The Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki

Saturday, August 9, marked the 64th anniversary of America’s WWII bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. In the following guest post, J. Samuel Walker, author of Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan, discusses the controversy over whether the use of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki served any military purpose and considers what did and didn’t happen in the three-day period between the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The dropping of an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, was a monumental event. It killed about 70,000 people and flattened large portions of the city. It probably played a role in forcing the Japanese government to surrender and bringing an end to World War II, though this is a matter of considerable debate. The Nagasaki weapon used plutonium as fuel and was detonated by implosion, a design that was quite different from the Hiroshima bomb.  And, like the attack on Hiroshima, Nagasaki has incited enormous controversy.

Much of the controversy has centered on whether the atomic strike on Nagasaki served any military purpose. Some scholars contend that the attack was an unnecessary and wanton act of vengeance. They condemn the Truman administration for dropping the bomb on Nagasaki before the Japanese government had time to consider its response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier. They further insist that the assault on Nagasaki had little effect on Japanese policy makers and was not a significant factor in ending the war. In a recent book, Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko add a new twist by suggesting that the United States used the bomb against Hiroshima for military reasons–to force a Japanese surrender and shorten the war. But they argue that the Nagasaki bomb was not used to defeat Japan but to impress the Soviet Union with America’s atomic might in the emerging cold war.

Other writers take a different view. They point out that the Japanese government, even after the shocks of Hiroshima and Soviet entry into the Pacific war by invading Manchuria, still could not agree on surrender. They maintain that the Nagasaki attack was instrumental in convincing die-hard militants that they could not hold out against America’s nuclear arsenal. The Nagasaki attack proved that the United States was capable of producing more than a single atomic bomb. It also enabled the militants to divert attention away from their own ineptitude by arguing that the war was lost because of American scientific prowess.

The controversy over Nagasaki cannot be resolved definitively because it is rooted in counterfactual arguments on both sides. The impact of the second atomic bomb on Japanese officials and its role in ending the war will likely remain perpetual sources of debate. But the primary reason that the United States used the bomb against Nagasaki is well documented and quite mundane. It was not a matter of grand strategy or a diplomatic power play. The order to use atomic weapons against Japan had been issued on July 25, 1945. President Truman knew about it, but he did not sign the order or have to make an affirmative decision on dropping the bomb. The order was sent by General Thomas T. Handy, deputy to Army chief of staff George C. Marshall, “by direction and with the approval of” Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. It specified that the first bomb would be used after August 3 and that “additional bombs will be delivered . . . as soon as made ready.”

After the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, the second bomb was readied for use on August 11. Because of ominous weather forecasts, the date of the attack was moved up to August 9. The Truman administration did not hold high-level meetings to discuss whether or not to use the atomic bombs because they appeared to be the most likely means of ending the war quickly. After Hiroshima, the United States received no indications that Japan wished to quit the war and had no reason to reconsider the order of July 25 to deploy the bombs “as made ready.” If Japan wanted to surrender, three days was plenty of time to notify the United States before the attack on Nagasaki. But the Japanese government had not decided to surrender; it was paralyzed by indecision and torn by sharply divided views among its chief policy makers. Japanese leaders did not act quickly, resolutely, or prudently to end the war even in the face of the disasters of Hiroshima and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. They forfeited the opportunity to halt the “rain of ruin” from both atomic and conventional bombs by failing to immediately seek peace.

J. Samuel Walker