Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and American Militarism

By H. Bruce FranklinAugust 3, 2014

Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

FLYING ON AUGUST 6, 1945, without any fighter escort over a devastated nation with no remaining antiaircraft defenses, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay was unmolested on its long way to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The giant plane, which had been designed and built in May 1945 without the B-29’s normal protective armor and gun turrets, would not meet its next combat until 49 years later, in Washington, DC.

In 1994 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum was beginning to mount an exhibit titled “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb and the Cold War.” The central artifact of the exhibit, set to open on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was the cockpit and nose section of the Enola Gay. Advised by a distinguished panel of academic and military service historians, the museum’s curators carefully crafted a script that explored the historical context from different perspectives, including controversies about the atomic bombings.

The exhibit was intercepted by barrages of flak from the Air Force Association (an aerospace industry lobbying group), the American Legion, and platoons of right-wing radio hosts and politicians who wanted the Enola Gay to be an icon of victory and who denounced the museum and the script writers as anti-American puppets of all those liberal professors who had hijacked the universities and American history itself. Adding to the furor, many World War II vets proclaimed that they owed their lives to the atomic bombs. On September 23, 1994, the US Senate passed a resolution, by a vote of 99-1, declaring: “the role of the Enola Gay during World War II was momentous in helping to bring World War II to a merciful end, which resulted in saving the lives of Americans and Japanese.”

The Senate resolution reviled “the current script for the National Air and Space Museum’s exhibit on the Enola Gay” as “revisionist and offensive to many World War II veterans.” By this time “revisionist” had become the standard term used to brand all historians who deviated from what was supposed to be the triumphal orthodoxy of all loyal and patriotic Americans. The sacred gospel was that the atomic bomb ended World War II in a glorious American victory over fascism and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who otherwise would have died in the invasion of Japan. The main heresy of the “revisionists” was the argument that the atomic bombs were not necessary and did not significantly shorten the war, that no invasion of Japan prior to November was even contemplated, that the surrender of Japan was already imminent in July, that the Soviet entry into the war on August 9 was a major factor in the Japanese surrender, and therefore the atomic bombs probably saved no American lives at all.

If this is “revisionism,” then many of the nation’s leading military authorities during and immediately after World War II were also revisionists. Asked in 1945 for his opinion on dropping the atomic bomb, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower replied: “I was against it on two counts. First the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” Fleet Admiral William Leahy, chief of staff to both Roosevelt and Truman, flatly declared that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Even the official US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded unequivocally that “Japan would have surrendered if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian was forced to deep-six its script and leave the Enola Gay to speak for itself to those throngs of tourists who pour through the Air and Space Museum, mainly to ogle its hardware. Martin Harwit, the distinguished astrophysicist who had served as the director of the museum since 1987 and who had presided over some of its most popular and intellectually challenging events, was forced to resign in May 1995. In his letter of resignation, he wrote: “I believe that nothing less than my stepping down from the directorship will satisfy the museum’s critics.” As for the Enola Gay, the iconic plane was later fully restored and remains on display at the Air and Space Museum’s annex at Dulles International Airport.

Although political and cultural orthodoxy won the public battle over the Enola Gay and the atomic bombings, it had already lost the war among historians. Much more uncertain is the outcome of the cultural war, waged against “intellectual elites,” as Republican Senate majority leader Bob Dole labeled historians in a 1995 speech to the American Legion, in which he blasted the Smithsonian and its script writers with these words: “Where we see a proud past, they see a legacy of shame.”[1]

Back in August 1945, the majority of Americans believed that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had forced Japan to surrender, thus shortening the war, removing the necessity of an American invasion of Japan, saving hundreds of thousands of American lives, and guaranteeing the security of the United States for the foreseeable future. Most Americans today probably still believe all but the last. Few historians would accept any of these propositions without considerable qualification. The gulf between public belief and the prodigious research and analysis by historians remains wide, although as disapproval of nuclear weapons has increased among younger Americans that gap has narrowed. This is why I am happy to see Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath finally getting published in America, three years after its publication in Australia and two years after its British publication.

Ham’s 629-page volume shows familiarity with much of the literature and debates within historiography, skillfully uses some archival research, and ranges widely in political, diplomatic, and military history. Unfortunately he ignores some crucial cultural history, and few historians of the subject will learn much that’s new. But Ham is a splendid storyteller, a master of engrossing and exciting narrative. Although he doesn’t break much new ground, Ham digs deeper, and brings back to life the figures who dominated this history, in a page-turner that could reach a wide audience.

