All Americans know this story: World War II ended as a result of us dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Some argue that the bombing of Nagasaki was not necessary, but pretty much everyone thinks that if it weren’t for Hiroshima, an American invasion of Japan would have killed hundreds of thousands on both sides. We humans do love our myths. And that is all that “Hiroshima defeated Japan” is: a myth.
Ward Wilson wrote an amazing article over at Foreign Policy, The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan… Stalin Did. Even before reading the article, I figured it had important things to say. Because here’s the thing: the one mistake that Americans compulsively make regarding World War II is to dismiss the enormous contributions that the Soviet Union made to winning. And look: I’m not exactly a fan of the Soviet Union. In particular, Stalin was—in an absolute sense—a greater villain than Hitler. But it is plain wrong to continue to apply Cold War mentality to the heroic sacrifice that the Soviet people performed for all of us.
The story Wilson tells is really interesting and I recommend that you read the whole thing. I’ve often wondered why the United States decided to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki and not larger cities. The reason is very clear: there were basically no other cities left standing in Japan. The two atomic bombs came after months of city carpet bombing. This campaign was highly effective.
Although these conventional bombing attacks were somewhat less in total explosive capacity than the atomic bombs, they were about as effective. According to Wilson:
A B-29 bomber flying from the Mariana Islands could carry—depending on the location of the target and the altitude of attack—somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 pounds of bombs. A typical raid consisted of 500 bombers. This means that the typical conventional raid was dropping 4 to 5 kilotons of bombs on each city.
The Hiroshima bomb released a total of 16.5 kilotons. But that overstates the difference. Because the atomic bomb was a single explosion, it didn’t do as much damage as thousands of individual conventional bombs. To the Japanese leaders, the atomic bomb did not particularly stand out:
If you were one of the key members of Japan’s government in late July and early August, your experience of city bombing would have been something like this: On the morning of July 17, you would have been greeted by reports that during the night four cities had been attacked: Oita, Hiratsuka, Numazu, and Kuwana. Of these, Oita and Hiratsuka were more than 50 percent destroyed. Kuwana was more than 75 percent destroyed and Numazu was hit even more severely, with something like 90 percent of the city burned to the ground.
Three days later you have woken to find that three more cities had been attacked. Fukui was more than 80 percent destroyed. A week later and three more cities have been attacked during the night. Two days later and six more cities were attacked in one night, including Ichinomiya, which was 75 percent destroyed. On August 2, you would have arrived at the office to reports that four more cities have been attacked. And the reports would have included the information that Toyama (roughly the size of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1945), had been 99.5 percent destroyed. Virtually the entire city had been leveled. Four days later and four more cities have been attacked. On August 6, only one city, Hiroshima, was attacked but reports say that the damage was great and a new type bomb was used. How much would this one new attack have stood out against the background of city destruction that had been going on for weeks?
Clearly, I can’t go into the the whole story here, but there are lots of problems with the claim that the atomic bomb or bombs causes the Japanese to surrender. Another big point is that the timing is all wrong. After the Hiroshima bomb on 6 August 1945, the Japanese leaders didn’t even meet for three days. And although they surrendered on that day of the Nagasaki bombing, that wasn’t the reason.
One of the main things I never knew was that although the Japanese civilian population was being decimated, the Japanese army was doing pretty well. Up to that time, they thought they could do reasonably well against a United States invasion. At that point, they didn’t think they would win the war. They were more interested in getting decent terms for a surrender. There were two things they were concerned about. One was that the emperor would be eliminated. The other was that the military leadership would be tried for war crimes. Already at that point the Nazis were being tried. Their hope was that they could get the Soviet Union to broker a deal with the United States. The Soviets were not at war with the Japanese and it was thought that the antagonism between the two super powers would lead to more pleasant surrender terms.
That all changed on 9 August 1945, but not because Nagasaki was bombed. On that day, the Soviets declared war on Japan. That totally screwed the Japanese. To begin with, it meant that they couldn’t use Stalin and company to help broker a deal. Even more important, it meant that the Japanese could not counter an invasion because it would now be coming from all sides from two great armies. When Stalin announced the new war, the Japanese caved. It is as simple as that.
I think it is pretty clear why the United States tells itself that the bomb won the war. We don’t want to give the Soviets any credit. What’s more, the whole thing is part of a larger American myth: the rugged individualist who through his wit and ingenuity conquers all. From our perspective, the fact that the Japanese have latched onto this myth is harder to understand. But there isn’t any magic to it. The Japanese had been at war for 14 years at that point. All along, they’d been telling their people that the war was going great. And now they had lost. It is much easier to say that the country lost because of some amazing new war technology. That goes over a hell of a lot better than, “We totally blew it!”
The whole thing makes me feel even worse about this than I did before. I’ve always kind of thought that maybe Hiroshima could be justified. True, I thought that the bomb could have been demonstrated diplomatically without killing hundreds of thousands. But maybe that wasn’t reasonable. Regardless, the Nagasaki bombing was not necessary and was probably used to send a message to the Soviet Union. Now it looks like all of that is nonsense. We had already been on a relentless campaign to destroy the Japanese civilian population. What’s more, we had built two bombs and so we were going to drop two bombs. On the other side, the Japanese government really didn’t seem to care that their civilian population was being destroyed. So other than our self-righteousness, I don’t especially blame America. It is the whole species that I’m disappointed in. Reading history tends to do that to me.