12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

Khalid Elhassan - September 13, 2017

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