We all know the story, on a day in August the Atomic Age began when a lone B-29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay destroyed most of the city of Hiroshima with a single bomb.
The man who ordered the strike, new United States President Harry S Truman, had little choice. The war in the Pacific had started bad and gotten worse. While his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt had put the country in a position where it couldn’t lose, it was not quite ready to win yet either.
Truman, a Great War Artillery Soldier, probably had heard of the theory of an atomic bomb but to find out the US had a few functioning ones was surely a mind blowing revelation. After a couple of days wrapping his mind around the concept he had to consider a bunch of other thorny issues too.
The idea that the bomb would be dropped on a city that was mostly military in nature was the idea, but lets face it a city is a city. Cities are full of women and children and all manner of non combatants. So it was going to be a punishing and cruel strike.
That the Americans couldn’t lose the war was pretty obvious to the Imperial Japanese. Theyd bitten off more than they could chew and after stunning initial success the US had pounded them into near submission. Still, they were game to keep fighting. They were never going to win but they weren’t as close to the brink of defeat as some historians like to say. They could have held out for a couple of more years at the expense of their civilians if their own crazy plans are any indication. And just because they were now less of a threat we weren’t about to just walk away with a simple apology. Too much had happened. This was WAR!
How could a Japanese nation shattered by years of total war still be in the game? The Empire had become ruthless even to it’s own. There were soldiers, child soldiers, suicide soldiers, child suicide soldiers and everything in between.
Some historians have argued that the dropping of the Atomic Bomb was an unnecessary slaughter. While it’s a compelling argument the facts are Truman’s hands were tied and cuffed on this. The reasons Truman had no choice but to drop the Bomb range from the mundane to the sublime and only really made sense in 1945.
Here’s a few of the hard facts the Anti-Truman Anti-Bomb Historians are overlooking.
Several Paths to a Bomb
Dropping the bomb is viewed as the biggest decision of 1945, the truth is dropping the bomb was the biggest decision of every year from the moment the war starts.
Everyone is aware we had two bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy. What gets lost is that these bombs, and the third path Germany follows for a while using Heavy Water, required completely different teams and parallel facilities. Even better, no one can say for sure in 1941 that any of them would actually work. Early on it looked like the German method seems best, probably because they had something of a head start.
Here’s where the German’s really squander their Human Capital with Racist Theories. The Heavy Water guys were just the ones who passed racial muster. The rest of the people working on atomic power in Germany were jewish or just hated the Nazi’s and split. There’s a whole book in how Hitler lost the war just by chasing away the geniuses who would produce the American Bomb (with much notable help).
Franklin Roosevelt shows amazing judgement and immense resolve. Hearing of the possibilities and potential of an Atomic Bomb he first tosses the Heavy Water method away out of hand. He then greenlights TWO development projects; one for each remaining bomb making method. He couldn’t care less about the costs; he was scared of the Germans making one first! So like a shrewd gambler he split his hand and doubled down. It worked, but only after years of money sucking trials and work. Not everyone loved this idea, but FDR was a badass. He put the Manhattan Project in motion.
War Bonds, War Bonds, War Bonds
The Manhattan Project cost no less than 2 BILLION dollars in 1945. This would be about 27 Trillion dollars according to the inflation calculator I found.
What does this mean? Well we would never have been short of things like advanced landing craft for the Pacific Island Hopping campaigns. A not that small convoy of aircraft carriers covered with attack planes, or literally many hundreds of destroyers!
Maybe the only reason so much money was spent on one project was simply because more money wouldn’t have cranked anything out any faster. Industrial capacity was pretty well maximized.
Japan’s Last Gambit Backfires
Fortune favors to the brave, or so the Imperial Japanese thought. The sheer bravery, gallantry isn’t the word, of the Japanese in the closing months of the war was on the upswing despite the situation. As the US waged its planned penultimate invasion, in Okinawa, the Empire pulled out all the stops.
The thinking of the Imperial Military High Command and the Emperor was that a decisive engagement was needed before negotiations could begin or Japan would get terrible terms. So they threw the kitchen sink at the Americans.
Okinawa made Normandy look easy. Unmitigated slaughter pretty much covers it. You’re chances of surviving Normandy were also a whole lot better no matter where or when you landed. Instead of a Longest Day many Interminable Weeks passed.
