Sunday, June 16, 2013

Atomic Bombs and Audiences

. Sunday, June 16, 2013

LFC points to an article by Ward Wilson suggesting that the Japanese did not surrender in WWII because of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but because the USSR dropped its neutrality with Japan. This argument presumes that the USSR's policy change was independent of the US's decision to drop the bombs, and the US's decision to drop the bombs when it did was independent of any consideration other than motivating Japanese surrender. Given what was going on in Europe (and China) at the time this seems exceptionally unlikely. Stalin had bigger fish to fry than securing marginally better terms of surrender for the Japanese Emperor, and he had agreed at Yalta to declare war on Japan within three months. The US had already conceded half of Europe but was determined to keep the USSR out of Asia. Given the rapidly-expanding US/USSR rivalry and the US's technological advantage it was in Stalin's interest to mollify the US at least until the USSR could also develop atomic weaponry.

I.e., just move the question back a step: why did the USSR pick precisely that moment to revisit their position as a potential intermediary between the US and Japan? There are two candidates. First is the Yalta agreement. Second is the deployment of the atomic bombs. Here the timing of the US dropping the bombs becomes important. The US could have dropped the bomb at any time from July 15th forward. August 8th was the deadline for the Soviets to enter the Pacific theater per the Yalta agreement. Hiroshima was August 6th. The USSR entered on August 8th by invading Manchuria (it was still the 7th in Moscow, but the time difference meant it was the 8th in Tokyo). Nagasaki was August 9th.

There is quite a lot of evidence that Stalin did not recognize the significance of atomic weaponry until it was used, and some good reasons to think that the bombs were in fact dropped primarily for the benefit of Soviet audiences, not Japanese. Stalin believed this anyway. The bombs -- or at least the second one -- were probably dropped to keep the Soviets out of E. Asia. There is no other good explanation for why the first bomb was dropped just before the deadline for Soviet intervention on the terms agreed at Yalta, or for why the second bomb was dropped at all.

From hindsight this makes the use of atomic weapons less justifiable on strategic as well as moral grounds. The Soviets obviously took from this experience that the Americans were quite dangerous and were in fact imperial. The dropping of the bombs hardened Stalin and perhaps made the Cold War more dangerous than it needed to be. This was made clear by the Bolshoi speech in 1946. Whether or not the bombings had any deterrent effect from 1945-1949 (the period before the USSR successfully detonated a bomb) is difficult to discern, but once the Soviets had achieved nuclear parity (or close enough to it) competitive brinksmanship was probably inevitable. It may have been anyway, but the U.S. took the first step by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any other possible paths of history were cut off at that moment.

Another example of why we should be wary of Ceteris Paribus Theories of International Relations.


LFC said...


A question stemming from my own ignorance: Stalin agreed at Yalta to declare war on Japan w/in three months; so did the U.S. want him just to issue a declaration and nothing else, or did the U.S. welcome the Soviet invasion of Manchuria?

The post leaves me a little unclear on this, since on one hand the Soviet invasion of Manchuria put additional pressure on the Japanese, which wd have served (and did serve) the U.S. interest in hastening the defeat of Japan, but on the other hand the invasion represented the USSR moving into E Asia, which according to your analysis the U.S. was trying to prevent.

LFC said...

I suppose the answer is that the U.S. wanted the USSR to invade Manchuria, help defeat Japan, and then leave E. Asia to the U.S. after that.

So the intended signaling was:
Bombing of Hiroshima: signal to USSR to keep its promise and invade Manchuria.

Bombing of Nagasaki: signal to USSR not to stick around in E Asia after the Japanese surrender.

You'd think the US cd have found some way of signaling that didn't involve killing hundreds of thousands of civilians... but by that time the fire-bombing of Japanese cities had already crossed that bridge many times over, so maybe the Truman admin figured: what's some more civilian casualties at this pt? They'd already leveled most of the major urban areas, save for Kyoto which acc to Wilson was spared b.c of its historical riches.

Ronan said...

I havent had time to read the links so sorry if I missed something answering this Q, but I thought the argument (that dropping the bombs was aimed at Soviet audiences) was pretty conclusively argues against recently?

Anonymous said...

Rhodes in "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" (at 691) notes that:

1) the U.S. expected the Soviets to be ready to attack Japan around August 15;

2) the order to use the bomb(s) went out the same day Truman told Stalin about the "new weapon," and it went out the next day;

3) the order said to drop the 1st bomb as soon as weather permitted after Aug. 3, and drop any other available bombs "as soon as made ready."

So arguments about the timing of the drops should not, it seems, read too much into the specific 8/6 or 8/9 dates.

... In fact, the 1st bomb was ready to drop on Aug. 1, and "would have ... if a typhoon had not approached Japan that day to intervene" (at 699).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, itchy trigger finger: Groves drafted the order one day & it went out the next.

Kindred Winecoff said...


Thanks for the comments.

LFC, I think it's clear that the US policymakers at the time were heartless. I also think we need to remember what was happening in E Asia at the time. Mao's revolution was underway, and the US had already decided to stick with Chiang Kai-Shek. The US knew (or thought) that Stalin was expansionist. The US knew (or thought) that the end of the war in the Pacific would be helped by the USSR getting involved. Just as in Europe, this meant a balancing act.

Ronan, you might be correct, altho my understanding is that the debate continues. I read the paper you posted... it concludes that the debate is over, but it doesn't actually say what the evidence is against it. It could be true that the US wanted the USSR to declare war on Japan and invade Manchuria (that seems to be the case) AND that the US wanted to signal to the USSR that they should be careful not to over-step with any expansionist plans.

Anderson, I only emphasize the date because Wilson does in the piece linked. I believe you are correct that the particular dates do not matter, but that the sequence of events does matter. (Btw, I like your blog.)

Atomic Bombs and Audiences




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