Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Day the Bomb Fell

It was August 6, 1945 that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Even today, when there is little about World War II that is considered open to debate, it remains a controversial topic. Some regard it as an act of barbaric cruelty, a vindictive massacre of innocents against an already all but defeated enemy. Others consider it a harsh but justifiable war measure that saved more lives in the long run by forcing Japan to surrender and ending the war before the planned Allied invasion of the main Japanese islands. As with much of history, if looked at honestly, both of these sides have valid points. The American point of view at the time was simple and clear cut: the U.S. and Japan are at war, the Japanese have refused to surrender, using the bomb will remove all doubt as to the hopelessness of their situation and deploying the weapon will save the lives of huge numbers of American military personnel who would otherwise have to invade the Japanese home islands. The Japanese side is more complicated because, as with so much of the war, there was no unity. Some in Japan knew that the war was lost (and some knew it had been for some time) and already wanted to surrender. Yet, there were others who were determined to go on fighting even if it meant the total annihilation of their country. In fact, more than a few wished to carry on fighting even after both atomic bombs had been dropped.

What cannot be denied by anyone was that the atomic attacks were horrific and whether one considers them justified or unjustifiable, they were certainly cruel. Of course, so was the conflict as a whole. The conventional bombing of Japanese cities had already taken a devastating toll on the country and far more died in that way than were killed in the nuclear attacks. Japan had also done the same, bombing and shelling civilian areas in the course of the war. One reason why no one was convicted of war crimes for bombing civilians after the war was that both sides had done it and the Allies had to recognize that they were just as or even more culpable in that regard as the Axis. Yet, there were also limits that both sides adopted. Neither the Axis or the Allies ever resorted to the use of chemical weapons and as both sides were capable of employing such weapons it would have been needlessly cruel to do so as neither would have gained a clear advantage in their use. World War I was the example of that. That war also saw an international outcry about the unrestricted use of submarine warfare. The United States was the most vociferous in condemning the unrestricted submarine warfare policy of Germany and yet, in World War II, the United States waged unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan from the very outset. There again was a case of both sides using tactics that they had at one time criticized when done by the “other” side.

Having often talked to people in and from Japan, I have often been asked my own opinion on the use of the atomic bomb and it is a difficult question to answer. I am rather repelled by those who seem to take a simplistic view of it and take for granted that it was either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. It is far too terrible a thing to take lightly or adopt a knee-jerk reaction to without serious thought. Originally, my point of view reflected that of most people around me. It was a terrible thing but it had to be done to end the war. “They started it, we finished it” was a phrase I often heard. Later, however, I took the opposite view after learning about Japanese efforts to make peace which long pre-dated the nuclear attack and of the numerous and often very prominent American military leaders who were critical of the decision. Anyone who would be quick to adopt the Allied position without thinking would also do well to really read and understand the details of the attack. If you can read that and not be horrified by the gruesome, catastrophic suffering of so many truly innocent people, well, I think you need to turn in your membership card for the human race. Fairly early on, it also seemed to me that even if one could justify the attack on Hiroshima, the subsequent attack on Nagasaki, coming so soon after the first, was totally despicable and unjustified.

However, I did still more thinking and had more internal unrest on the issue. In a war, the object is to destroy the enemy, to kill or be killed and would not the American President have been guilty before his own country and those of the other Allied powers if huge numbers of their troops had been killed in an invasion of Japan that he could have prevented by the use of atomic weapons? And there were, as stated, those in Japan who were determined to fight on even after both atomic bombs were dropped and who were prepared to kill their own leaders and even make their own august Emperor a prisoner in order to spare their pride from surrender. Also to be considered is the fact that, like the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany, the Japanese also had their own atomic bomb project and were working toward obtaining a nuclear weapon of their own. Would they have invested so much in such a project if they never intended to use such a weapon on the United States, Australia or any other Allied power they were capable of striking? Further, I can easily see the point that if you have a weapon of overwhelming power that would enable you to destroy the enemy and so save the lives of countless numbers of your own people, it would seem almost cruel not to use it. One can also reasonably ask why the method of killing is more important than the killing itself. More civilians were killed in the conventional bombing attacks so why is it morally worse to use nuclear weapons to end the war rather than to continue on with the conventional bombing campaign, costing far more lives?

I do have a position on the issue though, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is not necessarily unchangeable. The atomic bombing was a horrific event that I hope I never become so insensitive to as to not have doubts and questions about. Currently, in any event, my position is that the use of atomic weapons was acceptable in theory but unjustifiable in fact. In theory, I say, drop the bomb if it means ending the war quickly and saving the lives of your people. The other side would do the same if they were able to. However, given the facts that existed in August of 1945, I do not see how it was absolutely necessary to do so. I know the invasion of Japan would have been very costly and even more so for the Japanese than the Allied nations. However, why did the Allies have to invade Japan at all? Why is it taken for granted that such a thing had to happen? After all, Germany came very close to winning World War I without ever giving the slightest thought to invading Britain itself because the submarine campaign was so successful. In World War II, by August of 1945 the Allies held complete naval and air supremacy over and around Japan. There were practically no Japanese air defenses left and the Imperial Japanese Navy had long been wiped out. A total blockade of the Japanese islands would have eventually forced a surrender without endangering the life of a single Allied soldier. It would have taken resources and patience but no great sacrifice of lives to have done that.

Supporters of Japan, however, must realize that, being engaged in a war that was clearly hopeless, ultimately it was the Japanese leadership that bore responsibility for the suffering of the people in that country and there would have been plenty of death and suffering if the atomic bombs had not been used. A blockade would have brought a rapidly increasing breakdown in Japanese society. There would have been rampant starvation, suffering from the elements because of a lack of resources and widespread disease from insufficient food, shelter and all the modern conveniences that go along with an industrial society that requires resources Japan did not possess. There could have been even more conventional bombing but even if that had been stopped as well, there would have been a slow death that likely would have prompted ugly internal unrest, even revolution. Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai said, “It may be inappropriate to put it in this way, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, God’s gifts. Now we can end the war without making it clear that we have to end the war because of the domestic situation. I have long been advocating the conclusion, not because I am afraid of the enemy’s attacks or because of the atomic bombs or the Soviet participation in the war; the most important reason is my concern over the domestic situation.” Although not often remembered today, there were those at the time who felt that being defeated by superior forces was a more honorable end to the conflict than disloyalty, unrest and revolution.

The bottom line, of course, is that Japan was fighting a war that could not be won and the suffering was going to be great until the Japanese leadership admitted defeat and surrendered. Personally, I think the Allied demand for unconditional surrender for all Axis powers was a bad decision. It never made sense to me why you would want to make it harder for your enemy to give up but, that decision having been made, the war and misery was going to go on for as long as the Japanese leadership refused to surrender. The use of nuclear weapons in bringing that about was, to my mind, unnecessary though it can be theoretically justified and, under different circumstances, could have been necessary. But, that inevitably leads back to my overall view that the war itself was unnecessary and should never have happened. The Allies should not have been antagonizing Japan and the Japanese should not have launched attacks that unquestionably doomed their empire (and which guaranteed the defeat of all the Axis powers for that matter). The antagonism arose over the Sino-Japanese war in which Japan had no clear goal in mind and which was being waged against the wrong party in China anyway.

If some readers think that the atomic bombings were justified or unjustified, I really have no problem with either position. Whether you agree or disagree with my current thinking on the subject matters to me not at all. I do hope, however, that all who hold an absolute view of the question would give the other side, whichever it is, some consideration. The suffering, the misery and the horror, which lasted for years, is far too immense to be taken lightly or to have no questions about it at all. Whether you blame the United States for using the bomb or blame the Japanese government for not surrendering long before when there was clearly no chance of success, the victims and what they endured should be remembered regardless and the issue is one that should be considered with fear and trembling, not jingoism or self-righteous bravado.


