The U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II has long been a subject of emotional debate. Initially, few questioned President Truman's decision to drop two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, in 1965, historian Gar Alperovitz argued that, although the bombs did force an immediate end to the war, Japan's leaders had wanted to surrender anyway and likely would have done so before the American invasion planned for November 1. Their use was, therefore, unnecessary. Obviously, if the bombings weren't necessary to win the war, then bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. In the 48 years since, many others have joined the fray: some echoing Alperovitz and denouncing the bombings, others rejoining hotly that the bombings were moral, necessary, and life-saving.
Both schools of thought, however, assume that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with new, more powerful weapons did coerce Japan into surrendering on August 9. They fail to question the utility of the bombing in the first place -- to ask, in essence, did it work? The orthodox view is that, yes, of course, it worked. The United States bombed Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, when the Japanese finally succumbed to the threat of further nuclear bombardment and surrendered. The support for this narrative runs deep. But there are three major problems with it, and, taken together, they significantly undermine the traditional interpretation of the Japanese surrender.
The first problem with the traditional interpretation is timing. And it is a serious problem. The traditional interpretation has a simple timeline: The U.S. Army Air Force bombs Hiroshima with a nuclear weapon on August 6, three days later they bomb Nagasaki with another, and on the next day the Japanese signal their intention to surrender.* One can hardly blame American newspapers for running headlines like: "Peace in the Pacific: Our Bomb Did It!"
When the story of Hiroshima is told in most American histories, the day of the bombing -- August 6 -- serves as the narrative climax. All the elements of the story point forward to that moment: the decision to build a bomb, the secret research at Los Alamos, the first impressive test, and the final culmination at Hiroshima. It is told, in other words, as a story about the Bomb. But you can't analyze Japan's decision to surrender objectively in the context of the story of the Bomb. Casting it as "the story of the Bomb" already presumes that the Bomb's role is central.
Viewed from the Japanese perspective, the most important day in that second week of August wasn't August 6 but August 9. That was the day that the Supreme Council met -- for the first time in the war -- to discuss unconditional surrender. The Supreme Council was a group of six top members of the government -- a sort of inner cabinet -- that effectively ruled Japan in 1945. Japan's leaders had not seriously considered surrendering prior to that day. Unconditional surrender (what the Allies were demanding) was a bitter pill to swallow. The United States and Great Britain were already convening war crimes trials in Europe. What if they decided to put the emperor -- who was believed to be divine -- on trial? What if they got rid of the emperor and changed the form of government entirely? Even though the situation was bad in the summer of 1945, the leaders of Japan were not willing to consider giving up their traditions, their beliefs, or their way of life. Until August 9. What could have happened that caused them to so suddenly and decisively change their minds? What made them sit down to seriously discuss surrender for the first time after 14 years of war?
It could not have been Nagasaki. The bombing of Nagasaki occurred in the late morning of August 9, after the Supreme Council had already begun meeting to discuss surrender, and word of the bombing only reached Japan's leaders in the early afternoon -- after the meeting of the Supreme Council had been adjourned in deadlock and the full cabinet had been called to take up the discussion. Based on timing alone, Nagasaki can't have been what motivated them.
Hiroshima isn't a very good candidate either. It came 74 hours -- more than three days -- earlier. What kind of crisis takes three days to unfold? The hallmark of a crisis is a sense of impending disaster and the overwhelming desire to take action now. How could Japan's leaders have felt that Hiroshima touched off a crisis and yet not meet to talk about the problem for three days?
President John F. Kennedy was sitting up in bed reading the morning papers at about 8:45 am on October 16, 1962 when McGeorge Bundy, his national security advisor, came in to inform him that the Soviet Union was secretly putting nuclear missiles in Cuba. Within two hours and forty-five minutes a special committee had been created, its members selected, contacted, brought to the White House, and were seated around the cabinet table to discuss what should be done.