Bombing Japan: Churchill’s View

Bombing Japan: Churchill’s View

Intaglio print by Sarah Churchill/Curtis Hoop­er (

Scott John­son of Pow­er­line (“Why We Dropped the Bomb,” 13 April) kind­ly links an old col­umn of his quot­ing an old one of mine with ref­er­ence to Pres­i­dent Obama’s vis­it to Hiroshi­ma and the atom bomb­ing of Japan.

John­son links a lec­ture by Pro­fes­sor Williamson Mur­ray, which is worth con­sid­er­ing, along with Paul Fussell’s clas­sic essay in The New Repub­lic, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” which makes you think, though some con­sid­er it a rant. Fussell wrote:

John Ken­neth Gal­braith is per­suad­ed that the Japan­ese would have sur­ren­dered sure­ly by Novem­ber with­out an inva­sion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnec­es­sary and unjus­ti­fied because the war was end­ing any­way. The A-bombs meant, he says, “a dif­fer­ence, at most, of two or three weeks.” But at the time, with no indi­ca­tion that sur­ren­der was on the way, the kamikazes were sink­ing Amer­i­can ves­sels, the Indi­anapo­lis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casu­al­ties were run­ning to over 7000 per week. “Two or three weeks,” says Galbraith.

Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wound­ed, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thou­sands or relat­ed to one of them. Dur­ing the time between the drop­ping of the Nagasa­ki bomb on August 9 and the actu­al sur­ren­der on the fif­teenth, the war pur­sued its accus­tomed course: on the twelfth of August eight cap­tured Amer­i­can fliers were exe­cut­ed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first Unit­ed States sub­ma­rine, Bone­fish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroy­er Callaghan went down, the sev­en­ti­eth to be sunk, and the destroy­er escort Under­hill was lost.

That’s a bit of what hap­pened in six days of the two or three weeks posit­ed by Gal­braith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Admin­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton. I don’t demand that he expe­ri­ence hav­ing his ass shot off. I mere­ly note that he didn’t.

Bombing and Churchill

But back to Churchill. What did he think about the bomb­ing? Need you ask. Churchill wrote in his war mem­oirs, Vol. 6, Tri­umph and Tragedy (1953, chap­ter 19):

British con­sent in prin­ci­ple to the use of the weapon had been giv­en on July 4, before the test had tak­en place. The final deci­sion now lay in the main with Pres­i­dent Tru­man, who had the weapon; but I nev­er doubt­ed what it would be, nor have I ever doubt­ed since that he was right. The his­toric fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the deci­sion whether or not to use the atom­ic bomb to com­pel the sur­ren­der of Japan was nev­er even an issue. There was unan­i­mous, auto­mat­ic, unques­tioned agree­ment around our table; nor did I ever hear the slight­est sug­ges­tion that we should do otherwise.

Some his­to­ri­ans have cit­ed a minor offi­cial in the For­eign Office who argued that Japan would sur­ren­der with­out the bomb­ing, if the Allies promised she could keep her emper­or; it was nev­er proven that this ever reached the ple­nary lev­el. Oth­ers quib­ble that the first bomb (Hiroshi­ma) was per­haps nec­es­sary, but sure­ly not the sec­ond (Nagasa­ki) only three days lat­er, after the effects of the first were not even assessed. But the Japan­ese cab­i­net was divid­ed still on the ques­tion of sur­ren­der after Nagasa­ki. Churchill continued:

I had in my mind the spec­ta­cle of Oki­nawa island, where many thou­sands of Japan­ese, rather than sur­ren­der, had drawn up in line and destroyed them­selves by hand-grenades after their lead­ers had solemn­ly per­formed the rite of harakiri. To quell the Japan­ese resis­tance man by man and con­quer the coun­try yard by yard might well require the loss of a mil­lion Amer­i­can lives and half that of British—or more if we could get them there: for we were resolved to share the agony.

Now all this night­mare pic­ture had van­ished. In its place was the vision—fair and bright indeed it seemed—of the end of the whole war in one or two vio­lent shocks. I thought imme­di­ate­ly myself of how the Japan­ese peo­ple, whose courage I had always admired, might find in the appari­tion of this almost super­nat­ur­al weapon an excuse which would save their hon­our and release them from being killed to the last fight­ing man.

Tru­man nev­er shrank from deci­sions, and in this one he was right. Six years of war (igno­rant Amer­i­cans always for­get and say four) was enough. In 1953, Ache­son placed Churchill “on tri­al” for drop­ping those bombs, in a per­haps inap­pro­pri­ate ban­ter, but with more seri­ous implications.


