The Decision that ended World War II
I was prompted to post this article I wrote several years ago in response to the question by movie critic Sasha Stone, “do you think the atomic bomb was necessary.” This article, which appeared in WWII History magazine, answers that question,
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The most controversial decision of the Twentieth Century – perhaps in all history – was the one reportedly made by President Harry Truman, the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States military in 1945, to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. No other event has affected mankind so dramatically, and no other decision is as controversial. To the young soldiers and Marines who were in training or moving to the Pacific when “the bomb” was dropped there was no question – they survived the war because Harry Truman “had the guts” to drop it. This belief was burned into their young minds when they heard the news and most never bothered to question whether or not it was founded on fact. In recent years their sons have sought to reinforce the belief of their fathers, once again without taking a serious look at the facts surrounding the decision to drop the bomb and the events leading up to it. Yet, in reality, Truman never made such a decision, and it was the one made by Emperor Hirohito of Japan that actually spared their lives.
But even while millions of Americans continue to believe the atomic bomb ended World War II, many, including some in high positions in government and the military at the time, have long believed it was unnecessary. ALL of the Pacific senior commanders – MacArthur, Nimitz, Halsey, Kenney – said later that it was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender without an invasion. Major General Curtis Lemay, the architect of the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, said that if the US had lost the war, they’d have all been put on trial as war criminals. Previously classified documents released to the National Archives in recent years seem to support their position that the end was already drawing near for the Japanese, and that the decision to use atomic weapons was motivated more by postwar concerns than preventing an amphibious invasion of Japan. Furthermore, principals such as General Leslie Groves, the man in charge of the nuclear project, have revealed that there never really was a “decision” as such to drop the bomb by President Truman, but that he simply allowed plans that were already in motion before he was thrust into office to continue. In essence, the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was made long before Truman even had an inkling of their imminent existence.
American research into the possibility of creating powerful weapons using nuclear fission actually predated the outbreak of World War II by several weeks. In July 1939 three European scientists met with physicist Albert Einstein and persuaded him to write a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt advising that a nuclear bomb might be under development in Germany. Einstein’s letter is dated August 2, 1939, several weeks before Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland. British scientists were already working on such a weapon and the United States began a similar, though generally unsuccessful, effort in response to the Einstein letter. In 1941 a group of American scientists visited England, where considerable nuclear research work was being done. Prior to the visit, no American scientist believed that nuclear fission would be of critical importance to the war, but the British work so impressed the visitors that in December they recommended a full-scale nuclear project in the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a research program which expanded under the code name of the MANHATTAN Engineering Project and British nuclear experts came to the United States to work with their American counterparts in research toward the development of a nuclear weapon.
In September 1942 the War Department assumed control of the project and Colonel Leslie R. Groves of the Corps of Engineers was appointed project head. Groves’ previous assignment was head of the team responsible for construction of the Pentagon. On December 2, 1942, Dr. Enrique Fermi, an Italian-born physicist working at the University of Chicago, achieved “fission,” the first controlled release of nuclear energy. Fermi’s successful experiment proved that it was indeed possible to develop a fission weapon and ushered the world into the atomic age. The Army constructed two facilities, one at Los Alamos, New Mexico and the other at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to research and build the weapons. The next step was to develop a means of maintaining the material in an inert state until the desired detonation point. MANHATTAN scientists solved the problem by dividing nuclear material into two masses, then firing one into the other to achieve an explosion. Another method was to place the nuclear material between two masses of conventional explosives. The shock waves of their detonation would cause the plutonium to collapse, then expand in a powerful explosion. The first method was used for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima while the second was the mechanism for the first nuclear detonation at the Trinity site in New Mexico and in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The nuclear secret was so closely held that President Roosevelt did not even inform his vice-presidents of it (Truman didn’t take office until January 1945).
For any weapon to be effective, it has to be delivered onto a target. In 1943 the only suitable delivery vehicle was the B-29 Superfortress, a large four-engine bomber that was under development by Boeing at the same time as the bomb itself. Originally conceived in 1940, the B-29 had been planned for extremely long-range strategic bombing missions against Germany from bases in North Africa and the Northern British Isles. The program was plagued with birthing problems, but planning for a special combat unit to deliver the new weapons began even before the first Superfortress entered operational service. To command the new unit, which would later be designated the 509th Composite Group, Army Air Forces commander General Henry H. Arnold selected Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr, a veteran bomber pilot from Columbus, Ohio who had seen combat in Europe and North Africa. Lt. Colonel Thomas J. Classen, a Pacific veteran, was selected as his deputy. Tibbets picked most of his staff officers from members of his former group, while others were picked because they had special qualifications that made them particularly useful.
