On this page I address issues that, due to subject matter or space limitations, did not find their way into my article "Hiroshima: Was it Necessary?" (which can be accessed by clicking Article). If I appear to ramble at times, it's because this is such an interesting topic.
In the article "Hiroshima: Was it Necessary?", I've included information that is not often addressed by the commercial media. One reason this information is so often overlooked is because the idea that the U.S. may have needlessly killed hundreds of thousands of people with atomic bombs in World War II is a pretty uncomfortable and unpopular thought. Nor does it fit well with the image most of us have of the U.S. as a benevolent nation. But even benevolent nations sometimes make mistakes. The writing of history must adhere to the evidence rather than to images or beliefs.
The Context of Alternatives
One of the reasons I've asked "Was it Necessary?" is that in order to evaluate an action, we need to understand it in the context of alternative actions that were known to be available at the time. For instance, if a man kills a rat in his house, that's good. If he blows up his house to do it, that's bad.
Why Are We Just Getting This Information Now?
The possibility that the atomic bombings may not have been necessary takes a little getting used to. For many years, much of the information that suggested the atomic bombings were not necessary was not available to the public. It was either classified as secret by the U.S. government or withheld in the decision-makers' private papers and diaries. For example, key portions of President Truman's diary from July 1945 were not made available until 1979. Even now, much material is only available thru the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the various libraries where private papers and diaries have been donated.
In the meantime, U.S. leaders gave us the explanation that we just couldn't help dropping the atomic bombs, that it was the correct and only viable decision. For many years this was the main information we had on the topic, at a time when we were much more trusting of what our leaders told us.
Japan Just Wouldn't Have Surrendered Without the Bomb(?)
My article deals with this in much more detail. Let's look at it very briefly here:
But Didn't Japan Surrender Shortly After the A-bombings?
Yes. Had we used chemical and/or biological warfare instead of atomic bombs, Japan probably would have surrendered shortly after that, too. But would that mean that using chemical and/or biological warfare was necessary to win the war?. To determine whether an action was necessary, we need to consider it in the context of alternatives that were known to decision-makers at the time. There were alternatives available at the time that probably would have ended the war sooner, saving lives on both sides.
Maybe the A-bombings Softened Up the Japanese Military For Surrender
This overlooks the samurai doctrine that is often referred to as "death before dishonor". Even after Japan was being helplessly destroyed by U.S. conventional bombings, Japan's hawks refused to surrender. Although the atomic bombings made it more apparent to the Japanese military that Japan would be defeated, their hawks again refused to surrender. The samurai believed that honor and the survival of Japan's way of life could be preserved if a great final battle could achieve peace terms short of a surrender. So for the samurai, hopelessness in battle was no reason to surrender. This is an important reason why so few Japanese surrendered in battle during WWII and why, after both atomic bombs were dropped, Japan still refused to surrender.
The Japanese government only began to move toward peace as the result of the Emperor's request, which he made at the June 22, 1945 Cabinet meeting.
Isn't it Speculation to Say the A-bombings Might Have Been Unnecessary?
Yes; there is no way to replay the past to see how it might have turned out differently had different methods been used. However, this is speculation based on the evidence, rather than on comforting beliefs. For example, the main justification given for the nuclear attacks on Japan is that they were necessary to shorten the war and save lives. This, too, is speculation, but of a comforting nature (i.e., our "good guy" status is not threatened if the a-bombings were necessary). It must be remembered that even good guys with good intentions make mistakes.
Isn't This Knowledge Largely Hind-Sight?
It is sometimes assumed that because the public was not informed of this information at the time (which was then Top Secret), that perhaps President Truman and his main advisors were also unaware of it at the time. But before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Truman and his main advisors knew of the critical importance of the Emperor to Japan. They knew of the Japanese government's peace efforts, via interecepted cables. They knew the atomic bomb had been successfully tested and was immensely powerful. And they knew that Russia had agreed to soon declare war on Japan. None of this was used to try to end the war before more Americans died and before an atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima.
For more information on this, see my article, Hiroshima: Was it Necessary?.
Was President Truman a Bad Guy?
