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Was the US Justified in Dropping the Atomic Bomb? Essay

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Updated: Sep 21st, 2021


The United States is widely recognized for ending World War II by dropping atomic bombs on two cities in Japan; however, they also caused incalculable human anguish difficult to justify. This action introduced new concerns and conceptions regarding how wars would be fought in the future, called into question whether the human race would survive much into the future and began a worldwide debate regarding whether the action was truly warranted.

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Questions regarding the bombings are multifaceted. While it is often suggested that the atomic bomb was the only means available to secure Japanese surrender, Japan at the time was requesting only one concession from the West – that it be allowed to retain its emperor as head of state. Had this been done, could the wanton destruction of a predominantly civilian population be avoided? Considering this, it is necessary to question the true motivations of President Truman in his authorization of the bombs’ use. Was it actually to bring about a swift end to the protracted deadly conflict and ultimately intended to save lives, American and Japanese, that would be lost in an overland confrontation? Or was it, as has been suggested, more a decision based on keeping the Soviet Union from having any input regarding the division of post-war Asia as it had in dividing post-war Europe? Even if the first bomb, dropped on Hiroshima could be argued as justifiable, the widespread destruction and collateral damage was devastating enough that the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, should have been called back.

The primary reasoning given for the bombs’ use was that it would save thousands of American and Japanese lives by eliminating the need for an overland confrontation between the two opposing armies. While the battles for the Philippines and Okinawa were taking place, President Truman, who had become president following the death of Roosevelt, was considering an invasion of the Japanese mainland. By now, the U.S. Navy had ships stationed just off the Japanese coast while its submarines were deployed in the Sea of Japan. Because the battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa were very fierce, it was estimated that half a million to a million soldiers would be killed if the scheduled November 1, 1945 invasion of Japan occurred (“Decision to Drop”, 2003). However, what fails to enter the discussion is the comparison of the types of victims involved – enlisted men or civilians. The first blast leveled more than half of Hiroshima. Seventy thousand of its citizens were instantaneously killed.

On August 9, another bomb destroyed Nagasaki (Truman, 1945). Deliberately attacking a civilian population is not considered morally acceptable regardless of any real or perceived outcomes. This view was and remains popularly held by both American civilians and the military. Even for those individuals who do not find it difficult to accept that the first bomb was necessary, though, the issue regarding the morality of the second bombing remains in dispute. The saving of lives was not at issue by the time the second bomb was dropped.

In addition to considering the overland attack, President Truman and his staff realized that if the Japanese would surrender prior to Soviet involvement in the Asian field, set for August 15, Russia could not demand a part in the post-war settlement. At the same time, by 1945, the U.S. was a country weary of war and its citizens had become deeply prejudiced against both the Japanese and Germans, believing that both types of peoples were inherently evil. Following the end of the war, a poll conducted by Fortune Magazine found that nearly a quarter of the American people thought that the U.S. should have used “many more” atomic bombs on the Japanese before that country had the opportunity to surrender (Dower, 1986: 54). These polling results accurately reflected the intense hatred that Americans directed towards the Japanese people during the conflict. President Truman himself was not immune to these feelings of resentment towards the Japanese. In July 1945, less than a week prior to the Hiroshima bombing, Truman wrote in his diary describing the Japanese people as “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” (Dower, 1986: 142). When America unleashed the atomic bomb on Japan, the act infuriated the Soviet Union because it wanted its say just as it had in the carving up of Eastern Europe.

In addition to unleashing catastrophic damage upon the people of Japan, the dropping of the bombs was the beginning of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Although Truman shared a similar bias against the Japanese as did the American public, his intent was not to drop such a devastating bomb on civilian areas. “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.

I have told the Secretary of War, Mr. [Henry] Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. The target will be a purely military one” (Truman, 1945). Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cities that produced military armaments but, of course, the devastation went well beyond military targets. It could be that the President and others did not realize the full power of the atomic bomb or simply did not care if the collateral damage went well beyond its intended target. No one will ever know and the answer can only be speculative. It is contingent on whether one relies on the written words of the President as proof of actual intent or one assumes that the bombing of civilians was justified by the President and/or Stimson given the excessively racist overtones that emanated throughout the country at that time. In addition to whatever personal feelings Truman had regarding the Japanese, he also had political consequences to consider in his decision to utilize the atomic bomb. The American public, according to polls taken at that time, supported by an overwhelming margin that the U.S. should only agree to an ‘unconditional surrender’ by Japan. This and the predominant anti-Japanese sentiment among most Americans assured that there would be little political backlash by ordering the bomb to be dropped.

Furthermore, Truman would have faced an uphill political battle attempting to explain to voters the reasoning for spending more than two billion dollars for creating a bomb that would not be used, particularly if many more American lives were lost had the war continued which, at the time was considered a very real possibility (Loebs, 1995: 8-9).

Also supporting the decision, the Japanese had amassed nine divisions comprised of 600,000 heavily equipped forces in southern Japan prior to the bombing of Hiroshima in preparation for a land attack. The speed at which this incredible number of troops and arms were assimilated deeply concerned Truman and the U.S. military who had previously expected far less resistance when planning Operation Olympic, the Japanese invasion force (Loebs, 1995). Surprised once by the continued determination and ability of the Japanese military, Truman did not want to be surprised yet again by an even larger resistance than was thought which the allies could encounter as it drove further north towards Tokyo. Truman considered the possibility that he could send many thousands of young Americans to their deaths in a final conflict that may not be winnable at all and could easily stretch out for many months or years. The Japanese not only had a large number of soldiers ready to defend their homeland, but they were also well-equipped and possessed strong supply lines so as to sustain a long-term attack. One can only imagine the carnage that would have ensued during a full-out battle of this magnitude had it occurred. The ferocious battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima would have seemed as just a warm-up compared to a Japanese invasion.

