The usual story told in American history classes is that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan saved American lives. This is mostly false.
Studies now show nearly as many Americans died from nuclear radiation and fallout during creation of these bombs, as died in Japan from the bombs being dropped.
One might still say lives were saved at the time these two bombs were dropped (instead of invasion), even if Americans were killed at shockingly high rates for decades afterwards. The problem with this theory is the bombs didn’t force surrender either.
A story told in American policy circles has been that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan established a level of superiority in warfare (“assured destruction”), which forced Japanese to immediately give up not to mention also held the Soviets at bay afterwards. All this unfortunately is also false.
Here is Truman’s warning to Japan to set the context of what the public was hearing at the time:
However Japan didn’t fear civilian casualty loads and couldn’t have really understood at the time why this new bomb mattered. However, clearly Japanese leaders feared Soviet declaration of war on them and thought Stalin would very negatively alter terms of surrender (Soviets no longer would mediate the surrender terms that Japan had been asking about for weeks before).
I don’t write these things to be provocative, rather to help us better educate people about the past and also to plan for the future. Perpetuating a false narrative doesn’t do America any favors. And most of what I’m writing here is old news.
In 2013 for example Foreign Policy published “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan … Stalin Did”
Japanese historians contended it was the USSR declaring war against Japan that convinced their Emperor and gov that surrender was the only option.
Japan referred to atomic bombs like a “single drop of rain in the midst of a hurricane”, comparing them to months-long fire-bomb raids of Tokyo that left it over 50% destroyed with 300,000 burned alive and 750,000 injured. The reason Tokyo wasn’t targeted with atomic bombs was it was too destroyed already — atomic effect wouldn’t have been measurable. (far fewer numbers estimated at 125,000 were killed in atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki)
Two years earlier in 2011 an article in Boston papers offered the following insightful analysis in “Why did Japan surrender?”
“Hasegawa has changed my mind,” says Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” “The Japanese decision to surrender was not driven by the two bombings.” […] “The bomb – horrific as it was – was not as special as Americans have always imagined. …more than 60 of Japan’s cities had been substantially destroyed by the time of the Hiroshima attack, according to a 2007 International Security article by Wilson, who is a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In the three weeks before Hiroshima, Wilson writes, 25 cities were heavily bombed. To us, then, Hiroshima was unique, and the move to atomic weaponry was a great leap, military and moral. But Hasegawa argues the change was incremental. “Once we had accepted strategic bombing as an acceptable weapon of war, the atomic bomb was a very small step,” he says. To Japan’s leaders, Hiroshima was yet another population center leveled, albeit in a novel way. If they didn’t surrender after Tokyo, they weren’t going to after Hiroshima.
It’s very hard to argue with these common sense points. Massive civilian casualties were mounting and having little effect. Did novelty of a bomb that was a secret suddenly change minds? Even common sense would say no, and the historical record increasingly confirms this.
Or as DW puts it in their documentary, why did American drop a second bomb on Nagasaki if that Hiroshima one supposedly could send a message to surrender?
Civilian suffering had never coerced Tokyo to change tactics, and these bombs also failed in that sense. Hiroshima was the 69th destroyed by bombing and Nagasaki wasn’t even the primary target for the second bomb.
In the end, America dropped the bombs to see what effects of the bombs would be (“…my mother fell apart like dry sand when I touched her foot…”) and then created a false story that historians have been trying to explain away ever since.