Gar Alperovitz

In Parts I and II of this response I have reviewed the argument of THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB and some of the evidence upon which it is based which has been ignored or mis- represented in the recent debate. The central thrust of this is that President Truman was advised that he had alternatives to using the new weapon, that a "two-step" combination of (1) the expected early August Red Army attack together with (2) assurances for the Japanese Emperor seemed likely to end the war. Furthermore, there were still three months available to test whether this was so before a Kyushu invasion could begin in November.

The evidence now available also indicates that once the atomic test proved successful, there was a strong desire to discard the Russian option--and indeed, now, to stall or possibly even prevent a Red Army attack. At the same time, assurances for the Emperor were eliminated from the Potsdam Proclamation. Thus both elements of the "two-step" strategy urged during the summer were explicitly rejected and the atomic bombings allowed to go forward.

In this Part I will take up certain questions concerning Japanese decision-making--and what currently available information from Japanese sources suggests as to the implications with regard to the main Hiroshima issues. Before doing so, however, let me deal with one or two related issues:

First, contrary to one or two hostile postings, the argument is not--and could not be--that President Truman was "certain" the war would end on the above basis. Self-evidently, there can never be absolute certainty on such issues; nor does THE DECISION make such a claim. [See for example, pp. 415, 644-45; also see Thad Williamson, H-DIPLO, Oct. 23, 1996.] What the evidence suggests is that--contrary to the oft-repeated and widely believed official rationale for the bomb's use--those who made the decision did not do so (in the last half of July and in early August) because they saw it as the only way to avoid an invasion which in any event could not begin until November.

The basic question is whether--given the probabilities and the advice as to available options--two largely civilian cities should have been destroyed without warning. Nor is this simply a matter of hindsight--or at least that is what some of the evidence we have strongly suggests. To recall, on May 29, 1945 General Marshall focussed on precisely this issue. He believed

. . . these weapons might first be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that, he thought we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which the people would be warned to leave--telling the Japanese that we intend to destroy such centers. . . . Every effort should be made to keep our record of warning clear. We must offset by such warning methods the opprobrium which might follow from an ill- considered employment of such force. [McCloy memo; THE DECISION, p. 53.]

We also noted that by June 18, 1945 the President's Chief of Staff, Admiral Leahy--the man who presided over meetings of both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined U.S.-U.K.Chiefs-- recorded his own judgment in his diary (seven weeks prior to the bombing of Hiroshima):

It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan and that will make fully satisfactory provisions for America's defense against future trans-Pacific aggression. [THE DECISION, p. 324.]


VI. One of the most strident charges made by hostile critics in the recent debate is that (in their opinion) THE DECISION does not deal adequately with information concerning Japanese decision-making. I will discuss below the extreme form this argument has taken in the hands of one or two critics (including attempts to impugn personal motives, claim conscious evasion of evidence, and assert professional malfeasance). Before doing so, however, let me note the following basic points:

(A) THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB is a book devoted to understanding the process by which top American officials came to the decision to employ atomic weapons against Japanese cities in the summer of 1945. The central question in such a study is how judgments were formed on the basis of information available to the men making the decisions at the time. THE DECISION concentrates on a day by day--indeed, in some cases hour by hour --exploration of the evolving stages of American understanding and choices. The book runs to more than 800 pages; another 400 were cut in negotiations with the publisher.

Some critics seem to think that because THE DECISION focusses primary attention on what we now know about the American decision-making process this implies that what was going on within Japan was unimportant. It is not; nor are such matters neglected in the book. The evolution and complications of Japanese decision-making, however, clearly involve somewhat different questions--and must be treated in a different manner.

THE DECISION does not pretend to be a full-length investigation of internal Japanese developments. It deals with what is known about Japanese decision-making (and with what we know from after-the-fact Japanese information) through an analysis of modern Japanese and English language specialist literature. The review is focussed on a well-known list of the critical questions which have been debated in connection with the Hiroshima bombing. (For instance, whether a surrender could only have been arranged on the basis of satisfying four conditions rather than one, whether the war would have ended before a November invasion in any event, etc.) [THE DECISION, pp. 627-43.]

