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When the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan 70 years ago this week -- killing a total of 210,000 men, women and children as well as a few US prisoners of war -- most high-level US military officers believed that it was unnecessary, because Japan was already defeated. Among the more well-known brass that held this opinion were Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Adm. Chester Nimitz and Adm. William D. Leahy, wartime chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Adm. Leahy is well-known to have condemned our use of the atom bombs as both unnecessary and immoral. He said, “I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
On Aug. 17, 1945, only days after the atomic attacks on Japan, Gen. “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, told the New York Times, “The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell, because the Japanese had lost control of their own air.” Gen. Arnold later wrote in his memoirs that “it always appeared to us that atomic bomb or no atomic bomb the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” In a 1962 official oral history, Gen. Arnold’s deputy, Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, said about his commander’s analysis: “Arnold’s view was that it [the dropping of the atomic bomb] was unnecessary.”
On Aug. 15, 1945, six days after Nagasaki was bombed, the New York Times quoted Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, a former Army Air Forces commander in China: “Russia’s entry into the Japanese war was the decisive factor in speeding its end and would have been so even if no atomic bombs had been dropped…”
Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, a notorious “hawk” who commanded the Twenty-first Bomber Command, made the case emphatically. The New York Herald Tribune reported Sept. 21, 1945 that Gen. LeMay said at a Sept. 20 press conference, “The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russian entering and without the atomic bomb.” A shocked reporter asked: “You mean that, sir? Without the Russians and the atomic bomb? Had they not surrendered because of the atomic bomb?” Gen. LeMay replied: “The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.” And LeMay didn’t shy from repeating his position. In November 1945, he said publicly it was “obvious that the atomic bomb did not end the war against Japan. Japan was finished long before either one of the two atomic bombs were dropped. “ In his memoir Mission With LeMay: My Story, Gen. LeMay asked himself in a mock interview: “Do you think that by relying solely on incendiary attack, you could have knocked Japan out of the war, thus precluding any invasion of the Japanese homeland until after the collapse came?” And LeMay answers: “Yes. I think it could have happened.” And in 1985, Gen. LeMay reiterated his early position in the Omaha World-Herald where he said, “I felt there was no need to use them [atomic weapons]. All the atomic bomb did was, in all probability, save a few days.”
In 1969, Gen. George C. Kennedy, commander of the Army Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific, was asked, “Both militarily and politically, do you believe it was a wise decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” Gen. Kennedy answered, “No! I think we had the Japs licked anyhow. I think they would have quit probably within a week or so of when they did quit.”
Averell Harriman, who in 1945 was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, wrote in 1965 about Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, who had commanded the Pacific-based US Army Strategic Air Forces, and Spaatz’s deputy commanding general, Fred L. Anderson. Harriman wrote: “…they both felt Japan would surrender without use of the bomb, and neither knew why the second bomb was used.” Gen. Spaatz’s command included the B-29 unit that dropped the atomic bombs, yet Spaatz wrote Aug. 11, 1945 in his diary, “When the atomic bomb was first discussed with me in Washington I was not in favor of it just as I have never favored the destruction of cities as such with all inhabitants being killed.” In 1962 Spaatz added that, “if we were not going to have this invasion of Honshu [island], I felt that conventional bombing would do the job.” In 1965 Spaatz said, “I think that had the Japanese been told that we … would just keep up this present bombing, that they would have surrendered without the atomic bomb.”
The commander of the Pacific theater, Gen. Douglas MacArthur said many times after the war that the bomb had been unnecessary. Gen. MacArthur was interviewed by Norman Cousins, who reported in The Pathology of Power, “He [MacArthur] saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did any way, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”
Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers wrote for the VFW in a piece reused in the July 1947 Reader’s Digest: “Obviously … the atomic bomb neither induced the Emperor’s decision to surrender nor had any effect on the ultimate outcome of the war.”
General [later President] Dwight Eisenhower reports having “grave misgivings” about the atomic bombs, and argued at Potsdam, in July 1945, that “there was no question but that Japan was already thoroughly beaten.” In his 1963 book Mandate for Change, Ike wrote about his meeting with Sec. of War Henry L. Stimson: “…I voiced by 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 weapons whose employment was, I thought no longer mandatory…” Interviewed by his son John in 1967, Ike remembered telling Sec. Stimson, “Well, again, it’s none of my business, but I’d sure hate to see it used, because Japan’s licked anyway, and they know it.”
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific Fleet, spoke at a Sept 21, 1945 press conference. The NY Times reported: “The admiral took the opportunity of adding his voice to those insisting that Japan had been defeated before the atomic bombings and Russia’s entry into the war.”
Army Brig. Gen. Carter W. Clarke, who was in charge of summarizing intercepted, decoded Japanese messages, said in 1959, “we brought [the Japanese] down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.”
This damning accusation was also made by Adm. William F. Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, who said publicly the atomic bomb was used because the scientists had a “toy and they wanted to try it out…” “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment…. It was a mistake to ever drop it.”
These commanding officers were expressing widely-held military opinion: The war would end before an invasion could begin. Lt. Gen. Aaker, mentioned above, said May 22, 1962 to the US Air Force Oral History Program, “I know nobody in high echelons of the AAF [Army Air Forces] who thought it would be necessary to invade Japan. The effectiveness of the Air Attack on Japan had already demonstrated that Japan could be destroyed by conventional bombing.”
All these statements are compiled and notated in the 1995 history The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, by Gar Alperovitz (Knopf), which also notes: “Despite all that has been written in the last 50 years, that so many military leaders expressed themselves as critical of the use of the atomic bomb is simply not realized by the American public. Nor have the implications been faced of the fact that almost every prominent military leader seems clearly to have understood the atomic bomb was not needed to achieve a Japanese surrender without an invasion.”
Less than a year after the actual events, the US Strategic Bombing Survey (mentioned 19 times by Alperovitz) concluded that Japan would likely have surrendered prior to November 1, 1945, without atomic bombings, without a Soviet declaration of war, and without a US invasion. In 1946, the War Department Military Intelligence Division concluded the same.
The public relations story -- invented after the war -- that “the bomb saved lives,” must be rejected for the preposterous, self-contradictory, impossibility that it is. It’s well past time for the WWII generation and everyone else to admit that not even God Almighty can save lives by dropping bombs on cities.