Was The US Justified In Dropping Atomic Bombs On Hiroshima And Nagasaki?
The decision by the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II remains one of the most controversial topics in Japanese history. People both inside and outside of Japan continue to ask, were the bombings justified? As their 64th anniversary approaches and news this year revealing the existence of a double a-bomb survivor, I thought I would share my opinion on the subject.
To start, let's review the main argument for and against using nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945. The main argument in support of the bombings is that they saved not only American lives but Japanese lives as well. The main argument against their use is the fact that the bombs were horrific weapons that largely targeted civilians.
These two arguments are not necessarily mutually exclusive or contradictory. For example, most people who think dropping the bombs was the right thing to do recognize the fact that the bombs were terrible weapons that did end up killing many civilians. However, they claim that the human cost of the bombings was the price that had to be paid to avoid the potentially far higher cost in lives that would have occurred had the US decided to invade the Japanese home islands.
This was my viewpoint prior to visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, after seeing the devastating impact of the bombs, I began to question my earlier beliefs. Was the desire to save lives the only factor when deciding to use the bomb? Did they have to drop two bombs so close together? Were there any other options? In searching for answers to these questions and other related questions I have come to change my opinion on the bombings.
The decision by the US to drop atomic bombs on Japan was based on three factors, only one of which is justifiable in my opinion. The first factor was the desire to save American lives, the second was revenge for the humiliation caused by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the third was to demonstrate and warn the Soviet Union of the power of the US military.
By bringing the war to an end quickly the US saved American lives. It may even have saved Japanese lives, but this depends on how long Japanese forces would have continued fighting once the Americans invaded. Estimates vary widely on how many Americans would have been wounded or killed in an invasion of Japan, but generally, they range from 1.2 to 4 million casualties - of which 250,000 to 1 million would have been fatalities.
As for the Japanese, it is estimated that anywhere from 5 to 10 million would have been killed during an invasion - assuming they resisted right until the bitter end. These estimates were largely based on the experience of Allied forces during the invasions of Iwo Jima (6,821 Americans killed compared to 18,300 Japanese deaths) and Okinawa (12,513 Allied deaths compared to 110,000 Japanese). Thus, if the estimate turned out to be true for the invasion of Japan as a whole, it would have been far higher than the estimated 220,000 killed by the bombs themselves.
Of course, saving Japanese lives was never really the goal of the bombs, but it has been used as a justification ever since. What we can say for sure is that the bombs did save American and Allied lives. This in my mind is a legitimate justification for using the bombs, but only if this was the only alternative. I will address this issue in greater detail below, but first let's look quickly at the two other reasons why the US decided to drop the bombs.
The second reason I think the US decided to use nuclear weapons was revenge for the embarrassment at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had launched a sneak attack against the US and they were going to get revenge for what was viewed as a cowardly action. I am not going to dwell too much on this issue, but I think American indignation at the attack is somewhat self-serving. First, this was not the first time Japan had launched a surprise attack, that honour goes to the attack by the Japanese against the Russians at the start of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. In that war, the Japanese victory was hailed as a great triumph and their innovative tactics were praised, so it should not have come as too much of a surprise that Japan would attempt something similar again.
Second, there are ongoing debates as to how much the US government and Roosevelt knew prior to the attack and the timing of the Japanese breaking off diplomatic negotiations. So, even though the attack on Pearl Harbor was technically difficult, it should not have come as a surprise that they would at least try to attack the America's Pacific Fleet. However, the way Japan went about it ultimately shocked and galvanized American public support for the war. This also meant that there was not going to be a large initial public outcry over the use of the bomb.
In the end, revenge is not a legitimate justification for a decision-whether in times of peace or war. This is especially true if you claim (as the US did) that you are upholding higher values such as peace, justice, and democracy.
The final reason I think the US decided to drop the bombs was to demonstrate their power to the Soviet Union - their former ally and emerging rival. During the war with Japan, the US had already showed the power and range of the B-29 bomber, which were responsible (among other things) for the fire bombings of Tokyo on March 10th, 1945 which killed over 100,000 civilians. Incidentally, this is generally believed to be more than the immediate deaths from either Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the Potsdam Conference, which took place from July 16th to August 2nd, Truman revealed to Stalin that the US had a "powerful new weapon." However, Stalin was not too surprised to hear about it, most likely because he had spies who had already informed him of the bomb's existence. Nevertheless, the US wanted to show off the real-life power of the new weapon. The result were the bombings of Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th.
The timing of the bombs was also determined by the rapidly changing relationship between the US and USSR. On August 8th, 3 months after V-E day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. The US saw the situation that was developing in Europe and preferred not to face a similar situation in Japan. In the final days of the war, the USSR managed to invade south Sakhalin island, which Russia lost during the Russo-Japanese war. This was in addition to far greater gains achieved against the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo and their protectorate in the northern part of the Korea peninsula.