(B) Of course, a book of equal length could be written on the day by day evolution of Japanese decision-making. (In fact, at least two, to my knowledge, are currently in the works by American and Japanese specialists.) Quite apart from those who would have preferred that I write a different book or use the space available in different ways, some critics seem also to have been confused by the rather obvious and seemingly straightforward organizational design of THE DECISION: Given that the book's primary aim is to understand how American policy-makers came to order the use of the atomic bomb, this subject forms the central text. Everything which occurred in time AFTER the decision was actually made--including Japanese reactions to it, public discussion of it, and historical studies related to it--also appears AFTER the first major section of the book. (Since certain critics have ignored another obvious point, let me also point out that a number of quite specific footnotes and reference notes are presented at key points in the argument to make sure the reader is aware that further information is available in subsequent sections of the book. See for example, footnotes on p. 417 and 419 of THE DECISION.)

(C) Some of the postings seem to imply that an analysis of how American policy-makers came to make the decision must (in that analysis) utilize information which was not available to the participants at the time. But it is a fundamental methodological error--a methodological mixing of apples and oranges, as it were- -to attempt to inject information from after-the-fact Japanese sources into the analysis of what American decision-makers believed and understood on the basis of the only information they had available to them in 1945. Occasionally such material may highlight certain facets of what was going on; however, after- the-fact information cannot help us understand how decision- makers evaluated the options before them in 1945 on the basis of the information available to them in 1945. (In this connection see also Uday Mohan, H-JAPAN, Nov. 30, 1996, and Kathryn C. Morris, H-JAPAN, Nov. 9, 1996.)

VII. The truly important question concerning what the after- the-fact Japanese sources tell us, of course, is whether or not Japan would likely have surrendered had the atomic bomb not been used--and had the Truman Administration followed through on the other options available to it. Put another way, the question is whether what we now know from Japanese sources confirms--or challenges--1945 advice within the Truman Administration that the war would in all likelihood have ended before a November invasion once the Emperor's position was clarified and once the Red Army attacked.

One useful way to think about this is to ask what might have happened had there been no atomic bomb (the precise question asked, incidentally, by a 1946 internal War Department study; see below). The answer seems rather obvious: President Truman would almost certainly have clarified the position of the Emperor (as his private 1945 statements on several occasions suggest; see THE DECISION, pp. 46, 67-72, 74-5, 78, 311, 417, 649-650)--and he would almost certainly have rushed to bring the Russians into the war (as he planned to do until the atomic test proved to be so successful). He probably also would have begun to clarify the Emperor's position at an early point in time (as several internal documents suggest; see THE DECISION, pp. 39-46 and above references); and, too, he probably would have arranged for the Soviet Union to join in issuing the Potsdam Proclamation as had also been contemplated before the successful test.

The specific question is whether the alternatives available to the President--as I have just outlined them--would likely have brought about an end to the war before November. Note carefully: this is a different question from those often discussed in the Hiroshima debate. For instance:

The above question is NOT the same as what Japanese military leaders "said" they wanted to do either privately or publicly. ALL OF THE OFT-CITED PRE-BOMBING DIE-HARD STATEMENTS WERE EXPRESSED IN A CONTEXT DEFINED BY THE FACT THAT THE EMPEROR'S POSITION WAS STILL THREATENED BY THE UNCOMPROMISING U.S. POSITION. Everyone knew Japan would fight on so long as the Emperor was threatened. (Indeed, this is one of the main arguments of THE DECISION.) Accordingly, it is not very surprising that we find many statements of determination from this period. That, too, is what one would expect, given the continued hard-line U.S. position.

A related point was made on June 30 by the War Department's Military Intelligence Division (G-2):

it is apparent that the Japanese leaders feel that they may get better terms from the Allies if they give the impression that the people are determined to fight to the last man rather than accept unconditional surrender. [THE DECISION, p. 652]

Note that the central question also is NOT whether the Japanese would have surrendered if only the position of the Emperor had been clarified--though many (now and at the time) believe this would have occurred, especially if the assurances had been offered at an early point as Grew and, subsequently, Stimson urged.

