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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Nagasaki, Not Forgotten


Today, Aug. 9, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic (plutonium) bombing of Nagasaki. (Hiroshima was bombed first, with a uranium bomb, on Aug. 6, 1945.) Some 60,000 to 80,000 civilians died, most of them instantly; others, like Sumiteru Taniguchi, pictured below, suffered lingering deaths from radiation burns. Among the casualties may have been American soldiers in a prisoner of war camp (possibly known by the military). Questions of why the U.S. used the atomic bombs when Japan was near defeat—or whether Japan was in fact the primary target; maybe the main audience was the USSR—have been analyzed by better informed and more rigorous intellects and are not likely to be settled here today.

Why did the U.S. have to use the bomb twice? Did we have to use it at all?

The legend, or conventional wisdom, is that if President Harry Truman (below) had not pulled the trigger, American forces would have had to launch a bloody, costly land invasion of Japan. This is possible, though no major U.S. military offensive was slated to begin before November 1, 1945, and the Soviets, our allies against Nazi Germany, had promised to help with a ground war. What was the hurry?

In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine the bomb not being used, after a $2 billion investment and six years’ work, even if Japan were not already seriously weakened and soon to collapse. When President Truman was first briefed about the existence of the atom project on April 24, 1945 (two weeks after FDR died), his first response was to sit down; he had received the generals standing up. He ordered a search for other options, with one committee composed of soldiers and civilians, and the other of scientists. Both panels met twice, on May 31 and June 1, and reached the same conclusion. A committee of scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi told Truman that they could devise “no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” Meanwhile, Truman’s generals were pressing him to let them move forward with plans for a massive land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

One consideration was that the Soviet Union had promised at the Tehran conference in late 1943 and again at Yalta in February 1945 to join the fight against Japan within three months after the European war ended (May 8). Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall had pushed hard for Soviet help against Japan, knowing that the combined pressure of U.S. and Soviet forces would likely compel the Japanese to surrender. (Even among those who knew about the ultra-top-secret Manhattan Project, it was uncertain whether the new weapon would work until it was tested in mid July 1945.) Until the bomb was proven, the only way to crush the Japanese army was to fight it, and General Marshall preferred to let the Russians do a lot of the heavy lifting. There were reservations, however, about Soviet involvement: American officials did not want to have to share defeated Japan with the USSR the way the Allies were already sharing postwar Germany, divvied up into four military occupation zones: American, Soviet, British, and French.

Historian Stephen Ambrose in Rise to Globalism (1971) surveys a range of plausible reasons why the U.S. nuked Japan. One interpretation is that the bomb was used not to change the military equation “but to keep Russia out of the Far Eastern postwar settlement rather than to save American lives.” It is the view of Gar Alperovitz in Nuclear Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power (1965) that the U.S. used the bomb as a means of intimidating the Soviets, a gambit to show the USSR that it should not think about advancing farther into Europe, from which U.S. and British troops were already being demobilized in great numbers. Alperovitz quotes a diary entry by Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal describing Secretary of State James F. Byrnes as “most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in.” (But for a strong rebuttal of Alperovitz and a good overview of the issues, see Alonzo Hamby, “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” [1997].)

It was on July 16, on the eve of the Potsdam conference (July 17–Aug. 2), that the Trinity test in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, demonstrated that the new secret weapon could work; then the U.S. knew that it didn’t need Russia anymore. After a conversation with Secretary of State Byrnes on July 23, Winston Churchill noted, “It is quite clear that the United States do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war against Japan” (Ambrose, Rise to Globalism, 49).

The Potsdam Declaration, issued to Japan on July 26, demanded unconditional surrender; the return of all conquests taken since 1895 to their former owners; promised humane treatment and freedom of speech and religion; and offered “a new order of peace, security and justice” and participation in world trade relations. The alternative, the declaration warned, would be “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese premier, Admiral Baron Kantaro Suzuki, rejected the declaration as a rehash of old proposals that was unworthy of notice, beneath contempt. After Japan’s rejection, Truman gave the go-ahead.