Only Tibbets himself was privy to the nuclear secret – the other members of the group knew only that when they went into combat, it would be to drop a special kind of bomb. They came to refer to the weapon they knew nothing about as “the gimmick.” Tibbets was in complete charge of organizing and staffing his new unit and with selecting the training base. He chose Wendover Field, a remote base in the Utah desert that had previously been used to train aerial gunners. Wendover’s remoteness was a major factor in Tibbets’ choice – he thought it would enhance security. Tibbets selected the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, a B-29 squadron then in training at Fairmount, Nebraska to be the combat element of his new command. By the end of December 1944, the men of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron had completed their training and were ready for combat. The question was – where?
Traditional atomic bomb lore records that the MANHATTAN PROJECT was originally begun with the intent of using the weapon against Nazi Germany. Apparently, this is what the scientists who were working on the project, many of whom were Jews who had fled Europe, were led to believe. In January 1945 the War Department revealed that Hitler’s Germany was nowhere close to developing a fission bomb of their own, and that the country was on the verge of defeat. By this time, some of the scientists involved in the project had begun to have second thoughts about the wisdom of using fission weapons. They had come to realize the awesome power of the new weapons, and possible implications to a future world. Several MANHATTAN scientists signed a letter expressing their opposition to continuing development of the bomb since it was not needed to defeat the Germans.
In reality, the bomb was never intended for use against Germany in the first place. The Military Policy Committee, a high level group – including Leslie Groves, who had been promoted to major general – that was set up to determine how best to use fission weapons decided as early as May 5, 1943, that the proper target for such an awesome weapon would be Japanese. One possibility was the massive supply base at Truk from which Japanese military operations in the Southwest Pacific were supplied. According to minutes of the May meeting, the Japanese were selected to be the recipients of the bomb because they “were less likely to secure knowledge from it as the Germans”!(!!!!!!!) The decision to use the bomb against Japan was already made long before the bomb was close to reality, and more than a year before Tibbetts took charge of organizing a combat unit to drop it.
Japan, or Japanese forces, was undoubtedly chosen to be the target for the bomb because of Allied policy regarding the Pacific War. In December 1941, only a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided on a “Germany first” policy. Under the policy, the full focus of the Allied war machine would be directed toward defeating the Nazis, who were considered a more serious threat than Japan, while maintaining a holding action in the Pacific. Once Germany was defeated, the full power of the Allies would be redirected against Japan. The timetable agreed on by senior Allied officials called for Japan not to be defeated until 1947 at the earliest. As it turned out, their estimates were grossly conservative. At the time of the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, the Allies had made only scant progress toward driving the Japanese northward. The battle for Guadalcanal had just ended and Japanese forces still controlled Lae in Papua, New Guinea and most of the Solomons, while the U.S. Navy was attempting to recover from its carrier losses at Coral Sea and Midway. The use of such a powerful weapon against Japanese installations in the Pacific was seen as a means of holding the line and perhaps advancing it forward. Considering the military situation at the time, the possibility of a powerful new weapon for use against Japanese forces seemed like a godsend. Then the White House came out with a new policy that made the possibility of such a weapon even more attractive.
In January 1943 President Roosevelt revealed a new policy to the press after the Casablanca Conference. Roosevelt’s new policy was “unconditional surrender,” a term that did not appear in the communiqué of the conference, and which both Roosevelt and Churchill later denied was premeditated. The term was quickly picked up on by the media and soon became a political byword, even though the implication was opposed by many Allied military leaders. They believed that depriving the Axis nations of the opportunity to negotiate a surrender or truce would prolong the war and cause needless casualties. In fact, that was exactly the result. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson would later say so. In essence, the policy of unconditional surrender left no latitude for any of the Axis nations to negotiate peace terms. It called for complete and total war, with total military defeat of each of the Axis nations. Apparently, Roosevelt conceived the concept, then Churchill grudgingly accepted it after the American president made the idea public.
