12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

Khalid Elhassan - September 13, 2017

The 20th century’s seminal event, World War II has sprouted its fair share of myths and glaring untruths. Be they fueled by propaganda, politics, national pride, hoaxes, a wish to believe, or simple gullibility, quite a few of WWII’s myths and untruths have had the staying power to persist for decades and into the present, even after being debunked. Unsurprisingly, the intense passions aroused by a conflict that directly and indirectly touched more people than any before or since, and whose impact still shapes the world in which we live today, has made some WWII myths highly resistant to debunking.

Susceptibility to WWII untruths is not limited to the casual Joe Public with limited interest in history or an emotional investment in a particular version of it, but can extend to those one might think should have known better, as illustrated by the 1983 Hitler Diary debacle, when a conman fooled the editors of the respectable Stern magazine and the Sunday Times into believing that the erstwhile Fuhrer had kept a secret diary, which they then published to great fanfare, only to get humiliated when it emerged that it had been created by a master forger.

Even after the debunking, contents of the Hitler Diary still surface from time to support this, that, or the other thing. Following are 12 of World War II’s more persistent myths.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Hitler’s “Diary” in Stern Magazine. The Museum of Hoaxes
12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Stalin overseeing the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Euromaidan Press

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Harmed the USSR

A common myth has it that the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, AKA the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed a week before Germany invaded Poland, was calamitous for the USSR. While Stalin proved disastrously wrong in trusting Hitler to honor the agreement, and in stubbornly ignoring warnings of impending German attack in 1941, the fault lay with Stalin, not with the Pact. The Pact itself actually served Soviet interests, and while they did not make the best use of it, they were better off for having signed it.

From a Western and Polish perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was calamitous. But from a Soviet perspective, it made good sense. The Western Powers had demonstrated their unreliability during the Munich Crisis, exhibiting greater distaste for dealing with Stalin than with Hitler. The Soviets made solid offers to defend Czechoslovakia, but the Poles refused them permission to march through Poland to reach Czechoslovakia, while Britain and France negotiated halfheartedly and ended up appeasing Hitler.

After Munich, the USSR had something to offer both sides. The Germans negotiated seriously and made attractive offers, while Britain and France did not. And the Poles, looking at the only force that could physically come to their defense, were astonishingly shortsighted.

The Pact bought the Soviets nearly two years in which to prepare for war. Poor as the Soviet military’s performance was in 1941, it was even less prepared for war in 1939. Moreover, the Pact, which gave the USSR nearly half of Poland, pushed the Soviet borders hundreds of miles westwards, giving the USSR that much additional buffer. Space and distance proved decisive to Soviet survival in 1941: the Germans came within 10 miles of the Kremlin before they were turned back. Without the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Germans would have launched their invasion from a start line hundreds of miles further to the east. The same effort that ran out of steam within sight of the Kremlin would likely have pushed far beyond had it started hundreds of miles closer to Moscow.

As the Soviets saw it, they owed the Western Powers and Poland nothing. Indeed, they had outstanding border claims against Poland. The Germans offered to satisfy those claims, while the British and French offered little. Indeed, seeing how they would be the ones expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying in a war against Germany, it seemed like chutzpah to the Soviets for Germany’s foes to offer so little in exchange for the high price the USSR would pay for siding with them, instead of entering benevolent neutrality with Germany.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Operation Sealion. Wikimedia

Germany Could Have Successfully Invaded Britain

Britain was not as vulnerable to German invasion as is commonly thought. After the humiliating evacuation from Dunkirk and the collapse of Britain’s main ally in 1940, the British stood alone against the German juggernaut. Things were grim, and to their credit, the British, led by their indomitable prime minister, soldiered on and fought the good fight when the easier course would have been a negotiated peace that left Hitler Europe’s hegemon.

Propaganda painted Britain as a plucky and stolid underdog, gritting its teeth and girding its loins to repel an invasion that could come at any day. However, Churchill and Britain’s higher-ups were aware that a German invasion, had it been attempted, would have stood no chance of success. Their main concern was not to repel an invasion but to maintain public morale to continue what they knew would be a long and costly war, despite a dismal start.

Churchill’s confidence came down to one word: logistics. The Germans simply lacked the landing craft and shipping capacity to transport and supply an invasion force large enough to subdue Britain. The main reason why the D-Day landings occurred in 1944, instead of 1943 as US commanders wanted, was the lack of sufficient landing craft in 1943. That problem was even worse for the Germans in 1940-1941.

