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Why they dropped the bombs

Richard Headicar concludes his analysis of the reasons why the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.   

Understandably Allied servicemen involved in the Pacific war, many of whom experienced the unspeakable horrors of Japanese prisoner of war camps, welcomed the atomic bombs as a “miracle of deliverance”. With a few notable exceptions, even those historians who conclude that dropping the bombs was not necessary to obtain Allied victory – that it would not even have been necessary to invade \\Japan – generally accept that using the bombs probably shortened the war. Even if only by a few weeks. In the grim reality of war, the life of a single comrade saved is worth a thousand enemy slain.

But what would such men think if they knew that, far from shortening the war, the atomic bombs actually prolonged it? That for all the crocodile tears shed about the “terrible plight” of the captives; for all hollow praise heaped upon the “heroic sacrifices” of the armed forces they were, after all, merely expendable pawns in the unrelenting hostilities of power politics? That “bringing our boys back as soon as possible”, was not actually the first order of business?

Did the US want Russian intervention?

By the time the atom bombs were dropped, Allied victory through overwhelming military superiority was virtually assured. Also, at Potsdam in July 1945, Stalin had confirmed his intention to enter the war on 15 August. As President Truman, writing in his private journal, noted at the time: “Fini Japs when that comes about”. In fact Russia declared war on Japan on 8 August and the following day – just hours later in Far East time – Russian troops attacked in Manchuria and Korea. The rapidity with which they penetrated against the cream of the Japanese army is convincing evidence for many commentators that Japanese surrender would have swiftly followed. Surely such a potentially decisive intervention would have been welcomed by those pledged to “bringing our boys back as soon as possible”? Surely every effort would have been made to encourage the speediest possible participation of the Russian military as a matter of utmost urgency? Not so!

The attitude of the US policy makers regarding Russian intervention, even though initially positive, was never entirely free from fear-fuelled ambivalence. And, corresponding with increasingly encouraging reports from the Manhattan project, that attitude eventually hardened to become actively negative. Well-founded mutual suspicion governed every move; trickery and deception concerning their respective intentions was extensively employed by both sides. And, once again, American Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, unashamedly declared his hand. He thought that it would be “regrettable” if Russia became involved in the war. He was desperately worried that if Stalin knew about the awesome power of the atomic bomb (he did) he might “immediately enter the war”. So Byrnes sought to delay Russian entry. That his attempts were unsuccessful is largely irrelevant and hardly the point, which is that the US leaders did not want Russian intervention. Firstly, because they were intent on using their atomic bombs before the war in the Pacific ended and, secondly, they were reluctant to share their prospective economic and political influence in the Far East with anyone else, friend or foe.

Although Stalin had no qualms about rescinding the Neutrality Pact with Japan, the likelihood of Russia entering the Pacific War any earlier than it did, even had it been urged to do so by America, was extremely remote. Yet there were two other avenues through which the US administration, had it had the slightest inclination to pursue them, could almost certainly have succeeded in shortening the conflict. Instead, to serve their own agenda, they approached these avenues with sufficient circumspection to frustrate every overture; each manoeuvre calculated to obstruct the least chance of any kind of rapprochement.

Was Japan really suing for peace?

The evidence that it was is overwhelming. Astonishingly, Japanese diplomats initiated peace feelers as early as late summer 1944. They continued to do so - through Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and even the Vatican. Particular efforts were made via Moscow in the (mistaken) belief that the Neutrality Pact that existed between Japan and Russia made it the most viable channel. Despite the fact that Stalin had previously declined to renew the pact, Japanese fears were somewhat mollified (but by no means quelled) by his assurance that it would continue to inform his decisions until its expiry in April 1946. But by the end of 1943 he had already made known to Allied leaders his intention to enter the war against Japan and signed an agreement confirming it, at Yalta in February 1945.

On the day following the collapse of Okinawa (21 June 1945), Emperor Hirohito told the Supreme Council for the Direction of War to reverse their “Basic Policy”, urging them to seek peace by diplomatic means: “You will consider the question of ending the war as soon as possible”. It was the specific mission of the new cabinet of Prime Minister, Baron Kantaro Suzuki (appointed 7 April 1945), to seek peace. But neither the US nor Russia were interested in Japan’s efforts for peace; the US wanted to wait until it could drop the atom bombs and Russia until it was ready to declare war. Not one of the messages imparted to Moscow by the Japanese ambassador was passed on to America. This made little difference, however, since all Japanese codes - diplomatic (“Magic”) and operational (“ultra”) had long been broken. An extract from “Magic” Nº 1205 (13 July 1945) deciphering a cable from Foreign Minister Togo to Ambassador Sato reads: “His Majesty the Emperor, mindful of the fact that the present war daily brings greater evil and sacrifice upon the peoples of all belligerent powers, desires from his heart that it may be quickly terminated”. The same transcript further states: “It is the Emperor’s private intention to send Prince Konoye to Moscow as a Special Envoy . . .” And so he did, but Moscow would not receive him. Later President Truman “thanked” Marshal Stalin.

Stephen Harper, in his book Miracle of Deliverance, subtitled ‘The Case for the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, write, with commendable honesty: “Ways could have been found to explore the Japanese peace moves had there been any desire to do so, but it seems clear that the doctrine of unconditional surrender . . . had become compulsive thinking - an Allied blindspot”.

Was it unconditional surrender?

