Morality, Realpolitik, Racism – Why Did the US Drop the Atomic Bomb On Japan?

by Elodie Miles

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing up to 250,000 Japanese citizens and injuring at least another 100,000; to this day, these remain the only nuclear weapons to have been detonated in anger.

President Roosevelt approved the Manhattan Project in 1941 in order to balance fears that Germany would develop nuclear weapons first. Why use the bomb on Japan if the US first and foremost feared a German threat?

The Official Rationale Behind the Bombings…

On the 9th of August 1945, President Harry S. Truman addressed the nation by declaring the atomic bomb had been used to “shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” He had been influenced by the War Department, which estimated that battle casualties could surpass one million men.

American military leaders believed the Japanese were highly patriotic and susceptible to calls for fanatical resistance to repel a potential American invasion, leading officials to believe that it would result in a high number of deaths. For instance, in August 1945, General George Marshall had predicted that the island of Kyushu was defended by some 600,000 Japanese soldiers; taking the island, he estimated, would result in hundreds of thousands of American casualties.

Moreover, the Allies made the decision at Casablanca that Japan should surrender unconditionally, to which Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War at the time, remarked, “Japan would probably need to be sufficiently pounded, possibly with S-1 [atomic bombs]” in order to comply.

The Japanese had demanded that the Allies guarantee to let the Emperor remain in power if ever they surrendered. The Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs wrote, ”so long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender the Japanese Empire has no alternative but to fight on with all its strength.”

The atomic bomb helped “strengthen the hands” of the peace forces in Japan, since the enemy was notified that the bombardment would be repeated until they surrendered.

On the 14th of August, 5 days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the Emperor unconditionally surrendered. The Allies had won.

Ruins of a temple in Nagasaki, six weeks after the bomb was dropped, September 24, 1945. US Marine Corps

…And the Many Other Reasons Why They Happened

The saving lives and making the Japanese surrender unconditionally legitimate justifications, as virtuous as they made the US government appear, overlook the tangible elements of realpolitik and racism that are too often left out of the discussion surrounding the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan.

The US bombed Japan not only to position themselves favourably in the fight against the USSR, but also to satiate revanchist and racist sentiments towards the Japanese that were present at the time in the US.

However, in order to drop the bomb without repercussions, the United States needed the rest of the world to perceive them as morally good. Ultimately, what the US feared most was to no longer be portrayed as the hero that rescued the world from fascism.

The official justification for the nuclear bombings of Japan furthered the idea that decision-making in American foreign policy requires a moral rationale behind it. The United States has always seemed to have difficulty accepting the fact that its policies could be seen as somewhat negative or harmful, so it has consistently pushed for a positive moral reasoning behind the actions it takes.

Keeping the Moral High Ground to Better Shape History

Historians Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell have asserted that the reason why the US government adhered to the “saving lives” argument was because “it placed the atomic bombings in the realm of moral virtue.”

James B. Conant, a wartime atomic policymaker, observed that criticism of that decision was on the rise, which could potentially lead to isolationism. Before World War I, the US had sustained a long tradition of isolationism, and its participation in World War II marked the beginning of a new foreign policy era which sought world leadership.

An attack on the morality of the decision to drop nuclear bombs would have an adverse impact on the United States and its ability to impose its agenda on foreign nations.

Photo captured by Hiromichi Matsuda depicting the atomic cloud over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945

Indeed, morality and realpolitik were highly intertwined during the US-Soviet great power rivalry throughout the Cold War. Both parties strived for global leadership by depicting their ideologies as morally superior and militarily stronger than the other. Widespread criticism regarding the morality of the nuclear attack would have immediately positioned the United States and its ideology as inferior to the one the USSR championed.

Many policymakers shared Conant’s concerns; they did not want America’s conduct challenged by future generations and were eager to shape the public’s understanding of the American past. As a result, Conant urged Stimson and physicist Karl T. Compton to publish articles “clarifying what actually happened with regard to the decision” to use the bomb.

