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Alex Wellerstein @wellerstein
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One of the difficulties in talking with Americans in particular about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that many of them have, at best, a half-remembered high-school version of that history in their head, and the subject is typically not covered well in high school.
The "bad" version of this history is pretty simple: Japan was a suicidal and fanatical death cult of a state, the US wanted to save lives and end the war. The US drops two atomic bombs, and the Japanese surrender shortly thereafter. QED, bombs are justified, etc.
Now what's maddening about this all-too-typical account is that like many convincing but not quite true things, it has elements of truth in it! It also has elements of falsehood, and, most importantly, essentially lies by MASSIVE omission.
Of course, the choices of what events/evidence/data we include in a historical narrative are always tricky, even subjective. There is a near-infinite amount of "data" in the world; only a fraction gets recorded for history; only a fraction of that ends up in a narrative.
But the "standard/orthodox" story of the bombings of Japan leaves out so much key context that it just becomes wrong. So in this thread I want to talk about some of the context that historians consider "standard" to include, in even a very basic discussion of this history.
First, it's important to note that by the summer of 1945, Japan was in a bad state militarily. It had lost much of the territory it had taken, its navy and air force were in shambles, its ports were mined, and it was being subjected to ruinous conventional bombing by the USA.
Contrary to the notion that the Japanese high command was fanatically ignorant of this, they were not. They understood the war was not going in their favor, and they had no real pretensions of "winning." The question for them was: what to do about it? How to avoid losing it all?
The militarists, who dominated the Japanese cabinet, believed that they could bleed out the US by making a land invasion costly. This is the "fanatical"/"suicidal" stuff, and it's no joke. The idea was that the US would tire of war, and either leave or settle on better terms.
The non-militarists, including the foreign ministry and the Emperor, didn't love the sound of that. They were exploring ideas of a "diplomatic" resolution of the war — e.g., finding a way to surrender on terms the Japanese could feel at least somewhat good about.
What this meant in practice was that the Japanese were trying, through two separate avenues, to court the still-neutral USSR, with the hope that they could act as an intermediary between the US and Japan in negotiating such an end to the war.
What would that look like? We don't really know, because the USSR never gave the Japanese an audience, because they were already committed to joining the war against them, in exchange for territory. But we'll come to that in a moment.
The core component of what the "peace" faction of the Japanese high command definitely wanted was a preservation of the Emperor system, and guarantees that the Emperor wouldn't be tried as a war criminal.
When I explain this to US audiences, I emphasize that this is kind of like insisting that the US be able to retain its Constitution: it's foundational to the concept of the nation. It was seen as absolutely core to Japanese identity, history, and nationhood; i.e., non-negotiable.
Separate from that, they floated a few other ideas of things they might get to "keep," such as foreign territories and the like. So again, we don't really know what they wanted. It wasn't as simple as an easy guarantee of the Emperor's safety, but that was the core piece.
The US, it is worth emphasizing, knew about these efforts and these concerns. They had cracked Japanese diplomatic codes well before. They incorporated discussions between the head of the foreign minister and the Japanese ambassador to the USSR into their strategy.
This is important when considering the US choices of July 1945, esp. at the Potsdam Conference. Truman was lobbied by both the Department of War and Churchill to give some guarantee as to the Emperor's safety in the Potsdam Declaration, as they saw that this was a sticking point.
Truman, following the advise instead of his Secretary of State, James Byrnes, deliberately decided not to do this. It isn't entirely clear why, but the fact that by then he felt that Japan was likely to surrender without an invasion anyway played into it.
In one of the few remarks he made about this, he emphasized that "unconditional surrender" was essentially required to offset the Japanese perfidy of Pearl Harbor — that he wanted them to grovel. For whatever that is worth.
People have argued since the 1940s over whether the insistence on unconditional surrender, as opposed to granting the one condition the Japanese for sure wanted (Emperor preservation), prolonged the war. The answer, unsurprisingly, is "we don't know." But it's useful context.
Anyway. In July 1945, Truman knew for sure (because of the Trinity test) that the US had a workable atomic bomb. He also knew that Stalin was planning to renounce his neutrality with regards to Japan, and invade by mid-August 1945, because Stalin told him this.
The Americans AND the Japanese, as an aside, both considered a Soviet invasion to be a likely tipping-point for Japanese surrender. The Japanese army knew that they lacked the forces to repel an invasion by the USSR, and that Stalin didn't care about trading blood for territory.
(I only point this out because it was only about a year ago that I learned they had actually been analyzing this scenario for months before it happened. Some accounts make the Japanese military seem quite ignorant of the possibility, but it is very clear they were not.)
It is clear that Truman had a vested interest in trying to use the bomb ASAP, because he was hoping that the war might end before the Soviets got involved. Why? Because he had seen in Europe that where Soviets liberate, Communism stays behind.
Stalin, as mentioned, had an incentive in being in the war, because he would get several juicy bits of territory as a result, in particular the full island of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, which gave the Soviets easy access to the Pacific.
(He even contemplated taking the Japanese island of Hokkaido, but was convinced by his advisors that this could be a deal-breaker with the USA.)
Anyway, this is the context. Truman agrees that the first atomic bomb should be dropped as soon as possible after the Potsdam Conference ended — hoping to preempt the Soviets, e.g. August 3rd or so. Weather conditions delay that until the morning of August 6, 1945.