The Imperial Japanese shocked the already hardcore Americans with savage waves of kamikaze attacks. While not new the scale increased dramatically. The Japanese fought like there was no tomorrow because in fact there wasn’t any. Their desperate hope- to scare the Americans into generous peace terms by warring harder than ever, is as crazy and doomed as it sounds.
On the island the landings were initially unopposed, that soon changed as casualties began to mount. The Imperial Navy joined in the kamikaze spirit and suffered incredible losses.
Any decent documentary on Okinawa provides plenty of oral histories from American and Japanese survivors attesting to the savagery of the battle. Most accounts speak of a blurring of the lines between civilians and soldiers that sounds more like Vietnam horror stories than anything from World War Two. Civilians had been militarized and that included the children I mentioned earlier. It was estimated about 150,000 citizens would participate in resistance. Having seen the child soldiers in Europe no one was in the mood for that again.
The Americans found nothing but unsettling things on Okinawa. Death ran rampant among the US ranks, taking even noted war journalist Ernie Pyle during the operation. A mass of civilian suicides was witnessed by many Americans. One man suicide subs and other crazy last resort weapons turned up and had their desired effect without being used- they scared the Hell out of the American brass.
The endless storm of kamikaze’s cant be understated. In one engagement 2 hit the carrier Bunker Hill in 30 seconds. It was only saved by the sheer heroism of her crew. And many other ships fared much worse. At times the Navy was in danger of not being able to fully support the landings. Expectations had to be scaled back as the Japanese gut punched and groin kicked America over and over, putting the giant on the ropes but never knocking him out. Finally, punched out and exhausted the Americans summoned and dealt a knock out blow then took a breath.
Despite ultimately achieving victory, between Okinawa’s D-Day on April 1st til they finally ‘won’ on June 22nd the Americans (and their Allies such as their were) suffered 50,000 casualties. The Japanese lost 100,000 in military deaths alone.
The Japanese High Command had achieved what they wanted. The Americans couldn’t have been more scared. That much they predicted correctly, how the Americans would handle it was something they didn’t do quite so good a job at predicting from their foe.
Firestorms From The Sky
The Air War against Japan benefitted from a new invention in 1945, napalm. This coincided with the Japanese decentralizing their war manufacturing across entire cities. So we burned those cities to ash. The civilian casualties in these raids was astronomical. We had done stuff as bad in Europe, but only a couple of times. We sort of went crazy on the Japanese. Hey, we thought we were going to invade! The firebomb attacks produce staggering civilian casualty levels, some higher than the atomic attacks. Despite this their High Command and Cabinet were still looking for terms.
By the middle of 1945 the US had Air Superiority if not Air Supremacy all over the islands of Japan and the surrounding waters. The city buster campaign was highly successful. It didn’t, however, stop the Japanese from fighting back as best they could and it definitely wasn’t getting them to feel bad enough for their own people to surrender.
With Okinawa fallen rather than make a realistic peace-offering the Japanese war cabinet was thinking about terms as insane as trying their own war criminals. They don’t have what they once had but they could still keep the Kamikaze’s coming and other crazy and scary attack methods as doomed as they were novel. From the US perspective things had just gotten worse. The writing was on the wall; we had to take the home islands to end this thing.
So don’t let anyone tell you they were trying in good faith to get things we ultimately gave them. This was a society fracturing. It’s cities are in ruins, everyone knows someone whose died. The government was getting by on sheer patriotism and the peoples fear and hatred of the Americans (who were actually destroying their cities all the time).
And then there was the way the war against Japan was sold to the American people.
US Homefront Propaganda and Mindset
The two biggest things bought to the surface by the War were America’s festering racism problem that coexisted with a general sense of shared sacrifice.
Throughout the war the United States Government had asked the people of America to sacrifice. People were getting by better than in Europe and probably better than during the Depression, but there was privation. Add to this the non stop Patriotic propaganda they were subjected to no matter what movie they went to. The average American felt like they had a stake in the war even if no one they really knew was fighting (unlikely).
