The theory of nuclear deterrence rests on the notion that no country would attack a nuclear weapons state (NWS) if it meant the certain destruction of their own cities and civilian populations. This in turn rests on the widely held assumption that it was the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that caused Japan to surrender at the end of WWII.

If just two atom bombs, small in comparison with today’s nuclear arsenals, could force Japan to surrender unconditionally, then surely today’s nuclear arsenals are sufficient to prevent any would-be aggressor from ever considering an attack on a NWS. These are the premises on which the whole theory of deterrence has been built. But are they true?

‘The bomb saved lives’

Bill Westwood, the late Bishop of Peterborough, was a strong proponent of nuclear weapons. In the summer of 1945, he was a 20-year-old paratrooper in the British Army, stationed in Sri Lanka and awaiting the orders to invade Japan. He remained convinced to his dying day that more lives were saved by the dropping of the Atom Bomb than were lost, and he was by no means alone in holding that view.

To be fair, Bishop Bill was concerned not only with the lives of British and American servicemen, but also with the lives of the countless Japanese military as well as civilians who would have surely died had there been an invasion of the Japanese home islands. The estimates vary widely and there is no way of knowing how many would have died. However, nearly 150,000 Japanese civilians were killed during the invasion and occupation of the island of Okinawa in the spring of 1945, together with as many as 77,000 Japanese soldiers and 14,000 Allied soldiers.

President Truman had already given the go-ahead for ‘Operation Olympic’ to invade the Japanese ‘home’ island of Kyushu on 1 November 1945 with a force of more than 750,000 troops. Although the Allies were unaware at the time, the Japanese military had already deployed nearly one million of their soldiers to Kyushu by August 1945, ready to fend off the invasion.

With nearly 2.5 million civilians living in the southern part of Kyushu at that time as well, there is no doubt that an Allied invasion would have resulted in a very large number of casualties on all sides, with possibly four times as many as were killed on Okinawa, given the numbers involved. Four times the number of deaths as in Okinawa would have meant as many as 60,000 Allied soldiers, 300,000 Japanese soldiers and 600,000 civilians killed.

By the summer of 1945, wwii had been going on for six years. Nearly every country in the world was involved, hundreds of cities were in ruins and at least 40 million people were already dead. Everyone wanted the war to be over. When President Truman announced that the atom bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a huge sense of relief – even jubilation – from people like Bill Westwood, whose chances of surviving the war were otherwise probably less than 50–50 at that point.

When the Japanese surrendered one week later, both President Truman and the Japanese Emperor Hirohito claimed it was because of the atom bomb. Every newspaper and radio the world over (with the possible exception of those in the Soviet Union) reported that the war ended because of the atom bomb. Nearly every history textbook and academic historian tells the same story. Why would anyone disbelieve it?

  1. Apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 67 major cities in Japan were systematically destroyed by Allied bombing between February and August 1945. In Tokyo, as many as 130,000 people were killed by bombing, double the number killed outright in Hiroshima (although many more died later from the radiation). Sixteen other cities had more buildings destroyed than in Hiroshima. From the perspective of the Japanese, it mattered little whether a city was destroyed by one big bomb or by thousands of little ones…


    1.  Japan was willing to surrender long before August 1945. The only sticking point was the future of Emperor Hirohito, who was wanted by the US for war crimes. After Japan did surrender, the US allowed Emperor Hirohito to continue in his position until his death in 1989. If they had agreed to that earlier, the war would have ended much sooner.


3 While the US and British forces were preparing for an invasion of Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, Japanese forces were being moved from northern Japan and Manchuria to counter the attack. When the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on the 8th of August and began invading northern Japan and Manchuria, the Japanese High Command had no choice but to surrender. One Japanese General estimated it would take the Soviets only 10 days to reach Tokyo.