The bombing of Hiroshima occurs, as we know. It was militarily a very successful operation: the city itself was totally disabled by it. This included, incidentally, its ability to communicate easily with the outside world.
The Japanese high command basically did not know what had happened until the morning of August 7th, when Allied propaganda channels broadcast Truman's statement about the atomic bombing. The Japanese high command met on August 7, and decided not to act until they confirmed it.
Just as a note: It's not crazy for them to want to confirm it before believing it completely. World War II was full of propaganda and misinformation by both sides, and claims of fantastical weapons were very common. Sending their own scientists before acting on it was reasonable.
Because of the disruption of the war, and the bombing, this took some time. It wasn't until late on August 8th that the scientists confirmed that Hiroshima was destroyed: "I'm very sorry to tell you this... the so-called new-type bomb is actually an atomic bomb." (Yoshio Nishina)
Back in Moscow, the Soviets had just granted the Japanese ambassador a long-desired meeting with Molotov. Molotov immediately handed him a declaration of war, saying it started "tomorrow." But he was used a different time zone for "tomorrow," so it started in a few hours. Tricky!
So at midnight on August 8/9, Soviet forces stream into Manchuria, overwhelming the Japanese there. The Japanese high command put together a meeting the next morning (Aug. 9). They are clearly VERY distressed by the Soviet situation, and are trying to figure out what comes next.
Now, did the news they had gotten about the Hiroshima bomb play a role in their distress? Maybe! It's VERY hard to disentangle the two. The news of both overlaps in a very real way. There are those who will argue for one or the other being more important. It's a hard call.
Either way, the Japanese high command, including the militarists, are despondent. Things are NOT going well. The "bleed them out" plan won't work against Stalin. Obviously Stalin isn't going to negotiate a diplomatic end of the war for them, either. And the US has atomic bombs.
During this meeting, the bombing of Nagasaki happens (11am Japanese time). The news is brought to them during the meeting. It does NOT seem to affect the conversation in any strong way — the opinions they have prior to learning about Nagasaki don't change.
This is why historians tend to say that Nagasaki wasn't that important; there's no evidence of change. Could it have added to existing convictions? Maybe. Can we re-run history without it, to see what happens? Obviously not. But it doesn't seem to have done much at that meeting.
Hence there are even historians who think that the Hiroshima bombing was necessary, but Nagasaki was not. The "after the fact" justification of the two bombs, as an aside, has nothing to do with why Nagasaki happened when it did.
The original plan was to wait until August 10th (after the August 3rd plan for Hiroshima) before the second bomb — a solid week between them. As it was, it was only 3 days. Nagasaki got moved up because of weather considerations, just as Hiroshima had been moved down.
And it is just worth noting that while the Hiroshima bombing was very carefully planned, considered, etc., Nagasaki was — as I mentioned before — something of an afterthought. Truman was not informed about it happening; I don't think he really knew.
Anyway. The end of this meeting of the high command was the decision to offer a conditional surrender. The August 10th surrender offer was basically to accept the Potsdam terms so long as they didn't prejudice the position of the Emperor. AKA, a condition.
The US rejected this — unconditional meant unconditional. There are complex reasons for this, but one was that the US hadn't really decided what it would do with Hirohito yet. (They ended up letting him stay on as a figurehead.)
At this point I just want to add: even two atomic bombs AND an invasion by the Soviets was not, by itself, enough to convince the Japanese to embrace unconditional surrender. That's how tough the "unconditional" desire was! They were willing to give up a lot, but not the Emperor.
While the US kept up conventional bombing, within Japan there were deep divisions about what to do next. There was an attempted coup by junior officers opposed to surrender, which was put down. Finally, on August 14, Hirohito personally intervened and agreed to "unconditional."
Different historians give more or less emphasis to different aspects of this, but I think the above is mostly uncontroversial as a timeline. The controversial stuff are the interpretations. Was Hiroshima necessary? What about Nagasaki? Would the war have ended without either?
I don't want to make it sound like I have all the answers — I don't. I do want to emphasize that this has been in debate since 1945. It's not a crazy revisionist thing to question the orthodox narrative; even the US military analysts questioned it in 1945:…
I'll note, as an aside, that the US invasion of Kyushu was not to start until November 1945. Some accounts make it sound it was going to happen the next day or something, that it was barely avoided. This is wrong; there were 2 more months there.
Personally, I think the balance of evidence points against Nagasaki playing a big role, but the "mix" of Hiroshima and the Soviet invasion is tough to disentangle. There's evidence that the Soviet invasion mattered a lot. But that's not the same as saying Hiroshima didn't.
What I do think a balanced account of the timeline indicates, though, is how inadequate the simplistic "two bombs and surrender" version of the story is. It's much more complex than that, much less straightforward, and doesn't lean into easy propaganda one way or the other.
Bottom line: if your vision of historical events tends to render your historical conclusions as being very simple (and coincidentally they overlap with your present-day political views), you're probably leaving a lot of important stuff out. Real history is complicated and messy.
Further reading: for timeline issues, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's Racing the Enemy is great, and even if you don't totally go along with his overall argument, it's worth the read for a balanced look at the US, Japanese, and Soviet perspectives at the end of the war.
On the Japanese pre-planning about the invasion by the USSR, the work of Yukiko Koshiro has been eye-opening for me. On the timing of the bombs and etc., see esp. @GordinMichael 's "Five Days in August."
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