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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8441/why-did-truman-drop-the-bomb/

Why did Truman drop the bomb?

August 28, 2008 by

Let me just say a few words about this new Working Paper up on Mises.org. It is by Dominick Severance, a student just graduated from Christendom College. The title is “The Dropping of the Atomic Bomb: Truman’s True Intentions.”

Revisionist history on this topic was once a common part of anyone’s education. Now it seems that this subject is no longer discussed in any detail, and that is a tragedy because there is so much learn from an detailed examination of this day in world history.

Severance does an incredible job in ferreting out the debate before the bomb, among Truman’s advisers, the military rationale, and more. The detail makes for fascinating reading. What he shows is that the bomb was not necessary for military reasons. The war was effectively over, and Japan was ready for surrender. Many people pleaded with Truman not to go ahead. Nor was it recommended by military specialists. He then examines Truman’s motives and concludes that was really at stake were US interests in rebuilding Europe. It was a statement of power. You can agree or disagree with the author as to whether or not this is a good thing and worth the lives of innocents, but either way, you will be impressed by his research.


Larry Ruane August 28, 2008 at 11:39 pm

I think there is a typo on page 5: “Was the bomb even necessary to secure peace with Japan? Could President Truman have attained peace without spilling the blood of thousands of innocents? The answer to both questions is an overwhelming yes.”

Did the author really mean to say that the answer to the first question is yes?

lady liberty August 29, 2008 at 12:58 am

I think its worth mentioning that Henry Stimson, who was in charge of the War Department, was a member of Skull and Bones.

From Henry Stimson’s diary:

“The President brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked, perhaps (as soon as) next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. . . .


Miklos Hollender August 29, 2008 at 2:33 am

It’s fairly well known that the intent was to make Stalin shit his pants – what’s so new about it?

Unsympathetic August 29, 2008 at 6:45 am

The intent was to end the war – why is this suddenly a place to attempt historical revisionism?

If Truman had NOT dropped the bomb, Operation Zipper would have resulted in over 1 million Allied casualties. They got to the landing zone 1 day after the emperor declared peace. The landings were wargamed 100 times; each time, over 1 million Allied casualties resulted.

Truman made the right call.

8 August 29, 2008 at 7:51 am

The question wasn’t whether Japan would surrender, it was whether they would surrender unconditionally.

Jeff August 29, 2008 at 10:09 am

Having spent 3 years on Okinawa, and visiting the sites of many of the battles and suicide jumps I shudder to think of the casualties the allies would have had to take in a battle for mainland Japan. Weary from beating germany and thinking of going home, the armies in Europe were in the process of being rearmed for the battle of Japan. Lets also not forget that the Japanese had shown, from the attack at Pearl Harbor to the Batan death march a single minded refusal to submit or even view the opponent as human. Looking back from the comfort of a unversity, with the benefit of 60 years of history does not leave a decision maker with the same level of fear that the very real possibility of 1,000,000 allied casualties would have at the time.

jm August 29, 2008 at 10:34 am

“The war was effectively over, and Japan was ready for surrender.”

This is simply not true. The Japanese high command believed that they could drag the war out and cause sufficient US casualties to obtain an armistice like that which ended WWI. The militarists were demanding four conditions: that there be allowed to disarm themselves, that they be allowed to try their own war criminals, that there be no change in the political powers of the emperor (and so no change in the system that had given the militarists absolute power), and that there be no occupation. The so-called peace faction might have been content with the latter condition alone, as it would have been completely sufficient to preserve the existing totalitarian system.

At the end of the war Japan nearly a million men under arms in southern Kyushu, supplemented by more than two million “civilians” under total mobilization. Overseas, Japanese troops in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China and Manchuria numbered in the millions, and were still militarily effective and capable of inflicting severe casualties on anyone trying to root them out.

Any belief that delay would have been costless is mistaken. Orders had gone out from Imperial General Headquarters to kill all prisoners of war, military and civilian; in Indonesia alone the Japanese held hundreds of thousands. And the war continued in China. Delay would also have increased Japanese military and civilian casualties. Even a month’s delay in ending the war would have caused more deaths than the atomic bombings.

The US had compelling reasons to demand unconditional surrender, and to use every means possible to end the war as soon as possible.

jeffrey August 29, 2008 at 10:53 am

How can I say this politely? Do you know the expression RTFA? It means Read The Friggin’ Article. It’s posted for a reason.

jm August 29, 2008 at 11:05 am

Further to the above…

The Soviet advance into Manchuria and Korea resulted directly and immediately in more than 80,000 civilian deaths in Manchuria plus more than 30,000 in Korea.

An additional 250,000 Japanese civilian and military died in Siberian labor camps after being taken prisoner.

