Were there alternatives to the Atomic Bombs?

In war, as in most of life, we are often stuck with a limited set of options, none of which are always preferable.  We sometimes have to settle with the lesser of two evils and then find ways to justify it.  Many people believe that this was the case in decision to use Atomic bombs against Japan. However, the lesser of two evils perspective appears to not have been the case in the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this scenario the ‘two evils,’ were to either drop the Atomic bombs on Japanese cities or engage in a full scale American invasion of the Japanese mainland, risking tens of thousands of American lives. However this was a false dichotomy, because there were a number of other alternatives between these ‘two evils.’

The American leaders were presented with several alternatives to the combat use of the Atomic bombs during the final phases of the war. There were five viable options that could’ve been substituted for the use of the Atomic bombs against Japan: A non-combat demonstration of the bomb, a modification of unconditional surrender, allowing for the Emperor to stay in power, further dialogue with Japanese diplomats who were interested in peace, delaying use of the bomb(s) until the Soviets entered the war and heavy conventional bombing with naval blockade. (Stoler pg. 420)

The option of using a non-combat demonstration was brought up only twice in government committees and rejected both times. One of the reasons for the rejection of this plan was that the bomb would not work and a failure might rekindle the Japanese resolve. The other concern was that allied POW’s might have been moved into the area of the testing zone before the bomb was dropped.

The second option that could’ve been pursued was for the American leaders to modify and/or soften some of the terms of the unconditional surrender that they were already asking for. In particular, one of the terms of surrender was the complete dismantling of the Imperial system, including removal of the emperor. Since the Japanese practically worshipped the emperor, it would be hard for them to imagine surrendering, if it meant the removal of such a revered figure. If the emperor were allowed to stay, it was felt that the Japanese would’ve have been much more likely to surrender. One of the key complaints with this option was that the government feared a backlash from the public, because many Americans likened Hirohito to Hitler and considered him a war criminal. To the American leaders, this option was considered to politically risky.

Thirdly, there were a number of Japanese diplomats who approached American officials in hopes of negotiating a surrender. It was thought that perhaps dialoging with these diplomats might create a momentum among other Japanese who were tired of the war or felt that a loss was inevitable. However, it was not known if these Japanese diplomats had enough authority or influence to actually make a difference, so it was not pursued thoroughly. There was also a strong group of militarists in the Japanese government that were not interested in any terms of surrender.

Alternative four was to delay the use of the Atomic bomb(s) until after the Soviet Union entered the war. None of the top American leaders felt that the Soviet Union would be entering the war before the scheduled American invasion. Even if the Soviet Union had entered the war, it is not certain that Japan would’ve surrendered before the invasion.

The last option provided to the American Leadership could have been to continue the conventional bombing of Japan and the naval blockade, also known as the siege strategy. It appears that this strategy would have worked if the Americans would have been willing to prolong the war and delay the invasion.

At the time and subsequently afterwards it seems clear that none of the alternatives by themselves could’ve succeeded in creating a Japanese surrender before the scheduled American invasion of Japan. However, as Bernstein says, “it does seem very likely, though certainly not definite, that a synergistic combination of guaranteeing the emperor, awaiting Soviet entry and continuing the siege strategy, would’ve ended the war in time to avoid the November invasion.” (Stoler pg. 425)

So why was a combination of these options never considered, when it seems quite clear that a use of the bomb could’ve been avoided?  We have been led to believe that since the use of the bomb has been questioned after it was used and the horrible impact years later was revealed, that there was a reluctance to use to bombs at all and that the government was trying to avoid using them.  Those of us outside of the context of World War Two ascribe certain moral standards that were not at play at that time. For example, contemporary people assume that there was a real struggle among the leaders in their decision of whether to use the Atomic bombs or not.  Many wrongly assume that they were reluctant to use to bomb, when in fact there was no such reluctance. The war had been a long and terrible tragedy and everyone was ready for it to be over with quickly.  The moral and merciful position was to end it before more and more casualties occurred. The American leaders’ assumption was that the Atomic bomb(s) were a tool that was pragmatic to use and that there was no reason not to use it. “In 1945 American leaders were not seeking to avoid the use of the A-bomb. Its use did not create ethical or political problems for them. Thus they easily rejected or never considered most of the so called alternatives to the bomb.” (Stoler pg. 420)

It’s a human tendency to see things in black and white or either/or terms, such as “should we drop the bombs, or invade?” From a postwar perspective this can be construed as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, at the time, the option of using the Atomic bombs did not seem like a morally questionable option and if it had, there would’ve been more real incentive to take an honest look at a combination of alternative options that could’ve succeeded ending the war and pressuring the Japanese to surrender without the use of a full scale invasion or the Atomic bombs.


“Major Problems in the History of World War Two” -Mark A. Stoler and Melanie S. Gustafson

Stoler, Mark A., and Melanie S. Gustafson. Major Problems in the History of World War II. 1. 1. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 472. Print.

“Were there viable alternatives to dropping the Atomic mom?” By Barton J. Bernstein


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