Hiroshima symbolizes the mighty coercive power of nuclear weapons. Drop two bombs and you win the war. For sixty years Hiroshima has been the knockout punch in the argument about the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons.
But new research by historians is undermining the traditional story of Hiroshima and undercutting that reputation. For the last fifteen years scholars digging into archives in the US, Russia and Japan have found less and less support for the notion that Japan's leaders were coerced by nuclear bombing. The evidence points to the Soviet Union's declaration of war (by coincidence on the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki) as the event that persuaded the Japanese to surrender. It's hard to believe the Bomb wasn't decisive. But there are four good reasons for thinking it wasn't.
First, the Soviet intervention changed the strategic situation, while the Hiroshima bombing did not. The Japanese had two plans to avoid unconditional surrender: convince Stalin to mediate, or inflict so many casualties when the US invaded that the US would soften its terms. Both plans could still have worked after Hiroshima (and in fact both were still being pursued in the days after the bombing.) Neither was a live option once the Soviets declared war: Stalin couldn't mediate if he was a belligerent and Japan couldn't fight off two invasions.
Second, Hiroshima was only one city bombed in a massive campaign. From March to August 1945 the United States bombed sixty-eight Japanese cities – on average, one every other day. Only one city suffered more casualties than Hiroshima, but in the three weeks prior to Hiroshima eight of the cities bombed – nearly a third – suffered as much or more damage (in terms of percentage of the city destroyed). Toyama was 99.5% destroyed.
Japan's leaders seem to have been largely unaffected by this city bombing. Which shouldn't surprise us. Churchill didn't surrender when London was bombed or Coventry flattened. Germany withstood hundreds of thousands more casualties from city bombing. If bombing Hamburg, Dresden or Tokyo didn't coerce surrender, why should bombing Hiroshima?
Third, the Soviet intervention touched off a crisis; the bombing of Hiroshima did not. Diaries and official documents in the three days after Hiroshima treat the bombing as just one more, albeit serious, piece of bad news. But not a crisis. When the Soviets declare war, on the other hand, martial law is declared (that morning) and a military coup is discussed.
Fourth, most of the “evidence” that the bomb was decisive (post-war testimony from Japan's leaders) is suspect. These men had just led their nation into a catastrophic war. They had concealed how badly things were going. Should they admit serious errors of judgment? Confess their mistakes? Or point to the Bomb and say “Our enemies made a revolutionary leap forward in science (which no one could have predicted) and that's why we lost”?
And pride and prestige would make it hard (even today) for Americans to consider that the Bomb didn't win the war. If bombing Hiroshima ended the war, after all, we get the credit. It's a terrible deed, but our influence and power are enhanced. But if the Soviets “won” the war . . .
Rethinking Hiroshima casts a different light on nuclear weapons. For forty years their value and importance has steadily declined: strategic arsenals have been reduced, nations have abandoned attempts to build nuclear arsenals (some have even surrendered weapons in hand), and – most tellingly – both the Soviet Union and the US lost long, painful wars (in Afghanistan and Vietnam) despite possessing the “ultimate weapon.” Today, even though we fear them in connection with terrorism, we rarely give nuclear weapons the sort of awe and dread they commanded in the 1950s or 1960s.
Historians will continue to debate the impact of Hiroshima. But it seems increasingly clear that we've overestimated nuclear weapons, that their reputation has considerably outpaced their usefulness and that therefore it may not be sensible to rely on them. There is a reasonable case to be made that the US is strong enough not to need nuclear weapons in order to be secure. Perhaps it is time to rethink the faith we invest in nuclear weapons and the billions we spend on them. That might be the strongest argument we could make to persuade others that they are not worth building.