Yes, it was reasonable to drop the atomic bomb

Almost since Truman drooped the bomb, historians have been claiming that he did so, not to end World War II but, instead, to fire the opening salvo in the Cold War. In other words, the post war academics claimed that Truman sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives just to prove a point to Stalin.

For decades, the only writer to buck this trend was Paul Fussell in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, a book that I don’t believe ever got much traction. Fussell argued that Truman and his advisors, looking at the staggering US losses in Okinawa, and projecting ahead to a mainland invasion, predicted another 70,000 or more American dead, and 100,000 to 200,000 Japanese dead. Under these calculations, the bomb was a reasonable, even humane option.

It turns out Fussell was wrong. His numbers were too low. War historian Dennis Giangreco has examined many more documents that were released since Fussell’s book, and concluded that the best belief in 1945 was that a mainland assault would have been a bloodbath:

American planners for the invasion of Japan as far back as the summer of 1944 produced a worst-case scenario of “half a million American lives and many times that number wounded.” The Japanese Imperial Army’s increased efficiency at killing Americans, particularly on Okinawa, demonstrated to US Secretary of War Henry Stimson and many Pentagon planners that the worst case was a real possibility. This begged a question. The invasion of Japan was scheduled for fall 1945. If the situation on Okinawa — fully half a year before the invasion — was movng toward the original worse case scenario, was there an even worse case, unanticipated death toll? This notion alarmed Stimson. He ordered a multifaceted examination of the US Army’s manpower and training requirements. Shortly before the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, this resulted in an ominous warning: “We shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese [and] this might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 and 800,000 killed.”

You can read the rest of a fascinating and information interview with Mr. Giangreco here.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • jj

    Entirely.  And it would also be nice if the Japanese would at long last admit that maybe they weren’t swell folks to be occupied by, or taken prisoner by; and stop trying to either pretend the atrocities they committed didn’t happen at all, or were committed by six other guys.  Japanese history books about the period are interesting, but thery don’t feature much history.

  • Caped Crusader

      Jimmy Burns, former governor of SC,  FDR and Truman confidant, cabinet member, and adviser told Truman that if he did not use the atom bomb and we lost a million soldiers there would be such anger in the country he would be impeached, convicted and on the Capitol steps and he would be there to join the cheering. In my family, in my own memory bank, is a funeral for a cousin killed in the air over Germany piloting a B17, 3 cousins serving in the Navy with 2 surviving the Kamikaze attacks; my uncle serving as a doctor 3 years in Africa, Italy, Southern France invasions and being on his way to the Pacific when the bombs were dropped; next door neighbors son shot through the eye and brain but surviving; wife’s uncle shot through the lung in the Battle of the Bulge and surviving; ROTC instructor in HS shot in the buttocks in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest. EVERYONE knew some killed or injured, much like present day Israel. People were in NO mood to be lenient with our enemies and rightfully so.
    I wonder how many of these “academics” would have enjoyed sacrificing their lives to keep from invading Japan. According to the Military Channel NO Japanese unit surrendered in WWll, and individual soldier captives were rare and so hard to get to interrogate that at times a 2 week off the line bonus was awarded for a live capture. As one soldier at Guadalcanal said, “we realized we would have to kill them all, so we set about it”.

  • Indigo Red

    It should be noted that the atomic bombs were not built to be used against Japan, they were meant for Germany because the NAZIs were working on their own a-bomb. It just happened that Germany surrendered before the bombs were ready.

    Japan was known to be conducting lab research for their own nuke, however the Allies didn’t believe they were ready for actual bomb resting despite some evidence Japan would conduct a nuclear test Aug 12, 1945. The data couldn’t be verified as the Russians captured the north of Korea where the Japanese nuke labs were located. It’s believed it was the Russian capture of the labs and all the data that led to the Russians having the bomb so soon after the war when the west thought they decades away.

