Understanding the Decision to Drop the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The military situation in the Pacific

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The military situation in the Pacific

When Truman became president, a long and bitter military campaign in the Pacific, marked by fanatical Japanese resistance and strongly held racial and cultural hostilities on both sides, was nearing its conclusion. In February 1945, about a month after he was sworn in as vice president, American troops invaded the small island of Iwo Jima, located 760 miles (1,220 km) from Tokyo. The Americans took four weeks to defeat the Japanese forces and suffered nearly 30,000 casualties. On April 1, 12 days before he became president, the United States invaded Okinawa, located just 350 miles (560 km) south of the Japanese home island of Kyushu. The battle of Okinawa was one of the fiercest of the Pacific war. The small island was defended by 100,000 Japanese troops, and Japanese military leaders attempted—with some success—to mobilize the island’s entire civilian population. Offshore, Japanese kamikaze planes inflicted severe losses on the American fleet. After nearly 12 weeks of fighting, the United States secured the island on June 21 at a cost of nearly 50,000 American casualties. Japanese casualties were staggering, with approximately 90,000 defending troops and at least 100,000 civilians killed.

The Americans considered Okinawa a dress rehearsal for the invasion of the Japanese home islands, for which the United States was finalizing a two-stage plan. The first phase, code-named Olympic, was scheduled for late October 1945, with a landing on Kyushu, defended by an estimated 350,000 Japanese troops backed by at least 1,000 kamikaze planes. Olympic entailed the use of nearly 800,000 American assault troops and an enormous naval fleet. The scale of the operation was to be similar to that of theNormandy invasion in France in June 1944, which involved 156,000 Allied troops in the first 24 hours and approximately 850,000 others by the end of the first week of July. Estimates of casualties from an invasion of Japan varied, but nearly everyone involved in the planning assumed that they would be substantial; mid-range estimates projected 132,000 American casualties, with 40,000 deaths. Truman told his military advisers that he hoped “there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another.”

The second phase of the plan, code-named Coronet, envisioned a landing near Tokyo on the home island of Honshu in the spring of 1946 and a Japanese surrender sometime before the end of the year. The same mid-range estimate that predicted 132,000 casualties for Olympic projected 90,000 for Coronet. If both invasions were necessary, by the most conservative estimates the United States would suffer 100,000 killed, wounded, or missing, as compared to a Pacific War total that by mid-June was approaching 170,000. Thus, the best estimates available to Truman predicted that the war would continue for a year or longer and that casualties would increase by 60 to 100 percent or more.

But would Japan have surrendered without either invasion? By mid-1945, an American naval blockade had effectively cut off the home islands from the rest of the world. Moreover, regular incendiary bombing raids were destroying huge portions of one city after another, food and fuel were in short supply, and millions of civilians were homeless. General Curtis LeMay, the commander of American air forces in the Pacific, estimated that by the end of September he would have destroyed every target in Japan worth hitting. The argument that Japan would have collapsed by early fall is speculative but powerful. Nevertheless, all the evidence available to Washington indicated that Japan planned to fight to the end. Throughout July, intelligence reports claimed that troop strength on Kyushu was steadily escalating. Moreover, American leaders learned that Japan was seeking to open talks with the Soviet Union in the hopes of making a deal that would forestall Soviet entry into the Pacific war.

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