The central question also is NOT whether the Japanese military and others argued over the surrender terms in the brief and tumultuous few days after the atomic bomb was used-- especially given that the context established prior to these few days was radically different from what had been proposed within the U.S. government. (The context which prepared the ground for the unyielding internal military positions was defined, again, by repeated U.S. statements that there could be no change in the unconditional surrender formula, etc.) Given the preceding context and the attitudes which had been adopted and which had become entrenched during this period, one would hardly expect the hard-liners to simply fold their tents and go away. What is perhaps surprising is not that they argued for a few days; it is that they struggled against the inevitable for so brief a time.

No the central question is different: To repeat, it is whether what we now know from after-the-fact Japanese sources suggests that the essential advice within the Truman Administration was correct. This advice--again, to be quite clear--involved at least three (and in some versions, four) elements:

The most important of these by far were numbers 1 and 3--the elements which were delayed and/or awaited during the summer, and which were especially and expressly rejected at Potsdam.

So, the question is: Had the Administration followed through on the above elements--on THIS alternative--what would have happened?

Since the alternative which was actually on the table within the U.S. Administration has rarely been explicitly addressed by most studies, it is not surprising that debate on what might have happened has been so confused. (What we have are studies and assessments based for the most part on partial alternatives, or multiple alternatives which were more complex but different from the above.)

On the other hand, we do have a number of resources which help us focus the question more clearly--and which strongly suggest that when the proper question is asked, the answer seems rather obvious:

* The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, of course, concluded that "in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." [THE DECISION, p. 645.] Although recent studies have criticized the way the Survey reached this conclusion, note carefully that the two central points of concern were not even involved in its assessment. The Survey's judgment clearly would have been reinforced (or, rather, far stronger) if one allowed for (1) a clarification of the surrender terms; and (2) the Red Army attack--and stronger still if the option of an EARLY clarification were included and an EARLY indication that the Soviet Union was about to enter the war had been specified.

* As noted above, an internal 1946 War Department study discovered a few years ago asked what would have happened had there been no atomic bomb. It concluded that:

The Japanese leaders had decided to surrender and were merely looking for sufficient pretext to convince the die-hard Army Group that Japan had lost the war and must capitulate to the Allies.

This official document judged that Russia's early August entry into the war

. . . would almost certainly have furnished this pretext, and would have been sufficient to convince all responsible leaders that surrender was unavoidable.

The study concluded that well before the bombings even an initial November 1945 landing on the island of Kyushu was only a "remote" possibility--and that the full invasion of Japan in the spring of 1946 would not have occurred. (This study, by the way, reached these conclusions without assessing the additional effect a clarification of the Emperor's position would have had.) [THE DECISION, p. 85.]

* Air Force General Claire Chennault, founder of the American Volunteer Group (the famed "Flying Tigers")--and Army Air Forces commander in China--was even more blunt. A few days after Hiroshima was bombed THE NEW YORK TIMES reported Chennault's view that:

Russia's entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped. . . . [THE DECISION, pp. 335-336.]

* A 1955 analysis by Professor Ernest May (who had previously been a Defense Department historian) observed that "Japanese die-hards . . . had acknowledged since 1941 that Japan could not fight Russia as well as the United States and Britain. . . ." Studying the actual surrender, May also concluded that since Moscow had been the outlet for numerous Japanese peace feelers, the Russian declaration of war, when it finally occurred, "discouraged Japanese hopes of secretly negotiating terms of peace," and that in the end,

"The Emperor's appeal [to end the war] probably resulted, therefore, from the Russian action, but it could not in any event, have been long in coming.." [THE DECISION, pp. 83- 84.]

