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Why they dropped the bombs

Last month saw the 60th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The media mostly contented itself with repeating the myth that this was the lesser evil to continuing the war by conventional means.

In a two-part article Richard Headicar uncovers the real reason for the bombings: to test the destructive power of a new weapon

 for use in future wars.

A common charge levelled at those who challenge the (still largely believed) established myth concerning the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is that they do so from the comfortable perspective of hindsight. This view was most elegantly formulated by Albert R. Hunt, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 3 August 1995: “The critics view the situation through the prism of today and side-step both how the situation looked to decision-makers in 1945 and the political realities facing them”.

At first glance a not unreasonable observation but one which, upon closer examination, is revealed as somewhat disingenuous. Firstly, because, given that such a vast amount of crucial and enlightening information was for many years kept secret (much still is), anything other than hindsight concerning many areas of knowledge would have been pure speculation. Secondly, because there existed a number of contemporary critics. Many of these were closely involved in the production of the bomb, others from the military and some, even, close to the president.

Before proceeding to disentangle the web of lies and deception surrounding this subject, it is important to emphasise that, whatever the reasons for the decision to drop the bombs, it was a consequence of a brutal and ruthless conflict between warring capitalist states. A British First Sea Lord once put it: “Moderation in war is imbecility”. Today there are few military ‘conventions’ and any that remain are almost sure to be violated. Rest assured, had any one of the main protagonists in the Second World War obtained an atomic bomb before the United States, they would almost certainly have used it with a similar alacrity and disdain for human life.

Who took the decision to drop the bomb?

Although, of course, it was President Harry Truman who had to give final approval (British consent, a formality required by agreement, was readily granted) he was the new boy on the block relying heavily on his advisors. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project to manufacture the bomb, famously described Truman as “a little boy on a toboggan”. Once the decision had been made to produce the atomic bomb and the process of manufacturing it had begun, it was always assumed by the military and politicians that it would be used. In that sense no actual decision was ever a real necessity.

Nevertheless, formalities and procedures were prudently followed and, in order to work out the practical details and make suitable recommendations, various committees were established. The two most important of these were the Interim Committee (political, plus a co-opted scientific panel) and the Target Committee (military and scientific). General Groves headed the Target Committee and although not a member of the Interim Committee, was always present at its meetings. He was an unswerving advocate for deployment of the bomb. As he bluntly explained: “It would not have looked well if I had been appointed to serve on a committee of civilians. But I was present at all meetings and I always considered it my duty to recommend that the bomb be dropped.”

The chairman of the Interim Committee was the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. On 3 May 1945, he proposed a further member who was to have a most significant influence on events: James F. Byrne, soon to become the Secretary of State to President Truman. His views on the dropping of the bomb were as rampantly in favour of those of Groves and together they formed the irresistible force that, more than any other, led to the final cataclysmic devastation of those two unlucky Japanese cities. As the physicist Arthur H. Compton put it: “The Scientific Panel was not called to decide the question of whether the bomb should be used, but only how it should be used . . . it . . . seemed to be a forgone conclusion.”

Minutes taken at the meeting of the Interim Committee on 1 June 1945 recorded:

“Mr Byrnes recommended and the committee agreed, that . . . the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning.”

On 25 July 1945 a directive approved by the Secretary of War, but which had been previously composed by Groves, manifested US intentions and confirmed previous assumptions in its first two sections:

“(1) The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki . . .

“(2) Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff . . . “

Whether or not that directive constituted a decision and whether Stimson and Truman or Byrnes and Groves bore most responsibility for it remains a matter of some debate. The theory of the “forgone conclusion” gains some credibility from the response given to Groves when, in January 1945, he suggested to his immediate superior, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, that detailed plans should be drawn up for the employment of the bomb in war. He was told “see to it yourself”.

Were they military targets?

The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in the first instance to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians”. President Harry S. Truman (9 August 1945).

