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 cut off from all supply 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. note The 1.5 million men of the Kwantung (aka Guandong) Army were busy being routed by some two million elite armoured and mechanised units of the Soviet Union's Red Army, more than a million Kwantung Army troops having thrown down their weapons and surrendering en massenote , the Red Army hounding their panicked retreat onto the North China Plain around Beijing and down the Korean Peninsula. The Imperial Navy having been totally annihilated the previous year, save for the Tokubetsu Kogekinote Speedboat and Submarine units, even the Soviets' tiny Far Eastern Flotilla was able to help the Red Army take Southern Sakhalin island. 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 note . 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 was note . 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 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 an oddity whom the former allowed to be a vocal minority to buck up morale and make it appear to The Allies that resistance would remain fierce despite the mass-surrenders evident in Manchuria. But the former faction was evenly split on those who wanted to 'surrender now, please, before the surrender terms get worse and we have to be subjected to war crime trials that we'll probably all be hanged fornote ', and those who wanted to 'surrender with some dignity'. In any case, peace-negotiations were ongoing throughout 1945 but the Cabinet was loathe to admit that they basically had zero bargaining power until after the fall of Germany that May, whereupon they insisted merely upon the retention of the Emperor as Supreme Head of State (with full powers, naturally) and that there would be no war-crimes trials after the war. The Allies weren't having any of that, however, because they had all agreed that Un-conditional/total surrender was what they were aiming for.
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 - thee 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 West 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. Unsurprisingly, this was horrifying to the Western Allies - who had lost relatively few people in the war, the Bengal/Indian Famine of '42-43 aside - and particularly The Western Allied political leadership. 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, as mentioned). Going through with Downfall would have been incredibly unpopular at home, especially if the public thought there was any way it could be avoided. 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 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 some 80,000 civilians and military personnel in the blast and firestorm alone. 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, or just another run-of-the-mill strategic-bombing. The Nagasaki bomb was detonated at 11:01 AM on 9 August 1945. Nagasaki was a rather hilly city and most of the city was merely demolished rather than vaporised, 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 40,000 people were killed, including 150 military personnel and 26,260 munitions factory workers. Total death toll was ca.150-250k - 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 nonplussed and the Chinese (having lost ca.10-20 million civilian and ca.3-million-plus military 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 negligible 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.
Defeat With Honour
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 an 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 the Nationalists blundered into another war with the CCP and would end up thoroughly vanquished. 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 armies.
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.
Depictions in fiction: