In the last month of the summer of 1945, World War II
was in its endgame. With Nazi Germany
defeated, Imperial Japan
stood alone. The half-million men of the China Expeditionary Force
had been largely cut off from supplies and its garrisons were left to rot on the vine, scouring the countryside for food and grain on an even greater scale than ever before even as Generalissimo Chiang's Guomindang
moved to crush them one by one.
Given the Soviets' total air-supremacy, this left them in a position to make a supported landing on the northernmost 'Home Island' of Ezo/Hokkaido from the tiny and isolated IJA forces that had been assigned to defend it, and use this as a springboard to take Honshu.
The icing on the cake, though, was Operation Downfall
. For while Hokkaido was of no strategic value, and the Soviets would not be able to amass land forces large- and well-supplied enough to take Tokyo because of their supply constraintsnote
, Operation Downfall
promised to bring the fight directly to the capital. For the Tokyo Plains, the closest thing to 'tank country' in all the Japanese Isles, had - you guessed it - Tokyo smack-bang right in the middle of them. Worse still, the whole thing was girded by miles and miles of excellent
beaches for landing an invasion force of over half a million men and (tens of) thousands of armoured vehicles on. Keeping said force supplied was not going to be a problem either, given the number of good ports in the area - and places to make
good ports from scratch - and just how many transport ships the Allies had. Preventing the landings outright would be impossible, as the largest and most powerful battle-fleet ever assembled (with over ten thousand carrier-based aircraft) would help the invading troops annihilate any force within twenty kilometers of the coast, whether they used fortifications or not.
This page is NOT about whether or not the bombings were justified or not.
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The prospects were not
good, even accounting for just how transparent and easily-anticipated the Allies' overall plan for Operation Downfall
. Although some two thousand aircraft and several thousand speedboats had been made available or constructed for Tokubetsu Kogeki
duty, only a handful of regular submarines and mini-submarines were left, and though the Home Islands Defence Corps had enough regular soldiers to match the invaders' million men man-for-man, they didn't have enough weapons for a fifth of them and the 'Volunteer Defence Corps'
which took over most of the support roles was largely composed of unarmed women, kids, and the elderly; 'unarmed', because there weren't enough weapons (or even food) for them. Ammunition production was hovering a touch above zero, despite the attempt at using hundreds of thousands of Korean slave-labourers to improve productivity, since the USAAF's strategic bombing campaign had caused such extensive damage to the country's infrastructure - i.e. the railway and telegraph lines were cut more often than not, more and more roads were out, the power was out 24/7, and water supplies were iffy. The fact that they were willing to work their workers to death (on threat of torture and death) didn't help increase productivity, since they physically weren't able to do the work without power or raw materials.
Despite their best efforts to conscript the civilian population to build fortifications, the conscript-workforce's efficiency had been severely reduced by starvation, low morale resulting from starving military personnel stealing food from and brutalizing civilians, and deaths from air-raids. There also wasn't enough concrete-mix, let alone enough iron or steel, to construct the fortifications properly - even once the use of such materials in any other capacity (including bomb-shelters) had been forbidden. This was a major contributing factor to the lethality of the USAAF's strategic bombing campaign on Japanese urban centres, which killed between 250 and 900k civiliansnote
The food situation was also slightly desperate, as the average citizen was living on some 1200 of the 2000 calories-a-day they needed to survive - the country had had to import food for decades by that point, and domestic agriculture had been devastated by the disappearance of the fertilizer and agricultural-machinery industriesnote
and the wartime labor shortage. Unsurprisingly, morale hung by a thread
as every sane man, woman, and child in the Empire realized that its strategic position could very easily be summed up in a single, rude word
The Japanese answer to Downfall
was Operation Ketsugo.
It wasn't hard to guess where the invasion would take place, and Japan began moving more and more troops to southern Kyushu. While the Japanese knew they had no hope of winning the war, they hoped that they could make invasion of the Home Islands too costly for the Allies to attempt. Even at this late stage, Japan retained around 10,000 aircraft. Most were planned to be used in kamikaze attacks. During the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese had launched 1500 kamikaze attacks, achieving a hit-rate of around 11%, and causing more than 10000 casualties. At Kyushu, due to more favorable terrain, the Japanese hoped for a hit-rate of 17%. Furthermore, they would target troop carriers as they ferried men to the beaches, rather than the heavy navy ships, increasing casualties even further. With this, the Japanese hoped that the kamikazes alone could destroy 1/3 or more of the invasion force before it even reached the beaches.
