Was the Atomic Bomb Necessary?

by Herb Weiner

Due to the time constraints of this conference, only portions of the DVD on the use of the atomic bomb were shown. I will limit my presentation to a few minutes in order to open it for discussion by those present. I have distributed handouts to elaborate the points that I will be making. (They are noted at the end of the text of the presentation.)

It is my contention that anxiety, fear of ego disintegration, the sense of omnipotence and magical thinking were the underlying psychological elements of the decision to use the atomic bomb. But the historical context must first be examined.

Firstly, it should be noted that the atomic bomb primarily targeted Japanese civilian populations. Most military targets had been destroyed by August 1945 by air bombings. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki parallel those of Dresden, Berlin and London where the targets were not military.

Secondly, General officers, as Dwight Eisenhower, opposed its use. Eisenhower attempted to persuade President Truman not to use it, stating, after the nuclear attacks, “We didn’t have to hit them with that awful thing.” Admiral Leahy, adviser to Truman and Roosevelt, voiced revulsion over the use against women and children.  Generals Mac Arthur and Le May did not feel that military victory had been secured with the use of the bomb. Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold felt that the Japanese would have surrendered by November 1945, the planned date for land invasion, without the use of infantry at all.

Japan had been militarily devastated to the point of surrender. Even the Emperor was sending out peace feelers. One main point of negotiation was the retention of Emporer Hirohito on the throne which America eventually agreed to. It should be noted that, when the Emporer ordered the Japanese to lay down their arms, they surrendered upon his command.

Thirdly, it was stated by Lewis Strauss, assistant to James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy,  that there could have been a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese in order to compel surrender. My own opinion is that a film of the successful detonation in Almogaodo, New Mexico would have shocked the Japanese Government for this purpose.

Fourthly, Truman stated, as early as July 1945, that, with the agreed entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific War, the Japanese would be compelled to surrender.

This entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific Theatre is a crucial reason for the use of the bomb. Earlier in 1945, James Byrnes, one of Truman’s advisers, had indicated to the nuclear physicist, Leo Szilard that he desired that the atomic bomb would make the Soviet Union more manageable in Europe. The use of the bomb, in essence, was geared toward diplomacy, atomic diplomacy, to coerce the Soviet Union to adherence to American postwar aims and goals.

Here, we must examine the psychological aspects of the use of the bomb and its relationship to anxiety, fear of ego annihilation, the loss of the self, magical thinking, and the sense of omnipotence.

The underlying fear of Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe and possibly the Far East was the threat and potential loss of property rights and ultimately the loss of the ego and self. The late Konni Zilliacus, a leftwing Labour Member of British Parliament notes that:

The rich are genuinely indignant at the sordid materialism of the poor, who press their claims to be better housed, fed and educated. Their political thinking and patriotic and religious loyalties are the same moral quality as those of the rest of us. For the class-bias,  the egotism and arrogance of those who regard wealth, and the power and privileges attaching to wealth, as part of their birthright, are so profound as to be unconscious. Nevertheless, they shape their ideals of right and wrong. They corrupt and pervade the social psychology of the propertied classes to-daly, because of alarm at the crumbling of our social and economic foundations that are choking the garden of civilization.

The class egotism of the plutocracy is such, because they are the governing class, they they sincerely and passionately identify “national defense” with the defence of their own class. They are incapable of seeing national interests except as their own class interest writ large. They agree with Bismarck’s dictum that a country which took away his property rights would no longer be his Fatherland.

A rival social system, based on the elimination of private property, was perceived as a threat to Western leaders. The breakdown of social structure and the threatened loss of honor and wealth constitute a threat to the self. The experience of infantile anxiety was reactivated by the political and military expansion of the Soviet Union.

To counter this threat, nuclear weaponry presented a powerful response with a sense of omnipotence.  General Farrell, observing the successful nuclear detonation, stated:

The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful,

stupendous and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lightning effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must been seen to be imagined. It was that beauty which the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare temper with the forces heretofore reserved by the Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.

As Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, in awe of the success of the test recalled the words of Shiva, the Indian god of destruction; “I am become Death, Destroyer of worlds.”

Magical thinking, which accompanied such omnipotence, came into play with the notion that the bomb, with its awesome power, could coerce the Soviet Union into diplomatic concessions which ultimately failed. The Soviets finally developed their own nuclear device which resulted in an arms race which has not ended to this day.

This is the nightmare fruit of the use of the atomic bomb which was undergirded by the threat to collective ego identity and the loss of self with elements of omnipotence and magical thinking.

Was the Atomic Bomb Necessary?

