August 6, 1945. It has been 75 years today since the world’s first nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima. Today, I’m going to take address the most controversial of questions: the morality of the atomic bomb and the continuing argument over how justified its use was, as well as how it is perceived today. I may upset some people, but this is one of the hot-button issues of historical debate and it’s time to talk about it.
Let’s start with the event. Here’s what we all know.
On July 16 to August 2, 1945, the leaders of the Allied powers met in Potsdam on the ruins of the recently conquered Third Reich. Partway through the conference, on July 26, the Allied leaders issued the Potsdam Declaration, which announced terms and called for unconditional surrender on the part of Japan. The statement was very about the terms of capitulation: “We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.” The terms demanded the removal from power of those who had led Japan to war, the occupation and demilitarization of Japan, and the liberation of its colonial possessions in China, Korea and the Pacific. The Declaration did not specifically mention the Emperor. It ended with “The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
This held a special meaning to Truman, since on July 16 the first atomic bomb had been tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Upon seeing what his creation was capable of, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer later said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita… ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
Japan received the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, but offered no response. On August 6, 1945, a single B-29 Superfortress piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb codenamed “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima. The Hiroshima bomb killed about 26,000 soldiers and probably around 90,000 civilians. It was followed later that day by Truman’s public broadcast announcing the first use of an atomic bomb, and promising that more were to follow if the Japanese did not accept the terms given at Potsdam. Once again, the Japanese responded with silence. This was followed on August 9 by the twin blows of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Japanese-occupied China, along with the dropping of the second bomb – “Fat Man” – on Nagasaki, which killed around 40,000 people outright and more later on from injury and radiation.
Early by the morning of August 10, the Japanese government had sent several telegrams to the Allies announcing that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration, with their only caveat being that they would accept no peace that would impinge on the privileges of the Emperor. After much haggling, by August 15 the Emperor publicly announced a surrender.
That’s a very dry, very bare-bones description of what happened. On their own, though, these events raise more questions than answers. Why did the United States even consider dropping the bomb? Why did the Japanese not surrender before the bomb was dropped, and why did they not surrender after the first one? What was the moral logic that went into the choice to use the bomb?
World War II was the most destructive and deadly war in human history by a wide, wide margin. Long before the final two exclamation points of death and desolation that ended the war, almost 55 million people had died both in combat and in the human misery that always results from war – even if you don’t count the Holocaust itself, which adds another 14 million Jews, Poles, Soviets, homosexuals and Romani. Out of all that slaughter, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki amounted to about .2% of all the losses in the war. It could be said that the majority of the losses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian – but so were the majority of the war’s casualties. In a World War II context, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were of course terrible – but they were just the final act in almost eight years of terrible, none of it worse than anything else.
If it sounds like I am trivializing the deaths, I am not. What I do want the reader to understand is that this was a war that had been dishing out civilian death on a mass scale for a very long time, and not just at the hands of the Axis. Throughout the whole of World War II, strategic bombing in particular had been delivering death to civilian populations from the air. The Germans at Guernica, and Japanese aircraft in China had conducted terror bombings in 1937. Subsequent Nazi terror bombings in Warsaw and Rotterdam, and of course the “Blitz”, showed that it was not just a fluke, but a common tactic.
Whether or not they had always planned to do it, or were simply hardened by the Axis tactics, the Allies committed to large-scale strategic bombing raids against the Axis powers, starting against Germany in 1942 and against Japan in 1944. It was never a question of whether the Allies would bomb cities; it was only a question of how indiscriminate they would be. By 1943, the Allies were plastering whole cities with incendiaries. The famous firestorm of Hamburg in 1943 and the shattering of Dresden in 1945 were two standout examples. By March 1945, American B-29s were burning Japanese cities from the air on a regular basis. Most notable for our discussion today was the Great Tokyo Air Raid from March 9-10, 1945, which tore the heart out of Tokyo and killed around 100,000 civilians, leaving almost a million homeless.
