Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

It is known that the US tried to justify their atomic bombing of Japanese cities by claiming they were aimed at military targets such as a plant and a bridge. Yet the bombs destroyed much more than just a plant and a bridge - virtually, the whole cities. The human life loss much exceeded the numbers of the plant's personnel.

Did the US indeed expect that the explosion will destroy just one factory rather than the entire city?

share|improve this question
I have no source, but I remember a comment, that there were more victims then expected. The reason was not an underestimated explosion, but the US expected a lot of the later victims in shelters. Either there was no alert or the alert was ignored by the people. –  knut Feb 11 '13 at 23:26
The title of the question is substantially different than the actual question. Could you change either the title or the question so we know what the answer should be? –  Mark C. Wallace Feb 12 '13 at 12:36
And could you cite sources rather than "it is known" - can we put this on objective grounds? –  Mark C. Wallace Feb 15 '13 at 19:06
The US used the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to test the effective of the weapons, they didn't have a good idea what the effects might be or the death tolls. It was a war crime that these weapons were used but in an attempt to justify their actions the US government said that the bombs meant less casualties overall as there would be no need for an invasion. –  davidjwest Mar 20 '13 at 18:11

3 Answers 3

Your definition of "military target" is incorrect. The entire cities WERE military targets because military installations and arms factories/storage facilities were located inside the city limits.
Quite apart from that, the policy of carpetbombing cities was well established at the time and was being performed on a daily basis by B-29s carrying conventional explosives and firebombs.
The effects of such bombing on the population were known too, at least in estimate, based on figures attained from German bombing on English cities and analysis of damage done to German cities.
So no, the expected casualty count was well known, and was not expected to be much different from using the standard system of firebombing the same cities. The reason the nuclear weapons were chosen were mainly

  • psychological. A show of force. "we now can destroy an entire city with a single bomb, resistance if futile". This worked quite well, though it had been hoped a single bomb would be enough.
  • military. Using fewer aircraft put fewer crews at risk, thus lower expected friendly casualties.

    In addition, a surrender at this stage would stop the war before the USSR could launch a major invasion into northern Japan, AND would make the US invasion of Japan scheduled for the spring of 1946 unnecessary, preventing an estimated million US and 2-3 million Japanese casualties just from that.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Downfall has some information on casualty estimates (note, the half a million US casualties listed are deaths only, include wounded and a million is low). https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/giangrec.htm has more.

share|improve this answer
The last half of the last sentence is the important one here. The mathematics of death really sucks, but the USA was in a position where they had to engage in it. To chose differently would have been choosing more death over less. It would have been choosing deaths of US soldiers and the enemy over deaths of the enemy only. –  T.E.D. Feb 12 '13 at 13:19
Is there actual historical documents showing the 2-3 mil estimates? (that's the figures I usually heard but never knew the sources) –  DVK Feb 12 '13 at 14:21
@DVK found some links, seems the million casualty figure was a statement Truman made to some aides at Potsdam –  jwenting Feb 12 '13 at 19:11

Based on a cursory reading, I don't believe the United States underestimated the death toll. The bomb itself was known to be devastating. Einstein himself petitioned the government to with hold the use of the bomb, knowing full well that the weapon was many orders of magnitude more dangerous than any sort of conventional bombing technique used up to that point.

You can see in both the crewman's account and in the Potsdam declaration, that the United States had foreseen the affect of the bombing, "utter destruction" and "utter devastation", "an act of war to end the war." The Americans knew what they were doing and they knew the death toll with be staggering. They weren't intending to hit a bridge or a road. They were trying to disable the Japanese completely. The stakes were so high that they were willing to sacrifice any number of people to end the war.

In short, no, the Americans didn't overestimate or underestimate they simply gambled that it would do what was needed. And in that at least, they were correct.

Crewman's account of the bombing

Potsdam declaration

I'm going to hedge the above claim by pointing you to this. It's well sourced and seems to be relatively contradictory to my statements.

share|improve this answer
"knowing full well that the weapon was many orders of magnitude more dangerous than any sort of conventional bombing technique used up to that point." - I think the death toll from the firebombing of Tokyo was greater than one of the atomic bombings. –  Andrew Grimm Jul 13 '13 at 8:36

You are confusing the aiming point with the target city.

Hiroshima was the headquarters of the division of the Japanese Army tasked with defending Kyushu. There were more than 50,000 troops quartered in that city. It had a number of rivers which made the city unsuitable for conventional carpet bombing. There are very few T-shaped bridges in the world, making that landmark rather unique and hard to mistake with any other city.

Kokura was the primary target for the 2nd atomic bomb. Due to overcast skies, the navigator was unable to determine that they were over their target, or even over land. This city used to be called Kokura Arsenal due to the number of munitions factories.

Hiroshima was a huge natural port. Historically it was the only port open to foreigners. In the event of a conventional land invasion, it would be necessary to take and hold this port so that Allied shipping could use it to land troops and materiel. This invasion was called Operation Olympic and was scheduled for November 1, 1945.

share|improve this answer
-1 falsification of source. The very article you cite says Olympic was a plan to invade Kyūshū at: Miyazaki, Ariake, and Kushikino. Hiroshima is not even on Kyūshū. –  kubanczyk Feb 15 '13 at 8:34

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.