  • The atomic bomb was used on targets that were primarily civilian, not military in nature. This paralleled the air bombing on London, Dresden and other German cities in the Second World War. Admiral Leahy, adviser to Roosevelt and Truman,and British General Hastings Ismay were morally repelled by the use of the nuclear weapon against civilians.
  • General officers of the United States and British military felt that the bomb was not the significant factor in ending the war.  General Eisenhower stated: “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”  General Ismay,  stated that Japan was tottering. Japan was militarily devastated. General Curtis Le May, in charge of the aerial bombing of Japan felt that the Japanese would have surrendered within two weeks without the atomic bomb. General “Hap” Arnold stated in July that the war would be over by September or October without a land invasion. General MacArthur stated, after the war, that the use of the bomb was unnecessary. Admiral Lewis Strauss felt that the war was nearly over and that the Japanese were ready to capitulate. He advocated the demonstration of the bomb to facilitate surrender. (My own opinion: Wouldn’t a film of the original test in New Mexico, shown to the Emperor,  political and military leaders have strongly encouraged surrender?) In 1946, the Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that Japan would have surrendered prior to December 31, 1945 or earlier without the atomic bomb, without Soviet intervention or land invasion.
  • The Japanese,including the Emperor were sending out peace feelers.  Between July and August 1944, peace initiatives from Japan began. Soviet, Swiss and Swedish Governments were approached by the Japanese. By July, the Emperor, through his representative, Prince Konoye, approached the Soviet Union with the desire to end the war. Truman was advised that Japan might surrender if the Emperor were kept on the throne which was eventually agreed to after the war.
  • Soviet entry into the war was a crucial factor in ending the war. Truman indicated in his diary that Japan would capitulate upon Soviet entry into the Pacific Theatre. While Soviet Russia’s aid in the war effort was originally welcomed and encouraged, it was now unwelcome with the desire to keep Japan free from Soviet presence and influence.
  • The use of the atomic bomb was aimed toward containing and coercing the Soviet Union. Early in 1945, Secretary of State, James Byrnes indicated to Leo Szilard that the bomb was designed to make the Soviets more manageable. Despite the attempts to coerce the Soviet Union by atomic diplomacy, the use and threat of nuclear weaponry in statecraft, the Soviet Union did not capitulate, and, eventually, developed their own nuclear device to the shock of the United States.
  • There are psychological elements underlying atomic diplomacy. These are; the threat of ego disintegration and annihilation, the sense of omnipotence and magical thinking. The above contaminate reality testing and judgment, impairing rational statecraft in the national interest. The threat of ego annihilation is shown by the group anxiety of the political and military expension of a rival social system, based on the collective ownership of property and industry, ending the  Western rights of private property which, in turn, would result in the loss of self. This anxiety was collectively experienced by Western elites. This anxiety resembles the unease of social disturbances and the fear of losing body parts. In reality, the aims of the Soviet Union were primarily based on preventing another invasion by foreign powers, having experienced this three times within two centuries and losing 20 million in the Second World War. The sense of omnipotence occurred with the awe of witnessing the destructive impact of the bomb in its testing in New Mexico and its use against Japan. Witnesses to the bomb felt that they had godlike powers. Magical thinking  occurred with the belief that the bomb with its destructive powers could coerce concessions and submission of the Soviet Union. Truman was bolder in his diplomacy at the Potsdam Conference upon hearing the news of the bomb’s successful test. Postwar diplomacy was also more aggressive but ultimately failed. The successful Soviet detonation of their own nuclear weapon ended the sense of omnipotence and magical thinking, but the fear of ego annihilation remained. The presenter believes that this anxiety still remains to the present date.
  • The above psychological factors underlay the diplomacy of the early postwar periaod, leading to the breakup of the Big Three wartime coalition, the shattering of collective security,one of the aims of the United Nations, the beginning of an arms race and the danger of nuclear annihilation which exists to the present day.

Much of this material is based on my Doctoral dissertation: The Dissolution of Alliance: The Psychology of Atomic Diplomacy which you can read by e-mail attachment. For the text of the above, contact: h.weiner@sbcglobal.net

Herbert J. Weiner


Alperovitz, G. (1985a) Atomic diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (Expanded and updated edition).  New York. Penguin Books.

Alperovitz, G. (1985b) More on atomic diplomacy. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Chicago: Educational Foundation for Nuclear Scientists. Accessible by internet search: Robert L. Messer and Gar Alperovitz: The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War.

Alperovitz, G. (1995) The decision to use the atomic bomb and the architecture of an American myth. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.

Alperovitz, G. (2011)  The decision to bomb Hiroshima. August 5-7 Weekend Edition of Counterpunch . This can be accessed by internet search.

Ferenczi, S. (1950)  Stages of development of the sense of reality. In E. Jones (Tr.) Sex in Psychoanalysis  (pp. 213-239).  New York: Basic Books  (Work originally published in 1913).

Freud, S.  (1963)  The problem of anxiety.  (H.A. Bunker, Tr.) The Psychoanalytic Press and W.W. Norton & Co.  (Original work published in 1936).

Horowitz, M.J. (1988). Introduction to psychodynamics: A new synthesis. New York: Basic Books.

Laughlin, H.P. (1967). The neurosis.  Washington: Butterworth’s.

Lichtenstein, H. (1977). The dilemma of  human identitiy. New York: Jason Aronson.

Mee, C.L. (1975)   Meeting at Potsdam. New York:  M. Evans and Co.

Messer, R.L. (1985b ) New evidence on Truman’s decision. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  Chicago: Educational Foundation for Nuclear Scientists, Accessible by internet search: Robert L. Messer and Gar Alperovitz: The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War.

Sherwin, M.J. (1987)  A world destroyed: Hiroshima and the origins of the arms race. New York: Vintage (Originally published in 1975).

Zilliacus, K. (1939)  Between two wars: The lesson of the last World War in relation to the preparations for the next.  Harmondsworth Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Zilliacus, K. (1949). I choose peace. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

One Response to Was the Atomic Bomb Necessary?

  1. […] Click Here to Read:   Was the Atomic Bomb Necessary? by Herbert Weiner on the Other/Wise website on September 21st, 2013. […]

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