I am not interested in "finding fault" with President Truman. From reading his diary, his letters to his wife, and accounts of private conversations he had with others, I've come to the conclusion that Truman believed dropping atomic bombs on Japan would save American lives. After studying Harry Truman and the awful cup that passed to him, my heart goes out to him. He was happy in the Senate and did not want to become Vice-President or President. When the presidency was thrust upon him, we were struggling through one of the most crucial and chaotic periods in our nation's history. To make matters worse, neither Roosevelt nor Truman had taken care to see that Truman was well-informed on the war situation. Not surprisingly, the new President, by his own admission, was overwhelmed by the tasks facing him.
Didn't the Japanese Deserve It?
Perhaps some did; many atrocities were committed by Japanese soldiers against American POWs and other people as well. But those who "deserved it" were not the primary targets of the atomic bombs. The primary targets were civilians who were much like us, who had no control over government policy, who feared the war and wished it would stop, and who were propagandized by their government into believing that God was on their side. Those whom the Allies decided "deserved it" were tried at the Tokyo War Crimes trials.
Altho he never publicly admitted it, President Truman had his misgivings about using a-bombs on cities. On Aug. 10, 1945 (the day after the Nagasaki bomb), having received reports and photographs of the effects of the Hiroshima bomb, Truman ordered a halt to further atomic bombings. Sec. of Commerce Henry Wallace wrote in his diary on Aug. 10th, "Truman said he had given orders to stop atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn't like the idea of killing, as he said, 'all those kids'." (John Blum, ed., The Price of Vision: the Diary of Henry A. Wallace, 1942-1946, pg. 473-474).
On July 21, 1948 Truman confided some other private thoughts on the atomic bomb to his staff. Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission David Lilienthal recorded Truman's words in his diary that night, along with Lilienthal's own observations in parentheses:
"I don't think we ought to use this thing [the A-Bomb] unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that (here he looked down at his desk, rather reflectively) that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn't a military weapon. (I shall never forget this particular expression). It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses." (David Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. Two, pg. 391) [my emphasis]. Truman's candid comments underscored the indiscriminate power of the atomic bomb that causes it to kill people we don't want to kill.
Wouldn't They Have Used the A-Bomb on Us?
Possibly. On the other hand, Japan had poison gas but didn't use it on U.S. troops. This is an argument that can be used to attempt to excuse any sort of barbaristic revenge - wouldn't "they" have tortured us, or raped our women and children, etc.? I think the American standard is higher than this lowest possible denominator morality.
It's important to consider who "they" were. The civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb's main victims, were not among the Japanese policy-makers. Those people were in Tokyo.
Gratification or Regret
I have noticed that some (but not all) who believe the atomic bombing of Japan was justified show a sense of satisfaction over the atomic bombings that is separate from the victory over Japan. Even if one assumes the atomic bombings were necessary to avoid greater casualties, this would be a lesser-of-the-evils solution, and I could not help but feel some compassion for the many dead and mutilated civilians who posed no true threat to our troops. My gut reaction here is that some people get a charge out of kicking someone else's butt, and the bigger the boot the better.
It seems curious how quick, perhaps eager, some are to dismiss any diplomatic efforts to end the war sooner. Surely the lives of American troops were worth that effort. Had that effort failed, some combination of the blockade, conventional bombing of transportation, Russian invasion, and - as a last resort - atomic bombs were still available to avoid a mainland invasion.
A question we might ask ourselves is whether we should look for ways that might have avoided the use of nuclear weapons on human beings.
Other Considerations in Dropping the Bomb
The main focus of many articles on the use of atomic bombs in WWII has been whether the a-bombs saved more lives than they took (assuming that the war would have gone on longer without the A-bombs and also assuming that we could know how many lives this would have cost). But let's take a look at some of the other considerations that have been raised regarding the decision to use nuclear weapons in WWII:
1) What of the precedent set by the use of nuclear weapons that took their use out of the realm of the unthinkable? After the A-Bomb was detonated upon the people of Hiroshima, future Sec. of State John Foster Dulles and Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam wrote in the N.Y. Times, "If we, a professedly Christian nation, feel morally free to use atomic energy in that way, men elsewhere will accept that verdict." A new level of warfare had been introduced into actual use, one which might someday claim vastly more lives than would have been lost in an extended WWII (which, as I've noted in my article, need not have occurred even without the atomic bombs).