Meanwhile FDR was a great president who will forever wear the shame of locking up a bunch of Americans (the west coast Japanese) for the way they were born. And he set the tone. Racism was in the air as our segregated military went out to fight even bigger racists.
While we ended up winning, World War Two can best be described as a total fucking disaster where the brutality was unprecedented. The US is only in for three and a half years, but its a bloodbath every minute. It strained the institutions. While mostly benevolent FDR serving four terms alone shows how strained things were in America. Closer to home, telegrams from the War Department informing of the loss of a friend or loved one were a feared but daily reality.
By 1945 people in America are simply pissed. Everyone remembered December 7th 1941, when it seemed like it we were definitely going to lose and fast! Cautious optimism was budding, but fear the Japanese had a few more tricks up their sleeve or could turn the tables again were real and rampant.
Starting from the ineptitude of Pearl Harbor and MacArthur’s initial inaction blowing up on him the war in the Pacific was complicated by outright racism of the kind usually ascribed to 19th century British Colonial Commands. They just did not respect the enemy like they did the Germans. The Germans were shown as a bunch of crazy hostile people. The Japanese were shown as a bunch of crazy hostile ANIMALS.
The America of 1945 had to be lived in to truly comprehend, but it was a world with very little air conditioning. Heat could be a problem too. The three biggest bargains (aside from booze) was vaudeville, a baseball game (if you lived in the right city) or the movies. All cost about the same and lasted several hours. The theaters were heated and air conditioned. And you bought a ticket to watch movies all day sometimes, especially on the weekends.
From the cartoons in at the beginning to the newsreels that presaged our modern TV news the War and anti-Enemy propaganda was there. Imagine a day like this- about 11 you hit the movie theater. They show a Bugs Bunny or Disney cartoon themed to the war, sometimes its racist as all Hell. Thats a half hour of fun. Then perhaps a brief recruiting film. Then there would be a newsreel showing American winning but dying and suffering none the less. The an episode of “Why We Fight”, perhaps the most sophisticated piece of American Homefront Propaganda. Then you might see “Back to Bataan” or any number of mediocre patriotic wallet openers for the pitch for War Bonds. Then a second movie, hopefully escapist, though its still going to feature the war as a trying but just cause. Think “It’s a Wonderful Life” or even “Mr Lucky”, which is a guilt trip to motivate slick guys and semi criminals to change their ways and join the military for the big win. Hollywood went to war too.
Harry Truman doesn’t seem to massively disagree with what Hollywood put out there, though he was sort of less racist than say Trump is now in his speeches and interviews for sure. He probably largely agreed with Hollywood’s image of the Japanese but had the perspective of knowing we’re not going to lose from the moment he takes office. He also knows Japan just isn’t quite done and isn’t really on the brink of defeat short of a costly invasion.
He couldn’t escape the problem of how differently the two wars were sold. For one thing the Germans were shown as the greater threat. Americans were wondering “FDR had beat the formidable Nazi evil geniuses and their army of Supermen; what was taking Truman so long with the second rate Japanese? They can’t see well and are no match physically for the average American anyway!” (per the military and Hollywood). Their image of being strange with crazy religious beliefs was just the way it was by the end of the war.
And they were also shown as vicious. It was a different world. I’m not saying it was right but hey, there was a national paranoia from the beginning of the war where it looks like we will likely lose!
Then there’s the real atrocities. Its a different blog post for another time. The bottom line is with few exceptions the Imperial Japanese were very bit as mean and murderous as the Nazis. They were had initially sort of modeled their government on 19th century Britain but they had imposed fascism onto it.
In fact if you think of the Japanese as modelling themselves on the British around World War Two its a great fit. They had an island nation so the analogy worked. They model their navy on the British to a point and definitely their foreign policy. So they run around Asia for like 13 years just massacring and oppressing people.
The bad treatment as we all know extended to torturing and killing US prisoners they had taken. Some escaped with harrowing tales. Proof had surfaced in the States and the brutality of the Japanese is well documented. It wasn’t really a delusion. Their own War Crimes Trials show they were heartless murderers who couldnt be bothered to control their thug soldiers.
So if you were sitting in Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field that August you would see countless servicemen. You were hit up for War Bonds on the way in I’m sure. The guy next to you shared a few sips of booze while you flagged down the beer guy (in American League Stadiuns only!) and you talked about the war between batters. And everyone hated the Japanese and wanted it over tomorrow. And every person in that stadium agreed that it was better to kill 200 thousand “Japs” than lose even one more American. It was a lot like right after 9-11 when we would have preferred peace but since we had been attacked we were all like ‘fuck them’ for awhile.
Truman’s Stark Reality – Impeachment
In Washington new American president Truman found out about the Manhattan Project when FDR dies. From all accounts he struggled to understand it at first and basically spent the time it took to figure out he didnt really need to know how it worked to use it.
Then he got hit with a price tag so huge that figuring out the Bomb was childs play compared to justifying the Manhattan Project to the country! With the Germans beyond the brink of collapse the opportunity to use it in Europe was a razor thin series of weeks where the Germans are so finished it was judged unneccessary, and cruel by Eisenhower. It was a non issue.
Japan however, well they were unleashing the sort of tactics the Germans had fallen to at the very end, suicidal child soldiers, and worse. The war in Europe was much worse in the East, but the US had taken a beating from the Nazis and their allies all the same. No one was going to think that trillions of dollars more in conventional equipment wouldnt have saved lives. To be fair we probably could have unleashed so much tactical air support on Normandy every unit on the ground could have had a squadron of P-51 Mustangs tasked right to it with the kind of money we’re talking about. So there’s that – it’s the Biggest Single Project the US Government would attempt until the Moon Landing but bigger, costlier and much faster. And deadlier.
Had he not dropped the bomb he surely would have been impeached. It would have been after a likely horrible and costly invasion of Japan and a much different Occupation than that which came to pass. It could have taken years to pacify!
Truman was following a legend as president, but he himself had some image problems when it came to his apparent intelligence not seen again til George W Bush. Following Hendrix at Woodstock would have been easier. Congress would have ruminated on the Decision not to drop the Bomb and history would be different. Truman would have been the first American President Impeached and maybe even locked up! There’s no way this doesn’t go through Truman’s head.
And then there’s the Russians. The Red Scare hasnt started quite yet but he’s found out he’s got Russian spies in the mix. After watching Stalin waste hundreds of thousands of lives in the final months of the war, when victory was in hand (but the Germans werent quite ready to lose!) Truman was seeing Stalin as a crazy butcher. The Battle of Berlin alone is a slaughter that shocks the Western Allies.
So Truman at this point views Stalin as a guy who doesn’t even care about his own people, and he’s getting a little frisky in the aftermath of the European war. Truman didnt know Stalin was aware of the bomb, but he knew news of the bomb, used or not would get out. He was probably afraid that if he seemed too compassionate Stalin would literally jerk him around and maybe act more aggressively than he already was. So that was it, he was gonna drop that bomb and show Stalin he was no loser while maybe dusting off the Japanese once and for all. If he tried and the Japanese still wouldn’t give up the public wouldn’t blame him.
He didn’t know yet he would become the president with the very lowest approval ratings in Gallup History, but he surely knew his hold on power was tenuous. While not power mad Truman had plans to win an election his own down the road (which he does).
Getting Impeached for fucking up the end of a War people felt was all but won and just wanted over didn’t figure in to Truman’s plans.
The Scrapped Invasion
Crazy MacArthur was keen to invade the Japanese mainland. He probably was pissed when the Bomb makes the invasion unnecessary. There’s some evidence he was looking to use a whole bunch of bombs to sock his way through the island nation. He already had a careless attitude towards WMD’s that would cost him his job in Korea (after another failure to defend properly despite intelligence).
Theres been so much written about the Invasion, and the outright fear of doing it, that I’m not going to talk about it much. The term half million men lost has been thrown around. Lets say we got off easy and it was only 100 thousand, thats your backdrop to the Truman Impeachment Hearing that absolutely happens if he tries this without using the Bomb first.
So he picked up the phone and said “Dammit, drop that thing that blows the fuck out of a city on the rotten bastards!” (or something close to that)
After the Bomb
The Japanese War Cabinet still can’t get it together enough to surrender. They had to be hit again with another bomb and see their society cracking right in front of them before they just finally give up. Thats sort of the final spoke in any argument about the bomb. It says a lot.