August 1945 in History

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Was Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs in August 1945 justified as a way of shortening the war whilst reaching the minimum amount of casualties?


In August 1945 the Second World War, the bloodiest war in human history, was in its last days. The conflict in Europe had finished already in May of the same year, and the allies could reach a consensus on how to divide its frontiers. The only front that was still active was in Asia, specifically in Japan.

Italy and Germany had already surrendered by August, leaving only Japan as the last beacon of hope for the Axis. The main confrontation was between the United States and Japan, with the possibility of the Soviet Union entering this stage at the beginning of the same month. Harry S. Truman was left with a dilemma, on how to approach the Japanese. Continue with the blockade and the bombings? Invade the island of Kyushu? Full scale invasion? Or rather the use of the secret new bomb created by the Manhattan project on July 1945?

After the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the 12 of April 1945 Harry S.

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Truman was sworn in as president. On August of that same year he took the decision of dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were 5 key aspects that contributed to Truman’s decision: Japanese morale and its effects, previous bombing attempts on Japan, U.S. Army’s, Navy’s and Air Force’s tactics on how to win the war, the USSR involvement in the front, and Japan as a later political ally.

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Moreover, the Americans successfully invaded the island of Iwo Jima (February 1945) and Okinawa (April 1945), when they consequently learnt about of the warrior values and seemingly indestructible morale of the Japanese. The soldiers preferred to commit hara-kiri ritual suicide by disembowelment practiced by the Japanese samurai or formerly decreed by a court in lieu of the death penalty. (Merriam Webster, 2019) rather than get captured by the allies, that is to say they fought with a tenacity that was never before seen. Those invasions led to an increasing amount of casualties on both sides, especially on the side of the Americans who hoped for a chain of swift victories. Admittedly the president of the United States of America was left between a rock and a hard place.

But the invasions were not the only contact that they had with the Japanese, bombings were commonplace. Since the start of the American incursion in that front precision bombings were made as a way to weaken the Japanese industry and army. But the future of the war was not certain; each of the U.S. military branches had its own plan to win the war, which led to massive debates on how to proceed. Whilst they were uncertain on how to proceed the USSR wanted to get a slice of the pie, invading Manchuria; so as to get a seat in the future surrender table of Japan. These previous factors led to Harry S. Truman decision on dropping the bomb, but were it justified as a way of shortening the war whilst reaching the minimum amount of casualties?

Japanese Morale and Casualties

To start with, one of the key factors that led to President’s Harry S. Truman decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 was the Imperial Japanese Army’s Morale. Japanese culture was unbelievably different to the Western World, from faiths to ideas. One of those faiths was the belief that The man who allows himself to be captured has disgraced himself and his country (Grew, 1942, p. 82). To the Japanese, surrender was never an option; not even considered a choice, as Grew said: Victory or death’ is no mere slogan for these soldiers, It is plain matter-of-fact description of military policy that controls their forces, (Grew, 1942). If faced with the possibility of certain death and destruction, the soldiers would rather commit suicide rather than surrender. Consequently, to the unlucky American troops faced with the Imperial Japanese Army, the risk of death was much greater. Marine General Alexander A. Vandergrift stated: The wounded will wait until men come up to examine them and blow themselves and the other fellow to death with a hand grenade. (Manchester, 1980, p. 183).

Another example of the previous principle was documented by Robert Sherrod, Time correspondent: there is a Jap under those logs’ An American tossed a grenade and it knocked the Jap down. He struggled up pointed his bayonet into his stomach and tried to cut himself in approved hara-kiri fashion.  Even after four bullets had thudded into his body he rose to one knee. (Sherrod, 1944) . Unbelievably, that was not the full extent of the sacrifices that they were able to make, as the Japanese saying goes: We will fight until we eat stones! (Russell, 1944, p. 9). The epitome of this was the use of kamikaze used to describe the way soldiers attack the enemy, knowing they too will be killed (Oxford Univesity Press, 2010). Richard Rhodes described kamikaze attacks as planes being deliberately rammed towards ships, which were loaded with explosives (Rhodes, 2012, p. 598), about some nine hundred Japanese sacrificed themselves in this manner; these attacks managed of being frightening to Americans but it was known as a last ditch effort. If an invasion by the Americans on the Japanese home islands was necessary in order to win the war it was clear from the outset that it would lead to many casualties from both sides, especially the Japanese.

As a result, when fighting the Japanese, heavy causalities laid on both sides. This is exemplified on the invasions of Iwo Jima, and Okinawa; which were the benchmark for the future, where they met a 21,000 strong Japanese garrison. To counter the resilient American Army, Colonel Hiromichi Yahara proposed the use of sleeping tactics, in which the Japanese would use cave fortifications that would reduce the Americans’ firepower and numerical advantage (Frank, 1999, p. 70). The outcome of this tactic was heavy American casualties, 24,733 to be exact and 6,913 deaths (Garand & Strowbridge, 1971). The previous belief of Japanese morale was reinforced; only 1,083 people were captured; meaning almost 20,000 deaths on their part at a 95 percent death rate of all the Japanese garrison (Garand & Strowbridge, 1971). Later, the Americans invaded the island of Okinawa on April 1945 and encountered themselves with 92,000 Japanese defenders, of which only 7,401 allowed themselves to be captured. Consequently US casualties numbered 12,520 killed or missing, 33,613 wounded (Huber, 1990, pp. 118-20). What was frightening to the Americans was the commitment made by fellow civilians, not army personnel, to their country. If possible, they would help the army to create defenses, and as a last resource act as an unarmed militia.In addition, all of the previous stated arguments lead to one thing: increasingly high amount of casualties projected on an Invasion of the Japanese homeland. The previous conflicts and invasions (Okinawa, Iwo Jima) plus the frightening warrior mentality of the Imperial Japanese Armed forces were taken into account to create the estimates for a full scale invasion, but it has to be taken into account that most of the factors included (strength, intentions, equipment, among others) were unknown or imperfectly understood (Frank, 1999, p. 135).