2) Some, such as Michael Walzer in his book Just and Unjust Wars, have raised the moral consideration of trying to spare civilians from attack. Despite President Truman's 7/25/45 statement in his diary that "The target will be a purely military one", the great majority of Hiroshima's inhabitants were civilians. When the bomb was dropped "in center of selected city", following the Target Committee's instructions, and exploded over Shima Hospital, clearly many civilians would be affected. The atomic bombs of 1945 were too indiscriminately powerful to avoid the mass killing of civilians when dropped on a city. The argument that civilians were a valid target because they might be involved in war-related work is a two-edged sword, since it would have applied to our civilians as well. Imagine the moral outrage against civilian bombing that would have resulted from an attack on an American city.
Most people agree that war is hell. But some go further and make the assumption that, therefore, "anything goes". The United States and most civilized nations have rejected that assumption, as the Tokyo and Nuremberg War Crimes Trials and the U.S. conviction of Lt. Calley for the Mylai massacre have shown.
3) Before Hiroshima, some considered the matter of how the bomb's use would affect our already shaky relations with Russia. Usage might seem threatening to Russia since, altho they were one of the "Big 3" allies, we had not told them of the weapon prior to the bombing of Hiroshima, i.e., we treated Russia as a potential enemy and target. While no verbal atomic threats were made to Russia, this action spoke louder than words to Russian leaders, as David Holloway has documented in his book, Stalin and the Bomb.
Wasn't Hiroshima Necessary to Show the World the A-Bomb's Power?
Some people felt it would be important to A-Bomb a city, rather than an uninhabited area, to impress upon the world the awesome power of the atomic bomb. The idea was, if nations could be impressed enough with the bomb's might, they would be more likely to agree not to use atomic bombs. This was an honorable goal, but we can be thankful that this approach was not applied to germ warfare, chemical warfare, or some other form of mass torture.
Anyone who has read the descriptions written by those present at the Trinity atomic bomb test of July 16, 1945 will have no doubt that even this desert area test did an outstanding job of showing the A-Bomb's power. Truman and Churchill, who were not at the Trinity test, were thoroughly convinced of the new weapon's might upon hearing these descriptions. And better demonstrations of the bomb's power could have been devised (see, for example, Lewis Strauss in my link What kind of people would question the atomic bombing of Japan).
Why Are You Finding Fault With America?
I don't know of anyone who doesn't find fault with some of America's actions. In a free country we're allowed to do that. That's how we can help make America a better country. Our country deserves that effort.
Doesn't Questioning the A-Bombings Dishonor Veterans?
Many WWII veterans, including my father, believed the atomic bombs saved them from a horrible invasion of Japan. These heroic men and women knew only that the war was over; they had no way of knowing what other options, besides invasion or a-bombs, were available. That information was all Top Secret.
What I find appalling is when someone claims the atomic bombs won the war, rather than the troops who did the fighting.
Had we used all the methods we had available against Japan - the full carrot and stick - we could have told Japan that they could keep their Emperor (which we allowed them to do anyway after atomic bombs destroyed two cities) in exchange for a speedy surrender, whereas the alternative would be a Russian invasion and atomic destruction. We would have set the terms, and so we could still have called it an unconditional surrender (as we did anyway, even though the Potsdam Proclamation of July 1945 allowed Japan the condition of choosing their own government). We did not use these incentives, which probably would have ended the war sooner, and so more people, including Americans, continued to die.
Dropping Atomic Bombs on Americans
At least 11 and perhaps 23 or more American prisoners of war were killed by the Hiroshima A-Bomb (Barton Bernstein, Unraveling a Mystery: American POWs Killed at Hiroshima, Foreign Service Journal, Oct. 1979; Robert Manoff, American Victims of Hiroshima, New York Times Magazine, 12/2/84, pg. 67+). The Nagasaki A-Bomb killed more than a dozen Dutch POWs and possibly some Americans who may have been in a Nagasaki POW camp (Philip Nobile, ed., Judgment at the Smithsonian, pg. 207; Barton Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb, pg. 116). In addition, over 1,000 Japanese-Americans who were temporarily in Hiroshima when war between the U.S. and Japan was declared and were prevented from returning to the U.S. were killed by the Hiroshima bomb. Between 6,500 and 10,000 or more Koreans (most of whom were slave laborers), and probably several hundred Chinese, some Southeast Asian students, some British POWs, and some European priests were also killed by the two atomic blasts (John Dower, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Politics of Memory, Technology Review, Aug./Sept. 1995).
