Needless slaughter, useful terror

by William Blum

written spring 1995


Does winning World War II and the Cold War mean never having

to say you're sorry? The Germans have apologized to the Jews and

to the Poles. The Japanese have apologized to the Chinese and

the Koreans, and to the United States for failing to break off

diplomatic relations before attacking Pearl Harbor. The Russians

have apologized to the Poles for atrocities committed against

civilians, and to the Japanese for abuse of prisoners. The

Soviet Communist Party even apologized for foreign policy errors

that "heightened tension with the West".{1}

Is there any reason for the U.S. to apologize to Japan for

atomizing Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Those on opposing sides of this question are lining up in

battle formation for the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the

atom bombs on August 6 and 9. During last year's raw-meat

controversy surrounding the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay

exhibit, U.S. veterans went ballistic. They condemned the

emphasis on the ghastly deaths caused by the bomb and the

lingering aftereffects of radiation, and took offense at the

portrayal of Japanese civilians as blameless victims. An Air

Force group said vets were "feeling nuked".{2}

In Japan, too, the anniversary has rekindled controversy.

The mayors of the two Japanese cities in question spoke out about

a wide "perception gap" between the two countries.{3} Nagasaki

Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima, surmounting a cultural distaste for

offending, called the bombings "one of the two great crimes

against humanity in the 20th Century, along with the


Defenders of the U.S. action counter that the bomb actually

saved lives: It ended the war sooner and obviated the need for a

land invasion. Estimates of the hypothetical saved-body count,

however, which range from 20,000 to 1.2 million, owe more to

political agendas than to objective projections.{5}

But in any event, defining the issue as a choice between the

A-bomb and a land invasion is an irrelevant and wholly false

dichotomy. By 1945, Japan's entire military and industrial

machine was grinding to a halt as the resources needed to wage

war were all but eradicated. The navy and air force had been

destroyed ship by ship, plane by plane, with no possibility of

replacement. When, in the spring of 1945, the island nation's

lifeline to oil was severed, the war was over except for the

fighting. By June, Gen. Curtis LeMay, in charge of the air

attacks, was complaining that after months of terrible

firebombing, there was nothing left of Japanese cities for his

bombers but "garbage can targets". By July, U.S. planes could

fly over Japan without resistance and bomb as much and as long as

they pleased. Japan could no longer defend itself.{6}

After the war, the world learned what U.S. leaders had known

by early 1945: Japan was militarily defeated long before

Hiroshima. It had been trying for months, if not for years, to

surrender; and the U.S. had consistently rebuffed these

overtures. A May 5 cable, intercepted and decoded by the U.S.,

dispelled any possible doubt that the Japanese were eager to sue

for peace. Sent to Berlin by the German ambassador in Tokyo,

after he talked to a ranking Japanese naval officer, it read:


Since the situation is clearly recognized to be hopeless,

large sections of the Japanese armed forces would not

regard with disfavor an American request for capitulation

even if the terms were hard.{7}


As far as is known, Washington did nothing to pursue this

opening. Later that month, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson

almost capriciously dismissed three separate high-level

recommendations from within the Roosevelt administration to

activate peace negotiations. The proposals advocated signaling

Japan that the U.S. was willing to consider the all-important

retention of the emperor system; i.e., the U.S. would not insist

upon "unconditional surrender".{8}

Stimson, like other high U.S. officials, did not really care

in principle whether or not the emperor was retained. The term

"unconditional surrender" was always a propaganda measure; wars

are always ended with some kind of conditions. To some extent

the insistence was a domestic consideration -- not wanting to

appear to "appease" the Japanese. More important, however, it

reflected a desire that the Japanese not surrender before the

bomb could be used. One of the few people who had been aware of

the Manhattan Project from the beginning, Stimson had come to

think of it as his bomb, "my secret", as he called it in his

diary.{9} On June 6, he told President Truman he was "fearful"

