See Infra

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Monthly Archives: May 2016

Questioning the Atomic Bombings

We’re collectively obsessed with having the right answers when we should be making sure we’re asking the right questions. It’s an unfortunate tendency, perhaps most obvious in politics. President Obama visited one of our core allies today, a little island nation that, some seven decades ago, we dropped two atomic bombs on. So, of course, we’ve been asking if Obama will apologize[1] (he didn’t) less time on whether he should, and almost no time asking whether the bombing was justified in the first place. But I get it. Questions are hard.[2]

We really do have to ask the right questions, because otherwise we may confuse an argument for a question, and a question for an answer. Whenever the morality of the bombings is debated a host of bad questions-as-arguments-as-answers arise. “Why didn’t we just wait for them to surrender?” “Wasn’t Truman worried about the rising Soviet empire”? “Why did we bomb Nagasaki after we’ve proven our point at Hiroshima?” “Why drop two bombs?” But we forget other, more salient questions. “Should Imperial Japan have been allowed to hold Chinese territory as Manchukuo?” “Should Imperial Japan be allowed to occupy Korea, the islands, and New Guinea?” The Allies[3] chose to answer no; Japan may live on, but the Empire would have to end with Japan’s surrender or occupation. So, let’s ask the right question: in light of what the Allies knew, suspected, and should have known about the Empire of Japan’s intentions, were the atomic bombings justified?

In order to answer that question, we must establish our baseline. Where did the Pacific War stand on August 5, 1945, the eve before the bombs fell? Well, for the Empire of Japan, it was a combination of failure and resistance. Since mid-1944, the Empire of Japan had been in complete strategic retreat, having lost control over several of its holdings. The only possible bright spots in this string of losses were some efforts in China and Indochina, parts of which they managed to control through puppet states or straight up occupation. The Imperial Japanese Army did manage to achieve some victories, but they were so strategically unimportant that they have been mostly forgotten. So in a real sense, all the Imperial Japanese Army accomplished was sacrificing the lives of their men to kill Chinese soldiers and civilians. In June 1944, the Allies stepped up strategic bombing raids. Which is to say they carpet-bombed Japanese cities with bombs designed to cause massive fires, Japanese had few trained firefighters and fewer bomb shelters with which to resist the firebombs, and little apparent interest in making more. In October of 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy started forcing its young, talented pilots to fly aircraft laden with explosives directly into Allied ships in hopes of slowing the Allied advance. And so it went on. Low on fuel and short on victories, the Empire of Japan fought a bloody, vicious retreat month and month, stealing from its own future by ordering its young men to suicide. All while his cities and people burned without hope of relief.

On July 26, the Allies had asked – demanded – the Empire of Japan surrender with the Postdam Declaration. The Postdam Declaration was simple: surrender or be destroyed. Ten days of deliberate Japanese non-answer, with no intention to change.

That is where the world stood on August 5, 1945.

The moral worth of a decision is made by weighing the alternatives. So what were the alternatives, from the night of August 5, 1945, to dropping an atomic bomb on August 6? Ending the empire meant victory, and without a new plan, victory meant strategic bombing and invasion. Even for a war that had seen death on an immense scale, an invasion promised to be bloody beyond nightmares. The Empire of Japan had inculcated in its people a sense of desperate resistance, a devotion to the final defense of honor, home, and family. Surrender was not an option for his people, as the Empire chose otherwise. So the Allies had thus been left with two alternatives left. One, spend countless lives, kill countless more civilians, extend the war to obtain total military victory. Two, find a sufficiently dramatic way to force the Empire of Japan to surrender.

So it was that on August 6, 1945 downtown Hiroshima and around 80,000 of his people evaporated into a mushroom cloud. Truman warned of more, saying that if the Empire of Japan “do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.” The Empire of Japan again stayed deliberately silent in non-answer. The heads of the regime wanted a dignified surrender. They wanted to keep control. They did not want puppet governments and occupation.[4] When the Soviets marched to war, they continued to demand these conditions. After all, they had determined only one or two more atomic bombs coming. The Empire could survive the bombs, even if another Japanese city would disappear into ash.[5]

So, on August 9, another bomb was dropped. A miss of 1.3 kilometers during the Nagasaki bombing run meant only tens of thousands of people in the Urakami Valley were annihilated instead of the targeted downtown area. Finally, finally, that was enough to spark the decision to surrender, though that in turn sparked a coup attempt in order to continue the war. The plotters were defeated and the Empire of Japan finally announced their surrender August 15, 1945.

So, were the atomic bombings justified? Well, in the end it did not take an atomic bomb to force Japan into surrender; it took two.


[1] And if how would people interpret it anyway? And how will it affect the upcoming presidential election?

[2] Perhaps it is a feature of our culture that we don’t like asking these questions because we take a question itself as a sign of challenge or even guilt. Somehow the idea that asking if bombing Hiroshima or Nagasaki could have, should have been avoided necessitates the answer be something other than “no.”

[3] The late Pacific War was primarily an American war effort against the Japanese, but I feel it is appropriate to share credit and blame among the allied powers broadly, especially in light of the China factor.

[4] It seems they knew with precision how bad occupation got from one side and had no interest in the other.

[5] This was an estimation by Admiral Toyoda, Chief of the Naval General Staff. He was wrong, many, many more bombs were slated for production.