A Defense of the Use of Atomic Bombs on Japan

On August 6th, 1945, the first atomic weapon to be used in a war was detonated over Hiroshima with a blast estimated to be the equivalent of 12,500 tons of TNT (Frank,264). On August 9th, 1945, the last atomic weapon to be used in a war was detonated over Nagasaki (Frank, 283) with a blast estimated to be equivalent of 22,000 tons of TNT (Frank, 285). Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people died from the combination of both blasts and the radiation poisoning that they caused (Frank, 287). The surrender of Japan was formalized on September 2nd, 1945 (Frank, 330). To this day there is a strong debate as to whether or not the use of the atomic bombs was necessary. This paper takes the firm stance that the authorities behind the decision to use atomic weapons fulfilled the responsibilities entrusted to them to the best of their abilities with the information available.

The debate over the justification of the detonation of Little Boy and Fat Man ultimately comes down to a subjective question of morality. Therefore, before entering the debate itself, it is crucial to establish by what metric morality shall be measured. For determining whether an action was justified or not, one must first examine the entirety of the situation. Then, it is necessary to determine what all of the possible courses of action were and what all of the consequences, both positive and negative, of these courses of action would have been. Finally, a subjective calculation must be made of which result would have been the best. In cases of this scale and nature, usually this becomes a tally of the possible body counts all parties involved; attacking, defending, and any collateral casualties (civilians). When tallying the body count, it is also necessary to keep in mind who is dying. A commander who lets his troops die in order to save the lives of the enemy is grossly irresponsible and can even be charged with treason.

In 1945, when the option to use the atomic bomb was being considered, it was very clear to everyone on both sides that Japan was losing the war. However, it is wrong to assume that because they were aware that defeat was inevitable meant that they were ready to surrender. It is an ethnocentric fallacy to expect reactions from a group of people using a standard from a completely different culture. Actions that would be perceived by Americans as futile suicide would be viewed by the Japanese as honorable sacrifice. In the book Requiem for Battleship Yamatoit becomes increasingly clear that this great ship that was the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy and symbolic of the ancient Japanese Empire was sent on a suicide mission where the entirety of the crew, including the Captain, fully expect to die in battle with the Americans. It is only by sheer luck that the author survived to write the book. This was by no means an isolated incident. Over 5,000 pilots gave their lives on suicide missions called Kamikaze in the United States (Ohnuki-Tierney, 167). There were even soldiers who stayed in the jungle for years, some as late as 1974, because they would rather keep fighting than surrender (“JAPAN: The Last Last Soldier?”). One such soldier declared on his return “I am ashamed that I have returned alive,”(Kristof). Furthermore, it is evident that the decision to surrender was not widely supported, or even considered an option, in Japan even with the knowledge of the atomic bomb. One doctor, who was treating the wounded survivors of Hiroshima, recalled “The one word—surrender—had produced a greater shock than the bombing of our city.” (Frank, 321) It is also clear that many generals would never have surrendered without a direct order from the Emperor, with some even seriously considering a coup d’état to continue fighting the war (Frank, 315-320).While on their own, each of these stories may be dismissed as an isolated incident, they help to paint a picture of what the attitude of the nation as a whole was during that time.

It has sometimes been suggested that the United States could have secured the surrender of Japan with a blockade. However, this claim can be a little misleading. For one, it implies that the United States did not already blockade Japan. In fact, a establishing a blockade was one of the first things that the US Navy did as soon as they were able to (MacEachin). At a higher level of decision making, there was no scenario that the United States was considering that did not involve a blockade. The two primary plans being considered were an invasion plan and a “bomb and blockade” plan, with the United States military leadership advocating a blend of the two plans (MacEachin). Truman himself wrote in his journal “I have to decide Japanese strategy, shall we invade Japan proper or shall we bomb and blockade.” (Frank, 132) Furthermore, a pure blockade would result in casualties. As recently as the First World War, the type of blockade used by the US Navy had been considered “barbarous” because of the fact that it affected civilians as much as combat personnel (Frank, 334). Some estimate that the blockade of China during the war indirectly killed millions of people and a sustained blockade of Japan would aim for similar results (Frank, 334). In addition to the direct effect on Japan, the United States sailors would not be out of harm’s way. Estimates put Japan’s air power at the end of the war at over 10,000 planes, with ample ability to make more (Giangreco). Not only would a blockade not be a bloodless option, but the very nature of a blockade would make it the slowest option for ending the war.

