What If America Hadn’t Dropped the Atom Bombs?

March 14, 2017

As we learn more and more about the Second World War, we begin to see that some things we were initially taught may not be completely accurate. For instance, it’s widely believed that Japan only surrendered due to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the reality is that the two atom bombs may have been less of a catalyst than they appear to have been.

The question is straightforward: What would have happened if the United States hadn't dropped the bombs on Japan’s cities? Would World War II have concluded when it did? Was there another force approaching in the Pacific Theater to force Japan’s hand?

In this brief look back, we consider what might have happened had the United States chosen a different route.

The Alternative History

What some may picture in an alternative history, where the United States and Japan continued the war in the Pacific without the intervention of the atom bombs, is the eventual defeat of the US and the triumph of the last remaining Axis power. Very few serious historians consider this at all likely.

Aside from that scenario, and depending on which version of alternative history you listen to, there could have been two outcomes had America gone a different route.

The Other Pressure and an Unclear Resolution

There’s a belief that the United States didn’t have to drop the atomic bombs to win the war. By the time the B-29 bomber soared over Hiroshima and deployed the first-ever atomic bomb, Japan’s military seemed to be facing an imminent defeat.

With Nazi Germany and its European Axis partners out of the picture, the Soviet Union turned its attention to Japan and started pushing to join the United States in the Pacific Theater. As a second major power divided Japan’s attention, there was a chance that Japan would have surrendered – but would its military have accepted the decision?

Even with the US deploying the atom bombs, many Japanese soldiers refused to acknowledge the end of the war. Without that destructive event, it’s possible that a larger portion of Japan’s military would have continued fighting, implementing guerrilla warfare tactics to slowly pick away at their enemies. The result would lead to many more casualties for both the Allies and Japan, possibly even surpassing the over 200,000 civilians who perished from the bombs.

Eventually, after more years of fighting, the war, in all likelihood, would have still ended in the Allies' favor, but not without further losses.

A Familiar Ending Without the Bang

While several US generals agreed that the atomic bombs were essential to crippling Japan and ceasing the war, there are those who oppose this belief and claim that Japan’s surrender was inevitable months before.

According to Brigadier General Carter Clarke, the decision was made so the bombs could be tested as an experiment, and had little to do with ending the war. Major General Curtis LeMay concurred in Clarke's belief that the bomb was unnecessary, stating that the “war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb.”

There are many, including Henry H. Arnold of the US Army Air Force Pacific Fleet and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who pointed to the excessiveness of the bombings, believing that Japan was already on the cusp of surrendering.

The Outcome

Hiroshima Peace Park

Regardless of what anyone believes about their necessity, the atom bombs were dropped, over 200,000 Japanese civilians perished, and World War II ended on September 2nd, 1945. The iconic site where Japan’s surrender was signed can be seen on the Battleship Missouri at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

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