* We have previously referred to the work of Herbert Feis (who was not only an important historian, but as former Special Assistant to Secretary of War Stimson, was an individual with privileged access to top officials and inside information). Feis was one of the very few to focus directly on something close to the key question. His little-noticed judgment was that BY JULY--OR POSSIBLY BEFORE JULY--there was a good chance the war could have ended had the U.S. implemented the following variation of the two-step logic: "I think it may be concluded that . . . the fighting would have continued well into July at the least, UNLESS. . .

the American and Soviet governments together had let it be known that unless Japan laid down its arms at once, the Soviet Union was going to enter the war. That, along with a promise to spare the Emperor, might well have made an earlier bid for surrender effective. " [THE DECISION, p.622.]

(Oddly, Feis thought it "improbable that the Soviet government could have been prevailed on to reveal its intentions and so enable the Japanese better to prepare for the assault." However, there is ample evidence that by this point in the summer of 1945--with the Japanese fully aware of the Red Army build-up on the Manchurian border--Soviet fears that such a signal might increase Japan's capacity to prepare for the assault were no longer a significant factor; nor is there any evidence that this was a consideration. As noted, the draft Potsdam Proclamation included just such a strategy in preparation for the Potsdam meetings.) [For a discussion see THE DECISION, p. 774, fn 70.]

* Several scholars specializing in military matters have examined Japanese decision-making and added to the modern understanding. A recent study by Robert A. Pape, for instance, offers details concerning Japan's extreme military vulnerability (including shortages of everything from ammunition and fuel to trained personnel). He concludes: "Japan's military position was so poor that its leaders would likely have surrendered before invasion, and at roughly the same time in August 1945, even if the United States had not employed strategic bombing or the atomic bomb." In this situation:

The Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 9 raised Japan's military vulnerability to a very high level. The Soviet offensive ruptured Japanese lines immediately, and rapidly penetrated deep into the rear. Since the Kwantung Army was thought to be Japan's premier fighting force, this had a devastating effect on Japanese calculations of the prospects for home island defense.
If their best forces were so easily sliced to pieces, the unavoidable implication was that the less well- equipped and trained forces assembled for [the last decisive home island battle] had no chance of success against American forces that were even more capable than the Soviets. [See THE DECISION, pp. 645-46.]

(After the Red Army attack began cutting through the Japanese armies in Manchuria, Prime Minister Suzuki is reported to have said: "Is the Kwantung Army that weak? Then the game is up.") [THE DECISION, p. 418.]

Pape adds: "In comparison to the Soviet entry the atomic bomb had little or no impact on the Army's position. First, the Army initially denied that the Hiroshima blast had been an atomic bomb. Second, they went to great lengths to downplay its importance. When Togo raised it as an argument for surrender on August 7, General Anami explicitly rejected it. Finally, the Army vigorously argued that minor civilian defense measures could offset the bomb's effects." [THE DECISION, p. 646 n.]

* Again, the official British history of the war against Japan concluded: "The Russian declaration of war was the decisive factor in bringing Japan to accept the Potsdam declaration, for it brought home to all members of the Supreme Council the realization that the last hope of a negotiated peace had gone and that there was no alternative but to accept the Allied terms sooner or later." [THE DECISION, p. 646 n.] * We may also note that on August 13--even as Tokyo struggled to devise a final response to Washington--intercepted MAGIC cables reported a "Japanese Army General Staff statement on surrender." The text (dated August 12) from the vice chief of the Army General Staff to Japan's military attaches in Sweden, Switzerland, and Portugal, included two main points. The first concerned the cause of surrender negotiations:

As a result of Russia's entrance into the war, the Empire, in the fourth year of its [war] endeavor, is faced with a struggle for the existence of the nation.

The second used a traditional formula to make clear the one critical point which would not be given up:

You are well aware of the fact that as a final move toward the preservation of the national structure [i.e., the Emperor and the Imperial system], diplomatic negotiations have been opened. . . . Unless the aforementioned condition is fulfilled, we will continue the war to the bitter end.

The atomic bomb was neither mentioned in this internal message nor cited as reason for the surrender negotiations. [THE DECISION, pp. 418-9.]


