letter from einstein regarding the atomic bomb

Here we have before our eyes a letter written by Albert Einstein to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945 regarding the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb during WWII.

The original source holds more historical documents regarding The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb in 1945. It includes documents totaling almost 600 pages, covering the years 1945-1964.

There’s a question I’ve had for a long time and just never bothered myself to search for an answer until recently that I found someone asking himself the same question. Gladly, I’ve just had it answered and I want to share it with you reading this. Why didn’t Japan surrender after the first atomic bomb? Not even Wikipedia or any other history book will give you a simpler or better answer than /u/jvalordv gave kindly to all of us.

Alright, I’ll attempt to address this question as best as I can. I’d like to do so covering a wider scope, such as including the unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender even before the use of nuclear weapons, when firebombing had already devastated most urban areas and Japan lost every engagement since Midway in 1942. I already know this is going to become a huge wall of text because I have always held a great interest in the Pacific theater, something made personal by my grandfather’s own experience in the Navy.

I would first like to point out that your question is inherently controversial, as the exact motives behind the use of the nuclear bombs and whether or not it was necessary to bring about a Japanese surrender have been hotly debated. I’ll try to explain and contextualize the issue as much as possible without being too subjective. I’ll start by explaining the demand for unconditional surrender, how this was received by Japanese culture and leadership, and a timeline of what happened. Finally, I’ll try to invoke some historiography to show the ongoing debates in the field, while keeping it as limited as possible as to not spiral out of control. Feel free to skip around if you’re already familiar with a section.

Unconditional Surrender and Total War

The first atomic bomb, Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, 1945. The second, Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. The Japanese government had, since the months preceding, been very divided on the issue of surrender. Even though a growing segment wished to end the war, a key sticking point was the Allied demand for the unconditional surrender of all Axis powers. This doctrine, established by Roosevelt at the 1943 Casablanca conference, sought to tear out all the militant elements within the governments and societies of the Axis nations.

Unconditional surrender was not particularly popular among some Allied leaders, especially Churchill and several notable American generals such as Eisenhower. It was heavily debated throughout the conflict, and still remains one of the most controversial policies of the war. Steven Casey inCautious Crusade has a whole chapter dedicated to the politics of unconditional surrender, and notes that historians have long debated over FDR’s motives and the effects. Generally, it’s believed that his fear was that if militant entities and institutions were allowed to remain postwar, future conflict would be inevitable, invoking the memory of the 1918 armistice with Germany. FDR himself explained, “unconditional surrender means not the destruction of the German populace, nor the Italian or Japanese populace, but does mean the destruction of a philosophy in Germany, Italy, and Japan which is based on the conquest and subjugation of other people.” (Casey, 118). The Allies would avoid any uncertainty, decisively and completely winning the war, or it would keep fighting. It has been asserted that the move was also to keep Stalin from attaining any negotiated peace during a time when the US had yet to open a second front and casualties on the Eastern front were extreme (the announcement had taken place merely a few days after the conclusion of the Battle of Stalingrad). Truman, taking office in April 1945, believed that to go back on the demand of unconditional surrender would be a sign of weakness both to the American people and to the Japanese government, providing fuel for those who wished to continue the war. Critics believe unconditional surrender was a significant boost to Axis propaganda, leading them to fight more fanatically, and lengthened the duration of the war both in the European and Pacific theaters. Upon hearing of it, Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels exclaimed, “I should never have been able to think up so rousing a slogan.” (Fleming, Written in Blood)

The means for which this surrender was to be achieved was total war – the complete mobilization of a nation’s resources, including the conversion of its industry and drafting of citizens. The intention is not to just destroy the enemy military forces, but also to destroy their ability to make war. This leads to an incredibly blurred line between combatants and civilians. For instance, in order to destroy Japan’s ability to make war, factories in densely populated urban centers were targeted. By extension, civilians in industrial areas could themselves even be viewed as “legitimate” targets. By the end of the war, cities were being routinely bombed into submission in an effort to break the will of the government and people to fight.

Japanese War Culture

The notion of unconditional surrender is a central aspect of understanding why Japan remained undeterred amid extensive bombing campaigns, and to a lesser extent, why Germany fought until the fall of Berlin. However, also key to this understanding is contemporary Japanese honor culture.

