The Nuclear Bomb (End of World War II, #3)

World War II ended 75 years ago, and so does this miniseries on the matter. The two previous posts on the Great Power conferences and the meeting of Western and Soviet forces have focused on Europe. When the guns fell silent there, fighting still raged on in Asia and the Pacific, where the United States, China, and the British Commonwealth slowly retook the Japanese conquests. Before the Allies would attempt an invasion of the Japanese home islands, they brought their naval and aerial power to bear – including their newest weapon. After years of research and testing, the first nuclear bomb was ready to use. The Americans hoped it would shock the Japanese into accepting surrender. Since then, we live in a nuclear world – with all its implications on the ensuing Cold War, arms control, and board games until today.

The Manhattan Project: Building the Nuclear Bomb

The immense destructive power of a nuclear bomb comes from nuclear fission. Only a few chemical elements with very heavy atoms are suitable for this purpose – especially uranium and plutonium. Bombarding the nucleus (made up of protons and neutrons) with additional neutrons will make it unstable and break into several nuclei of lower-mass atoms. The mass of these atoms is lower than the mass of the uranium or plutonium atom before. This mass defect is translated into energy (according to Einstein’s famous formula E = mc2, which postulates the equivalence of energy and mass). For one such nuclear fission, say, of a uranium atom into a barium and krypton atom (plus three free neutrons), the amount of energy released is minuscule – less than a billionth Joule, or, roughly, the energy required to lift an object of a mass of one microgram up 0.03 millimeters). However, if any of the released neutrons hit another uranium atom, there might be another fission, and, consequently a chain of many reactions, all of which start new fission reactions and release energy equivalent to their mass defect.
The first scientists to discover nuclear fission in practice were Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Franz Strassmann in 1938. Their experiments were far away from a chain reaction, though – the amount of substances used was very low. However, physicists and military planners in many countries became aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. One year after the discovery, World War II broke out in Europe.

The Manhattan Project

Box cover of The Manhattan Project. The bombs in the front resemble those dropped on Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). ©Minion Games.

The United States, itself not yet a belligerent, took the lead with its nuclear bomb program codenamed „Manhattan Project“. Several physicists had penned a letter to president Roosevelt urging him to support nuclear bomb research as they feared that Nazi Germany might be developing a bomb of its own. And truly, there were nuclear bomb projects in Germany and Japan (as well as the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union). This is the premise of The Manhattan Project (Brandon Tibbetts, Minion Games): Players represent various countries in their race to research and produce nuclear bombs. They need to obtain suitable material (by enriching uranium or producing plutonium), design their bombs, and finally build, test, and load them. Players can also mooch off others‘ progress via espionage (much like the Soviet Union did with their spies in the American program), and, as all players are at war with one another, launch air strikes against their competitors‘ facilities.
In history, it was not much of a race with several credible competitors. None of the non-American projects ranked high on their countries‘ list of research priorities, and none had something comparable to the industrial and financial power of the United States behind them. However, the American scientists did not know that, and so they worked feverishly to produce a working bomb. When the first bomb was tested in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945, Germany had already surrendered. Japan, however, still fought against the Allies in the Pacific and Asia.


The Shock Strategy: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the End of the War

The Japanese faced overwhelming Allied superiority – especially now that Germany was defeated and the Allies could bring all their power to bear in the Pacific. Nonetheless, Japan fought on in the hope of avoiding unconditional surrender (which was feared to destroy the Japanese system, especially by removing the divine emperor) and negotiate a settlement instead. The peace party within the Japanese government sought mediation by the Soviet Union, which had remained neutral in the Pacific War so far. The war party within the Japanese government wanted to force a negotiated end to the war by inflicting unacceptably high casualties on the Allies (who had gotten a taste of that already in the bloody conquests of Japanese-held islands like Iwo Jima earlier in 1945).
Thus, American planners thought that only a very powerful „shock“ could end Japanese resistance and induce the country to surrender. Several options were weighed:

  • The most obvious was a landing in the Japanese homeland. However, the long and bloody conquest of Okinawa, completed in June 1945, had failed to impress the Japanese government and had come at a price of 80,000 US casualties, 20,000 of them dead.
  • Soviet entry into the war would bring superior land forces to bear on the Japanese troops on the Asian mainland. Stalin had been less than excited about that as long as his army still bore the brunt of the fight against Germany, but had promised to get forces ready in Asia within three months after the German surrender. US planners were not convinced he would live up to that promise, and in the end they could not force him one way or another.
  • That left the third possible „shock“ – the nuclear bomb. However, to be a truly shocking weapon, it needed to be distinguished from the US conventional strategic bombing campaign which had killed hundreds of thousands Japanese already and destroyed the home of millions more. Thus, a communication strategy which depicted the nuclear bomb as special and all-powerful was to accompany the use of the weapons.

