To this day, the morality of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 triggers heated arguments. Some defend them as necessary blows against an implacable foe, others deride them as acts of savagery.
Even the Chief of Staff to US President Truman dubbed the atomic bomb a ‘barbarous weapon’ and lamented that, ‘in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.’
But what if the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki never took place? Imagine an alternative timeline where the Allies had failed to develop workable nuclear weapons, or where President Truman couldn’t bring himself to unleash what he once called ‘the most terrible bomb in the history of the world’. How might things have turned out in this timeline?
One possible – even probable – scenario is that things wouldn’t actually have turned out very differently at all. This may be surprising to those who take the common view that Japan was shocked into surrendering by the sheer ferocity of the nuclear attacks.
Many historians have in fact doubted the relevance of the bombings to Japan’s surrender. They point out that the country was already used to devastating air raids such as Operation Meetinghouse, the hellish firebombing of Tokyo which had taken place several months before. They argue that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki attacks – while obviously a technological turning point in the histo . ry of warfare – were not really any more catastrophic for Japanese morale than the conventional air raids that had already ravaged the nation.
According to this analysis, the real reason for Japan’s surrender was the Soviet invasion of Japanese-controlled Manchuria on 9 August 1945, mere hours before the Nagasaki bombing. Until this moment, the Soviet Union had actually been neutral in the war with Japan, and many in the Japanese government were hoping Stalin would step in and help them negotiate better terms for surrender to the Americans. When Stalin ‘betrayed’ them by joining the Allies, it came as a body blow to the Japanese government.
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, author of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, writes that, even after the Hiroshima bombing, ‘Japan pinned its last hope on Moscow’s mediation for the termination of the war’, and that Stalin’s abrupt invasion of Japan ‘pulled the rug right out from underneath the Japanese military, puncturing a gaping hole in their strategic plan. Their insistence on the continuation of the war lost its rationale.’
As war historian Terry Charman has put it: ‘The leadership in Tokyo realized they had no hope now, and in that sense Operation August Storm [the Soviet invasion of Japanese-controlled land] did have a greater effect on the Japanese decision to surrender than the dropping of the A-bombs.’
So, it’s quite possible to imagine a timeline where Japan still would have surrendered in August 1945 even if Hiroshima and Nagasaki hadn’t happened.
But what if the atomic bombs WERE decisive, and the entry of the Soviet Union wasn’t enough of a reason on its own for Japan to agree to an unconditional surrender? After all, many in Japan still felt honour-bound to fight to the death, no matter the odds. High-ranking military official Torashirō Kawabe encapsulated this view in his diary on 9 August – the day of both Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion – when he wrote 'to continue fighting will mean death, but to make peace with the enemy will mean ruin. But we have no choice but to seek life in death with the determination to have the entire Japanese people perish with the homeland as their deathbed pillow by continuing to fight'.
In this scenario, the Americans would have been forced to initiate Operation Downfall, their plan for an all-out ground invasion of Japan. This would have been the Pacific equivalent of D-Day. Indeed, the first day of the invasion would have been called X-Day, with troops landing on the beaches of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. In true D-Day style, the US military gave these beaches codenames, in this case inspired by automobiles, such as Austin, Cadillac and Buick. So, in this timeline, ‘Cadillac Beach’ and ‘Buick Beach’ would be as infamous to people today as Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.
The Allies would have faced not only enemy soldiers and ferocious kamikaze raids, but also what the US strategists described as ‘a fanatically hostile population’ of civilians. Millions of men, women and children had already been trained to fight using swords, clubs, bamboo sticks and Molotov cocktails. An arduous guerrilla war would have dragged on well into 1946, with untold casualties on both sides.
Meanwhile, the Soviets would have continued to advance on the mainland, potentially taking over the whole of the Korean peninsula. This would mean that, instead of being split into North and South Korea, the entire region may have become a North Korea-style Stalinist dictatorship. It’s even possible Stalin would have attempted an invasion of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.
As historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa puts it, ‘The United States might have resisted a Soviet operation against Hokkaido, but given Soviet military strength, and given the enormous casualty figures the American high command had estimated… the United States might have agreed to a division of Hokkaido as Stalin envisaged.’
Some have speculated that, in this timeline, Japan would have been split into a Communist North Japan and a democratic South Japan, akin to West and East Germany. This would make Japan a major hotspot in the Cold War, with untold knock-on effects for world history.
There’s another, more disturbing point to consider.
Some historians believe the sheer devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has placed a lasting ‘nuclear taboo’ on the very idea of deploying such weapons ever again. Indeed, this taboo may well have dissuaded the US from using nukes in Vietnam and other conflicts. As political scientist Nina Tannenwald says, ‘One of the major factors inhibiting US leaders' resort to nuclear weapons after 1945 was their repeatedly stated concern about the terrible consequences that would arise… This inhibition would not have existed without a first use on Japan.’
It’s telling that a 1966 CIA report on the possibility of using nukes in Vietnam warned that America’s allies would feel a ‘fundamental revulsion that the US had broken the 20-year taboo on the use of nuclear weapons’.
And so, the darkest of ironies is that a world without the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings may well have been a world more at risk of full-scale nuclear war.