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These comments by two scholars who are also retired senior U. S. Army officers come at a time marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that ended World War II. The reader will be aware of the controversy in recent years concerning the necessity or notof those bombings. These brief papers set forth an assessment of that need and an explanation therefor.– Ed.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki & the Bombs

by James L. Abrahamson and Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.

I. Potsdam Spurned
In August 1945—and for some time thereafter—Americans readily accepted President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few doubted that the weapons had saved lives and brought the Pacific war to a speedy end. By the 1960s, however, revisionist historians had begun to sketch an unattractive picture of America’s past, a perception that challenged the earlier judgment on Truman’s decision. In their writings, Truman had elected to destroy the two cities even as the Japanese government sought to surrender. He did so in this revisionist view because he thought that using atomic weapons would impress Joseph Stalin and make him more manageable in the postwar period.

The documentary record gives only debatable support to the interpretation of the atomic bombs’ critics, and a careful study of the available evidence indicates that, even from the Japanese perspective, the bombs ended the war with the loss of fewer lives than would have been incurred with continued bombing, a naval blockade, and an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Even so, the revisionists’ interpretation of Truman’s action reigned supreme within many university history faculties.

In the 1990s, however, the U.S. government began to release the records of the armed forces’ wartime interception and translation of Japanese radio traffic. These made clear that Japan in the summer of 1945 had no intention of surrendering, at least not on terms that the Allies would accept, and that the leaders of Japan’s armed forces believed they could defeat any Allied invasion of their homeland. Aided by a civil population trained for suicide attacks on American and Commonwealth soldiers, Japan expected either to turn the invaders back on the beaches or impose so many casualties on Allied ground forces that the American public would demand withdrawal and a negotiated settlement. That recent evidence should, but probably will not, end speculation about Truman’s alleged ulterior motives in dropping the bombs.

All that debate has unfortunately obscured the terms previously offered the Japanese by the 26 July 1945 Potsdam Declaration. Despite what Japan’s government told its people, the Allies had pledged that the Japanese would not be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation. Though those guilty of war crimes would be punished, Japan’s disarmed soldiers could return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful land productive lives. So long as Japan did not attempt to rearm, it could rebuild its industries and resume international trade.

The Allies would, however, occupy Japan, although only for the purpose of eliminating its militaristic social order and introducing a new order of peace and justice. To do so, they would strengthen democratic tendencies and the establishment of basic freedoms and fundamental human rights. With the accomplishment of those social and political objectives and the establishment of a responsible, freely elected government, the Allied occupation would be withdrawn.

In the end, however, it was the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria that forced the Japanese government to accept surrender. Two hundred thousand lives and immense destruction of property might have been avoided had Japan responded positively to the Potsdam Declaration.

The question considered from another angle—the reflection that follows—adds to our understand of why the Potsdam terms were summarily rejected, thereby adding further evidence that Japan had no interest in surrender-unconditional or even something well short of that position.

II. Idealism Reborn
In the final days of World War II in the Pacific, options dwindled and awesome events loomed that would shape the world and that would alter the ancient culture of the Japanese people. The sacrifices and suffering endured by both sides were etched upon both combatants and civilians who had struggled to preserve their most precious possessions—honor, comrades, and homelands—under the cloud of ominous threats. In these grim times American statesmen reached out with words of compromise, giving rise to hope among those wearing the heavy cloak of responsibility for young men they would lead in the bitter, final battles. Known as the Potsdam Declaration, the compromise offered Japan an opportunity to end the war, to avoid utter destruction, and to eliminate the militarism that had led to widespread destruction and death. Peace was offered Japan at Potsdam on terms that envisioned a new society established on the basis of freedom and democracy. These terms were unthinkable, however, to those exercising authority in the name of the emperor; the terms were totally alien to the ancient culture of the Japanese. And so the slender prospect for the end of slaughter quickly withered and died.

The ancient code of the Samurai was the problem. The Samurai leadership was in control and the code was immutable. The Potsdam Declaration required compromise and a surrender of control by the Samurai, which was totally incompatible with their concept of honor. The only option was death for the Samurai because to surrender was the equivalent of dying under that code. And if the Samurai no longer controlled the nation, it was in a sense the death of the Samurai.

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The atomic bombs broke the bonds that fused the national unity under military authority. It allowed the emperor to break free of the yoke of military leadership—or so it seems in retrospect. In the end, the Emperor was liberated from the Samurai warriors who reigned in his name. A new era dawned permitting the ideals of democratic rule, which was made possible by the awful rising sun of nuclear fission.It is an interesting juxtaposition of two very different societies wedded to pure idealism. The warrior code surrendered to democratic rule. The single constant was idealism; one ideal was feudal self-sacrifice to protect the empire, and the other ideal was self-rule by free men—a product of the Western Enlightenment. In the end, the Chrysanthemum Empire of the rising sun was reborn in the rising sun of nuclear warfare. Ancient idealism was reborn in modern form through sacrifice to redeem a failed militarized culture, one that had no place in the modern world. A new rising sun would liberate Japan and usher in the rebirth of the nation in freedom and democracy.


Col. Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., also is a retired U.S. Military Academy graduate, with thirty years service. He has published four books, including Only the Dead Came Home.


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