  • Charles Martel

    Alfred Hitchcock’s films often featured a MacGuffin, the plot device that set up the reason for the characters doing what they did. For example, in Casablanca, the letters of transit were the MacGuffin. They were the device—and it could just as well have been something else—that set up the characters’ motivation.
    The left and revisionist historian do love their MacGuffins something awful. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are primo MacGuffins that allow them to do what they love best: denigrate America. You’ll notice the utter lack of leftist crocodile tears over the 140,000 deaths from the firebombing of Tokyo only a few weeks before Hiroshima, or the hundreds of thousands of other Japanese deaths from incendiary bombs. That’s because the immense power of this one bomb acts as a focus for leftist disdain. It’s easier to decry one big thing than thousands of little things.
    (Also, the left is fascinated with certain forms of efficiency, as exemplified by its love of industrially organized mass murder, whether in the Gulag or the abortuary. So it’s offended when the efficiency of mass death is practiced by the wrong people: Israeli atom bombs = bad; Iranian atom bombs = good.)
    Besides saving millions of lives, the atom bombs had one wonderfully beneficial effect: They showed the world graphically what a nuke could do to a city, and by extension, an entire society. The effects were not left to our imaginations. The Soviets, and us, and anybody else with a shred of sanity could haul out the aftermath films and photos and remind themselves what a misstep into nuclear war would bring. The horror of that prospect only increased when the US and USSR developed thermonuclear weapons with 1,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. 

  • mdgarnett

    The Fussell article is available as a PDF – you can easily find it with a search via Google.

  • David Foster

    It’s interesting and, I think, significant that the moral outrage has focused on the *atomic* bombs much more than on the conventional bombing of Japanese and German cities. The fire attacks against Tokyo killed at least 100,000 people. Attacks against Hamburg, Dresden, and other German cities killed about half a million.

    I think the seemingly-magical (in the sense of black magic) nature of nuclear weapons had a lot to do with the historical positioning of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the same number of people in the same cities had been killed by fleets of B-29s carrying conventional bombs, it would not have had the same psychological effect.

    I discussed some of the issues raised by WWII strategic bombing in this post: DRESDEN.

    See also DETERRENCE.


  • Call me Lennie

    Just a few random points
    1) Generally, any Japanese soldier that was captured had somehow been rendered incapable of killing himself mostly due to being stunned by artillery.  But once a soldier was captured, a most peculiar transformation was noted.  The soldier knew that he was considered dead to his country; but of course, he was still alive and having been raised Japanese he had a desperate need to fit into a group.  So he was willing to give information about his former comrades in order to be accepted.  And that’s why there was such a reward for any captured Japanese soldier.
    2) The Japanese Army’s efficiency at killing was most notable at Iwo Jima, where a garrison of 22,000 troops killed 7,000 American Marines and Navy personnel — but Iwo Jima was a particularly deadly and dangerous set up which wouldn’t be duplicated in Japan.  On Okinawa, 100,000 Japanese Army troops killed 8300 Americans which is not nearly as efficient as Iwo Jima, or Saipan for that matter.  On the other hand, these troops managed to cause 40,000 American wounded.  Of more concern were the 5000 Navy personnel killed by sporadic kamikaze attacks.  What would have happened if a vastly more concentrated kamikaze had been launched on an invasion fleet near Japan on D-day is too awful to contemplate
    3)  A figure of 70,000 American dead to subdue all of Japan is laughably low.  Based on the Okinawa ratio, that many troops would have died fighting on the ground on the island of Kyushu alone, and who knows what a massed attack of thousands of kamikazes on troopships would have done? I’m thinking the number of 400,000 dead is accurate (but not 800,000)

  • 11B40


    It’s August and once again time for the Annual Japanese Rite of Atomic Bathos.  The requisite Hiroshima and Nagasaki grannies will be trotted out to remind the world of the good old USofA’s perfidy. Once again, however, the Nanking and Manila grannies, late of the East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, won’t be attending.  

    My father was an Army infantryman in the Pacific and fought on both Peleliu and Saipan. When I once asked him about the atomic bombings, his replay was “The only thing wrong with them was we only had two.”



    11B40, Someone upped the ante this year….

    Truman’s grandson, a former journalist who was invited by an anti-nuclear group, talked with a handful of survivors and students at a Tokyo University forum on Friday.

