The Anniversary

Today is the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. The New Yorker is republishing John Hersey’s essay Hiroshima, which originally appeared in the August 31, 1946 issue. The essay centers on six Hiroshima residents who survived the blast, giving us as intimate a view of the devastation as language can provide. Recommended.

Salon is running an essay arguing that America has never owned up to Hiroshima. The author, Christian Appy, argues that the bomb was unnecessary and was dropped purely as an act of cruelty. Appy is a historian, although the body of his published work is on Vietnam, not World War II. I’m not a historian, but I have some familiarity with the sources he cites as well as some he didn’t cite. The phrase “cherry-picked” comes to mind; I’ll come back to this in a bit.

In Rethinking Religion I have a section on “moral clarity,” defined as “a state of mind achieved by staking a fixed position on a presumed moral high ground and then ignoring the details of human life that fog the view.” My primary example of “moral clarifying” are the anti-abortion activists who argue incessantly for the sacredness and rights of the fetus while barely mentioning the woman carrying the fetus in her body.

Appy, and many other liberals, try to pull something like that with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They stake the moral high ground that dropping the bomb was absolutely evil, and then revise history six ways from Sunday to “prove” that the men who chose to drop it were just evil and callous and had some nefarious end other than the stated one, which was to end the war quickly and avoid a ground invasion of Japan.

I do not know if the bomb was militarily “necessary” or a better or worse option than the ground invasion. I don’t think anyone can know such a thing for certain. You can find all kinds of arguments made later, by both generals and historians, for both options. What I do sincerely believe is that the men who were faced with making the decision did not have the “benefit” of moral clarity. Based on the information at hand and recent events in the war, there was no “good” option in front of those men that would clearly have avoided a massive loss of life, including Japanese civilian lives. Many liberals today fervently want to believe otherwise, but I think that’s revisionism.

Yesterday I read arguments that Japan was just about to surrender, anyway (not according to any history I’ve read). I read arguments that the Japanese people could just have been starved until they surrendered. I fail to see why that would be a more moral option, especially considering the loss of life probably would have been even higher.  One genius commenting on Appy’s article was absolutely certain the bomb was dropped to intimidate the U.S.S.R., whom the commenter imagined was about to come to the aid of Japan. Why the U.S.S.R. might have done that I can’t imagine; the U.S.S.R. still needed the Allies, and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), in which Japan pretty much handed Russia its ass, had not yet passed from memory. Another  theory was that the bomb was about the Cold War, and was dropped as a warning to the U.S.S.R. But the Cold War hadn’t really begun yet and wasn’t really on anyone’s radar in 1945, I don’t think.

If we’re discussing the morality of something, there’s an understandable human tendency to want to find oneself on the side of the angels, whatever that might be. The knee-jerk tendency of some is to cite Japanese atrocities committed in World War II to argue that Japan “deserved” Hiroshima, but I reject that as a moral argument. It’s not up to us to judge what other people, especially civilians, “deserve.”

The knee-jerk tendency of others is to seize the moral high ground by deriding the decision itself, to portray the dropping of the Bomb as utterly evil, unnecessary, and proof of the moral depravity of the U.S. government and military.  This position allows one no end of indulgent self-righteousness while appearing to be “smart” about what that sneaky government really is up to. But that’s a post-Vietnam view of things.

So why was the bomb dropped? By June 1945 the U.S. had made elaborate plans for a ground invasion of Japan, fortified by blockades and bombardments. Several invasion scenarios were on the table. The Joint War Plans Committee prepared casualty estimates for each. The Committee emphasized that any number they might give could be wildly off. Appy cited one of these estimates, 40,000 killed. That was a lowball; the Committee also said that the deaths could total as many as 220,000 if the Allied troops were forced to seize all of the island of Kyushu and the Tokyo plain. The staffs of generals MacArthur and Nimitz also prepared death estimates in the quarter million range. Appy doesn’t mention that.

Soon after these estimates were provided military intelligence learned it had drastically underestimated the number of Japanese troops on Kyushu, the island chosen for the initial invasion. The invasion plans had assumed there were 300,000 Japanese troops on Kyushu that June; on August 2, an MIS report stated there were at least 534,000 troops on Kyushu, and possibly more. [source]

Put another way — by the first week in August, the estimated total of Japanese army and naval combat troops on Kyushu alone was more than six times what it had been on Okinawa. Note that the combined death toll of Allied and Japanese troops and civilians on Okinawa is still disputed, but could have been as high as 240,000. Nearly a quarter of a million. Most of those casualties were civilians, many of whom committed suicide.

