Sunday, August 07, 2005

"The Least Abhorrent Choice": The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb

Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 Japanese, mostly, though not entirely, civilians. It was a horrific end to the most horrific war in history. It introduced the world to the terrors of the nuclear era. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become favorite talking points for those who hate America. Even Osama bin Laden has referenced them. So was the decision to use the atomic bomb morally and politically justifiable? Absolutely.

The main argument made against the use of the atomic bomb is that it was unnecessary as Japan was already looking to surrender. This was most definitely not the case. As historian Richard B. Frank has shown, the militarist Japanese regime was seeking "not only the preservation of the imperial system, but also preservation of the old order in Japan that had launched a war of aggression that killed 17 million." Allowing that system to survive would have meant abandoning the longstanding allied policy of unconditional surrender. More importantly, it would have allowed the architects of Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, Rape of Nanking, Sook Ching Massacre, and Unit 731 to retain power and even proclaim victory over the decadent United States. This would have made a mockery of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, and set the stage for a second Pacific war.

The goal of the Japanese regime was to break America's will to fight by making any attempted invasion of Japan into an unimaginable bloodbath. The Japanese had massed hundreds of thousands of troops on the island of Kyushu to confront the expected American attack. They had assembled over 10,000 planes, half of which were intended for use as suicide bombs (kamikazes). The militarists even mobilized the bulk of the civilian population. Women and teenagers were given bamboo spears with orders to fight to the death. Considering that the Japanese had killed over 12,000 Americans during the battle for Okinawa in mid-1945, including 5,000 sailors killed by kamikazes, their hopes of turning the planned US invasion of the home islands into a horrific slaughter were well-founded.

It was the use of the atomic bomb that compelled Japan to surrender. As Frank has shown, the militarists wanted to fight on even after Nagasaki and the Soviet entry into the war against Japan. It took an unprecedented personal intervention by Emperor Hirohito to produce Japan's surrender. Hirohito explicitly cited the atomic bomb as one of the reasons for his decision. Even then, Army officers staged a coup that almost prevented the Emperor's surrender message from being broadcast.

By forcing Japan's surrender, the atomic bomb actually saved lives. Every day that the Pacific War continued more people on both sides perished. As author and WWII veteran Paul Fussell pointed out in his seminal essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" (link in PDF; see also Austin Bay), Americans were still dying in large numbers even in August 1945. Historians have estimated that 250,000 to 400,000 Asian civilians died every month in areas occupied by the Japanese. Allied military and civilian POWs held by the Japanese in barbarous conditions were dying every day, and would have been massacred had Japan been invaded. One out of every three Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese died in captivity. The comparable figure for those held by the Germans was one in ten. Finally, as noted above, American and allied casualties resulting from an invasion of Japan would have almost certainly reached six figures.

Ironically, the atomic bomb even saved Japanese lives. An estimated 200,000 Japanese, military and civilian, were killed on Okinawa. In the event of a battle in the Japanese home islands, the Japanese death toll would surely have exceeded a million. Even worse, by late 1945 Japan was on the brink of starvation. Had the US not invaded the home islands and merely continued its blockade and air campaign, historians such as Frank estimate that as many as a million Japanese would have starved to death. Even had this compelled a Japanese surrender, it would have been too late to avert the famine.

Finally, the Soviet factor has to be remembered. On August 8th, 1945 the USSR attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea. Thanks to Japan's quick surrender, the Soviets were kept out of Japan proper. Had Stalinism come to the Japanese home islands, the human toll would likely have exceeded that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (This does not mean that the atomic bombs were dropped as a warning to the Soviets, as the "Atomic Diplomacy" school has argued. Historians such as Frank and Robert Maddox have thoroughly debunked this argument.)

Finally, when weighing the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, one needs to remember the overall context of the Pacific War. The war stemmed from a series of Japanese aggressions, starting with the occupation of Manchuria in 1931, to the invasion of China proper in 1937, and finally the conquest of Indochina (Vietnam) in 1940-41. The US had imposed economic sanctions in an effort to force the Japanese to withdraw from China and Indochina, including an oil embargo. Japan's response was Pearl Harbor.

World War II in the Pacific was waged with the utmost viciousness, by both sides. Still, the Japanese made it a point to behave barbarously towards all their adversaries, military and civilian, American, European and Asian. When the Japanese captured the then Chinese capital of Nanking in December 1937, they massacred an estimated 200,000 people. This was just one of many such atrocities carried out by the Japanese armed forces during WWII.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the only time that Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were employed during WWII. The Japanese had used biological and chemical weapons on numerous occasions in China. Tens of thousands of Chinese, possibly as many as 200,000, died as a result. In addition, Japan had its own atomic weapons program, that only a lack of resources prevented from coming to fruition. Had the Japanese militarists succeeded in developing atomic weapons, they would have had no hesitation in using them.

As horrific as the use of the atomic bomb was, it was the best course of action available to the Truman Administration at the time. An invasion of Japan would have produced the most terrible bloodbath in the history of warfare, with the combined death toll running into the millions. Relying on naval blockade and air bombardment would have created a famine that claimed far more lives than even the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Settling for a deal that left the militarists in power would have consigned the Japanese people to remain under the yoke of a brutal, fanatical regime that had led their country to the brink of destruction and was willing to sacrifice them by the millions to remain in power. Alternately, it would have resulted in a Soviet invasion and occupation of Japan with all the attendant horrors of Stalinism.

Considering the circumstances that existed in August 1945, it is clear that employing the atomic bomb was indeed, in the words of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, "the least abhorrent choice" available.


Post a Comment

<< Home