  1. Winners write history. If the Axis won the war and happened to nuke (insert US and Soviet city) they would make the claim that it was necessary to force the surrender of the evil empires of USA and USSR. As such I am very strong on this issue that it is wrong. Some argue that an invasion would lead to more deaths, but those are military deaths not civilians deaths. Some American whom I argued with said that since those civilians would display patriotism if the US invaded and die, the US had 'saved their lives by taking it'. Of course I don't save your life by murdering you! I cannot change the past, but I wish we can recognise this as a crime against humanity.

    1. The deaths would have been civilian and military -as they had been before. Are you really saying that if your country was at war and you had a weapon that would save the lives of your people and totally destroy the enemy, you wouldn't use it? Yes, winners write the history books -and losers write the revisionist history books. It's easy to call it a crime when you were not one of those who was going to have to die in a war that was already over just because some generals were to proud to admit they were beaten. It's also just as easy for the other side to justify it when they are not faced with the horror of it and the years of radiation poisoning.

      Maybe people today just don't have the same level of feeling for their countries and their countrymen to understand this issue...

    2. Probably so. I don't want any if these to happen again and since it was so long ago and a matter of life and death, I don't think it is easy to understand

    3. That was my point. I don't like to see anyone being too assertive about it either way; drop the bomb or don't drop the bomb. It was a horror that defies description, it was cruel, it was vicious and I don't think it really had to happen. On the other side, Japan was warned in advance and I also could not imagine being the President of the United States telling the loved ones of all those who would have died if the war had gone on that I had a weapon that could have saved their lives but thought it would be too cruel to use it against the enemy.

      I don't think it should have happened, I don't think it was necessary but in theory, you use whatever advantages you have to destroy your enemy. It was as valid in theory as it would have been for Japan to use atomic weapons against the United States if they had developed them in time. (Little known fact: uranium for the U.S. atomic bomb was taken from a German submarine that had been on its way to Japan for their atomic bomb project at the end of the war)

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    1. I was about to say "no" until I read the outtake and recognized it. I am familiar with it, being very impressed with the arduous British-led campaign in Burma. The atomic bombings were a horror none of us can even imagine but it is one thing to say, "we will not commit such an atrocity" and another send even more of your own people to certain death knowing you had a weapon that could have saved their lives. The ordinary soldiers, of course, would have done their duty and I don't doubt some would have opted to risk their lives rather than kill so many helpless civilians but that is different from being the one deciding for them, being the President who orders them into a battle that doesn't have to happen.

      As in the piece you linked to, I have said numerous times it is hard for me to imagine someone being in that position, to save the lives of their own people, and refusing to use the bomb just as it would be impossible for me to imagine the Japanese having the bomb and not using it to force the Allies to stop and ending the fire bombing and the blockade and all that.

      I don't like people who are strident on the issue either way. I don't think it was absolutely necessary but, as I tried to show, even had it not been deployed the death toll might have been even higher (and Japan might have been divided like Germany). It is true what you say about "defeat" and "surrender". A number of Japanese officers knew as early as 1942 that their cause was completely lost but there were still enough who refused to ever surrender for it to take a message directly from the Emperor to stand down. Even then, princes were sent out to oversee the surrender in every area of operations to make sure the command was followed.

      I suppose, even if the U.S. had sat back and just blockaded Japan, never putting a further man in harm's way, there still may have been no end to the war for all of those in China and Southeast Asia if all the Japanese armies had decided to carry on.

  3. Your post made me rethink the issue and I'm glad I'm still in doubt.

    Since we can't know for sure if the Japanese would have resisted to the very last man, it's just hard to judge the leaders who had to make the decision to deploy nukes.

    If not using nukes meant for a certainty that many more lives would have be taken on both sides, Hiroshima may have been necessary. Since there are evidences pointing to this possibility and against it, we can only speculate if nuclear attack was justifiable.

    Sometimes I think that wondering about the past is just some kind of pastime, until I'm faced with its horrors and start to identify similar threatening patterns in our time, such as a belligerent and revanchist dictatorial China.

    Are we bound to repeat the atrocities made in the past?


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