All of the cities on the target list (like most reasonably sized cities in time of war) were of some military significance. Five of them, with the agreement of the Air Force, were to be spared any further aerial bombardment from May 1945 onwards. These were Hiroshima, Kyoto, Yokohama, Kokura Arsenal and Niigata. On the express orders of the Secretary of War, Stimson, Kyoto considered to be the cultural centre of Japan and a beautiful city that Stimson had once visited was removed from the list and Nagasaki took its place. The truth is, of course, that the US Air Force could have destroyed any military target that it chose to. Japanese air defences were practically non-existent and of Japan’s sixty-six largest cities, fifty-nine had been destroyed; the seven remaining partly so. By the summer of 1945 only two cities with populations exceeding a quarter of a million had not been assailed by incendiary raids.

Since Hiroshima was designated as a major port and home of Regional Army Headquarters and the northern sectors of Nagasaki contained the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works, why did they remain largely untouched (Hiroshima hardly damaged at all and Nagasaki comparatively unscathed)? The answer is provided by the proposals of the Target Committee, 27 April 1945:

“To enable us to assess accurately the effects of the bomb, the targets should not have been previously damaged by air raids.”

Nagasaki had been bombed to some extent but it was only a late addition to the target list and was not first choice even on the day the bomb was dropped on it that had been Kokura Arsenal.

Further recommendations made by the committee were that “ . . . the first target be of such size that the damage would be confined within it, so that we could more definitely determine the power of the bomb”. Then from a further meeting on 10 and 11 May came the clear (and fortunately documented) instruction: “ . . . to neglect location of industrial areas as pin point target . . . [and] . . . to endeavour to place first gadget in center of selected city; that is, not to allow for later 1 or 2 gadgets for complete destruction.”

To erase any lingering doubts a subsequent Bombing Survey Report stated: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population”.

Was it necessary to drop the bombs?

One of the most commonly accepted beliefs is that, horrific though it was, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives Japanese as well as American by bringing about a swift end to the war and forestalling a bloody invasion. We are reminded about the massive casualties already suffered by both sides in the Pacific War. Particularly about the fanatical defence by the Japanese of Iwo Jima, Luzon and Okinawa. But although there were plans for an invasion they were contingency plans.

The first stage “Olympic” was to land at the island of Kyushu on 1 November 1945. No assault on the main island, Honshu, – “Coronet” was scheduled until 1 March 1946. In the light of what we now know, it seems doubtful that the need for any kind of invasion would ever have arisen. Japan was certainly not defenceless. It still had an army of more than two million troops, many prepared to fight to the death for their Emperor. Also, as well as conventional planes, there were thousands of kamikaze, mines, beach fortifications, etc, and the remnants of the navy. Their problem was one of deployment. But as the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded, less than a year after the bomb had been dropped:

“Certainly before 31 December 1945 and in all probability before 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bomb had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Some historians argue that the bombs were unnecessary precisely because Russia intended to enter the war, so the conclusion of the Strategic Bombing Survey was all the more remarkable. Less so, however, when the reality of the Japanese military situation is properly examined. Their navy was virtually finished; their army was described by Hanson W. Baldwin as consisting of “Green conscripts and second rate troops”; communication lines were in disarray; fuel was in extremely short supply; roads were in a poor state of repair; transport and transportation could be bombed at will; ports were becoming paralysed; food was scarce; illness through malnutrition was an increasing problem and (not surprisingly) public morale was diminishing by the day. In marked contrast to this, the US armed might remained immensely powerful.

All of this was known to the US administration and military and the ludicrous estimates of projected invasion casualties ranging from “hundreds of thousands” to “millions” were post-war exaggerations designed to contribute to the successful establishment of a public justification for the dropping of the bombs. Major General Curtis E. LeMay expressed the truth quite bluntly a few weeks after formal surrender of the Japanese Emperor. “The atomic bomb,” he stated, “had nothing to do with the end of the war”.

But the reasons were not merely military ones.

(To be concluded next month)


A list of the sources of the quotes in this article or further information on particular points can be obtained on request to: Socialist Standard, 52 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UN.