America Nuked Japan To End World War II In The Pacific—But Did It Need To?

America Nuked Japan To End World War II In The Pacific—But Did It Need To?

Tom Nichols

Security, Asia

In the context of World War II, Truman felt that he had no choice. 

Key point: The benefit of hindsight makes the decision seem easier.

Every summer, as the anniversaries of the U.S. nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki approach, Americans engage in the painful moral exercise of wondering whether President Harry Truman should have ordered the use of nuclear weapons (or as they were called at the time, the “special bombs”) against Japan in August 1945. And every year, as we get farther away in time from those horrible events, we wonder if we were wrong.

In 1945, Americans overwhelmingly supported the use of the bomb; seventy years later, that number is now a bare majority (some polls suggest less), with support for Truman’s decision concentrated among older people.

Truman, for his part, thought he was bringing the war to a swift close. Taken in its time, the decision was the right one. As historian David McCullough has been known to say, “people living ‘back then’ didn’t know they were living ‘back then’,” and to judge the decisions of people in 1945 by the standards of 2015 is not only ahistorical, it is pointless. Truman and his advisers made the only decision they could have made; indeed, considered in the context of World War II, it wasn’t really much of a decision at all.

There are three arguments usually marshalled against the use of the bomb in 1945. First, that to use the bomb only against Japan was racist; second, that it was pointless; and third, that it was done purely for political effect that had more to do with the Soviet Union than with the war in the Pacific. These objections make little sense when weighed against counterfactual thinking about American alternatives.

Was the use of nuclear bombs against Japan actually racism? Would Truman have used the bomb against the Germans? After all, America had a “Germany first” strategy from the very beginning of its involvement in the war, so why drop the bomb on Japan? Was American nuclear devastation reserved only for Asians but not Europeans?

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