Why did America drop the atomic bomb on the civilian population of Japan?

Answer by Dan Holliday:

It’s challenging to look back at events, 70 years later, and understand the logic of using an atomic bomb without allowing one scrap of knowledge learned since 1945 to creep into our decision making.  All of this being said, it’s still possible to come to the conclusion that using this weapon was wrong. William D. Leahy –the Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief (precursor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) came to that conclusion:

It is my opinion that 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 because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.
. . .in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages (William D. Leahy, pg. 441).

So why did the US use the atomic bomb?  It was likely a combination of several important factors.

  1. Unconditional surrender was the standard against all the Axis powers.  Germany was invaded and crushed by the allies.  All of its cities were burned to the ground without mercy.  Nothing but unconditional surrender was acceptable per the Potsdam Declaration.
  2. The US military projected casualties upwards of a million in the invasion of Japan.  Where did they come up with such a ridiculous number?  The invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima.  The invasions of these small islands resulted in casualties of 150,000 US service personnel.  It was hard to imagine that an invasion of the mainlands of Japan would be less.
  3. The notion that Japan would surrender after beachheads were created by the US (and to a lesser degree, British and Soviet forces) was ridiculous to them because the Germans, significantly less brainwashed by religion and pride, never did so after Soviet, British and American soldiers entered their homeland.  The way the Japanese soldiers fought to the death was worse than what the Germans did.
  4. The belief that a military blockade would end the war wasn’t believed any more than a military blockade without invasion of Germany would work.
  5. The Truman Administration was rightly worried about the fact that a million casualties would be too much for the American public and that even without massive public anger or a domestic revolt, his administration would be forced to confront the American public with the news of so many dead and be destroyed by the failure to save American lives while having the possession of a weapon that could end the war instantly. 

    And that’s the key. Can you imagine a sitting President going before the American people and congressional investigations saying, “Why yes, we did have this powerful weapon that could have totally obliterated the Empire of Japan in an instant and save your sons and daughters…. No, Senator, we felt it was more important to save the lives of Japanese people than it was to save the lives of our people, even despite all the medical experiments conducted by Japan on innocent civilians as grotesque as those by the Nazis. . . and the marches of death that they conducted against our soldiers, and the raping of women; the extermination of several dozen million Chinese allies, our friends. . .but we felt it prudent to look out for the welfare of their people more than our own who had been dragged merciously into this bloody war through a sneak attack on our base in Hawaii.”

    Can you just IMAGINE the massive, beyond-your-imagination, public upheaval after the American public discovered that there was this “superweapon” that could have saved all of our lives and that the government decided NOT to use it out of some slavish devotion to saving their civilians?  It would mean total and complete destruction of that presidential administration.

  6. The United States warned Japan in leaflets dropped all over that nation, warning of total destruction.  The Potsdam Declaration had promised Japan that it wouldn’t be a slave nation and that it would be able to retain control of the Home Islands and its own industries.  They did not surrender on those terms provided.
  7. The Atomic Bombs were the most expensive military project in the history before or since.  There was a “pot committed” attitude about the weapons that basically asserted, “Look, what did we create these for, if not to destroy the enemy?”
  8. This was a war between entire civilizations.  The Japanese home islands were prepared for all-out war even if invaded.  The civilians at home were as dangerous as the military at war.  This was true in Germany and Italy, where neither “surrendered” until almost totally destroyed and occupied.
  9. The total destruction of cities in World War II wasn’t something new.  No German city was spared.  The fire bombings of cities killed people in Germany and Japan already and the Atomic Bomb was simply affect the same result but only quicker.
  10. There is some [not-all-that-unreasonable] speculation that the US was going to have to face down another empire after World War II was finished and that it wanted an opportunity to scare that enemy back away from expansion by demonstrating the destructive power of the United States.  While there isn’t a lot of information to support this, there is evidence that Truman & Co. were well aware that they needed to start preparing for what many considered an inevitable confrontation with the Soviets.

As it turned out, the “warning shot” of Hiroshima didn’t get the Japanese to surrender.  Even after an entire city was wiped out, the Japanese war council voted to keep on fighting.  So people advocating a “warning shot” in Tokyo Harbor really don’t have much of a leg to stand on.  First, the US only had three weapons; the notion that the United States should/would waste one of three of the most expensive weapons in history, giving one of the most evil nation-states inn the history of humanity a “warning shot”, essentially wasting a third of the US’s capacity really never passes the smell test.

After Hiroshima, Nagasaki was destroyed, even then, the Japanese didn’t immediately surrender.  It was, in fact, the declaration of war by the Soviets and the invasion of Manchuria along with the bombings of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki that finally forced the Japanese to surrender.  Had the Soviets been given the opportunity to invade from the north, it was no secret that the atrocities committed by the Soviets would be catastrophic to say the least.  The Emperor ultimately won the day, but not without political unrest and an attempted coup to continue the war effort.

Why did America drop the atomic bomb on the civilian population of Japan?

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