The third member of the so-called “Grand Alliance” was Soviet Union President Joseph Stalin, a ruthless totalitarian dictator who basically could have cared less what Churchill and Roosevelt thought about anything. (President Chaing ki Shek of China was the fourth major Allied leader, but his status was more a courtesy than anything else. Chaing wasn’t invited to most of the conferences and was usually kept in the dark about plans and policies made by “The Big Three.”) In many respects, Stalin was as bad and perhaps even worse than Hitler and he had grand designs on Europe, if not the entire world.
Although the world remembers the Nazi invasion of Poland that started World War II, we forget that Stalin’s Soviet troops came into the country from the east, and set up an occupational force that was even more brutal than that of the Germans. Soviet troops rounded up Polish leaders and military officers, then took them into the Katyn Forest and shot them. Stalin switched his alliance – but not his allegiance – to the Allies only after Hitler broke his word and launched an invasion of the Ukraine out of Poland in the summer of 1941. When the Germans occupied Eastern Poland, they discovered mass graves in the Katyn Forest that turned out to hold the remains of more than 4,000 Polish officers; each had died from a single shot in the head. When the Germans revealed the news to the world, President Roosevelt, who knew the truth, lied to the American public and blamed the atrocity on the Nazis to protect Stalin. In the late summer of 1944 Stalin showed his true colors and revealed his designs for Europe. When the Polish Resistance rose against the Germans, he halted Soviet forces outside of Warsaw and allowed them to be slaughtered. Stalin let the Germans do what he would have done himself once Soviet forces had occupied the area. He was a ruthless and wicked ruler, and many of the Allied politicians and military commanders began to realize it – and to those who were aware of the nuclear secret, nuclear power was seen as a means of keeping Stalin and the Soviet communists in check in the postwar world.
Although MANHATTAN was carried out under the utmost secrecy, Stalin was aware of the project almost from the beginning. Among the scientists working on the bomb were some with communist leanings, and nuclear secrets were being smuggled through Red agents to Moscow, where Soviet scientists were working on their own nuclear fission bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the project, was a leftist who associated with known Communists. His wife and former girlfriend were Communists. He would later say that although he wasn’t a Communist himself, he was a fellow traveler. President Roosevelt thought the Soviets were in the dark concerning the development of the atomic bomb, but they knew every detail of the project as it developed. It is likely that Stalin also was well aware that American grand design called for the use of nuclear weapons to defend against Soviet aggression after the war.
As the world entered 1945, it was obvious that the Allies were winning the war on all fronts. Although the Germans had launched a major counteroffensive against green American troops in the Ardennes Forest in December, their advance literally ran out of fuel and the Allies were able to return to the offensive. Soviet troops were advancing toward Berlin from the east and it was obvious that Hitler’s Third Reich was on its last legs. There was also good news in the Pacific. Although the original Churchill-Roosevelt plan (Stalin and the Soviets were neutral in the war with Japan) had been to hold the line in the Pacific, Allied forces fighting on a shoestring had managed to defeat the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific and were advancing northward toward Japan. American troops had landed on Luzon in the Philippines after first landing at Leyte. While land and air forces under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur had been advancing northward through New Guinea toward the Philippines, Marines and soldiers serving under US Navy command advanced through the Solomon Islands. By the end of 1943, the United States Navy was rebuilding from its early losses to become a major force. The massive Japanese depot at Truk came under air attack from carrier and land-based aircraft in early 1944 and was soon neutralized, thus eliminating it from the list of possible nuclear targets. And Japan had fallen under constant air attack.
Air attacks on Japan had actually begun in the spring of 1944 after a force of B-29s known as MATTERHORN was established in India. The first missions against the Japanese home islands were flown in June, with the B-29s staging from forward airfields in China. Logistical problems severely hampered bombing operations – every bomb, every bullet, every bean and every drop of gasoline for the huge bombers had to be airlifted across the Himalayan Hump from India. Several B-29s were converted to tankers to airlift fuel to the forward bases, supplementing modified C-109 Liberator tankers that had been sent to India to support the B-29s. The logistical problems drove the cost of each bombing mission to astronomical proportions, not to mention that the buildup for each strike reduced the overall effectiveness of the bombing campaign.
