From time to time scholars question President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb in 1945.
How easy it is to look backwards and see things so clearly. There are those who maintain that Japan would have surrendered, without invasion and without the atomic bomb, prior to the end of 1945 — and probably before November 1, 1945.
But the real question is, what did President Truman, the man who made the decision, know in the summer of 1945? Truth is, he did not know how long the Japanese would continue to fight. One thing he did know. Every day that the war continued cost the lives of more Allied and Japanese soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians. Certainly, the loss of lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was awful, but perhaps even more lives would have been lost if the war had continued, without our dropping the atomic bombs, until November. The terrible air raids with conventional weapons had already extracted a tremendous toll, and these raids would undoubtedly have continued until the end. And while Japanese civilians were dying in these raids, how many American and Japanese would die fighting in the Pacific? And how many Japanese soldiers and Chinese soldiers and civilians would be killed on the Asian mainland?
Also to consider are revisionist suggestions that Japan would have surrendered before November 1945. Was this true? Despite their desperate plight and the hopelessness of their general situation, many Japanese military leaders were prepared to fight on to the bitter end. They were ready to subject Japan to total destruction rather than surrender. Japanese generals planned an all-out defense of the homeland. Four veteran divisions were withdrawn from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in March 1945 to strengthen the forces in Japan, and 45 new divisions were activated between February and May 1945. Most of these were immobile formations for coastal defense, but 16 were high quality mobile divisions. In all, there were 2.3 million Japanese Army troops prepared to defend the home islands, and they were backed by a civilian militia of 28 million men and women. Casualty predictions varied widely but were extremely high. The Vice Chief of the Japanese Navy’s General Staff predicted up to 20 million Japanese deaths.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson was sufficiently concerned about American estimates of our own probable casualties to commission a special study by Quincy Wright and William Shockley. Wright and Shockley consulted with Colonels James McCormack and Dean Rusk and examined casualty forecasts by other military experts. After this study, Wright and Shockley estimated the invading Allies would suffer between 1.7 and 4 million casualties in an invasion of Japan, of whom between 400,000 and 800,000 would be dead, while Japanese fatalities were estimated to be around 5 to 10 million soldiers and civilians.
What was the President to do?
I believe President Truman made the right decision.