    Truman‘s grandson meets Japan atomic bomb survivors    


  • JohnC

    The best insight I’ve ever read about how the atomic bombings are regarded in modern day Japan was written a few years ago by an American named Azrael. At the time Azrael, a large young black man, was working in Japan as an English teacher in the public school system. His blog was called “Gaijin Smash” and contained his often very amusing entries about the differences he observed between the American and Japanese cultures. 
    The particular post I’m referring to is titled “Taking Responsibility.” It’s really one of the most interesting articles on the subject of the atomic bombings I’ve ever read. Note: Many of the webpages linked in the post no longer exist.
    Taking Responsibility
    July 3, 2007 – Azrael
    “I’d like to take a break from the catch-up to talk about something that’s currently going on.
    News Story
    Synopsis: Japan’s Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma is being forced to resign, after commenting that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “couldn’t be helped.” The comment came from a speech in which Kyuma said, “A countless number of people were victimized (by the bombs). But it helped end the war. I think it couldn’t be helped.” This caused an uproar, especially among bomb survivors/relatives of those affected, and politicians. With pressure rapidly mounting against him, Kyuma had no choice but to resign.
    August is generally not a good time to be American in Japan. The Japanese commemorate the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you are American, Japanese people around you may ask you what you think about the bombings. Brace yourself for a look of awkward displeasure from your Japanese friend if you say anything other than, “I think it was terrible, truly awful, and the Japanese are so pitiable to be the only country on Earth ever subjected to a nuclear attack.”
    The “was it justified?” debate has been done to death and back. There are all sorts of factors that come into play. A defeated nation, perhaps willing to fight to down to the last man, woman and child. The US wanting to flex her muscle in a show of strength to Russia. A decisive end to a long and bitter conflict. The simple truth is, the true reasons why the bombs were dropped, and what might have happened if they weren’t, are long since buried in the past.
    I also took courses on Japanese culture and history to go along with the language classes in university. These courses allowed me to look at the war and the bombings from a Japanese perspective. While I was in America, I was never quite sure what to think about Hiroshima. Was the A-bomb really, honestly necessary? Might Japan have surrendered? However, after four years of living in the country, and seeing the war/bombings from a truly Japanese point of view, my stance now is–yes. The bombing, while terrible, did ultimately end the war early and possibly save lives.*
    *This is my opinion, and it’s not really subject for debate. If you want to debate about it, might I recommend some other Japan-related venue. The Outpost Nine Forums already have a thread or two about this subject. 
    I arrived at my conclusion looking at events like The Battle of Okinawa where, despite being in a losing situation, the Japanese fought down to the last man, and civilians participated in mass-suicide to avoid the “monster” American soldiers. The firebombing of Tokyo was actually more devastating than the nuclear attacks. And I also take into consideration Japanese attitudes towards the war, both then and now.
    The war is largely regarded in Japan as–”there was a war in the Pacific, and then we got A-bombed.” That’s it. Japan’s involvement with Hitler and the Axis Powers is rarely ever mentioned. Their imperialistic marches into China and Korea are given a footnote at best in historical textbooks. And Pearl Harbor is also little more than a fleeting thought. If you talk about WWII in Japan, the conversation goes straight to the A-bomb and how pitiable Japan is.
    I don’t mean to play down the bombings, not at all. They were horrible, tragic losses of human life. Even if one wanted to say “the ends justify the means,” these means were indeed truly horrendous. We should hope that such an event is never repeated in human history ever again.
