The atomic bomb and Hiroshima: We had to drop it, to save American lives, right?

Hiroshima was bombed by the US on August 6, 1945.

The common argument in favor of the decision to drop the bomb was that the Japanese would have drawn out the war and many Allied lives were at stake.

There is strong evidence against this claim. Following is a sampling of it.

Some relevant citations:

General Eisenhower described his meeting with Secretary of War Stimson:

I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.

US Strategic Bombing Survey (which interviewed high-level Japanese decision-makers immediately after the war):

Based on a detailed investigations of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that 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, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

German diplomatic report, 5 May 1945:

Since the situation is clearly recognized to be hopeless, large sections of the Japanese armed forces would not regard with disfavor an American request for capitulation even if the terms were hard.

Truman personal diary entry, from before the bombs were dropped:

[…] the telegram from Jap emperor asking for peace […]

Another diary entry by Truman, prior to dropping bomb, regarding confirmation that Stalin’s Red Army was planning to march on Japan:

[…] fini Japs when that comes about […]

Secretary of War Henry Stimson to Truman, just prior to Potsdam meeting

[the bomb, now tested and ready to use] is a royal straight flush and we mustn’t be a fool about the way we play it.

Japanese Foreign Minister Togo, wire to Ambassador Sato in Moscow, 13 July 1945 (intercepted and decoded by US):

Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace. […] It is His Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war.

Dropping the Bomb–Effects

140,000 people were killed instantly, of which the vast majority were civilians. Of the total Hiroshima population of 250,000, there were 43,000 military personnel present.

The scale of destruction resulting from a single weapon was without precedent.

Nagasaki was bombed three days later, killing 70,000 instantly.

At least 130,000 were to die in the next five years from radiation poisoning.


Why was it dropped?

Was it because, as Truman and Churchill would tirelessly repeat, the Japanese would have stopped at nothing, refused to surrender down to the last man, woman, and child?

It is appears today that the bombing had little to do with winning the war or getting Japan to surrender.

Telegrams had already been intercepted and decoded showing Japan, months earlier, seeking Russia’s help in negotiating favorable terms of surrender. That is, some elements in the Japanese camp were actively seeking to draw down the war and open negotiations for Japanese surrender.

Russia however was secretly preparing to launch a ground invasion of Japan, in concert with the US. This would have forced Japan into a two-front defense.

Japan was on its last legs. It had lost air superiority and was now subject to constant Allied air attack.

Subsequent interviews of Japanese military commanders showed that even without  invasion or bombing, Japan would have been forced to surrender by November or December of 1945.

For these reasons, saving US lives appears to have been a mere pretext and post hoc rationalization. The actual motives seem to have included:

a) compelling Japan’s surrender before the Russians could join the war, since the post-war balance of power was a top priority for state planners;
b) showing the world that America possessed a superweapon and was prepared to use it;
c) getting revenge on the Japanese for war-time atrocities and the Pearl Harbor attack.


The US had no immediate plans for a ground invasion of Japan. Furthermore, there is no evidence that a ground invasion, if one had been attempted, would have cost anywhere near the number of lives later claimed by Truman and Churchill as the justification for dropping the bomb.

Truman stated in a speech on the bomb that it saved “half a million” American lives. Churchill would cite “a million” Allied lives saved. But these numbers are pulled out of thin air; there is nothing to support them. There is documentary evidence of the US military’s best assessment of the human cost of a possible invasion. This figure came to 40,000 American military lives.

But it is unclear that the Allied forces would have ever needed to invade to compel Japan’s surrender. Had the US been flexible on the terms of surrender, it is possible that such surrender would have been imminent. Even in terms of a surrender without conditions, there are strong reasons to suspect Japan would not have resisted long. Russia was set to invade Japanese held territory on Japan’s western front; Allied air power held near total control over the area.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Some sources

Zinn, The Bomb

excellent summary of evidence and sources, and exposition of immorality of killing of civilians for political reasons

Alperowitz, Gar, Atomic Diplomacy

research into the papers of US political figures surrounding Truman,(including Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of Navy James Forrestal, personal adviser James Byrnes)

Takaki, Ronald, Hiroshima, Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, 1995

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings

Kuznick, Peter, “The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative”

excellent and well-documented account of the context of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Dower, John, War Without Mercy, 1987

Seldon, Mark, “Remembering ‘The Good War’: The Atomic Bombing and the Internment of Japanese-Americans in U.S. History Textbooks”, 2005

Seldon, Mark. Remembering ‘The Good War’: The Atomic Bombing and the Internment of Japanese-Americans in U.S. History Textbooks

Critical examination of 19 American history textbooks from 1958-2000, regarding their treatment of the US war with Japan during WWII, including treatment of the dropping of the atomic bombs, the forced interning of American civilians of Japanese descent, and the firebombing of Tokyo.

