By the time the atomic bomb to be dropped over Hiroshima was ready, Japan was prepared for surrender. As Dwight D Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during the second half of World War II and later US President said, Japan at that time was scouring for ways to surrender with the minimum possible loss of face. Tokyo was seeking an honourable exit. “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing,” he added.
So if Japan was contemplating surrender, why were the ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
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A major reason behind Washington’s decision to carry out the twin strikes was its wanton desire to establish hegemony in the Far East after the war. Those in charge of planning the post-war situation, after the surrender of Germany three months back, believed that the dominance could be forged only through a total rout of Japan. US occupation of the country would enable it to establish a perpetual military presence, shape its economic and political system, and dominate the Pacific region sans any fear of a Japanese resurgence. But Japan’s resurgence was no more Washington’s key concern; its main worry was the position of Soviet Union in the post-war power equations, both in Europe and Asia.
Soviet Union had joined the war in 1941 and was an US wartime ally against Germany. It was more of a the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend bonhomie. Their economic systems were ultimately incompatible. The US could never digest the fact that a substantial part of the global economy would be closed to it, while on the other hand, countries seeking an alternative to its market economy model, looked to the Soviet Union. Moscow was already beginning to attract applause and prestige by breaking the backbone of the German military machine. An increasingly paranoid Washington wanted to prevent a Soviet dominance over Asia, particularly Japan. It isn’t difficult to conclude that the US wanted to show its military prowess—possession of the atomic bomb—to steal vital diplomatic and political mileage over Soviet Union after the war.
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Several leading US diplomats, politicians, and military officials found it pointless to bomb Japan. But the inner circle of US President Harry Truman, strongly pressed for the detonation. Henry Stimson, the then secretary of war, described the drop as a mastercard in Washington’s diplomacy towards Soviet Union.
By the beginning of 1945 it was clear that the fall of Germany was only a matter of time. Japan, however, was in no mood for an unconditional surrender and was seeking a negotiation in this regard. Its condition was that emperor Hirohito should be able to maintain his office with no loss of face. The West found this acceptable but the mood wasn’t conveyed to Tokyo. Records that were later declassified, suggest that Truman left out the condition from the Potsdam Declaration—the post-war arrangement between the great powers—because of the successful atomic bomb test by the US. The policymakers at Washington didn’t inform their counterparts in Tokyo that the latter’s terms of surrender were acceptable almost in entirety because they wanted an excuse for dropping the bomb. It was, as already said, a measure for demonstrating its military strength in a world in which only the US possessed the weapon. The only opportunity to do that was before Japan’s surrender.
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Soviet Union, earlier, had promised to enter the war in Japan three months after fighting ended in Europe. The day was fast approaching. The US had two reasons to strike Japan before the Soviets came. First, it was a big possibility that Soviet Union’s entry could prompt a Japanese surrender, thereby negating any reason behind dropping the bomb; and second, Washington wanted to erase all possibilities of a Soviet occupation of Japan while its troops were far away.
The first atomic bomb in the world was detonated over Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945. Three days later Soviet Union, as promised, entered the war in Asia. Later in the day, before Japan could respond to the terrible fallout at Hiroshima, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
The US got what it desired at the most horrific human cost.
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