Even before MATTERHORN left for China, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington saw another avenue for a bombing campaign against Japan. In March they ordered Admiral Chester Nimitz, the CINC of the Pacific Ocean Area, to capture the Mariana Islands, which were mandated to Japan, and to begin immediate construction of airfields suitable for B-29 operations. Nimitz’ forces landed on Saipan in June. In August, the first B-29s arrived. Initially, the Marianas-based Superfortresses struck targets in the Pacific – including Truk, which had been bypassed as the Allies moved north. In November XXI Bomber Command struck Tokyo on the first mission against Japan from the Marinas, inaugurating a bomber offensive that would continue to the end of the war. But perhaps even more important was the effect the American victory in the Marianas had on the Japanese – it led to a complete reorganization of the Japanese government and the rising prominence of a peace party.
The concept of “strategic” bombing dates to the 1920s when Italian airman Emilio Douhet published his theories on the use of bombers to demoralize nations by pouring a rain of explosives into their population centers. Douhet’s theory held that bombing of an enemy’s cities, thus bringing war home to the civilian population, could force a government into capitulation. The United States Army Air Corps did not accept the theory, and its leaders – including Carl Spaatz, who would command US air forces in Europe then briefly in the Pacific – advocated “precision” bombing of picked targets with specific military value. They believed that deliberately targeting civilians violated the rules of civilized war. Spaatz and Ira Eaker, the commander of Eighth Air Force VIII Bomber Command, steadfastly refused to sign on to the British plan of pulverizing German city centers in an effort to force Germany to surrender. When B-29 missions commenced against Japan, they were also initially conducted as precision bombing missions, and were flown in daylight. The primary objective of the daylight bombing campaign was the Japanese steel industry, a commodity essential for the manufacture of military equipment. But the precision bombing campaign against Japan failed, in part due to extremely high winds at altitude, the phenomena which came to be known as the Jet Stream, leading to the removal of General Haywood “Possum” Hansel from command of the B-29 force in the Central Pacific.
Arnold replaced Hansel with Major General Curtis LeMay, an aggressive young officer who had commanded a B-17 group in Europe, and who had been involved with the B-29 program almost from its inception. Even before MATTERHORN deployed to India, LeMay, along with Lt. General George C. Kenney, who had long experience with heavy bomber operations in the Pacific, advocated the use of the B-29s at night. Some of the missions from China had been conducted at night, but XXI Bomber Command missions had been exclusively by day. LeMay did not share the beliefs of some of his superiors regarding deliberately bombing civilians, at least not completely. He came to believe that bombing of city centers would be the most effective means of defeating Japan, and he justified the concept by advocating that civilians involved in war production were legitimate targets. LeMay’s philosophy was essentially the same as that the British Bomber Command officers used to justify the “area bombing” of German cities. More ever, the general American attitude toward the Japanese – many considered them subhuman “vermin” who should be exterminated – possibly played a role in LeMay’s thinking.
When he was ordered to mount a series of raids against Japan in preparation for the landings on Okinawa, LeMay elected to send his crews in at comparatively low altitude (10,000 feet) at night with loads of incendiary bombs aimed at Japanese urban areas. Japanese construction methods had made no allowance for the possibility of aerial attack and the materials used were highly flammable. LeMay borrowed tactics used by Royal Air Force Bomber Command, sending the B-29s over their targets one at a time to drop their loads on fires started by specially trained Pathfinder crews, who went over the target in advance of the main force. The night “firebombing” raid on Tokyo succeeded beyond expectations; the fires started by the bombs turned into raging conflagrations that became literal firestorms. The target was a twelve square-mile area of Tokyo adjacent to the city’s most important industrial section, but the real objective was the destruction of the thousands of bamboo and paper Japanese homes and businesses bordering the area. US intelligence officers believed the Japanese had dispersed their industry into homes in a form of cottage industry. Reconnaissance photographs taken after the raid revealed that almost sixteen square-miles of the city were completely burned out. Official Japanese tallies revealed that 83,793 Tokyo residents died in the fires, while another 40,918 suffered injury. Some victims were literally boiled to death in shallow canals as they were turned into rolling cauldrons by the heat of the flames. More than a million – 1,008,005 to be exact – were reported homeless after the raid. The Japanese people were horrified beyond belief, and the national morale began to plummet. And it was just the beginning.
