Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Did We Have To Drop The Bomb?

One of the meanings of “punk” in Dieselpunk is alternative history or what historians, such as Harry Turtledove, term “counterfactual history.” Essentially this is the “what-if” scenario. What if the US had joined the League of Nations when founded and had given it some teeth? What if Hitler had died from the gas attack on his squadron during the Great War?  What if Huey Long had not been assassinated in 1935?

Today, August 15, 2020, is the 75th anniversary of the ending of the war in the Pacific, also known as VJ Day. This anniversary gives us an opportunity to ask another what if question:

What if the US hadn’t dropped the Atomic Bombs on Japan at the end of World War II?

The standard line goes like this. We had no choice but to drop the Atomic Bombs on Japan because an invasion was the only alternative to stopping the war. Any invasion, we’re told, would have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and maybe millions of Japanese lives. Therefore, dropping the bombs was actually merciful in that fewer died than would have during an invasion.

So the story goes.

In a recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “U.S. leaders knew we didn’t have to drop atomic bombs on Japan to win the war. We did it anyway,” Gar Alperovitz and Martin J. Sherwin argued that the standard line is wrong. They claimed that dropping the Atomic Bomb or massive invasion weren’t the only two choices. Alperovitz and Sherwin argue that there was a third-choice and that the Allies knew it and chose not to follow it.

According to Alperovitz and Sherwin, the Soviets were poised to invade Japan in 1945. They had already invaded Manchuria, which the Japanese had conquered in 1931. And the Japanese were much more frightened of a Soviet invasion and occupation than they were of an American. The US State Department knew that the Japanese would be willing to surrender to the US rather than be occupied by the Soviets.

Contrary to the standard line, seven of the eight five-star generals at the time opposed dropping the bomb. Admiral William Leahy wrote in his memoir that the Atomic Bombs were “of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” MacArthur later wrote that if Truman had modified the terms of surrender so that the Japanese could keep their emperor then, “the Japanese would have accepted it and gladly I have no doubt.” And Eisenhower wrote, “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”


Therefore, according to Alperovitz and Sherwin, Truman knew that to end the war all the US had to do was to take unconditional surrender off the table. As long as the Japanese were assured that they would keep the emperor, much like a European-style constitutional monarchy, then they would surrender and accept any other terms demanded by the Americans. All of this without the need for the use of the horrifying Atomic Bombs or a bloody invasion.

Dieselpunk literature has long questioned the necessity of the Atomic Bombs in the war. I highly recommend the Dieselpunk short story The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson published in The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg.

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