Seventy years ago the war with Japan ended because of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9. Although around 200,000 lives were lost in the two cities, far more lives were saved as Japan finally offered an unconditional surrender.
Those bombings were certainly controversial, and we have debated the military and moral merits of them ever since. I have tried to follow the debate somewhat over the years, and I remain convinced that as hellish as any such attacks might be, these two bombings were morally licit, and spared us far more bloodshed and destruction.
I just pulled out an old file of articles on this that I have collected over the years, and will here quote from a few of them. I can only focus on one main theme: the reality that the Japanese wanted to fight to the last man, and casualties would have been enormous but for these bombings.
The Imperial Army had pledged to defend the island home with suicidal, total war. Some 4.5 million troops were being assembled. Twenty-eight million old men, boys, and women were being mobilized and drilled – some with broomsticks, a lucky few with ancient muskets. Around Hiroshima, four thousand “suicide” boats had been outfitted with explosives and hidden along the coast for use against U.S. landing craft. Hiroshima had been chosen as the headquarters of one of the four Imperial Armies defending the nation’s four military zones.
The population of Hiroshima had been reduced (from about 400,000) by the evacuation of primary-school children and others to the countryside. High school students were mobilized for work in the war factories and for the sad task of tearing down thousands of homes, to create fire breaks and fire lanes in the densely packed city, against the expected incendiary attacks. Contrariwise, the population was swollen back to nearly 380,000 by the presence of at least ninety thousand officers and men of the Imperial Army.
In 1985 Andre Ryerson said:
“The Japanese view was close to the reverse of the American. Death in war was not to be avoided, but to be sought. The Shinto cult of radical self-sacrifice taught that suicide was glorious while surrender was unthinkable disgrace. So numerous were the suicide volunteers who spontaneously arose in the ranks of the Japanese armed forces that they were organised separately for routine training in the technique of air or naval kamikaze, the way other soldiers were taught to operate a radio or drive a jeep. One-man suicide submarines were specially designed and manufactured for the purpose, and human torpedoes or kaiten followed, employed by the hundreds against Allied shipping.
But it was in the air that the kamikaze ethos proved most effective; at Okinawa alone the Special Attack Corps sent as many as 1,500 volunteers against American ships. In addition to the spiritual satisfaction of a glorious suicide, the Japanese considered this an effective means of countering the American advantage in materiel. A lone suicidal airman could sink a whole destroyer.
In 1989 former U.S. soldier Paul Fussell wrote about the necessity of invasion:
On Okinawa, only weeks before Hiroshima, 123,000 Japanese and Americans killed each other. (About 140,000 Japanese died at Hiroshima.) “Just awful” was the comment on the Okinawa slaughter not of some pacifist but of General MacArthur. On July 14, 1945, General Marshall sadly informed the Combined Chiefs of Staff – he was not trying to scare the Japanese – that it’s “now clear . . . that in order to finish with the Japanese quickly, it will be necessary to invade the industrial heart of Japan.” The invasion was definitely on, as I know because I was to be in it….
When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy.
In 1995 Donald Kagan offered a summary statement:
It is, I think, clear that any strategy other than the employment of atomic weapons would have failed to compel a Japanese surrender short of an invasion of the home islands. Even at a low estimate, the two planned invasions would have brought 193,500 American casualties and, as Robert J. Maddox puts it, “only an intellectual could assert that 193,500 anticipated casualties were too insignificant to have caused Truman to use atomic bombs.” The Japanese, moreover, had plans to kill Allied prisoners of war as the fighting approached the camps where they were being held; so the swift surrender brought on by the bomb saved still more American lives.
He concludes his article this way:
An honest examination of the evidence reveals that their leaders, in the tragic predicament common to all who have engaged in wars that reach the point where every choice is repugnant, chose the least bad course. Americans may look back on that decision with sadness, but without shame.
And Adam Meyerson, writing in 1985, discussed the humane follow-up by the Allies:
The American policy of 1945 was the reverse of the Allies’ in 1918. It was to win the war against Japan (and Germany) decisively, and then to treat the vanquished with friendship and magnanimity. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese people could have no illusions about which side won the war, and they had been taught a terrible lesson about the consequences of their ruler’s militarism. But the surrender of Japan was followed by the most humane occupation in Asian history. American troops were severely punished if they so much as struck a Japanese. The Japanese economy was quickly rebuilt with American help….
Indeed, one of the advantages of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is that, by ending the war when they did, they allowed Japan to be occupied by the United States alone, and not also by the Soviet Union. Stalin, who entered the war against Japan on August 9, 1945, had set his sights on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four islands, and it is likely that he would have landed there if war had been prolonged and the United States forced to invade Japan. How traumatic this would have been for Hokkaido can be judged by the experience of Japanese soldiers who surrendered to the Soviets in Manchuria: 35,000 of them were sent to slave labour in Siberia, while Manchuria’s factories were dismantled and shipped to Russia as war reparations. A Soviet occupation of Hokkaido might also have led to a permanently divided Japan on the model of Germany and Korea.
The decision to drop the atomic bomb, like all military decisions, must be evaluated in the context of the circumstances at the time and the information then available to President Truman. The bomb has, thankfully, never been used again. But compared with the alternatives available to Truman in 1945, America’s “first use” of nuclear weapons was humane and just.
Finally, writing just two days ago, John Hawkins concludes his piece with these words:
When people moan about the use of nuclear weapons in Japan, what they’re really saying is that they’d rather hundreds of thousands of American families had grown up without husbands, fathers and sons than see us use nuclear weapons on a genocidal nation bent on world conquest.
Like most people who second guess the hard choices that are made in war, critics of nuking Japan insist that everything would have just magically worked out. Japan would have just surrendered and everything would have ended without bloodshed.
Of course, back in the real world, Japan was putting all of its resources into fending off an invasion and refused to surrender even AFTER the first nuclear weapon was dropped. After the second nuclear weapon hit Nagasaki, there was an attempted coup designed to prevent that nation’s leaders from giving in. Happily it failed, but it gives you a sense of how determined the Japanese were to keep fighting.
The Japanese weren’t the victims in WWII; they were the bad guys. They were perfectly willing to create a Hell on earth as long as their Emperor got to share time with Hitler in the infernal palace and they were allowed to be his little worker demons torturing the rest of the planet. Don’t feel sorry for Japan because it got nuked; feel sorry for all the innocent lives that were lost because of that nation’s murderous lust for power.
War is hell, and never to be entered into lightly. But living under tyranny and oppression with millions of innocent victims is also hellish. Sometimes war is necessary, and sometimes a lesser evil is necessary to prevent a greater evil. As hard as it is to look back on these two bombings, they seem to have been the right course of action at the time.