Despite all these justifications, by the summer of 1945, the Japanese were in dire straits, militarily and economically. The U.S. had won great victories at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers and had a full naval blockade of Japan’s mainland.

Shortages of everything, from oil for the machines to food supplies for the soldiers, had all but brought the Japanese empire to its knees, but its military showed no signs of quitting. In each battle, its soldiers fought ferociously to the last man in a victory or death mentality and suicide (kamikaze) missions were common. This led the American leaders to believe that an entire takeover of the Japanese island was necessary for final victory. The U.S. was well aware of the fanaticism displayed by the Japanese; therefore, military leaders were not anxious to encounter an entire population of a country that possessed this mentality and were militarized as well. The avoidance of this ensuing confrontation and the war-weariness of the American public is the common justifications for dropping the bombs. Finally, “it was the destruction of Hiroshima that finally brought Emperor Hirohito to confront the Japanese military and order the surrender of Japan” (Loebs, 1995: 10). Thus, it was and is argued that the atomic bombs ultimately saved many American and Japanese lives.

It has been argued that the decision to drop the atomic bomb actually gave little regard to the civilian population, was unnecessary and was based largely upon the Soviet’s aspirations in the region. The U.S. military had been unceasingly fire-bombing major cities in Japan including Tokyo for months leading up to the use of the atomic bomb. This massive bombing attack knowingly killed civilians by the hundreds of thousands and the tactic, along with the impenetrable naval blockade, would have eventually brought the war to an end without the need for a land assault. Of course this eventuality can only be argued because it can never be known if maintaining an attack with traditional bombing methods and a blockade of the seas would have forced the Japanese to surrender unconditionally. It is possible but many more Japanese civilians, probably numbering in the millions, would have been killed in the process. In addition, had the war been prolonged, the threat posed by the Soviets was imminent and daunting. Had they had a hand in postwar affairs in Asia, the boundaries of the world would be very different today. The Russian army had entered Korea a few days prior to August 6; the day of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Zimmerman, 2000). Within a short time, it would have conquered enough Korean territory to be able to claim a negotiating position at the post-war peace talks. Had this scenario occurred, the Soviets had plans in place to occupy both Japan and Korea to the familiar 38th parallel.

This would have been an offer the Allies couldn’t refuse because Soviet troops would already be occupying this territory. “The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki served three purposes: it terminated the conflict instantly, saving American lives; it insured a united Japan rather than leaving half of the country to the same fate as North Korea; and perhaps it provided an example which has deterred the use of nuclear arms for 55 years” (Zimmerman, 2000).

More than 60 years have elapsed since the atomic bomb was dropped, a long time to second guess and point out the flawed reasoning in that momentous decision. However, many prominent However, Americans at that time questioned the wisdom of using such a horrific weapon given the circumstances.

Top-level World War II military leaders such as Douglas MacArthur, William Halsey, William Leahy and Dwight Eisenhower amongst others, believed the bomb to be totally unnecessary from a military point of view (Takaki, 1995: 3-4, 30-31). The President of the Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Leahy, in his address to the combined U.K. and U.S. Chiefs of Staff expressed his thoughts regarding the use of the atomic bomb. “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. In being the first to use it, we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.

I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children” (Alperovitz, 2005: 3). In 1946, the Commander U.S. Third Fleet, Admiral Halsey Commander publicly announced that “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. It was a mistake to ever drop it. The scientists had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it” (Alperovitz, 2005: 331). The Supreme Commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stated at an address given on October 5 at the Washington Monument, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan” (Alperovitz, 2005: 329). Eisenhower was of the same opinion as to these other prominent commanders and vocally joined his colleges citing morality-based objections.


Japan was very close to surrendering by the time the atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sixty of its larger cities had already been destroyed by the use of conventional bombing runs and the naval blockade had destroyed Japan’s economy. The Soviet Union was busy fighting the Japanese, but these battles were fought in China and were far from a mainland invasion as Russia had also been weakened following its war with Germany. If the U.S. would have allowed the Japanese to retain its Emperor, the country would have surrendered before the first bomb was dropped, a slight concession given the devastating consequences. A demonstration bombing in a remote area of Japan would have been sufficient to affect surrender without using it on a civilian population. The second bomb was entirely unnecessary even if the first could be justified. Simply put, the Japanese people were pawns used in a political power play, the first such power plays of the ‘Cold War’ between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Works Cited

Alperovitz, Gar. “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” (1st Ed.). New York: Routledge. (2005).

“(The) Decision to Drop.” National Atomic Museum. (2003). Web.

Dower, John W. “War Without Mercy.” New York: Pantheon Books. (1986).

Loebs, Bruce. “Hiroshima & Nagasaki: One Necessary Evil, One Tragic Mistake.” Commonweal Journal. LookSmart Articles. (1995). Web.

Takaki, Ronald. “Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb.” Boston: Little, Brown and Company. (1995).

Truman, Harry. Truman Presidential Museum and Library. (1945). Web.

Zimmerman, Peter D. “The Atomic Bomb.” St. Petersburg Times. (2000). Web.

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