Wars are declared on nations, not those who lead them, which is one rea­son why dec­la­ra­tions of war have gone out of fash­ion. In our more “enlight­ened” age we are repelled by the suf­fer­ing war inflicts on ordi­nary peo­ple. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, you can’t declare war on an individual.

In intro­duc­ing Alis­tair Cooke at the 1988 Churchill Con­fer­ence, I quot­ed the words of that car­ing and gen­er­ous man on the 25th anniver­sary of the bomb­ing, which I had long since com­mit­ted to memory:

With­out rais­ing more dust over the bleached bones of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki, I should like to con­tribute a cou­ple of reminders: The first is that the men who had to make the deci­sion were just as humane and tor­tured at the time as you and I were lat­er. And, sec­ond­ly, that they had to make the choice of alter­na­tives that I for one would not have want­ed to make for all the offers of redemp­tion from all the reli­gions of the world.

4 thoughts on “Bombing Japan: Churchill’s View

  1. I wish your cam­paign for­tune. It would be an unmit­i­gat­ed bless­ing if mankind some­how, despite all its peren­ni­al flaws, uni­ver­sal­ly agreed nev­er to use what Churchill called “these awful agen­cies of destruction.”

    War itself being a crime against human­i­ty, it is a lit­tle redun­dant to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic parts of it as the same thing. I explained Churchill’s and Truman’s views, too super­fi­cial­ly I fear, based on what they knew at the time. 

    Pro­fes­sor Williamson Mur­ray, in a 2015 lec­ture at Ohio State, is more thor­ough, ana­lyz­ing the bomb­ing deci­sion based on what we now know. Click here and skip to start at minute 7:

    Mur­ray reminds us that it’s a very fre­quent habit these days for his­to­ri­ans and oth­ers to engage in Mon­day morn­ing quar­ter­back­ing. What they often miss—when rec­om­mend­ing what we should have done instead of what we did—is that it might have led to some­thing even worse.

    I found inter­est­ing his doc­u­men­ta­tion that US (20,000) and Japan­ese (77,000) deaths in Oki­nawa, a three-month bat­tle, were close to the num­ber of Amer­i­cans killed in all twelve years of the Viet­nam War, not to men­tion Viet­namese; and that the esti­mate of “only” 50,000 U.S. casu­al­ties in tak­ing Kyushu were made in May, when Japan had 100,000 troops there….by August Japan had 450,000, plus 5000 Kamikaze air­craft ready to go.

    You are right to iden­ti­fy the threat of star­va­tion, but per­haps not the extent of that threat—particularly if it was decid­ed not to drop the bombs. By mid-1945, it was already known that knock­ing out trans­porta­tion had been the most pro­duc­tive aspect of the air war on Ger­many. In an extend­ed cam­paign in Japan, one of the first objec­tives would have been its trans­porta­tion facil­i­ties, which were vul­ner­a­ble and rel­a­tive­ly easy to destroy. What would that have led to? It’s not hard to imagine:

    By sum­mer 1945, the Japan­ese were rationed to 1200 calo­ries a day, the edge of star­va­tion. As you state, the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ued long after­ward. Mur­ray notes that even in 1946, Gen­er­al MacArthur (for once “the good MacArthur”) had to urge Pres­i­dent Tru­man to send mas­sive food aid or risk going down in his­to­ry as the starv­er of 3-5 mil­lion peo­ple. Tru­man did so, and Japan’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem was intact to deliv­er it. As a result a catrastro­phe far worse, and longer last­ing, was averted.

    We must always, as they say, be care­ful what we wish for.

  2. May I sug­gest vis­it­ing my web­site (My Hiroshi­ma) at to find whether the atom­ic bomb­ings on Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki were nec­es­sary? I pre­sume Churchill’s speech of jus­ti­fy­ing the bomb­ings at the Par­lia­ment on August 16, 1945 helped shape the com­mon view held by the British even today. The most impor­tant issue is that the atom­ic bomb­ings, which killed indis­crim­i­nate­ly hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, most­ly civil­ians, were crimes against human­i­ty, no mat­ter how any­one tries to jus­ti­fy the bombings.

  3. Ah, there’s the rub. The immi­nent entry of Rus­sia into the war against Japan was a spur to Tru­man, who wor­ried how far they might go. But the Japan­ese cab­i­net was still not unan­i­mous for sur­ren­der after Nagasa­ki. It took the emper­or, at risk of his life (indeed a coup was tried but failed), to decide to surrender.

  4. Some beleive uncon­di­tion­al sur­ren­der for Japan was unnec­es­sary. Well after Hiroshi­ma the Russ­ian dec­la­ra­tion of war might have kneeled Japan for good, with­out Nagasaki.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.