

This area of WWII historiography is obviously still contested. However, there are several articles right here on HNN that present an opposing point of view to Mr. McLaughlin's article here. I searched HNN for "japanese surrender" and found these two very helpful:

Jeremy Yellen - 8/9/2010

I concur with most of the above criticisms. The "peace feelers" the author discusses were rather feeble at best. A problem with many articles or books that discuss the willingness of Japan to surrender is that they focus wholly on U.S.-based sources to the exclusion of Japanese sources. It is difficult to make any claims about a Japanese willingness to surrender without at least a cursory look at the Japanese sources. After all, it is easy to over-emphasize the importance of the MAGIC diplomatic codes, which make it appear that surrender was only a matter of time.

I recommend the author read recent works by Richard Frank, Herbert Bix, and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa.

omar ibrahim baker - 8/9/2010

Except for the TERROR it was planned to instill in the Japanese and TERRORIZE them into submission the use of the A bomb against Japan, who was transmitting all sorts of declarations of defeat and readiness to surrender , was meant primarily for the after war era and for the world at large!

That A bomb was meant to announce the birth of an America dominated world; a sort of nuclear weapons imposed PAX AMERICANA

On that particular historical junction it was meant to terrorize the Soviet Union in particular.
Only the Soviet success in developing his counter weapons of mass and massive destruction first neutralized then frustrated that strategic, and ever present, US goal: to terrorize the enemy and by inference the whole world, into submission to American will.

Terror as the ultimate weapon was also used, under different forms, to terrorize the adversaries of the USA ever since.
In Viet Nam it took the form of massive bombing of civilian targets, rember the bombing of Hanoi.
In Cambodia the concept of carpet bombing and massive defoliation of forests.
Recently in Iraq it took the form of excessive use of all sorts of new weapons with all sorts of lethal new and old components and materials imbedded therein, whose output in genetically deformed new born babies is slowly coming to the fore front with increasing frequency and accumulated figures that the WHO (World Health Organization) dare not investigate!

It is truly ironical that the master Terrorist of modern times chose to declare a War against Terror!

Alonzo L Hamby - 8/9/2010

I was made aware of the Trohan article several years ago. I have found no mention of a Japanese peace offer to the General in MacArthur biographies or any mention of it in the numerous histories of the atomic bomb decision. Is such a document in the MacArthur papers? Can it be found at the Roosevelt or Truman libraries? Does it exist at all? Is it in the Trohan papers?

Why does it seem to me quite unlikely that the Japanese would transmit an offer to surrender to General MacArthur rather than through existing diplomatic channels to Washington?

If there is really a document out there, let's get it out and subject it to a basic historical evaluation.

John Connally - 8/9/2010

The author of this piece allegedly tries to forego the standard emotionally-charged question of – Was dropping the atomic bomb wise? – and instead asks if it was strategically important. Yet as I read through it, all I hear is rehashed regrets of “tragic error of judgment,” “needless loss of life of innocent people,” and other “tragic consequences.” Will historians in America ever cast off all this guilt? It seems like a heavy and irrational burden to carry?

John D. Beatty - 8/9/2010

While all here are correct, another issue was who was going to surrender what to whom? Japan's civil government was about to be abolished. Would anyone in the war council offer a surrender? Not likely. To the Soviets? Even more remote. To the Chinese? Never, not voluntarily.

The "peace offers floated in 1944 and early 1945 came from people who were not authorized by anyone to negotiate an armistice, because that's pretty much what they offered. Nothing like these terms would be presented by anyone Japanese.

Lewis Bernstein - 8/9/2010

Where is the citation for the "Japanese surrender offer?"
I am not persuaded by the author's argument. All I have seen is the after the fact justifications for the position.
What was known at the time by the decision makers? Who really thought the Japanese would surrender peacefully? Please remember, the Japanese army had not yet suffered a decisive defeat outside the Pacific islands even though the navy had been destroyed. Public opinion in Japan, as we have been able to reconstruct it, was not convinced of the hopelessness of their cause until the US fleet appeared off shore and began to bombard targets that were left unopposed.
The Japanese army was convinced that to have "100 million die as one" would be preferable to surrender.

Roger Brown - 8/9/2010

This "peace offer" from January 1945 reads like a draft of possible _Allied_ terms to be presented to the Japanese government (e.g., as occurred in the later Potsdam Declaration). On what basis does the author believe it is a _Japanese_ offer (Mr. Trohan's credentials aside)?

Jonathan Dresner - 8/8/2010

There are two obvious errors in this piece, and a curious positioning issue. First, I don't believe any discussion of the atomic bombings has ever ignored the strategic question of necessity, except for those that take a 'first principles' approach to the acceptability of atomic weapons. So the introduction is weak.

The proffered surrender terms "of late January 1945" are not "identical to the final surrender terms ... Other than retention of the emperor": the open-ended reformist Occupation of Japan, the conversion of Japan from an Axis enemy to a Cold War ally, none of that would have been likely under a conditional surrender that left Japan's constitutional and political revision to Japan's post-war leadership. Japanese proposals - coming from some of Japan's most liberal leadership in modern history - for constitutional revision were laughably minor, largely retaining the Emperor-centered irresponsibility which made pre-war Japanese politics so interesting and, ultimately, deadly. There's no evidence that a lighter hand would have produced real reform.

The discussion of post-surrender disposition of Japanese forces and equipment in China is fatally one-sided: Japanese forces in China were given direct authorization by the US to continue fighting against Communist forces, and a great deal of their equipment and personnel ended up in the hands of the Guomindang; at best, it was a wash.