The Soviet advance started earlier and proceeded much more rapidly than expected by either the Soviets, the Japanese, or the US.

If the bombs had ended the war quickly enough to forestall the Soviet attack, those deaths would not have occurred.

R M Paris August 29, 2008 at 11:36 am

I for one am glad Truman gave the order to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because if he had not, there is a great chance I would not have been born.

My father was part of the Wolfhounds of the Tropic Lightening 25th infantry Division. He was on board a troop ship near the west coast of Japan getting ready for the beach head landing. Their orders were to make the beach headlanding, fight inland til they advanced 3+/- miles and then to retreat to the beach head for evac.

My father said that they all knew that they were being ordered into a suicide mission.

jm August 29, 2008 at 11:43 am


I made it quite explicit that I was addressing the statement, “The war was effectively over, and Japan was ready for surrender,” not the article.

But I have now skimmed the article and verified that it contains nothing not in Gar Alperovitz’s infamous “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb”, which has been thoroughly discredited. My assertions stand.

Some references:
“Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire”, Richard Frank.
“Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan”, Herbert P. Bix
“The End of the Pacific War: Reappraisals”, (edited by) Tsuyoshi Hasegawa
“Truman and the Hiroshima Cult”, Robert P. Newman
” Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism”, Robert James Maddox
‘MacArthur’s “Ultra”‘, Edward J. Drea
The Meiji Constitution (Google it)
And for anyone who happens to read Japanese (as I do): “Kaigun Gunreibu”, Toyoda Jou

Read The Friggin References, they’re posted for a reason.

jm August 29, 2008 at 11:56 am

“…but either way, you will be impressed by his research.”

I am not in the least impressed by the research.

The author seems to have plagiarized Alperovitz’s “Decision”, and to have read none of the many books that have ably refuted Alperovitz’s arguments.

And it’s a pretty safe bet that he has no substantial experience of Japan, cannot read Japanese and has read no history of the period on the Japanese side, and probably hasn’t even read the Meiji Constitution, which is vital background for understanding the real implications of the various statements regarding retention of the emperor.

Fred Mann August 29, 2008 at 11:58 am

Why was the second bomb dropped? Is it because Japan refused to surrender after Hiroshima? If so, how did Truman KNOW that Japan would surrender after two bombs? Maybe it would take three bombs … or four?
Of course, targeting civilians can never be justified, no matter what you *think* may happen in the future if you fail to sacrifice them. But that’s another topic entirely.

Cicero Paine August 29, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Perhaps the clearest explanation of the reasoning behind dropping the bomb is:

Walker, J. Samuel, _Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan_, revised edition.

It is a quick read and synthesizes the secondary and available primary materials on the subject.

Most importantly, he thoroughly discredits the assertion that Truman, his advisers or the Military believed the invasion would cause one million US casualties.

jm August 29, 2008 at 12:26 pm

The second bomb was dropped so that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to say, “They couldn’t have more than one,” which the Japanese military chiefs did indeed assert after the first bombing.

As for “targeting civilians can never be justified,” note that in addition to being a manufacturing center, Hiroshima contained a major army headquarters base sufficiently near the bomb’s aiming point that one-third of its personnel were killed (about 10,000 out of 30,000, IIRC). Furthermore, as Japan had been in a state of total mobilization since March, arguably there were no civilians anywhere in the nation; they had been compelled to join Giyu (usually mistranslated as “Volunteer”) brigades and were being trained for military action.

BTW, note that the second bomb was intended for a major arsenal on Kyushu at Kokura, and that Nagasaki, the secondary target on which it was dropped due to cloud cover over Kokura, contained the shipyards at which the battleship Musashi had been build, and a major torpedo factory.

jm August 29, 2008 at 12:51 pm

“Most importantly, he thoroughly discredits the assertion that Truman, his advisers or the Military believed the invasion would cause one million US casualties.”

Although several of the references I gave above discredit the above claim, perhaps the best reference for that is “Marching Orders: The Untold Story of World War II” by Bruce Lee.

Fred Mann August 29, 2008 at 1:51 pm

The Japanese leadership could just as easily have said “the US couldn’t have more than two bombs” — and they’d be right!! Then what? You’d have slaughtered 100,000+ civilians for nothing and the war would have raged on (presumably).
And regardless of the immediate results, the US would forever be viewed as an inhumane aggressor by millions/billions of people worldwide (and rightfully so). I wonder what effect that might have on our “security”.

“…arguably there were no civilians anywhere in the nation…”

Yes, those tens of thousands of little kids and women were a big threat.

dougie August 29, 2008 at 2:20 pm

yeah, what did MacArthur, Leahy, Eisenhower know anyway…their opinions that the bombings were not needed are all irrelevant

jm August 29, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Fred, please read the references posted.

