The Atomic Attacks on Japan: Justified or Not?

It is August, 2020, now seventy-five years since the end of America's World War II hostilities with the nation then known as the Empire of Japan.  August 6 and 9 are the historic anniversary dates of the first and only use of nuclear weapons in warfare.  In the ensuing three quarters of a century, the attacks of 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — their usefulness and their rectitude —  have been the subject of vigorous debate over their military, scientific, political, historic, and moral significance.

Schools of thought regarding yes-or-no justification generally break down as follows:

Yes.  The European and Pacific wars were already too costly in lives and property.  A quick end was mandatory.

No.  The European war was already over, and the Pacific conflict was winding down.  The Soviet Union, free from battling Germany, was soon to engage in hostile action against Japan.

Yes.  There were no good options.  This was the least bad alternative.

No.  Regardless of military considerations, the attacks were a crime against humanity for the massive carnage of Japan's innocent civilian population, and Japan was presumably about to capitulate.  America should apologize to Japan.

Yes.  Western notions of chivalry, honor, and humane treatment of vanquished opponents were alien to Japan's ruthless, barbarous, and sadistic military culture.  A powerful checkmate was required, and Japan should apologize to the world.

The atomic attacks by the United States Army Air Force on the two Japanese cities undeniably were horrific tragedies.  Abstracted from historical context, by themselves, they do suggest extravagant cruelty in a purely vengeful act by this nation.  And they provide ready ammunition for the "Shame America" movement, now in high gear over America's history of slavery, accusations of endemic racism, and other assorted offenses.  But it is intellectually dishonest to ignore that context.

I lean toward the view that no options were good, given what was known at the time.  It is true that a desire for payback existed in the American psyche for the 1941 surprise Pearl Harbor attack, accentuated by the phenomenal and murderous brutality of the Japanese war machine against both civilian populations and military opponents in the Pacific islands and eastern Asia.  But the path chosen was primarily the one expected to afford the earliest cessation of overt hostilities, hopefully minimizing casualties and destruction on both sides, both military and civilian.  We must honestly consider the circumstances faced by our leaders at the time, who couldn't benefit from the ensuing decades of analysis, discussion, and debate that inform our views today.

The ultra-secret Manhattan Project — the American effort to develop the atomic bomb — fell unexpectedly into the lap of the newly sworn President Harry Truman following the April 12, 1945, death of his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt.  Suddenly chief executive, Truman had no prior knowledge of the project's existence until minimally informed of it later that day.  It would be another two weeks before he would be fully briefed on the new weapon's potential capability.

At that point, this nation was three and a half years into the most catastrophic global conflict in history.  The war in Europe was in its final days, leaving colossal pain and misery.  The Pacific war was continuing to exact a similar price.  Though the Japanese military was retreating to its homeland, it was bracing itself and the civilian population for a fanatical defense against invasion that would have been a prolonged struggle of transcendent bitterness, a fight to the death for everyone — invaders and defenders alike.

Suddenly, Truman held a tool purportedly able to short-circuit all that.  He had the best advice available at the time for assessing the military, scientific, political, and diplomatic implications.  But he couldn't benefit from the decades of nuclear testing and the insights these would produce and that now inspire our latter-day detractors, smug in their Monday-morning quarterbacking.  This was a weapon unlike anything that had come before it.  The overriding mood at the time was "end the war" as expeditiously as possible.  Our strategic leaders had no prior mental calibration for concluding a war in this manner.  There was no way they could fully appreciate what they held, together with the entirety of its short-term and long-term implications.

How could things have been done differently?  Different scenarios have been suggested, each with its own advantages and risks.

First was to proceed with the atomic attacks, as was done.  Soldier and civilian casualties resulting from the atomic attacks are variously estimated as on the order of 200,000, and property destruction was immense.  And while we should regret the horrific civilian toll, the fact remained that targets with purely military significance in Japan were a challenge to select due to that nation's inherently dense packing of population with industrial and military centers of strategic importance.

Second would be to stage a demonstration atmospheric burst in a remote location with Japanese observers in attendance, coupled with a declaration of intent and an ultimatum.  Two obvious disadvantages were (1) that it still might not have penetrated the hidebound Japanese military mindset, which was already shrugging off America's ultimatums, and (2) the devices suffered a munitions shortage and were still substantially untested.  A dud would have yielded no strategic or psychological benefit and, worse, potentially leave the United States in a compromised and uncertain military posture.

Third would be continued conventional bombing of Japanese cities until Japan sued for peace.  But by August 1945, air raids had already claimed Japanese lives variously estimated at 333,000 to as many as 900,000, with no sign of weakening in Japan's resolve.  This would make inevitable the...

Fourth option: Allied invasion of Japan.  But Japan's fight-to-mutual-annihilation military ethos threatened a seemingly endless holocaust, fathomless casualty count, and eventual destruction of the country itself.  It's not hard to envision a total loss to both sides in the multiple millions, eclipsing the nuclear casualties manyfold.