In early April, Pacific Ocean Area of Operations forces under Nimitz invaded Okinawa in preparation for invading Japan. Thanks at least in part to the lack of complete Allied air superiority – Okinawa was beyond the range of land-based fighters, the nearest of which were in the Philippines, leaving carrier planes to defend the invasion fleet – the Navy suffered from attacks by Japanese kamikazes. Kamikazes had made their appearance during the invasion of the Philippines and their success led the Japanese navy to create a corps of young men who were willing to deliberately sacrifice their lives for their country. In reality, the effect of the kamikazes was exaggerated – had the Japanese not lost so many experienced pilots over the course of the war, the results would have been the same. A bomb is a bomb is a bomb, whether it is delivered by a skilled pilot who drops his bombs then flies away to strike again, or an inexperienced one who is willing to sacrifice his life to overcome his lack of skill to strike a target. The crucial issue is putting the bomb on the target. Nevertheless, Allied ships were receiving battle damage, and some were being sunk after sustaining kamikaze strikes as well as hits from bombs dropped by pilots who flew away to strike again.
The Battle for Okinawa also saw tremendous casualties on shore, especially on the part of the young Marines who spearheaded the invading forces. But most of the casualties on Okinawa came after the Americans had landed and were largely the result of frontal assaults on Japanese positions after the Japanese retreated into the southernmost portion of the island and set up for a last stand. Several Allied commanders – including Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur – believed the casualties were the result of poor command decisions that led to needless sacrifice of young Marines and soldiers. Heavy casualties were also suffered during the battle for Iwo Jima, a small atoll in the Bonins between the Marianas and the Japanese home islands that the Joint Chiefs elected to seize for a base for long-range fighters and emergency use by damaged B-29s returning from Japan. The combined Marine casualties for Iwo Jima and Okinawa accounted for almost half of the total combat deaths suffered by the Marine Corps in the entire war. The Marine Corps also suffered tremendous casualties at Peleliu, a small atoll defended by 10,000 Japanese who, in spite of a tremendous pre-invasion air and sea bombardment, inflicted more than 6,000 casualties among the invading force. About a third were killed, died of wounds or were MIA. Such casualties invoked fear in the hearts of the soldiers and Marines who were slated for the invasion of Japan, as the young Americans accepted the belief that the Japanese would fight to the death. Unknown to most Americans however, many Japanese were eager to end the costly war.
Throughout the war, Japan and the Soviet Union had maintained a state of neutrality. Although the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States were allies in the struggle against Nazi Germany, Moscow maintained a neutral position in the war with Japan. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Japan elected to stay out of the war. Similarly, when the United States asked Moscow for air bases in the Soviet Far East from whence to bomb Japan, the Soviets refused the request, fearing that such an action would bring them into the Pacific War at a time when they were heavily engaged against the Germans. As it became apparent to the Japanese Diet that they would lose the war, Japan began sending peace offers to the United States by way of Moscow. Stalin, who had his own reasons for prolonging the war, elected not to pass the surrender offers on to Washington. Nevertheless, the United States was aware of the offers due to interceptions of the messages and the breaking of the Japanese diplomatic code. The Japanese were also sending messages to Washington through the Swiss embassy.
On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt succumbed to polio, and newly elected Vice President Harry S. Truman assumed the office. The former congressman from Missouri had only been in office for a little over two months, and he knew practically nothing about Roosevelt’s foreign policies. Roosevelt had not even informed him of the existence of the MANHATTAN PROJECT, much less how he intended to use it. He ran a men’s clothing store before he entered politics. As a member of the Missouri National Guard, Truman had served as a captain of artillery in World War I and had risen to the rank of colonel after the war. He viewed the professional military with disdain and believed that he knew as much or more about military strategy and tactics as the West Pointers who were running the war.
Truman correspondence regarding the use of the bomb was classified for a period of 50 years and was only declassified in 1995. Truman apologists claimed for decades that the president refused to discuss surrender with the Japanese because the intercepted messages indicated that they were not unconditional – they wanted the emperor to remain on the throne. Such, however, was not really the case. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson wrote in his autobiography that “History might find that the United States, in its delay in stating its position on unconditional surrender terms, had prolonged the war.” Stimson did not state that the delay was due to the desire to demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb to the world, particularly the Soviets, even though he well knew that was the reason.
