Few issues in American history - perhaps only slavery
itself - are as charged as the dropping of the atomic
bombs on Japan. Was it necessary? Merely posing the
question provokes indignation, even rage. Witness the hysterical shouting down of the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit that simply dared
discuss the question fifty years after the act. Today, another eleven years on, Americans still have trouble coming to terms with
the truth about the bombs.
But anger is not argument. Hysteria is not history.
The decision to drop the bomb has been laundered
the American myth-making machine into everything from self-preservation by the Americans to concern for the Japanese themselves-as
if incinerating two hundred thousand human beings in a second was somehow an act of moral largesse.
Yet the question will not die, nor should it: was
dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a
military necessity? Was the decision justified by the imperative of saving lives or were there other motives involved?
The question of military necessity can be quickly put
to rest. "Japan was already defeated and dropping the
bomb was completely unnecessary." Those are not the
words of a latter-day revisionist historian or a
leftist writer. They are certainly not the words of
an America-hater. They are the words of Dwight D.
Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in
Europe and future president of the United States.
Eisenhower knew, as did the entire senior U.S. officer
corps, that by mid 1945 Japan was defenseless.
After the Japanese fleet was destroyed at Leyte Gulf
in October 1944, the U.S. was able to carry out
uncontested bombing of Japan's cities, including the
hellish firebombings of Tokyo and Osaka. This is what
Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army
Air Forces, meant when he observed, "The Japanese
position was hopeless even before the first atomic
bomb fell because the Japanese had lost control of
their own air." Also, without a navy, the
resource-poor Japanese had lost the ability to import
the food, oil, and industrial supplies needed to carry
on a World War.
As a result of the naked futility of their position,
the Japanese had approached the Russians, seeking
their help in brokering a peace to end the War. The
U.S. had long before broken the Japanese codes and
knew that these negotiations were under way, knew that
the Japanese had for months been trying to find a way
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of
the U.S. Pacific Fleet, reflected this reality when he
wrote, "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for
peace.the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a
purely military point of view, in the defeat of
Japan." Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to
President Truman, said the same thing: "The use of
[the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no
material assistance in our war against Japan. The
Japanese were already defeated and ready to
Civilian authorities, especially Truman himself, would
later try to revise history by claiming that the bombs
were dropped to save the lives of one million American soldiers. But there is simply no factual basis for this in any record of the
time. On the contrary, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reported, "Certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability
prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped." The November 1 date is
important because that was the date of the earliest possible planned U.S. invasion of the Japanese main islands.
In other words, the virtually unanimous and combined
judgment of the most informed, senior, officers of the
U.S. military is unequivocal: there was no pressing
military necessity for dropping the atomic bombs on
But if dropping the bombs was not driven by military
needs, why, then, were they used? The answer can be
discerned in the U.S. attitude toward the Russians,
the way the War ended in Europe, and the situation in
U.S. leaders had long hated the communist Russian
government. In 1919, the U.S. had led an invasion of
Russia - the infamous "White Counter Revolution" - to
try to reverse the red Bolshevik Revolution that had
put the communists into power in 1917. The invasion
failed and the U.S. did not extend diplomatic
recognition to Russia until 1932.
Then, during the Great Depression, when the U.S.
economy collapsed, the Russian economy boomed, growing
almost 500%. U.S. leaders worried that with the War's
end, the country might fall back into another
Depression. And World War II was won not by the
American laissez faire system, but by the top-down,
command and control over the economy that the Russian
system epitomized. In other words, the Russian
system seemed to be
working while the American system was plagued with
recent collapse and a questionable self-confidence.
In addition, to defeat Germany, the Russian army had
marched to Berlin through eastern Europe. It occupied
and controlled 150,000 square miles of territory in
what is today Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary,
Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. At Yalta, in
February 1945, Stalin demanded to keep this newly
occupied territory. Russia, Stalin rightly claimed,
had been repeatedly invaded by western Europeans, from
Napoleon to the Germans in World War I and now by
Hitler. Russia lost more than 20,000,000 lives in
World War II and Stalin wanted a buffer against future
At this point, in February 1945, the U.S. did not know
whether the bomb would work or not. But it
unquestionably needed Russia's help to end both the
War in Europe and the War in the Pacific. These
military realities were not lost on Roosevelt: with
no army to displace Stalin's in Europe and needing
Stalin's support, Roosevelt conceded eastern Europe,
handing the Russians the greatest territorial gain of
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Stalin agreed at
Yalta that once the War in Europe was over, he would
transfer his forces from Europe to Asia and within 90
days would enter the War in the Pacific against Japan.
This is where timing becomes critically important.
The War in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. May 8 plus 90
days is August 8. If the U.S. wanted to prevent
Russia from occupying territory in east Asia the way
it had occupied territory in eastern Europe, it needed
to end the war as quickly as possible.
This issue of territory in east Asia was especially
important because before the war against Japan, China
had been embroiled in a civil war of its own. It was
the U.S.-favored nationalists under General Chiang Kai
Shek against the communists under Mao Ze Dong. If
communist Russia were allowed to gain territory in
east Asia, it would throw its considerable military
might behind Mao, almost certainly handing the
communists a victory once the World War was ended and
the civil war was resumed.
Once the bomb was proven to work on July 15, 1945,
events took on a furious urgency. There was simply no
time to work through negotiations with the Japanese.
Every day of delay meant more land given up to Russia
and, therefore, a greater likelihood of communist
victory in the Chinese civil war. All of Asia might
go communist. It would be a strategic catastrophe for
the U.S. to have won the War against the fascists only
to hand it to its other arch enemy, the communists.
The U.S. needed to end the War not in months, or even
weeks, but in days.
So, on August 6, 1945, two days before the Russians
were to declare war against Japan, the U.S. dropped
the bomb on Hiroshima. There was no risk to U.S.
forces then waiting for a Japanese response to the
demand for surrender. The earliest planned invasion
of the island was still three months away and the U.S. controlled the timing of all military engagements in the Pacific. But the
Russian matter loomed and drove the decision on timing. So, only three days later, the U.S. dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.
The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945, eight days
after the first bomb was dropped.
Major General Curtis LeMay commented on the bomb's
use: "The War would have been over in two weeks
without the Russians entering and without the atomic
bomb. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end
of the War at all." Except that it drastically
speeded the War's end to deprive the Russians of
territory in east Asia.
The story of military necessity, quickly and clumsily
pasted together after the War's end, simply does not
hold up against the overwhelming military realities of
the time. On the other hand, the use of the bomb to
contain Russian expansion and to make the Russians, in
Truman's revealing phrase, "more manageable," comports completely with all known facts and especially with U.S. motivations and
Which story should we accept, the one that doesn't
hold together but that has been sanctifiied as
national dogma? Or the one that does hold together
but offends our self concept? How we answer says
everything about our maturity and our capacity for
It is sometimes hard for a people to reconcile its
history with its own national mythologies - the
mythologies of eternal innocence and Providentially
anointed righteousness. It is all the more difficult
when a country is embroiled in yet another war and the
power of such myths are needed again to gird the
people's commitment against the more sobering force of
But the purpose of history is not to sustain myths.
It is, rather, to debunk them so that future
generations may act with greater awareness to avoid
the tragedies of the past. It may take another six or
even sixty decades but eventually the truth of the
bomb's use will be written not in mythology but in
history. Hopefully, as a result, the world will be a
Robert Freeman writes on economics, history, and
education. He can be reached at