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The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz

Alperovitz (with seven assistants) examines the circumstances surrounding the controversial decision to use the atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The comprehensive analysis relies on the material available, including declassified government documents such as memos, diaries and communication, amongst others.

The text is organized into two (2) “books”:

  • Book One (chapters 1 to 34), spanning over 400 pages, examines “The Decision”.

  • Book Two (chapters 35 to 49), spanning over 200 pages, examines “The Myth”.

There is a conclusion, afterword, appendix, bibliography and index.

The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb by Gar Alperovitz

This is a real history book with much detail, one of those where you could randomly pick a page and probably find something interesting. The only weakness is that there is no mention of Nagasaki and Hiroshima being the two most Catholic cities in Japan, the epicenter of the bomb in Nagasaki was just over 500 yards away from the cathedral. There is also no mention of the possibility of the atomic bombings—like the fire bombings of other cities—having an occult ritualistic significance, a possibility that is distinct. Of course, to be fair, there probably isn’t any documentation regarding this latter point, or at least none available at present.

The following are some interesting points from Book One: “The Decision”.

  • Japanese forces were in obvious decline in the face of US victories.

  • US intercepted Japanese communiques expressing peace feelers.

  • The obstacle to (earlier) peace terms was “unconditional surrender” if the formula also implied the removal of the emperor. The US knew this because they had already broken the Japanese codes and therefore could read their intercepted communications. High-level US officials understood and indeed advised President Harry S. Truman that the emperor was needed to ensure adherence to peace terms by the Japanese military and people as well as maintaining post-war stability. The general focus was removing Japanese militarism, without necessarily interfering with the Japanese way of life. Truman and other officials understood this but the president was reluctant to officially clarify and commit to this formula.

  • By mid-June 1945, James F. Byrnes—who later became Secretary of State—was the only official who adhered to the unmodified, hardline version of “unconditional surrender”.

  • US intended Soviet entry into war with Japan after the defeat of Germany in order to encourage a Japanese surrender. More specifically, US preferred this prior to invasion of Japan proper, holding this view until April 1945 when they realized it was no longer necessary (due to Japanese decline). Yet, a few weeks later, Truman reversed this view; that is, reverted back to the original preference.

  • At the same time, US–Soviet relations deteriorated and US officials considered the political implications of the use of the atomic bomb. Despite the urging of Churchill and even Stalin to settle issues re post-war Europe, since USSR was in an advantageous position of having taken half of Europe, Truman nevertheless stalled and delayed the meeting to July 15.

  • Byrnes was a figure overlooked by early historians. He was one of the most important advisors to Truman. He had full access to and represented Truman in meetings. His records of his meetings with Truman are conveniently fragmentary because much of his work was carried out in private and/or informal meetings and he operated as independently as possible from others. He had even invented a private code for his notes which have only been partially deciphered. And, as mentioned above, Byrnes was the only high-level official who was uncompromising in regards to the terms of surrender.

  • By July 22 or 23, after the successful test of the atomic bomb, the US was not keen on Soviet participation in the war against Japan.

  • The author admits that there is little documented communications between Truman and Byrnes that serves as direct proof that Byrnes influenced Truman to take the unmodified, hardline version of the surrender terms. However, other documents strongly suggest just that. In short, despite knowing a change of surrender terms would bring about peace quickly, Truman ultimately adhered to the hardline version, thereby prolonging the war.

  • Military leaders at the time all thought it was possible to win without the atomic bombings, and even without an invasion by the US and without Soviet participation. Ultimately, it seems the reason for the atomic bombings is political and diplomatic strategy, particularly in managing the USSR.

The following are some interesting points from Book Two: “The Myth”.

  • Initial mainstream media reaction immediately after the atomic bombings was generally one of support. However, there was a minority, not necessarily fringe as they included some “conservative”, respectable and popular figures, who criticized the actions. This gained a little traction.

  • In response and also in anticipation of future criticisms, an article was deliberately and calculatedly written to counter these reactions by obfuscation. The article is titled “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” and was published in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s magazine. It is attributed to Henry L. Stimson who was Secretary of War during WWII, but the article was not initiated by him and had input from many other individuals, unknown to the public at the time.

  • The article deliberately sidesteps the issue of clarifying the surrender terms. It also claims that the atomic bombings avoided a full invasion that would “cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone” (which includes both the injured and dead). Setting aside that there was a way to obtain a satisfactory Japanese surrender without an invasion or the atomic bombings, the highest casualty estimate based on reports at the time is 46,000 deaths.

  • Since the bombings, Truman’s public statements and writings are inconsistent and omit certain key points (such as those listed above) but he generally defends the decision, though occasionally with evidence of discomfort. On multiple occasions: he indicated that the bombings saved anything from a quarter to half a million American casualties or deaths, a figure which is unsupported; he also indicated that Hiroshima was, explicitly or implicitly, a military target which, strictly speaking, is not a lie but it is misleading; his accounts of when the decision regarding the bombings was made are inconsistent; and when requested to provide papers for researchers, he refused to provide them.

  • By that time in 1945, the US had achieved superiority in the air and sea, rendering the port at Hiroshima unimportant. The larger factories were also known to be on the periphery of the city and subsequently were not seriously damaged anyway. Hiroshima was mostly intact as a city because it was considered not sufficiently important for strategic bombing.

  • Declassified files show that, amongst other considerations, target for atomic bombing be “large urban area of more than three miles diameter”, be capable of effective damage by the blast, and to achieve “the greatest psychological effect against Japan”.

  • Byrnes’s books and statements on the matter after the war are inconsistent, they downplay his own role and are misleading. He also repeated the claim of “one million casualties”.

  • Not surprisingly, the US imposed censorship on reports, articles and studies regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the US and in Japan during their post-war occupation. Some have been declassified decades later.

  • Some studies show that the Japanese authorities were more swayed to surrender by the Soviet entry into the war than by the atomic bombings.

  • Ultimately, there are still a lot of gaps in the narrative but, most likely, the war against Japan could have ended without the atomic bombs and without an invasion, and post-war claim that bombings saved a quarter or half or one million casualties is a myth.

It should be noted that the following individuals are credited as having provided assistance to the author: Sanho Tree, Edward Rouse Winstead, Kathryn C. Morris, David J. Williams, Leo C. Maley III, Thad Williamson and Miranda Grieder.


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