Even today, Japanese culture is often referred to as a shame society. This essentially reflects on the idea of honor as a societal control. Particular to Japan is the concept of the Bushido, referred to as the way of the samurai or warrior. At its militant extreme, it impressed the duty of the Japanese to die for the nation, and turned war into an almost religious principle. Indeed, the Emperor was considered to be the leader of the Shinto religion, and a direct descendant of a Shinto deity. Propaganda also made the United States appear to be a nation of barbarians, and laughable accusations became a commonly held perception. This would lead to the tenacity with which Japanese soldiers fought, often to the death, and actions such as kamikaze attacks and mass suicides. Allied casualties were extremely high compared to Europe, and Japanese garrisons rarely accepted surrender. Officers, particularly duty-bound by these notions, would be more likely to commit suicide than surrender.

As the Japanese became notorious for fighting even when severely wounded, using a variety of surprise tactics, Marines also began to adopt a no-prisoners stance. According to Wikipedia, out of 22,060 defenders on Iwo Jima, 21,844 were killed and 216 taken prisoner. Fanaticism was not limited to soldiers: after the invasion of Saipan, several hundred civilians jumped off a cliff to their death rather than be captured. In Goldberg’s D-Day in the Pacific, first-hand accounts are given: “We had an LST in the water asking them not to jump. There were a lot of women and kids. They were Japanese nationals stationed on Saipan and they just committed suicide. They would throw the kids, then the wife would jump and then he would jump.” (202)

The Pacific Theater

Okay, so I’ve already touched on this, but it’s worth providing an overview of events in the Pacific Theater, if only to outline how utterly screwed Japan was, how savagely they were bombed, yet how ferociously they fought and refused unconditional surrender. Japan began its expansion in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria, followed by the invasion of China in 1937. The Japanese considered the Chinese inferior, and as historical enemies, they perpetrated such acts as the Nanking Massacre in which some 300,000 people were killed in the Chinese capital city. Other warcrimes include the creation of the secret Unit 731, which conducted thousands of human experiments.

These acts caused tensions with the US to grow significantly, and turn American public opinion. The US as well as other Western nations began supplying China, while the US cut oil exports to Japan. Japan saw war as an inevitability and struck first at Pearl Harbor, also attacking other territories such as Wake Island and the Philippines. However, after the US won a decisive victory at the Battle of Midway June 6 1942 (a victory that historians and military strategists are still amazed was achieved), Japan never won another significant battle or engagement. It was essentially the Stalingrad of the Pacific, and Japan’s empire began to crumble. According to Wikipedia, it peaked at 7.4 million sq km, larger than the height of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy (or the Roman Empire, for that matter). For comparison, the land area of Japan today is just 364,485 sq km, at 5% or 1/20th of its peak size.

As US forces island-hopped their way to the home islands, it embarked on a bombing campaign that caused such destruction and loss of life, it actually makes the nuclear bombings pale in comparison. That is quite a bold statement. But, in a single night, some 100,000 civilians were burned alive in Tokyo as a result of massive firebombing raid. This was some 20,000-40,000 more deaths than from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Japanese cities were largely wooden, and the devastation that incendiary bombs caused to Japanese cities is indescribable. Anyone interested in geopolitics during the Cold War should watch the documentary Fog of War, an interview of former SecDef Robert McNamara, but it also has an incredibly powerful section about the bombing of Japan that everyone curious about the Pacific Theater should watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmJDj-

The Decision to Use the Bomb

With the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, considered home islands, and the continued bombings of Japanese cities, the desire to surrender became increasingly pervasive in Japanese leadership. However, if they were to do so, they demanded to do so on their own terms. They believed that if they could hold out longer, or even more, lure American forces to invade the home islands in a costly fight, they could negotiate a better settlement. One of the key sticking points was the Empire’s ability to retain its power structure, including the position of Emperor.