By the first week in August, the old casualty estimates had been pretty much tossed out the window. Appy doesn’t mention that.

President Truman said after the war that Gen. George Marshall had told him an invasion would cost “at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties and might cost as much as a million.” Truman may have been making excuses for himself, but the quarter million number was consistent with other estimates.

Meanwhile, the bomb itself was an unknown factor. From what I’ve read, for example, pretty much everyone underestimated the danger from fallout. We’ve had 70 years of living with nuclear weapons as a fact, and of watching movies and reading novels in which humankind destroyed itself with thermonuclear weapons. The Bomb has had 70 years to take its place in our collective subconscious as the mythical One Forbidden Thing; the thing that must never be done. But in 1945, nuclear weapons weren’t unthinkable yet.

So, knowing only what Harry Truman knew in August 1945, looking only at the options he had in front of him, what do you do?

I’m not sure there was a “right” decision. There was no clear, easy out. Any decision made would have resulted in unbearable loss of life. I think it’s entirely possible that if the bombs had never been dropped, today we’d be complaining that America has never apologized for the bloodbaths on Kyushu and Honshu, and if Truman had just dropped the bomb much of that could have been avoided. We’ll never know, of course. It’s also foolish to assume that if the U.S. had never developed the Bomb there’d be no nuclear stockpiles today.

My larger point, though, is that if we’re going to own up to something, we need to own up to how difficult a decision that was to make. Real-time, real-world moral decisions often are very, very difficult. Often, “moral clarity” is achievable only if we close our eyes to most of the facts. Often there’s no “good” solution. This is how it is. It’s childish to assume everything sorts itself into good and evil, and we can just choose good and remain pure.

It’s also estimated that the incendiary bombs dropped on Japan by B-29s could have resulted in as many as 200,000 civilian deaths, and many people were burned alive. Yet, somehow, we’re never asked to don sackcloth and ashes about those deaths, even though they seem just as terrible to me. This speaks to the unique place the atomic bomb occupies in our collective subconscious, I think.

For the record, the official estimates of killed and wounded in Hiroshima (150,000) and Nagasaki (75,000) are no doubt conservative and may have exceeded the loss of life from firebombing. But we don’t know for certain.

But to my mind, arguing about the morality of the bomb is the wrong argument. We should be thinking about the morality of killing, by any means, as an instrument of policy, period. That would be the better way to remember Hiroshima.

29 thoughts on “The Anniversary

  1. Outstanding post!

    I’ve known several men who were slated to be in the invasion. They were convinced the bombs were the only reason they lived to raise kids. This is a good article on the decision:

    I think Truman absolutely made the right call regarding the Hiroshima bomb. I think a case can be made that we might have waited longer between the two to see if they would surrender.

  2. “So why was the bomb dropped”

    The problem with your analysis is that the sources you cite were published before Al Gore invented the internet! Reading the article I couldn’t stop thinking about how we as a nation can’t agree on why we went to war in Iraq or why the financial collapse of 2008 happened, how the hell are we gonna agree on why we wiped out a quarter million Japanese in 1945? Seriously though I applaud your analysis possibly as close to the truth as we will get today!

  3. “War is Hell”, I have no illusions about that, but why was it necessary to drop the bomb on a population center, and more importantly why was it necessary to drop the second bomb at all?

    • charluckles — A third bomb had been planned for Yokohama, I believe, but that was called off after Nagasaki. I dimly remember reading an account of why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen but now I don’t remember it all. Part of the problem was that nearly all targets with a significant military connection had already been bombed conventionally. One thing that sticks out is that originally the second bomb was going to be dropped on Kyoto, but Secretary of War Stimson asked that Kyoto be spared and so Nagasaki was bombed instead. Kyoto is very much an intellectual, cultural and religious hub of Japan and stuffed with important and historic temples. Why Stimson wanted it spared, however, I do not know.

  4. Your post here is the most honest I’ve read on this subject in a long time. The (long dead) people who made those horrible decisions were only human like those of us alive today. My father served in the Pacific in WW2 (seabee non-combat). His only brother was killed in a Kamikaze attack. I was surprised to hear him say years later on one of these “zero” year anniversaries, that he thought it was wrong to drop those bombs. But was their deployment morally worse than Dresden, or for that matter, any murder in a dark alley anywhere? I’m an atheist, but killing is a horrible sin on any level. I have to confess that one of my fears and a recurring nightmare is that I would have the death of someone else on my conscience. It’s always such a relief to awaken to the reality that it isn’t true. I wish the same feeling of relief was possible for everyone.

