August 6, 1945, 75 years ago today, was the beginning of the age of nuclear warfare. On that date, a United States B-29 bomber dropped on Hiroshima, Japan the first atomic bomb ever used in war. Another B-29 dropped a second and final atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9.
The atomic bombs persuaded the Japanese to surrender. On August 15, 1945, Japan announced its acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered unconditionally. The formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The actual peace agreement took years to finalize.
The Treaty of San Francisco, which officially restored peace between Japan, the U.S. and most other Allied powers was signed on September 8, 1951. It took effect on April 28, 1952. The Treaty did not satisfy all of the Allies, and several, including the Soviet Union, refused to sign it. It is remarkable that effectuating the peace treaty took nearly seven years. The lengthy and contentious process confirms that making war is much easier than making peace.
Was The Use of Atomic Bombs Necessary?
Atomic bombs totally devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed between 130,000 and 220,000 people, which begs the question was using atomic bombs that caused these horrible deaths necessary? That issue has been debated for the last 75 years. In reality, I think, the proper question should be was insisting on unconditional surrender necessary?
Unconditional surrender had been a U.S. priority going back at least as far the meeting between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at Casablanca in January 1943. Unconditional surrender was also the signature principle of the Postdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 that was issued by the United States, Great Britain, and China, and later adopted by the Soviet Union.
If the Allies had been willing to negotiate terms of surrender, hostilities against the Japanese as well as the Germans likely could have ended sooner. In the case of the Japanese and their die-hard military leaders, insisting on unconditional surrender seemed to ensure that an invasion of the Japanese home islands, the use of atomic bombs, or both would be required to force the Japanese military to agree to end what at that point had become a war that was already lost. Unconditional surrender meant the possibility of removing the Emperor.
Like just about all momentous decisions, there are pros and cons for both sides. A thorough discussion of these arguments is beyond the scope of this post. However, as stated previously, I think the question of the “appropriateness” of using the atomic bomb turns on unconditional surrender. Those who believe unconditional surrender was a valid goal of the war effort probably support the use of the bomb. Those who think that a negotiated surrender was preferable probably support not dropping the bomb.
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum has recently reopened. You can see the Enola Gay there along with hundreds of other historic military and civilian airplanes and spacecraft. The Enola Gay exhibit unfortunately does not delve into the issues surrounding the use of the atomic bomb.