On the other hand, the United States was already looking to the postwar period, with its eyes on the USSR. Though there had been several border disputes and scuffles between the USSR and Japan, they had remained at peace. It was well known that this wouldn’t last, and the original postwar settlement would leave Japan divided in the same way Germany and Korea were. In total, the US essentially had three options: invade, blockade, or bomb. Operation Downfall, the proposed invasion, would have been the largest and deadliest operation of the entire war. The geography of the islands meant few landing sites would be suitable – which the Japanese knew. Women and children were taught how to use bamboo spears for a last line of defense (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20071208a1.html). In response, the US began stockpiling chemical weapons for use in urban areas ahead of invasion – weapons which were thankfully never needed or deployed. It’s commonly pointed out that so many Purple Heart medals for combat injuries were made in preparation, that even to this day after every conflict since, the US has yet to produce more. The option of blockading was considered preferable to many, as it would essentially starve all of Japan without risking US lives. However, it still would not be a certain way to induce surrender, and would have taken months if not longer even if it did succeed. During this period, the Soviets would be mounting their own offensives and gaining influence in the Pacific. While the US engaged both in blockades and firebombing, it found itself no closer to gaining unconditional surrender. So, the nuclear bomb, a creation of the Manhattan Project begun in 1942, was decided upon.

On August 6th, at 8:15 local time, Little Boy was dropped over Hiroshima. From Hasegawa’sRacing the Enemy – Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, pg 179-180: “Little Boy exploded 1,900 feet above the courtyard of Shima Hospital, 550ft off its target…with a yield equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT. The temperature at ground zero reached 5,400F, immediately creating a fireball within half a mile, roasting people ‘to bundles of smoking black char in a fraction of a second as their internal organs boiled away.’ …Of 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima, 70,000 were destroyed. Fire broke out all over the city…people walked aimlessly in eerie silence, many black with burns, the skin peeling from their bodies…thousands of dead bodies floated in the river. Then the black rain fell, soaking everyone with radiation…by the end of 1945, 140,000 had perished.”

The Surrender

In the months leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, Japanese leadership had become increasingly divided, though few would publicly speak about their misgivings. In May, Japan’s supreme council, known as the Big Six, voted 5-1 in favor of “the extinction of Japan to any taint of compromise.” (Frank’s Downfall: The end of the Imperial Japanese Empire, 94). After the loss of Okinawa, Emperor Hirohito’s faith had been shaken. He assembled his council and declared, “I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts made to implement them.” However, though this illustrated a movement towards the acceptance of a surrender, the council failed to reach any agreement. (Asada’s Culture Shock and Japanese-American Relations, 192-193) In July, the Prime Minister rejected the Potsdam Declaration, which concluded with the line, “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

Hasegawa notes that the use of the bomb was the best possible outcome to Truman, solving the problem of unconditional surrender, invasion, and Soviet interference. For the Japanese, news of the bomb led to complete disarray. Asada states that many in the army and Japan’s R&D board denied that an atomic bomb had been used, or even that it was possible that one could have been developed so soon. Information from Hiroshima was limited, as the infrastructure had already been significantly damaged even before the 6th. However, both Asada and Hasegawa note that by that evening, and certainly by the following day, little doubt remained. Asada argues that acceptance of American technological superiority helped the army “save face” and “smoothed their acceptance of surrender” – a minister tried to persuade the military by pleading, “if we say we lost a scientific war, the people will understand” (Asada, 197).

On August 9th, the USSR declared war on Japan and Soviet armor poured into Manchuria. Coupled with the use of the atomic bomb, this utterly crippled the hope of continuing the war effort. Though Japanese forces mounted a strong defense, they were quickly pushed back. Yet, the supreme council still held on to hope that it could negotiate with the Soviets, refusing to officially declare war. Though the Prime Minister and other civilian leaders now openly declared that Japan should surrender, military leaders wished to continue the fight. Even after the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th, the supreme council still tried to push for maintaining the position of Emperor, and there was a 3-3 split for three other conditions: war criminal trials would be conducted by the Japanese, self-disarmament, and that occupation (particularly of Tokyo) should be avoided or limited wherever possible. (Hasegawa 204, Frank 291). The short span of time between bombings as well as Allied threats were made to give the impression that the US already had a stockpile of the weapons when in actuality it only had the two. A third would have come “sometime after August 19, and then the fourth bomb in the beginning of September,” (Hasegawa 298). It was only until the morning of the 10th that the Foreign Ministry sent telegrams saying it would accept the Potsdam Declaration and unconditional surrender after Hirohito himself demanded the war’s end. Even then, there was an attempted coup by a segment of the military leadership, which invaded the imperial palace and nearly killed the Prime Minister, as well as other senior officials. On August 15, the emperor officially announced the surrender worldwide. Many pockets of Japanese soldiers still continued to fight, and many military officers chose suicide over surrender. By 1947, a new constitution was written, and while the emperor was maintained as ceremonial figurehead, the Empire of Japan was formally dissolved.