A witness of the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bombing, New York Times writer William L. Laurence, described the 5:30 a.m. blast at Alamogordo:

. . . a sunrise such as the world had never seen, a great green supersun climbing in a fraction of a second to a height of more than eight thousand feet, rising ever higher until it touched the clouds, lighting up earth and sky all around with a dazzling luminosity. Up it went, a great ball of fire about a mile in diameter, changing colors as it kept shooting upward, from deep purple to orange, expanding, growing bigger, rising as it expanded, an elemental force freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years. For a fleeting instant the color was unearthly green, such as one sees only in the corona of the sun during a total eclipse. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies had split. One felt as though one were present at the moment of creation when God said, ‘Let there be light.’ (New York Times, Aug. 7, 1945)

After the Aug. 6 bombing of Hiroshima, Japan did not immediately respond or signal its intentions. Around dawn on Aug. 9 word reached Tokyo that the USSR had declared war against Japan. That day, the Red Army launched an offensive against Japanese forces occupying Manchuria. Later in the morning came word that a second nuclear device had exploded over Nagasaki. The emperor and premier Suzuki and civilian advisers acknowledged that surrender was inevitable and the Potsdam Declaration must be accepted, but the military was sworn to protect the emperor’s honor.

Even after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took days and nights of prolonged, strenuous arguments among the Japanese military elite and Emperor Hirohito to agree to surrender. Even though American popular opinion was strongly against letting the emperor remain on his throne, Truman knew that removing or harming him would throw Japan into social and political chaos: the emperor would be safe. Hirohito was willing to acknowledge reality and surrender, but three principal military officials, war minister Anami, army chief of Staff Umezu, and navy chief of staff Toyoda, demanded that the U.S. allow Japanese officers to disarm their own troops, try war crimes in Japanese courts, and limit the occupation in advance. The U.S. rejected these terms. Hirohito recorded a broadcast to the Japanese people, who had never heard his voice before, announcing capitulation. “We charge you, Our loyal subjects, to carry out faithfully Our will.”

The emperor had spoken, and celebrations broke out all over America—most famously in New York City’s Times Square—but in Japan pockets of insubordinate military officers were plotting to overthrow the government and resist the enemy. Rebels murdered the general commanding Hirohito’s Imperial Guards Division, and other insurgents tried to assassinate Japanese premier Suzuki and members of his cabinet. General Anami committed hara-kiri, as did Admiral Takijishi, founder of the Kamikaze Corps. Even when the U.S.S. Missouri steamed into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremony, insurgent fighter pilots at Atsugi airfield were in their cockpits getting ready to strafe and dive-bomb Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur and the other Americans. The were reached just in time by Prince Takamatsu, Emperor Hirohito’s younger brother, and talked out of their suicide mission. The surrender ceremonies on September 2 went smoothly. (See William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream, 386–87.)

Truman later said, “The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used” (Ambrose, 51).

Push the Senate to Pass New Start Treaty

The narrative above does not seek to justify the use of nuclear weapons in 1945 or at any other time, but only to briefly sketch the historical circumstances surrounding the decision to use the bomb against Japan. We think that two uses of nuclear weapons are two too many. We want to see the United States renounce the first-use policy it has maintained for the past 65 years.

We also want to celebrate the Hiroshima–Nagasaki anniversary for the rest of the year by calling senators and pressing them to support the New Start nuclear agreement with Russia that has been stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since its signing in April. As mentioned in our Aug. 6 Hiroshima post, President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who seem to genuinely like each other and have built a good working relationship (comparable to Reagan’s with Gorbachev), signed an arms reduction treaty known as New Start. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by John Kerry, will be putting the New Start treaty up for a vote, likely after the midterm congressional elections in November, at which time senators will likely be less cautious about voting for the treaty. Treaties need two-thirds approval in the Senate, so to pass the Democrats will need at least 8 Republicans to vote for it. The Democrats have 59 senators (but why count Ben Nelson of North Dakota?)—let’s make that 58. We’ll have more details to come about which Republicans may be persuadable and which Democrats need to be “warmed up.” Two calls today to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s press office have not been returned, but we’ll keep trying.


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