As some readers may know, my first career was as a scholar of Japan. I earned three advanced degrees related to the subject at Harvard, taught it at Harvard and Columbia Universities, and have been a visiting professor at Japan’s preeminent anthropology institution. Inevitably, the subject of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima has been of deep interest, and I have visited that city many times starting in 1967.
I have no doubt at all that despite the horrors inflicted on innocent citizens of Japan in Hiroshima (and not forgetting thousands of Koreans imported as virtual slave laborers in the factories of that city), President Harry Truman made the correct decision, after prayer, in deciding to launch the nuclear attack. It was horrible, horrible, horrible, unquestionably. But it averted horrors that would have been much worse, had the United States been forced to invade Mainland Japan, after the bloody conquest of Okinawa.
Mushroom cloud over Hiroshma photographed from the Enola Gay (via Wikipedia)
I won’t go in depth on the details of the argument on the tradeoff, though this article published yesterday in Human Events does a good job for those who wish to familiarize themselves with the argument.
….because the Allied military planners assumed that “operations in this area will be opposed not only by the available organized military forces of the Empire [of Japan], but also by a fanatically hostile population,” astronomical casualties were thought to be inevitable. The losses between February and June 1945, just from the Allied invasions of the Japanese-held islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were staggering: 18,000 dead and 78,000 wounded. That harrowing experience was accounted for while planning for the final invasion. (snip)
A study performed by physicist (and future Nobel Laureate) William Shockley for the War Department in 1945 estimated that the invasion of Japan would have cost 1.7-4 million American casualties, including 400,000-800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese deaths. These fatality estimates were, of course, in addition to the members of the military who had already perished during almost four long years of war; American deaths were already about 292,000. The implications of those numbers are staggering: the invasion of Japan could have resulted in the death of more than twice as many Americans as had already been killed in the European and Pacific theaters of WWII up to that time!
Instead, I want to recount an anecdote told to me by an old friend who was an 8-year-old boy living in Kyushu, the Mainland island closest to Okinawa and considered the likely first site for the invasion. My friend is very glad that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were A-bombed, causing Japan to finally give up surrender. The reason is that he was trained to dig a hole, crouch in it with an explosive device as it was covered up with vegetation, and wait for an American soldier, or better yet a truck or a tank, arrive over him, at which point he was to act as a suicide bomber IED.
Because of the suffering of innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my friend and millions more other Japanese people and Americans were spared.
Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk reading “The buck stops here.” Thank God we had a man of his courage in place to make the fateful decision 75 years ago and bear the burden of it.