To understand the big questions raised by the atomic bombings, and to assess Ham’s main argument and contributions, we must remind ourselves of the situation in the last three weeks of the war.

By mid-July of 1945, Japan had lost all its bases in the Pacific, and fleets of B-29 Superfortresses had reduced all but four Japanese cities to desolate ruins and smoking ashes while carrier-based navy bombers were systematically destroying its military facilities. Japan had no viable defenses against these aerial assaults. Japan’s only remaining army of any significance was isolated in Manchuria and Korea, and could not be brought home to defend the homeland because US ships were blockading Japan and shelling its coastal regions with impunity.

The leaders of the United States, USSR, and United Kingdom met in Potsdam, a few miles from Berlin, from July 17 to August second. At the Yalta conference back in February, the Soviet Union had promised to launch a war on Japan no later than three months after the surrender of Germany. Germany surrendered on May eighth, so the USSR attack was expected to commence by early August. At Potsdam, the Russians reaffirmed that they would enter the war by August 15. President Truman had no doubt that this alone would end the war. In his diary for July 17, after noting that the Soviet Union would “be in Jap War on August 15,” he wrote: “Fini Japs when that comes about.”

Truman knew that as early as April the Soviets had begun the physical process of moving their forces for a major war against Japan. Between May and early August, they actually transported, across 6,000 miles, more than 1.5 million men, 20,000 tanks, 100,000 trucks and other vehicles, hundreds of bombers and fighters, and the munitions and other supplies necessary to service this giant battle-tested armada. They had even delivered temporary bridges to allow troops and armor to cross the great Amur River.

Up until the time he received the full report on July 21 of the spectacularly successful testing of the atomic bomb in Alamogordo, Truman and his advisors kept urging the USSR to enter the war as soon as possible. After that date, they kept trying to delay the Soviet entrance into the war. On July 26, the United States and United Kingdom issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum that demanded Japan’s “unconditional surrender” or face “prompt and utter destruction.” Chiang Kai-shek’s government of China, which was not part of the Potsdam conference, also signed the declaration, but the USSR was pointedly not asked to sign.

As Ham and many others have argued, the demand for “unconditional surrender” effectively rebuffed the numerous Japanese attempts to negotiate a surrender, which had been going on for months. President Truman was well aware of these, for example discussing in his diary of July 18 “a telegram from Jap emperor asking for peace.” Ham points out that on July 26, just before they received the Potsdam Declaration, Tokyo issued “an unusually explicit public offer to surrender, on condition the Emperor be allowed to stay on the throne.” The offer was beamed by Tokyo Radio directly to the United States and “made front-page headlines in America.”

So what about that US invasion of Japan, dubbed “Operation Downfall,” that was going to cost all those American lives that were saved by the atomic bombs? When was that supposed to take place? The first stage of the invasion, “Operation Olympic,” was to be an amphibious assault on the Japanese island of Kyushu tentatively scheduled for November. The main invasion, “Operation Coronet,” would not follow until March 1946. Anyone familiar with the vast historical literature on this issue would have to agree with Ham that although Truman authorized planning for these operations, the president and his senior military advisors “had all but abandoned the land invasion by early July,” even before the successful test of the atomic bomb. By late July, with a massive Soviet assault on the Japanese main forces in Manchuria imminent in a few weeks, it was clear that there would be no need for an American invasion. Ham argues that “the bomb was not a substitute for an invasion for the simple reason that Truman had no intention of approving one,” despite all the president’s later wild claims that the bomb saved up to a million US lives. Truman was not about to order an invasion that would cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young Americans against a regime that was already defeated and trying to negotiate a surrender.

And then there’s the event that the president thought would finish the war — and that Ham argues was really the decisive event — the advent of the Soviet forces. If nothing else, the Soviet juggernaut that destroyed Japan’s last great land army and terrified that nation’s leaders disproved the myth that the Japanese would fight to the death and never surrender. At midnight on August eighth, the Red Army launched the largest land engagement of the entire Pacific war. Within a few days, almost 600,000 Japanese soldiers and hundreds of Japanese generals had surrendered. Eighty thousand had been killed, along with 30,000 Soviet soldiers, about the same number of Americans calculated to die in the invasion of Kyushu Island. August Storm, Colonel David Glantz’s fine two-volume US Army history of this campaign, marvels at the Soviet’s campaign, which captured from the Japanese in a week of colossal combat an area almost the size of Europe.