In addition to this, the Japanese had built over 1000 suicide submarines of various types, and thousands of suicide boats (simply motorboats filled with explosives). These would also be deployed against the invasion force. The Navy further hoped to employ thousands of "human mines" - men in diving gear who would swim out from shore and detonate bombs as the American transports passed over. On land, close to 1 million Japanese soldiers waited to repel the invasion. Japanese civilians were also trained to fight to the death, using centuries-old muskets, longbows, bamboo spears - whatever they had. One Japanese schoolgirl related how she was handed a simple metal spike and told, "Even killing one American soldier will do. Aim for the abdomen." Another schoolboy related how he was trained to dive under an American tank with a satchel of explosives and set it off.
Though they never made the deliberate decision to stake everything on the outcome of the defense of Kyushu, their allocation of resources was such that there would be little in reserve for defending the rest of the Homes Islands if the defense of Kyushu failed. The Japanese Command hoped, however, that they wouldn't have to.
The Junta Decides
Knowing very well how close they were to total defeat, the Cabinet was split on those who wanted to surrender now, please, before they kill us all, and those who wanted to fight to the death. The latter were a smaller group, but the former faction was evenly split on those who wanted to "surrender now, please," and those who wanted to "negotiate an end to the war."
In any case, peace-negotiations were ongoing throughout 1945, but the Cabinet was loathe
to admit that they basically had zero bargaining power. They insisted upon the retention of the Emperor as Supreme Head of State (with full powers), that there would be no occupation, that Japanese disarmament would not be controlled by the Allies, and that it would try its own war-criminals. This was, of course, ridiculous - especially considering that Germany had already surrendered unconditionally.
Impressing the Soviets
Just as important, if not more, was the balance of power; by this point in time the Red Army was a massive, sophisticated juggernaut. Leaving aside the fact that she had the world's most experienced and able commanders and its best General Staff, the raw numbers were very impressive - three times as many combat troops as the rest of the Western Allies put together, twice as many AFVs, an only slight inferiority in fighter-aircraft, and though the Soviets lacked bombers the Allies' bombers didn't have the range to damage any Soviet urban or industrial centres (the latter having been moved to the Urals and Siberia during the first months of Germany's Operation Barbarossa
). The Nazis
had thought right up 'til the end that the mutual threat posed by the Soviet Union was sufficiently great that The Allies would happily sign a truce with them in exchange for Germany's support against the Soviets. The prognosis of a war with the USSR
was the loss of Western Europe and China... and strategic stalemate, with the USA unable to contest the USSR's power in Eurasia and the USSR unable to invade North America
Ultimately though, it boiled down to the fact that everyone - leaders and populations both - were tired of war, and didn't want another one that would take a decade and (tens of) millions of lives to win. Neither the Allies nor the Soviets wanted World War Three, as they had both spent years telling their troops and populations that their Allies were good and trustworthy people - reports from NKVD officers and surveys of Allied troops indicated that it would have been difficult if not impossible for either side to get their troops to fight their former allies (even in a defensive war). Indeed the need of British troops in post-war Yugoslavia to beat ethnic Russiansnote
(and their families) unconscious so they could be deported to the USSRnote
was apparently a rather traumatic experience, and the troops involved very nearly mutinied despite the increased alcohol rations.
In light of that, the Soviets and Chinese could get the best deal by continuing to advance, while the Americans would get the best deal by forcing a Japanese surrender in the Home Islands and forcing terms that would allow them to march in and disarm the remaining Japanese where they could (the British, for instance, dispatching a task-force from Sydney at full speed to accept the surrender of Hong Kong before Guomindang troops could get there).
So it became beneficial for the USA to force an unconditional Japanese surrender, and do it *quickly.*
The prospects for Operation Downfall were absolutely bone-chilling for anyone sane, especially for the Japanese (who faced the non-trivial chance of being wiped off the face of the planet) and Western nations like the USA (which had escaped the worst fighting and horrors of the war). There was no doubt about the poor shape of the Japanese military by this point or the regime's inefficiency, but the fanaticism in the Japanese military and even civilian population had been carved deep into the psyche of just about anyone who had dealt with them in their heyday. By any conventional standard, the Japanese were suffering from poor morale, but that could be offset 'by balls to the wall' desperation that might cause those of them who weren't fainting from hunger to fight just as hard as they were when they had been on their winning streaks. On the other hand, it could also lead to straightup collapses and mass-surrenders like what had taken place with the Kwantang Army or the sizable (by their standards) surrenders in Burma and Okinawa, but the dominant experience of most that had been fighting the Japanese for years was of utter, fanatical refusal to surrender for even the most minor and barren of objectives. So nobody could imagine what confronting them for the Home Islands themselves would bring.