that before the A-bombs were ready to be delivered, the Air Force

would have Japan so "bombed out" that the new weapon "would not

have a fair background to show its strength".{10} In his later

memoirs, Stimson admitted that "no effort was made, and none was

seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to

have to use the bomb".{11}

And that effort could have been minimal. In July, before

the leaders of the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union met

at Potsdam, the Japanese government sent several radio messages

to its ambassador, Naotake Sato, in Moscow, asking him to request

Soviet help in mediating a peace settlement. "His Majesty is

extremely anxious to terminate the war as soon as possible", said

one communication. "Should, however, the United States and Great

Britain insist on unconditional surrender, Japan would be forced

to fight to the bitter end."{12}

On July 25, while the Potsdam meeting was taking place,

Japan instructed Sato to keep meeting with Russian Foreign Minister

Molotov to impress the Russians "with the sincerity of our desire to

end the war [and] have them understand that we are trying to end

hostilities by asking for very reasonable terms in order to secure

and maintain our national existence and honor" (a reference to

retention of Emperor Hirohito).{13}

Having broken the Japanese code years earlier, Washington

did not have to wait to be informed by the Soviets of these peace

overtures; it knew immediately, and did nothing. Indeed, the

National Archives in Washington contains U.S. government documents

reporting similarly ill-fated Japanese peace overtures as far back

as 1943.{14}

Thus, it was with full knowledge that Japan was frantically

trying to end the war, that President Truman and his hardline

secretary of state, James Byrnes, included the term "unconditional

surrender" in the July 26 Potsdam Declaration. This "final warning"

and expression of surrender terms to Japan was in any case a charade.

The day before it was issued, Harry Truman had approved the order to

release a 15 kiloton atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima.{15}

Many U.S. military officials were less than enthusiastic

about the demand for unconditional surrender or use of the atomic

bomb. At the time of Potsdam, Gen. Hap Arnold asserted that

conventional bombing could end the war. Adm. Ernest King believed a

naval blockade alone would starve the Japanese into submission.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, convinced that retaining the emperor was

vital to an orderly transition to peace, was appalled at the demand

for unconditional surrender. Adm. William Leahy concurred. Refusal

to keep the emperor "would result only in making the Japanese desperate

and thereby increase our casualty lists," he argued, adding that a

nearly defeated Japan might stop fighting if unconditional surrender

were dropped as a demand. At a loss for a military explanation for use

of the bomb, Leahy believed that the decision "was clearly a political

one", reached perhaps "because of the vast sums that had been spent on

the project".{16} Finally, we have Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's account of

a conversation with Stimson in which he told the secretary of war that:


Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb

was completely unnecessary. ... I thought our country

should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a

weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer

mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was

my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking

some way to surrender with a minimum loss of "face".

The secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude,

almost angrily refuting the reasons I gave for my quick




If, as appears to be the case, U.S. policy in 1945 was based

on neither the pursuit of the earliest possible peace nor the desire

to avoid a land invasion, we must look elsewhere to explain the

dropping of the A-bombs.

It has been asserted that dropping of the atomic bombs was

not so much the last military act of the Second World War as the

first act of the Cold War. Although Japan was targeted, the

weapons were aimed straight to the red heart of the USSR. For

three-quarters of a century, the determining element of U.S.

foreign policy, virtually its sine qua non, has been "the

communist factor" World War II and a battlefield alliance with

the Soviet Union did not bring about an ideological change in the

anti-communists who owned and ran America. It merely provided a

partial breather in a struggle that had begun with the U.S.

invasion of the Soviet Union in 1918.{18} It is hardly

surprising then, that 25 years later, as the Soviets were

sustaining the highest casualties of any nation in WW2, the U.S.

systematically kept them in the dark about the A-bomb project --

while sharing information with the British.

According to Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard,

Secretary of State Byrnes had said that the bomb's biggest

benefit was not its effect on Japan but its power to "make Russia

more manageable in Europe".{19}

The United States was thinking post-war. A Venezuelan

diplomat reported to his government after a May 1945 meeting that

Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller "communicated to

us the anxiety of the United States Government about the Russian

attitude". U.S. officials, he said, were "beginning to speak of

Communism as they once spoke of Nazism and are invoking

continental solidarity and hemispheric defense against it".{20}

Churchill, who had known about the weapon before Truman,

applauded and understood its use: "Here then was a speedy end to

the Second World War," he said about the bomb, and added,

thinking of Russian advances into Europe, "and perhaps to much

else besides. ... We now had something in our hands which would

redress the balance with the Russians."{21}

Referring to the immediate aftermath of Nagasaki, Stimson



In the State Department there developed a tendency to

think of the bomb as a diplomatic weapon. Outraged by

constant evidence of Russian perfidy, some of the men in

charge of foreign policy were eager to carry the bomb for

a while as their ace-in-the-hole. ... American statesmen

were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with

the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip.{22}


This policy, which came to be known as "atomic diplomacy", did

not, of course, spring forth full-grown on the day after Nagasaki.