One of the arguments defending the nuclear weapon use stated that they were no different from the earlier fire-bombings of Japan’s cities. These attacks burnt over 41.5 square miles of Tokyo and killed as many as 100,000 people, the majority being civilians.

A Diplomatic Tool: The Soviet Influence

An Uneasy Alliance With the USSR

The US had sought an alliance with the USSR in order to shorten the Pacific War. The USSR was keen to join one, with certain demands in exchange. They asked for territory they had lost to the Japanese in 1905, in addition to a lease on the railway lines linking Dairen to Harbin as well as on Port Arthur and “the surrounding area.”

The American government complied with those demands, as officials sought to avoid military involvement in Manchuria, with Roosevelt telling Stimson in 1944 that “for fighting on the mainland of China we must leave it to the Russians.” According to the President, the country would not accept “the sending of a large number of US troops to China.”

The successful testing of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 in New Mexico changed the situation. James Byrnes, the new Secretary of State, expressed that he was “most anxious to get the Japanese Affair over with before the Russians got in, with particular reference to Dairen and Port Arthur.” His understanding was that once the Soviets arrived, it would be difficult to get them out.

By achieving victory on their own, the US felt they would not need to meet Soviet conditions and would therefore maintain their own interests. The two sides were preparing for their future great power rivalry.

The Fight For Cold War Hegemony

The United States recognised that they possessed a monopoly on the atomic bomb, thereby giving them a powerful military and diplomatic advantage. They wanted to remain the hegemon in the region.

Even though General Douglas MacArthur denied any “imperialistic” intentions from the United States in the region, their interest in the Pacific was “the development of markets and the extension of the principles of American democracy… the lifting of people by […] an economic system which will represent the greatest purchasing power in world history.”

By dropping the bomb, the US would push the USSR out of their sphere of influence, thus granting them the opportunity to build a new capitalist order in the Pacific which would benefit their interests.

Conant also advanced the argument that, had the bomb not been used, “the world would have no adequate warning as to what was to be expected if war should break out again.”

The US government at the time was pushing for international control of a nuclear weapons agenda; to gain the USSR’s concurrence not to develop their own A-bomb, the US downplayed how much of a game-changer this new weapon truly was.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). US Department of Energy

The US had realised the potential danger of Soviet development of such a weapon and the threat they would pose to Western Europe, especially the UK. Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius and Stimson were thus urging Truman to get tough with the Russians.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would thus have also been utilised in order to showcase American military might to the USSR and what the Soviets could expect if ever they attacked the US or its allies.

The Significant Influence of Politics and Racism

Justifying an Expensive Program

Policymakers never questioned the assumption that the new weapon should be used, since they had developed the atomic bomb as an essential component of the war effort; the bomb’s creation was a sufficient justification for its use against an enemy. Indeed, American advisors all spoke of “after [the bomb] is used” or “when it is used.”

How else was the government supposed to explain spending a staggering $2 billion on a secret program by bypassing Congress, thus diverting scarce resources from the war effort, which politicians might have thought could be employed more usefully? Had the bomb’s full capacity not been demonstrated, the program would have been considered a gigantic waste of budget. Therefore, it had to be detonated.

A number of target cities were proposed ; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were eventually agreed upon as they both housed military infrastructures and were not too culturally significant, unlike Kyoto, for instance, which itself had been a potential target. Policymakers counted on the dramatic effect of a single bomb delivered by a single plane, killing thousands; the recommendations for targets were to use the bomb on a military base “surrounded by […] buildings most susceptible to damage.”

After the bombs were dropped, critics such as Reinhold Niebuhr voiced the argument that the Japanese should have been warned, or that the bombs should have been used on a deserted island; “we would have been in a stronger moral position had we […] made a demonstration of its effects over Japan in a non-populated area,” he stated.

