As the world has observed the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this week, journalists, pundits, and historians have inevitably debated the necessity and moral dilemmas of the cataclysmic finale to World War II. As I browsed various opinion pieces I, too, found myself increasingly torn over the issue--and I'm no hawk. Written words cannot fully measure the horror unleashed by the bombs "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" that simultaneously triggered a forty-five year Cold War. On the other hand, the question of Japanese resistance to a non-nuclear strategy remains more uncertain.
Let us take a few things into consideration: The vast majority of the Japanese naval and air forces had already been pulverized by the Allies in the various Pacific campaigns. Sixty-seven major cities in Japan had been ruthlessly firebombed under the direction of General Curtis LeMay. Were atomic weapons of this scale a true necessity to Allied triumph? Professor Gar Alperovitz of the University of Maryland notes in an article:
"Despite the terrible concentrated power of atomic weapons, the firebombing of Tokyo earlier in 1945 and the destruction of numerous Japanese cities by conventional bombing had killed far more people. The Navy Museum acknowledges what many historians have long known: It was only with the entry of the Soviet Union’s Red Army into the war two days after the bombing of Hiroshima that the Japanese moved to finally surrender. Japan was used to losing cities to American bombing; what their military leaders feared more was the destruction of the country’s military by an all-out Red Army assault.
"The top American military leaders who fought World War II, much to the surprise of many who are not aware of the record, were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender, and—for many—that the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral."
Alperovitz makes a compelling argument that reveals the moral gray area to which Americans descended. Even Dwight Eisenhower had grave reservations about implementing atomic weapons, later correctly acknowledging that it set the world down a dangerous path. On paper, so it seemed, the Japanese were done for.
However, I would argue that the destruction of war infrastructure does not always equate to destruction of an enemy's will to fight. In fact, it can achieve quite the opposite. As with many articles, Alperovitz completely overlooks or simplifies the strict military mindset that dominated Japanese culture before and during WWII--as well as the vast atrocities committed in the emperor's name, including incomprehensible genocide in China. The Bushido, or "the way of the warrior," inhibited any other potentials for peace unless the hopelessness of Japan's cause could be conveyed through something even more terrible than firebombings.
Prior casualties on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Saipan in 1945 are not indicative of an enemy losing their resolve. Each of those battles carries a similar narrative: The Japanese were out-manned, outgunned, under-supplied, cut off, and devoutly defending their home turf. Yet, they fought on with extremism that astounded their adversaries. Thousands of Japanese schoolchildren were being trained with bamboo pikes to await the onslaught. Buildups of Japanese troops around Kyushu and other potential invasion landing sites reveal the same. 5,000 American naval personnel were killed in Kamikaze attacks in the months prior. On Iwo Jima that February and March, commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi order his troops not to commit suicide banzai attacks--yet they did. Some 20,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide on Saipan rather than submit to American invaders. In what alternative universe could we think the situation would be different on the Japanese homeland if it were invaded?
Even if the Japanese government desired to surrender, Americans felt there was no guarantee the military or the populace would follow suit. These fears nearly materialized on August 14, 1945--the day before Japan announced surrender. Known as the Kyūjō Incident, sects of the military attempted a coup at the Emperor's Palace in the hope of preventing unconditional surrender. The Allies had little way of knowing whether or not such potential uprisings could be widespread.
MIT Scientist Karl Compton visited Japan to survey the destruction shortly after the war. He wrote in an article in The Atlantic:
"About a week after V-J Day I was one of a small group of scientists and engineers interrogating an intelligent, well-informed Japanese Army officer in Yokohama. We asked him what, in his opinion, would have been the next major move if the war had continued. He replied: "You would probably have tried to invade our homeland with a landing operation on Kyushu about November 1. I think the attack would have been made on such and such beaches."
"'Could you have repelled this landing?' we asked, and he answered: 'It would have been a very desperate fight, but I do not think we could have stopped you.'
"'What would have happened then?' we asked.
"He replied: 'We would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated,' by which he meant that they would not have been disgraced by surrender."
Compton's encounter reveals that a lack of planes, carriers, and tanks would not equate to complete or peaceful surrender. That would require something far more terrible that came in the form of Oppenheimer's devastating creation. The tens of thousands lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was truly horrendous. Yet Compton also wrote, "No American soldier who survived the bloody struggles on these [Pacific] islands has much sympathy with the view that battle with the Japanese was over as soon as it was clear that their ultimate situation was hopeless." This observation rests at the heart of the argument.