On 21 July an ultimatum – the Potsdam Declaration – was given to the Japanese government. It was issued on behalf of the President of the United States, the President of Nationalist China and the Prime Minister of Great Britain; but not Russia. Its language was uncompromising as these extracts show:

“Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.

“There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest . . . We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces . . .”

Despite the inclusion of phrases such as : “We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved . . .”, “Freedom of speech, of religion and of thought . . .”, “. . . fundamental human rights shall be established” – the single non-negotiable concession, repeatedly demanded by Japan, was noticeably absent: a guarantee of the Emperor’s position. A crucial paragraph offering just such a guarantee was deleted by the US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes. Consequently, the Declaration was deemed unacceptable by Japan – just as the US hoped it would be.

Much discussion has ensued concerning the nature of the Japanese response. Some analysts consider it to be an outright rejection; others no more than a pause for breath. Confusion was sown by the use of the Japanese term “mokusatsu”, which can mean: “take no notice of”; “treat with silent contempt” or (most probably) “withhold comment”. Some writers have emphasised the jingoistic and defiant statements trumpeted in the Japanese media, but these were obviously face-saving propaganda exercises designed to boost national morale. Other compelling evidence makes it abundantly clear that, so far as Japan was concerned, negotiations were still very much ongoing. And that the US was aware of it.

“Magic” intercept Nº 1218 (26 July 1945) revealed the text of another message sent from Foreign Minister Togo to Ambassador Sato. This was a reaction to a broadcast made to the Japanese on 21 July, on behalf of the US. The broadcast was made by Captain (later Rear Admiral) Ellis M. Zacharias, later to write an article for Look magazine (6 June 1950) entitled “How We Bungled the Japanese Surrender”. Part of the “Magic” summary stated: “It is impossible for us to accept unconditional surrender, no matter in what guise, but . . . there is no objection to the restoration of peace on the basis of the Atlantic Charter”. But once again Byrnes intervened and claimed that it was best to refrain from designating the broadcast as “official”.

That the issue of “unconditional surrender” was the primary stumbling block to the achievement of a peace settlement had been recognised long before. A Joint Intelligence Committee in March 1940 commented: “The crux of the political situation will lie in the all-important status of the Japanese Emperor”. After the war was over, both Secretary of War Stimson and the President recorded their conclusions. “[H]istory might find that the United States, by its delay in stating its position [on the surrender terms] had prolonged the war” wrote Stimson in his memoirs. Or as Truman succinctly remarked during the compiling of his: “It was because of the unconditional surrender policy against Japan that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wiped out”.

Two days after the Potsdam Declaration, Prince Konoye was still making frantic efforts to make contact with Russian diplomats, contradicting the generally accepted notion that the Declaration had been dismissed out of hand by Japan. In any event, the decision to drop the bomb had already been taken: finally confirmed on the same day as the Declaration.

On 10 August, the morning after the second bomb was dropped, an offer of surrender from Japan was received in Washington. Once more it stipulated that any agreement should “ . . . not compromise any demand which prejudiced the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler”. Stimson favoured its acceptance; Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal suggested a compromise; Byrnes opposed it. For once, Byrnes had to give way but, nevertheless, he was the one who drafted the reply, the key phrase of which permitted that vital Japanese proviso: “From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers”. It was enough. The bombs, apparently, had not persuaded Japan to drop its proviso concerning the Emperor.

Byrnes’s reluctance to bend, even at this juncture, is hard to fathom precisely. What is seldom mentioned in popular accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, is that a third bomb would have been delivered and ready to drop by 17 August 1945.

Why were the bombs dropped?

A complex labyrinth of reasons lay behind the decision to drop the atomic bombs. Once the vastly expensive machinery of production had commenced, and the original purpose of its instigation forgotten, sufficient resolve not to use it ceased to exist. The astronomical investment of public funds needed to be justified; the widespread public antipathy of the American population towards the Japanese following the Pearl Harbour attack, demanded revenge – a mood of which the American leadership was acutely aware. As Secretary for War Stimson subsequently observed: “No man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities could have failed to use it and afterwards look his countrymen in the face”.

A number of ‘revisionist’ historians confidently assert that the primary motive was to gain diplomatic advantage: a powerful political lever allowing the US to dominate future negotiations with the Soviet Union. They make a powerful case and undoubtedly this was a major consideration in the formulation of atomic policy. But this could have been accomplished with just a single bomb and, surely, not necessarily on a heavily-populated city.

The fact that two bombs were dropped, however – without warning – on specifically targeted and crowded locations which had been spared aerial bombardment; the fact that each bomb had different technology (one uranium-explosion; one plutonium-implosion), each with different yields, dropped at different heights but both resulting in prolonged and deadly after-effects of which little was understood, suggests the conclusion that the primary motives might have been the seldom mentioned (almost unmentionable) one of “scientific” experimentation. A conclusion that seems to be confirmed by the grim recommendations of both the Interim and Target committees detailed in the first part of this article (last month).

The terrible war in the Pacific, in common with all wars between capitalist states, had its origins in the protection and expansion of economic interests. There seems to be no limit to the degradation and cruelty utilised to protect those interests. Anyone visiting the Hiroshima museum would be able to view the leaflets that were dropped warning of an atomic attack. In an act of macabre cynicism that almost defies belief, those leaflets were not dropped until 9 August - three days after the bombing. Things improved for Nagasaki - they were only one day late.


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.