On August the 5th 1945, a B-29 bomber, named “Enola Gay” after the pilot’s mother, took off from North Field in Tinian, in Mariana Islands, carrying in its cargo bay, the first nuclear weapon to be dropped on a populated city. The world was about to find out the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, though it is not clear whether even the Japanese, against whom it was used, immediately understood the grim fate of Hiroshima and its citizens. The development of the atom bomb had been urged by scientists – Albert Einstein among them – who warned the United States administration about the risk of Germany developing such a weapon first. Germany – and not Japan – was the intended target of the bomb all through its development. Furthermore, the very scientists later urged the President of the United States not to use the weapon on humanitarian concerns.
The United States air force had been flying unchallenged over Japanese skies for months before, bombing Japanese cities including Tokyo and destroying them almost completely with conventional and incendiary bombs. It was calculated at that rate, they would run out of targets by September 1945. By July, The U.S. knew that Japan’s war cabinet led by Prime Minister Suzuki, was already searching for options to surrender. Yet those who made the decision to use ‘the bomb’ against Japan had agreed unanimously to do so, with substantial knowledge of its capacity for indiscriminate destruction. Why did the US administration decide to use the weapon on an enemy who had already been military overpowered and a step away from surrender? Why did they decide against issuing a prior warning? It is worth exploring these questions, even though definitive answers – even if they existed – would not be readily determinable. The commonly held belief that the atom bomb brought World War II to an end need to be questioned as the historic narrative is deconstructed. It may not be possible to scrutinise key personalities in great detail, but the focus instead must be on how the pivotal decisions they took have shaped the world political climate for decades to come.
STATES OF MUTUAL DISTRUST
The alliance between Western nations and the Soviet Union in World War II was an unlikely one, forged against many odds. Ideologically poles apart, they were deeply mistrustful of each other. Back in 1917, soon after the Bolsheviks assumed power in Russia during the latter stages of World War I, Vladimir Lenin wrote:
“World history is now undoubtedly leading, on an incomparably larger scale [than in 1852], to the "concentration of all the forces" of the proletarian revolution on the “destruction” of the state machine.”
Two years later Lenin and his Comintern colleagues openly advocated a world revolution of the proletariat and planned the abolition of capitalism and democracy. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed with imperial Germany and obstruction of the Czechoslovak Legion during the latter stages of World War I, and the Treaty of Rapallo afterwards, deepened western suspicion of the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia and had supported the white army against them.
Having seen the way the West conceded Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler’s Germany in 1938, Stalin feared that the West would never stand up to Hitler. The Soviet Union thus signed the “Treaty of Nonaggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” on 23 August 1939, and cooperated with the German invasion and occupation of Poland, much to the dismay of Western countries. It is in such a historical background that the alliance between Western nations and Soviet Union is forced upon all parties by common enmity towards Germany which invaded Russian territory with the launch of ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Such was Stalin’s suspicion of the British that he had ignored intelligence warnings of the impending German invasion with the now famous response; “English provocation! Investigate!” Germany’s declaration of war on America and the Japanese attack on Perl Harbour forced these unlikely allies to unite against their common enemies – Hitler’s Germany and the axis powers.
Russia fought World War II on its own on Europe’s eastern front, where the U.S. and Great Britain only provided material aid but did not deploy their troops in support of the Russian war effort though western troops had fought with the White Army against the Bolsheviks decades earlier. Russian casualties of World War II are generally estimated to be thirty times that of U.S. and British Commonwealth casualties combined - perhaps the best indicator of Russia’s disproportionate war burden. During negotiations with British Foreign minister Anthony Eden in December 1941, Stalin had demanded that the Soviet Union should retain influence over the Baltic States as a precondition for cooperation with the allies. As World War II approached its end in 1945, Stalin would feel an entitlement to a greater share of its spoils – which would in turn frustrate President Truman and Secretary of State Jams Byrnes and arguably become a key factor that influenced them to use the atom bomb to keep the Soviet Union out of the war in the Pacific.
THE BIG THREE
As the directors of the allied war effort, heads of state from the U.S., Soviet Union and Britain played a critical role not only in the strategic decision making, but also in negotiations about the war burden and eventually how its spoils will be shared. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marshal Joseph Stalin and Prime Minister Winston Churchill - ‘Big Three’ as they were known - met on three occasions during the height of the war and toward its end in what turned out to be pivotal meetings that had a historical impact beyond the war itself.
