Did Nuclear Weapons Cause Japan to Surrender?

Speaker: Ward Wilson, Monterey Institute of International Studies


Nuclear weapons shocked Japan into surrendering at the end of World War II—except they didn’t. Japan surrendered because the Soviet Union entered the war. Japanese leaders said the bomb forced them to surrender because it was less embarrassing to say they had been defeated by a miracle weapon. Americans wanted to believe it, and the myth of nuclear weapons was born.

Look at the facts. The United States bombed 68 cities in the summer of 1945. If you graph the number of people killed in all 68 of those attacks, you imagine that Hiroshima is off the charts, because that’s the way it’s usually presented. In fact, Hiroshima is second. Tokyo, a conventional attack, is first in the number killed. If you graph the number of square miles destroyed, Hiroshima is sixth. If you graph the percentage of the city destroyed, Hiroshima is 17th.

Clearly, in terms of the end result—I’m not talking about the means, but in terms of the outcome of the attack—Hiroshima was not exceptional. It was not outside the parameters of attacks that had been going on all summer long. Hiroshima was not militarily decisive.

The Soviet Union’s declaration of war, on the other hand, fundamentally altered the strategic situation. Adding another great power to the war created insoluble military problems for Japan’s leaders. It might be possible to fight against one great power attacking from one direction, but anyone could see that Japan couldn’t defend against two great powers attacking from two different directions at once.

The Soviet declaration of war was decisive; Hiroshima was not.

After Hiroshima, soldiers were still dug in in the beaches. They were still ready to fight. They wanted to fight. There was one fewer city behind them, but they had been losing cities all summer long, at the rate of one every other day, on average. Hiroshima was not a decisive military event. The Soviet entry into the war was.

And they said this. Japan’s leaders identified the Soviet Union as the strategically decisive factor. In a meeting of the Supreme Council in June to discuss the war in general, policy, they said Soviet entry would determine the fate of the empire. Kawabe Toroshiro said, "The absolute maintenance of peace in our relations with the Soviet Union is one of the fundamental conditions for continuing the war."

Japan’s leaders said Hiroshima forced them to surrender because it made a terrific explanation for losing the war. But the facts show that Hiroshima did not force Japan to surrender.

If nuclear weapons are a religion, Hiroshima is the first miracle. What do we make of a religion when its miracles turn out to be false? Nuclear weapons shocked Japan into surrendering in World War II—except they didn’t.

Transcript of entire lecture

Lecture based off a discussion of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons