Sixty years on, the debate still rages. Was the United States justified in dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945?
Opponents of the bombing say this was a war crime. The vast majority of the victims in both cities were civilians (an estimated 140,000 died outright or as a result of injuries in Hiroshima; an estimated 70,000 in Nagasaki). The war was already reaching its final stages and Japan was attempting to bring about a negotiated peace using neutral Sweden. The bombing was therefore cruel and unnecessary.
Ground Zero at Hiroshima
Supporters of the bombing point out that that the US and Allied governments were demanding an unconditional surrender from Japan, not a negotiated third-party peace. Japan was refusing such a surrender, partly out of fear for the status of the Emperor. The invasion of Okinawa earlier in 1945 had produced some of the highest US casualties of the Pacific War (not to mention a far greater number of civilian casualties on the island) and US planners were predicting a casualty toll in the hundreds of thousands if US troops attempted to storm the Japanese home islands. The Japanese government was arming and training civilians and threatening to carry out a last-ditch desperate defense down to the last man, woman and child. The war in Europe was over and it was clear that Japan had no hope of avoiding defeat. The US side refused to accept high casualty figures at this final stage of the war when victory was a foregone conclusion. For that reason President Harry Truman was urged to use this new and devastating weapon to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. On balance, he was told, more lives would be saved by forcing the Japanese to surrender without the need for an invasion.
The opponents are not convinced. If the US wanted to force the Japanese into a quick surrender, they ask, then why couldn't they stage a demonstration of the atomic bomb in an area where there would not be so many civilian casualties? The only known reply to this argument is that there were only two bombs available and that a failure of the bomb (it had only been tested once previously) would have constituted such a public embarrassment that it may have encouraged the Japanese in their resistance.
It has also been suggested that the US was prepared to use the bomb on the Japanese but not on the Germans because of racial differences. (Our old friend Ishihara Shintaro came up with this idea: see previous articles in the June archives of this Blog). This is nonsense. The Manhattan Project -- the programme that set about researching and designing an atomic bomb -- was begun in response to a fear that the Nazis were engaged in similar research. The simple reason for not threatening to use the A-bomb on the Germans was that the bomb wasn't ready in May 1945 when the Third Reich surrendered. But it was ready in August while Japan was still refusing to surrender. Would the Allies have used such a bomb on Nazi Germany? Absolutely. One has only to consider the round-the-clock damage and devastation that was being rained on that country by conventional bombing raids, particularly the unprecedented firestorms in Hamburg and Dresden, to realize there would have been no hesitation in using an atomic weapon to flatten Berlin.
Why did the Allies target Hiroshima and Nagasaki and not Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya? Perhaps to reduce the number of civilian casualties overall (including the possibility of killing the Emperor) but the actual choice of these two cities remains a mystery. Both were important port cities and Hiroshima was definitely a military staging area. Beyond that, we may never know.
Did the bombing of these two cities shorten the war? I think most people would have to agree that it did, whether the bombings were morally defensible or not. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. The Japanese government accepted an unconditional surrender on August 15.
after the bomb
One further point, which is rarely mentioned: what would have been the role of the Russians if the war had been prolonged? The Soviets had declared war on Japan very recently. If there had been a major allied invasion of the Japanese islands, would the Soviets have "helped out" by invading Hokkaido? If Eastern European history is anything to go by, they would have set up their own Occupation Zone after the war, declared a communist government, and remained in possession for the next 50 years. Either that, or we could still be looking at a North Korea/South Korea divide today with Hokkaido separated from the rest of Japan.
We return to the opening question in this article. Were the bombings in any way justified? We have seen several of the arguments for and against. (In a personal aside, I don't understand why there had to be TWO bombings. If the US had determined that this weapon had to be used to pressure the Japanese into a quick surrender, then surely ONE bomb would have been enough? Perhaps they used two bombs because two bombs were physically available -- but I would like to believe that was not the reason). In human terms the bombing of innocent civilians is not something any normal person would try to defend. These people are victims of war. Unfortunately, it could be argued (in fact, it is argued) that their own government caused them to become victims by victimizing the innocent civilians of other countries in East Asia, notably the people of China. This brings home the clear warning contained in the biblical advice NOT to do unto others what you would NOT have them do unto you.
The first time I visited the Hiroshima A-Bomb Museum I was suitably chastened by the graphic photographs and exhibits. It was sickening, appalling, and one felt a sort of claustrophobic horror just walking along those corridors. Unfortunately, some well-meaning but rather dim teacher had instructed his visiting school group to accost all the foreigners in the museum to ask them what they thought about this terrible event and to write down their comments. Several children approached me, thrusting their notebooks into my hand. I reflected for a moment, and this is what I wrote: "What you see around you is the definitive and final American response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I think they want you to remember."
Sixty years have passed. In all that time not a single American administration has even considered an apology for the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No administration of the future will consider it either.