However, all estimates agreed it would be ugly. Casualty estimates for the Western Allies range from the tens of thousands to the millions, with estimated deaths usually clocking in in the hundreds of thousands range, making it very possible that it would cause more casualties than the entire rest of the war the Western Allies had fought in put together.note
It was thought that Japanese dead would reach German, Soviet or Chinese levels, estimates of the time reckoning that several million would be killed on the field and die from related reasons (the bombings, blockade, starvation, obliteration of what little infrastructure still remained, etc). We think now that a decent ten-plus million would be plausible given the lack of food and fuel in the country, which could see the islands suffer conditions (and death-rates) like those of the Siege of Leningrad.
Everyone wanted the war over and nobody wanted there to be any more Allied military dead - they were already facing domestic turmoil just from the war's ongoing monetary costs, which were just a fraction of Downfall's price tag (which also had a blood-price). It would have been inconceivable at the time, when tens of millions of Europeans and Asians had died as well as hundreds of thousands of Americans, to refuse to use a bomb that could end the war for fear of "killing too many people." So they decided to use the bombs against the cities that they had trouble fire-bombing and were still largely intact. This was done to prove the bombs' killing-power and would be part of a huge bluff - the USA would pretend that it had lots of these bombs. The Junta wanted to resist because it thought that the USA were so afraid of its people dying trying to take the Home islands (and thus being voted out of power) that they would make peace with The Junta to avoid that. But if the USA had a lot of atomic bombs, then it could defeat the Junta with a minimum of US losses... and The Junta would have no bargaining power because the USA could just as easily defeat them as negotiate with them.
The Atomic Bombing Campaign
The choosing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as the targets was almost a chance event, as there were four target cities which still hadn't been totally destroyed. All had been 'raided', yes, but various reasons (i.e. importance of the military industries therein, layout of the city, weather/climate conditions -lots of rain all the time = bad-, and the strength of anti-air defenses) meant that none of them had been razed to the ground like most of the other cities in Japan. The Enola Gay dropped the first nuclear device, Little Boy, at Hiroshima at 8:15 am on the 6th of August, on a hot summer day. People had ironically just gotten out of the air raid shelters when the bomb went off after Necessary Evil (perhaps a fitting name?), a scout plane, passed by. Wind caused it to miss the point it was aimed for, the Aioi Bridge, and detonate over Shima Surgical Clinic instead. It killed 70,000-80,000 people, including 20,000 Japanese military personnel and 20,000 Koreans, and destroyed nearly 48,000 buildings (including the headquarters of the 2nd General Army and Fifth Division).
Japan's main broadcasting corporation's radio control operator soon noticed the signal to the Hiroshima station was as dead as something an atomic bomb had been dropped on
. At military headquarters, many thought it the result of some technical error or meteorological phenomenon or other, despite the total loss of contact with all stations in and around Hiroshima. It wasn't until August the 8th that Radio Tokyo reported that "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death" and people realized it was neither an error, a natural phenomenon, nor just another run-of-the-mill strategic-bombing.
After a highly suspicious number of reconnaissance flights and some reconnaissance-in-force, in the early hours of the 9th of August the Red Army launched its Far Eastern Strategic Offensive Operation. Later that day, to hurry up the Japanese decision-making process and keep Soviet barganing power to a minimum, another atomic bomb was detonated over Nagasaki at 11:01 AM. Nagasaki was a rather hilly city and most of the city was merely demolished rather than vaporized, which meant there was plenty of stuff left over for the firestorms (which did most of the actual work in destroying the city and killing its people) to burn. An estimated 35,000-40,000 people were killed, including 150 Japanese military personnel, 27,778 Japanese munitions workers, and 2,000 Korean forced workers. Total death toll was ca.105,000-120,000 - not bad, considering, and as little as an eighth of the total USAAF strategic bombing campaign. The Soviet Union, having lost some ca.27 million military and civilian dead, was totally unimpressed and the Chinese (having lost ca.10-20 million military and civilian dead) were if anything somewhat disappointed (but still a tad or more gleeful).