Even as the aerial Battle of Britain raged in the summer of 1940, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering did not believe that winning would pave the way for an invasion. When the German effort shifted from attacking the RAF to bombing British cities, it was not a prelude to invasion – it had already been canceled by the time the Blitz began – but to break British morale and pressure Britain’s leaders into negotiating for peace.

While Britain’s leadership did not fear invasion, they wisely kept it to themselves: public morale and spirit of defiance were high in the face of an “imminent invasion”, and there was no reason to tamper with that and risk complacency. Moreover, the image of an endangered Britain played well across the Atlantic, enhanced American public and governmental sympathy for Britain, and solidified US willingness to support the British.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
German supply column mired during the Rasputitsa on the Eastern Front. Quora

Germany’s Invasion of the Balkans Delayed and Doomed the Invasion of the USSR

This myth has it that Germany’s invasion of the USSR, which supposedly ground to a halt because of Russia’s winter, would have succeeded if it had only started a month or two earlier than its actual launch date of June 22, 1941. The reason it did not start earlier, goes the myth, is because Hitler got entangled in the Balkans, invading Greece and Yugoslavia in April of 1941, which delayed the launch of Operation Barbarossa.

The first flaw in the myth’s logic is that it gives winter top billing for stopping the German advance. However, other factors such as fierce Soviet resistance, the over-extension of German supply lines to the snapping point as the Wehrmacht plunged ever deeper into the USSR, and autumn rains had already brought the German advance to a halt before the first snowstorms. The Germans had to regroup, giving the Soviets a needed breather, before resuming the advance on Moscow. Hitler’s soldiers were unprepared for the terrible Russian winter when it arrived, but that was only one factor, and not the main one, for the German advance’s halt.

The myth’s main flaw is that, if Barbarossa had been launched two months earlier, in April instead of June, it would have been even less successful and ground to a halt earlier, after advancing a shorter distance. The Germans advanced as rapidly and plunged as deeply into the USSR during the summer of 1941 because the months-long dry weather perfectly suited their Blitzkrieg style of maneuver warfare, of breakthroughs followed by aggressive exploitation via deep armored thrusts, with supplies hurried forward to maintain the advance, and infantry rapidly following to consolidate the gains.

If the Germans had invaded in April 1941, their advance would have churned to a standstill after only a few weeks because of the Rasputitsa, the Eastern European mud season when unpaved roads – nearly all of the USSR’s roads – become useless. Caused by rain in the fall and snow melt in the spring, the Rasputitsa would have brought an early Barbarossa to a stop or crawl as attackers and their supply chain struggled to move through a sea of mud, while the Luftwaffe was grounded by the transformation of its dirt airfields into fields of mire. That would have given the Soviets time to regroup while waiting for the roads to dry and the German offense to resume. The need to account for the Rasputitsa dictated the invasion’s start date, not Hitler’s Balkans entanglement.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
American battleship sinking during Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Encyclopedia Britannica

FDR Knew of the Pearl Harbor Attack in Advance

One of the more pernicious myths, which first surfaced during the 1944 presidential campaign, claims that FDR knew in advance of the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor, but allowed it to happen in order to bring the US into the war on Britain’s side against Germany. Aside from the absence of any evidence to support the myth, the claim is irrational and illogical.

The myth stems from the fact that American cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese codes and gleaned messages indicative of hostile intent, but that did not specify the when and where of Japan’s aggressive designs. Warnings were issued to American commanders throughout the Pacific, but the ones in Pearl Harbor failed to take adequate precautions – as did Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, who was also caught unprepared despite the warnings.

As to the myth’s illogic, while FDR saw Nazi Germany as the world’s greatest menace, and was busily rearming and preparing the country for what he deemed the inevitability of war against fascism, there is no causal nexus between allowing the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor and the US going to war against Nazi Germany. It was Germany that FDR wanted to fight, not Japan. The Japanese attacking the US would have resulted in war against Japan, not in war against Germany.

The only reason the US ended up in a war against Germany was because Hitler, to the consternation of his generals, declared war on the US when he had nothing to gain, and everything to lose from gratuitously adding to his enemies the world’s wealthiest country and greatest industrial powerhouse. Absent that irrational decision on Hitler’s part, there is little reason to think that Congress would have declared war against Germany, which had not attacked America.

