One of the greatest controversies to come out of World War II was whether the atomic bomb was necessary to bring about the war’s end. Supporters of the bombings generally believe that they prevented an invasion of the Japanese mainland, saving more lives than they took by doing so. Opponents contend, among other arguments, that the bombings were unnecessary to win the war or that they constituted a war crime or genocide. Whether the atomic bombings truly forced the Japanese surrender, and whether projected casualty rates for the Japanese invasion were accurate, have been controversial issues for historians to tackle.
After the War
In the initial days following the Japanese surrender, the United States public overwhelmingly supported the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Gallup poll taken in August 1945 found that 85 percent of Americans supported the bombings, 10 percent were opposed to them, and 5 percent had no opinion. Initial critics of the bombings were largely pacifists, a number of nuclear scientists, and some religious leaders and political commentators.
This initial support decreased as reports came in about the magnitude of destruction on Japan. John Hersey’s magazine-length article Hiroshima, which profiled six survivors of the bombing, appeared in the New Yorker one year after the bombing in August 1946, giving the American public a new picture of the human impact of the bomb and bringing a groundswell of negative opinion. As the specter of nuclear war grew in the 1950s, undercurrents of sentiment against the bombings increased, although a majority of Americans continued to support them.
Traditionalists vs. Revisionists
In the decades since World War II, historians have engaged in an often vitriolic debate over the decision to use the atomic bombs. “Traditionalists” have maintained that the bombs were necessary in order to save American lives and prevent an invasion that might have cost many more lives than the bombs took. They frequently argue that President Truman decided to use the bombs in order to bring the war to a speedy conclusion, and that the bombs were essential to forcing Japan to surrender.
“Revisionist” scholars generally posit that the bombs were unnecessary. Among other claims, they suggest that Japan was ready to surrender and that the use of the bombs could have been avoided if the United States had guaranteed that Emperor Hirohito could remain on his throne. They also argue that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 8-9, 1945, rather than the use of the atomic bombs, was decisive in precipitating Japan’s surrender.
For more information on the dispute over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, see AHF’s annotated bibliography.
The Enola Gay Controversy and Public Opinion Today
In 1995, the director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum resigned after veterans’ organizations, conservatives, and even Congressmen protested a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Opponents had claimed that the exhibit was too sympathetic to Japan and too critical of American actions, and that it lacked information about Japanese wartime atrocities in China and the Pacific. The exhibit was eventually canceled, although the plane’s fuselage was still shown in the museum.
The topic of the bombings remains a contentious source of debate for historians and the public today. An August 2009 poll by Quinnipiac University found that 61 percent of Americans supported the bombing, with 22 percent opposed and 16 percent undecided. The poll found a significant gap in opinion based on respondents’ ages: 73 percent of those polled over 55 agreed with the bombing, while only 50 percent of those under 34 supported it.
In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey found that 56 percent of Americans believe that the bombings were justified. In Japan, only 14% agree the bombs were justified. Among Americans, the generation gap remains pronounced: 70% of respondents over the age of 65, but only 47% of those aged 18-29, agree that the bombings were justified.
On May 27, 2016, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima and renewed his call for a world without nuclear weapons. The debate over what historian Sam Walker calls “in terms of longevity and in terms of bitterness, the most controversial issue in American history” will likely continue for years to come.