The American public, on the other hand, was a little shocked. Though they weren't told of the figure until long-afterwards (the USA only lost 420,000 military dead throughout the war and 12,000 civilian dead, making the death toll seem very large by comparison), the tales some heard of the destruction made it all seem a bit unnecessarily brutal. At the time the reaction to the bombings was rather varied, with a Vocal Minority
advocating the dropping of more atomic bombs and the genocide of the Japanese nation. Although the death tolls were horrific in both cities, genocide or targeting civilians for the purpose of inflicting civilian casualties were never on the cards as USA leaders only cared about destroying the enemy's war industry given the inaccurate targeting of precision bombing in WWII. Government censorship of the effects of the bomb, and especially of photographs, meant that very few people understood that most of the bombs' deaths were not instantaneous but rather from radiation-poisoning. That said, nobody
had much of an idea of the lasting effects of fallout at the time.
The very next day, the 10th of August, the Japanese Empire announced that her forces would stop fighting wherever United Nations forces did the same (a 'cease-fire' declaration) and that she would seek to sign a formal peace treaty (an unconditional one in which she would do everything asked of her) ending the war with them as soon as possible. However, this did not apply to the defensive operation against the Red Army in Manchuria and northern China.
Defeat With Honor
The Imperial Cabinet first ignored the bombing of Hiroshima, but when Nagasaki was hit, the pre-existing rifts came to the surface and promptly caused it to fall apart. The "Doves" in the Cabinet viewed the bombings as an unrequited- if macabre- blessing. The bombings provided a perfect
excuse for just getting the whole 'giving up' thing over with because, hey, surrendering to the enemy who has 'the power of a thousand suns, in a bomb' doesn't sound so bad really - it would totally overshadow the fact that it was less your collective fault for getting the entire country into a massive regular-and-guerilla war it couldn't possibly win
, and then getting involved in another
just to avoid stopping the first one because really, guys, come on, we're gonna win this one any year and loss of a hundred thousand men now, be good sports why don't you.
So it was that they reduced their conditions to just retaining the Emperor, who was not to be tried for war crimesnote
This was promptly rejected by the Allies again, and so the decision to surrender unconditionally was soon decided.
In contrast, the aforementioned Vocal Minority
of hardliners who would have nothing but victory or extinction decreased further in number as even some of their ranks defected, but those who remained stayed just as stalwart. Ultimately, the united front the Doves made in the aftermath and the personal declaration of the Emperor were needed to force the issue and convince most of the remaining Hawks to accept defeat. And even then, some were still defiant
to the point where they told junior and non-commissioned officers what was happening and encouraged them to save Japan's honor by launching a coup against the Emperor and his government
to kidnap him, kill several of his senior staff, and destroy all records of the Japanese surrender in order to try and rally the rest of the country to one final glorious stand. The young patriots were soon put down by security forces, despite a final attempt by them to hijack the truck carrying the recording of the Emperor's 'Jewel Voice' speech, and the Emperor's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration was broadcast soon after.
The Soviets 'Overawed', the Japanese vanquished, and lives saved
The Allies accepted, and so a truce was concluded on the 15th of August until the representatives of both countries' governments could meet (on September the 2nd) to sign the peace treaty. In the meantime, The Cabinet set about destroying all the records they could of everything even remotely related to War Crimes before the Americans' troop-ships landed to occupy the place some two weeks later. This would leave the post-war Tokyo (war crime) Trials a teensy bit short of critical evidence... which meant a lot of pretty-obviously-guilty individuals got off scot-freenote
The decision to approve the bombing accomplished everything it was meant to achieve... sorta. The Soviets appeared to respect the USA's ruthlessness and power enough not to start anything
or drive too hard a bargain over the future of East Asianote
, the premature defeat of Japan allowed the Guomindang to reclaim most of China for themselves (the USAAF used its transport planes and bombers to ferry them over to accept the surrender of most garrisons) and it would remain that way until 1949-50 and the latter stages of the Chinese Civil War
. All of Japan was secured for the USA, the ca.500 000 (inc. ca.100k deaths) almost-entirely-Americannote
and ca.1-10 million Japanese civilian casualtiesnote
expected to result from Downfall
were averted, and even a bit of Korea was given over to The Allies...
