The two atom bombs released over Japan in August 1945, fifty years ago, changed the course of history. The catastrophes provided the Japanese with a convenient excuse for 'bearing the unbearable', for breaking off hostilities without too great an agony of self-reproach for doing so.
It is now known that the Emperor, who knew more of the outside world than most of his politicians, had already decided on June 18th, 1945 to make overtures for peace, and to introduce into his Supreme War Council a group of elderly dug-outs who could pursue a peace policy without too much loss of his personal face. They were, however, foolish enough to entrust these overtures to their ambassador in Moscow, where the Russians - can rapid actions ever be expected from them in any matter whatever? - dragged their feet as usual to such effect that they were themselves able to enter the war against Japan for the last week or two, and emerge from it without a struggle and in the position to acquire substantial new territories.
The factors driving the Japanese to make these overtures were their enormous civilian air casualties at home, a critical shortage of aviation fuel, and the knowledge that, owing to American command of the seas, their overseas forces could neither be operated where they were nor be effectively redeployed.
This was the state of the main conduct of the war on which the two atom-bomb attacks were, as it were, superimposed by the accident of the bombs being completed at that particular moment. The development of these bombs had been begun in 1940, and had cost [pounds]500 million, the whole cost being met by the United States; and even this gigantic sum had resulted in the preparation of three bombs only, one of them for test purposes. Of the remaining two, the uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 7th, killing 70,000 people outright, and the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki (a substitute target for Kokura, which was covered in mist at the time) on August 8th, causing considerably fewer casualties since ravines and escarpments in the area absorbed much of the blast. It took the Japanese a week of internal convulsion before they finally capitulated on August 15th, having changed their channel of communication from the Russians to the Swiss. (On August 1st, 1945 the Swiss ambassador in Tokyo, an old gentleman of eighty, was representing the interests of no fewer than twenty-one different powers, Allied and others.)
As a matter of military circumstance, the atom bombs brought the war to a close at the most inconvenient moment possible for General MacArthur. His island-hopping campaign up the Pacific, mounted from Australia in 1942, had by August 1945 reached the Philippines, Okinawa and Iwo Jima, preparatory to the final landings in Japan proper; and the whole of his available fleet of seven hundred landing craft destined for this purpose was at the moment back home in the United States for refit. What form were these final landings due to take? They would have been by far the most ambitious landing operations of the whole war, and certainly extremely hazardous in execution.
General MacArthur's strategic plan, codeword Downfall, had been completed in Manila in May 1945. It included the two operations 'Olympic' and 'Coronet', of which the salient details were:
Landing Area: South end of the island of Kyushu.
Object: To acquire and develop airfields for the support of the later operation Coronet.
Forces: One army of four corps and HQ troops.
Date: November 1st, 1945.
Landing Areas: (i) Sagami Bay and other points round Tokyo Bay, and (ii) Kujukurihama Beach, sixty miles east of Tokyo.
Object: The capture of Tokyo/Yokohama.
Forces: One army on each landing area, plus marine forces.
Date: March 1st, 1946.
It is not hard with a map to picture the strategy intended. The Tokyo Plain (or Kanto Plain, as the Japanese call it) is the only area in the whole of mainland Japan where overwhelming mechanized land forces can be deployed to advantage, or indeed at all. …