Why Did President Truman Drop The Atomic Bomb?

Why Did President Truman Drop The Atomic Bomb?

Many think President Truman could have used some other means to compel the Japanese to surrender than atomic bombs. Is this the case?

At the end of World War II, few questioned Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most Americans accepted the obvious reasoning: the atomic bombings brought the war to a more timely end. They did not have a problem with over one hundred thousand of the enemy being killed.

After all, the Japanese attacked America, and not the other way around. In later years, however, many have begun to question the conventional wisdom of “Truman was saving lives,” putting forth theories of their own.

However, when one examines the issue with great attention to the results of the atomic bombings and compares these results with possible alternatives to using said bombs, the line between truth and fiction begins to clear. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan was for the purpose of saving lives and ending the war quickly in order to prevent a disastrous land invasion.

The people who are now questioning Truman’s motives are often known as Revisionists because they attempt to revise common perceptions of history, proposing alternate theories and motives.

As early as 1946, they began to postulate new ideas, but their words only began to receive credence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Revisionists contend that Truman either had ulterior motives in the dropping of the atomic bombs or that he used these bombs on Japan for an entirely different reason, one that had nothing to do with saving lives.

Most people who were alive at the time of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, especially veterans, subscribe to the “traditional” belief that Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs on Japan solely for military reasons.

A timely end to the war would mean that no land invasion of Japan is necessary. Such an invasion would have been extraordinarily costly in terms of not only American lives but also in terms of Japanese dead.

Ending the war quickly would return soldiers to their homes and allow Americans to begin a life of normality again.

The Revisionists, however, believe that Truman had either partially or entirely different reasons for bombing Japan. They believe that the destruction of two Japanese cities would accomplish several things. Most obviously, it would punish the Japanese for the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the atrocious treatment of American prisoners of war.

Also, an atomic bombing of Japan is the only thing that would justify the expense of the Manhattan Project. If this expense was not justified, Truman would have faced a Congressional inquiry into the misappropriation of $2 billion.

Not only did he want to avoid Congressional hearings, but he also wanted another term of office. His chances of reelection would have been nil if it were learned by the general public that he wasted money and American lives by shelving a weapon that could have ended the war more quickly.

The final Revisionist claim is that Truman wanted to give the U.S. an edge in the coming Cold War by showing that he was not afraid to use these weapons of mass destruction.

They also say that Truman should have chosen one of the several available ways to compel a Japanese surrender without an atomic bombing of two cities. The most obvious alternative is an American invasion of Japan.

Olympic was the code name given to the planned American invasion of Kyushu, one of the four Japanese home islands, if an atomic bomb were not available by late October. Two separate estimates exist to rate the number of American casualties that would result from such an invasion. A joint war plans committee comprised of the army and navy came to the conclusion that 46,000 Americans would die in an invasion of Kyushu and later Honshu.

The number of American wounded averaged three to one during the later years of the war, so according to this estimate, 175,000 American casualties were not out of the question. However, these figures were based on such tentative intelligence that George Marshall, the army’s chief of staff, bluntly rejected them.

A second estimate proposed by Admiral Leahy was much higher. The invasion of Iwo Jima caused 6,200 American deaths, and the U. S. outnumbered the Japanese by four to one. Okinawa cost 13,000 U. S. servicemen, and they outnumbered the Japanese by two and one-half to one. These 13,000 men made up more than 35% of the U. S. landing force.

Consequently, Admiral Leahy came to the conclusion that it was absurd to think that any less than 35% of the American force that invaded Japan would be killed. Based on the estimate of 560,000 Japanese soldiers in Kyushu as of early August, Leahy predicted that, at the very minimum, over 250,000 American soldiers would lie dead as a result of an invasion of the Japanese islands.

It was later found that the troop strength in Kyushu was greatly underestimated and that by August 6, the Japanese had over 900,000 men stationed in Kyushu, nearly twice as many as thought.

Leahy estimates that the Americans would have a preponderance when, in fact, the 767,000 American soldiers who would comprise the landing force were already greatly outnumbered three months before Operation Olympic was actually to begin. By November, Japanese troop strength could easily double or triple, making between 500,000 and 1,000,000 American deaths conceivable.

These numbers do not even begin to account for the Japanese dead. In Okinawa, twice as many Japanese were killed as Americans. It is, therefore, plausible that between 100,000 (according to the earliest estimate) and two million soldiers would die in an invasion. This number does not include Japanese civilians dead, which could conceivably have been even higher than the number of dead soldiers.

The Japanese army was already training its civilians to fight with sharpened bamboo poles.

According to samurai tradition, there was no more honorable way to die than to do so for Japan and the emperor, and the civilians were quite prepared to take this philosophy to heart. Using sharpened pikes, the Japanese could easily prevent a military government from being effective in those towns that the U.S. had captured.

Further and even more brutal was the training of young children to be “Sherman carpets.” Japanese children were to be strapped with TNT and throw themselves under American tanks, thereby dying in the most honorable way possible–by killing the enemy.

It can be assumed that at least as many civilians would have died as soldiers, bringing the total somewhere around 200,000 to four million Japanese dead, along with the 50,000 to one million American dead, totaling 250,000 to five million total dead.

It was hoped that the Japanese military would capitulate once American forces occupied the Tokyo Plain, but it is possible that they would fight to the last man.

On Saipan, nearly 900 Japanese killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner by Americans. Such was the Japanese philosophy to fight to the last man. If an entire nation was compelled to launch suicide attacks against the occupying army, it is conceivable that many, many millions of Japanese civilians would die.

In order to make an accurate comparison between the dropping of the atomic bombs and Operation Olympic, one must be adequately knowledgeable of the destruction that took place in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Hiroshima bombing killed about 66,000 people and devastated 4. 4 square miles, over two-thirds of the city. The Nagasaki bombing killed about 39,000 people and destroyed half the city, bringing the total to 105,000 Japanese dead.

The Hiroshima bombing

Of the Revisionist theories, the most common one is that Truman simply wanted to impress Stalin by dropping the atomic bomb. This is simply not the case.

The most imperative thing on Truman’s mind as he let the bombings go forward was that they would prevent a land invasion of Kyushu and the massive loss of life, both American and Japanese, that would accompany such an invasion. Ironically, atomic bombs were to be used to clear the beachheads for Operation Olympic if an invasion had been necessary.

Scientists had assured Truman, erroneously, that sufficient radiation would have cleared from the beaches to allow American soldiers to land in safety. Even if Truman had chosen to invade instead of use the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they would still have been used, just in a different capacity.

Furthermore, if Truman had wanted to impress Stalin, he would not have told Stalin that the United States had “produced a bomb of extraordinary power.” Instead, he would have let the shock have its effect on both the Soviet Union and Japan.

The only way anyone can judge Truman’s motives in dropping the atomic bomb is by analyzing the result of his decision.

No one can know, even by reading his personal diary, the exact reasons he had for using the bomb. It was likely a combination of many: punishment, justification of cost, saving lives, and ending the war as quickly as possible. However, it is evident that in the “grand scheme of things,” the use of the atomic bomb saved lives.

About 105,000 Japanese lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While this is a high number, the number who died in the American bombing raids on the six largest Japanese cities is far greater, about 250,000. Consequently, such a large number of deaths is by no means unprecedented.

An invasion of Japan would possibly have cost between 250,000 and three million Japanese and American lives and ended the war four months later, at the very earliest. It may be concluded that no more people died in the atomic bombings than would have in an invasion of Kyushu and that said bombings did have the effect of ending the war more quickly.

Truman’s motives, therefore, cannot be called into question in light of the results of his decision. At least, in this case, the end justifies the means.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.

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