New U.S. casualties from the atomic bombings were created even after the war. In September and October, 1945, U.S. soldiers were sent into Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively. Later, many of them suffered from exposure to radiation. This was finally recognized by Congress many years later, making these soldiers eligible for compensation (Robert Lifton, Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, pg. 257).
What's With These Revisionists?
Some accuse historians of trying to re-write history, and then simply dismiss their ideas as being revisionist history. This is disingenuous, for while past events never change, the information that we discover about them does change. Because we continue to learn, we continue to revise our understandings. Otherwise, we'd still think the world was flat.
Aren't These Historians Just Being Politically Correct?
Calling something politically correct is a tactic some people use to dismiss ideas without thinking about them. Is name-calling a valid substitute for thought? I've noticed that name-calling is usually resorted to when someone wants to cling to their position but lacks the evidence to back it up.
Can't Historians Just Report Events and Skip the Analysis?
To say that the writing of history should simply report what happened is to attempt to divorce historical events from our opportunity to learn from them - the primary purpose of writing about history. Without analysis, events become, in Barton Bernstein's phrase, "gee-whiz history". Kai Bird has referred to non-analytical history as "the dumbing of America".
Why Criticize the A-bombings But Not the Tokyo Bombings?
Many civilians died in the massive non-nuclear bombings of Tokyo in March and May of 1945. But in March and May the Japanese government was not trying to end the war, as they were in July of 1945 (which was known to the U.S. at the time thru interception of Japanese messages). And in the Spring of 1945 Russia was not yet prepared to enter the war against Japan, as they were in August, if Japan refused to meet our surrender terms.
Non-nuclear bombs were dropped on at least 64 Japanese cities (John Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 298). But the nuclear bombings set a precedent for use of a new weapon that could threaten the existence of all human life. In addition to the effects of non-nuclear bombings, the a-bombings brought radiation poisoning, birth defects, flash burns and blindness, deaths from cancer, and the expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race.
A Battle Over History or Culture?
In his essay The Struggle Over History: Defining the Hiroshima Narrative (in Judgment at the Smithsonian, ed. by Philip Nobile), Barton Bernstein makes the point that critics of the proposed Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit were more concerned with controlling current culture than with historical evidence:
"...the dispute was sometimes a symbolic issue in a 'culture war', in which many Americans lumped together the seeming decline of American power, the difficulties of the domestic economy, the threats in world trade and especially Japan's successes, the loss of domestic jobs, and even changes in American gender roles, and shifts in the American family. To a number of Americans, the very people responsible for the [Enola Gay exhibit] script were the people who were changing America. The bomb, representing the end of World War II and suggesting the height of American power, was to be celebrated. It was, in this judgment, a crucial symbol of America's 'good war'... Those who in any way questioned the bomb's use were, in this emotional framework, the enemies of America."
The Controversy Over American Dead in an Invasion of Japan
In his article A Postwar Myth: 500,000 U.S. Lives Saved, Barton Bernstein challenged the popular belief of how many Americans would have been killed in an invasion of Japan (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June/July 1986; note also his article Japan's Delayed Surrender, Diplomatic History, Spring 1995, and his article in the book Judgment at the Smithsonian, ed. Philip Nobile). Bernstein documented that: 1) such a high estimate was not believed by U.S. leaders prior to the Hiroshima bombing; 2) it was specifically rejected by General Marshall and others; and 3) U.S. leaders guessed before Hiroshima was A-bombed that American invasion deaths would be between 20,000 - 46,000. Some have twisted Bernstein's meaning to be that we should have sacrificed 46,000 Americans to avoid using a-bombs on Japan. This was not Bernstein's position at all. Rather, the post-war need to exaggerate how many lives the A-bombs "saved", once the emotionalism of war was over, indicated possible doubts by U.S. leaders as to whether the atomic bombings had really been necessary: "Perhaps in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman developed a need to exaggerate the number of U.S. lives that the bombs might have saved... Believing ultimately in the myth of 500,000 lives saved may have been a way of concealing ambivalence, even from himself. The myth also helped deter Americans from asking troubling questions about the use of the atomic bombs." (from A Postwar Myth).
As I've noted in my article, the choice in 1945 was not as simple as either invasion or a-bombs.
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