World War II in Europe, half of one of the cruxes of modern history, ended 75 years ago at the end of the first week of May. That left the war by the Allies, principally the U.S., against Japan in the Pacific. It would be too harsh to say the other half ended with a bang on Aug. 6, 1945, but the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima that day was the beginning of an end that came surprisingly quickly.
On Aug. 8, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. This sounds opportunistic, but it was what the Americans had been pushing Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin to do for more than a year, and what he agreed to do as soon as the Red Army had pushed Germany back to the west and vanquished Hitler.
On Aug. 9, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. On Aug. 14, Japan agreed in principle to unconditional surrender. The U.S. occupation of the home islands began Aug. 28 and Japan formally surrendered Sept. 2, ending the war on all fronts. In the Pacific theater alone, it brought a close to a conflict that had been extraordinarily bloody, costly and hateful.
Using atomic bombs on cities for the first and last time was not instantly controversial, but it was a decision taken after more debate than many people, including some who are still eager to argue its morality, seem to realize.
Japanese forces put up suicidal resistance as Americans approached the home islands. At Iowa Jima, the Marines suffered approximately 26,000 casualties, with about 6,000 killed; of the 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 218 were taken prisoner. And Japan still had a 2.6 million-man army garrisoned on the islands.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall believed using the three atomic bombs being brought to completion at Los Alamos on Japanese cities would damn the U.S. for generations, even if it shortened the war. Marshall proposed using one of the bombs on a military target in Japan such as a naval base instead, and if Japan still did not surrender, President Truman should designate a number of Japanese cities from which people would be warned to leave, and then drop a second bomb on one of them, as David L. Roll recounts in his recent biography about the general, “Defender of The Republic.”
Truman had a civilian committee to advise him about the use of the bombs. At the end of May, member James Conant, president of Harvard, argued dropping a bomb on a city without warning would make a more profound visual and psychological impression on the willingness of Japan to admit defeat, and, with the help of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the Los Alamos lab, he won his point with the committee, which presented its findings to the president.
On July 16, Truman, meeting with Allied leaders at Potsdam, the Berlin suburb, approved the selection of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to command all forces for the invasion of Japan, planned for 1946. Truman also was told that day the test of a plutonium bomb in the New Mexico desert was a success.
The Potsdam Declaration, issued July 26, called on Japan to surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.”
Orders to use the bombs on Japanese cities were issued in Marshall’s name, with Truman’s concurrence. Marshall, ever the good soldier, never publicly spoke of his misgivings about directly bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for a long time after, other reservations were dissolved in the satisfaction that the war was over and troops were home – but Marshall knew nothing was forever.