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Myth of Lives Saved by A-Bombs

August 04, 1985| Forrester is a professor of physics at UCLA. and

The article by Bernstein dwells on the fact that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved not 500,000 American lives, as claimed by President Harry S. Truman, but only 40,000 to 50,000 and perhaps as few as 20,000 American lives. I believe there is a far more important point to be made, namely that an invasion was not the only alternative to the use of the bomb. In fact it appears likely that the Japanese could have been induced to surrender without using the bomb and without launching an invasion.

By August, 1945, the Japanese wee beaten. We had control of the sea and air and were systematically eliminating her capabilities of waging war. There is reason to believe that the Japanese would have surrendered if we had not, by insisting on unconditional surrender, opened the possibility that the emperor would be tried as a war criminal. The single concession of the inviolability of the emperor would, probably, have brought the war to an immediate end.

We had become aware, by decoding secret cables, that the Japanese were hunting for a third country to negotiate terms of a surrender. Secretary of War Henry Stimson had urged Truman to assure the Japanese, in his ultimatum prior to the dropping of the bomb, that the emperor might be acceptable as a constitutional monarch. Truman refused. Considering the generosity of the terms offered after surrender it seems now a strange response.

Those who worked on the bomb--I was one of them--witnessed a project pursued with an unmatched fervor, a fervor that I think was responsible for the way the bombs were used. There were a small number at Los Alamos and Chicago who recoiled with horror at the projected use of the bombs and tried to stop it, but for Gen. Leslie Groves, and almost all of the principal project leaders, to end this enormous effort without taking advantage of the opportunity of testing both kinds of weapons (the uranium 235 and plutonium bombs) was unthinkable.

Certain cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been spared all bombing in order to serve as A-bomb test sites and our propaganda had so dehumanized the Japanese, in our eyes, that the bombing had to roll onto its almost preordained conclusion.

The point I make is perhaps emphasized by noting that the second bomb followed so closely upon the first there was not time for the Japanese war council to meet with the emperor and reach their decision to surrender. It appears that the bombs were dropped as the culmination of an effort that had gathered so much momentum that they had to be used even though the need for them had disappeared.


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