Even if there had been a logical link between a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor leading to war against Germany, FDR’s alleged goal of getting the US into the war would have been accomplished just as well if US forces had been prepared. A Japanese attack defeated by alert US forces would have still been an act of war by Japan. Roosevelt would still have gotten the war he supposedly sought, without thousands of American servicemen and civilians getting slaughtered. The US Navy could have ambushed the Japanese and sunk their fleet before it launched a single plane against Pearl Harbor, and its mere presence in the vicinity of Hawaii would have been sufficient indicia of Japan’s hostile intent to justify war.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Malay plantations as seen from the air. Quora

The Japanese Were Supreme Jungle Fighters

After Japan joined the war in December 1941, a perception developed among the Western Allies that the Japanese were preternaturally gifted ”jungle fighters“. The British in particular convinced themselves that their foes were “natural” jungle fighters during the Malay Campaign, when the Japanese, invading from the north, advanced the length of the Malay Peninsula, brushing aside or sidestepping all opposition, and captured the fortress city of Singapore at the peninsula’s southern tip despite being outnumbered by the British.

However, Japan has no more tropical jungles than does Britain, and the Japanese had no more natural aptitude for jungle fighting than any other people whose homes lie well north of the Tropics. The Japanese prevailed in the Malay jungles because their troops were hardened veterans, while their opponents were inexperienced and ill-trained.

The Japanese were also innovative and adaptable, as illustrated by their vanguard’s commandeering of bicycles to speed up the advance, while the British commanders ranged from mediocre to incompetent. British generals, looking at all the greenery of the Malay Peninsula, assumed it was an impenetrable jungle, and thus never expected an advance on Singapore from that direction. When the Japanese invaded from the north, British generals set up defensive positions to block their advance, frequently anchoring their flanks to “jungle” on one or both sides.

However, a significant portion of the Malay Peninsula’s foliage was not jungle, but plantations. They looked formidable when seen from the air, but on the ground they posed no barrier, comprised as they were of rows of trees with wide spaces in between, carefully cleared of underbrush, that formed straight leafy boulevards down which the Japanese easily bicycled or marched in the shade.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Malay plantations as seen on the ground. Quora

Oblivious British commanders in far-off headquarters set up defensive lines that seemed formidable on their maps, with flanks secured by “jungles”, only to have those defenses outflanked by the Japanese strolling past them via the plantations surrounding British positions. Flabbergasted British commanders convinced themselves that an unnatural talent for jungle fighting lay behind the ease with which their foes outmaneuvered them, giving birth to this myth.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Australian troops advancing on a German position during the Battle of El Alamein. The Atlantic

The North African Campaign Was Vital to Winning the War

This myth goes that Hitler had grand designs in the Middle East, and that had the Axis won in North Africa and seized Egypt, they would have gone on to seize the rest of the Middle East and its oilfields, and, most importantly, gone on to win the war by outflanking the USSR and attacking it from the south. The concept looks good on a map, but it was unrealistic. Far from having ambitious plans for the Middle East, Hitler only got involved in North Africa in order to bail out Mussolini, and the Germans kept their investment in that theater to a bare minimum because they had greater objectives elsewhere with a higher claim on their resources.

Had the Germans won in North Africa and conquered Egypt, they would have severed the Suez Canal, which would have discomfited the British and their supply lines to India and Asia, without severing them: at various times, the Axis managed to make the Mediterranean too hazardous for shipping and forced the British to reroute around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. It took longer, but the supplies reached their destination.

However, grander designs about seizing the rest of the Middle East, or bigger ones such as using the region as a base to attack the USSR from the south, were nonstarters. The Germans lacked the shipping capacity to supply a force large enough for such goals. Throughout the North African Campaign, the Axis had struggled to keep the Italians and the Afrika Korps minimally supplied, and frequently fell short. This, with a force operating near the shortest supply routes from Italy.

