60 years ago today: Hiroshima
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been controversial in the decades since they occurred, but it is surprising to note how uncontroversial the decision to drop the bomb was at the time. The U.S. had been engaged in a brutal, two-front war for nearly four years. In the development of the bomb from its very beginnings, there was no doubt that it would be used as soon as possible. The military leadership was contemplating a land invasion of Japan in the fall of 1945, with the planning and approval of Operation Downfall earlier in the summer. The Japanese had their own defense plan, designed to go down in a blaze of glory. A horrific invasion would have been necessary, followed by several months of fighting, with the possibility of a guerilla war after that. Casualty estimates ranged from 100,000 to 500,000 American soldier and as many as millions of Japanese. This was the thinking that informed the decision. Indeed, as David M. Kennedy noted in a recent Time op-ed article:
One sad truth that made the use of such horrific weapons a foregone conclusion is that the atomic bombings appeared at the time to be merly an extension, a ratcheting up if you will, of the Allied bomber war and the culmination of a trend in bombing that had begun in World War I, continued in a variety of conflicts between the wars, and then was taken up with a vengeance by Germany, Japan, and the Allies. I've written about this before, specifically the bombing of Dresden and the firebombing of Tokyo. The bombing campaigns against Germany, conceived initially as the Allies' only means of "hitting back" at Germany in the dark days of 1942-1943 as well as a means of destroying their industrial and military production, continued as a relatively ineffective program in 1943 and early 1944. (I say "relatively ineffective," because through 1943 casualty rates among American bomber crews were very high, verging on unsustainable, in return for relatively little impact on Germany's industrial capacity.) Initially, U.S. believed in a doctrine of daylight raids using "precision bombing" to target closely German industrial and military targets, but the technology of the time could not produce the required accuracy. "Precision bombing" was in practice little different from area bombing. As Germany's air defenses collapsed and the Allies developed fighters that could accompany the bombers all the way to their targets and back, the number and destructiveness of the raids increased exponentially, culiminating in the Dresden bombing. When the war in the Pacific lead to the American capture of islands within heavy bombing range of the Japanese homeland late in the war, it only seemed logical to extend the bombing campaign to Japanese cities, using even larger bombers and more destructive raids. It is important to note when considering Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the combined death toll of these two atomic bombings was roughly equal to the death toll of the firebombing of Tokyo using conventional incendiary bombs five months earlier, and that the bombing campaign on the Japanese homeland in essence leveled more than 60 Japanese cities and produced hundreds of thousands of deaths.Stimson appointed the so-called Interim Committee on May 1, 1945, to give advice on the Bomb's use against Japan. Scholars have probed the record of the committee's month-long existence in vain for evidence of the kind of deliberative decision-making process that the resort to nuclear weaponry might seem to have warranted. Stimson asked the committee primarily for recommendations about how, not whether, to use the new weapon. Members spent only about 10 minutes of a lunch break discussing a possible demonstration of the Bomb's effect in an unpopulated area. No other alternatives were brought forward. Without qualifications, the committee recommended "that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible."
The discomforting truth is that Allied leaders strode unhesitantly into the atomic age. "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used," Truman later wrote. "[N]or did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise," Winston Churchill added. Nothing in the record contradicts them. Dropping the Bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, was among history's most notorious foregone conclusions.
All of this leads to the uncomfortable question of whether the use of atomic bombs against Japan was morally justifiable. Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides and always have been. Surprisingly (or maybe just evidence that perhaps I don't know as much about the history of this issue as I thought I did), I discovered that, in the early years after the war, the group that was most critical of Truman's decision to drop the bombs was conservative, for example, Herbert Hoover, who wrote to a friend: ""[t]he use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul." Weeks after Japan's surrender, an article in the conservative magazine Human Events called the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki morally "more shameful" than Pearl Harbor, and even through the 1950's, noted conservatives like William F. Buckley and George S. Schuyler lambasted the decision. Today, as has been noted, "Times change." It is now conservative talk radio hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity; conservative writers and bloggers (for example, Victor David Hanson); and conservative "satirists" such as Scott Ott, who are the most vocal defenders of the decision to use the atomic bomb (although in the more libertarian strain of conservatism, the old criticisms still live, joined by liberals, some of whom have an unfortunate tendency to conflate ridiculously the bombing of Hiroshima with the war in Iraq when criticizing U.S. policy).