General Leslie R. Groves, the MANHATTAN Project commander, would say “there was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and the project was conducted on that basis.” Groves took charge of MANHATTAN in 1942. In late 1944 Secretary of War Stimson stated that “troubles with Russia were connected to the future of the atomic bomb.” Arthur Compton, one of the driving forces behind the bomb’s development, wrote to Stimson in response to criticism of the project from other scientists in early 1945 – “If the bomb were not used in the present war, the world would have no adequate warning as to what to expect if war should break out again.” Comments such as these leave little doubt that the primary goal behind the development of the atomic bomb was to put the United States in a prominent position in the postwar world, and that it was imperative for it to be used before hostilities ended to demonstrate its power.
Leslie Groves also wrote that there never really was a “decision” to use or not to use the bomb, but that its use was merely the continuation of a process that had already been set in motion. As it became apparent that the war was drawing to an end, the Administration developed an attitude that as soon as the bomb had proven workable, it would be dropped on a Japanese target at the earliest possible opportunity. After the Allied victory in Europe, Air Corps General Carl Spaatz was sent to the Pacific to take command of the strategic bombing campaign against Japan. On the way, he stopped in the United States for briefings and a short leave. During his time in Washington, he was informed of the impending availability of the bomb and that as soon as it was available, he was to use it. Spaatz, who had opposed American involvement in “terror bombing” in Europe, informed Generals Arnold and Marshall that before he would use such a terrible weapon, he must have a written order instructing him to do so.
Remarkably, barely three weeks passed between the detonation of the Trinity weapon in New Mexico on July 16 and the appearance of the mushroom cloud in the skies over Hiroshima on August 6. There was no military urgency for such a quick use. The Battle of Okinawa had ended almost two months before, the Philippines Campaign had de-escalated to mopping up after Manila came into Allied hands in March, and the planned date for the invasion of Japan was still almost three months in the future. Germany had surrendered and the Pacific War had settled into a sort of lull while Allied forces built up for the planned invasion of Kyushu. In short, there was no justifiable reason for rushing the atomic bomb to use – unless it was out of fear that Japan would surrender before it was used.
As it was, the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima did not end the war. Nor did the second bomb, which was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, on August 9. Only silence emitted from Japan in response. Casualties from the two bombs were astronomical – more than 70,000 dead and missing at Hiroshima and just over 24,000 at Nagasaki – but no worse than those caused by the firebombing attacks on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Although the morale in the two cities where the bombs were dropped was ruined, elsewhere in Japan – which had been subjected to firebombing attack – the detonations had little effect. This was perhaps due to the considerable distances between the two atomic bomb targets and Tokyo.
Meanwhile, the Japanese leaders were engaged in intense discussions among themselves. Emperor Hirohito had wanted to end the war for several months, and his desires were well known among the Japanese military and civilian leaders. The Japanese government had undergone a major shakeup in July 1944 when Premier Hideki Tojo, the army commander and chief architect of the war, had been forced to resign after Saipan fell to the Allies. Since that time there had been a rising peace movement within the Japanese government, but the military refused to consider any surrender terms that removed the emperor from his throne. Hirohito himself was willing to accept the Potsdam demands of July 26 (almost two weeks before Hiroshima) but the army, which was the only substantial military force Japan had left, wanted to fight on since the Allies had not indicated that they were willing to allow the emperor to remain on the throne. Finally, two days after the detonation of the bomb over Nagasaki, the United States – which was out of atomic bombs and wouldn’t have another until after the planned invasion – sent a message to Tokyo that if the Japanese would accept the surrender terms as expressed at Potsdam, the emperor would be allowed to retain his throne after all. This gave the Japanese militarists an out. Admiral Kantaro Suzuki asked Emperor Hirohito to decide the issue in an Imperial Conference, a heretofore unprecedented act as the emperor’s traditional role was to approve or disapprove plans put forth by military and civilian leaders, but not to advocate decisions himself. Hirohito decided to accept the Allies terms, and so informed the Japanese public in his first-ever radio address to the nation. In the end, it was Hirohito, not Harry Truman, who made the decision that ended the war and avoided an invasion.
