Even Churchill thought Hiroshima was unnecessary

IssueAugust - September 2023
Churchill statue, sculpted by Oscar Nemon, Westerham, Kent. PHOTO: © COLIN SMITH VIA GEOGRAPH.ORG.UK (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Feature by Milan Rai

The Hollywood blockbuster, Oppenheimer, is having a massive opening weekend as I write these words.

The central event of the film is the ‘Trinity’ test on 16 July 1945, when scientists set off the world’s first nuclear bomb.

One of the less well-known effects of the test was its shattering impact on the wartime British prime minister. Winston Churchill was told about Trinity while he was attending the Potsdam conference in Germany with US president Harry Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

After reading a full report of the test on 22 July, Churchill became extremely enthusiastic about dropping the Bomb on Japan.

British field marshal Alan Brooke, head of Britain’s imperial military forces, recorded in his diary Churchill’s excited remarks on 23 July: ‘Now we had a new value which redressed our position (pushing his chin out and scowling), now we could say, if you insist on doing this or that, well we can just blot out Moscow, then Stalingrad, then Kiev, then Kuibyshev, Karkhov, Stalingrad [sic], Sebastopol etc, etc. And now where are the Russians!!!!’

This marked Churchill’s transformation from ‘atomic bomb-maker’ to ‘atomic diplomatist’, according to British historian Kevin Ruane, writing in his Churchill and the Bomb in War and Cold War (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

Imagine Stalin had got the Bomb first, and he had said the same things about dictating to Churchill (‘if you insist on doing this or that, well, we can just blot out London, then Edinburgh, then Cardiff, then Liverpool....’). ‘Atomic diplomatist’ is an academic way of saying ‘nuclear terrorist’ or ‘nuclear dictator’ or, at the very least, ‘nuclear bully’.

The Russia card

Churchill had arrived at Potsdam intending to campaign, again, for two non-atomic methods of ending the Pacific War. He believed, for example, that a Russian declaration of war on Japan could bring about a Japanese surrender by itself. (Russia was signed up to a neutrality pact with Japan that didn’t run out till April 1946.)

Churchill had pressed for the Russian card to be played in September 1944, at the US-UK Quebec conference. He told the then US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, that when Japan heard the USSR had declared war, ‘she would undoubtedly think twice about continuing the fight’.

A few days later, Churchill cabled Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, pleading with him to declare war on Japan as soon as the Nazis were defeated: ‘From all I have learned about the internal state of Japan and the sense of hopelessness weighing on their people, I believe it might well be that once the Nazis are shattered a triple summons to Japan to surrender, coming from our three Great Powers, might be decisive.’

When he arrived at Potsdam, one of Truman’s main goals had been to get a commitment from Stalin that the USSR would declare war on Japan.

It continued to be one of his main goals until he had read the full report on Trinity on 21 July.

So, after meeting Stalin at Potsdam on 17 July (just after Trinity, but before he’d received the full test report), Truman wrote to his wife: ‘I’ve gotten what I came for – Stalin goes to war August 15 with no strings on it.... I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed! That is the important thing.’

Truman knew that the USSR would declare war on Japan on 15 August, but he authorised the dropping of the Bomb before that, at the urging of his chief advisor, US secretary of state James F Byrnes.

‘Byrnes said he was most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in, with particular reference to [the Chinese territory of] Dairen and Port Arthur [today: Lüshunkou district]. Once in there, he felt, it would not be easy to get them out.’ That’s from a diary entry for 28 July 1945, recorded by the then head of the US navy, James V Forrestal.

The emperor card

Churchill also thought that the US should relax its ‘unconditional surrender’ demand which seemed to mean the Japanese government accepting that emperor Hirohito would lose his throne, face a war crimes trial – and likely be executed.

This was unthinkable for the Japanese establishment, given Hirohito’s god-like status.

If the US made clear that the Japanese royal family could continue in office (in a constitutional monarchy), that by itself might clear the way for a Japanese surrender, Churchill believed.

If both a Russian declaration of war and immunity for the emperor were brought together into one statement, at one time, that would be even more likely to trigger a surrender, given Japan’s worsening economic and military position.

On 9 February 1945, at the US-UK-USSR meeting at Yalta, Churchill pressed again for a Russian declaration of war, and also suggested ‘mitigating’ or relaxing the unconditional surrender demand – to spare the emperor.

He argued: ‘there was no doubt that some mitigation would be worthwhile if it led to the saving of a year or a year and a half of a war in which so much blood and treasure would be poured out.’

At that time, it was believed that it would take up to 18 months to conquer Japan with a ground invasion.

In other words, allowing Hirohito to remain emperor of Japan was an acceptable price to pay – in Churchill’s eyes – for ending the war a year earlier.

Military reasons

Until he read the full report on Trinity on 23 July, Churchill continued to campaign for use of the ‘spare the emperor’ card. At Potsdam, Churchill put this point to Truman again, during a private lunch on 18 July.

Churchill was actually raising the surrender terms issue at the request of both the US and British military leaderships, who had met, as the combined chiefs of staff, at Potsdam on 16 July.

Field marshal Brooke, head of the British armed forces, had suggested explaining ‘unconditional surrender’ in a way that spared the throne. Then, ‘the Emperor would be in a position to order the cease-fire in outlying areas whereas, if the dynasty were destroyed, the outlying garrisons might continue to fight for many months or years.’

The US chiefs of staff agreed: ‘at the correct psychological moment, for example, on Russian entry into the war,’ the Allies should ‘explain what the term “unconditional surrender” did not mean rather than what it did mean.’

In fact, both the Russian declaration of war and ‘sparing the emperor’ were in the first draft (2 July) of the Potsdam Declaration to Japan but were removed from the final declaration by Byrnes before it was published on 26 July.

Not a last resort

We don’t know if a Soviet declaration of war or sparing the emperor would have achieved a Japanese surrender in July 1945.

What we do know is that Winston Churchill believed they had a good chance of ending the war, especially if combined. He pushed for one or both of the non-nuclear options at top-level conferences in September 1944, February 1945, and July 1945.

Instead, Truman dropped the Bomb on Japan before Russia’s expected entry into the Pacific War on 15 August, and didn’t soften the surrender terms to spare emperor Hirohito until six days after Nagasaki.

PN editor Milan Rai is delivering an online talk, ‘Even Churchill Thought Hiroshima Was Unnecessary’ at 7pm on 1 August. Zoom registration:


Topics: Nuclear weapons