See, all this was logical in the cruelest sense. The Axis had used strategic bombing, so it would be stupid and naïve of the Allies not to use it. The Axis had used terror bombing on civilian targets – and given their atrocities and horrors they committed every day, it was an eye for an eye to do the same. When they wouldn’t surrender even when they were clearly losing the war…well, let’s ratchet it up a notch. When this fancy new bomb came out – well, if the enemy had it, they wouldn’t hesitate to use it!
And they wouldn’t have. Both Germany and Japan had been developing their own atomic bombs before the war ended, though neither got far past the research stage. But this misses the point: no one in World War II – Allied or Axis – ever, ever refused to use a weapon because it was “too terrible.” It was not a war of choice by 1945; it was a war that neither party could back out of, a war that was assumed to be for survival, and no one could justify to their people that they had not used every weapon at their disposal.
The point here is that most people at the time did not view the atomic bomb as *uniquely* terrible; that was for after the war, when people had time to think about the new world they lived in. Instead, it was just another tool in the box of modern warfare. The gradual escalation of violence and destruction didn’t make the Bomb seem like something that brought about a new age; instead, it was just the culmination of a decade of death from the sky. There was never any question, once the atomic bomb was developed, that the United States would use it, and if Germany had still been fighting when the first bomb came out in August 1945 it would have been Berlin instead of Hiroshima.
What were the alternatives in July 1945, though? If someone like President Truman had decided not to use the bomb, what else could he have done to end the war?
One of the main arguments in favor of the atomic bombings as, if not GOOD, at least not morally WRONG, is that literally every option Truman had was terrible. Japan, having suffered catastrophic military defeat on nearly every front, still refused to surrender. The terms they were given were the same terms that had been given to Germany, and Germany had gone down to the bitter end. The only options were to
a.) let the Japanese dictate the terms, which would involve them keeping their empire and remaining a dangerous military-ruled state (out of the question)
b.) undertaking a naval blockade to starve the Japanese out, since Japan was already on the brink of famine
c.) to launch an invasion of the Home Islands.
A was out of the question. B was possible, and the Navy favored it, but it could prolong the war at a time when thousands of people were still dying every day, and there wasn’t even a guarantee it would force the Japanese to surrender. (This would also, obviously, have resulted in heavy Japanese losses by starvation.) The only option in Allied eyes was C: an invasion of the home islands, and that was already being planned for in July 1945. MacArthur was going to lead it.
The invasion of Japan would have been called Operation Downfall. It would have involved 6 million Allied personnel invading the Home Islands, opposed by almost 4.3 million Japanese soldiers and around 31 million civilian conscripts who had been trained to fight to the death with bamboo spears, bombs, and knives. Based on previous Pacific campaigns, the advent of kamikazes and the well-known Japanese suicide attacks, most estimates put out by the Allied commanders came to shocking numbers.
The planning staff for the invasion of Kyushu, scheduled for October 1945, estimated around 400,000 casualties in the first four months, and some Allied planners budgeted for almost 4 million Allied casualties in the whole invasion. In addition, Japanese contingencies ordered the execution of all Allied POWs if an invasion began - totalling 100,000 more dead. The Japanese casualty count might run to about 14,000,000, though no one could be sure – in every island the Allies had taken in the Pacific War, the Japanese defenders had virtually fought to the death. You could be looking at something like 4,000,000 Allied dead alongside almost 30,000,000 Japanese dead in a ground invasion of Japan. The United States military manufactured so many Purple Hearts for Operation Downfall that we are still using the stocks today.
The worst estimates for Downfall, in short, made the eventual losses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like child’s play. But would the Japanese really have fought to the death?
By the time the United States released the Potsdam Declaration in July 1945 – by the time that the Alamogordo test had taken place, and the first bomb was on its way to the Pacific – the Japanese government had shown the world no hint of surrender. The inside story was somewhat different. The military of Japan was in firm control of the government, and they were convinced that they could get out of World War II with a negotiated peace that would leave Japan’s empire intact – essentially, the status quo before the war. Though several civilian ministers were secretly talking with the Emperor about surrender, they were quiet for fear that they would be considered defeatist. “Defeatists,” those that insisted that Japan was losing the war, were often assassinated in 1945.
