It is very common for Western governments and media outlets to tell the rest of the world to be afraid of North Korea and its nuclear weapons, or to fear the possibility that Iran could one day have nukes.
But the reality is that there is only one country in human history that has used nuclear weapons against a civilian population – and not once, but twice: the United States.
On the 6th and 9th of August, 1945, the US military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Around 200,000 civilians were killed.
Today, nearly 80 years later, many US government officials, journalists, and educators still claim that Washington had no choice but to nuke Japan, to force it to surrender and thus end World War Two. Some argue that this horrifying atrocity was in fact a noble act, that it saved even more lives that would have been lost in subsequent fighting.
This narrative, although widespread, is utterly false.
US government documents have admitted that Japan was already on the verge of surrendering in 1945, before the nuclear strikes. It was simply not necessary to use the atomic bomb.
The US Department of War (which was renamed the Department of Defense later in the 1940s) conducted an investigation, known as the Strategic Bombing Survey, analyzing its air strikes in World War II.
Published in 1946, the Strategic Bombing Survey stated very clearly, “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped”:
… it seems clear that, even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion.
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even 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.
The nuclear strikes on Japan represented a political decision taken by the United States, aimed squarely at the Soviet Union; it was the first strike in the Cold War.
In August 1945, the USSR was preparing to invade Japan to overthrow its ruling fascist regime, which had been allied with Nazi Germany – which the Soviet Red Army had also just defeated in the European theater of the war.
Washington was concerned that, if the Soviets defeated Japanese fascism and liberated Tokyo like they had in Berlin, then Japan’s post-fascist government could become an ally of the Soviet Union and could adopt a socialist government.
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, therefore, were not so much aimed at the Japanese fascists as they were aimed at the Soviet communists.
This expressly political decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan was in fact opposed by several top US military officials.
As one of the most famous generals in US military history, Dwight Eisenhower led operations in the European theater of the war and oversaw the subsequent occupation of what was formerly Nazi Germany.
Eisenhower later became president of the United States, following Harry Truman, the US leader who had nuked Japan.
Eisenhower is renowned worldwide for his leadership in the fight against fascism in Europe. But what is little known is that he opposed the US nuclear attacks on Japan.
After leaving the White House, Eisenhower published a memoir titled Mandate for Change. In this 1963 book, the former top general recalled an argument he had in July 1945 with then US Secretary of War Henry Stimson.
Stimson had notified him that Washington was planning to nuke Japan, and Eisenhower criticized the decision, stating that he had “grave misgivings” and was convinced “that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary”.
The incident took place in [July] 1945 when Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. … But the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.
During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of “face”. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude, almost angrily refuting the reason I gave for my quick conclusions.
These “completely unnecessary” nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 200,000 civilians. But they had a political goal, aimed at the Soviet Union.
The political reasons behind the atomic bombing of Japan have been publicly acknowledged by the US Department of Energy’s Office of History, which runs a website with educational information about the Manhattan Project, the scientific initiative that developed the bomb.
The US government website conceded that the Truman administration’s decision to nuke Japan was politically motivated, writing:
After President Harry S. Truman received word of the success of the Trinity test, his need for the help of the Soviet Union in the war against Japan was greatly diminished. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, had promised to join the war against Japan by August 15th. Truman and his advisors now were not sure they wanted this help. If use of the atomic bomb made victory possible without an invasion, then accepting Soviet help would only invite them into the discussions regarding the postwar fate of Japan.
Other historians argue that Japan would have surrendered even without the use of the atomic bomb and that in fact Truman and his advisors used the bomb only in an effort to intimidate the Soviet Union.
Truman hoped to avoid having to “share” the administration of Japan with the Soviet Union.
Mainstream historians have acknowledged this fact as well.
Ward Wilson, a researcher at the establishment London-based think tank the British American Security Information Council, published an article in Washington’s elite Foreign Policy magazine in 2013 titled “The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan. Stalin Did”.
“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 Nov. 1. Their use was, therefore, unnecessary”, he wrote.
If the Japanese were not concerned with city bombing in general or the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in particular, what were they concerned with? The answer is simple: the Soviet Union.
Even the most hard-line leaders in Japan’s government knew that the war could not go on. The question was not whether to continue, but how to bring the war to a close under the best terms possible.
One way to gauge whether it was the bombing of Hiroshima or the invasion and declaration of war by the Soviet Union that caused Japan’s surrender is to compare the way in which these two events affected the strategic situation. After Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6, both options were still alive. … Bombing Hiroshima did not foreclose either of Japan’s strategic options.
The impact of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island was quite different, however. Once the Soviet Union had declared war, Stalin could no longer act as a mediator — he was now a belligerent. So the diplomatic option was wiped out by the Soviet move. The effect on the military situation was equally dramatic.
When the Russians invaded Manchuria, they sliced through what had once been an elite army and many Russian units only stopped when they ran out of gas.
The Soviet invasion invalidated the military’s decisive battle strategy, just as it invalidated the diplomatic strategy. At a single stroke, all of Japan’s options evaporated. The Soviet invasion was strategically decisive — it foreclosed both of Japan’s options — while the bombing of Hiroshima (which foreclosed neither) was not.
Attributing the end of the war to the atomic bomb served Japan’s interests in multiple ways. But it also served U.S. interests. If the Bomb won the war, then the perception of U.S. military power would be enhanced, U.S. diplomatic influence in Asia and around the world would increase.
If, on the other hand, the Soviet entry into the war was what caused Japan to surrender, then the Soviets could claim that they were able to do in four days what the United States was unable to do in four years, and the perception of Soviet military power and Soviet diplomatic influence would be enhanced. And once the Cold War was underway, asserting that the Soviet entry had been the decisive factor would have been tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Thus, before World War II was even over, the United States launched a Cold War against its ostensible “ally”, the Soviet Union – and against the potential spread of socialism anywhere around the world.
US spy agencies began recruiting former fascists and Nazi collaborators. US officials freed Class A Japanese war criminals from prison, some of whom went on to lead the government in Tokyo.
Many of these figures were involved in founding the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has essentially run Japan as a one-party state since 1955 (excluding a mere five years of opposition rule).
A textbook example of this was Nobusuke Kishi, a notorious war criminal who ran the Japanese empire’s Manchukuo puppet regime and oversaw genocidal atrocities in collaboration with the Nazis. He was briefly imprisoned, but later pardoned by US authorities and, with Washington’s support, rose to become prime minister of Japan in the 1950s.
Kishi’s fascist-linked family still commands significant control over Japanese politics. His grandson, Shinzo Abe, was the longest-serving prime minister in the East Asian nation’s history.
Today, it remains important to correct widespread myths about this history, because they have a profound impact on popular culture.
In July 2023, Hollywood released a blockbuster film, “Oppenheimer”, by award-winning director Christopher Nolan. The movie was a huge commercial success, but was also criticized for its politics.
The film humanized the eponymous physicist who directed the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos laboratory, J. Robert Oppenheimer, commonly known as the “father of the atomic bomb”.
Later in life, Oppenheimer came to regret the role he played in developing the weapon, and he campaigned against nuclear proliferation.
Ironically, Oppenheimer also became a victim of the US government’s McCarthyism, and was persecuted for his links to left-wing groups.
But while the movie was celebrated for depicting Oppenheimer’s complex internal struggles, it was accused of whitewashing the brutality of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese civilians who lost their lives in these totally unnecessary attacks were eerily absent from the film.
By incessantly repeating the falsehood that nuking 200,000 people was the only way to get Japan to surrender, US officials have normalized this erasure of the civilian victims of its unnecessary, politically motivated war crimes.