Of course that’s not what we heard at the time, much less during the burgeoning Cold War of the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. All I heard, and of course believed back then, was that the Russians had waited until we had won the war, thanks finally to our atom bombs, and then had opportunistically declared war on Japan so that they could participate in the spoils without taking any risks or losses.

But according to Ham:

A greater threat than nuclear weapons — in Tokyo’s eyes — drove Japan finally to accept the surrender: the regime’s suffocating fear of Russia. The Soviet invasion of August 8 crushed the Kwantung Army’s frontline units within days, and sent a crippling loss of confidence across Tokyo. The Japanese warlords despaired. Their erstwhile “neutral” partner had turned into their worst nightmare. The invasion invoked the spectre of a communist Japan, no less.

Ham’s argument would be strengthened if it understood the importance in Japanese military and political thinking of the 1939 Soviet-Japanese War, in which the Red Army crushed the Kwantung Army in a small-scale blitzkrieg preview of the 1945 offensive. This convinced Tokyo to reject Hitler’s plea for Japan to attack the USSR, leading to the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941, which allowed the Soviets to avoid having to fight a two-front war for the next four years. Several historians have even argued that the Soviet victory convinced the Japanese leaders to fight the United States rather than the USSR. Ham’s failure to even mention the 1939 war, and its many consequences, seriously undermines much of his diplomatic history leading up to the events of the summer of 1945.


One of the finest sections of Hiroshima Nagasaki narrates the decisive meetings of the “Big Six” Japanese rulers and Emperor Hirohito from August ninth through 15. Especially useful for Ham’s argument are their responses to the two historic events of the ninth, the Nagasaki bomb and the Soviet onslaught against Japan’s army on the Asian mainland.

An hour before the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, the war and peace factions of cabinet met in a bomb shelter under the Imperial Palace and began a furious and endless debate about the terms of surrender they should offer because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, their puppet state of Manchukuo. Ham describes how they greeted the news of Nagasaki:

Nothing of great moment had occurred in Hiroshima to persuade them of the futility of further defiance; the militarists scorned the weapon as a cowardly attack on defenceless civilians. Toward the end of the interminable discussion — now into its third hour — a messenger arrived with the news of the destruction of Nagasaki — by another “special bomb.” The Big Six paused, registered the news, and resumed their earlier conversation. The messenger, bowing apologetically, was sent on his way. “No record … treated the effect [of the Nagasaki bomb] seriously,” noted the official history of the Imperial General Headquarters.

It is difficult to see any military or political usefulness of the Nagasaki bomb, exploded after Hiroshima had demonstrated the power of nuclear weapons and with the Soviet assault imminent. Ham can find no moral defense for either the American men who chose to use it or the Japanese warmakers who shrugged off its devastation while they debated for days the terms of their surrender.

Ham’s strongest case against the Hiroshima and Nagasaki massacres lies precisely in those surrender terms:

Remember that Tokyo’s “peace faction” had repeatedly requested the Emperor’s continuation as the sole precondition for surrender. After the bombs, they doggedly stuck to this condition; Hiroshima and Nagasaki made little dent in their resolve on this issue.

Perhaps the most grotesque and tragic irony is that it was the United States, not Japan, that conceded on this crucial issue — after the atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

On August 10, the Japanese government, “In obedience to the gracious command of His Majesty the Emperor,” submitted its formal proposal to surrender:

The Japanese Government are [sic] ready to accept the terms enumerated in the joint declaration which was issued at Potsdam on July 26th, 1945, by the heads of the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, and China, and later subscribed to by the Soviet Government, with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.

The US response, drafted by Secretary of State James Byrnes, the most intransigent hawk, who had been adamant in insisting on “unconditional surrender,” craftily conceded that the emperor would remain the emperor and commander of Japan’s armed forces, but that his authority and that of the Japanese government would be “subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied powers.” Truman and his advisors, in fact, wanted the emperor to remain, despite the uncomfortable fact that he was a major war criminal, to serve as a bulwark against communism, to maintain the infrastructure of the state, and to prevent continuing warfare by diehard military commanders of the remaining Japanese forces in Japan and on the mainland of Asia. Hence this wording in what is now known as the Byrnes note, delivered to Japan on August 11:

The Emperor will be required to authorize and ensure the signature by the Government of Japan and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters of the surrender terms necessary to carry out the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration, and shall issue his commands to all the Japanese military, naval and air authorities and to all the forces under their control wherever located to cease active operations and to surrender their arms, and to issue such other orders as the Supreme Commander may require to give effect to the surrender terms.