And consider the likelihood of word subsequently leaking out — as eventually it would — of the existence of a secret new weapon of enormous strategic power, one that might have ended the misery sooner, but not used for reasons undecipherable to the American populace.  Things might not have gone well politically for Truman and his advisers.  The man who coined "The Buck Stops Here" might have been able to weather the commotion, but one can well imagine raging calls for his impeachment.

Further, without the shock value to the world of the atomic attacks, it seems reasonable to suspect we might have gone into the subsequent Cold War stalemate with a more cavalier attitude about the use of nuclear weapons, offering risk of a much deadlier future outcome.

Idealists might also imagine a fifth option: to scrub the atomic program, then negotiate a compromise armistice, a sort of "let's just agree to disagree and move on."  This would leave the Japanese homeland intact and cede to Japan some limited territorial treasure but confirm gains made by the Allies in the Pacific and Asia.  My hunch is that this would have produced an uneasy truce similar to what we now have with North Korea, with the Japanese feudal military temperament still in place and dominant, possibly calculating its next escapade.  And it is doubtful that the world would be awash as it is now with the excellent produce of a reformed postwar Japanese industry: automobiles, electronics, cameras, appliances, and other interesting products.  Americans, war-fatigued as they were, would be in no mood for such a hollow outcome.

Wars and their postmortem historical analyses are full of what-ifs, which we can dissect until the end of days.  But our leaders, I will assert, made the best possible use of available facts in a complex, confusing, and difficult situation, and executed the shrewdest choice that anyone could have done in the circumstances.  We freely talk about "the fog of war," but historical analysis offers its own often impenetrable haze.  None of this discussion yet engages in the additional complicating factor of the Soviet Union's late arrival into the conflict with Japan.

I conclude on a brief personal note.

My late father, Karl Fitzgibbons, was a prisoner of the Japanese.  He participated in the beleaguered defense of the Bataan Peninsula, survived the horrifyingly brutal 1942 Bataan Death March, and endured two years of cruel captivity in the Cabanatuan Prison Camp.  Then, in mid-1944, he was one of 1,600 prisoners packed into the cramped and fetid hold of the Nissyo Maru, one of the "Hell Ships," and transported to Japan, risking attack and sinking by U.S. submarines along the way.  He was interned in one of many prison camps, this one in Kokura on the southern island, Kyushu, and pressed into forced labor in the nearby Yawata (Yahata) Steel Works.

In the closing months of the war, the Japanese command issued a Kill All Prisoners Order to prevent uprisings and eliminate the possibility of escapees turning into a hostile fighting force.  Guards committed the December 14, 1944 massacre at the Puerto Princesa camp on the Philippine island of Palawan by herding their charges into trenches, dousing and torching them with barrels of gasoline, and finishing them off with machine gun fire.  Intelligence of this atrocity subsequently reaching the American command led to the breathtaking January 30, 1945 rescue mission, the Raid at Cabanatuan, now the subject of two books and a riveting motion picture.

Given this reality, there is little doubt that, had an Allied invasion of Japan taken place, the thousands of prisoners held on its home turf would have been expediently dispatched, to free guard details for homeland defense and to preclude any interference by prisoners.

Hiroshima was the August 6 target.  Kokura was the primary target of the August 9 mission, but the intended drop zone was obscured that morning by heavy cloud cover.  After several unsuccessful passes over the target area, the crew aboard the B-29 bomber, "Bock's Car," proceeded to the designated alternate,  Nagasaki, some 95 miles away, and completed the mission.

Japan capitulated a few days later.  The prisoners were soon freed and sent home for recovery and rehabilitation, with Dad returning to his home state, California.  There he met and married the Army nurse who aided his rehabilitation, and they soon started a family.  He finished his education and embarked on a long and successful professional career.

As noted, war is full of "what-ifs."  Dad had numerous near-death experiences, but in this case, the atomic bomb probably saved his life, though it nearly ended it.  That is my personal note — of how close I, one of the postwar "Baby Boomers," came to not being here to share this.

After the war, Dad recovered and quietly made his own private personal peace with the Japanese, to the point of unconditionally forgiving them for his mistreatment.  Decades later, he and my mother even visited both Bataan and Japan as tourists, in a pilgrimage that was at once healing and cathartic.

I quietly grieve for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, just as I do for those of Pearl Harbor, Nanking, London, Dresden, Berlin, Leningrad, Auschwitz, and the steamy jungles of the western Pacific.  But it's my dad's gentle spirit that illuminates my views on this subject, not the hateful vituperations of the "Shame America" crowd.  They can spare us more of their self-aggrandizing cheap shots.

Instead, let us all humbly admit that World War II was a monstrous catastrophe that stole some 60 million lives and ruined innumerable others.  A lot of things — too many — just plain went wrong.  It's the nature of warfare and why we must earnestly strive to avoid it.

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