The strategy of Japan’s leaders was to force the US to invade the mainland and to inflict on the invasion force such horrific casualties that the US government would be forced by popular pressure to assent to a Versailles-like war end that would prevent the introduction of democracy, enable them to keep alive the myth that their “land of the gods” could never be successfully invaded, preserve the pharaohnic status of the emperor under the Meiji constitution, and so enable them to again embark on conquest within a few decades (just as Germany had been able to do after Versailles).

There was no way to end the war in such a way to avoid that which would not end with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and kids.

It was implicit in the Japanese high command’s plans of action that the Japanese death toll in southern Kyushu alone would exceed two million, more than half “civilians”. Women and kids were quite capable of throwing themselves under a tank with a satchel charge, and of engaging in various other forms of suicide attack. Read a good history of the Okinawa invasion to understand the consequences of Japanese tactics for women and kids.

Moreover, had the war continued until the Kyushu invasion, hundreds of thousands more Japanese women and kids would have died through starvation and disease. Most in the Japanese high command were quite willing to accept such death tolls in order to keep themselves in power.

Premier Suzuki is on record as having said after the war that until the atomic bombings, they had believed that the US would not be able to win the war by bombing alone, and would be forced to invade (so that they could execute their suicide-attack based bloodbath plans), but after the bombings concluded that that would not be so.

Note that Suzuki is also on record as having concluded even from the stiffer wording of the Potsdam Declaration demanded by Byrnes that it meant that the US high command felt it needed to quickly terminate the war. Had the weaker wordings recommended by others been used, the Japanese would have viewed it even more as a sign of weakness, and been even more disposed to hold out for a Versailles-like peace.

Alas, when your opponents are quite willing to wage war in such a way as to make inevitable the deaths of millions of their underlings’ wives and children (along with the underlings themselves) in order to keep themselves in power, it’s rather difficult to defeat them with any other result.

An important factor of which few are aware is that neither the Japanese nor the US nor even the Soviets themselves expected the Soviet invasion of Manchuria to be so quickly successful. The Japanese expected it to begin months later, and expected to be able to fight rear-guard actions that would hold the Soviets off for months after that (and didn’t yet know when they surrendered that things weren’t going that way). Those who believe that the Japanese would have surrendered immediately at the start of the Soviet invasion even without the atomic bombings seem completely unaware of this.

jm August 29, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Yes, Dougie, just what did MacArthur, Leahy, Eisenhower know anyway about Japanese psychology?

The answer: Zip.

Considering that to defeat the Germans — wimps compared to the Japanese — it had been necessary for the Allies to fight through nearly the entire country and for the Russians to completely destroy and overrun Berlin, until Hitler and much of the rest of his high command committed suicide with the Russian front line nearly at their bunker’s door, it is more than a little odd that either Leahy or Eisenhower believed the Japanese ready to surrender. As for MacArthur, all he ever said was that the bombs weren’t necessary — he would gladly have invaded Kyushu and killed two million Japanese and a few hundred thousand GIs and sailors to end the war in grand military style.

hayesy August 30, 2008 at 9:08 am

Dear oh dear. More of this paranoid revisionism. What was it about Rothbard’s Law? People tend to specialise in what they’re worst at? Some of the contributors to this blog are falling victim to the truism by choosing to write fairly embarrassing contributions to foreign policy discussions.

Back to economics, thanks!

ktibuk August 30, 2008 at 10:19 am

“It was implicit in the Japanese high command’s plans of action that the Japanese death toll in southern Kyushu alone would exceed two million, more than half “civilians”. Women and kids were quite capable of throwing themselves under a tank with a satchel charge, and of engaging in various other forms of suicide attack. Read a good history of the Okinawa invasion to understand the consequences of Japanese tactics for women and kids.

Moreover, had the war continued until the Kyushu invasion, hundreds of thousands more Japanese women and kids would have died through starvation and disease. Most in the Japanese high command were quite willing to accept such death tolls in order to keep themselves in power. ”


Invading Japan and making them surrender would be difficult and costly because Japanese had no regard for their lives.

But why would they surrender unconditionaly after two bombs?

It must be hard to be an apologist for mass murderers.

jm August 30, 2008 at 4:04 pm


As noted above , Premier Suzuki is on record as having said after the war that until the atomic bombings, they had believed that the US would not be able to win the war by bombing alone, and would be forced to invade (so that they could execute their suicide-attack based bloodbath plans), but after the bombings concluded that that would not be so.

