Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Did the U.S. have to drop atomic bombs on Japan?

by Rob - October 3rd, 2017.
Filed under: Tube Alloys.

A friend wrote to me today urging me to read Killing the Rising Sun as, by he said, Bill O’Reilly, since it made the case that the U.S. had to drop atomic bombs on Japan.

My reply:


You underestimate me, my friend; I’ve already read to Killing the Rising Sun.

The key issue out of the Potsdam conference, which O’Reilly (and Martin Dugard, who actually wrote the book for him) gloss over, is that Japan was willing to surrender well before the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they simply weren’t willing to surrender unconditionally. They considered their emperor (Hirohito) to be divine, and they needed him to at least putatively remain as post-war head of the Japanese state (under whatever international oversight might be imposed).

The war could have ended in July 1945, or earlier, if the U.S. had been willing to drop that requirement. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which I, in turn, my friend, recommend you read:


On the other hand, Stimson had argued, because of the mountainous Japanese terrain and because “the Japanese are highly patriotic and certainly susceptible to calls for fanatical resistance to repel an invasion,” America would probably “have to go through with an even more bitter finish fight than in Germany” if it attempted to invade. Was there, then, any alternative? {U.S. Secretary of War Henry} Stimson thought there might be:

I believe Japan is susceptible to reason in such a crisis to a much greater extent than is indicated by our current press and other current comment. Japan is not a nation composed wholly of mad fanatics of an entirely different mentality from ours. On the contrary, she has within the past century shown herself to possess extremely intelligent people, capable in an unprecedentedly short time of adopting not only the complicated technique of Occidental civilization but to a substantial extent their culture and their political and social ideas. Her advance in these respects … has been one of the most astounding feats of national progress in history ….

It is therefore my conclusion that a carefully timed warning be given to Japan ….

I personally think that if in [giving such a warning] we should add that we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance.

Within the text of his proposal the Secretary of War several times characterized it as “the equivalent of an unconditional surrender,” but others did not see it so. Before Byrnes left for Potsdam he had carried the document to ailing Cordell Hull, a fellow Southerner and Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State from 1933 to 1944, and Hull had immediately plucked out the concession to the “present dynasty” — the Emperor Hirohito, in whose mild myopic figure many Americans had personified Japanese militarism — and told Byrnes that “the statement seemed too much like appeasement of Japan.”

It may have been, but by the time they arrived in Potsdam, Stimson, Truman and Byrnes had learned that it was also the minimum condition of surrender the Japanese were prepared to countenance, whatever their desperate situation. U.S. intelligence had intercepted and decoded messages passing between Tokyo and Moscow instructing Japanese ambassador Naotake Sato to attempt to interest the Soviets in mediating a Japanese surrender. “The foreign and domestic situation for the Empire is very serious,” Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo had cabled Sato on July 11, “and even the termination of the war is now being considered privately …. We are also sounding out the extent to which we might employ the USSR in connection with the termination of the war …. [This is] a matter with which the Imperial Court is … greatly concerned.” And pointedly on July 12:

It is His Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war …. However, as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland.


And this whole insistence on unconditional surrender dated back to an off-the-cuff ad lib by FDR from 1943. Also from Rhodes:


The month Wolfe’s call to aerial battle appeared in Harper’s — January 1943 — Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill at Casablanca. In the course of the meeting the two leaders discussed what terms of surrender they would eventually insist upon; the word “unconditional” was discussed but not included in the official joint statement to be read at the final press conference. Then, on January 24, to Churchill’s surprise, Roosevelt inserted the word ad lib: “Peace can come to the world,” the President read out to the assembled journalists and newsreel cameras, “only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power …. The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan.” Roosevelt later told Harry Hopkins that the surprising and fateful insertion was a consequence of the confusion attending his effort to convince French General Henri Girard to sit down with Free French leader Charles de Gaulle:

We had so much trouble getting those two French generals together that I thought to myself that this was as difficult as arranging the meeting of Grant and Lee — and then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it, and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant “Old Unconditional Surrender,” and the next thing I knew I had said it.

Churchill immediately concurred — “Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort” — and unconditional surrender became official Allied policy.


As for the Emperor being allowed to retain his throne being the sticking point, it was — right to the very end, even after Nagasaki. From Rhodes’s final chapter:


The military leaders of Japan had still not agreed to surrender. The Emperor Hirohito therefore took the extraordinary step of forcing the issue. The resulting surrender offer, delivered through Switzerland, reached Washington on Friday morning, August 10 [, 1945]. It acknowledged acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration except in one crucial regard: that it “does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.”

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1 Response to Did the U.S. have to drop atomic bombs on Japan?

  1. Freeman Dyson, who is old enough to be considered a WWII contemporary said in an Interview ( on YouTube) similar things about the non- necessity of the Atom bomb droppings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s the man with the Dyson sphere, he has to say many interesting things (also views I do not share).

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