The Atom Bomb

“Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives” claims an article in the Diplomat. “By showing the world the horrors of nuclear warfare, the atomic bombings made future ones much less likely.” I suppose this is true; at least the author did not claim that the bombs themselves ended the war and thus obviated the need for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan scheduled for November, 1945, and which would have cost hundreds of thousands of Allied lives and millions of Japanese ones. That the bombs didn’t actually end the war has been understood for some time; indeed, Keck quotes another article which states that “the bomb didn’t beat Japan… Stalin did.” The bombs were a convenient excuse for Japan to use in surrendering to the United States, and the Emperor famously noted in his surrender speech that “the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.” But do you think that a “new and most cruel bomb” was going to extinguish Japan’s will to fight? More people died in the “conventional” firebombing of Tokyo, which was one of many Japanese cities to suffer such a fate. Or, as the authors put it, “If they surrendered because a city was destroyed, why didn’t they surrender when those other 66 cities were destroyed?”

People tend to forget that Stalin had an agreement with the other allies to declare war on Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. True to his word, he declared war exactly three months after VE Day – that is, August 8, 1945, two days after Hiroshima, and one day before Nagasaki – at which point Soviet troops invaded Manchuria and Korea. This removed the Japanese hope that the Soviets could serve as a broker between the US and Japan, and impelled the Japanese to surrender to the United States. Moreover, what the article does not mention is that the Soviet invasion scared the US as much as it scared the Japanese. We were pushing for an unconditional surrender in Japan, as we pushed for (and achieved) one in Germany (which itself was an attempt to avoid the problems of the Armistice of 1918, whereby the Germans could convince themselves that they hadn’t actually lost). The Japanese interpreted our demand for an unconditional surrender to mean that the Americans might force them to relinquish their Emperor, something ideologically unthinkable. But by August of 1945 it was apparent that we were not going to be friends with Stalin after the war, and we did not want to have happen to Japan was was currently happening in Germany, and what would soon happen to Korea. So we indicated that we were willing to accept a surrender with the caveat that the Emperor would remain on the throne and not be subject to war-crimes trials – which indeed came to pass. In other words, we accepted a conditional surrender – the same one the Japanese themselves hinted they would offer in early May, 1945.

So yes, it looks like Stalin impelled Japan to formally surrender, and us to accept that surrender. In retrospect, it also calls into serious question the atomic bombings – and all the other damage – that we did to Japan from May until August of 1945.