  5. A sad fact of war is that it is an exercise in using violence to force someone to do something he doesn’t want to do. Demonstrations don’t work—you have to really inflict the pain on the other side to convince them to give up.

    Something that many do not know: Even after both bombs and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, there was an attempted coup to prevent Hirohito’s broadcast accepting the Allied terms from being made. There were nontrivial elements in Japan who did not want to surrender, even then.

  6. Sadly, people seek more of the things. People do not not learn from history– or they choose not to.

    The Bomb is like the the one really, really loud BOOM in the middle of a fireworks display; people go quiet, for a moment, then–back to the show. Before, and after, lesser flashes of violence continue with little interruption.

  7. Excellent post, Maha. One thing often overlooked by the people who feel like using the atomic bomb was wrong is how hard it is to know what’s going on with a wartime enemy. Example: Eisenhower and much of his staff believed that the German army had put a lot of reserves in Bavaria for a last stand. This was based on what seemed like good information at the time; it was also wrong. Re Japan, IIRC there were factions in the Japanese government that wanted to surrender and factions that wanted to fight to the last man; if they hadn’t decided, how could the U.S. know what they were going to do?

    There are also some people who feel the atomic bomb was wrong/racist based on wrong information. I once heard somebody insist that it was racist because it was dropped on Japan, not Germany. This person did not know that the first atomic bomb was not even tested til July 1945 — well after Germany had surrendered in May.

  8. The horror…
    The horror…

    I’m surprised that I’m alive at the age of 57 – thought in poor health,
    Many of us in my generation, with duck-and-cover drills, and all of the rest of the BS, never expected to live to old age.

    And now, like my great Baseball hero, Mickey Mantle, “if I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

    Too late

  9. These articles appear pretty fact based and written with honest intentions:

    On the Kyoto decision:

    The practical military criteria behind target selection.

    Interesting factoid: Stimson vacationed in Kyoto while stationed in the Philippines, possibly but not confirmed, on his honeymoon.

  10. “One thing often overlooked by the people who feel like using the atomic bomb was wrong is how hard it is to know what’s going on with a wartime enemy.”—OUTSTANDING point. By definition of being at war with your enemy, you have incomplete information on what they are thinking. You certainly can’t ask your ambassador for an update!

  11. I always dread America’s August 6th nukesplaining ritual. Yes, war is hell, yes, expediency, yes, necessity, yes, politics, yes, other things were also bad… I grant all that, but I do not deduce that it was all for the best, in this, the best of all possible worlds.

    When I read such a column, I get a creepy deja-vu feeling of someone a hundred years from now writing a nearly-identical column, with some names and dates different, nukesplaining why the incineration of two American cities was ultimately for the good of everyone, including the Americans.

    • paradoctor — I’m not saying that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were for the “good” of everyone. I’m just saying it was a terribly difficult decision, and we would do well to appreciate that. I know it’s comforting to think we can sort everything into “right” and “wrong” columns. I’m saying that’s a delusion. Sometimes there’s just bad and worse.

  12. Faulkner’s quote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” makes a lot of sense on anniversaries like this. It happened. It’s still happening.

  13. @Maha:

    There’s a wonderful story (can’t recall where I read it) that after he had been President for a while, John Kennedy said he’d expected to be choosing between good and bad/right and wrong options, and he’d found to his surprise that sometimes all available options were wrong or bad in various ways.

  14. Off Topic – I’m trying to decide between the GOP debate and the Hooters International Swimsuit Pagrant.

  15. maha: I agree that the line between good and bad tends to get foggy in war; that’s part of war’s hellishness. Let me add to the fog by relaying this charming anecdote:

    What a story! A captured Nazi submarine had a cargo of uranium, from Germany’s stalled bomb project to Japan’s; this uranium dropped off the records, perhaps to be incorporated into the Hiroshima bomb.

    Nukes are a quantum technology, so of course the damn things are quantum-weird. Note, for instance, that this tale both nukesplains the Hiroshima atrocity (they were going to do it to us!) and antinukesplains it (we did it with Nazi uranium!)

  16. The NYTimes story is pretty badly overblown. At one point there’s the comment that the US had barely enough uranium to make the Hirosohima bomb; no doubt this is true, but getting a bunch of unenriched uranium oxide is a long way from getting U-235 for a bomb; a long way and a long time with the processes of the day.

