Hiroshima: Was It ‘Necessary’?

J. Samuel Walker wrote, on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, that ‘The fundamental issue that has divided scholars . . . is whether the use of the bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.’1 This piece tries to solve the ‘fundamental issue’—was the bomb necessary from Washington’s perspective?

Regardless of whether the bomb was necessary to produce a satisfactory US victory, it certainly was sufficient. First, it ensured that ‘the Japanese would surrender to the United States, not the Russians, and the United States would be the occupier of postwar Japan’2. Secondly, this ensured there would be a ‘traditional, right-wing order’3, which was ‘vital for the health of US corporations’4 wanting to export manufactured goods and invest. Thirdly, the occupation gave the US control over Japan’s oil.5

Would anything less have satisfied the US? Its actions in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala6, Panama, Southeast Asia—one could go on—tell the extent of murder and suffering that Washington is willing to inflict in the interests of big business. Faced with history, it is fair to say that Washington would not have been satisfied with anything less than being sole occupiers of Japan.7

So, to solve the ‘fundamental issue’ that Walker raises, we must ask another question: was the bomb necessary for the US to gain sole occupation of Japan? To answer it, one must imagine events had the bomb not been dropped. According to the US Strategic Bombing Survey, ‘certainly prior to 31 December 1945… Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped . . .’8 However, Russia was due to declare war on Japan on August 8th.9 Thus, the US would not have had Japan for itself. This scenario supports the use of the bomb as ‘necessary’. However, could the US have forced Japan to surrender before the Russians invaded, without using the bomb? Perhaps.

Had the US not demanded unconditional surrender—had they accepted ‘one condition… that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place…’2—Japan would have surrendered. And they may have surrendered before August 8th; the Japanese Foreign Minister privately admitted on July 13th said that ‘Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace. . . .’ 2

Why did they not grant this small concession? The Foreign Minister’s admission had been intercepted and relayed to the White House—it knew the concession that had to be made.2 Besides, the Emperor had imported much of Japan’s resources from the US in the 1920s and 1930s10—it was not as if his Japan was an autarky to US businesses. Was it because they wanted to be certain that Japan would surrender before Russia got seriously involved? Perhaps it was ‘because too much money and effort had been invested in the atomic bomb not to drop it’.2

One cannot know for sure—I have of course failed to solve the ‘fundamental issue’. What I do know is that the fundamental issue is not what is should be. It should not be whether the bomb was necessary to achieve terms satisfactory to Washington—it should be whether the use of the bomb was moral. (Morality rarely accompanies ‘terms satisfactory to the United States’.) And to decide whether an action is moral, one must look at its expected consequences. In this case, there are at two obvious possible outcomes had the bomb not been dropped:

  1. Russia invades Japan and influences its post-war status once it surrenders. Large US businesses have less investment opportunities and a smaller market for manufactured exports. Moreover, Washington does not control Japan’s oil supplies and refineries to the extent that it actually did.
  2. The US does not impose unconditional surrender on the Japanese, and accepts their wish to keep their Emperor. Japan surrenders without the bomb being dropped. Either Russia invades Japan or it does not.

Both of these outcomes are more moral than what happened, and both were easily in reach of the US government. But, significantly, they carried the risk of Russia joining the invasion—this went against US economic interests in the Pacific. Thus, Washington characteristically chose the immoral option. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima left perhaps 100,000 dead. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 50,000 more.11

 Joe McKenzie, Political Editor



Zinn refers to: Zinn, Howard (Twentieth Anniversary Edition, 1999), A People’s History of the United States New York: HarperCollins Publishers
Chomsky refers to: Chomsky, Noam (2012), How The World Works Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton
Numbers refer to page numbers.
For a graphic depiction of Hiroshima, see John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki#Debate_over_bombings
  2. Zinn, 423
  3. Chomsky, 15
  4. Chomsky, 14
  5. Chomsky, 23: ‘As late as the early 1970s, Japan still controlled only about 10% of its own oil supplies.’
  6. See my article, Guatemala: A Rotten Apple (http://tiffinomics.com/guatemala-a-rotten-apple/)
  7. Although the occupation was supported by the British Commonwealth, it was led by the Americans. The Soviet Union had little to no influence over Japan.
  8. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report (Pacific War), Washington, D.C, 1 July 1946 (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/USSBS-PTO-Summary.html#jstetw)
  9. Zinn, 423: ‘The Russians had secretly agreed (they were officially not at war with Japan) they would come into the war ninety days after the end of the European war. That turned out to be May 8, and so, on August 8, the Russians were due to declare war on Japan.’
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_Japan#Economic_factors
  11. Death tolls taken from Zinn, 422
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