If the Axis lacked the shipping to adequately supply a force as negligible as the 4 German divisions of the Afrika Korps positioned nearby and close to the sea, it is inconceivable that they would have been able to supply a much larger force capable of overrunning the Middle East, or impacting the gargantuan war against the USSR, where the Germans and Soviets pitted hundreds of divisions against each other.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
French Resistance cell in Corsica, 1942. The Economist

The Resistance Was Vital to Winning the War

A common myth, romanticizing the Resistance movements, particularly in Western Europe, has it that resistance was widespread and that the efforts of those clandestine groups tipped the balance in the Allies’ favor, spelling the difference between victory and defeat. It is true that Eastern European resistance movements, such as the Soviet and Yugoslav partisans, contributed materially to victory with intense sabotage and guerrilla activities.

However, the greatest contribution of Western Europe’s resistance lay in intelligence gathering: their sabotage and guerrilla efforts were negligible. It took great courage, and the men and women of the Western European resistance risked their lives on a daily basis, but their impact was more symbolic than substantive, contributing more to the locals’ pride and self-esteem after the war for having done something, than to the actual winning of the war.

The disparity between the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans versus those of Western Europe is due to the manner in which the German occupiers treated their conquered subjects in different parts of Europe. Jews excepted, German occupation of Western Europe, while severe, never approached the levels of psychotic cruelty and mindless brutality meted out to the conquered in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

With the exception of communists, who made a drastic turn from acquiescence to German occupation during the period of Russo-German friendship to fierce resistance after Hitler attacked the USSR, Western European civilian populations in the main did not exhibit a willingness to risk the horrific reprisals and atrocities the Germans were prepared to inflict upon restive subjects. It was not due to lack of courage, but lack of incentive. Because they were not treated as atrociously as were, e.g.; Soviet or Yugoslav civilians, Western Europeans’ backs were not as much against the wall to where they felt they had nothing to lose, and so never flocked to the resistance in the kinds of numbers that transformed it into a mass popular movement as happened in the Balkans and the USSR.

During the war, the resistance in Western Europe was not as widespread or intense as is often depicted in film or fiction. Far more people were willing to accept German occupation and make the best of a bad situation than were willing to resist and risk German vengeance. E.g.; far greater numbers of Frenchmen collaborated with the German occupiers than joined the Resistance, whose numbers only boomed following the successful D-Day landings, after which late arrivals swelled the resistance ranks.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Trinity Test, 15 seconds after detonation. Atomic Heritage Foundation

Hitler Was Close to Getting the A-Bomb

This myth has it that German physicists were on the verge of unlocking the secret of fission and giving Hitler an atomic bomb. During the war, the Manhattan Project operated on the assumption that Hitler had an advanced nuclear program which might bear fruit at any time. As such, those in the know viewed the US as being in a race against Germany over which country would first produce nuclear weapons.

However, it was discovered after the war that the German nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as had been assumed, because early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn and followed it away from the path that leads to nuclear weapons. The war could have lasted another decade, and Germany would have been no closer to producing an atomic bomb in 1955 than she had been in 1945.

Germany’s chief nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg, had nebulous ideas that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon, but he never understood how to put in practice nuclear fission. In Germany’s last test in the spring of 1945, scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project achieved in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation without which an atomic weapon program could not have succeeded.

Additionally, the German nuclear program lacked the necessary support. After achieving criticality, it took the US nearly 3 years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to successfully test the first atomic bomb. The Germans had not accomplished the criticality breakthrough by the time the war ended, and their nuclear program had never received anything close to the support enjoyed by the Manhattan Project.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Lend-Lease convoy en route to the USSR via Iran. Historical Boys Clothing

The Soviets Could Not Have Won Without Lend-Lease

Another myth has it that the Soviets could not have survived or won WWII without massive American Lend-Lease. Lend-Lease clearly helped, and Soviet successes in the second half of the war would not have been as dramatic without the hundreds of thousands of American jeeps and trucks that improved logistics and allowed for deep advances. And American airplanes were greatly appreciated – the Soviets’ second-highest scoring fighter ace of the war downed most of his kills while flying an American P-39 Airacobra.

However, the bulk of Lend-Lease did not arrive until 1944-1945, by which point the Soviets were already nearing victory. Indeed, meaningful amounts of Lend-Lease did not begin arriving until late 1943, by which point the Soviets had already halted the German advance and gone on the counteroffensive, rolling back German gains and beginning the relentless march westward that ended in Berlin and Central Europe.

