Friday, February 1, 2008

Was the Atom Bombing of Japan Justified - Did It Save Lives?

Continuing Controversy – the U.S. Atomic Bombing of Japan

By Ned Barnett (c) 2008

Introduction: This blog column was originally written for Newsweek Japan in response to a controversy that cost the Japanese Defense Minister his job - and forced Japan to confront it's history and the brutal calculus of total war. With some additions and revisions, this column was published - in Japanese. So I've never really read the final version, but this represents the core of my "argument" ...

Japan’s former Defense Minister, Fumio Kyuma, recently said of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks that "the bombing ended the war and I think that couldn't be helped". This statement is in sharp contrast to conventional Japanese wisdom, and Kyuma was forced to resign. However, historical facts as seen from the US perspective suggest that the minister may have been right. There is persuasive evidence that these bombings saved millions of American and Japanese lives, and that President Truman anticipated this result from his actions in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Second World War ended – in both major theaters of operation – with controversial aerial attacks against city-sized targets. In Europe, the fire-bombing of Dresden in mid-February, 1945, when Nazi Germany was on its last legs, became a much-debated and controversial decision that tarnished the reputation of RAF Bomber Command leader “Bomber” Harris, among others. Yet that decision has been far less controversial than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though the Nagasaki bombing led directly to the Emperor’s intervention and the end of the war, while Dresden had little impact on the war’s end.

In the US, historical debate has long raged over the “real” purpose of the atomic bombings. Two schools of thought have emerged. There is the traditional view that President Truman ordered the bombing to shock Japan into surrendering a lost cause, sparing both countries the agony of invasion and millions of battle casualties. Then, there is the revisionist view that Truman dropped the bombs to send a warning to Stalin’s Soviet Union – to make it clear that the US was the only true post-war super-power. Some few even believe that the bombing was done to test new weapons, though the mid-July “Trinity” test in New Mexico makes it clear that atomic bomb tests were possible without attacking Japan.

The traditional view is based on the fact that US strategy against Japan had been shaped for several years by the need to create air bases within range of the new atomic bombing planes, the B-29, and from mid-1944, long before the end-of-war face-off between Truman and Stalin, an entire bomb wing – the 509th – had been in training for this particular mission, which was intended to end the war quickly.

While few military decisions are based on a single fact, this much is clear: Japan’s military had proved (by American standards) to be fanatically courageous, fighting long past the time when “rational” military decisions would call for surrender and inflicting horrendous casualties both on Americans and on themselves as a result. Further, experience from the invasions of Saipan and Okinawa – where Japanese civilians became factors – told American leaders that, in an invasion of the Home Islands of Japan, they could expect both organized and concerted (and bloody) attacks from civilians on US service personnel and disproportionately huge civilian casualties from any such invasion. One other factor, largely ignored by those who haven’t studied immediate post-war Japan was starvation – because of the destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet, the country was teetering on the brink of starvation; a war extending into 1946 and 1947 would lead to the death by starvation of literally millions of non-combatants.

The official US Army estimate of US invasion casualties for an assault on the Home Islands of Japan was 500,000 – but this number was artificially reduced from what was called the “Saipan Ratio,” which, based on casualties inflicted on US forces during this first invasion of Japanese territory (as opposed to islands conquered by Japan during the war) called for US casualties of 1.7-2.0 million men – and Japanese casualties roughly 10 times as large as American casualties (with Japanese deaths 22 times as large as American deaths). Because this number was so far beyond what the US was prepared to endure as a nation, the Japan invasion casualty numbers were artificially reduced. No US leader felt that casualties at this level could be sustained by US forces, even when supported by UK and (potentially) Soviet troops, so a “best case scenario” became the official, and low, estimate.

Truman’s closest advisors – General Marshal, Admiral Leahy and Secretary of War Stimson – had no illusions about what was to come. As a result, Truman had clear and hard numbers, based on actual combat experience, that left him with no doubt that an invasion would cost millions of lives, both directly through combat and indirectly through starvation and disease.

Alternatively, the revisionist view judged the decision to use nuclear weapons in 1945 from the perspective of decades of work to end proliferation and to so stigmatize the use (or even possession) of nuclear weapons that no further use of such weapons could be contemplated. They see atomic weapons as “different” from a moral perspective – a view current now but unknown in 1945 – and they judge Truman’s actions, therefore, by considerations not current at the time his decision to bomb Japan had been made. This revisionist view was also based on subsequent cold war realities – the forty-year nuclear face-off with the Soviet Union, and on Truman’s willingness to challenge Soviet expansionism. Finally, at least some revisionists (especially early ones) challenged the casualty estimates Truman relied on; however, subsequent release of contemporary documentation from the summer of 1945 have debunked those challenges, showing that Truman did expect huge casualties from any invasion, and was eager to find alternatives that were less costly in human terms – both American and Japanese.

It is true today that atomic weapons are seen as “different,” but in 1945, they were not seen in that light – in 1945, they were just bigger bombs, otherwise no different from conventional ordnance. For instance, the Tokyo firebombing raid caused far more casualties and destruction than either atomic attack, and estimates of these bombs’ destruction predicted that casualties would be far lower than those of the Tokyo raid, or the Hamburg firestorm raid of 1943. The sole virtue of atomic bombs – as war-ending weapons – was their shock value. When one plane and one bomb could wreak the havoc that had once taken fleets of bombers and tens of thousands of bombs, it was hoped that the inevitability of defeat (and the futility of resistance) would be apparent.

This hope was borne out when the Emperor broke with tradition and called on his nation – and his military – to surrender. That courageous, unprecedented act saved millions of lives – both through combat and through starvation – and set the stage for Japan’s remarkable rebirth.

Bottom line: The traditional historical view has the virtue of being supported by contemporary documents which spell out the information Truman had prior to his decision to drop the bomb and end the war. Revisionists “interpret” these decisions in light of changes in societal perceptions, but without contemporary documents to show Truman had motives other than his desire to spare the horrendous American – and Japanese – casualties that were inevitable if invasion became necessary.