When the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, the Big Six – the Japanese war council – met to discuss it. The four military men on the Big Six rejected it outright, and the government released a press statement that they would “kill it with silence.” The Prime Minister said “We will do nothing but press on to the bitter end to bring about a successful completion of the war.”
The Japanese high command knew that there was no hope of a military victory, but believed that by intimidating the United States out of an invasion with their superior “spirit” – which I guess means kids armed with bamboo spears – the enemy could be pushed into a negotiated peace. The Japanese rejected the Potsdam Declaration by refusing to respond – a signal that was taken as intended by the Allies.
When the first bomb fell on Hiroshima, the Japanese generals refused to believe that it was an atomic weapon, since they were aware of the difficulty of its manufacture and the long production time. One admiral argued that the United States certainly could not have more than one. The military ordered their own tests to figure out the cause of Hiroshima’s destruction. So even after the first bomb fell, and Truman announced what it was, the Japanese military leaders professed that it was a bluff – and even if it wasn’t, it was a one-off.
Of course, the bombing of Nagasaki three days later ended that line of argument. August 9 saw the various ministers of state argue for 12 hours over whether or not they would be able to surrender on terms that did not guarantee the place of the Emperor, fully aware that the shortage of food and the military disasters would ultimately doom Japan if the Americans invaded, and that they faced utter destruction from the air even before that. At around 2am, finally, the Emperor himself spoke up and ordered that the “time has come to bear the unbearable…” and offer peace.
It would not be that easy. The Emperor had enormous symbolic authority and very little real power in Japan so, even if his decision probably tipped the balance towards surrender, the military was going to go down fighting. Even the civilian ministers kept trying to backpedal and offer more lenient terms to the Americans until it was clear that the United States would accept no other terms. On August 12, the Army launched a major (failed) coup to keep the government from surrendering and in order to prevent the Emperor’s surrender declaration from being read. Even if the Emperor was prepared to surrender, the first country in the world to take two atomic bombs to the face was STILL sharply divided on whether or not they would end the war. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Japan would surrender without the atomic bombs.
I’ve talked a lot, and it’s time to wrap this up. Was the use of the atomic bomb justified? I’m not sure if I have your answer. You can form your own opinion, of course, based on the information I presented above – which is really only scratching the surface.
But I will ask understanding. Just…think about what these people have seen. Think about two world wars, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, decade after decade of misery and turmoil. Harry Truman himself recorded in his diary that he felt sick and disgusted by the use of the atomic bomb – but he gave the order. In a world where people had become inured to death, where people had breathed it for years, they might have found it important to make those cold equations – to sit at a desk and decide that between a few hundred thousand dying and millions dying, they would choose to kill some to save more. It’s like the trolley problem, but on a vastly larger and more horrifying scale.
Do YOU drop the atomic bomb on two cities full of civilians, when every other power has been hardened to the deaths of civilians for years in the pursuit of a war of survival, when all your previous experiences and knowledge of the cold realities of war clash with your morals, your beliefs, and your desire to preserve your own soul? If you believe you could save millions by killing thousands?
Shoot, this is already my longest post, and I haven’t even begun to dig into what I wanted to talk about. But we discuss the atomic bomb from our perspective, from our comfortable seats in our comfortable homes making our comfortable decisions. We’re far distant from those dark, terrible days and bloody decisions. We should maybe be a little charitable to the people that weren’t.
75 years ago today, humanity started a great experiment: can we handle the power of absolute destruction, the power of the gods, to destroy in a blink, to annihilate millions with the press of a button? Harry Truman was the first one to be put to the test. But here we are, 75 years later, and the experiment is still going on. The danger’s not over. We have a nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, and it’s been there for so long we’ve forgotten about it. But Oppenheimer saw it all those years ago, even if people in 1945 didn’t. We’re in uncharted territory.
We, as humanity, have become death, the destroyer of worlds. Can we handle that power? The experiment only ends if we find out the hard way that we can’t.