By the time the bulk of Lend-Lease arrived, the Soviets already had significant accomplishments under their belts and were well on the way to winning the war, including halting the Germans at the Battle of Moscow in 1941; major victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943; liberating the Ukraine and reaching Poland in the winter of 1943-1944, and shattering Army Group Center in Operation Bagration in 1944.

It all comes down to when the Lend-Lease equipment was delivered. US commitments and promises of Lend-Lease were made early, beginning in 1941. But a variety of factors caused significant time to elapse before the US could make good on those commitments, starting with the time needed for American factories to transition from peacetime production of civilian goods to a war footing. Moreover, America had her own rapidly expanding military – 16 million men were put in uniform during the war – to arm and equip, which was often a higher priority than Lend-Lease.

Additionally, deliveries, especially during the war’s first year, were further delayed by a perception that the USSR might collapse at any moment, so Lend-Lease equipment could simply end up as German war booty. Because of such fears, on more than one occasion during the Soviets’ darkest hours in 1941-1942, ships loaded with Lend-Lease destined for the USSR were either offloaded and the equipment redistributed to the US military, or the ships were diverted to Britain and the equipment given to the British instead.

Even when the goods were ready and fears of Soviet collapse had receded, it took years to establish reliable routes. Deliveries were initially routed across the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk, but it was a hazardous passage in which many convoys were decimated by German planes and submarines operating from Norway. The quantities delivered were more symbolic than meaningful, and were of use only in the peripheral Arctic fronts facing Finland.

Another more meaningful was through Iran, which the Allies occupied precisely for that purpose, but the road and rail infrastructure necessary for the delivery of significant aid was not completed until the second half of 1943. Aid through this route went mainly to the Soviets’ southern fronts, which were more important than the northern ones supplied through Murmansk, but were not the main front.

The main supply route, through which Lend-Lease finally gushed like a torrent, was through Vladivostok and thence across the Trans-Siberian railway to the central fronts and the Soviets’ main war effort. However, that was the most difficult route that took the longest time to establish, requiring not only significant work on the Soviet end, but the creation of an entire road and rail network from scratch, across Alaska and Western Canada, to handle the massive mountains of aid.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Raising the Red Banner over the Reichstag. Wikimedia

The Red Army Won Only by Weight of Numbers

A myth developed during and after the war, propagated by German generals whose memoirs explained their defeat by claiming that their professional and technical superiority were undone by the Soviets swamping them with numbers. Running counter to that perception, before the war was even a year old, is the often ignored Battle of Moscow in 1941 – history’s biggest battle when measured by number of participants. During most of that battle, the Germans outnumbered the Soviets by 2 million men to 1.4 million, yet the Soviets not only halted their foes but went on the counterattack and pushed the Germans back 100 miles.

During the war’s first year, Soviet performance, with some exceptions, was marked by incompetence and poor leadership. However, the Germans and bitter experience were good teachers, and by late 1942 Soviet commanders had become quite proficient. Indeed, many of the Soviets’ greatest victories resulted not from superior numbers, but from superior Soviet generalship. Examples include Operation Uranus in November 1942, which caught the Germans by surprise and culminated in the surrender of a German army at Stalingrad, and Operation Bagration in June 1944, which completely wrong-footed the Germans, shattered an entire army group (Center), and cost the Wehrmacht upwards of 500,000 casualties.

During the first year of the war, particularly after the huge losses of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans frequently outnumbered the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The Soviets eventually gained a numerical superiority and steadily widened the gap, but numerical superiority was not something they enjoyed throughout the entire conflict, and they did manage to hold on when they were outnumbered. By the war’s late stages, the Soviets achieved significant numerical superiority during offensive operations, but it was not because of unlimited manpower, but because Soviet commanders had grown adept at concentration of force, and because the necessary logistics had improved significantly.

Stalin, especially early in the war, frequently overrode his military professionals’ advice and ordered ill-advised last stands or foolhardy attacks. Even without Stalin, Soviet commanders were more ruthless and less concerned about casualties than their Western counterparts. However, it was not a reflection of callousness, but a mark of their desperation early in the war, when they had to buy time at any cost. Later in the war, when on the offensive, it reflected a rational calculation that even a high price paid upfront in an attack, so long as it resulted in an exploitable breakthrough, would translate into overall lower casualties, both in the medium term because losses during rapid advances following a breakthrough were lower than the norm while those of the reeling Germans were higher, and in the long term by bringing the war to a speedier end.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Territory still under Japanese occupation (in blue) at the time of the atomic bombing. Gifex

The Atomic Bombing of Japan Was Unnecessary

Another of WWII’s persistent myths is the one positing that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was already reeling and on the verge of surrender. The Allies simply had to blockade Japan, goes the myth, and the Japanese government would have come to its senses sooner rather than later, and thrown in the towel. A variety of factors make that theory nonsensical.