The plan for the invasion was fairly simple, but involved very large numbers. After establishing a blockade, the first phase would be operation “Olympic” which would put over 750,000 troops on the southern beaches of Kyushu on November 1st, 1945 and proceed to hold the southern half of the island in preparation for the second half of the invasion (Sutherland, 8-9). On March 1st, 1945, operation “Coronet” would launch, landing over 1,000,000 troops on the beaches of the Tokyo-Yokohama area (Sutherland, 9-10). The hope was that taking the capital would secure the surrender of the rest of Japan, but there was space in the plan to use Tokyo as a staging area to remove any further Japanese resistance (Sutherland, 9-10).

The use of the atomic bombs would fall under the plan to bombard the whole of Japan. This plan had two things it tried to achieve; destroy Japan’s ability to wage war, and, if possible, secure their surrender. In total, the United States dropped 167,745 tons of conventional explosives (Frank, Appendix B) in addition to the two atomic bombs dropped. This was condensed into only a few months because the United States had only had bases in range to fly regular missions to the Japanese home island after they had taken Iwo Jima.

After the war, Truman declared that the use of the atomic bombs saved “half a million” American lives (Takaki, 22). This figure is often disputed by opponents of the bomb who quote a figure of 40,000 American deaths (not a small number on its own), citing a meeting of Truman and his advisors on June 15th, 1945 (Takaki, 23). While this was one estimate at the time, it can be a little misleading. For one, the report that the number came from replaced the number in a revision only 24-hours later with a statement that “The cost in casualties of the main operations against Japan are not subject to accurate estimate.” with the reasoning that “the scale of Japanese resistance in the past has not been predictable” (Frank, 139).This prediction proved to be almost prophetic, as only two weeks later intelligence reports indicated that Japanese defensive forces were rapidly increasing in strength “with no end in sight,” rendering any earlier estimate completely obsolete (Frank, 148) (Giangreco). While concrete casualty estimates were almost impossible to have, Marshall did bluntly declared to Truman “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war and it is the thankless task of the leaders to maintain their firm outward front which holds the resolution of their subordinates.” (Frank, 141) and gave Truman a broad estimate with a range of 250,000 to 1,000,000 American military casualties (Giangreco). Truman himself feared that invading Japan would be like “Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” (Frank, 143) Clearly, while Truman’s “half a million” American lives was never reliable as an exact number, it was by no means outside the realm of possibility or even probability. What none the estimates being considered by the United States leadership accounted for, was the potential casualty rate on the Japanese side, both military and civilian. On Okinawa, the Japanese suffered casualties at a 1:3 ratio, American to Japanese, while on Luzon the ratio was 1:5 (Frank, 140). Of course the civilian casualties would also be severe. On Okinawa somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Japanese civilians died (Frank, 188). The numbers would have probably been worse on the Japanese mainland because the Japanese were organizing the civilian population to combat the invading United States forces (Frank, 188-189). One Fifth Air Force intelligence officer declared “THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN” after taking the Japanese internal propaganda at face value (Frank, 189).

It has been speculated that the Truman had another motivation to drop the bomb, that its purpose was to intimidate the Soviet Union. There is some hard evidence to say that there was certainly some people on the government who thought this way and even presented the idea to Truman (Takaki, 62), but it is unclear how much, if at all, this figured into Truman’s thought process. However, even if he had factored in this reason to use the atomic bomb, this is not necessarily a strong argument for vilifying the use of atomic weapons against Japan. This only speaks to a possible reason for dropping their use. It is a reason that, on its own, is not enough to justify the use of atomic weapons, but also offers no reason not to use them. If there are other reasons that do make a strong enough justification for the use of atomic weapons, then the argument in favor of them is sound and this is nothing more than an added benefit to the use of atomic weapons.

