Unpopular Opinions: In Defense of the Nuke

Sorry folks, I really meant to post this in time for the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when my wonderful, kindhearted, and sometimes misinformed friends start posting about what horrible people we are for nuking Japan.  But dinner is quietly simmering on the stove and I haven’t time to delve into my novel project, so here it is.  Removed from human empathy, here is a simple, fact based argument about why the bombings were justified.

Why did the United States drop two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945? 

If anything was clear after Okinawa and Iwo Jima, it was that the Japanese would not give up the fight easily.  At this point their loss was inevitable; they were too short of resources, they had lost too much land to the Americans, their navy had been utterly destroyed, their people were going hungry, and the rice crop was a near failure.  However, if they were going to go down they were going to do it fighting, and they were going to be darn sure to take as many Americans with them as possible.  At Iwo Jima, 20k Japanese held off 70k Americans for six weeks.  At Okinawa, they inflicted 35% casualties upon us and their chilling Kamikaze attacks left an indelible impression.  The sheer fanatic determination of the army aside, at home they were drilling school children on how to kill soldiers with bamboo pikes.  They were also planning to use plague as a biological weapon against U.S. civilians in San Diego, California, during Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, hoping that the plague would spread terror to the American population, and thereby dissuade America from attacking Japan. The plan was set to launch at night on September 22, 1945, but Japan surrendered five weeks earlier.[79]

The planned invasion of the Japanese home islands was estimated to be costly indeed, with casualties for Operation Olympic alone expected to  be at least as high as Okinawa, bringing the number of dead Americans to approximately 270,000 just for that island.[1]  It was assumed that Olympic and Coronet would be more difficult than the invasion of Normandy – an obvious conclusion, since the Germans were not on their home turf and therefore would not have the same urge to fight and defend as the Japanese.  Furthermore, our intelligence indicated that the Japanese were not willing to accept our offered surrender terms.  Instead they repeatedly turned to Russia for aid which they did not receive. Our troops were tired and overworked and the concept of reinforcing them with troops from Europe was not a popular one.[2]  When the Japanese responded to the Potsdam Declaration with “silent contempt” and the newspapers referred to it as a “laughable matter” we were pretty well set on the decision to bomb.[3]

Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki legitimate military targets? 

I wrote two paragraphs on this question and then deleted them in the name of simplicity, because I can answer this question in one sentence: they were as legitimate as any of the other 67 Japanese cities we roasted.[4]

How are we defining “legitimate military targets?”  If we define as legitimate anything that could have a chance of ending the war, which was the purpose of the nukes, then yes, these two cities were legitimate military targets.  If we look at the fact that we had already firebombed approximately 70 of Japan’s cities to meet this end, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki were as legitimate as any of those other 70 cities.  If we take into account that at the time, Fat Man and Little Boy were considered by many in the military (and even by the Japanese up until Bikini) to be just really big bombs, then the two aren’t necessarily very different from the other cities we roasted – we just changed our methods.  Which of our readings had the bit about how the bombs were nothing more than artillery, and whichever side had the best artillery won?  Do I think it’s cool that we went after two cities of civilians?  Nope.  But we had already done that 70 times before, so why stop with these two?

We don’t fuss over the nuclear bombings of Japan because of the number of casualties; Tokyo alone was deadlier.  It’s the shock and awe factor of the type of weapon we used, and the ways in which it changed the world.

Were there any viable alternatives that might have brought Japan to surrender?

General Arnold believed we could have bombed them into surrender.[5]   However, lets rewind and take a quick peek at the bombing campaign against the Japanese.

Air war in general and particularly bombing had a huge learning curve to get over.  The statistics you get from the accuracies of WWII “precision” bombing always make the term seem rather ironic.  As such, the initial strategic bombing of Japanese targets was not exactly effective.

The concept of bombing civilian populations had once been considered highly taboo.  However, these romantic and chivalrous notions soon faded as early as the Battle of Britain.  The bombing of civilian populations during the Second World War was actually started by accident.  Hitler had forbidden such bombings  in August of 1940.  Then one night a Luftwaffe pilot got lost while flying raids on airfields over England, mistakenly bombing an airfield on the outskirts of London when the target was actually elsewhere – at least that was Air Marshall Hugh Dowding’s interpretation of the event. [8]  Churchill didn’t care if it was an accident or not.  He retaliated, and Hitler responded in kind, and it went from there, with America eventually joining in.  Our bombing of Japanese civilian populations was made easy thanks to Pearl Harbor, atrocities in China, and American propaganda.  The somewhat whimsical fire-balloon campaign also encouraged us, in which the Japanese launched nearly ten thousand balloons loaded with incendiaries into the jet stream.  The idea was to (rather passively on their part) wreck fiery havoc on North American cities and forests; however, only three hundred of these balloons were spotted and/or shot down, and only six people died in the single instance in which one of these actually managed to start a fire.

The bombing of Japan was made possible by the creation of the B-29 Super Fortresses in 1943.[9]  Never actually employed against the Germans, Spector repeatedly maintains that our strategic bombing raids against Japan were rather ineffective and had little impact on the Japanese war machine.[10]  He lists many reasons for this – the few sorties we flew were not often aimed at the home islands (needed more air strips for one, hence Philippines, Iwo, etc), their raids on Manchuria were pointless because Japan had already been cut off from her supplies there, later raids on Japanese aircraft facilities were hopelessly inaccurate, and many of the planes went down or remained grounded due to bugs and flaws.  The success of the bombing campaign came in when we decided to employ incendiaries against Japanese cities – perfect targets for such things due to all those elegant paper walls.

The first fire-bombing raid on Tokyo was the most destructive bombing raid in history. After all, if one isn’t concerned about damaging civilians then you don’t necessarily need to hit that factory… you just need to hit *near* it and wait for the fire to spread.  “Precision” bombing was soon nixed for area attacks with fire.  From there, we burnt out the major Japanese cities, gutting on average 40% of their urban area and disrupting their industry by destroying factories, killing workers, and/or rendering them homeless. [11]

While the fire bombings were effective in slowing the Japanese war machine and inflicting casualties, misery, and privations on the population, it was not a decisive weapon.  In spite of the damage the Japanese government refused to surrender, and, as we had repeatedly discovered, Douhet was wrong and bombing civilians did not cause them to revolt.  Even though the Tokyo fire bombing killed more people than both nukes combined, it was the A-bomb, and not the earlier strategic bombing, that was decisive, shocking the Japanese into admitting defeat.

[1] Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 543.

[2] Spector, 544.

[3] John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: The Modern Library, 2003),774.

[4] http://www.ditext.com/japan/napalm.html

[5] Toland, 774.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard B Frank. Why Truman Dropped the Bomb, The Weekly Standard,  (Washington: Aug 8, 2005). Vol. 10, Iss. 44; pg. 20, 5 pgs

[8] Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 197.

[9] Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 489.

[10] Spector, 491, 503.

[11] Spector, 505.