Being at home today, I can post the full quote:
“The Supreme War Council, up to the time [that] the atomic bomb was dropped, did not believe that Japan could be beaten by air attack alone. They also believed that the United States would land and not attempt to bomb Japan out of the war. On the other hand, there were many prominent people who did believe that the United States could win the war by just bombing alone. However, the Supreme War Council, not believing that, had proceeded with the one plan of fighting a decisive battle at the landing point and was making every possible preparation to meet such a landing. They proceed[ed] with that plan until the Atomic Bomb was dropped. [Then they understood that the US] need not land when it had such a weapon; so at that point they decided to sue for peace.”

By rendering the hardliners on the Supreme War Council unable to continue arguing that a Versailles-like conditional armistice could be gotten by holding out to inflict horrific casualties on US landing forces in Kyushu, the atomic bombs opened the road to prompt surrender with far lower cost in human suffering than any plausible alternative path to that goal.

As the Japanese high command’s “Ketsu-Go” plan for a decisive battle on Kyushu was the very quintessence of “mass murder” — a plan which would have directly killed about ten times as many people as the atomic bombings (most of them Japanese), while indirectly leading to hundreds of thousands more deaths in other Japanese-occupied areas — and any alternative path to war end (e.g., blockade) also would have killed far more than the bombs, objecting to the bombings as “mass murder” makes no sense.

As Father Siemes wrote at the end of his eyewitness account of the Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath,
“We have discussed among ourselves the ethics of the use of the bomb. Some consider it in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civil population. Others were of the view that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical to me that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”

Note that as Father Siemes wrote, it was the Japanese who caused the war in the Pacific to evolve into total war. They had known since the end of 1943 that defeat was inevitable. In similar circumstances in WWI, the German high command had sued for peace. The Japanese instead embarked on a course of ever-more-total war.

Philemon August 30, 2008 at 5:28 pm

jm, listen to yourself for a moment.

You’re stepping up to justify the murder of 200,000 people.

It takes the most depraved statist logic for this to be a matter of debate.

jm August 30, 2008 at 6:06 pm


Just how do you propose that the Allies could have compelled the Japanese to surrender with any lower death toll?

Do you propose that we should have left in power, with the myths of Japanese imperial divinity and invincibility intact, the regime that had killed millions of its own people and tens of millions in other nations in its campaigns of conquest?

scineram August 30, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Why should anyone surrender? War is no win for anyone.

cicero paine August 31, 2008 at 2:14 am


I reiterate my suggestion that we all read Walker’s book. In the end any discussion which seeks to find “an” explanation for the decision to use the bomb is a meaningless exercise. Walker cogently points out that Truman and his advisers never debated not dropping the bomb, but rather how to use it most effectively. The decision was political, strategic, economic (and let’s not forget that Truman was terrified about facing the off-year election in 1946 with a war not concluded and an army full of 18 year old draftees and their voting mothers), racial, etc.

Arguing over the plans debated within the Japanese High Command for a suicidal defense of the home islands and the large Japanese standing armies in China is interesting but had little to do with the decision itself. Truman wanted to end the war as quickly as possible and the atomic bomb seemed to offer that possibility. The “million casualties” argument is a myth that emerged after the fact – it was not part of the debate over how to use the the atomic bombs themselves.

jm August 31, 2008 at 1:26 pm

cicero paine,

Although I agree in general with your post above, and consider Walker’s to be one of the best and most intellectually honest books on the topic, even Walker’s book perpetuates the untruth that statements by US leaders that they feared casualties in the hundreds of thousands were lies concocted postwar to justify their actions. This is an especially pernicious myth, and one which it is especially important to refute.

In two letters to eminent historian Barton Bernstein, Samuel Halpern, an intelligence analyst personally involved in the planning for the invasion of Japan, quite effectively refutes the claims that the low casualty estimates in the preliminary planning documents surviving in the archives accurately represented the beliefs of either the planners or government leaders. In particular he notes that when he was transferred into the planning group in May 1945, “When we were briefed on our duties, it was repeatedly stressed that the U.S. forces could exect to suffer some 500,000 casualties.” He goes on to state that, “Notwithstanding the figures one might find in declassified working documents, the figure of 500,000 American casualties was the operative one at the working level.” These letters are reproduced as photostats in Bruce Lee’s “Marching Orders”.

It is also important to note that even the archived planning documents with the low casualty estimates would soon have been superceded had the war not ended when it did, as they had been based on estimates of Japanese force size in southern Kyushu that even by August were completely out of date. Per Edward Drea’s “MacArthur’s ULTRA”, “MacArthur’s G-2 predicted that [the Kyushu garrison would expand to] a maximum of ten combat divisions by the time of the invasion,” and “[the number of aircraft faced] was expected to rise to between 2,000 and 2,500 by the time of the invasion.” But by August 7 ULTRA intercepts had revealed Japanese regular army forces on southern Kyushu as having grown to 560,000 men — triple the initial estimate. As the US invasion force was to have numbered 650,000 ground troops, based on doctrine requiring 3-to-1 superiority for success, by August it was clear that the plans would need complete revision; but at war end all such work stopped, and there were no revised plans to archive.

