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The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was the single most important decision President Truman made during the Pacific War. Ultimately, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender. The war ended just weeks before the United States’ scheduled invasion of the Japanese Homeland, which saved an estimated one quarter of a million Americans. Truman’s final decision, however, came only after discussing and evaluating with his senior civilian and military leaders each option the United States had in forcing the capitulation of the Japanese Empire.
The United States entered World War II only after the Japanese deliberately attacked the American Pacific Fleet, anchored in Pearl Harbor, without a declaration of war. A Japanese peace envoy was meeting with American officials in Washington at the same time as the attack, which added to the deception. Following the near destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Japanese forces quickly eliminated majority of the Allied forces in the Philippines, Asia, and the rest of the South Pacific, leaving the Japanese virtually unmolested to concentrate their forces on Australia and the Asian mainland. The Japanese final conquest of Australia, Burma, and the rest of China would have succeeded if not for the determination of the American people, who wanted to avenge the events of December 7, 1941.
Along with the embarrassing attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese brutal treatment of Allied prisoners of war, and the fight-to-the-death attitude of the Japanese military prevented the United States from seriously pursuing a negotiated peace settlement. The Japanese leadership forced upon their military and civilian population that surrender was the ultimate crime and in doing so, would dishonor themselves, their families, and the Emperor. Japanese units continuously demonstrated their determination not to live in dishonor by surrendering to the enemy and chose to fight on, even in the face of certain death. This mindset paved the way for mass suicidal charges and kamikaze attacks against U.S. forces. These tactics and beliefs only aided in the complete destruction of entire Japanese island garrisons throughout the Pacific Theater. The United States suffered tremendous casualties in pushing the Japanese back towards their Homeland. These facts gave Truman and American military planners the grim estimate of what to expect during the invasion of Japan.
The defeat of Japan was never in question. However, the length of the war and its cost in human lives were of great concern. By the time Truman took office in April 1945, the Japanese offensive capability was gone. The majority of Japan’s Imperial Navy sat on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean or anchored in isolated Japanese harbors with little fuel. American air supremacy and superiority left the Japanese limited amounts of obsolete aircraft and untrained pilots.
However, Japan did possess an enormous land Army that still controlled much of the Chinese mainland and was preparing for the decisive battle on the shores of Japan. The Japanese took lessons learned from previous landings and used them in preparing for the American invasion.
Japanese planners strategically identified the landing zones the Americans planned to use and designed their defense around those key areas. The battle plan included the extensive use of suicide squads to attack the Allied troop transports before they could reach the shore. Once ashore, the Americans would face the full force of the Japanese Army and a hostile population that was not willing to surrender.
Only after taking office, did President Truman learn about the secret development of the atomic bomb and its potential destructive power. However, Truman did not consider it an option because it remained untested. The Chiefs of Staff presented Truman the projected U.S. casualty figures for the proposed invasion of Japan. Even after the bloody battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Chiefs could not give Truman a reliable casualty figure for the proposed invasion.
The accepted figure settled around two hundred and fifty thousand American casualties. Truman approved the invasion of Japan only after hearing the arguments for revising the unconditional surrender terms and tightening the naval and air blockade.
The United States began the development of the atomic bomb as a weapon prior to Truman taking office. Truman inherited the responsibility for the decision to order the bombs deployment only after Roosevelt’s death. Secretary Stimson provided Truman with constant updates of the weapon’s development and the final recommendations from the Interim Committee and the Advisory Panel of scientist. Both groups recommended that the United States should use the bomb at the earliest opportunity, without a technical demonstration and without warning. However, Truman’s decision to drop the bomb did not become a real option until its successful test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The success of the test not only proved that the tremendous cost of development this weapon was not a waste of money, but it gave Truman an alternative to invading the Japanese homeland and ending the war sooner.
By the time the Allies issued Potsdam Declaration, there were no indications that the Japanese were willing to surrender. There were numerous diplomatic messages deciphered between the Japanese Foreign minister and his ambassador in Moscow hinting at a mediated peace through the Soviets. Tokyo never directly or indirectly approached the United States government to clarify the meaning of unconditional surrender or the fate of the Emperor.
Furthermore, the Japanese Government constantly sought clarification of the Soviets’ intentions towards Japan and the renewal of their Non-Aggression Pact, even as Soviet forces massed on the Manchurian border. Without the fear of a Soviet invasion, the Japanese intended to redeploy the Kwantung Army in defense of the Japanese Homeland. While other decoded messages provided the allies with detailed plans of the Japanese defenses and orders to kill the prisoners of war once the invasion began. The Japanese government’s immediate rejection of the ultimatum left little doubt that Japan intended to fight to the end.
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender and stopped an invasion that would have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and possibly saved the destruction of Japan itself. All the options available to Truman were viable and could have eventually forced the Japanese to surrender. To Truman, the cost of American lives was too great to sacrifice when the United States had the means to end the war. Truman’s decision to
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Joseph H. Paulin is an officer in the United States Army currently serving as a Contingency Contracting Officer stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He graduated from Kent State University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. His previous assignments include service as a Battalion Chemical Officer with the 4-3rd Air Defense Artillery Battalion, Kitzengen, Germany; Heavy Decontamination Platoon Leader and Company Executive Officer of the 12th Chemical Company, Kitzengen, Germany; Chemical Officer for the Division Artillery with the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky; commander of the Headquarters and Headquarters Company United State Army Garrison, Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Secretary of the General Staff of Task Force Falcon, Kosovo, Serbia; Senior Chemical Observer/ Controller at the United States Army’s Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Polk, Louisiana; and Contingency Contracting Officer for the 101st Airborne Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He and his wife Juli reside in Clarksville, Tennessee. At the May 2007 Commencement, he will receive the degree of Master of Arts in Liberal Arts.