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Atomic Salvation: How the A-Bomb Saved the Lives of 32 Million People

Atomic Salvation: How the A-Bomb Saved the Lives of 32 Million People by Tom Lewis. Casemate Publishers, 2020, 351pp.

Does the United States deserve to be condemned for the atomic bombing of Japan? In Atomic Salvation, Dr. Tom Lewis—an independent historian, former high school teacher, and Australian intelligence analyst who served in the Middle East—seeks to reexamine the decision, consider the military and operational factors involved, and project how the war might have proceeded if the atomic bomb had not been used.

The question has never been merely of dispassionate academic interest. The common presumption of the efficacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was offered as a final proof of how airpower—particularly against mass civilian populations—transformed the nature of war and justified the development of American strategic doctrine and the resources devoted to the construction of the nuclear stockpile and its associated delivery systems.

Of course, immediately after the events, American opinion was almost unanimous that the two atomic attacks, while horrific, were defensible by the millions of American and Japanese lives saved when the shocks of the attacks broke the will of the Japanese to continue and compelled them to surrender. In the years following, a wave of revisionist histories emerged condemning the use of the atomic bombs as illegal and/or unjustifiable. The debate between conventional, revisionist, and post-revisionist historians reflects the politics of the years when they were written as well as the changes in evidence available.

The author does an admirable job of summing up the operational conditions for the Japanese and American militaries until August 1945 and the strength of the resolve of the military and the Japanese people to fight to the bitter end. If the choices were to end the war with atomic weapons or invade the Japanese home islands, it is clear that the invasion would have cost millions of lives on both sides. Even if the Americans had decided to maintain the blockade and continue mass aerial bombardment, there is good reason to believe that an invasion force would eventually have to be launched and that any invasion would have been opposed by the military and civilian populations at enormous cost. In the meantime, a policy of imposed starvation—of food, as well as materiel—would have weakened Japanese capabilities without reducing their resolve.

Lewis estimates that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the extent that it induced Japanese surrender, saved the lives of roughly 30 million people. His calculations are detailed, and his argument is persuasive. If the atomic bombs were the final straw that pushed the emperor to step out of his traditional role and side with civilians willing to negotiate surrender, then his case is persuasive. But are those the only alternatives? Were there other factors at play?

For example, up until the end there was a hope among the Japanese leadership that, with the Soviet Union playing the role of a neutral intermediary, it would be possible to enter negotiations with the active allies and avoid the “unconditional surrender” required of them by the Potsdam Declaration. In June, a month prior to Potsdam, the Supreme War Council had already decided to pursue a negotiated peace. Despite the extreme objections of the Army, by the second week of July, work had begun to develop the language of a peace proposal.

The bombing of Hiroshima occurred on the morning of Monday, 6 August 1945. News of the destructive force of a single bomb was transmitted to Tokyo that afternoon, but details were uncertain and their implications unclear. On Tuesday, an Army communiqué noted the use of a “new type of bomb.” On Wednesday morning, the Japanese were officially notified that the Soviet Union would enter the war against them the next day. The emperor told the foreign minister that the war should be ended without delay. Yet an emergency meeting of the Supreme War Council was postponed.

The author is certainly right to point out the importance of the military realities as well as the probable casualties to be expected if an American invasion of the Japanese home islands were to have taken place. However, his error lies in assuming that all Americans and all Japanese saw those military realities in the same way and that the political realities were secondary. The decision to end a war, like the decision to enter one, is at its root political. Political realities are perceived very differently by different decision-makers. Obvious questions are left unaddressed by Lewis, largely due to failing to consult Japanese primary documents. Although many were destroyed, some of these documents exist. For example, notes of the emperor’s meetings with his war cabinet before and after Hiroshima are instructive. They are not what one would expect from the conventional narrative. Immediately after Hiroshima, the attack did not warrant mention in the meeting of the Supreme War Council. Its effects were swamped by the much larger destruction already inflicted, and still being inflicted, by the strategic bombing campaign as well as the changing status of the Soviet Union.

The immediate shock effect of the atomic bombing was relatively minor and only appreciated by different actors over time. Most Japanese did not learn much about the bombing until after the war. Those few in the position to influence decisions realized that the strategic bombing of Japanese cities had already reduced them to rubble. Cities of over one million people before the war had already lost two-thirds of their population; cities of over 100,000 had lost nearly 60 percent of their populace. Civilians had already tolerated unspeakable horrors without complaint. As Lewis observes, mass civilian morale remained unaffected. Some civilian officials saw the prospect of continued atomic attack as reason to abandon the war while some Army and Navy representatives denied that anything of significance had occurred. It was not until 10 August, after the decision had been made to surrender, that the attacks were confirmed to be atomic. Even then, some in the Army were convinced that sufficient losses could be inflicted on invaders to compel the Americans to negotiate a settlement. However, the Soviet Union had already demonstrated that it was willing to suffer whatever casualties were necessary to achieve its goals, and the 9 August invasion of Manchuria quickly punctured Japanese lines and pushed deep into the rear.

Timing is everything. It was unprecedented for the emperor to take a role in breaking a deadlock in the Supreme War Council. Even after he did, he faced rebellion among leaders and troops of his own military, including an attempted coup d’état on 14 August. Was it only the atomic bomb that compelled his action?

It is more likely that the use of nuclear weapons was important but not sufficient. The nuclear attack combined with the Soviets opening a new front created the catalytic crisis that compelled the emperor to act. Certainly, games of “what if” are endless. But downplaying the Soviet role, while it may have helped American strategic policy to confirm strategic bombing as the decisive factor in ending the war, is not supported by the evidence. Lewis is correct to note that Soviet forces would have suffered enormous casualties in any operation on the Japanese home islands. He is incorrect to assume that, first, those casualties would be as hard on Stalin as they would have been for Truman and, second, that the Japanese believed the Soviets to be as casualty adverse as they hoped the Americans to be. In particular, the Japanese would already have had a sense of the differences between how the Western Allies and the Soviets treated occupied territories in Germany and Eastern Europe. They may well have concluded that it was better to lose to and suffer occupation by the Americans than to do so to the Soviets. To this day, Japanese territory seized and held by the Soviet Union remains a point of contention with Russia.

It is unfortunate that, despite extensive endnotes, this book has no index. Therefore, the attention given to some of the alternative explanations and evidence must remain subjective. However, some things are clear. First, the author limits himself to English-language sources, the vast majority of which are secondary works. The few primary documents cited, such as the United States Strategic Bombing Survey interrogations of Japanese officials and the postwar occupation reports of General MacArthur, lend little perspective on the process of American decision-making and next to none on the internal debates of Japanese leaders preceding and following the strikes. More useful volumes place the military facts within the political context of the decision of the decision are Ian Toll’s Twilight of the Gods and Marc Gallicchio’s Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II. In the end, Lewis’s Atomic Salvation is useful but not entirely persuasive.

Dr. Daniel McIntosh
Associate Professor Emeritus
Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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