Postwar, it was learned that by the time of the invasion Japanese forces in southern Kyushu would have increased to 900,000.

And the above are only for southern Kyushu, which was just to be the base for the final and decisive invasion of the Kanto plain (Tokyo). So there was more than ample basis for Truman to fear more than 500,000 American casualties in all.

cicero paine September 1, 2008 at 1:40 am


Halpern’s letters are, to my mind, not the end of the debate on that issue, because they suffer from the same problem Walker notes in the post-war memoirs, that of retro-active justification. (Though, in that these come from a “middle Manager” they hold more weight than the top-tier sources Walker uses to refute the casualty stories). I will need to go back and look those over again.

I have also seen little discussion here concerning the vast gap between Japanese defense plans and their logistical capacity to sustain anything much beyond a token and short-lived resistance to the invasion.

By July 1945, serious civilian unrest was underway in Japan, overland and coastal communications were virtually non-existent, the vast armies in China could not be brought to bear on the invading Allied army, starvation was a real possibility in the fall and already a fact of life in more isolated regions of the country, industrial capacity was severely hampered by the bombing campaign (especially by the focus on transport), and the government was riven by real divisions between bitter-enders and more moderate elements (both in the military and without). A significant (and often ignored) sub-question to all of this is whether the Japanese could have sustained a prolonged defense of the home islands – the evidence suggests they could not have, despite all their plans to the contrary.

Unlike at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where time and geography worked in their favor in terms of preparing defensive networks (and which lead to the enormous Allied casualties), mainland Japan was only sketchily “dug-in,” including Kyushu, the obvious island for the first invasion. It is one thing to prepare a tiny island for an all-out defense, another thing entirely to do so on Kyushu. There was nowhere to outflank the defenders on Iwo, that was simply not the case on Kyushu.

In any case, this has (and continues to be) a fascinating conversation.

ktibuk September 1, 2008 at 4:08 am

Your nemesis and you are gunned to the teeth and fighting.

You made barracades and shoot at each other. You wounded your nemesis and he is running out of ammo but he is still holding out.

You want to end the thing but on your absolute terms. You don’t just want to make up and stop the fighting but you want to make him your slave after he gives up.

And he doesnt plan on surrendering on these terms and die fighting if he needs to.

And then you find your nemesis’ 3 year old blond daughter. One of his 3 young children. You grab her while she is crying, and bring her where her father can see her. And cut her throat while her father is watching.

And your nemesis, after he seeing what you are capable of, surrenders unconditionally.

No matter how you try to justify what you did after words, you are a cold hearted murdering son of a bitch.

And that is a fact.

jm September 1, 2008 at 2:03 pm


When arguing by analogy, one should use an analogy that accurately embodies the situation. Yours does not.

After World War I, then thought to have been the war to end all wars, the US reduced its army so drastically that it posed no offensive threat to any major power, and engaged honestly in naval disarmament and limitation treaties such that the navy also posed no threat. Because a rule of thumb at the time was that a fleet would lose 10% of its effectiveness per thousand miles distance from its home base, and the US and Great Britain needed to defend more than one ocean, the ratios agreed to in the several naval arms limitation treaties allowed Japan a fleet quite adequate for its defense. Politically, strong antiwar isolationist sentiments reigned. The US posed no military threat to Japan.

Meanwhile, Japan built an army of millions which engaged in an unending series of adventures on the continent, notably including a complete takeover of Manchuria in 1932, vicious large-scale warfare against China from 1937 onward, and a medium-scale war with the Soviet Union at Nomonhan on the Manchurian border in 1939. During the terms of the naval arms limitation agreements the Japan’s navy built up to and beyond the allowed limits (with stratagems such as temporarily mounting 6-inch guns on heavy cruisers which would violate the 10,000 ton displacement limits if fitted with the 8-inch armament for which they were designed), then withdrew from the agreements and secretly began to construct the 65,000-ton Yamato-class battleships (the treaty limit was 35,000 tons). Politically, all opposition to fanatical militarism was eliminated or rendered impotent, first by assassination of moderates, later, once the army had complete control, by laws that enabled the Kempeitai and Tokko to suppress all dissent by completely “legal” measures. In 1940 the government joined forces with Hitler and Mussolini through the Tripartite Agreement. Because under the Meiji Constitution the army and navy reported directly to the emperor, rather than to the civilian side of the government (which likewise all served at the emperor’s pleasure), and the legislatures were in practice powerless, Japan had fallen completely under the power of thugs whose rapacity and fanaticism fully matched that of Hitler and the Nazis.