The first is that the war when the atomic bombs were dropped was not limited to the Japanese home islands and the choice of whether to invade or simply blockade them. Japan in August of 1945 still occupied vast territories in Asia and the Pacific, and misgoverned hundreds of millions of conquered subjects who endured daily horrors from their Japanese overlords, from casual brutality to torture, rape, murder, and massacres. Their suffering would have continued every day the war dragged on.

Japan also had millions of soldiers stationed in her overseas empire, who were fighting millions of Allied opponents, producing thousands of casualties on both sides every day. Moreover, Japan held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and subjected them to barbaric treatment every day, beating, starving, withholding medication from, or murdering them. Those casualties from continued fighting and from Japan’s atrocious treatment of POWs would have continued to mount every day the war continued.

The main reason, however, is that the alternative to the atomic bombings would have been a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands, which the Japanese government was determined to resist via national suicide. Japan’s leaders were morally bankrupt and cowardly, and refused to confront the fact that they had taken their country into an unwinnable war and lost. Ethical leaders would have shouldered the responsibility for getting their country into such a fix, but Japan’s leaders sought to escape their burden via histrionics, and determined to immolate themselves and their country with them.

So they sought to save face by training women to fight off heavily armed invaders with bamboo spears, and training little boys and girls to fight US Marines with pointy sticks. Rather than sacrifice themselves in order to spare their country, Japan’s leaders sought to sacrifice their country in order to spare their egos from the humiliation of surrender.

Such dishonorable notions of honor meant that the estimated cost of an invasion was upwards of a million Allied casualties, and tens of millions of Japanese, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Compared to that, the 200,000 casualties of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings were an acceptable price. Morally speaking, there was nothing exceptional about the innocent victims of the atomic bombings that would have justified sparing them at the cost of the millions of other lives that would have been lost elsewhere had the war continued.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Hiroshima after atomic bomb. NBC News

Japan Was Atomically Bombed Because of Racism/ Germany Would Not Have Been Nuked

Another myth related to the atomic bombings posits that the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of racism against the Japanese. The theory goes that atomic bombs were not dropped on Germany, and would not have been dropped, because the Germans were Caucasian and neither the US government nor US public opinion would have stomached nuking them. The Japanese on the other hand were racially different, which made the decision to drop atomic bombs on them easier.

While there was undoubtedly intense and vehement racism against the Japanese during the war, far exceeding that directed at the Germans, the theory is flawed for a variety of reasons. The first is that Germany surrendered before the atomic bomb was ready to drop on anybody. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945, more than two months after Germany’s surrender.

Additionally, the US atomic program, which began with a letter from Albert Einstein to FDR advising him of German research into atomic weapons and the danger should Hitler get an atomic bomb first, was viewed and pursued as a life and death race to beat Germany to the atomic punch. The entire goal of the Manhattan Project – its raison d’etre – was to develop atomic bombs to drop on Germany before Germany developed atomic bombs to drop on America and her allies. Germany was simply fortunate in that she surrendered before the Manhattan Project bore the fruits that had been intended all along for Germany.

Moreover, nuclear weapons were not viewed at the time with the same repugnance with which they are viewed today. Far from horrific last resort weapons whose use would be unthinkable except in the direst emergency, atomic bombs in August of 1945 were new weapons whose potential and impact had not yet been thought through. They were simply seen as another bomb, albeit a big and exceptionally devastating one. Modern abhorrence of nuclear weapons did not exist to the same extent when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, so if the US had atomic weapons before Germany’s surrender, there would have been little reason to refrain from dropping them on German cities.


History Collection – 11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann

Commack School – Was it necessary to drop the atom bomb on Japan?

The Atlantic – If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used

LA Times – Nuking Japan Was Immoral and Unnecessary

The Bulletin – The Racial Underpinnings of The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings

US Department of Energy – Manhattan Project: Einstein’s Letter, 1939