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Learning from Truman’s Decision: The Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Surrender

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August 6 through 9 of 2005 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings stand as a watershed event in modern history because they brought to a decisive conclusion the greatest and most devastating conflict in human history, and because they ushered in a new age, the era of nuclear weapons and the policies of “massive retaliation” and “mutual assured destruction”—which at the height of the cold war brought with them the very real potential for the destruction of modern civilization in a large-scale nuclear war. The decision to use the bomb has generated profound and continuing controversy among historians, military analysts, scientists, educators, and concerned citizens. Some have justified the bombings on the basis of military need or the imperatives of global power politics, while others condemn them as at best unnecessary and therefore tragic, and at worst as a wartime atrocity. The controversy ultimately hinges on whether the decision to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was based on military necessity or on political expedience. Like many important historical controversies, the analysis of the decision is complex and multifaceted, and requires a historical review of the situation in the summer of 1945.

Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 leaving Japan alone in an increasingly hopeless war against the United States and its allies. By the summer of 1945, most of Japan’s navy was lying on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and its armies were scattered throughout the remnants of the country’s short-lived empire. The Japanese army was bogged down in China, had been defeated in numerous costly island battles, and American forces were now aiming directly for the Japanese homeland. Okinawa had been lost to Japan in an enormously bloody battle in April, May, and June, and since March, waves of American bombers had relentlessly pounded and incinerated much of urban Japan. Deprived of overseas sources of oil, iron, coal, and even food, Japan’s wartime economy was grinding to a halt: it could no longer produce ships or airplanes, and there was almost no aviation fuel left for the 6,000 to 8,000 airplanes that were held in reserve for final kamikaze attacks in defense of Japan’s home islands. (note 1) By August, the Japanese people were reduced to near starvation, over 330,000 civilians had been killed in the air raids since March, with over 500,000 additional casualties, and millions more were made homeless by the fire bombings. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey Report revealed that from March through August, 104,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on sixty-six urban areas, destroying approximately forty percent of Japan’s urban infrastructure. (note 2)

Japan’s Prime Minister Suzuki apparently rejected the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender issued on July 26, 1945, with the phrase mokusatsu, which could be interpreted as “no comment,” “kill with silence,” “ignore,” or “treat with silent contempt.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that defeat was inevitable, Japan’s Prime Minister Suzuki apparently rejected the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender issued on July 26, 1945,(note 3) with the phrase mokusatsu, which could be interpreted as “no comment,” “kill with silence,” “ignore,” or “treat with silent contempt.”(note 4) Without officially responding to the declaration, (n0te 5) Japan’s Supreme Council renewed their plans for a final defense of the home islands, planning to mobilize reserve troops and the entire population of Japan in a last, suicidal defense on the beaches that would, in the most illusory propaganda of the day, repulse the American attacks and lead to a final, “certain victory,” or at least inflict such heavy losses that more favorable terms of surrender would be considered. (note 6) On the diplomatic front, rather than seeking more favorable terms from the Americans, Japanese leaders had approached the Soviet Union in a naïve hope that the Russians would supply them with oil, or would at least remain neutral through the duration of the war. (note 7) Meanwhile, the Soviets, while stalling the Japanese diplomatically, had mobilized 1.5 million Russian soldiers in the Soviet Far East in a prelude to opening a vast campaign against Japanese holdings in Manchuria, Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles. (note 8) American military leaders also mobilized massive naval, army, and marine forces for a planned invasion of Kyushu, to take place in November of 1945, to be followed shortly by an invasion of Honshu. This was to be accompanied by an ongoing naval blockade of Japan and a continuation of the intense saturation bombing of Japanese cities and military targets. (note 9)


1. Saburo Hayashi, Kogun: The Japanese Army in the Pacific War (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1959), 160–161.

2. Cited in Ardath Walter Burks, “Survey of Japan’s Defeat,” Far Eastern Survey 15 (August 14, 1946), 248–250.

3. “Chapter 7: The Potsdam Declaration, July 26,” in Robert H. Ferrell, ed., Truman and the Bomb, a Documentary History, from “The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb, Truman Presidential Museum and Library, retrieved from

4. John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945 (New York: Random House, 1970), 774.

5. See Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 168–169. Hawegawa argues that Suzuki may never have actually used the term, but that it was widely used in the Japanese press.

6. Robert J. C. Butow, Japan’s Decision to Surrender (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954), 96; also see Hayashi, Kogun, 177–179. For a detailed discussion of the final defense plans, see John Ray Skates, The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), especially Chapter 8, “Ketsu-Go: Defense of the Homeland,” 100–117.

7. See Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, 106, and more generally chapters 3–6 for an extensive discussion of Japanese overtures to Russia.

8. Ibid. 198–199, and Chapter Seven.

9. See Skates, The Invasion of Japan, for a detailed review of the invasion plans.

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