What If America Nuked the Biggest Battleship Ever Built?

What If America Nuked the Biggest Battleship Ever Built?

Robert Farley

History, Asia

This atomic deathmatch would not be so straightforward.

Imagine a squadron of U.S. battleships approaching a Japanese battle line. From the bridge of the USS Iowa, spotters can clearly make out the silhouettes of the battleships Yamato, Musashi, Nagato, and others. Yet the Japanese ships make no smoke, and appear to roll helplessly on the waves. A B-29 of the U.S. Army Air Force has dropped an atomic weapon in the vicinity of the Japanese fleet, disabling if not sinking many of its most powerful ships.

Some thinking on how to use the atomic bomb against Japan envisioned an outcome like this. If the Imperial Japanese Navy had done better in the early stages of the war, it might still have had ships in 1945, and it might have held the key islands that enabled the United States to use the atomic bomb against the Japanese homeland. In the wake of the war, the United States extensively tested the effects of atomic weapons on warships. That testing can inform how we evaluate the impact of an atomic bomb upon the main body of the Imperial Japanese Navy.


While the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) lost much of its strength in 1942, it remained a viable, effective force until the battles of Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf in 1944. Had various operations in 1942 been more successful, it is possible to imagine a still-effective IJN in operation in mid-1945, when the atomic bomb became available. The success of the strategic bombing raids upon Japan required the use of island bases in the Pacific, as efforts to launch B-29 raids from China had largely failed. As long as the IJN could prevent the U.S. Navy from seizing islands in range of Japan, it could limit the threat of strategic bombing (including atomic) attacks against the Japanese homeland. This might have inclined the United States to direct such attacks against proximate military targets, including the fleet concentrations of the IJN. 

Operation Crossroads

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