Even though every small aspect of World War II is dealt with in board games, I’m only aware of one game on the strategic bombing of Japan – Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (Jeremy White, GMT Games), which is about the very first US raid. The Doolittle Raid was mostly a statement of defiance, launched from so far away that the bombers could not return to their bases and instead had to land in China. There are no games on the later strategic bombing campaign, including the nuclear bombings. I believe that is due to the fact that the campaign was mostly unopposed, as neither Japanese fighter planes nor anti-aircraft guns could adequately deal with the high-altitude American bombers, which meant that a massive amount of destruction, especially on civilian housing, was dealt at minimal risk – not really a game with which many people would feel comfortable. Even within wargaming, there are some subjects deemed to be unsuitable for games.

Doolittle Raid Cover

Box cover of The Doolittle Raid: In 1942, bombing Japan was still a feat of daring and defiance. By 1944/45, it had become a managerial exercise of destruction. Image ©GMT Games.

Internally, the nuclear bomb was mostly treated like any other weapon in the strategic bombing campaign. President Truman was kept updated about bomb development and plans for usage, but did not specifically authorize its use or change any details about it. During the last days before the bombing, Truman was barely available as he travelled back from the Potsdam Conference on USS Augusta. And so the military men ran the show in a not-too-special manner, with acting chief of staff Thomas T. Handy even attempting to give the order via telephone. (Carl Spaatz, the commander of the US Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, insisted that if he was “going to kill 100,000 people”, he required written instructions.) And thus, once the bombers were ready and the weather clear, the first nuclear bombing was conducted on August 6, 1945, against the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
The bomb dropped over Hiroshima released an energy equivalent to that of 12,500 tons of TNT. The fireball over the city reached a temperature of 3,000°C so that anyone in the center was burned to black char or sometimes fully melted. Up to 130,000 men, women, and children in Hiroshima may have died instantly, and tens of thousands more were injured, often succumbing to their wounds and the radiation within the next months.
Now the communications part of the bomb came into play: President Truman framed its use as vengeance for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and threatened Japan with a „rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth“ if the country would not surrender unconditionally.
The „shock“ of the nuclear bombs was compounded by the Soviet entry into the war in the night to August 9. The Soviets had readied an immense fighting force which overran the undermanned and undersupplied Japanese troops in Manchuria. Within days, the Red Army would capture an area the size of Western Europe. And crucially, the Soviet war entry had dashed the last hope of the Japanese that they might act as a neutral mediator between Japan and the Allies. Soviet war entry thus made an immense impression on the Japanese government whose leading officials met for deciding if to carry on with the war. While they were deliberating, news arrived that Nagasaki had been destroyed by another nuclear bomb.
Thus, on August 10, the Japanese government let the Allies know that they were willing to surrender – under the condition that the emperor could stay on. The issue itself was acceptable to the American government – keeping the emperor as a representative head of state seemed a small enough price to pay for Japanese cooperation and the sparing of many American soldiers‘ lives. Yet US public opinion would not allow anything but unconditional surrender, a slogan under which the nation had rallied for years. Therefore, the offer of conditional surrender was repudiated (and the Japanese were discreetly told that the emperor was not to be disposed or even tried for war crimes). With this assurance and under the impression of the Soviet advance (as well as the potential destruction of more nuclear bombs), the peace party in the Japanese government prevailed. They coopted the emperor and let him broadcast a message of surrender on August 15. In the message, the emperor expressly mentioned the nuclear bomb – using the narrative of its specialness and destructivity as a reason to end the war (against the wishes of the military). Soviet forces still raced to occupy as much of Asia and the Kuril Islands in the Pacific as possible until Japan and the United States signed the instrument of surrender on September 2. World War II was over.
The exact reason for Japanese surrender was ambiguous in 1945. Was it the nuclear bomb, conventional firebombing, the Soviet entry into the war, or the modification of unconditional surrender to maintain the emperor? Yet after the war, as nuclear bombs grew both more numerous and more powerful, the „shock strategy“ around the nuclear bomb became the dominant narrative.

August Storm Map

The Soviets had two very different areas of advance: They excelled in the armored operations on the Asian mainland, but struggled badly in the amphibious invasions of the Kuril Islands to the northeast of Japan. Map of August Storm, ©Kokusai-Tsushin.

Especially the Soviet war entry and the last campaigns in Manchuria and on the Kuril Islands are often forgotten. As far as I know, there is only one board game covering them: August Storm: The Soviet-Japanese War, 1945 (Javier Romero, Kokusai-Tsushin) was published in the Japanese edition of Command Magazine. The Soviet player has a bit more time than historically and can attempt to further their conquests deep into Korea, or possibly even occupy the northern Japanese home island Hokkaido.

Empire of the Sun

Box cover of Empire of the Sun, ©GMT Games.