The first of their meetings was in Tehran in 1943 and here the Russians repeated their demand that Poland and Eastern Europe should come under its influence in the post war world. Here, Even though Russia had yet to declare war on Japan, Stalin reluctantly agreed to join the allied war effort against Japan in the Pacific. The keenness of the U.S. and Britain for Russia to join the war against Japan at this state of the war is noteworthy.
As the defeat of Germany seems imminent, the ‘Big Three’ met again in Yalta where Britain and America insisted that countries in Eastern Europe should have democratically elected governments after the war – particularly Poland where they hoped to establish a pro-western government. The Soviet Union was keen to have a pro-Soviet government in Poland which was a buffer between Europe and the Communist Soviet Union. The discussions were ambiguous and all parties believed they had an agreement.
However, as the Russian troops marched across the Eastern frontier immediately before Germany’s surrender, occupying Poland and German held parts of Eastern Europe, Stalin saw no incentive to concede influence in the states that his troops already occupied. Russia helped establish a Pro-Soviet government in Poland in a move that would sour relations with its Western allies and led to a ‘tough’ exchange of telegrams with President Roosevelt. Then in a twist of fate, Roosevelt passed away in April 1945 to be succeeded by Harry Truman whose lack of diplomatic tact has been cited by U.S. State Department officials at the time such as Averell Harriman and Alger Hiss as a reason for the deterioration of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union.
All these events combined to pave the way for what would be a flashpoint between Stalin and Truman at the final meeting of the Big Three at Potsdam. But Truman had assured his War Secretary Stimson, that he would delay Potsdam until the bomb was all but ready, and just four days after Potsdam, America would drop the first atom bomb on Hiroshima.
SUPERPOWERS IN TRANSITION
The war effort had drained Britain’s treasury but America was much richer and more powerful than when it initially joined the war. Although the U.S. economy had surpassed that of Britain decades earlier, its participation in WW II and ability to project power on multiple fronts far from home, made America the predominant military power in the world. Britain’s Superpower status had diminished and would later have to concede it’s colonies in the years immediately after the war. The planned economy in Russia was already ailing and its population famished, but the damage and casualties of war had further debilitated the Soviet Union. In this backdrop, America emerges as the world’s newest super power and has an interest in dominating regions of the world beyond the American Continent. Demonstrating its ability to attack distant targets with nuclear weapons would make America an unassailable military power.
JAPAN’S LOST CAUSE
By the time Germany surrendered, Japan was also battered to the point of submission. Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki and his war cabinet were seeking a negotiated settlement despite the army minister General Korechika Anami’s determination to fight on, insisting that they will fight to the death to preserve their honour and the emperor. Japan still had a nominal neutrality pact with the Soviet Union but Foreign minister Togo Shigenori was unsuccessful in his attempts to obtain Soviet mediation for a negotiated peace with Western allies.
Continental America was largely untouched by the War. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands was a particularly painful and humiliating memory in the American psyche and both the soldiers fighting on the Pacific front as well as their leaders had little sympathy for Japan. Debilitated as Japan was, Japanese resistance in Iwo Jima and Okinawa in particular had demonstrated to the Americans, the near impossibility of a land invasion of the mainland where nearly three million troops still remained. With the Japanese Air Force grounded without fuel, Ariel bombardment of the Japanese mainland was the only viable option. Hatred of the Japanese and their dehumanisation on one hand, and the determination with which the Japanese resisted on land and in the air, would somehow enable Americans to justify to themselves, the indiscriminate Ariel attacks they would carry out towards the end of the war, mostly on Japanese civilians, culminating in the nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The final meeting of the Big Three had been postponed by the Americans who expected the delay would give them time to complete a full-scale test of the atom bomb to enter the negotiations from a position of unrivalled strength – particularly against Stalin. Their calculations paid off and Truman received news of the success at ‘Trinity’ while he was in Potsdam. If Truman hoped it would bend Stalin’s stance, the Marshal’s moderated – if not cold - response upon hearing about the bomb may have been a disappointment. If Truman had any doubts whether Stalin understood the message, he would be able to erase them all a few days later when it was dropped on Hiroshima.
