World Cultures III
26 November 2000
The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
On August 6th 1945, the world changed forever. The United States dropped the first Atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The surviving witness Miyoko Watanabe describes her experience:
I came out of the front dooran intense yellow, orange and white light overwhelmed me the light was thousands of times brighter than a magnesium flash gunI went inside to hideThere were strange sounds, crashing noises and jolts, and I kept no track of the timeI locked back to see how my mom was. She looked worse then a devilish witch. (47)
The heat was intolerable; everywhere Miyoko looked there were wounded and dying people, bleeding from all over their bodies like her mom. Miyoko continues, Those who fled from one or one and a half kilometer from the hypocenter really did have to step over bodies and shake off hands grasping their legs for help. When someone caught hold of their shoes they just had to leave their precious shoes and flee otherwise they wouldnt survive(49). A friend of Miyoko told her that he had to leave his sister to die in the flames to save his life. That day, according to the Japan Times, 140,000 died as a direct result of the bombing. Later the total number of victims claimed in Hiroshima City came to 217,137.
There is one question that comes to my mind reading these terrible stories from the victims of Hiroshima; was this necessary?
Scholars have discussed the question for more than half a century. However, they all agree that the answer to this question does not make the use of atomic weapons seem less awesome or less awful, but it merely throw different light on it.
The main argument defending the decision to drop the bomb is that it was necessary to end the war. Richard B. Frank in his book, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire defends the American decision. Relying on a host of original documentary sources, most notably the Japanese messages that were intercepted and decoded by the American forces, he presents a researched work that attempts to explain what might have happened if the bombs had not been dropped. The reader is left with the unshakable conclusion that the use of the bomb was a necessary evil–that the government of Japan was not ready to surrender, and even after the bombing of Hiroshima, the decision was to fight on. However, the conclusion of his book is that the bombing of Nagasaki (though nowhere near as damaging as the bombing of Hiroshima) persuaded the Japanese cabinet that the bomb was not a one off event, and that they faced certain destruction if they didn’t sue for peace.
According to Frank, Most American strategists believed that the war with Japan would be a long drown out operation with Japans fanatical resistance extracting mounting casualties the closer the American forces drew to the Home Islands (21). To understand this position, it is necessary to take a closer look at the American experience with the Japanese, during the war.
The Japanese were known by their culture of no surrender; they would rather die than surrender. Particularly, in the Japanese military forces this tradition was prominent. Frank continues with a terrible example of this, The first intimations that the Japanese would literally choose death over surrenderand not merely an elite warrior caste but the rank and filecame in August 1942 at Guadalcanal. Two small Imperial Navy island garrisons fought to virtual extinction. Major general Alexander Archer Vandegrift, the Marine commander wrote: I have never heard or read of this kind of fighting. These people refuse to surrender. The wounded wait until men come up to examine themand blow themselves and the other fellow to pieces with a hand grenade(28).
Another example, maybe as shocking, happened at the island of Saipan; nearly 30,000 Japanese soldiers fought to the death, only 921 (3 percent) were taken prisoner. On this Island there were 20,000 civilians. Only 10,258 surrendered; the rest chose death. In a carnival of death that shocked even battle-hardened Marines, whole families waded into the sea to drown together or huddled to blow themselves up with grenades; parents tossed their children off cliffs before leaping to join them in death (29). According to the American historian John Dower, Japanese political and military authorities inoculated them with the terror that the Americans would rape, torture and murder them, and that it was more honorable to take their own lives(29). Based on such knowledge, the American president, Harry Truman, actually appeared surprised when he heard about the Japanese decision to surrender after the bombing of Nagasaki. Following these experiences the allied chief commander General Marshall declared that an invasion of the industrial heart of Japan was necessary to end the war (30).
Furthermore, the Japanese military was on the verge off a takeover in Japan according to Frank (233-240). This further demonstrated the fact that the Japanese were not ready to surrender. Encrypted messages showed the Japanese Military Ultra girding for Armageddon(238). The Imperial army held the dominant position in Japan. A July 22 edition of the Magic Diplomatic summary (summit of the war events held after the war) reveals that even if offered to keep their emperor via informal talks, foreign minister Togo expressly rejected the idea (239). Even if Togo had accepted these peace conditions, there is no doubt that the military would have seized powers and prevented this from happening. The Japanese military had their own plan called Ketsu-Go to prevent an American land-invasion. The massive build-up of Japanese air-strength, kamikazes (suicide-airplanes), the creation of an array of suicide vehicles and lying of mines at strategic positions proved their willingness to fight to the end (85, 212). The Japanese needed at least one victorious land battle in order to surrender with pride according to information obtained by decoding the military messages (271).
