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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?

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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
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
@davidjwest: The US used the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to test the effective of the weapons They had already done the Trinity test, so I think they had a pretty good idea of what to expect. The Trinity bomb was similar in design to the one used on Nagasaki. –  Ben Crowell Aug 1 '14 at 18:14
The nukes served their purpose ..brilliantly. Japan acquiesced to unconditional surrender all but immediately, and Russia was put on notice. The bombs had scant nil to do with sophomoric notions of “plant and bridge” as much as inflicting the fear of God into America's enemies – present and future. Expectations of death on the ground was and remains largely irrelevant. The bombs were within specification, but death from radiation was not foreseen. This is well documented. Live and learn. I believe the technical term for this is: “F'ck with the bull – get the horns”. Ain't war hell? –  ipso Aug 2 '14 at 4:10

4 Answers 4

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 carpet bombing 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 is 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.

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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
Actually there were "real military targets" (in this incorrect sense), too. E.g in case of Hiroshima, the headquarter of West Japan was the target, and it was actually hit. –  Greg May 12 at 4:55

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.

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"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
The casualties at Nagasaki were a bit lower than estimated, IIRC. I think they decided that the terrain around the city limited some of the blast effects over Hiroshima. –  Oldcat Jul 31 '14 at 19:33
@Oldcat yes, the effect of the terrain on such a massive blastwave (and thermal flash) were not well understood at the time and came as a surprise. –  jwenting Aug 2 '14 at 4:11

This is not a complete answer, but it's too lengthy for a comment.

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

No, they intended to destroy the whole cities. The idea was to make an overwhelming show of force in order to accelerate a Japanese surrender and convince the Japanese to surrender unconditionally rather than conditionally. It was unclear whether the Japanese could have been forced to surrender without an invasion, which would have been very bloody. Some historians have also interpreted the bombings as a prelude to the Cold War; by using them, the U.S. gained strength in its postward struggle with the USSR to carve up the world into spheres of influence.

Was the death toll in the atomic bombing of Japanese territory greater than was expected by the US?

They certainly expected to kill a vast number of civilians, but there were a variety of factors that probably made it impossible to make accurate numerical estimates of the number of civilian deaths:

  • The cities had been partially depopulated because there were food shortages, and many children had been sent out into the country, where there was food. I doubt that the US had accurate information on the exact number of civilians remaining in the cities.

  • Many of the deaths would have been from fires as the cities burned. This seems like it would be impossible to predict.

  • In 1945, knowledge of the effects of radiation on humans was pretty rudimentary. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were people who survived the initial blast and were exposed to radiation. Their doses depended on factors such as how far they were from the blast. There were smaller numbers of people with larger doses, and larger numbers with smaller doses. The effects of small doses of ionizing radiation are not well understood today, and were certainly not well understood in 1945. Attempts to retroactively estimate the effects have been hampered by the fact that when a city burns, a lot of nasty carcinogens are released into the air. (This was a problem after 9/11 as well.) There is evidence that very small doses of ionizing radiation can be beneficial, an effect called radiation hormesis.

There is a paper on the radiation stuff that you can find online (in English): M. Mine et al., "Mortality of A-bomb Survivors in Nagasaki and Hiroshima."

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and don't forget that the radiation victims have in later years been greatly exaggerated. Basically anyone who ever died in Japan from cancer or birth defects after the bombings who might have been to the cities at some point is now counted as a "bomb victim" by the anti-nuclear crowd. In reality the number of such cases is not statistically different from anywhere else in the world (it might have been for a few years after the bombing, but hasn't been for decades). –  jwenting Aug 2 '14 at 4:14

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.

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-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
Hiroshima was on the target list simply because it had not been recently hit by the bombing campaign and was militarily significant due to the large number of military facilities in and around the city. That it was a port was at that time largely irrelevant as the Japanese fleet and merchant marine had stopped to exist as a threat almost a year earlier. –  jwenting Aug 2 '14 at 4:17
@kubanczyk Hiroshima is in Honshu, but it was the headquoter of the Army protecting whole Western Japan, which means practically Kyushu. Also any kind of train logistics etc from major industrial areas like Kanto or Kansai are going through Hiroshima, since it is the largest center between Kyushu and Kansai area. So while Hiroshima is not on Kyushu, it indeed hosted the headquoter and also played an important role in defense of Kyushu. –  Greg May 12 at 5:05

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