The US feared that the Soviet Union would invade Hokkaido before they began their invasion of Kyushu. This meant that they not only needed to get Japan out of the war, but in a way that prevented possible Soviet land grabs. It just so happened that the a-bomb fulfilled both objectives. Even though I can see the logic of this from a purely strategic military viewpoint, I still don't think this justifies the decision. In my mind, killing innocent civilians with a horrific bomb to serve geopolitical ends is not a legitimate justification, no matter how much sense it may make from a purely military point of view.
But of the three main factors leading to the ultimate decision, only one-dropping the bomb to limit casualties-was legitimate. The goal in any war is to achieve your objectives, while doing whatever possible to reduce casualties and deaths. The Americans accomplished this by using the bomb. But while this may have been a legitimate reason, I still don't think that the way in which the bombings were carried out was justified because there were other alternatives.
The most powerful argument against using the a-bomb is the terrible nature of the weapon itself. I don't think I need to go into much detail here, since I can't do the topic justice. You should visit the memorials in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in person if you live or plan on visiting Japan. Alternatively, you can read accounts in books such as Hiroshima by John Hersey or visit websites about the bombs themselves such as: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, AtomicBombMuseum.org, and The Nagasaki City Site For Peace & The Bomb. After seeing and reading about the effects of the bomb, I am sure you will/already agree that such weapons are terrible and should ideally never have been used in the first place.
There were two plausible alternatives that the US should have at least attempted before ultimately deciding to drop the bomb. The first of these would have been to include two extra points in the Potsdam Declaration Defining The Terms Of Japanese Surrender issued on July 26th, 1945. First, it should have explicitly mentioned the successful test of a nuclear device on July 16th, 1945 and that if Japan did not surrender, another would be used against them. Second, the Potsdam Declaration should have assured the Japanese that the Emperor would be allowed to remain in power (which is what ultimately happened anyway). Keeping the Emperor in power was important not only as a way for the Japanese not to lose face, but also as a way to sell any peace plan to the public.
Realistically, I don't think this would have been enough to end the war. Many people would disagree based on quotes from people like Eisenhower who stated in November 1963 that, " [...] The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing." However, based on what I've read about Japanese wartime thinking, they would have assumed such a declaration was a lie designed to get them to surrender. Nevertheless, it should have been attempted for the sole reason that it may have worked and would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
But assuming the revised Potsdam Declaration did not succeed in ending the war, the second alternative would have been to drop a bomb on one of the many small uninhabited islands that surround Japan. Once the Japanese had observed the destruction, I would have given them one week to let the impact of destruction sink in before obligating them to decide whether to surrender.
This plan would have involved some risk. Obviously, telling the Japanese where the bomb was going to be dropped could potentially have allowed them to shoot down the plane (although the Americans could easily have picked a location where they clearly had air superiority). The second risk is what might have happened if the bomb did not go off. If that were to occur, the Japanese would have convinced themselves that the whole atomic bomb program was a hoax. Again, given the destructive nature of the bomb I think the risks were worth the price of saving civilian lives.
If the Japanese chose not to surrender - even after being told about the bomb and seeing its destructive power - then and only then would I have authorized its use on a Japanese city. This would have been the last of the three bombs originally built and would have meant that the US would have been unable to drop any more right away. But, the Japanese would not have known this and the US ended up in this position anyway after Nagasaki. At this point, I am sure the Japanese would have decided to surrender, albeit without the additional deaths of the second bomb.
Therefore, while I think dropping the bombs saved both American and Japanese lives (especially when compared to the likely cost of a full scale ground invasion), I don't think the decision was justified because of the way in which it was carried out. Revenge for Pearl Harbor and a desire to show the Soviets who was boss in Asia caused the situation to unfold differently than it should have.
The fact that the US did not declare that they had the bomb before using it meant that the Japanese had no way of knowing about its existence. Thus, it came as big a surprise to Japan - just as Pearl Harbor did the for US. At, the very least, the Americans should have allowed more than 3 days to pass before using the second bomb. Its destructive power was unbelievable and I am sure this would have taken some time to sink in. Ideally, the US should have proceeded in a staged approach before ultimately using it against targets where it was widely known many civilians would be killed and injured.
Finally, I want to end with some general thoughts about the conduct of the Pacific War as a whole. I think Curtis LeMay's statement on the conduct of the bombing of Japan as retold by Robert McNamara's in the documentary the Fog of War sums up it best: "LeMay said, if we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals." This quote specifically refers to the killing of civilians during the firebombing of Japanese cities in the spring of 1945. But, if the firebombings were considered war crimes, then using the horrific a-bomb should be as well. Japan started the war, but the a-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki won it for the Allies. As McNamara asked, "What makes it immoral if you lose, and not immoral if you win?"
The fact that, over six decades later, the decision and justifications for dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki continues to be debated shows that it remains a controversial topic. I have given my reasoning why I don't think the US was justified in the way it went about dropping the bombs, but I recognize that you may not share my opinion. Therefore, I encourage you to leave your comments, either in support or against what I have said, below.