However, many generals were opposed to the bombings. According to another account: "On September 20, 1945 the famous 'hawk' who commanded the Twenty-First Bomber Command, Major General Curtis E. LeMay publicly said flatly at one press conference that the atomic bomb 'had nothing to do with the end of the war.' He said the war would have been over in two weeks without the use of the atomic bomb or the Russian entry into the war." This claim is dubious at best. To say that Russia's entry into the war had no bearing in Japan's surrender it outlandish. The statement also infers that LeMay was on the defensive, boasting of the efficiency of his firebombings in the lead up to atomic weapons. While many generals spoke out afterward, most were silent on the issue as matters were unfolding. Some were not in the information loop until after the fact. Not even Truman knew the full details of the Manhattan Project until he was sworn in after FDR's death. Admiral William Leahy (who was opposed to the dropping of the bomb) did not think the weapon would work, and was surprised when it did. It is not out of the question that many generals were trying to save face in the bombs' aftermath. The notion that a single bomb could outmatch months or years of their meticulous strategic planning was surely surprising if not shocking.
That leads us to the question of morality. Future Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recalled in the brilliant documentary The Fog of War that "LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" The same question could be asked regarding the bombing of Germany. As far as Allied leaders were concerned, the Axis had to be defeated by their own cruel strategies in order to achieve the greater good. Fire with fire. It is an unfortunate but effective trait one can see played out in many wars of history.
For the four years that the United States was the sole nuclear power, Mutually Assured Destruction among global enemies was not yet a risk, supposedly limiting the threats of nuclear warfare on the international community. But the bombs later became bigger, more dangerous, and more numerous. While many Americans saw the bombs over Japan as a moral and strategic necessity, so too were the weapons a demonstration of power to keep the encroaching Soviets at bay. This is indisputable. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were political and scientific laboratories as much as they were scenes of a global conflict. George Marshall himself was among the first to note this.
But much of the current historical debate rests in timing--the slowness of Japanese willingness to discuss surrender and the speed at which Americans were willing to utilize weapons of mass destruction. Prior Japanese attacks revealed that mass casualties could be inflicted even with few planes or resources. Unfortunately for Japanese civilians, Truman's greater commitment was to the well-being of his own troops and not the enemy populace. Americans wanted an end to the war and any prolonging of hostilities, in their eyes, would have been the greater of moral offenses. In any scenario, most in the United States felt any roll of the dice regarding the exposure of military personnel to combat was unwarranted if technology could prevent it.
Furthermore, the induction of prime minister Kantarō Suzuki in April 1945 is telling. While Suzuki and the emperor earnestly desired an end to hostilities, it took them many months to do so in face of the staunchly traditional military spine of the Japanese government. The aforementioned coup d'état and assassination attempts against Suzuki certainly indicate an unwillingness to give up. One can see how it was easy for Americans to accept that the capitulation of the emperor might not equate to the fall of his empire if the military took over. Once more, this was a gamble Americans were unwilling to take--and understandably so. Had the Japanese not played a dangerous game of kick the can when it came to peace diplomacy, perhaps some of its terrible losses could have been averted.
Regardless of what generals and politicians reminisced in hindsight, the average GI and sailor felt the bombs spared them of otherwise inevitable confrontation--and it did not take them years to make that conclusion. While an invasion of the Japanese mainland may not have yielded the one million plus casualties figures touted by Truman, the endeavor nevertheless would have been costly. Admiral William Leahy nonetheless calculated that initial invasion tallies could be around 60,000. In this context, the decision between the bomb and invasion was an easy call for a commander-in-chief to make. So, too, was it easy for Americans to accept the carnage of the bombs as they considered the "Japs" subhuman--a belief only strengthened after Americans encountered them in combat.
Given all the conflicting testimony of then and now, neither I or any historian can fully justify the obliteration of two metropolitan cities. There is plenty of evidence on both sides of the argument for people to make a case. All we can do is attempt to understand why people thought it justified at the time. Nobody ever has all the facts, especially those who were front and center in all these issues of 1945. It is easy for us to judge these actions because we know the outcome. Harry Truman did not have that benefit. No matter where you fall on the matter, Hiroshima and Nagasaki nonetheless offer prime platforms to reflect upon the horrific effects of atomic weaponry and to ponder deterrents to war. Over time, I hope we can at least learn that much.
There is more to the story than this.