VIII. Our interest in all this is not to attempt to prove whether the atomic bomb or the Red Army attack was the final straw; it is whether the two-step option could likely have achieved surrender on its own had it been implemented. Light is also thrown on the Japanese army's attitude (and the weight army leaders attached to the three second-order items on their list of hoped-for conditions--no occupation, and self-management of disarmament and war trials) [THE DECISION, p. 651.]--by an examination of what happened after the Red Army began its assault and after the Emperor called for a halt in the fighting:

(A) Since all the top leadership--including the army--had already agreed in principle to end the war, the only question was whether to fight on ("one last battle") to attempt to secure improved conditions. Many analysts have pointed out that the Japanese Emperor rarely was in the position of simply dictating policy. Pape puts it this way:

[War Minister] Anami could simply have refused to endorse the Emperor's decision [to surrender] since, under the Meiji constitution, cabinet decisions required unanimous consent. Alternatively, Anami could have resigned, which would have dissolved the government, effectively vetoing the decision for surrender, because a new government could not be formed without the Army's approval of a new war minister.

Instead of standing firm on their demands when the Emperor intervened to call for a halt in the fighting on August 9, however, Army leaders, as Pape notes, "no longer blocked the civilians' efforts to make peace, which they had the power to do." [THE DECISION, p. 652.]

(B) A related question is what Japanese leaders subsequently told interrogators they were planning to do had the war continued. It is easy to find statements by Japanese generals and others which indicate they would have fought to the death. However, it is one thing to note such statements and such plans-- and it is quite another to accept them as prima facie evidence that this was also what would in fact have happened HAD THE ALTERNATIVE ACTUALLY AT THE CORE OF U.S. INTERNAL DISCUSSIONS BEEN IMPLEMENTED.

Unfortunately U.S. military interrogators rarely asked carefully focused questions about the Russians or about the contingent nature of Japanese feelings and plans. When they did, however, the answers were often quite direct. During the Strategic Bombing Survey interrogations, for instance, Imperial Envoy Prince Konoye recalled that the "army had dug themselves in the mountains and their idea . . . was fighting from every little hole or rock in the mountains."

However, when asked specifically (in the very next question): "Would the Emperor have permitted them to do that?"-- Konoye responded immediately: "I don't think the Emperor would have let them go that far. He would have done something to stop them." [THE DECISION, p. 647.]

Similarly, Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Toyoda stated: "I believe the Russian participation in the war against Japan rather than the atom bombs did more to hasten the surrender." Army Vice-Chief of Staff Kawabe, too, observed that "Since Tokyo was not directly affected by the bombing, the full force of the shock was not felt. . . . In comparison, the Soviet entry into the war was a great shock when it actually came. . . . It gave us all the more severe shock and alarm because we had been in constant fear [that] the vast Red Army forces in Europe were now being turned against us." [THE DECISION, p. 647.]


IX. That the war would likely have ended before November, all things considered, had the U.S. clarified the position of the Emperor and awaited the Russian attack is further suggested by other considerations--especially new research on the role of the Emperor, and, too, on internal Japanese fears of an anti- Government uprising and of Communist influence.

Particularly useful work on these questions has been done recently by Herbert Bix. (See his JAPAN'S DELAYED SURRENDER, DIPLOMATIC HISTORY, Spring 1995--which appeared after THE DECISION went to press.) Bix corrects the picture given to us in many past studies by documenting the many reasons why Emperor Hirohito himself must bear substantial responsibility for prolonging the war.

Bix also emphasizes that the central concern of the throne and those surrounding it was the preservation of the KOKUTAI (the national polity). He notes that as early as February 1945 (for instance) Prince Konoye "pleaded with the Emperor to sue quickly for peace before a Communist revolution occurred that would make preservation of the KOKUTAI impossible." (JAPAN'S DELAYED SURRENDER, p. 202.)

Bix observes that the "court group's very strong sense of internal crisis must be taken into account when assessing whether alternatives to the bomb would have ended the war prior to the invasion scheduled for November 1." (He adds: "My own estimate is that massive conventional bombing alone, or in combination with a Soviet declaration of war, would have forced Japan's leaders to surrender before the start of Operation Olympic." [JAPAN'S DELAYED SURRENDER, p. 218 f.])