It is interesting to note that the use of nuclear weapons were a part of some variants of Downfall
. However, they would have been used to bomb the beaches to eliminate Japanese fortifications before an invasion. One plan involved using twenty nuclear weapons, nine of which were decoys to fool the Japanese troops to amass at the bombing site and not at the real landing beach, which would also have conveniently irradiated the Japanese army. Except, read that again. The United States intended to use atomic bombs to establish a beachhead
— meaning they planned on dropping nukes and then marching their own troops through the impact zone while it was still glowing. While obviously nobody at the time knew the long-term dangers of fallout and radiation poisoning, hindsight lets us look back in horror at just how close the atomic bombs came to killing everyone in both
Your Own Citywide Hell: The initial effects of the atomic bombings
Immediately after the atomic bomb detonated (as in a few picoseconds
after) , there was an immense blinding flash for which the Japanese onomatopoeia was pika
, which melted the corneas
and other tissues of anyone unlucky enough to look directly at the light or was located close enough. Along with it was immense heat, 3 times hotter than the surface of the sun, that reduced anyone out in the open near the epicenter to carbon. Everything that was immediately flashed into vapor this way was added to the expanding sphere of heat and pressure that formed the initial explosion. Much of the way the effects of atomic bombings are portrayed in fiction comes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Saint and the Radiologist
When Nagasaki was bombed, Takashi Nagai, a radiologist and convert to Catholicism, was working in a hospital some distance away from the blast. His injuries were minor, but he received a lethal dose of radiation. At the time, Nagai had been dying of leukemia anyway,
which was something that he expected to happen when he became a radiologist, as in those days, the techniques for protecting radiologists from their own X-ray machines had not yet been developed. Radiologists entered the field expecting to lay down their lives to heal the sick and the injured. Nagai's wife had been vaporized by the blast, which had been centered over the Umagami district, a mile away from its intended target. Nagai was a friend of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who had built a mission in Nagasaki during the 1930's. After hearing which side of the mountain had the best Feng Shue for the mission, Kolbe promptly ordered the mission to be built on the opposite side of the mountain, and though he was mocked at the time, the mission survived the atomic bomb unscathed and was used as a shelter for the survivors. The Catholic Church attributes Nagai's survival of his radiation poisoning and the remission of his leukemia to a miracle due to the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who had died in a Nazi concentration camp four years earlier. Nagai, in turn, attributed the bomb landing on Umagami to divine Providence, telling the predominately Catholic Umagami residents to regard their dead as a burnt offering to God for the sake of peace.
Depictions in fiction:
- The debate around the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki underpine Alan Moore's Watchmen. The fan-favourite Sociopathic Hero Rorschach completely glorifies Harry Truman's decisiveness in ending the war by destroying two cities. Later, Ozymandias, for very similar reasons, drops an alien entity in the middle of New York, killing millions under the exact same justification, so as to end the increasingly tense American-Russian Nuke standoff, on confronting this reality face to face, Rorschach takes the completely opposite track and denounces this action, willing to die for his refusal to enable this lie.
- Barefoot Gen A semiautobiographical account of the author's own experiences surviving Hiroshima. Everyone in Gen's family but Gen himself and his mother Kimie kick it either during the bombing or few afterwards.
- Both 1989 films titled Black Rain. The Japanese film is an account of the bombing of Hiroshima, while the American film, directed by Ridley Scott, uses Hiroshima as the villain's motivation. Both films take their title from the kuroi ame, or black rain, a rain that was heavy with soot, ash and nuclear fallout, that fell on Hiroshima for days after the bombing.
- In The Twilight Zone episode "No Time Like The Past", a man goes back in time to Hiroshima right before the bomb drops to warn the military, but they don't listen to him, thinking he's crazy.
- In Obasan by Joy Kogawa, Naomi's mother dies in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, although she doesn't find out until years later.
- The bombing of Nagasaki is featured at the start of The Wolverine. Wolverine is shown as a POW held in a camp across the bay, and both he and a Japanese soldier survive while everyone else in the camp kick it. Said soldier is Ichirō Yashida, Mariko's grandfather.
- The song Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Sung to a rather upbeat, poppy, almost cute New Wave-like tune.
- On Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, a recorded speech from a nuclear warfare game theory symposium (and the closest the audience gets to a Motive Rant from the Big Bad) mentions him having gone to the cities and him noticing that they have become major monuments against nuclear warfare after their reconstruction, incredibly peaceful and pretty... and then mentions that if everything was destroyed by nuclear warfare, the survivors would build similar monuments everywhere else, to showcase their desire for lasting peace.