Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A Moral Necessity

May 26, 2016 Focusing only on casualty numbers ignores the broader context behind the decision to drop the bombs.

|May 26, 2016

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By George Friedman

U.S. President Barack Obama will be visiting Hiroshima on Friday, the first sitting American president to do so since the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city 71 years ago. Hiroshima is flourishing today, but was destroyed by the United States’ use of the first atomic bomb deployed in war. In 1945, it was generally understood that the bombings of Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9 had forced the Japanese surrender, ending a period of war for Japan that began in 1931 with the invasion of China. For most of the world, the end of World War II led to jubilation.  

At the time, the casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were noted, but weren’t particularly striking. Somewhere between 50 million and 80 million people had died in the war in total and the entire world was numbed by the sheer magnitude of the human catastrophe. It was not surprising, therefore, that most people rejoiced at the end of the war, and saw the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a small price to pay. Besides, even the lower casualty estimates were too big to grasp at the time.

But as time went on, the numbness wore off and selectivity grew. Hiroshima and Nagasaki became symbolic remnants of the global holocaust. Increasingly, they came to symbolize a wanton indifference to life and unnecessary murder.

There were two reasons Hiroshima and Nagasaki emerged as the symbols of utter callousness. First, the attacks were carried out by atomic bombs and over time nuclear weapons were viewed as uniquely vicious. In 1945, few understood what an atomic bomb was, and as its meaning penetrated global consciousness, its use was seen as uniquely immoral. About 100,000 people died in the firebombing of Tokyo in the summer of 1945, but that was conducted over several days and didn’t involve atomic bombs. Somehow, a single bomb dropped from a single plane was more terrifying than thousands of bombs dropped from thousands of planes – even though both resulted in approximately an equal number of deaths. In other words, the near instant death of tens of thousands is seen as more worthy of condemnation than the slow slaughter of millions over several years of war.

A second reason Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to symbolize a disregard for human life was the growing global anti-Americanism, as well as the opposition to the war in Vietnam. The United States, it was asserted, had become a nation that committed massive war crimes and even genocide. Hiroshima became a symbol of American power, and the heedless and pointless slaughter of people. 

At the heart of this narrative lay the assertion that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary to end the war. The Japanese had already decided to surrender, and had communicated this to the United States via Sweden. Therefore, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not have to do with Japan, but rather was designed to intimidate the Soviet Union. It was an act in which over 100,000 people were killed to drive home the enormity of American power. The Soviet Union, which had congratulated the United States for the bombing at the time, changed its position in the 1950s, condemning the U.S. for these reasons.

Therefore, the bombings – and the significance of Obama’s visit to Hiroshima – must be viewed in the context of two assumptions. The first is that there was no need to bomb Hiroshima. The second was that it was primarily used to impress the Soviets with America’s power. 

The first argument was initially supported by available historical evidence, including the idea that Emperor Hirohito was opposed to the war, and had decided to compel capitulation before the bombing. Later, historical study found a more complex reality. Hirohito had not opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nor had Hirohito decided to capitulate. There were some advisors who felt it was necessary, but they were marginal. 

The thinking in July 1945 was still that Japan must find a way to win a victory over U.S. forces, and set the stage for a negotiated settlement. The battle of Okinawa, at which the kamikaze strategy was introduced, was an attempt to create that victory. The Japanese leadership saw a battle on Kyushu in Japan, where the Japanese expected a landing and where a landing was planned, as another opportunity to inflict that defeat. 

The Japanese were not yet stripped of either air power or ground forces. In Okinawa, they had demonstrated the effectiveness of kamikaze, and on Kyushu they intended to inflict massive casualties to induce the Americans to negotiate. Given that they were defending their homeland against occupation, this was not an irrational hope, and contrary to myth, the Japanese were not yet without the capabilities needed. It is true that submarine warfare had cut the line of supply but there was still enough military strength in Japan for this final battle. 

Recall that Tokyo was decimated and this did not induce a Japanese surrender. There were advocates for surrender but some were killed by extremist officers who were threatening a coup if surrender was considered. Remember also that the U.S. was wary of Japanese diplomatic initiatives. The Japanese might use the time they gained to prepare an attack. Pearl Harbor was attacked in the midst of such an initiative. This initiative was so indirect and vague that it could not be assumed that Japan was seriously engaging in diplomacy. Plus, the initiative rejected unconditional surrender, which was the basis of Allied war-making strategy.

The Japanese may have been on the verge of defeat but the Japanese leadership, including the emperor, didn’t accept that premise. And at the same time, as the final act was being played out, the war in China still raged. For example, in March 1945, while the U.S. was shaping its war plans, Japan’s China Expeditionary Army – a group within the Japanese military – launched a massive offensive in China between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, hoping to capture U.S. airbases. In all Japanese offensives in China, the number of Chinese deaths were horrendous due to Japanese warfighting doctrine. China lost approximately 14 million in the war against Japan. It is impossible to calculate the casualties in this offensive, but based on a conservative estimate, 100,000 dead in a month of offensives is not out of the question.

It is forgotten that Japan continued to occupy vast areas of China, administering it with brutality at least equal to the Nazis. Critics of Hiroshima tend not to remember the ongoing war in China, and that with each month the war continued, the Japanese killed more Chinese citizens. They assume that waiting for Japan to capitulate did not have a human cost. From the standpoint of the Chinese, every day the war went on cost thousands of Chinese lives. I am not arguing that China was uppermost in the minds of American planners, but the urgency of the Americans was felt many times over in China. Around 140,000 Japanese may have died at Hiroshima, but at least the equivalent in Chinese lives were saved as a result. Critics of Hiroshima leave China out of the equation, which they must do in order to make their case.

It must also be remembered that Hiroshima did not by itself compel the Japanese to surrender. Even after the bomb was dropped, Japanese military leaders were unwilling to surrender. If the Japanese had thought the U.S. had only one nuclear bomb, Japan’s Kyushu strategy would have still been strategically viable. It was essential for the U.S. to demonstrate that it had more, and that Hiroshima was not unique. Therefore, Nagasaki was as important as Hiroshima. In reality, the U.S. was bluffing because it only had two atomic bombs that were ready to use, and it would be a month before it could get any more. Nonetheless, Hiroshima showed Japan that the U.S. could use nuclear weapons, but Nagasaki opened the door to the possibility of total annihilation. And that’s why it took Nagasaki for the emperor to agree to surrender.

The case I am making is that the Japanese were absolutely unwilling to accept unconditional surrender before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and were prepared to make their stand on Kyushu. It was not clear that an Allied landing on Kyushu would have succeeded. If the United States had invaded, the Japanese plan was to carry out a battle many times worse than Okinawa. If the invasion didn’t come, they would hold out, and perhaps eventually collapse. But that would be at the cost of uncountable Chinese lives. 

Without Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese calculus for action was rational. When the Americans showed the ability to annihilate cities, perhaps without end, the Japanese had to assume that their strategy was unsound. It took Nagasaki to force the Japanese to face a new reality, a reality that forced them to surrender in China as well. 

To interpret the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as unnecessary acts, you must ignore the recent historiography on Japan’s end game, the American casualties that would have certainly resulted and the Chinese who were living through an unprecedented terror at Japanese hands. The dead would have been much higher without Hiroshima. Thus, I would argue that it was not only moral but imperative that the war be ended with the urgency that it was.