Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Did the US have to drop the atomic bomb on Japan?

by Rob - May 3rd, 2020.
Filed under: Oppenheimer Alternative, Tube Alloys.

In my new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative — coming June 2, 2020, and available for pre-order now — the following exchange occurs between J. Robert Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty (with Kitty employing a racial slur that was regrettably all-too-common during the Second World War):

“They … they’ve dropped a second bomb,” Oppie said, holding her. “Apparently Kokura was clouded over, so they …” His voice caught; he’d intended to say “they hit Nagasaki instead,” but it didn’t matter, he realized; they were just names to Kitty, and to him, alien syllables.

“I’m so sorry,” she said softly. Kitty was much shorter than Oppie; the words were spoken into his bony chest.

“Why didn’t they surrender?” asked Oppie. “After the first one, why didn’t they surrender?”

“Truman said it had to be unconditional,” Kitty replied, still holding him. “Charlotte Serber thinks that’s the problem.” She disengaged from Oppie’s embrace but took his hand and led him to the couch by the stone fireplace. “She thinks the Japs want to keep their emperor. They think he’s divine; a god. She says unconditional surrender would be like asking the United States to agree to renounce Jesus.”

Was Charlotte Serber, the librarian at the Manhattan Project’s secret Los Alamos facility, correct? Yes.

Sure, in Killing the Rising Sun, often said to have been written by Bill O’Reilly, the case is made that the U.S. had to drop atomic bombs on Japan. But that’s simply wrong.

From July 17 to August 2, 1945, the leaders of the “Big Three” Allied countries — Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (replaced on July 26 by newly elected Prime Minister Clement Attlee), and U.S. President Harry S. Truman — met in Potsdam, Germany, to negotiate terms for the end of World War II. Four days after the end of this Potsdam Conference, on August 6, 1945, the United States unilaterally dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; three days later, it dropped another one on Nagasaki.

But this was unnecessary. The key issue that had come out of the Potsdam Conference, which O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, who actually wrote the book, 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 forego the “unconditional” requirement. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes:

On the other hand, [U.S. Secretary of War Henry L.] 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? 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 [U.S. Secretary of State Jimmy] 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 now-deceased president Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1943. Also from Rhodes:

The month [journalist Henry C.] 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 [U.S. Secretary of Commerce] 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.”

In addition to Rhodes’s book, another excellent source on this topic is the more-recent Inferno: The Fall of Japan 1945 by Ronald Henkoff, which states:

The Americans were aware the Japanese had approached the Russians; the Army Signal Corps had long since cracked Japan’s diplomatic code and had been intercepting messages from Tokyo since 1940. In all the cables the Americans had decoded, Tokyo’s message remained the same: “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.”

By late May [1945], Truman’s top advisers were beginning to grasp that, on this point, the Japanese would not bend.

Secretary of War Stimson, his deputy John McClory, and Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew argued that if the Japanese knew no harm would come to their emperor, peace might be within reach — and postwar reconstruction might be easier to manage. Hirohito’s presence could lend legitimacy to the regime put in place by the Americans.

And, as I wrote in The Oppenheimer Alternative, the Japanese did finally get that one concession — after tens of thousands had died in atomic hellfire in Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

The Japanese had surrendered two weeks ago, on August 15, 1945, although the formal ceremony, to be held aboard the U.S.S. Missoui was still several days away. In the end, they’d received the only thing they’d wanted since first making overtures to surrender a year ago, in the summer of 1944: Hirohito, their divine Emperor, would retain the Chrysanthemum Throne. No other solution had ever been possible: the post-war world required a functioning domestic government on the Home Islands. But Truman had continued to insist on unconditional surrender, not making the Hirohito concession until after the two American atomic bombs had been dropped — after the new world order had been set.

Hirohito retained his throne until his death in 1989 at the age of eighty-seven — forty-four years after the end of World War II.

So, since the atomic bombings weren’t necessary, why do many American and Japanese history books continue to claim that they were? Writing in the magazine Foreign Policy (in an adapted excerpt from his book Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons), Ward Wilson, a senior fellow at the British American Security Information Council, gives a plausible answer:

Put yourself in the shoes of the emperor … The war, in short, has been a catastrophe and, worst of all, you’ve been lying to your people about how bad the situation really is. … So which would you rather do? … Issue a statement that says that you miscalculated spectacularly, made repeated mistakes, and did enormous damage to the nation? Or would you rather blame the loss on an amazing scientific breakthrough that no one could have predicted? … The Bomb was the perfect excuse for having lost the war. No need to apportion blame; no court of enquiry need be held.

Wilson also believes letting the bomb take all the blame suited Japan’s diplomatic needs in the post-war era:

Being able to recast Japan as a victimized nation — one that had been unfairly bombed with a cruel and horrifying instrument of war — would help to offset some of the morally repugnant things Japan’s military had done. Drawing attention to the atomic bombings helped to paint Japan in a more sympathetic light and deflect support for harsh punishment.

Wilson goes on to say that crediting the surrender to the bomb also strongly served American purposes:

If the Bomb won the war, then the perception of U.S. military power would be enhanced, U.S. diplomatic influence in Asia and around the world would increase, and U.S. security would be strengthened. The $2 billion spent to build it would not have been wasted.

The final version of Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia was dated as 2005 and published in 2004. It contained an excellent essay by historian Gar Alperovitz that is no longer readily available; the online version of Encarta is long gone, too. The essay consists of 2,700 words of considerable wisdom, and I’ve unearthed it here.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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