When news of the Japanese surrender reached the world, Americans automatically assumed it was due to the detonation of the atomic bombs. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who were making preparations for an invasion believed that the atomic bomb had spared their lives. In that they were not privy to the information available at the highest levels of government, they had no idea that the Japanese had attempted to convey their wishes to surrender several months before the detonation of the bomb. On the other hand, many of their military leaders, particularly those closest to the fight against Japan, believed the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender without it.
Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey entered Japan and began a systematic survey of the Japanese cities that had been the targets. The survey concluded that even without the two bombs “air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion, probably by November 1, certainly by the end of December 1945.”
To Invade or Not to Invade, That is The Question
In the more than a half century since the Japanese surrender, most Americans have pretty much accepted the premise that if “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” Truman hadn’t dropped “The Bomb,” Allied troops would have been forced to invade Japan and the invading troops would have suffered tremendous casualties. Recently published books have advocated that Japan had an “army” of almost two million men and women who were ready to defend the homeland, and that a vast fleet of kamikaze aircraft had been hidden away with Japan’s “best pilots” standing by to oppose an invasion. Years after the war, Truman asserted that had the invasion gone on as planned, American casualties would have been more than half a million men. But he was exaggerating.
Planning for an invasion of Japan began in early 1945, as it became apparent that Germany was on its knees. General George C. Kenney, commander of the Far East Air Forces and one of the most experienced command officers in the United States military, told General Marshall in March, while on a visit to the US, that an invasion of the Japanese home island of Kyushu was possible, even before Germany succumbed. Kenney had been engaged in constant conflict with Japan since mid-1942 and was well-acquainted with Japanese capabilities. Marshall replied that it might be necessary to invade Japanese-occupied portions of China before Japan. Kenney also told Marshall that he believed the Japanese were whipped, and that they would surrender possibly as early as July 1 and by September 1 at the latest. Although he advocated invasion, Kenney believed that the Japanese were ready to surrender if the emperor was allowed to remain on the throne, a view advocated by his boss, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, who had spent many years in the Orient and was probably more in tune with the Oriental mind than any other American officer or politician, came to believe as early as January 1945 that the Japanese had reached their limits. He began advising Washington to start looking for signs from Tokyo that might indicate that they were willing to come to terms. He believed Japan would surrender as long as the emperor was allowed to remain on the throne. He also believed that the emperor’s presence would be necessary as a stabilizing force to keep order in an occupied Japan.
Several high-ranking officers, particularly Arnold and Lemay as well as some naval officers, believed that invasion was unnecessary, that the continuation of the bombing campaign coupled with a naval blockade would force Japan to concede as the country ran out of raw materials. Other officers, including Marshall, believed otherwise. All of the senior officers and government officials were aware that the Japanese had started making peace overtures, although there was a difference of opinion as to what they meant. Some took them at face value, while others believed they were an attempt to avoid the unconditional surrender requirement announced by Roosevelt in 1943 and accepted by Truman upon his assumption of office.
In the end, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided on invasion in May 1945, shortly after the German surrender, with a November 1 date. Landings on Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese home islands, were obvious. In preparations for the landings, an all-out air campaign against Japanese positions on Kyushu was mounted as the Far East Air Forces moved squadrons of B-24s, fighters and fighter/bombers and light and medium bombers onto airfields on Okinawa. Although it has become popular myth that the landings were expected to produce half a million casualties – thanks to President Truman’s comments made some time after the end of the war – actual projections were far less, with a low of 25,000 expected combat deaths and a high of about 36,000. The Joint Chiefs knew that Japan had raised an army of some 1.9 million to defend the home islands, but they also knew that they were poorly armed and that large numbers were women. Initial plans called for landings on islands in the northern end of the Ryukyus in October to secure airfields for fighters, followed by the main landings on Kyushu commencing on November 1. Once Japanese forces on Kyushu had been defeated, landings would be carried out on Honshu, the main island, with a target date of sometime in January 1946.
But the Joint Chiefs also knew that a peace party was gaining strength in Tokyo and that it was only a matter of time before Japan would surrender. In the end, the Japanese Emperor was finally given the opportunity to decide to end the war and the invasion question suddenly was moot.
 Some sources claim a third bomb would have been ready two weeks after Nagasaki, but this is doubtful. For one thing, the bombs had to be moved by sea and shipment would have taken that long.
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