World War II and the Atomic Age
August 9 marks the 68th anniversary of the dropping of Fat Man over the city of Nagasaki, Japan, which helped speed the end of the Second World War.
Today, we look through rose colored glasses and ask if the dropping of these bombs was necessary. Today, the Japanese ask why. Why did we feel the need to kill up to a quarter million people in the blink of an eye and vaporize two cities?
It is generally acknowledged that the dropping of Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima by the Enola Gay on August 6, 1945 ushered in the nuclear age. The reality is that the day that ushered in the nuclear age was July 16, 1945, when Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and his team successfully detonated the first atomic device at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
It’s a complex answer to a complex question. The reason were myriad, depending on who you ask, or who you use as your source.
The war was coming to an end, and people on both sides were growing war weary. The Japanese had been defeated, but had yet to admit it. Peace feelers had been sent out through the Soviet Union, seeking a way out while saving face. Why did they seek peace through the Soviet Union? Because at that time, there was still a non-aggression treaty still in force. But Stalin saw the opportunity to expand Soviet influence elsewhere in the world.
The Japanese military wanted to fight to the death, the Samurai tradition of never surrendering. The US demanded unconditional surrender. Some claim that this demand of unconditional surrender was “somewhat vague”. There is nothing vague or ambiguous about unconditional surrender. It is surrender without conditions placed on that capitulation.
There were factions in the Japanese Diet (the Japanese equivalent of Congress) who wanted to surrender, but only on the condition that they could keep their Emperor, Shōwa, better known in the US as Hirohito.
No, Tojo was not the Emperor, only the Prime Minister, much like Prime Minister David Cameron isn’t the queen.
This was a sticking point between the US and Japan to bring the war to a conclusion, because the US did not understand the significance of the Emperor to Japanese culture.
What other options, then, did President Truman have?
1. He could have waited for the Soviet Union to enter the war, as promised since 1943, despite a non-aggression pact existing between the Soviets and Japan.
After the Soviets did enter the war, they invaded Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, completely overrunning the Japanese and hastening the Japanese surrender. It needs to be pointed out that the Soviets did not invade until the first atomic bomb had been dropped.
So, if the Soviets were defeating the Japanese in China, why not wait for the Japanese to give up?
After the war in Europe ended, the Western Allies watched as the Soviets took total control of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Stalin did not fear the Western Allies as much as he feared a resurrected and rearmed Germany, so he wanted to keep a buffer that he controlled between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Western Allies did not want this same thing happening in Asia as well, but it was Mao Tse-tung and the Communists backed by the Soviets that ran Chang Kai-sheck’s Nationalist government out of China.
President Truman did not want Soviet influence spreading through Asia.
2. He could have allowed the bombing of industrial targets to continue, but as early as September, 1944, the US was running out of industrial targets, despite propaganda claims by the Japanese that aircraft production was soaring.
Eventually, the Japanese would be unable to produce anything at all, and that, coupled with the blockade of Japan would have ultimately brought the nation to its knees.
3. The US could have invaded the Japanese mainland in Operation Downfall. Downfall included two separate invasion points, Operation Coronet and Operation Olympic. Coronet called for a force of 25 divisions to land just southeast of Tokyo on the Kanto Plain, arguably the best place in Japan for tanks to operate. But the plain also includes Tokyo, Japan’s capital and largest city. This would be an area the Japanese would fight hard for.
What would the cost have been in human lives?
The battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were eye opening for the US. At Iwo Jima, the US suffered over 26,000 casualties, over a third of the invasion force. The Japanese, on the other hand, lost nearly every man on the island, just short of 22,000 casualties out of 22,000 on the island.
At Okinawa, it was nearly the same. The Allies suffered 84,000 casualties, including 33,000 non-combat losses out of a force of 180,000. The Japanese suffered almost 106,000 casualties out of 120,000 soldiers, PLUS an estimated 42,000 -150,000 civilians killed. Keep in mind, however, that many of these civilian casualties were people who jumped off cliffs to their deaths because they feared the Americans would eat them.
