The two images of the mushroom clouds that ascended into the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945 are so iconic now, that respectful parody is perhaps emotionally the only means of catharsis. But, is there anything gained by revisiting that past before the Faustian bargain that began the atomic era and the Cold War? The orthodox view is, that the Japanese surrendered solely because of the shock wrought by the two bombing raids. Indeed, Henry I. Miller argues, that the two atomic bomb raids were merciful (via Robert Mathew Adamson).
Much has been made of the moral line that supposedly was crossed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, but far more significant in that regard were the decisions earlier in the war to adopt widespread bombing of civilians – initially by Hitler in attacking English cities and later by the Allied devastation of, for example, Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo.
Kori Schake, professor of international security studies at the United States Military Academy, summarized the ethical dilemma succinctly, “It seems to me morally significant that we were already engaged in fire-bombing cities; the use of a more efficient weapon to do so was therefore an even smaller jump.’
During World War I, Europe lost most of a generation of young men. Combatant fatalities alone were approximately 13 million. Memories of that era were still fresh three decades later. In 1945, Allied military planners and political leaders were correct, both tactically and morally, in not wanting to repeat history. They understood the need to consider the costs and benefits for the American people, present and future. Had they been less wise or less courageous, the American post-war “baby boomer” generation would have been much smaller.
This alternative justification differs from the most discussed alternative tabled by American planners in 1945: invasion of the Japanese home islands. Both justifications share a family resemblance, in that both base their moral force on the saving of lives, whether it be Japanese civilians, or American G.I.’s. Yet, both justifications are mono-causal, however well-documented. I’m skeptical that there is one reason the Japanese royal, civilian, and military authorities decided to surrender. For that reason, I would present an alternative perspective, offered by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa.
The argument presented by Asada and Frank that the atomic bombs rather than Soviet entry into the war had a more decisive effect on Japan’s decision to surrender cannot be supported. The Hiroshima bomb, although it heightened the sense of urgency to seek the termination of the war, did not prompt the Japanese government to take any immediate action that repudiated the previous policy of seeking Moscow’s mediation. Contrary to the contention advanced by Asada and Frank, there is no evidence to show that the Hiroshima bomb led either Togo or the emperor to accept the Potsdam terms. On the contrary, Togo’s urgent telegram to Sato on August 7 indicates that, despite the Hiroshima bomb, they continued to stay the previous course. The effect of the Nagasaki bomb was negligible. It did not change the political alignment one way or the other. Even Anami’s fantastic suggestion that the United States had more than 100 atomic bombs and planned to bomb Tokyo next did not change the opinions of either the peace party or the war party at all.
Rather, what decisively changed the views of the Japanese ruling elite was the Soviet entry into the war. It catapulted the Japanese government into taking immediate action. For the first time, it forced the government squarely to confront the issue of whether it should accept the Potsdam terms. In the tortuous discussions from August 9 through August 14, the peace party, motivated by a profound sense of betrayal, fear of Soviet influence on occupation policy, and above all by a desperate desire to preserve the imperial house, finally staged a conspiracy to impose the “emperor’s sacred decision” and accept the Potsdam terms, believing that under the circumstances surrendering to the United States would best assure the preservation of the imperial house and save the emperor.
This is, of course, not to deny completely the effect of the atomic bomb on Japan’s policymakers. It certainly injected a sense of urgency in finding an acceptable end to the war. Kido stated that while the peace party and the war party had previously been equally balanced in the scale, the atomic bomb helped to tip the balance in favor of the peace party. It would be more accurate to say that the Soviet entry into the war, adding to that tipped scale, then completely toppled the scale itself.
There was a confluence of events, personalities, and arguments for and against surrender within the Japanese elite circles, and its hubristic to maintain that the two atomic bombings were by themselves sufficiently shocking enough to cause such a varied assortment of leaders to reach consensus immediately. Both bombings and the Soviet declaration of war are a reasonable starting-point for asking why the Japanese government surrendered. This indicates a further implication. If Hasegawa’s multi-causal line empirically checks out, it was America’s diplomatic overtures, in the form of the Potsdam Declaration, not the atomic bombings or threats of conventional invasion by themselves, that allowed the Japanese leaders a way to surrender with a shred and semblance of honor. In other words, inadvertently, the Truman administration established a strategy that relied on threat, force, and diplomacy. Focusing solely too intently on those iconic mushroom clouds might not contaminate viewers in 2012, but they do seem to damage critical thinking skills with undiminished capacity.
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