Bix also concludes that a clarification of the position of the Emperor ON ITS OWN would "probably not" have brought Japan's leaders to end the war, "though they were likely to have surrendered in order to prevent the KOKUTAI from being destroyed from within." [JAPAN'S DELAYED SURRENDER, p. 224.]

Although Bix emphasizes the great fear the key players in Japan had of domestic turmoil--and, too, concludes that the war would likely have ended before November--he does not in this work directly address the specific "two-step" alternative formulated within the U.S. government.

The precise additional question of interest here may be stated as follows: Given their concerns about domestic unrest-- and Communism--how long might the Emperor and others have held out as they saw the Red Army rapidly chewing up what was left of Japanese forces in Manchuria--and, too, as they saw the possibility and prospect of a Communist, Red Army-backed occupation looming ever closer?

But once more, note carefully, even this question is not the same as the question of what would likely have happened--as internal U.S. and British studies suggested--if the position of the Emperor had been clarified early on, had the participation of the Soviet Union been signaled early on, and had the Red Army attack been allowed to proceed. . .


X. Related to all this is an issue concerning casualties. Those who defend the use of the atomic bomb often hold that (a) the only consideration involved was saving American lives--or (b) that the alternatives available might have worked but would have taken longer and thus cost more Japanese lives as well. (The latter, of course, is not the same as the official rationale-- namely that the bomb saved an invasion.)

A preliminary point: As previously noted, it is rarely realized that at the time Hiroshima was bombed orders had already been given to downplay the conventional bombing of Japanese cities--primarily because it was decided on the basis of European experience that other targeting priorities were more effective. Although the slow implementation of this order was just beginning in early August, some who argue that the atomic bomb saved Japan months of additional city bombing do not seem to be aware of this change. [THE DECISION, p. 630.]

Much more important is the fact that the decision NOT to utilize the other available alternatives almost certainly cost lives--and quite possibly cost more American casualties than are held to have been saved by the atomic bomb:

The fact is the atomic bomb had one extremely significant draw-back: It could not be ready until August; the Administration had to wait for it. . .

What men like Grew and in the end Stimson (and Hoover, Ralph Bard and others) were arguing was that they believed the war could--and should--be ended earlier (or at least a serious effort should have been made--most likely around Memorial Day, after a new series of bombings, as Grew urged; or in late June after the fall of Okinawa; or at the very least before the bomb was actually used). A number of those who urged an early clarification of terms were also clearly thinking of the forthcoming Russian attack--and wished if possible to end the war before the Red Army got into Manchuria (which, of course, would also almost certainly mean before August when it was expected that the atomic bomb would be ready).

During the earlier period, certain complications arose because some feared that a premature move might weaken public support for continuing the war. However, as the summer progressed such considerations were no longer critical at the highest levels of decision-making. The simple fact is--as Martin Sherwin has emphasized, and as Secretary of War Stimson later acknowledged-- the decision to delay offering assurances for the Emperor until after the bomb had been tested carried with it the potential of prolonging the war, and, too, therefore, of increasing American casualties. As noted above, the subsequent related but new decision to remove assurances for the Emperor from the Potsdam Proclamation also made it all but impossible for Japan to surrender--and had similar implications. [THE DECISION, p. 634]

Furthermore, the decision not to include the Soviet Union as a signatory to the Potsdam Proclamation reduced the threat facing Japan, thereby also adding to the risks. Minimally, this removed another element from the arsenal of strategic options which could help speed a Japanese decision to surrender.

We shall never know, of course, whether Stimson (and Sherwin) were right--or what might have happened had the two-step strategy been followed. We do know, however, that the question of American casualties was not an overriding consideration in the choices made in connection with these decisions--and, too, that several thousand men in arms lost their lives during the months U.S. decision-makers held back a clarification of terms while they waited for the atomic bomb.


All materials cited in the above are available at the following Home Page: They may also be obtained by request via e-mail by clicking:

Many are also now available on the new H-DIPLO web-site:

Please click to go to the following:

Part IV of The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

Main Debate Page

To return to the Hiroshima: Was it Necessary? Home Page, click Home Page (