Today we take a look back on the events surrounding the United States’ decision to release a tragic second atomic bomb on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki on this day 73 years ago: August 9, 1945.
If you recall from our blog that chronicled the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945, the issuing of the Potsdam Declaration by the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the President of China, had called upon the Government of Japan to accept the “unconditional surrender of all its armed forces.”
Japan’s alternative if it didn’t: “Prompt and utter destruction,” were the words used in the Potsdam Declaration.
By this point the United States armed forces had experienced some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII, particularly during the battle of Okinawa: Over 10,000 Americans had been killed and another 27,000 wounded. And entrenched in the caves and jungles of the island nation, more than 100,000 Japanese were killed or burned to death rather than accept the unconditional surrender.
And still the Japanese fought on.
As a result, President Truman had agreed to plans at the end of June for an invasion of the Japanese home islands to take place in early November; and if the invasion had gone through, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers returning from Europe would have soon headed off to the Pacific to face the Japanese in man to man total combat.
Then, on July 16, 1945, while President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill were touring a devastated Berlin just a little over a month after the German high command had signed the unconditional surrender that brought WWII in Europe to an official end, the first ever atomic bomb had been born just 95 miles north of Albuquerque in New Mexico.
While weighing the options of whether or not to use the weapon, President Truman recorded in his diary at Potsdam: “I asked General Marshall (George C.) what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum a quarter of a million American casualties…” Interestingly, however, when it came to what he thought about the atomic bomb, Marshall would add, “after long and careful thought, I did not like the weapon.”
On Friday, July 27, 1945, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki said at a press conference that he’d “kill (the Potsdam Declaration) with silence,” as it was “nothing but a rehash of old proposals and as such, beneath contempt.” In other words, the Government of Japan had rejected the Potsdam Declaration.
Years later, some would argue that Japan could’ve been forced to surrender without the bomb.
Some would argue that the Allies should’ve just blockaded the Japanese island to force them to surrender.
Some argued that the Allies could’ve warned the Japanese with a demonstration bomb.
Some would argue that the United States should’ve just simply lightened up on ‘unconditional surrender’ and allowed the Japanese to fully and uncompromisingly keep their emperor.
President Truman would later say, “In order to end the War without invading Japan, the Bomb had to be used.”
On Monday, August 6, 1945, the most terrible weapon ever developed in human history was dropped on the densely populated Japanese city of Hiroshima. A blast equivalent to the power of 20,000 tons of TNT reduced 4 square miles of the city to ruins.
“Some of our scientists say that the area in Hiroshima will be uninhabitable for many years because the bomb explosion had made the ground radioactive and destructive of animal life,” recorded President Truman’s Chief of Staff, William Leahy, after the release of the bomb, which instantly killed upwards of 80,00 men, women, and children and an additional tens of thousands of people as a result of radiation sickness in the days and years to come.
Later on that day, President Truman issued a statement to the Government of Japan and to the rest of the world:
“What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.
It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”
Two days later, the Russians declared war on Japan, but yet there was still no word of surrender from the Japanese.
Sadly, on this day in 1945 at 11:00AM, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki. In 1/10 of one-millionth of a second the city was utterly annihilated, instantly killing upwards of another 40,000 men, women and children and an additional tens of thousands over the next several years.
Following the bombing of Nagasaki, President Truman took the authority to use the atomic bomb (there was still one more ready to use) away from the United States military and placed it once again in his own hands.
The following morning on August 10, 1945 in Japan, monitors recorded a broadcast over Radio Tokyo.
Check back tomorrow as we chronicle the final days of the Second World War.
Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6
McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5