    And an expert says there was a limited amount of the oxide at the time, but how limited? In fact, in April 1945, before that U-boat surrendered with its load of 560 kg of uranium oxide, the German uranium stock had been captured by the ALSOS team that was assigned to get everything possible about the German bomb effort. How much was that? 1100 *tons* of ore, and 8 *tons* of oxide. 15 times what the U-boat coughed up weeks later. Anybody doubt where that 8 tons wound up?

    And remember that Germany’s supply was very limited. They didn’t mine it in the Ruhr Valley or anything; they grabbed it in Belgium (ultimately from the Congo), and that was all. No other supplies anywhere that Germany could get in wartime. The US, of course, has its own uranium production. A critical need for unprocessed uranium in the tiny quantity a U-boat carried just does not compute.

  17. Some overflow from that.

    The Japanese bomb effort may be shrouded in obscurity, but this is not obscure: They were nowhere near a bomb. Germany wasn’t even close to one (impossible to know this before the last days of the war), but Japan wasn’t even that close.

    The Alsos team went into France and then Germany, as soon as it was physically possible, with the mission of finding all German bomb technology and materials. And experts. And getting all this before the Russians.

    Guten Morgen, Herr Professor Heisenberg, all your bomb stuff are belong to us, and so do you.

    Can’t resist this: When Paris was liberated, the first American unit to enter the city was the Alsos group, trailing a detachment of French tanks. And taking sniper fire. Later, in April ’45, they dashed into what was to be the Russian zone, to grab the stuff before the Red Army arrived. Awfully ungentlemanly. Authorized directly by Omar Bradley.

  18. Maha –
    Really good posting IMHO. A day or two ago a news story mentioned a famous tech billionaire who asks really interesting questions of job applicants, like “What is something you believe that most people don’t?” Of course I had to stop and think of one.

    Well, there are lots of such things, but because of the date, the first one I thought of was this: There is really no demonstrably good answer to the question whether it was right to drop the Bomb. Everybody else, it seems, knows the answer for sure. So it’s refreshing to see the case for the deviant view, stated so well.

  19. Good post. However, what’s presupposed in all of these positions is that Japan had to be utterly destroyed. The doctrine of unconditional surrender was a novel idea at the time, and it was a purely Allied idea.

    This doctrine demanded that the Allies invade Japan and destroy its military capability – yes, absolutely the bomb saved many lives compared to a sea invasion of Japan, but a negotiated peace would have been much better for both nations.

    The doctrine also shows total contempt for people who live in the country. Were all the dead in the nuclear bombings and firebombings militaristic empiricists? Of course not. But when you take an all-or-nothing view, you lose sight of people and start to put them into classifications. (Dwight MacDonald’s “The Responsibility of Peoples” puts this into perspective admirably, if you can find a copy.)

    Finally, on the Russian question – I think that Russia was very much part of the consideration, and the coming standoff with Russia was a major part of many Allied decisions. (D-Day didn’t defeat the Germans; they were defeated on the Eastern front. But by invading, the UK and US limited the Russian empire’s advance across Europe.)

    The Russians were preparing to invade Manchuria, and did so on August 9. Although it would have been fairly far down on the list of considerations, the Allies knew they were preparing to invade and would have had intimidating the Russians in mind as one of the benefits of dropping the bomb.

    • a negotiated peace would have been much better for both nations

      Of course, and not having had a war at all would have been even better. But there’s never been even a hint of an indication that Japan would have negotiated. I find it astonishing that you think that was a genuine option at the time. And you perhaps don’t grasp the warrior culture that had come to grip Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

      Finally, on the Russian question – I think that Russia was very much part of the consideration, and the coming standoff with Russia was a major part of many Allied decisions. (D-Day didn’t defeat the Germans; they were defeated on the Eastern front. But by invading, the UK and US limited the Russian empire’s advance across Europe.)

      Your analysis suffers badly from anachronism. In 1944 I don’t think anyone thought the Germans had already been defeated, and I don’t think many people were spinning their wheels much over the possibility that the Soviets would annex occupied territory after the war. I understand Roosevelt discounted this as a possibility. You are falling into a common trap of amateur historians, assuming people were being motivated by things that hadn’t actually happened yet.

  20. In terms of the fUSSR’s role, I personally believe it was a, if not the, major reason for the second bomb, if not the first bomb. The irony was, the US begged the fUSSR to hurry back from the western front to launch the continental invasion of Japanese possessions.

