Today is the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the first time that a nuclear weapon had been used in combat. According to the most reliable estimates, around 90,000 people – most of them civilians – were killed (70,000 died three days later when Nagasaki was bombed), and thousands more would suffer from the effects of radiation in the years/decades to come. The sight of a massive mushroom cloud over a completely pulverized city has since been etched into humanity’s collective consciousness, serving a terrifying reminder of the horrors of war and of the apocalyptic potential of nuclear warfare. But the most uncomfortable questions remain: was it necessary? Was it justified? These questions have divided opinions for decades. On one hand, there are those who believe that dropping the bomb was essential for bringing World War II to a quick end, thus saving countless more lives. However, there are those who believe that the use of such a powerful weapon against a defenseless civilian population is a crime against humanity irrespective of anything else.
Here is my view regarding some of the most common arguments.
The atomic bombings ended the war quickly and saved more lives
It’s quite hard to counter-argue this point. At the time of the bombings, the US and its allies had already planned a two-part invasion of the Japanese home islands, starting with Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1st 1945 (X-Day). The forces assembled for this operation dwarfed those that took part in the Normandy landings a year earlier: 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, and 400 other warships would cover an invasion force of 14 combat divisions. Before this, the Japanese islands would be relentlessly pounded by air attack (aided by the re-deployment of many of the air forces based in Europe), increasing the devastation compared to what Japan had already experienced. In fact, the deadliest single aerial bombardment in history was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki but a conventional attack against Tokyo by 334 B-29 bombers on the night of March 9th 1945. The ensuing firestorm destroyed a large part of the capital and killed at least 100,000 people (and left a million homeless).
The invasion of Kyushu would not be the end of it. A second and even larger invasion of the main island of Honshu (Operation Coronet) was scheduled for March 1st 1946 (Y-Day), involving 25 divisions, twice as many as on D-Day. It was expected that the Japanese would fight to the death for every square inch of their sacred homeland and there were still around 2 million soldiers on the home islands. A civil defense corps numbering 28 million was also expected to join in, fighting with anything from sharpened bamboo sticks to bayonets and grenades. Back in April, the invasion of Iwo Jima – a tiny volcanic rock – took over a month and resulted in 7,000 dead Marines (one tenth of the invasion force) and 20,000 wounded. Around the same time, taking Okinawa took nearly three months, and resulted in 20,000 dead (also around a tenth of the invasion force) and 55,000 wounded. Okinawa was actually the largest land battle fought by the US in the Pacific, and yet would be on a tiny scale compared to what lied ahead if the invasions of Kyushu and Honshu were to take place.
Estimates of how many Allied casualties would be incurred in Kyushu and Honshu ranged from a conservative 400,000 dead to well over a million. Assuming that the Japanese would fight with same level of ferociousness that had characterized them so far, it is clear that it would have been a bloodbath on both sides, one that would have only ended the moment US troops marched into the Imperial Palace. The Japanese themselves estimated 20 million dead. On a simple balance of death, it is clear that the combined dead from the atomic bombings – while still appallingly high – was a fraction of the dead that would have resulted if conventional forces alone had been used to bring about the defeat of Japan.
It was a crime against humanity because of the long term effects
The casualty count of the two atomic bombings would multiply in the following weeks, months, or even years, due to the effects of burns and other injuries, malnutrition, and of course, radiation sickness. It is estimated that around 15-20% of the total fatalities from the bombings was the result of radioactive fallout. There is a belief that the effects of radiation were poorly known at the time, which therefore resulted in very little consideration of the long-term effects of the bombing. This is only partially true. Ionizing radiation had been studied well before the Manhattan Project came into being and Robert Oppenheimer along with most of the other scientists were patently aware that the atomic bomb would produce radioactive fallout although the severity of it was still somewhat of a mystery. Proof of this is that famous picture of Oppenheimer along with Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves and some reporters standing on ground zero of the Trinity test (the first detonation in the Nevada desert) a few weeks later. Some of them even kept pieces of radioactive glass to use as necklaces!
According to a relatively recent paper, “A Very Pleasant Way to Die”: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb against Japan by historian Sean L. Malloy, the fundamental problem was that the decision-making process in the Manhattan Project was highly compartmentalized and therefore no proper warning of the effects was moved up the chain of command. The political leaders in charge of the decision of dropping the bomb, including US president Harry Truman, were therefore also completely uninformed of the dangers of fallout. In any case, whether an “extra” 15-20% dead would have been enough for Truman to cancel the bombings is unlikely and if anything, this is the strongest argument – in my view – of using the bomb. If you were in Truman’s shoes, and received word that your military had invented a wonder weapon that could end the war resulting in zero casualties for your own troops at the cost of two enemy cities destroyed (out of the dozens that had already been obliterated by conventional bombers in both Japan and Germany), would you say no? If anything, it would have been completely irresponsible on his part to have decided against saving his own countrymen’s lives.
Although tens of thousands of civilians would die of radiation, the height of the detonation of the two bombs actually had the effect of reducing the amount of fallout released since it was optimized for blast and thermal effects. And certainly compared to the nuclear weapons developed during the Cold War, the Hiroshima and (slightly more powerful) Nagasaki blasts were pinpricks: the Hiroshima bomb was the equivalent of 18,000 tons of TNT, whereas the infamous Tsar Bomba tested by the Soviet Union in 1961 was a monstrous 50 million tons. Likewise, the fallout generated was also a fraction of that in a nuclear power plant meltdown: the Chernobyl disaster released an estimated 400 times more than the Hiroshima bomb and of longer-term, hence why Chernobyl is still uninhabitable whereas Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities. Even when counting the long-term dead, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki seem to stack up to the many other human atrocities committed in World War II, not least the Holocaust (6 million) or – on the Japanese side – the millions of Chinese civilians killed during their occupation (the Nanking Massacre in 1937 alone left 200,000 dead).