"The psychological effect on Stalin [of the bombs] was

twofold," noted historian Charles L. Mee, Jr. "The Americans

had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as

Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last

chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the


After the Enola Gay released its cargo on Hiroshima, common

sense -- common decency wouldn't apply here -- would have

dictated a pause long enough to allow Japanese officials to

travel to the city, confirm the extent of the destruction, and

respond before the U.S. dropped a second bomb.

At 11 o'clock in the morning of August 9, Prime Minister

Kintaro Suzuki addressed the Japanese Cabinet: "Under the

present circumstances I have concluded that our only alternative

is to accept the Potsdam Proclamation and terminate the war."

Moments later, the second bomb fell on Nagasaki.{24} Some

hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians died in the two

attacks; many more suffered terrible injury and permanent genetic


After the war, His Majesty the Emperor still sat on his

throne, and the gentlemen who ran the United States had

absolutely no problem with this. They never had.



It has been argued, to the present day, that it wouldn't have

mattered if the United States had accepted the Japanese peace

overtures because the emperor was merely a puppet of the

military, and the military would never have surrendered without

the use of the A-bombs. This is an argument that not even the

American policymakers of the time placed weight upon because

they knew it was false. In any event, this doesn't excuse the US

government for not at least trying what was, from humanity's

point of view, the clearly preferable option. Moreover, the fact

is that "the emperor as puppet" thesis was a creation out of

whole cloth by General MacArthur, the military governor of Japan,

to justify his personal wish that the emperor not be tried as a

war criminal along with many other Japanese officials.

Exonerating Hirohito was also in line with the strategic needs of

the Truman administration.{25}





1. Los Angeles Times , June 26, 1988, p.8


2. Ibid., Aug. 3, 1994


3. Ibid., Mar. 16, 1995, p.1


4. Ibid.


5. In June and July 1945, Joint Chiefs of Staff committees

predicted that between 20,000 and 46,000 Americans would die in

the one or two invasions for which they had drawn contingency

plans. While still in office, President Truman usually placed

the number at about a quarter of a million, but by 1955 had

doubled it to half a million. Winston Churchill said the attacks

had spared well over 1.2 million Allies. (Barton Bernstein, "The

Myth of Lives Saved by A-bombs," Los Angeles Times, July 28,

1985, IV, p.1; Barton Bernstein, "Stimson, Conant, and Their

Allies Explain the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb," Diplomatic

History, Winter 1993, p.48.)


6. Stewart Udall, The Myths of August (Pantheon Books, NY, 1994),

pp.73, 75; Martin S. Quigley, Peace Without Hiroshima (Madison

Books, Lanham, MD, 1991), pp.105-6; Charles L. Mee, Jr., Meeting

at Potsdam (M. Evans, NY, 1975), p.76


7. Tim Weiner, "U.S. Spied on its World War II Allies," New York

Times, Aug. 11, 1993, p.9


8. Udall, pp.73-79


9. Ibid., p.73. Vice President Truman was never informed about

the bomb. After Roosevelt's death, when he assumed office, it

was Secretary of State James Byrnes who briefed him on the project.

(Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service

in Peace and War (Harper, NY, 1947). Bundy is recognized as the

principal author of these Stimson memoirs.


10. Udall, p.76


11. Stimson, p.629


12. Mee, p.23


13. Ibid., pp.235-6; See also: Hearings Before the Committee on

Armed Services and the Committee on Foreign Relations (US Senate),

June 25, 1951, p.3113, for reference to another peace overture.


14. Los Angeles Times, Jan. 9, 1995, p.5


15. Mee, p. 239


16. Ibid., pp.75, 78-9; and William Manchester, American Caesar:

Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 (Little Brown, Boston, 1978), p. 437


17. Dwight Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change,

1953-1956 (Doubleday, NY, 1963), pp.312-3


18. In an attempt, as Churchill said, to "strangle at its birth" the

infant Bolshevik state, the US launched tens of thousands of troops

and sustained 5,000 casualties.


19. Mee, p.22


20. Weiner, op. cit.


21. Mee, pp.89, 206; the first item is from Churchill's diary; in

the second, Churchill's aide is paraphrasing him.


22. Bernstein, Diplomatic History, pp.66-8. This passage, actually

written by Bundy for On Active Service, was deleted from that book

because of pressure from State Department official George F. Kennan.


23. Mee, p. 239


24. Ibid., pp. 288-9


25. Edward Behr, Hirohito: Beyond the Myth (Random House:

Villard Books, NY, 1989), chapter 24; The Guardian (London),

June 18, 1983



Written by William Blum, author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions

Since World War II;

William Blum page