8.4: The Allies Secure Victory in Japan—“We’re the Good Guys… Right?”

The war was almost over—but the war had just begun. Some historians assign May 10, 1945, as being the first day of the Cold War, the ideological conflict between Communist-influenced powers (including the countries “liberated” by the Soviets) and the “West” (the countries “liberated” by the Allies around the world).

Based in part by the research of Albert Einstein, a new weapon was tested in July, 1945, that would change the face of warfare forever: the atomic bomb. The bomb used the power within atoms to unleash a destructiveness never before witnessed on the planet. While the United States was concerned during the war that the Axis might be working on a similar project, the U.S. at that point was the only country on Earth in possession of atomic weapons. However, as of summer 1945, the U.S. was not the only country fighting in the Pacific: during that summer, the Soviet Union, for the first time, declared war on Japan. The Western Allies were concerned that, if Japan were invaded as Nazi Europe was, it would be split between Communist and “Western” territories, just like Europe had been.

The U.S. was faced with a choice: use the bomb and kill hundreds of thousands of people—citizens and soldiers alike—or fight the war traditionally on the islands of Japan. The intense battle of Guadalcanal was fresh in the U.S. Army’s experience, so the choice was made to use the bomb: after warning Japan of its new weapon and still not receiving an unconditional surrender, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. 70,000 people were immediately killed. With the subsequent deaths from the shock-wave, the radiation, and long-lasting effects like cancer, the total deaths with only that one bomb amounted to just over 200,000 people.

The U.S. called for immediate, unconditional surrender and, after three days of non-response from the Japanese government, launched a second atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki on August 9. The Japanese Emperor then moved for peace talks and the surrender was finalized on September 2, 1945. The Second World War was over, but at a tremendous price: World War II was the most expensive and destructive war in the history of the human species. In the Soviet Union alone, 20 million Russians were killed in the conflict, more than seven million of which were civilians.