Iwo Jima had a 37% casualty rate for the Americans, and Okinawa was 46.7%, although that number could be exaggerated due to non-combat losses.
The Japanese fought nearly to the death in both battles.
What would that mean for an invasion of the Japanese mainland? Why would they not fight to the death in Japan?
The Japanese figured that a landing would occur on the Kanto Plain, and were prepared. Would we have had to fight soldiers AND civilians, as we had to in Germany? We may never know, and can only speculate.
Casualty estimates ranged from 125,000 US casualties in 120 days, to well over a million for a 90 day period. These estimates do not include an estimate on the number of Japanese casualties, because frankly, the US didn’t care how many Japanese died.
A direct invasion of Japan would cost a lot of American lives, and it was decided that this would have to be the plan of last resort.
Enter the atomic bombs.
Did they absolutely have to be used?
The answer is not as simple as yes or no. Those who argue that there was no reason to use it are injecting their 21st century sensibilities into a brutal, bloody and racist war.
In 1945, the American public still remembered the attack on Pearl Harbor. They wanted revenge. The firebombing of Tokyo in 1942 was not enough. Dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima and removing that city from the earth was only the beginning of their vengeance.
Again, the US demanded unconditional surrender. Again, the Japanese balked, but the military was beginning to lose power, and those who wanted peace openly came out in the Diet.
On August 9, 1945, the Soviets invaded Manchuria, and the US dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki a few hours later.
During the course of the war, Germany, the United States, and the Soviets were all researching the atomic bomb. Germany fell before it could complete its research, and many of the German scientists working on the program were brought to the US to continue their research in New Mexico.
The US had two bombs, the Soviets none. Even though the Soviets were allies, they were not friends, and Truman decided to not only bring the Pacific war to an end without having to invade Japan, but to show the Soviets the capability the US had in destructive power.
So, the bombs were not just to bring the war to an end, they were not just to exact vengeance on the Japanese, but it was a demonstration for the Soviets.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian J. Samuel Walker wrote:
“The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisors knew it.”
Scholars are not soldiers, nor the people tasked with making these decisions, and we are the better for it. The reason for the demonstration was to show the Soviets that their plans for expansion would be opposed, and we had the capability of destroying them.
Few people realized at the time that this would lead to the Cold War, or to Korea, or to Vietnam.
Did the desire for revenge make our ancestors wrong? Did it make them evil?
After 9/11, the people of this nation wanted blood. Only the most cowardly of us didn’t.
It’s easy to forget that today, 12 years after the fact.
History is something that needs to be studied with objectivity, not an agenda. Had the US not developed the bomb and used it, someone else would have, most probably the Soviet Union.
Did we have to use the bomb on Japan?
Or would we have been satisfied with another million men coming home killed or maimed?
In 1963, former President Harry Truman wrote the following letter:
August 5, 1963
I appreciated most highly your column of July 30th, a copy of which you sent me.
I have been rather careful not to comment on the articles that have been written on the dropping of the bomb for the simple reason that the dropping of the bomb was completely and thoroughly explained in my Memoirs, and it was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the American side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did. It probably also saved a half million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life.
You must always remember that people forget, as you said in your column, that the bombing of Pearl Harbor was done while we were at peace with Japan and trying our best to negotiate a treaty with them.
All you have to do is to go out and stand on the keel of the Battleship in Pearl Harbor with the 3,000 youngsters underneath it who had no chance whatever of saving their lives. That is true of two or three other battleships that were sunk in Pearl Harbor. Altogether, there were between 3,000 and 6,000 youngsters killed at that time without any declaration of war. It was plain murder.
I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war that would have killed a half a million youngsters on both sides if those bombs had not been dropped. I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again — and this letter is not confidential.
Harry S. Truman
Did we have to drop the bomb?
I think yes, we absolutely had to.