Beyond  /  Book Review

Big Six v. Little Boy: The Unnecessary Bomb

A new book's insistence that the bomb was necessary to bring about Japan’s surrender is largely contradicted by its own evidence.

The​ official justification for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was set out by Henry Stimson, the former US secretary of war, in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s. There had been ‘no other choice’, he said. Had the bombs not been dropped, a bloody invasion of Japan would have been inevitable, and might have ‘cost over a million casualties to the American forces alone’. But in the atomic bomb the US possessed ‘a weapon of such a revolutionary character that its use against the enemy might well be expected to produce exactly the kind of shock on the Japanese ruling oligarchy which we desired, strengthening the position of those who wished peace, and weakening that of the military party’.

The article was written in urgent response to a growing public feeling, unwelcome to those who had presided over the development and use of the atomic bomb, that the nuclear attacks had been unnecessary to Japan’s defeat and had brought horrific suffering to a vast number of civilians. In July 1946 the US Strategic Bombing Survey had concluded that – thanks to the destruction of its economy by conventional bombing and a comprehensive blockade – ‘in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.’ Eminent scientists, including Einstein, had issued statements deploring the use of the bomb, while the 31 August 1946 issue of the New Yorker had been entirely devoted to John Hersey’s unsparing account of what the nuclear attack had meant for civilians in Hiroshima. Stimson’s 7300-word testimonial – which was in fact written by McGeorge Bundy, later national security adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, with input and edits from a number of senior officials intimately involved with the Manhattan Project – was an authoritative counterattack, and it was entirely successful. The message that the bomb had saved a million American lives, in the words of the historian Paul Ham, ‘put the American mind at ease, [and] slipped into folklore’. When, in 1994, the Smithsonian Institution announced plans to exhibit Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber which had destroyed Hiroshima, along with contextual commentary casting doubt on the necessity and morality of the mission, there was a storm of outraged protest and the exhibition was cancelled. Even today, conversations on the topic with otherwise well-informed Americans tend to elicit reminiscences of how fathers and other relatives, veterans of the Pacific and European wars, had nurtured mordant expectations that they wouldn’t survive the prospective invasion of the Japanese home islands. They had been saved by the atomic bombs that had brought about Japan’s surrender.