Truman had declared in front of congress that the U.S. would not accept anything short of a full unconditional surrender of Japan. U.S. intelligence intercepts of Japanese communications had however revealed Japan’s difficulty in agreeing to an unconditional surrender that would submit their emperor, and the willingness of the Japanese army on the mainland to fight till the end. As the dropping of the bomb became an imminent reality however, President Truman modified the allied stance in the Potsdam declaration and demanded the unconditional surrender of “Japanese forces” allowing room for the emperor to be retained. In what turned out to be a fatal decision, Prime Minister Suzuki interpreted the U.S. concession as a weakening of allied resolve and ignored the Potsdam Declaration, using the word “mokusatzu” to describe how he would ‘kill it with silent contempt’. Lack of a positive response from the Japanese would later make it easier for the U.S. to justify dropping the bomb on Japan.
RUSSIA’S ABSENCE IN THE FAR EAST FRONTIER
Historically, Russia’s presence in its Far East frontiers has been weak and sparse due to the inhospitable geography that separates it from western Russia. Russians never migrated East in significant numbers and even though its South-eastern parts closer to China supports some agriculture, its isolation from Russia’s industrial and economic bases in the west made them dependant on foreign resources. Russia’s Far East remained vulnerable to foreign migration and even at the turn of the 19th century, the vast majority of its civilian population was either Chinese or Korean. In the Russo-Japanese war in 1904/05, Japan’s successful naval blockade managed to destroy the Russian Pacific and Baltic Sea Fleets. Their solitary military victory against a major East Asian power came in 1939 against a depleted Japanese force that was being pulled out by Tokyo.
However, with Japan on its knees in 1945, Russia saw an opportunity to get a foothold in the Pacific with a front to Asia. Stalin was under no illusion that Russia’s position was too weak to sustain itself in the Far East. His late, but hasty invasion of Manchuria hints that he may have sensed an opportunity to gain control of a population centre in the Pacific, with access to open seas in the East.
DROPPING OF ‘THE BOMB’
The reasons for America’s execution of two nuclear attacks on an already debilitated enemy who had no capacity to attack the continental United States can only be speculated, in the absence of a clear justification for doing so. As a new and soon to be nuclear-armed superpower, America had the will and capability to project its power into the far reaches of the globe and demonstrating that capability would give the U.S. unassailable power in the post-World War order. Indeed the effectiveness of this new weapon on real targets such as cities or fortified military installations was not known when the decision was taken to drop them on Japan. There were two types of bombs – the gun-type assembly used in the Uranium bomb (Little Boy) which would be ‘tested’ on Hiroshima and the more complicated ‘implosion triggered’ Plutonium bomb (Fat Man) on Nagasaki.
It is likely that Truman would have felt that the difficulties encountered during the partitioning of Germany and Eastern Europe may repeat themselves if Russia is allowed to join the Pacific war and claim a share of the spoils. With Russia merely days away from entering the Pacific theatre, America had every reason to keep the Red Army out of Japan and secure exclusive access to Asia. If Russia succeeded in occupying any significant population centre in East Asia, America would have been faced with the Russian threat on both the Eastern European and Pacific fronts. Therefore, if it was going to take a nuclear attack to keep Russia out of Japan, there was no reason for Truman to hold back that trump card.
Yet, the bomb was made to be dropped on Germany – not Japan. America’s suspicions of Russia and the difficult negotiations over post war control of Europe were not sudden developments; they have been contentious issue for a few years. America’s superpower ambitions and the prospect of establishing a presence in the west Pacific seem to have been planned out well in advance - at least by the time its ‘island hopping’ strategy and occupation of key Pacific islands was developed. And yet it was the Western allies that urged Russia join the war in the Pacific. Trinity had proved the atom bomb was possible and the extent of its power. If Truman wanted to prove American superiority in nuclear technology, all he had to do was to demonstrate his new weapon to the world at a remote location – rather than on civilian populations of an already defeated enemy. So why did America drop the bomb in Japan? The answer may lie hidden in the explanation for doing so, offered by perhaps its most important decision maker besides Truman himself. In Henry Stimson’s own words;
“[America was] at war, and the work must be done.”
Therefore, it is my contention that; even though history may offer many a reason or justification for America dropping the nuclear bomb on Japan, the general lesson to be drawn from it is about the utter brutality of war itself. The nuclear arms race that followed has been a clear example of how limitations of the human capacity to understand the full implications of our actions can disastrously combine with the unlimited human propensity to imperil ourselves.
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