    But that sentiment doesn’t just go for the bombings. It goes for all of the terrible things that happened in that war. Of which, the Japanese participated in quite a few.
    However, when it comes to any of Japan’s faults during the war, their tune suddenly changes. The Rape of Nanking “wasn’t that bad,” or “you can’t prove all that stuff actually happened.” Other horrible atrocities committed in China and Korea are also flat-out ignored. Some politicians would have you believe that the Japanese were over there “helping” their Asian neighbors. Japan forced thousands of women into sex-slavery during the war; some of these survivors and their descendants have been trying unsuccessfully to get recognition/compensation from the Japanese government about this. The government’s response? “You can’t really prove that the government sanctioned this,” (despite there being proof otherwise), or “You girls weren’t slaves, there was no coercion.” Some will even go as far as to say that America forced Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor.
    Textbooks are altered to completely gloss over these things. Recently, the government moved to strike any reference to the Japanese military forcing civilians to commit suicide in the Battle of Okinawa. Of course, anything else–the comfort women, the atrocities in China and Korea, are nowhere to be found. These things don’t seem to matter that much. If you’re Japanese, all that matters about WWII is how poor Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.
    It’s annoying to me, and I’m only American. The worst Japan did to America was bomb Pearl Harbor. I can’t imagine how angry this must make the Chinese/Koreans. It’s like having the bully next door come into your yard and literally beat the shit out of you, but then when a bigger kid pushes the bully down and breaks his nose, suddenly all the bully can do is cry foul about the broken nose.
    Again, I don’t mean to belittle the A-bombs. But I just don’t feel that it’s fair of Japan to constantly cry about the bombs and then turn around and blow-off or ignore all the bad shit that they did. Even with conservative estimates the damage done in Nanking was far worse than either of the A-bombs. And those people died much more horribly than anything a nuclear blast could have done to them. And Nanking is only a solitary example. All I want Japan to do is take responsibility for her actions. Admit her wrongdoings instead of trying to deny them. And then, they can complain about the A-bombings all they want. Or, if they want to continue with the “why dig up the past?” angle, then shut up about the A-bombs. It doesn’t work both ways. I feel that to constantly bemoan the A-bombs, yet fail to acknowledge why and how things got to that point, is of a much greater disservice to the victims than anything former Defense Minister Kyuma might have had to say. I feel that Kyuma getting canned just goes to show how stubborn and unwilling Japan is to admit any sort of fault in the war. Not only that, but failing to admit to the mistakes of the past, only leads the way to make the same mistakes in the future.
    And that’s my two cents. I’ve sort of purposely avoided writing about this kind of thing over the past three years, but with the current stories in the news I couldn’t help myself this time around. This kind of thing has mildly bugged me during my time in Japan though. I’m not sure if the Japanese attitudes and ignorance towards WWII can be properly conveyed through a text medium. Like much else about the country, it’s one of those things you just have to see for yourself.”
    Incidentally, when I first stumbled upon Azrael’s blog he had already been writing for several years. I found his stories about the peculiarities of living in modern Japan as a black American male so fascinating that I had no choice but to start reading his posts from the very beginning. It was like reading the journal entries of a man living on another planet. I heartily recommend it. Warning: his entries are very frank and often NSFW. Japanese culture has different attitudes about sexual matters than American culture. This is obvious from the title of the oldest post I can find. From 2004: “My Kids Are Perverted.”