Again and again throughout the war — beginning in China long before the attack on the US — the Japanese army had shown itself to be one of the most brutal and dangerous military forces ever to besmirch the planet, causing directly or indirectly by its actions the deaths of over ten million people, most civilians.

Moreover, though by the summer of 1945 the Japanese military had known ultimate defeat to be inevitable for more than a year, not only ULTRA decrypts but also the so-called “peace feelers” messages themselves made clear that they were willing to send millions of men, women and children to their deaths to preserve the imperial political power codified in the Meiji Constitution, and through that their near-absolute power. Indeed, even after the atomic bombings and the Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese attempted to qualify their acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration with “the understanding that this comprises no demand that would prejudice His Majesty’s prerogatives as a sovereign ruler”.

For the US government to have ended the war on any basis leaving intact any governmental structure that might allow such a military to rise again would have been a travesty.

Alas, the character of the Japanese high command was such that the only way to compel surrender on a basis not leaving that governmental structure intact was either to credibly threaten to invade and totally subjugate the country by land warfare, to credibly threaten to annihilate by blockade (starvation) or bombing the population on which that structure was based, or to cause such discontent among that population by blockade or bombing that it would revolt and obliterate the structure of its own accord.

Because any of the above would quite obviously result in horrific death tolls among Japanese women and kids (for some odd reason apparently considered by most people more deserving of sympathy than male draftees), there is no reason to think that Truman believed any alternative path to forcing surrender would have a lower human cost even for the Japanese. There are many reasons to think he believed that the more quickly he could end the war, the lower the costs would be in every dimension, including that of the death toll among Japanese women and kids.

I have yet to see any credible analysis indicating that any other path to an acceptable Japanese surrender would have had a lower human cost.

ktibuk September 1, 2008 at 3:42 pm


Did I talk about who started the feud or who was more responsible for the start of the whole thing in my analogy?


And in the case of Japan and the US, both sides were responsible since both sides were imperialistic.

And you will have to work a little harder to dehumanize the Japanese to ease your concious of apolagizing for mass murderers.

And I am asking the same question again.

If the Japanese expected millions of casualties just to suck the US in for an invasion, if they had no regard for their lives, how the hell mudering a couple of hundred thousand of them force them to surrender?

According to your depiction of the Japanese, the bombs should have made them more resolute.

jm September 1, 2008 at 10:24 pm

cicero paine,

Your remarks regarding the Halpern letters are quite appropriately calibrated. The first duty of a historian is to be skeptical.

The first duty of a scientist is, after forming a hypothesis, to perform the experiment most likely to disprove that hypothesis if it’s wrong.

There’s a close relationship between those concepts. I believe them very important, and see every sign that that you do, too.

Of the individual points that you raised in the three paragraphs following your remarks about the Halpern letters and the casualty predition issue, the only ones with which I feel skepticism requires me to take issue are those of the third, and there only regarding Kyushu. Although I’ve yet to visit southern Kyushu (I intend to do so within the next few years, exactly to view the terrain), I’ve examined it and compared it with Okinawa using Google maps and Google Earth, taking care to use the same scale, and see no reason to believe that the Japanese high command would have given up its hope of killing a significant fraction of the US invasion force. And I see more than a few reasons to believe that they might even have managed to do that.

If you compare satellite views of southern Okinawa and southern Kyushu, keeping in mind that there would have been about nine times as many regular army defenders on Kyushu, you’ll see that although on a regular map Kyushu seems to offer plenty of room to maneuver, in fact it is almost entirely rugged mountains, with only a few small, mutually-isolated areas of flat terrain, each individually not much bigger than the area fought over on Okinawa. Moreover, since there are only a few beaches across which landings could be, and a force of the size required would need to use them all, there was no question about where the Japanese needed to position their defenses.

Since the Japanese knew exactly where the landings would have come, had readied several times more suicide planes than they’d launched against us at Okinawa, had dispersed them among numerous small airstrips with much shorter flight times to target, and intended to concentrate them against troop transports rather than warships, the kamikazes might have killed many of our troops while they were still offshore. The machine guns and 40-mm Bofors guns on the troop transports had been found relatively ineffective against kamikazes, which could be reliably brought down only by 5-inch guns or fighter planes, whose numbers would have been overwhelmed by the planned massed attacks. And as you probably know, the kamikazes were to be supplemented by other “special attack” forces such as the suicide speedboats, midget submarines, human-guided torpedos, and “crouching dragon” frogmen, together also numbering in the thousands.