    Although the invasion of the Home Islands can now be seen as only one option of many, at the time it was the only option being truly considered at the highest levels, mainly because of time – the US was getting quite war-weary by this time, and ready for an end to hostilities.

    Even considering the unintended and somewhat unknown (knowledge was compartmentalized) aftereffects, the death toll from the two atomic bombs was considerably less, on all combatants parts, than the alternative(s). I still disagree, but I believe at least some of that is 20/20 hindsight.

  21. Maha,
    Thank you for a well thought out article.

    Vonnegut witnesed Fire Bombing as a POW in Germany and discussed it Slauterhouse Five.

    Atomic bombs dropped on Japan need to filed under ‘lessons learned’, without understanding atomic bomb horrors the cold war could have easily turned hot. Imagine Kennedy and Khrushchev without those images burned in their brains during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  22. I once decided to follow the New York Times, on microfilm, through early 1945 and up through the VJ day. As in Europe, there were frequent bombing raids often by hundreds of planes. Japanese cities were largely built of wood, so there were usually firestorms with massive casualties. In April the estimate was that one raid on Tokyo killed nearly 200,000 people. It’s hard to confirm the numbers. Japan was full of refugees who had been kicked out of places like China, Korea and the rest of the greater co-prosperity sphere as they called it.

    The Times reported raid after raid on Japan, usually one every few days. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was just one more raid in a series. The difference was that only one bomb was dropped by one plane. There was also an article on Lise Meitner who discovered nuclear fission and was living in Sweden, in exile from the Nazis.

    There were plans for the invasion of Japan. The lessons of Okinawa were that there would be massive casualties, soldiers would fight to the death, and civilians would commit suicide en masse. The US was supposed to land on Kyushu. The Soviet Union was massing troops in Manchuria for their part of the invasion further north. Meanwhile in Japan schoolchildren were being taught how to fight with sharpened bamboo stakes.

    The Germans had fought until the eastern and western armies met at the Elbe. I met a guy who was a manager for Lufthansa while its route system was collapsing, eventually linking just Berlin and Hamburg. There was no reason to believe that the invasion of Japan was going to end any other way. There were no “peace feelers” from Germany or from Japan. The US had broken the Japanese diplomatic code years before. If there had been a record of some Japanese desire to arrange some kind of discussion, it would have shown up by now.

    The US had two bombs, and it dropped them in rapid succession as a bluff. The next atomic bomb was months away. The war ended a week after the second bomb was dropped. Back then it was seen as causation. Nowadays a lot of people argue that it was a lucky coincidence.

    Lee Sandlin wrote a great piece about the second world war. He likened it to something out of Viking saga in which a war becomes a force of its own. Why didn’t Germany or Japan sue for peace? The first world war ended with negotiations. The prime minister stepped down and the shooting stopped. The peace was less satisfactory.

    • //The Times reported raid after raid on Japan, usually one every few days. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was just one more raid in a series. The difference was that only one bomb was dropped by one plane.// I think that’s an important point. For us today, the Bomb has almost mythic transcendence. It is the One Forbidden Thing, like opening Pandora’s Box or eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. But in 1945, it was just a really big bomb, and dropping it wasn’t necessarily perceived as more horrible than dropping incendiary bombs on Tokyo. It’s hard to get people to see that now; they want to fixate on The Bomb as the most evil thing ever done in warfare and ignore everything else that was done in warfare. And the tendency to create fantasy scenarios in which there were less terrible alternatives so that we can wallow in judgmentalism even more keeps us from learning anything from that terrible time.

  23. You’re right, it’s a very complicated issue. And you’re right, I do have a bit of a desire to say “it was wrong!” But for a slightly different reason….

    We’ve gotten into a bad mindset in this country. The Very Serious People have reminded us so often that you need to do ugly things in war that any ugly thing can be excused because “it’s war.”

    But that’s me applying the moral depravity of today to the past. Most national – practically all of them, even the US – realized that WWII established that war just couldn’t happen. And you’re right – in that day, they probably had to balance the possible damage of an invasion versus the damage of the atom bomb, and back then, we couldn’t say “don’t you remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima?”

    I once believed there was no point in two bombings, within a week, but I later came to realize that this might be necessary. “See, that first bomb wasn’t a fluke – we can do this again, and again, if we need to.”

    So, yeah. There were no good choices. And while I can think of all kinds of reasons the choices *might* have been bad, and while I can hope we learned the right lessons, I can’t say that the choices were wrong.

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