When the atomic bomb was unleashed by the United States on two cities in Japan, the act ended World War II and caused incalculable human anguish. This historically momentous event gave rise to questions regarding how wars will be fought in the future, the viability of the human race as a whole, and, as this discussion will address, if the horrific bombing of these two cities was justifiable. Questions regarding the bombings are multifaceted. Was the use of an atomic bomb the only alternative to secure the surrender of Japan or could the U.S. have allowed the one concession Japan requested, to retain its emperor as head of state, and avoided the catastrophic destruction of predominantly civilian inhabited targets? Did President Truman authorize the bombing solely as a means to put an end to a bloody, prolonged conflict and to ultimately save both American and Japanese lives due to an impending invasion on Japan’s homeland, or was the decision based on assuring that the Soviet Union would not have a say in post-war Asia is it had in post-war Europe? Finally, even if it is assumed that the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima was necessary and justifiable, was the second bomb on Nagasaki justifiable as well?
For those that condone its use, the moral questions are satisfied because, though many thousands were killed or maimed, the bomb saved many more thousands of lives on both sides. If the use of the atomic bomb averted an invasion of Japan thus saving more lives than were lost in the bombing of Hiroshima, the moral dilemma is indisputable. However, even for those of this opinion, the issue regarding the morality of the second bombing remains in dispute. This is not sufficient justification for others who believe the use of the bomb was wrong given any criteria of moral judgment. Deliberately attacking a civilian population is not considered morally acceptable regardless of any real or perceived outcomes. This view was and remains popularly held by both American civilians and the military; this reasoning was not employed in this case, but why? Was it the passions of wartime, a justifiable act in this one instance or was the bombing wrong under any circumstance? These questions will be addressed in this paper beginning with a historical review to put the situation in proper context.
While the battles for the Philippines and Okinawa were taking place, President Truman, who had become president following the death of Roosevelt, was considering an invasion of the Japanese mainland. By now, the U.S. Navy had ships stationed just off the Japanese coast while its submarines were deployed in the Sea of Japan. Because the battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa were very fierce, it was estimated that half a million to a million soldiers would be killed if the scheduled November 1, 1945 invasion of Japan occurred (“Decision to Drop”, 2003). In addition, President Truman was contemplating that if the Japanese would quickly surrender before the Soviet Union became involved in the war, set for August 15, Russia could not demand a part in the post-war settlement. When America unleashed the atomic bomb on Japan, the act infuriated the Soviet Union because it wanted its say just as it had in the carving up of Eastern Europe. This was the beginning of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The blast leveled more than half of that city. Seventy thousand of its citizens were instantaneously killed. On August 9, another bomb destroyed Nagasaki (Truman, 1945). From an American perspective, the atomic bombs were justified because they saved Allied lives. However, the event stands out in history as the only time such force was used thus giving the U.S. this infamous distinction and began the proliferation of nuclear weaponry that continues today.
In 1945, the U.S. was a country weary of war, and its citizens were deeply prejudiced against both the Japanese and Germans believing that both types of peoples were inherently evil. Though a ridiculous notion today, it is a somewhat understandable sentiment given the nature of the circumstances at that time and the overall acceptance of racism during this period in American history. Following the end of the war, a poll conducted by Fortune Magazine found that nearly a quarter of the American people thought that the U.S. should have used “many more” atomic bombs on the Japanese before that country had the opportunity to surrender (Dower, 1986: 54).
Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cities that produced military armaments but, of course, the devastation went well beyond military targets. It could be that the President and others did not realize the full power of the atomic bomb or simply did not care if the collateral damage went well beyond its intended target. No one will ever know and the answer can only be speculative. It is contingent on whether one relies on the written words of the President as proof of actual intent or one assumes that the bombing of civilians was justified by the President and/or Stimson given the excessively racist overtones that emanated throughout the country at that time. In addition to whatever personal feelings Truman had regarding the Japanese, he also had political consequences to consider in his decision to utilize the atomic bomb. The American public, according to polls taken at that time, supported by an overwhelming margin that the U.S. should only agree to an ‘unconditional surrender by Japan. This and the predominant anti-Japanese sentiment among most Americans assured that there would be a little political backlash by ordering the bomb to be dropped. Furthermore, Truman would have faced an uphill political battle attempting to explain to voters the reasoning for spending more than two billion dollars for creating a bomb that would not be used particularly if many more American lives were lost had the war continued which, at the time was considered a very real possibility (Loebs, 1995: 8-9).