Despite their success in bleeding US forces slowly through attrition tactics on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, on Kyushu the plan seems to have been to go all-out to repel the first wave of landings at water’s edge. But there was provision for resistance in depth, too, and the forested and mountainous terrain so closely surrounding all the areas in which US needed to build airfields was ideally suited to the kind of last-ditch dug-in defense at which the Japanese excelled.

Although the Japanese high command knew that employing these tactics meant they’d have no hope of withstanding a second landing attempt, they believed they could inflict great losses on the first.

Here a skeptical person would ask whether they really thought that after they’d so obviously exhausted their resources repelling the first landing thae US would decide, “We can’t go on with this, let’s let them have their Versailles-like armistice and keep their ‘national structure’”.

Although on the one hand that’s the simplest interpretation of the various statements we find in the historical record by members of the Japanese high command, and so by Occam’s razor criteria perhaps the one I usually think best, there are others.

Another particularly intriguing possibility is that the real intent was to exploit discord and distrust between the US/UK and Soviet Union by setting up a situation in which the Kyushu campaign could be successful only on the second try or only after lengthy preparation, such that the US and UK would be left watching Soviet forces advance south through Manchuria, threatening to completely take over that area and perhaps even Japan itself, if we did not offer terms that would leave their “national structure” intact.

I write this because I find the long Sato-Togo message exchange that constitutes the so-called “peace feelers through the Soviet Union” to be nearly surreal if taken at face value, especially when it is read with knowledge of the Hirota-Malik talks reported in MAGIC SRS-1717, in which Hirota proposed something very near a military alliance between the USSR and Japan, and the statements of Togo in his memoir (mistitled) “The Cause of Japan” that he thought it was far too late for Japan to try to horse-trade with the Soviets. This message exchange, published in “Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), Conference of Berlin 1945″, vol. 1, 872-883; vol. 2, 1248-1269 and 1291-1298 and now accessible on the internet, began on July 11.

In his very first reply on July 12 to Tokyo’s proposals to send ex-Premier Prince Konoye as a special envoy from the emperor to discuss Soviet-Japanese relations and use the Soviets to terminate the war, Ambassador Sato in Moscow responds “I believe it no exaggeration to say that the possibility of getting the Soviet Union to join our side and go along with our reasoning is next to nothing.” The next morning, Sato writes, “[If] the Soviets agree but the duties of the special envoy are in [per] your telegram No. 890, where the purpose was to sound out the limits to which the Soviets may be utilized in terminating the war, or [if] his duties go no further than abstract explanations as indicated in your telegram No. 891, they will simply not consider it.” He follows in the next paragraph with “… they may not find the appointed task of the mission clear … it may become necessary to give a preliminary explanation of the gist of the special envoy’s mission in the event that the Soviets request it. At any rate, I would appreciate your answer by telegram.” But Togo sends no such reply.

The message exchange then continues through July 30 like a fugue with this theme appearing repeatedly in slightly different forms — Sato telling Togo there’s no way the Soviets will meet with Konoye unless they see a concrete agenda up front, and Togo sending no such thing, while continuing to insist that Sato convince the Soviets to receive Konoye. Another repeating theme in the fugue is statements by Togo such as “… it is impossible to accept unconditional surrender under any circumstances …”. Before I had read Togo’s memoir, his repeated failure to respond to Sato’s requests seemed only very strange; after I read it and learned that he had always believed deals struck at Cairo and Yalta would preclude any hope of help from the Soviets, his failure to respond lost its strangeness, but it has become nearly impossible for me to view the message exchange as anything but an elaborate charade. But why and for whom was it being played out?

Readers unfamiliar with the war’s detailed history need to know that in the four months before this message exchange began, the US had abandoned precision bombing over Japan as futile and gone over to mass incendiary attacks, burning out the cores of Japan’s six largest cities and 27 others of the 100,000+ population — and that in the weeks it was in progress torched 21 more cities in the 50,000-100,000 range. Although death rates after the initial Tokyo raid were much lower because the populace had learned to flee at once (not attempting to fight the fires as the authorities had irresponsibly trained them to), nearly half the urban populace had been rendered homeless and destitute.

Could this have been any surprise to the Japanese government? No, they’d been receiving detailed reports for Europe throughout the war, and had no excuse not to expect that incendiary bombing would eventually begin.

But what was the Japanese government doing while this went on? On the surface, at least, only planning a battle in southern Kyushu that would take the lives of another two million or more of its subjects while rendering itself unable to sustain any further resistance.

Were they really that insane? Or were they hoping — as some of the German high command had hoped — that once the Soviets entered the war and began taking over too much Japanese territory for US/UK comfort, we’d cut a deal that would preserve their near-absolute power over their nation? Having spent some time in the company of fairly high-ranking Japanese businessmen, I’m prepared to think them Japan’s war leaders ruthless, but not mad.