Contentions in Historiography

Whether it was the use of nuclear weapons or Soviet invasion that more forcefully led to surrender has been hotly debated between historians. Hasegawa places greater emphasis on the Soviet invasion, suggesting that Japan would likely have stood steadfast under multiple atomic bombings as it had done in the face of firebombing. Asada directly references and disputes his account, claiming that nuclear weapons and the threat they posed to the homeland reflected a much more “direct” impetus to end the war rather than the invasion of Manchuria, and offered an easier way out for the leadership. Further, they came as a complete surprise to Japanese leadership, whereas eventual conflict with the USSR was expected. Frank’s account, and most other anti-revisionist historians support this thesis.

However, it is the motives behind the bombs’ use that has been the most greatly contested aspect of the event. Such works as Blackett’s Fear, War and the Bomb asserted the now famous notion that “the dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the Second World War as the first major operation of the Cold War with Russia.” Alperovitz’sAtomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam similarly asserts that the use of the bomb was for diplomatic posturing opposite the Soviets. Asada notes that viewing the use of the bomb almost exclusively in the context of postwar hegemony over the USSR has been prevalent among Japanese academics. Frank’s Downfall is itself written in part to counter such “revisionist” scholarship that attributes the use of the bombs to political rather than military goals. Other works, such as Maddox’s Hiroshima in History and Giangreco’s Hell to Pay are were also written as a response to revisionist histories, claiming that use of the bombs directly avoided what MacArthur called “a hard and bitter struggle with no quarter asked or given.” (Giangreco 204) Still other historians have focused on other aspects of this debate; Skates inThe Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb explains how massive and bloody an undertaking Downfall would have been, but asserts that “designed as a political statement that German and Japanese militarism would be eradicated…unconditional surrender drove the war to extremes of violence in 1945 and made the atomic bomb seem almost a benign alternative to an invasion.” (Skates 252).

Someone else commented on the thread leaning himself mostly on information found in GoogleBooks and the piece in it written by an American assessing the damage done by the bomb. In the comment this user added the citations that follow below:

  1. Saturation of response facilities. In conventional bombing campaigns, not every fire department or hospital was knocked out, as it is generally pretty cruel to target facilities like this. In Hiroshima, there were something like 1 or 2 hospitals left standing (damaged but still operational) of 12-18 originally, but still with most doctors/nurses killed, and tens of thousands of injured. So there was no way to contain fires started or treat wounded, making it especially horrific, and impossible to recover from in any short timespan.
  2. Lack of warning. Conventional raids would typically involve dozens to hundreds of bombers, which could be detected from a fair distance away, giving civilians some time to prepare themselves by seeking shelter, and some semblance (effective or not) of being able to defend against it. At this point, there were solo B-29s doing daily flights over most cities doing weather recon. People got used to them, knowing they meant no, or very limited, threat. After the bombs were dropped, it could be imagined by the people that any one of these could be carrying nuclear armaments, so any city could face a sudden and horrific death with no warning.

These factors contributed to the unpopularity of continuing the war, along with all of the points above.

We might as well look for a Russian’s viewpoint to have a better and more neutral text. But I’m thinking this will be more than enough for you if what you wanted was to have general culture or just info for your school project.



  1. Hershel · July 12, 2014

    Hi, your site might be having browser compatibility issues. When I take a look at your blog in Safari, it looks fine. however, when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping issues. I merely wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Apart from that, excellent blog!


  2. Isidro · September 5, 2014

    That is a great tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very accurate information… Many thanks for sharing this one.
    A must read post!


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