Conceding to the continued reign of the emperor had, in fact, always been a necessary component and precondition of any manageable surrender. Even after this concession and after continuing huge air raids by Air Force and Navy bombers, the debates between the peace and war factions went on for two more days. The only way to break the stalemate, Prime Minister Suzuki realized, was to go for a second time to the emperor. Asked why this could not wait two more days, as War Minister Anami demanded, Suzuki replied why they couldn’t do that: “If we miss today, the Soviet Union will take not only Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, but also Hokkaido. This would destroy the foundation of Japan. We must end the war while we can deal with the United States.” It was the meeting with the emperor on August 13 that led to the acceptance of the conditions in the Byrnes Note, something that would not have been possible if the United States had continued to insist on unconditional surrender and had not recognized the legitimacy, however limited, of the emperor’s rule.

“It is intriguing to speculate,” Ham writes, “whether the Japanese would have surrendered had they received the Byrnes Note before the atomic bombs fell.” After all, he goes on, “They surrendered only after the Russians invaded and after the Byrnes Note effectively met Tokyo’s condition.”

Hiroshima Nagasaki’s summary postwar history of the role of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the United States is very kind to our nation. For example, Ham actually reverses history when he claims, “The French pleaded for nuclear weapons to save their garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which Washington refused.” In reality, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles offered two atomic bombs to French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault for use at Dien Bien Phu, much to Bidault’s shock and dismay. Ham describes some of the hideous atrocities perpetrated by Japan’s biological and chemical weapons Unit 731 but fails to note that the members of the Unit 731 who fell into the hands of the United States were then incorporated into our biological weapons center in Fort Detrick, Maryland, and were even honored as outstanding citizens. (The Unit 731 members captured by the Russians in Manchuria were, on the other hand, tried and punished as war criminals.) But these are minor symptoms of one of the book’s limitations — its failure to confront the most ominous consequences of World War II.


Much has been written on how the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings led to our losing the peace. A more difficult and troubling question is whether they made us lose the war.

Ham accurately shows how the atomic bombings grew directly out of the matrix of the fascist doctrine, codified by Italian General Giulio Douhet, British Air Marshal Arthur Harris, and American General Billy Mitchell, of “strategic bombing,” a euphemism for the terror bombing of civilian populations, and the applications of this doctrine in World War II. His history of strategic bombing is a bit problematic, however. He neglects to mention that the aerial terror bombing of civilian populations began as a means of colonial control, first by Italy in Libya in 1911, and later by France and, most extensively, by Britain in Iraq. Although Ham recognizes that the British firebombing of German cities, including Hamburg and Dresden, was an undisguised example of the fascist theory of warfare, he accepts the spurious US claim that the bombing of German (and many other European as well as Asian) cities by vast fleets of heavy US bombers was actually “precision bombing.”

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, as part of the shift under Harwit to a more intellectually challenging role and as preparation for the ill-fated Enola Gay exhibit, mounted in 1989 a series of panels and symposia on the history of strategic bombing. As a participant, I remember presentations by World War II bombardiers and pilots about the unmasking of “precision bombing.” How could hundreds of bombers, unloading long strings of high-explosive bombs through winds they could not compute (and often under attack by antiaircraft fire and Nazi fighter planes), possibly “precision bomb” a particular target in the middle of a city? Nevertheless, early in the campaign a preflight briefing officer would post a large city map and point out to the assembled crews the raid’s target, such as a tank factory or a railway yard. One panelist described how puzzled the assembled crews were the first time the briefing officer merely rolled down the map of a city. “Where’s our target?” some asked. “There,” he responded, leveling his pointer at the city.

The incendiary bombing of the cities of Japan made it blatantly clear that “strategic bombing” was really the terror bombing of civilian populations, exactly what Douhet, Harris, and Mitchell advocated. Ham, like most other writers, lays all the blame on Air Force General Curtis LeMay. Having served as a Strategic Air Command navigator and intelligence officer under LeMay, and also knowing of his alarming role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, I consider him to have been a dangerous madman, indistinguishable from General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. But LeMay did not originate the strategy of cremating Japanese cities and the people who lived there. He merely carried it out — with extraordinary zeal and frightening efficiency.