As I noted far above, an important factor of which few are aware is that neither the Japanese nor the Soviets expected the Soviet invasion of Manchuria to be so quickly successful, and the Japanese expected it to begin months later. So because they expected it to take months after that for the Soviets to reach southern Manchuria, it follows that they expected the Soviets to still be advancing southwards as US forces were landing in Kyushu.

Although Premier Suzuki said only that the atomic bombings convinced members of the high command that the US would conclude it did not need to invade, it seems logical that they would also have recognized that possession of nuclear weapons would also give the US such power in its relationship with the Soviet Union that any blackmail strategy they might have had would be doomed to failure.

Of course, it’s also possible that some in the high command simply had no qualms about sending more millions to their deaths by holding out in hope of repelling the Kyushu landings, and figured even if that was a long shot, they might as well try it before surrendering. It’s moot whether they would have been able to, as their subjects were getting restless, and some members of the ruling elite (Konoye, Yonai, parts of the civil bureaucracy, and apparently Hirohito himself) feared an uprising; but as indicated by Yonai’s well-known comment recorded by Vice Admiral Takagi about the atomic bombs having been a gift from heaven because they made it possible to surrender without mentioning the “domestic situation”, in which he also remarked that the Naval General Staff (by which he surely meant Chief of Staff Toyoda) did not understand the situation, not even all members of the Supreme War Council shared that concern. Yonai’s reference to the bombs as gifts from heaven strongly implies that he thought it would have been extremely difficult to bring the military to surrender on the basis of fears about the domestic situation.

In any case, I see no reason to think that Truman or Byrnes believed any other path to an acceptable peace would have a lower human cost than the one they chose. I think they had every reason to believe that the more quickly they could end it, the fewer people — especially American troops but also Allied civilian and military POWs, Australian troops, Chinese, Indonesians, Russians … even Japanese — would die.

jm September 1, 2008 at 10:45 pm


The Japanese militarists surrendered because they realized that no matter how many of their subjugated underlings they compelled the US to kill, the US would not allow the war to end under conditions that would allow them to preserve the status of the emperor under the Meiji Constitution (the keystone of their rapacious police state) and prevent the introduction of some semblance of democracy.

Once that was clear, they moved to cut their losses.

If you believe that “American Imperialism”, even as practiced by the current administration — which in its behavior and the character of its members is all too similar to the Hirohito/Tojo regime — is comparable to that practiced by Japan between 1930 and 1945, you clearly are ignorant of history. Differences of degree matter.

jm September 2, 2008 at 12:37 am

Some Google Maps URLs for anyone interested in comparing terrain in the areas to be fought over in southern Kyushu to that in the battle area of Okinawa.

The Wikipedia article on the invasion is generally good and contains a useful map with English-language labels which can be used to locate areas on the Google maps, whose labels are in Japanese.

A good article without maps is at

Terrain views. all at same scale:
Southern Okinawa

Ariake Bay




Landing Beaches from which Marines were supposed to drive east to Kagoshima

Southen coast landing area

Southern Adirondacks at same scale, for comparison

Military map of Kyushu landing assignments from MacArthur report

jm September 2, 2008 at 12:39 am
jm September 2, 2008 at 12:49 am
souccar February 13, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I don’t like thinking of humans killed by bomb.
But I Think President Truman was smart to drop the FIRST bomb.
was the second necessary???
sincerely from France

jm February 18, 2009 at 1:35 am


Accounts of the deliberations of Japan’s “Supreme Council for the Direction of the War”, which was truly the supreme power in the nation at the time, composed of Premier Suzuki, War (Army) Minister General Anami, Army Chief of Staff General Umezu, Navy Minister Admiral Yonai, Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Toyoda, and Foreign Minister Togo, indicate that the reaction to the Hiroshima bombing was that the US couldn’t have but one bomb. (The Japanese had their own nuclear research program, and knew the difficulty of separating fissionable U-235 from uranium’s other isotopes.) General Anami in particular was of that opinion.

But after the second bomb, Anami made an about-face and uttered a famous (and strange) statement to the effect that the US might have hundreds.

Although no one can say for certain that the second bomb was “necessary”, the belief of the US high command was that if only one were dropped, the Japanese would be likely to think we had only one, and the documented Japanese reaction supports the validity of that belief.

Strictly speaking, neither of the bombs was “necessary”. But any alternative way of bringing the Japanese to surrender on acceptable terms would almost certainly have resulted in at least several times more Japanese deaths from battle, illness and starvation, and would also have greatly increased the death toll among non-combatants (and of course combatants, too) in China, Indonesia, and Southeast Asian areas occupied by the Japanese.

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