Operation Downfall: The Allied Invasion of Japan (Nov.1945)…and What Happened Instead

September 21, 2015 in General

While Australia and New Zealand are busy commemorating the sacrifices made by First World War Anzacs, this year also marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in August 1945, after the United States Air Force dropped two atomic bombs on the small Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The results were annihilation of the city’s infrastructure, tens of thousands of fatalities, the indiscriminate incineration of non-combatant children and elderly, severe third degree burns to survivors as well as disfigurement, and stillbirths and miscarriages for decades afterward.  And yes, I am willing to say that the ordeal may have been unnecessary.  As well as the destruction of two small cities and many of their inhabitants, the use of nuclear weapons led to their employment as strategic tools as the victorious United States and USSR faced each other across the Cold War abyss for the next forty-five years. In 1962 and 1983, the world came perilously close to annihilation due to brinkspersonship during the Cuban missile crisis and the consequences of a mere accident in the Soviet Union’s tracking equipment two decades later. Mercifully, that did not happen. The Afghan War caused the Soviet Union to liberalise and ended the Warsaw Pact in 1990 and the USSR itself ceased to exist in 1991 after an abortive military coup attempt. Today, the arsenals of the world’s nuclear powers have been much reduced.  Germany has been reunified, post-communism prevails across much of Eastern Europe, and the USAF has packed up and gone home. It could have been otherwise. On a sepulchural, desolate alternate Earth, there is sufficient intensive radiation to cause charred and twisted rubble to glow at night. No human and animal sounds are heard here because all life on this world was either incinerated or irradiated afterward to oblivion.

What if the United States had made a different decision? If the Manhattan Project had not yielded functional nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies would have had no option but to invade the Japanese Home Islands.  Collectively named Operation Downfall, if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not perished seventy years ago, the United States would have invaded Kyushu (Operation Olympic, November 1945) and Honshu, in Operation Coronet (February 1946).  Millions of US service personnel and Japanese civilians would have died in the crossfire as the Japanese fought to preserve the sovereignty of their homeland, so apologists for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki argue that those lives were perversely saved by the demonstration of the effects of nuclear weapons on civilian cities despite the tragedy that befell those two cities.  Other strands of opinion dissent from that military and strategic set of conclusions.  They argue that the Japanese High Command would have capitulated, a coup d’état might have overthrown the Japanese chiefs of staff, or that Emperor Hirohito might have overruled his military command staff and ordered a halt to hostilities. One variant of this argument has the Soviet Union invading Hokkaido, with an outcome reminiscent of the enduring partition of Korea.  Without access to such an alternate Earth, we can only speculate, based on the US battlefield contingency plans devised should Operation Downfall have had to be enacted and alternate-history military fiction novels depicting such an event.  From this perspective, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a regrettable necessity, but nevertheless, a necessity all the same. The western peace movements of the eighties questioned that foreign policy orthodoxy. Will we ever learn which alternative was the world well lost?


D.M.Giangreco: Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan: 1945-1947: Annapolis: Naval Institute Press: 2011.

Ray Davis and Dan Winn: Clear Conscience: A Bomb Versus Super Holocaust: Paducah: Turner: 1999.

John Skates: The Invasion of Japan: The Alternative to the Bomb: Columbia: University of South Carolina Press: 1994.

Norman Reynolds: X-Day: Conshocken: Infinity: 2010.

Nathaniel Harris: Hiroshima: Oxford: Heinemann: 2004.

Keiji Nakazawa: Barefoot Gen: Volume 1: San Francisco: Last Gasp: 2004.

John Hersey: Hiroshima: London: Penguin: 2015.

Rob Attar: “Should America have dropped the Bomb?” BBC History: August 2015: 56-60:

-Anthony Beevor: “Yes: Truman had little choice” (58)

-Richard Overy: “No: It was immoral and unnecessary” (58)

-Rob Maddox: “Yes: It was the least bad option” (58)

-Martin Sherwin: “No: Japan would have surrendered anyway” (59)

-Richard Frank: “Yes: It saved millions of lives in Japan and Asia” (59)

-Tsuyoshi Hasegawa: “No: Better options were discarded for political reasons” (60)

-Michael Kort: “Yes: The moral failing was Japans” (60)

Comments are closed.