The truth is that as destructive as the atomic bombs were, they were not as out of scale with the rest of the war as some people think they were. A typical B-29 carried eight to ten tons of bombs and a typical raid would deliver four to five thousand tons of bombs (Frank, 253). This makes the bomb dropped on Hiroshima equal to about two or three bombing raids while the bomb on Nagasaki was more like four or five bombing raids.Because that the effects of radiation were almost completely unknown at the time, this portrays the atomic bomb in a much different light than it is in today. In the total casualties from the bombing of Japan, the atomic bombs only accounted for about one third to one fourth of the total casualties (Frank, 334). Maybe part of the reason that the atomic weapons were so scary was because they condensed the destructive power of several bombing raids into one moment at one spot conducted by one plane rather than over weeks spread over a large area and requiring thousands of bombers. Even the argument that the cities were civilian targets and therefore inappropriate isn’t valid. Hiroshima was the headquarters of the Japanese Fifth Division and large port of embarkation in addition to holding many military supply depots and other facilities (Frank, 262). Nagasaki was home to the Mitsubishi Shipyard, which was the largest producer of Japanese air power and many other types of munitions (Frank, 284). Immediately after the war, the bomb was widely considered a good thing, especially by servicemen that felt they were saved from an invasion by it. It was not until later that there grew a strong movement that argued that the use of the atomic bombs was inappropriate (Frank, 331-332). Perhaps this is because later generations grew to equate nuclear weapons with total destruction approaching the scale of the end of the world, while in its time the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just thought of as bombs that were significantly larger than the bombs already being dropped.

Sometimes Truman is portrayed as a villain for his decision to use the atomic bombs, and it may be assumed that therefore the opposite stance is that he was a hero for his use of the atomic bombs. That is not what this paper argues. The argument here is that Truman fulfilled his duties as commander in chief, among them to protect American interests abroad through a minimal risk to American servicemen, in the best way he could once one takes into account the information that Truman had available to him.

Works Cited

Frank, Richard B. Downfall: the End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.

Giangreco, D. M. “Transcript of “OPERATION DOWNFALL [US Invasion of Japan]: US PLANS AND JAPANESE COUNTER-MEASURES” by D. M. Giangreco, US Army Command and General Staff College.” Lecture. 16 Feb. 1998. Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Mount Holyoke College. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/giangrec.htm.

“JAPAN: The Last Last Soldier?” Editorial. TIME 13 Jan. 1975. Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews – TIME.com. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,917064,00.html?iid=chix-sphere.

Kristof, Nicholas D. “Shoichi Yokoi, 82, Is Dead; Japan Soldier Hid 27 Years – New York Times.” Editorial. New York Times 26 Sept. 1997. NY Times. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/26/world/shoichi-yokoi-82-is-dead-japan-soldier-hid-27-years.html.

Mitsuru, Yoshida. Requim for Battleship Yamato. Trans. Richard H. Minear. Seattle: University of Washington, 1985. Print.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002. Print.

Takaki, Ronald T. Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. Boston: Little, Brown, and, 1995. Print.

United States of America. Central Intelligence Agency. Welcome to the CIA Web Site. By Douglas J. MacEachin. 19 Mar. 2007. Web. 15 Oct. 2011. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/the-final-months-of-the-war-with-japan-signals-intelligence-u-s-invasion-planning-and-the-a-bomb-decision/csi9810001.html.

United States of America. General Headquarters. United States Army Forces in the Pacific. “Downfall” Strategic Plan for Operations in the Japanese Archipelago. By Richard K. Sutherland. The Black Vault. Web. 1 Sept. 2011. http://www.blackvault.com/documents/wwii/marine1/1239.pdf.

This is a paper I wrote nearly a decade ago for a college class. Most of the links I included in my sources are now defunct since it has been so long but I will leave them up in case any internet sleuths really want to dig them up. I would also like to note that since writing this paper I became aware of the Kyūjō incident which I feel reinforces my argument of the unlikeliness of a total Japanese surrender without total war.


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