John R. Powers, B.S. from Columbia University, an M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. John has spent the last 8 years working with DOD and ODNI to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism and with NYC and DC on response plans for a nuclear incident.
This a pernicious question that seems never to go away. The short answer is “no … the use of the A-Bomb was not necessary” but this answer holds only in the context of whether it was the most humane option available.
Let’s, therefore, consider the options:
- Invade Japan.
- Send the invasion forces home, move all of our long range bombers and fighter support to the Pacific and continue to bomb Japan until it surrendered.
- Call a unilateral cease fire and demonstrate an A-Bomb in a remote area.
- Drop the A-Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The first option was also what some of our military leadership salivated over in the context of “leading men in a desperate battle.” While this is a fictitious characterization articulated in the movie Patton, it was not totally absent in the makeup of some top generals and admirals. The fact that the second option was not at the top of the military discussion at that time gives credence to this hypothesis.
Estimates of US casualties had we adopted the first option are in the range of five hundred thousand to one million dead. The corresponding estimates of Japanese casualties are many times that. These are numbers that dwarf the number of killed, wounded and long term radiation sufferers at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
President Truman understood this and did not hesitate to select the fourth option: drop the A-Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fact that the Japanese high command did not immediately surrender after Hiroshima or at least send some signal that it was contemplating surrender is evidence of the Japanese leadership’s mindset.
For precisely the same reason, Truman likely rejected the third option: call a unilateral cease fire and demonstrate an A-Bomb in a remote area. It seemed unlikely to have much effect on the Japanese high command’s mindset; certainly far less than the bomb on Hiroshima which, apparently, did not alter their thinking. Demonstrating an A-Bomb does not have the shock value of using one – and the latter was viewed as reducing the loss of life vs. the former.
Truman’s decision is also testament to his rejection of the second option on humanitarian grounds. It is assumed that at least one member of his inner circle had figured out that the second option was infinitely superior to invasion so let’s try to understand in detail what this option would have entailed.
We had adequate airfields in the islands surrounding Japan to house all the bombers and fighters needed for 1000 plus bomber runs over Japan. Following the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 plans were made to transfer some of the B-17/B-24 heavy bomber groups of Eighth Air Force to the Pacific Theater of Operations and upgrade them to B-29 Superfortress bomb groups. Further, Japan's military and civil defenses were unable to stop the Allied attacks. The number of fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft guns assigned to defensive duties in the Japanese home islands were inadequate and most of these aircraft and guns had difficulty reaching the high altitudes at which B-29s often operated. Fuel shortages, inadequate pilot training, and a lack of coordination between units also constrained the effectiveness of its fighter force.
While the invasion of Japan, reportedly, was set for October 1945, if a decision was made not to use the A-Bombs, we could have sent all of our invasion force home signaling to the Japanese high command that we had no intent on invading. We probably would have had to give them access to our bases so that they knew we were serious about not invading. We would also have had to inform their high command so they would know for certain our intent to conduct massive conventional bombing to Japanese cities until Japan surrendered. We could have warned the Japanese people via radio and leaflets of our strategy and intended targets.
If we had adopted this strategy, the number of killed, wounded and displaced would have been unthinkable before the Japanese high command would have finally surrendered. This is the basis of the assertion that the A-Bomb option was the more humane. It was the shock value in the destructiveness of these two bombs that led to the surrender not the number of casualties. We had already inflicted significantly more casualties in the past year through our conventional bombing.