COLOR VIDEO Shot in the aftermath of the war, featuring appalling injuries to civilians. This material was long suppressed in the US.


Vodpod videos no longer available.


The charred and twisted remains of a lunchbox carried by a young Japanese schoolboy on the day that the Hiroshima bomb was dropped.

The Smithsonian was going to put this on display, but soon caved to pressure and cancelled the exhibit. (See here, and here). According to some, the display of such items would leave upon Americans “strong emotional impressions” that were apparently contrary to the Truth of History as it ought to be perceived and narrated.

See also:

See also:

[Noam Chomsky, 1967, in response to letter criticizing his position condemning the dropping of the bomb:] I stated that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are “among the most unspeakable crimes in history.” I took no position on just where they stand on the scale of horrors relative to Auschwitz, the bombing of Chungking, Lidice, and so on. Others have been less reticent. For example, the leading Asian representative on the Tokyo Tribunal, Justice R. Pal of India, stated in his dissenting opinion that the decision to use the atom bomb “is the only near approach” in the Pacific war to the Nazi crimes. And that “nothing like this could be traced to the credit of the present accused.” For what it is worth, I think that he is right, and that the bombing of Nagasaki, in particular, was history’s most abominable experiment. To argue this point, one would have to analyze the decision to use the bomb and the basis for demanding an unconditional victory in the first place. This is not the place for such a review, obviously, but I do think that an intensive study of this question is an inescapable task for any thinking person in the United States — specifically, for anyone who feels inclined to censure Germany for its failure to face up to the crimes of the Nazi era.


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5 Responses to The atomic bomb and Hiroshima: We had to drop it, to save American lives, right?

  1. ultimaniacy says:

    Your list of quotes is a Gish gallop. Eisenhower was commander of the Allied forces in EUROPE, why would he know whether Japan was willing to surrender or not? What “large sections of the Japanese armed forces” would do is similarly a red herring, as the will of the soldiers does not determine the will of the Emperor. Stinson’s statement is trivially obvious and contains no useful information to support the point you attempt to make. Two of your quotes do mention that Japan wanted peace-but give no context. What were their conditions? (If you think Truman should have accepted any offer of surrender to end the war regardless of the conditions, consider this: if Germany had surrendered only on the condition that Hitler would remain in power as dictator, retain control of all the countries he had conquered, be entrusted with the task of disarming his own government, AND decide for himself which of his subordinates would be tried for war crimes/crimes against humanity, would you be OK with that? Because that’s essentially what the Japanese government was actually considering.

    Anyone who wants to claim that the Japanese were going to surrender anyway before the bomb was dropped must first answer the question: what was stopping them?

    • beautype says:

      It’s perhaps convenient to evade evidence by dismissing it out of hand. The Gish Gallop charge is out of place since this isn’t a verbal debate. You apparently think Eisenhower’s opinion is not valuable evidence and you dismiss it on the pretext that Eisenhower was not sufficiently informed to provide relevant analysis. Interesting conclusion. The question you evade is this one: could you US have obtained a surrender from Japan without using the bomb? The answer, now pretty widely recognized, is that it could have. Since the Soviet Union was soon arriving on Japan’s Western front, forcing it to fight a two-front battle, and since Japan had no defense against American air power, and since significant segments of Japan’s power structure had already initiated contacts with Western powers seeking terms of surrender, the answer is pretty obvious.

  2. Tim Harding says:

    Indeed, if Japan was about to surrender, why didn’t they surrender after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped? Why did they wait 3 days until the Nagasaki bomb was dropped?

    • beautype says:

      Kind of a ridiculous set of questions. The arrival of the Soviet army would have immediately arrested any Japanese prospects for success; the US was in a hurry to drop the bomb before that happened.

      • Tim Harding says:

        Japan had 3 whole days to surrender between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and they didn’t. If they had surrendered after Hiroshima, the Nagasaki bomb would not have been dropped.

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