It has been argued that the decision to drop the atomic bomb gave little regard to the civilian population, was unnecessary, and was based largely upon the Soviet’s aspirations in the region. The U.S. military had been unceasingly fire-bombing major cities in Japan including Tokyo for months leading up to the use of the atomic bomb. This massive bombing attack knowingly killed civilians by the hundreds of thousands and the tactic, along with the impenetrable naval blockade, would have eventually brought the war to an end without the need for a land assault. Of course, this eventuality can only be argued because it can never be known if maintaining an attack with traditional bombing methods and a blockade of the seas would have forced the Japanese to surrender unconditionally. It is possible but many more Japanese civilians, probably numbering in the millions, would have been killed in the process. In addition, had the war been prolonged, the threat posed by the Soviets was imminent and daunting. Had they had a hand in postwar affairs in Asia, the boundaries of the world would be very different today. The Russian army had entered Korea a few days before August 6; the day of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Within a short time, it would have conquered enough Korean territory to be able to claim a negotiating position at the post-war peace talks. Had this scenario occurred, the Soviets had plans in place to occupy both Japan and Korea to the familiar 38th parallel. This would have been an offer the Allies couldn’t refuse because Soviet troops would already be occupying this territory. “The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki served three purposes: it terminated the conflict instantly, saving American lives; it insured a united Japan rather than leaving half of the country to the same fate as North Korea; and perhaps it provided an example which has deterred the use of nuclear arms for 55 years” (Zimmerman, 2000).
More than 60 years have elapsed since the atomic bomb was dropped, a long time to second guess and point out the flawed reasoning in that momentous decision. However, many prominent However, Americans at that time questioned the wisdom of using such a horrific weapon given the circumstances. Top-level World War II military leaders such as Douglas MacArthur, William Halsey, William Leahy, and Dwight Eisenhower amongst others, believed the bomb to be unnecessary from a military point of view (Takaki, 1995: 3-4, 30-31). The President of the Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Leahy, in his address to the combined U.K. and U.S. Chiefs of Staff, expressed his thoughts regarding the use of the atomic bomb. “The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. In being the first to use it, we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children” (Alperovitz, 2005: 3).
In 1946, the Commander U.S. Third Fleet, Admiral Halsey Commander publicly announced that “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. It was a mistake to ever drop it. The scientists had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it” (Alperovitz, 2005: 331). The Supreme Commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz stated at an address given on October 5 at the Washington Monument, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan” (Alperovitz, 2005: 329). Eisenhower agreed with these other prominent commanders and vocally joined his colleges citing morality-based objections. The decision came from Truman, and evidently, Truman alone. There was never a roundtable-type discussion recorded between the President and the highest level of military command. Truman did, however, gain the support of Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said before the dropping of the bomb, “there was never a moment’s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not. The final decision now lay in the main with President Truman … but I never doubted what it would be nor have I doubted that he was right” (Loebs, 1995).
One hundred fifty atomic scientists were polled in July 1945 regarding the question of if or how an atomic bomb should be employed against Japan. The poll offered five scenarios. One, use it to effect an immediate end to the war and minimize loss of allied lives; two, use it on purely military installations for demonstration purposes and offer a surrender proposal; three, use it on barren targets in the U.S. as a demonstration and offer surrender terms; four, don’t use it but publicize the experimental results or; five, maintain the secretive nature of the bomb and not use it. Truman chose option one which coincided with just 15 percent of the scientists’ opinions (Takaki, 1995: 134-5).
The decision to bomb Nagasaki was not seemingly made by the use of sound military or political reasoning. Japanese Emperor Hirohito was determined to end the war and Japanese military leaders were no less convinced to fight until the death following the Hiroshima bomb. The bombing of Nagasaki proved to be irrelevant. Truman was not aware of internal turmoil within Japan as to whether or not to accept surrender terms in August of 1945. However, according to the available information at that time, the second bombing was still unjustifiable. There were no military, diplomatic or moral reasons for its use. In his memoirs, Truman explained the reason for Nagasaki. “On August 9, the second atom bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. We gave the Japanese three days in which to make up their minds to surrender and the bombing would have been held off another two days had the weather permitted” (Loebs, 2005). This has proven inaccurate. Truman did not allow Japan to surrender following the first bomb. The second bomb was dropped immediately after it was available. In his own words, Truman ordered the dropping of “additional bombs as soon as they are made available” (Loebs, 2005.)
Those that oppose the use of the atomic bomb argue that Japan was very close to surrendering anyway. Sixty of its larger cities had already been destroyed by the use of conventional bombing runs and the naval blockade had destroyed Japan’s economy. The Soviet Union was busy fighting the Japanese, but these battles were fought in China and were far from a mainland invasion as it had been weakened itself following the war with Germany. If the U.S. would have allowed the Japanese to retain its Emperor, it would have surrendered before the first bomb was dropped, a slight concession given the devastating consequences.
A demonstration bombing in a remote area of Japan would have been sufficient to affect surrender without using it on a civilian population. The second bomb was entirely unnecessary even if the first could be justified. Simply put, the Japanese people were pawns used in a political power play, the first of the ‘Cold War’ between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. (1st Ed.). New York: Routledge. (2005).
“(The) Decision to Drop.” National Atomic Museum. (2003). Web.
Dower, John W. War Without Mercy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Loebs, Bruce. “Hiroshima & Nagasaki: One Necessary Evil, One Tragic Mistake.” Commonweal Journal. (1995). LookSmart Articles. 2008. Web.
Takaki, Ronald. Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. (1995).
Truman, Harry. “Atomic Bomb – Truman Press Release: 1945.” Truman Presidential Museum and Library. 2008. Web.
Zimmerman, Peter D. “The Atomic Bomb.” St. Petersburg Times. (2000). 2008. Web.