The strategy came from far higher levels. Napalm was developed by American scientists specifically with the goal of creating unquenchable, self-sustaining firestorms in the cities of Japan, especially in the working-class districts, with their dense concentrations of wooden homes. Even First Lieutenant Ronald Reagan had a role in what he called one of the major “secrets of the war, ranking up with the atom bomb”: building in Hollywood an exact replica of Tokyo to be used as a model for the most effective firebombing of the city.[2] A city’s “crowded districts of highly inflammable houses offered” — as the official history of the Army Air Forces explains — an “ideal incendiary target.”[3] When Brigadier General Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., commander of XXI Bomber Command, was ordered to switch from “precision” bombing of industrial targets to saturation firebombing of entire cities, he protested. He was promptly removed and replaced, on January 20, 1945, by LeMay.

LeMay got right to work. His firebomb raid on Tokyo on February 25 left one square mile of the city burned out. Encouraged by these results and the total lack of any Japanese air defense, LeMay ordered all defensive armaments removed from the B-29s so that they could carry even more incendiary bombs. Dropping any pretense of precision bombing, LeMay swiftly began his full campaign to incinerate the cities of Japan. Within a few months, this strategy would produce more casualties among Japanese civilians than their armed forces suffered throughout the war and dwarf the numbers killed and injured in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the night of March 9 – 10, the target was a twelve-square-mile rectangle in Tokyo that housed one and a quarter million people. For three hours, hundreds of B-29s unloaded their firebombs. Instead of mere firestorms, the blazes produced a new and even deadlier phenomenon — the sweep conflagration, a tidal wave of fire igniting every combustible object in its path by radiant heat, melting asphalt streets and metal, leaping over canals, and searing the lungs of anyone within reach of its superheated vapors. The heat was so intense that it generated towering thunderheads with bolts of lightning. The last waves of bombers had difficulty finding anything left to bomb, and were tossed around like leaves by the thermal blasts from the fires below. Sixteen square miles of the city were burned out. More than 267,000 buildings were destroyed, and over a million people were rendered homeless. More than 100,000 people died that night in the Tokyo inferno. No wonder LeMay had contempt for the atomic bomb.

The success of the Tokyo raid confirmed the US strategy of cremating the population of Japan. By the end of June, every major city in Japan — except a few reserved for a new secret weapon — had been destroyed. By early August, all that were left were the four reserved cities, any of which could easily be destroyed by a routine incendiary raid. Two of these were Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Back in September 1939, when the war broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had sent his “urgent appeal” to every belligerent government “publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.” Alluding to the fascist air raids on Ethiopia, China, and Spain, he declared that this “ruthless bombing from air of civilians […] has sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman, and has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity.” He warned of a terrible future if the warring nations were to sink to “this form of inhuman barbarism.”

The president was expressing the collective public sensibility of America. Indeed Secretary of State Cordell Hull said he was “speaking for the whole American people” when he denounced the Fascist bombing of Barcelona the previous year, declaring, “No theory of war can justify such conduct.” That same year, the Senate had condemned the “inhuman bombing of civilian populations,” and the government had proclaimed a “moral embargo” even on shipping airplane parts to any nation that was bombing civilians from the air.

Ham presents overwhelming evidence that Truman and his advisors used the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an instrument to gain ascendancy over the Soviet Union in what was to become the Cold War. Like most historians, he acknowledges they also had other motives as well, and he, like others, can find little evidence that Truman and his key policy makers ever gave serious thought to not using the atomic bombs. Ham’s most disturbing conclusion is that they wanted and hoped to use them. “Everyone involved expected, indeed hoped, to use the bomb,” he writes, and “the nuclear attacks were an active choice, a desirable outcome, not a regrettable or painful last resort.” I have argued the same — in War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination — and traced that choice’s deep roots in American culture.

And this means we need to confront a profoundly troubling question — not whether the bomb helped win the war, a question we should now put to bed, but a question about the war itself. If what we were fighting against in World War II were not just enemy nations but fascism and militarism, then did the atomic bombs that massacred the defenseless populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — coming as a grand climax to our “strategic bombing” of European and Asian cities — help bring us victory? Or defeat?


[1] “Dole Aims a Barrage at ‘Intellectual Elites,’” The New York Times, September 5, 1995.

[2] Ronald Reagan, with Richard G. Hubler, Where’s the Rest of Me? (New York: Elsevier-Dutton, 1965), 118-19.

[3] Ronald Reagan, with Richard G. Hubler, Where’s the Rest of Me? (New York: Elsevier-Dutton, 1965), 118-19.

[4] Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, eds., The Army Air Forces in World War 11, 7 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1948-1958), vol. 5, 620.


H. Bruce Franklin is an American cultural historian.

LARB Contributor

H. Bruce Franklin is an American cultural historian who has authored or edited 19 books on a range of subjects.


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