However, because the US was anxious to demonstrate the relevance of its new weapon, it could not have been wasted on an uninhabited location. Furthermore, “nothing would have been more disastrous than a prior warning followed by a dud.” The Americans , even though they had tested the A-bomb, were not entirely sure it would work. Announcement of utter destruction followed by failure would have made them look weak, both internationally and domestically. The US could simply not risk it.

Fulfilling Revanchist Sentiments

Truman could not possibly forgive the Japanese for their Pearl Harbour attack; his mindset when facing the enemy was “when you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”Such was the manner in which policymakers and a vast majority of Americans viewed the Japanese at the time; they cherished the prospect of seeing them punished, whatever the weapon.

Atomic bomb damage in Hiroshima, November 27, 1945. US Department of Energy

When negotiating a surrender, officials were extremely wary of appearing accommodating to the Japanese so as not to undermine public support for the war; the hatred of Hirohito and Japan’s imperial system was widespread in the United States.

Historians have demonstrated that even in June 1945, top military planners estimated that an American land invasion of Japan would not exceed 46,000 casualties if not less. However, even though the number of casualties may have proven “to be entirely too high,” such as Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff General Thomas T. Handy conceded, the exact number is not what mattered most to Truman.

Had a land invasion taken place and the general public known that an alternative to sacrificing American lives existed, Truman would have faced incredible backlash. Even saving a relatively small number of Americans was ample reason to use the bomb.

His objective was to end the war as soon as possible, and even if the estimate presented to him was lower, he would have moved forward with this decision.

The fact that Americans viewed Japanese lives as cheap demonstrates that elements of racism also drove part of the decision to drop a weapon on Japan, and not Germany for instance. The Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, privately expressed his relief that the weapon had been employed against an Asiatic people rather than against the “white races of Europe.”

Before the A-bomb, the Americans had already conducted a war policy aimed at killing as many Japanese as possible; B-29s dropped napalm on heavily populated cities causing uncontrollable firestorms that killed thousands of civilians at a time. Such a campaign was made possible because the Japanese were seen as subhuman by many American citizens and leaders.

World War II propaganda posters. Japanese soldiers were often depicted as animals or as a non-human enemy. Library of Congress

Americans feared and hated the Japanese so much after Pearl Harbour that FDR interned more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into what he himself called concentration camps. Though they were not labour or death camps like the facilities run by the Nazis, they did result in the unjust imprisonment of thousands of the nation’s own citizens.

At the time, the US government justified these internments by citing national security reasons, suspecting everyone of being a spy; however, decades later, Congress recognised that the existence of these camps was due to “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Racism was fundamental in enabling the decision to drop the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Luggage of interned Japanese-Americans who had been evacuated from the US West Coast. Library of Congress

World War II redefined human morality due to the sheer amount of death and human suffering that occurred. The Axis powers perpetrated unprecedented atrocities including the Holocaust and the Japanese rape of Nanking. As a result, the atomic bomb was not initially perceived as an immoral weapon by most policymakers, only a new weapon of war.

Ultimately, the American government heavily pushed the “saving lives” argument because they refused to allow their decision to use the nuclear bomb to be compared to the atrocities committed by the Axis nations and sought to be considered the new benevolent world leaders.

However, racist undertones still persist in US political rhetoric. Coupled with realpolitik interests, globalisation, and modern technology, the resulting consequences can be just as dire, if not more unpredictable and dangerously uncontrollable.

This potential peril can be seen in the contemporary US confrontations with adversaries like North Korea and Iran. In particular, China’s rise on the world stage and challenge to American hegemony has created an even more volatile situation. It is therefore more critical than ever that we honestly assess the lessons of history if we are to avoid tragedy once more.

Elodie Miles’ research interests center upon nuclear weapon strategy and politics, focusing particularly on the French and American nuclear programs. She completed her MSc in the History of International Relations at the London School of Economics and currently lives in London.

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