Would the Japanese not have dropped them on the US?
The final argument is one of morality. It would be hard to justify using a war-winning weapon if there was the belief that such a weapon would be so destructive, so inhumane, that even your enemy would not dare use it against you. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to imagine that the Imperial Japanese government at the time would have not used it against the Allies if it had the chance, in which case we would be talking about the atomic destruction of San Francisco and Los Angeles instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, all the evidence points towards the assumption that the Axis powers would have stopped at nothing in order to win the war, regardless of the moral consequences. In many ways, the actions taken by the Japanese government were as bad as the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Since 1937 the Japanese had been on a rampage in China, where up to 10-15 million civilians would be killed over the course of the war – only the Soviet Union saw a greater loss of life. Japan’s treatment of Allied prisoners of war was also among the most barbarous in modern history, even worse than that of the Nazis (Soviet prisoners notwithstanding). Because of this, I cannot for a moment imagine General Tojo being told that he could vaporize a US city and then refraining to do so on the grounds that it would be a crime against humanity.
Of course, the counterargument to this is that this gives any country a carte blanche to use whatever means possible to win a war if their opponent did it first, war crimes be damned. Certainly part of the appeal of the Allies was that they held the moral high ground even if there are some serious caveats to their self-portrayal as purely benevolent powers: one was an mass-murdering authoritarian regime (USSR), the other was a colonial empire with a quarter of the globe as its subjects (Britain), and the other had institutionalized racism on the level of Apartheid (the US). Still, nothing that the US or the British did during World War II even remotely compares to the brutal actions of the Axis. And as the numbers mentioned above make it clear, it does not appear to me that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were necessarily that much worse than any other military operation undertaken by the Allies and which do not receive nearly a fraction of the outrage. More civilians died in conventional bombings. More airmen died inside those same bombers doing the bombing. It seems to me it is the psychological aspect of a city being reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds by a single bomb that is most disturbing, rather than the actual death and damage caused. Little wonder the shock of the B-29 pilots: the co-pilot of the Enola Gay wrote “My god, what have we done?” in his log while observing the mushroom cloud that he and his crew had unleashed. I doubt he would have felt such guilt if he had shared an equivalent act of destruction with 300 more co-pilots. Placing it in the context of the potential nuclear annihilation of mankind during the Cold War and you can further understand why the atomic attacks against Japan are so particularly uncomfortable to process.
There are many other arguments on why the bomb should not have been dropped but it is not clear to me that any of these have any particular merit. One is that the bombs were used only to “scare the Russians” yet the Red Army began its invasion of Manchuria on the very same day of the Nagasaki bomb, and would roll into Korea just a few days later. Others claim that the bombings were racially motivated. It is certainly true that Americans (and most Westerners) had broadly racist views on Asians at the time, but this would seem to imply that the US would not have bombed Germany with atomic weapons if the war in Europe had still been raging: if anything, Germany would have probably been bombed first since they were seen the bigger global threat. Another view holds that the Allies could have ended the war by not insisting on an unconditional surrender. However, some historians have argued instead that unconditional surrender had the effect of fully de-legitimizing fascism/militarism in the view of the defeated population, and therefore eased their transition to democracy. Proof of this is that the two main Axis powers have been quite the peaceniks since. Lastly, there is the argument that the US could have conducted a “demonstration”, that is, used the bomb on an unpopulated area to show the Japanese what would befall them. Would this have worked? Possibly but I wouldn’t count on it. The fact that the Japanese government on August 9th was still split on whether to continue the war or surrender suggests that even being on the receiving end of two atomic bombs was not enough to single-handedly convince the militarists to lay down their arms.
That said, to say that the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be downplayed would be a detriment to our understanding of what is without a doubt the darkest period in human history. Whether it is the images of the mushroom cloud, or of the devastated cities, or of the victims burned by the bomb blast or dying from the fallout, what befell these two cities in August 1945 are incontestable tragedies for the Japanese people and especially for the hibakusha (survivors) who still live today with the physical and psychological scars. But in war where all the major powers were both victims and perpetrators of vast destruction, singling out these two tragedies as being of an order of magnitude above all the others is ignorant at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst. The fact that much of the anti-bomb crowd overlaps quite neatly with the anti-US crowd further suggests that the real anger is not toward the fact that two atomic bombs were dropped but rather towards the country that dropped them.
Towards a nuclear-free world
Ultimately the real tragedy is that World War II got to the point where weapons of mass destruction needed to be used to bring history’s deadliest conflict to an end. On a positive note, that no other nuclear weapon has been used in anger since is perhaps the best proof that in this rare case, humanity learned its lesson. At least partly. We still live in a world where thousands of nuclear weapons are stockpiled, even though these are but a fraction of those deployed during the peak of the Cold War. Given the significant retaliatory effects of these weapons, it’s pretty much unthinkable that we will live in a nuclear-free world anytime soon. Hopefully common sense, rather than more mushroom clouds, will make us realize that we can still do better.