Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocausts that Won the War


Fortunately, the three more realistic ministers who supported surrender – Minister of the Navy Yonai, Minister of Foreign Affairs Togo, and Prime Minister Suzuki – were galvanized by the shock of recent events. The Soviets were racing toward Japan, while new technology allowed the Americans to wipe out city after city in seconds, and still Anami’s side wouldn’t budge. Clearly, only unconventional means could save the country.

That night, they called another meeting, this time with Emperor Hirohito as witness, and when Anami proved as recalcitrant as before, these ministers appealed directly to the Emperor. (This had never been done.) Hirohito, who had a great respect for science and had studied to be a marine biologist, was terrified of the bombs and of the invasion. He ended the stalemate in favor of peace. Finally.

We can see from this turn of events that the twin shocks of the bombs and the invasion did, indeed, have a huge psychological effect on Japan’s wartime leaders that directly caused them to end the war. This was not a rational decision on their part – if Anami’s party had been rational, then Japan could have sued for peace months earlier – rather, it was a decision motivated by fear of the imminent destruction of their country and of the top levels of government. It was an appeal to their sense of self-preservation, when preserving their own people meant nothing, that ended the War Council’s stalemate.

Many writers and historians have, over the years, attempted to diminish the effect of the bombs or of the Soviet invasion to suit their own purposes. One shock, they claim, spurred on the peace party, and the second had negligible effects. Of course, there’s no possible way to know this – these twin surprises happened almost concurrently, and anybody claiming solid evidence that separates their effects is full of hot air.

I can cast my conjectural net with the best of these others, however (while maintaining the caveat that I have no absolute proof), and say that while the Soviet invasion came as no surprise at all to the Japanese (the Russians had been amassing tanks on the border for months), the atomic bombs were completely unexpected. Clearly, a direct nuclear surprise attack on your country’s mainland is more stunning than an invasion of conquered territory miles distant, no matter how fast those Ruskies are moving. If we were at war with the Chinese, which would frighten you more – an invasion towards Washington D.C. that started in Maine? Or the complete erasure of Philadelphia by a new and unknown weapon dropped from the sky?

We should also consider the effect of the bomb on Anami himself. As one would expect from a man who had honed himself into a one-dimensional samurai stereotype, “honor” was as vital for him as oxygen for a fire. The idea that a foreign military, Soviet or American, might best Japan’s army, his army, was something he’d resist with every fiber of his mulish soul; losing to foreign science, however, likely proved much more palatable. At their last meeting, some of the other ministers stressed the point that Anami had not lost, per se, that Japan was simply at a fundamental scientific disadvantage. They had lost a “scientific war,” not a war of soldiers. Shifting the blame from his shoulders may have pacified him, made him more receptive to the Emperor’s order, spared his pride – and his pride had, until this point, been the primary inhibitor of the peace process.

(Though the bombs were not so bitter a blow to Anami’s pride as direct military defeat, they still proved to be a fatal one. Five days later, when a budding coup attempt by his junior officers put him in the position of having to choose between his military calling and obedience to the Emperor, Anami ritually killed himself. He left a note apologizing for “the great crime,” which everybody has found infuriatingly vague ever since.)

So the bombs were a vital element of that pivotal shock that forced the leadership towards peace. What other conclusion can you draw, really, when the Emperor mentioned the bomb but not the Soviets in his radio address to the nation? When the Minister of the Navy Yonai said to a colleague on the 12th of August, “It may be inappropriate for me to put it in this way, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, God’s gifts,” can a responsible historian grant the Soviet invasion primacy over the bombs? Can Hiroshima simply be dismissed as a mistake, as a worthless act of brutality and mass-murder that had no beneficial effects whatsoever?

No, it cannot. Because despite what our sympathies might tell us, this kind of shock was exactly what was needed to spur the dysfunctional Japanese government into surrender.→