Hiroshima’s Shadow 3: the revisionist argument


Revisionist historians deny that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in order to save American lives.

They say the Japanese high command was ready to surrender before the bombs were dropped and that, in any case, an invasion of Japan would not have caused the 1 million Allied casualties or 500,000 deaths that President Truman later claimed were averted.

The real reason for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they say, is that American leaders thought the existence of the bomb and the U.S. willingness to use it would strengthen the American position in relation to the Soviet Union.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_The essay collection, Hiroshima’s Shadow, which I am now reading, provides the documentary evidence for these arguments.  The contributors include historians who know much more about this subject than I do, but historians disagree.

I think the revisionist arguments not as false, but as inconclusive.   Yet I draw the same moral for our own time as they do about the need for disarmament and the risks of atomic diplomacy.


Were the Japanese really willing to surrender before Hiroshima was bombed?

It is a fact that Japan’s military and civilian leaders both regarded the Pacific War as lost, and they hoped to negotiate a peace on the best terms that they could.  The minimum terms, especially for the military, were that the Japanese retain control of the home islands and that Emperor of Japan continue to rule.

The Allies included “unconditional surrender” of the Japanese armed forces and an Allied occupation of Japan.   The Japanese were promised that the Allies did not intend to annihilate them and that they would eventually have a government of their own choosing.  This implies that they could have had an Emperor if they wanted one, but nothing specific was said.

The question in my mind is just what was meant by the Emperor continuing to  rule.   Did it mean that the Emperor would remain in place as a powerless constitutional monarch, as eventually happened?

Or did it mean that the Emperor would rule, not by popular mandate, but by divine right as a descendent of the sun goddess and an object of worship in the state Shinto religion, with the military exercising power in his name?  This would have meant a perpetuation of the totalitarian that had led to war in the first place.

The evidence indicates that the Japanese military leaders wanted to hold out for an Emperor in whose name they could rule, while the civilian leaders may have been willing to settle for a figurehead.  It was settled only when Hirohito himself took matters into his own hands and called upon the Japanese people to lay down their arms.

Whatever the case, American diplomats are to blame for not finding out what the Japanese would settle for, and for failing to make clear that they had no intention of trying and executing Hirohito as a war criminal.  Probably they were so wrapped up in winning the war that they didn’t think things through.  I don’t know whether this would have made a difference.


The Allied Joint War Plans Commission made several alternate plans for invading Japan which involved not only American, but British Commonwealth (but not Soviet) troops.  The commission’s estimate was 25,000 to 46,000 Allied dead and 150,000 to 170,000 wounded.   For comparison, total American deaths in the whole Asia-Pacific Theater were about 100,000.

Max Hastings, in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945, wrote that the commission low-balled estimates of casualties because General Douglas MacArthur wanted the glory of leading the invasion of Japan.  It would have been the greatest amphibious operation of all time, with one and a half times as many troops as in D-Day in Europe.

The Japanese planned to meet the invaders on the beaches with all their forces, rather than conduct a defense in depth as in Okinawa.   Nobody knows what the result would have been.   It would have meant a worse carnage on both sides than the Normandy landings in 1944.

But it certainly would have been fewer than 500,000 dead or 1 million casualties.

Hastings believed that Japan could have been defeated without an invasion, without atomic bombing and without Soviet assistance, simply by intensifying the blockade of the Japanese islands and starving the Japanese into submission.  I think he’s right.  Whether it would have been more humane than bombing, I do not know.

The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey claimed that Japan would have surrendered in any case before the end of 1945 and possibly before Nov. 1.  (Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed on Aug. 6 and 9).  I think that estimate is suspect.  The Survey staff wanted to give credit victory to the previous strategic bombing, and not to admit that something else was decisive.

I am not bold enough to claim that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the least bad choice facing Allied leaders.  I say that, after a certain amount of reading and serious thinking, I do not know.


Were the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings intended to send a message to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet leaders about American power and willingness to use it?

220px-Manchuria_1945-APresident Truman, his adviser James F. Byrnes and others said in their diaries, letters and conversation that they were glad to have a weapon that tilted the balance of power to favorably to the USA.

But it’s not clear to me that this was the predominant reason.  I am not sure they did anything differently regarding the Soviet Union as a result of having and using the A-bomb that they would not have done otherwise.

If the main U.S. concern was stopping Soviet expansion in northeast Asia, wouldn’t the State Department have responded more than it did to Japanese peace feelers?  A strong Japan with an intact military would have been a stronger bulwark against the USSR than a disarmed Japan.

There is no evidence that Truman, Byrnes or Secretary of State Dean Acheson ever demanded the Soviet Union recede from any territory that the Red Army had occupied.  They never had a military policy based on massive retaliation and willingness to go to the brink of war as President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did.  They never threatened to use atomic weapons against Communist countries, as President Kennedy did in the Cuban missile crisis.

Nor is there any evidence that Truman and Byrnes were anything less than eager to bring the USSR into the war against Japan.   The Soviet intervention probably did more to end the war than the atomic bomb.   Given a choice, the Emperor Hirohito and other Japanese leaders preferred to surrender to the USA than to wait for the USSR to carry out its own plans to invade the Japanese home islands.

If the Japanese hadn’t surrendered when they did, Japan might have been partitioned, like Germany, into a North Japan and South Japan, and the whole of Korea, not just the northern part, might be under the rule of Kim Jong En today.  I think the fact that these things didn’t happen is a good thing, not a bad thing.


This is a fraught subject, and I don’t claim to have spoken the last word on it.  I think historians sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that statesmen’s decisions are more calculated and clear-sighted, and less frantic and muddled, than they actually are.

Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy contains much of interest besides what I’ve touched on in three blog posts.  It was published in 1998 in response to the closing in 1995 of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, after the Air Force Association, American Legion and others claimed the exhibit was biased and unpatriotic.

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3 Responses to “Hiroshima’s Shadow 3: the revisionist argument”

  1. sglover Says:

    This topic will probably be argued for another century. I’ve never thought that the atomic bombings were uniquely horrible, given the firestorms that had already been inflicted on German and Japanese cities. And I’ve never thought those firestorms were so horrible either, once I got acquainted with the perverted sadism that Germans and Japanese brought to Russian and Ukraine and Belarus and China.

    Nothing new there, granted. But I do wonder if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the salutory effect of making **everybody** viscerally aware of just what those weapons could do. It’s not hard to imagine a world where Hiroshima didn’t happen, where the US and the USSR pursued the same lunatic stockpiling, and only found out their full effects **after** using them in a real war. By that point, all bets are off.

    We might be seeing the same kind of unthinking, unknowing stumbling into the future right now, as we set precedents with our drones and algorithmic weapons like Stuxnet. We seem to assume — or did our “leaders” even give it that much thought? — that such practices could never be used against us.


  2. Michael Snow Says:

    Hardly a revisionist, note Gen. Eisenhower’s comments July 21, 1945: Secretary of War met several top U.S. generals in Germany. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would years later in Newsweek write: “Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so 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.

    “It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      I don’t know of any evidence that General Eisenhower ever questioned the fire-bombing of the German and Japanese cities, which caused more total civilian deaths than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      As President, Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons in Korea, and he supported the “brinksmanship” of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, which was based on threatening nuclear war.

      I think the mean reason that Hiroshima and Nagasaki loom so large in the American imagination is not that they were a radically worse atrocity than the other mass killings during the Second World War, but that they set the nuclear arms race, which puts us Americans in danger of suffering the fate of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


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