Nagasaki: The historical debate

As we mark the 65th anniversary of Nagasaki’s hellish destruction, it has always seemed to me that, of the two atomic bombings, this was the one more clearly unnecessary.

After all, as Martin J. Sherwin argued in his classic work, “Hiroshima: A World Destroyed,” the second bombing had been allowed to proceed on a timetable set by military operations officers rather than one carefully controlled by the nation’s top officials. For such a revolutionary weapon as the atomic bomb, that seems a rather surprising delegation of authority, even for President Harry Truman who came into office praised by a home state newspaper as someone who would bring greater consultation to decision making than practiced by his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After the Aug. 6 bombing of Hiroshima, Truman spoke of the need for Japan to accept unconditional surrender, the longstanding U.S. policy, or face “a rain of ruin.” But, as Sherwin notes, Hiroshima and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, which Japan had long feared, had quickly led those in the Japanese government wanting peace to push for surrender. Emperor Hirohito was ready for peace, it was clear. He and likeminded leaders only wanted assurance that the emperor system would be allowed to remain, in some form.

Sherwin wrote: “By August 9, the decision to sue for surrender had become inevitable, though the tragedy’s Japanese protagonists needed time to recite their lines. If Washington had maintained closer control of the atomic bomb raids, the annihilation of Nagasaki could have been avoided. But as it happened the initiative had been left with the bomber command on the island of Tinian.” That’s a clear judgment, in a classic work, that the bombing of Nagasaki, with its perhaps 70,000 deaths then and in the following year or so, created horrible suffering while having no effect on the end of the war.

But the historical record of the final days of the war has continued to be examined and debated. And there are cases made for believing that the ensuing developments were, in fact, dramatic and the final course of action could be seen as considerably in doubt almost until Hirohito broadcast his famous surrender announcement on Aug. 15.

On the morning of Aug. 9, Tokyo knew that the Soviet Union had launched war against it. Around 10 a.m., according to “Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb” by Andrew J. Rotter, Emperor Hirohito had signaled to those around him that he wanted to surrender, accepting allied terms. A meeting of the prime minister and the top officers, the Supreme Council, got under way at 10:30 a.m., according to Herbert P. Bix in his outstanding biography, “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.” (Bix, however, suggests that the foreign minister still had to persuade Hirohito that the allied surrender terms would allow him to stay before the crucial decision early on Aug. 10 to announce Japan’s readiness to accept defeat as long as the emperor and emperor system was to be maintained.)

In any case, the cabinet officers were already meeting when at 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, a U.S. bomber crew, struggling with cloudy weather to find Nagasaki, released the second bomb over a residential neighborhood. Sherwin wrote that, since the two bombings happened so close to one another, it’s impossible to know for sure whether Nagasaki made any significant difference in the decision to seek peace. “Yet,” he added, “the argument that the second bombing gave the Emperor the opportunity to convince the military that Allied surrender terms had to be accepted is not convincing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The surrender movement began soon after the fall of Saipan in September 1944 and on June 22, 1945, the day Okinawa was wrenched from Japanese control, the Emperor began his first cautious step toward undermining those committed to continuing the useless struggle.” At an imperial conference, he spoke of the need for alternatives to fighting to the end.

Yet, just because the emperor wanted to end the war and was, by the time the Nagasaki bombing took place making his wish known, it doesn’t necessarily follow that surrender would necessarily have occurred. Indeed, after the emperor got the decision made to press for peace on Aug. 10, the next several days saw further debate over an ambiguous U.S. response to Japan’s demand to preserve the emperor and an abortive military coup.

Rotter concluded there’s no definitive proof to show whether the two bombings influenced the emperor to finally become serious about ending the war. Rotter wrote, “It may be nothing more than a historian’s common sense to suppose that the infliction of death on many thousands – no one yet knew even roughly how many – by a mere two bombs was, along with Soviet intervention, decisive in ending the war.”

But let’s go back to Sherwin He noted that, early on Aug. 10, it still took the emperor’s intervention to break a division with the government’s Supreme Council on whether to surrender on terms the Allies might accept. He then wrote, “That unconditional surrender remained an obstacle to peace in the wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Soviet declaration of war – until the government of the United States offered the necessary (albeit veiled) assurance that neither the Emperor nor the throne would be destroyed – suggests the possibility, which even (U.S. Secretary of War Henry) Stimson later recognized, that neither bomb may have been necessary, and certainly that the second one was not.” Finally, after Japan’s initial statement, the secretary of state sent a note that at least allowed those in Japan who wanted to surrender to believe that the emperor would be maintained.

While I think you could debate whether we can judge the effects, if any, of the horror in Nagasaki on the peace process, Sherwin correctly raised a much larger point about the U.S. policy on unconditional surrender. It was, for various reasons, something that the government never modified before launching either attack.

The reasons, as Sherwin made clear, had nothing to do with malevolence and virtually everything to do with the pressures on U.S. policymakers; their political sense of what was domestically possible; the age and energy levels of some key leaders, including Stimson and President Roosevelt while he still lived; and President Truman’s inexperience when he took office after Roosevelt’s death. All of that led to what ought to be considered, I believe, a tragic lack of creativity in U.S. diplomacy (and probably among its allies) in the weeks and months leading up to the bombings.

As Bix and others have shown, Hirohito and most of his government displayed the same tendency and attitudes that ranged from the fanatical, in the case of the military, to the completely unrealistic. How they might have reacted to an earlier modification in the policy of unconditional surrender is a fair subject for debate. But the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so awful that a more robust U.S. diplomatic effort would have certainly been worth trying.

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