Moreover, the internal debate on all parts of the American parliament skewed this numbers even more. The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated the projected casualties for Olympic on a Ninety-day Campaign as 514,072 (Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1945). Operation Olympic was the invasion of the southern island of Kyushu, meaning that this estimate does not tell the whole story of an American invasion on the Japanese Home islands. President Truman was presented with the former estimate and much more, that clearly indicated hundreds of thousands of casualties for the Americans as a rough estimate, and possibly millions of Japanese casualties. Moreover, he was presented that Operation Olympic was the only logical following step towards Japanese surrender; followed by a full-scale invasion of Honshu (Japan’s main island) It is important to note that Harry S Truman was not shown all of the relevant information, but a selection made by the Joint Chief of Staffs, he was consistently suppressed of information. The total of American casualties managed to reach 1,202,005 which more than 300 hundred thousand were killed soldiers (Skates, 1994, p. 79) .

The previous estimate did not estate Japanese casualties, which following previous historic precedent, would be much higher; if the Saipan ratio is used (one U.S. serviceman killed to every seven Japanese killed or captured) rough estimates of Japanese casualties would be in the millions. It is not illogical then, that Harry S. Truman managed to find a way that would not only shorten the war but also allegedly attempt to greatly reduce the amount of casualties on both sides. Without any doubt, in the terms of casualties, when faced with a complete invasion of the Japanese Homeland Harry S. Truman seemed of doing the right choice with the information at hand.

Previous bombing attempts

Furthermore, another key factor that led to Truman’s decision on dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima  and Nagasaki were the results of previous fire-bombing attempts made by the U.S Air Force on the Japanese home islands from March 1945 to the end of the war. Prior to March 10, there had been only 1,292 deaths from all the air raids on Tokyo. But in this one night, by actual-and minimum-count, at least 79,466 perished. (Frank, 1999, p. 17) That one night was the night of March 9th 1945, the first actual attempt of American Firebombing on the Japanese homeland. Whilst 80,000 people were killed by this attack, almost a million Japanese citizens were injured all with two thousand tons of incendiaries, two kilotons on modern standards (Rhodes, 2012, p. 599).

The attack on the night of March 9-10 was not an isolated incident, but the start of a bombing campaign by the Chief of Staff of the U.S Air force, Curtis LeMay. Before the calendar ran out on this year, fiery devastation was to come to more than sixty other Japanese cities. Those Japanese not killed in air raids would stand on the precipice of extinction through starvation (Frank, 1999). Not only were the Americans killing thousands upon thousands of civilians, they were choking the Japanese war effort; the firebombing campaigns were meant as a way to weaken the Japanese industry, which it managed to do. Most of the targets of the Air force were industrial or military, not civilians, but the way the Japanese lived it could be impossible to not kill a certain amount of civilians’ on an isolated air raid. The Japanese did not separate districts on industry and civilian districts; they lived intertwined. LeMay believed that by firebombing main cities and industrial sectors of Japan they could end the Pacific war without any invasion (Rhodes, 2012).

Most of the Government officials believed otherwise: only a full invasion of the island could finish the war. The bombing on the night of March 9, and the following bombing campaign showed President Truman that if the current tactics were followed months of war strayed ahead; he needed to end the war, to have the least amount of casualties possible. Using an atomic bomb did not seem as a bad idea, previous bombings showed the virtually null effect on morale, and thousands of people had already died by bombings. The use of an Atomic bomb predicted fewer casualties than what was achieved in the previous fire-bombing campaigns. As Ernest Lawrence remembered: the number of people that would be killed by the bomb would not be greater in general magnitude than the number already killed in fire raids (Sherwin, 1975, p. 207).

Cited Works

  1. Feis, H. (1966). The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
  2. Frank, R. B. (1999). Downfall the End of the Japanese Empire . London: Penguin Books.
  3. Garand, G. W., & Strowbridge, T. R. (1971). Western Pacific Operations, History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II. Washington D.C: U.S. Marine Corps.
  4. Grew, J. C. (1942). Report from Tokyo. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  5. Huber, T. M. (1990). Japan’s Battle of Okinawa, April-June 1945. Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Commeand and General Staff College.Joint Chiefs of Staff. (1945). CCS Pacific Ocean Operations. Washington D.C.: NARA.
  6. Manchester, W. (1980). Goodbye Darkness. Little: Brown.Oxford Univesity Press.
  7. (2010). Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: University of Oxford.
  8. Rhodes, R. (2012). The making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  9. Russell, B. (1944). Until They Eat Stones. New York: J.B. Lippincott.
  10. Sherrod, R. (1944). Beachhead in the Marianas. Time, 32.Sherwin, M. J. (1975). A World Destroyed. New York: Knopf.
  11. Skates, J. R. (1994). The Invasion of Japan, Alternative to the Bomb. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  12. Staff, J. C. (1945). CCS Pacific Ocean Operations. Washington D.C.: NARA.

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August 1945 in History. (2019, Aug 20). Retrieved from

August 1945 in History

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