How the war ended is a crucial question for board games depicting the entire Pacific War – after all, it directly informs victory conditions. Let’s have a look at the most renowned game on the matter, Empire of the Sun (Mark Herman, GMT Games): Japan can win by lowering US political will (through conquests in the Pacific or US casualties), so that the US will be induced to a negotiated settlement. This represents the original plan of Japan (which was always vastly inferior to the US in manpower and industry) to which the war party clung until the very end. The US wins if Japan is forced to surrender either by the invasion of the home islands or through a naval blockade which deprives Japan of its resources in Asia and the Pacific. If neither side has won when the time runs out, the Allied player is measured against their overall success – has Japan been deprived of all or most of its resources, has it been extensively strategically bombarded, and, crucially, is a bomber in range of Tokyo (an allusion to a nuclear bombing)? The end of the Pacific war was a complex affair, and it is encouraging to see a game treat it as such.

Shadows of the Bomb: The Nuclear World

As we have seen, the nuclear bomb was not obviously a „special“ weapon in World War II, but was made into one by the US shock strategy. While its immense destructive potential was clear from the massive casualties of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, conventional firebombing had killed many more Japanese. The nuclear fallout and ensuing long-term radiation were not yet fully understood (as the reckless exposure of US soldiers to radiation during nuclear tests over the next years would show).
Yet both the United States and Japan needed the nuclear bomb to be special after the war. Japanese orthodoxy shifted memory away from their role as aggressors with a streak of atrocious war crimes in Asia and the Pacific and instead chose to remember Japan‘s victimization. As for the US, their wartime alliance with the Soviet Union soon fell apart, and the United States relied on the deterrence of its yet-unmatched nuclear arsenal to make up for Soviet conventional superiority.


The mushroom cloud quickly became a visual icon of the nuclear age. Box cover of Ultimatum, ©Yaquinto.

The US nuclear monopoly did not last long. Soviet scientists, aided by Communist spies in the US nuclear program, produced and tested their own nuclear bomb by 1949. The Cold War was to be shaped by a nuclear arms race for ever more numerous and powerful weapons. The most powerful ever tested, the Soviet „Tsar Bomba“, had a yield equivalent to 50 megatons of TNT, or, more than 3,000 times the Hiroshima bomb. Nuclear weapons were now truly special, endowed with the potential to eradicate humankind from Earth. The grim potential of a nuclear war between the superpowers was aptly named Mutually Assured Destruction, or, for short, MAD. Contemporary board games have dared to think about waging – and winning – nuclear war, be that in the detailed, simulationist approach of Ultimatum (J. Michael Hemphill, Yaquinto) or in the gallows humor of Nuclear War (Douglas Malewicki, Flying Buffalo, Inc.).

Nuclear War

…and another mushroom cloud. Told you it was ubiquitous. ©Flying Buffalo, Inc.

After the superpowers had almost gone to war in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, they grew more cautious about nuclear weapons. Measures against the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries were taken (at the time, the United Kingdom, France, and China had already joined the nuclear club). The superpowers agreed on curbing the growth of their nuclear arsenals, and, from the 1980s on, even to reduce them. Recently, nuclear weapons have come to the foreground of our security thinking again: North Korea’s missile tests, US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, and the very recent musings of the Trump administration if to conduct the first American nuclear bomb tests in over 30 years. As the world becomes more nuclearized again, Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain history’s witnesses of the terrible potential of these weapons unleashed.

Games Referenced

The Manhattan Project (Brandon Tibbetts, Minion Games)
Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (Jeremy White, GMT Games)
August Storm: The Soviet-Japanese War, 1945 (Javier Romero, Kokusai-Tsushin)
Empire of the Sun (Mark Herman, GMT Games)
Ultimatum (J. Michael Hemphill, Yaquinto)
Nuclear War (Douglas Malewicki, Flying Buffalo, Inc.)

Further Reading

For a good overview of scholarly literature and disputes about the use of the nuclear bombs (until 2005), see Walker, J. Samuel: Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision. A Search for Middle Ground, in: Diplomatic History 29, 2, 2005, p. 311—334, online here (free registration required).
For the US shock strategy and the very non-special way the bomb was handled by the US military, see Gordin, Michael: Five Days in August. How World War II Became a Nuclear War, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 2015.
For insights on Soviet power politics in the far east and the struggle between the war and peace party in the Japanese government (as well as a, in my opinion, not convincing perspective on US decisionmaking), see Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi: Racing the Enemy. Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2005.

6 thoughts on “The Nuclear Bomb (End of World War II, #3)

  1. cliosboardgames Post author

    Thanks for reading!
    “Unforgettable Fire” has a very interesting premise! I’ll have a look.
    …one has to be careful, though, to get the right book – a U2 band biography is called “Unforgettable Fire” as well!

    Liked by 1 person

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