On the basis of this information, it is clear that an American land-invasion would cost a massive amount of American soldiers lives. Estimates vary between 500,000 and one million. Truman himself said about the decision to drop the bomb, It saved the lives of a million American boys, (Trackstar). Thinking of the bomb in this way many Americans today would never have been alive without the bomb. It literally saved future generations.
Americans were not the only ones saved by the bomb. Richard B. Franks research shows that hundreds of thousands of Chinese prisoners in the Japanese camps in Mansjuria would have died if the war had lasted a few more months (322-25). Moreover, parts of the Japanese civilian population were about to starve to death because of the lack of rice and other food supplies (351).
The conclusion from this information is that the only viable alternative to an American land invasion would be conventional bombing of railroads and traffic routes, creating massive famine and severe shortages of basic human needs. Several millions of Japanese would have starved to death. Would this have been a more humane solution? The casualties would have been an estimated ten times higher if the war had lasted only three months longer, according to Franks work Downfall.
The war could have come to an end without the Atomic Bomb already August 1945 or earlier.
On the other side, the most important argument is that Japan was on the verge of surrender during August 1945. If the allied forces had let them keep the emperor they would have surrendered quickly. To add to the argument for the Atomic bomb, it is necessary to investigate the opinions of allied military officers about the decision.
Gar Alperovitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and the Architecture of an American Myth, concludes that the bomb was unnecessary. He believes that he has deconstructed an American myth. He has removed our comfortable illusions and forced us to look again into the frightening reality, however unappealing that time act may be.
Truman knew via intelligence extracts that Japan was on the verge of surrender. The Suzuki cabinet simply awaited an American guarantee of Emperor Hirohito’s post-war status. The commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Hap Arnold, stated in his 1949 memoir that it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse. Arnold’s deputy, Lt. General Ira Eaker, later stated that Arnold’s view was that it was unnecessary. He said that he knew the Japanese wanted peace. There were political implications in the decision and Arnold did not feel it was the military’s job to question it. Eaker added that Arnold had told him that while the Air Force under his command they would not oppose the bomb’s use: it is not necessary to use it in order to conquer the Japanese without the necessity of a land invasion (Alperovitz 335). The Truman Administration also knew that if such a guarantee (Emperor Hirohito’s post-war status) proved insufficient, Soviet entry into the Pacific War would be the straw that broke the Japanese Imperium’s back: the bomb was not necessary.
Based on his findings, Alperovitz has added his voice to those historians calling for a fundamental reassessment of the bombings. Since Japan’s eminent collapse made the bombs necessity fallacious, the author reduces the decision to a different dynamic: power (3). The bomb was almost certainly used due to the urgency officials felt in connection with diplomatic-political concerns. In the tense early-August atmosphere. . . the decision not to pause, not to reflect on alternatives to using the bomb became natural. (4) Containing Soviet expansion became the fundamental frame of reference for the administration, dictating its stance towards the engagement and timing of the bomb, and precluding articulation of the essential question: should the bomb be used? (5)
Brigadier General Carter W. Clarke, the army officer in charge of preparing the war summaries in 1945, stated in a 1959 interview that we brought the Japanese down to an abject surrender through the accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and then when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs. (359) The ugly story laid bare; Alperovitz counsels Americans that it is timed to face facts: We seem to have preferred the myth. . . .Our reluctance to ask questions about the received wisdom has not dissipated over time (352). The two supreme military heroes of World War Two– Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur–also shared these judgements. The greatest American military leader of the twentieth century and a two-term President of the United States, Eisenhower, consistently condemned the Hiroshima decision, from 1963 until his death, stating that The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing (pp.352-358). The author’s prescription is quite clear: change your beliefs about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A conclusion about the use of the atomic bomb is not made overnight. There are great scholars with different views on both sides. However, to me it is quite clear that the war would have come to an end even without the use of the atomic bomb. At the same time Frank, is convincing in his documentation about the Japanese militarys power and their willingness to fight to the end. The dropping of the bomb gave Emperor Hirohito enough arguments to surrender and prevent a military takeover. If the bombs had not been dropped it would probably have cost a great many more human lives.
On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why a demonstration-drop was not tried to warn the Japanese and show them the power of the bomb. A demonstration-drop could easily have been conducted over Tokyo Bay and produced enormous publicity and fear. An even larger number of the Japanese population would have been able to experience the power of the bomb, given the population size of Tokyo. This would at least have given the Japanese a chance to evaluate surrender, facing this terrible weapon of mass-destruction.
A possibility why this never happened might be that the Americans wanted to prove the power of the bomb to the Soviet-Union, introducing the world to the cold war. However, to condemn Truman as a war criminal might be to go too far. He had a myriad of concerns to at the end of the war. Truman should be given the benefit of the doubt that he was sincere when he wrote in his diary that this was the most humane and best solution to end the war. On the other hand, whether or not it was the right decision is a different question.