  • Jose

    I’ve commented here on Truman before so I’ll be brief.  In short, he commanded an artillery unit during the battle at the Argonne in WW1.  He was involved in heavy combat against an enemy that was well prepared, completely entrenched, and who considered their position invulnerable. 
    The Germans had railroads through the Argonne forest for resupply.  They had completely mapped the allied approaches in detail for their artillery.  Their entrenched positions had been developed to the point they included cinemas and swimming pools. 
    Truman knew first hand what it took to dig out an enemy so well prepared.  No doubt that influenced his later decision as he considered the cost of invading the Japanese mainland.
    Details of Truman’s experience of the Argonne are here


    In Mr. Giangreco’s book, he mantions that the Imperial High Command expected to lose as many as 20 million dead in the American conquest if Japan. They believed that would be acceptable, and that the Japanese race might be wiped out, the world would remember that they stood up to America.  I think that the exchange of 300,000 in the two attacks was a much better than having to kill 20 million, if OPERATION DOWNFALL had to be carried out.

  • Gringo

    I am in the process of reading David McCullough’s enthralling biography of Harry Truman. While his advisers were split on whether or not to proceed with the H-bomb, none of his advisers were against dropping the A-bomb.
    Louise Steinman has written an interesting book which touches upon Hiroshima:The Souvenir: A Daughter Discusses her Father’s War. She visited the Hiroshima museum.
    An uncomfortable thought kept insinuating itself  in my mind: part of the story was missing here. I tried to push it away, but it bore down with some insistence. There was little introspection here on the larger context of  why Hiroshima was incinerated, of what else was happening in the world on August 6, 1945. The wording on the Pearl Harbor display was a troubling example: “On December 7, 1941, a bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor and Japan was hurled into the war.” Was dropped. Was hurled. In this “victims’ history,” as one scholar called it, “the war appears as a natural catastrophe which ‘happened’ to Japan, as it without the intervention of human agency.”  [p 118]
    She also pointed out that in discussing the reasons for dropping the Bomb, the museum neglected to include the refusal of the Japanese government to surrender as a cause for dropping the Bomb. She discussed the Bomb with some elderly Japanese who had lived through World War II.
    “During my visit to Japan, I met Japanese who (unlike Soji) had lived through the war years. They shocked me when they offered me their opinion that the atomic bomb had been necessary to end the war, that the military government would have urged them to mass suicide if the conflagration of Hiroshima hadn’t happened.”  [ p 121]
    I have had  a number of conversations with Germans about WW2, all of whom have made efforts to come to terms with what their country did during WW2. Very few Japanese have made a similar effort.

    I notice that some commenters can embed links now. What browser are you using? I am using Firefox, and cannot embed links.

  • Jose

    I am using Firefox

  • David Foster

    Gringo–the Japanese display–On December 7, 1941, a bomb was dropped on Pearl Harbor and Japan was hurled into the war.

    How interestingly similar to Obama’s remark about “the BOMB that fell on Pearl Harbor”

  • jj

    As I said, as has now been reiterated by other people here: wouldn’t it be nice if Japan took an objective look at the entire war and their own role in arriving where they ended up in August of 1945.  They never have.  They never will.  They lie to themselves about it in their “history” books; they continue to lie to subsequent generations in their textbooks; and the memoirs and stories they have passed on have been mostly lies.  With regard to their own culpability in the 30s and 40s they have not been truthful; they have not been honest; and for a society that alleges itself to be based on “honor,” they have not been honorable.

    And of course after the war, we at least felt somewhat guilty about what we had done, and devoted a lot of time, energy, effort, and treasure in rebuilding them, rehabilitating them, welcoming them back into the world community, protecting them from further depradations by our pal Stalin, and establishing them as an economy.  They, on the other hand, have yet to apologize for what they did.  Germany has faced up to and tried to deal with their past.  Sad to say, the Japanese have not.  They have not been an admirable people about any of this.  Sadder, they still are not.    

  • Gringo

    In my middle age I took  some Education classes to prepare myself for a second career as a teacher. In one Education class, we were discussing dropping the Bomb. Not surprisingly, a lot of sweet young things were against dropping the Bomb. Invariably, they began their statements against dropping the Bomb with I FEEL.

    I told the class that I was against dropping the Bomb. Instead, the US and the USSR should have invaded Japan. After the surrender of Japan, and the death of millions, Japan would then be split into Western and Soviet sheres, like Germany and Korea.
    I was surprised that no one expressed outrage against my statement.

  • Gringo

    That would be SPHERES, not sheres.

  • JohnC

    Today is Aug. 14th, 2012.
    Emperor Hirohito announced of the acceptance of the Potsdam terms for unconditional surrender 67 years ago.
    Returning to this article because of something I read today.
    A quote from
    “One of the biggest concerns of the Japanese government after the announcement by Hirohito on August 15 was to find “comfort girls” who would serve as a buffer to protect the chastity of the majority of the Japanese women from the occupation troops. Government funds were used to set up the “Recreation and Amusement Association” for this purpose. Ironically most Japanese prostitutes resisted recruitment since they believed wartime propaganda cartoons portraying Americans as having oversized sex organs and they didn’t want to risk bodily injury. Therefore, other women had to be recruited into the “buffer zone.”
    The women of the Recreation and Amusement Association were known as Okichis after a woman named Okichi who was assigned to be the consort of the first American consul to Japan, Townsend Harris,  in 1856 to keep him from hitting on other Japanese women. You can see Okichi portrayed in a 1958 movie, “The Barbarian and the Geisha,” starring Eiko Ando as Okichi and John Wayne as Townsend Harris.”
    Now why would the Japanese fully expect the Americans to immediately begin raping every Japanese woman they wished? My best guess is – because, as far as Japanese culture was concerned, that’s how war was supposed to work! That’s what was supposed to happen to people who lost a war. (That’s how THEY did it!)