On the other side still remains the argument that not bombing would have lead to a continuation of the war and even more Japanese casualties. To American pilots and support crews charged with the atomic bombing and troops facing the prospect of many months, if not years, of more war and being ordered into what would have been the largest and bloodiest invasion in history, the bombings were widely cheered because of the perception that they shortened the war and made an invasion of Japan no longer necessary. There is little doubt of that, given the fanaticism of the military leaders holding sway in Japan in the summer of 1945, who were determined to fight to the death and kill as many American troops as possible while going down in a blaze of glory, even if it meant the deaths of millions of Japanese civilians, who were being groomed to fight a guerrilla war. Japanese leaders had proven this in part by not having surrendered already and then proved it again by not surrendering after the first atomic bombing, believing the Hiroshima was a "one-off stunt" that could not be replicated any time soon. Given that background, there is little doubt that the bombings probably shortened the war substantially, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. Unfortunately, victory came at a considerable moral cost, as it made the U.S. the only nation in the world ever to have used nuclear weapons in combat. On the other hand, there is little doubt that almost any government in the midst of total war would choose to use such a weapon as soon as possible after it is developed. The mindset and logic of total war and the Allied policy of demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan demanded nothing less. That's one reason why, sixty years later, such debates about the morality of the bombings are almost beside the point. Although other choices could have been made, it would have been a rare leader indeed with the will to choose not to use the bomb as soon as it became available. Just consider the situation: You are the leader of a nation engaged in a massive war, and your military informs you that they have just devloped a devastating new weapon that could end the war in one stroke. How, as a leader, do you justify not using it?
Nonethless, such debates do serve a purpose today. It is not so much the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki themselves that should be troubling to the U.S., a nation that prides itself on having a higher moral purpose than other nations. These bombings were in reality only the culmination of a larger policy devised and executed over the preceding three years of the war, that of bombing enemy cities with little concern for the civilian casualties that would result. Like Jonathan Rauch (whom I have quoted before), I like to think that America's present policies with regards to war, in which the military goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties even when it puts our own troops at more risk to do so, is in some part a consequence of the horror and an attempt to make up for past excesses:
It is true that the United States in 1945, in marked and important contrast with, say, al Qaeda in 2001, viewed the targeting of civilians as a last rather than a first resort; and it is true that throughout history even the virtuous have wound up fighting dirty if fighting clean failed; and it is true that sometimes the good must do terrible things to destroy a great evil. But it is also true that if the good find themselves driven to barbarism, they own up afterward and search their souls.
America is better at reforming than at repenting, which is probably just as well. Perhaps America's quiet way of paying its debt to the dead of Tokyo has been to take unprecedented pains, far beyond anything done by any other great power, to design and deploy weapons and tactics that spare civilian lives. A lot of innocent people in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan are alive today as a result. Still, the erasure of the Tokyo firebombing from Americans' collective memory is not a noble thing.
Select links on the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
Hiroshima: What People Think Now
Why U.S. Leaders Never Questioned the Idea of Dropping the Bomb
Will We Still Remember Hiroshima After the Last Victims Die?
What Recent Scholarship Concludes About Hiroshima
Why Did the Japanese Delay Surrendering?
The Birth of "Mere Terror"
Why It's Time for Us to Confront Hiroshima
Reflections of Nagasaki remain worlds apart
Crossing the Moral Threshold
Harry Truman on Trial
Hiroshima-Nagasaki was Democide
Suppressed film of 1945 nuclear attacks to air