Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dropping the A-bombs: Was It Justified?

The second of this month marked the anniversary of Japan's official surrender; and two days last month, the sixth and ninth, marked the grim anniversaries of the American government's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. In the first bombing, "[s]ome 70,000 people probably died as a result of the initial blast, heat, and radiation effects," while in the second, the "best estimate is 40,000 people died initially," according to the US Department of Energy--a source that has some reason to be biased toward being conservative in this respect. Many more, of course, died in both cities from the later effects, and the total casualties including injuries are in the hundreds of thousands without question. The injuries for the survivors, it is worth noting, were at times of the sort where death might have been preferable. What makes these events so significant is not only their sheer horror, but the fact that, to this very day, they find many, many defenders, across the narrow mainstream political spectrum.

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki (Wikimedia)
Those who celebrate the American decision to annihilate a shocking amount of human life because they see it as just vengeance for Pearl Harbor--a group of which there is a disturbing number--are likely beyond any help, and this blog post is not directed to them. But there are many who think that the bombings were the least awful course of action, as awful as they were--and I used to be among them, not so long ago. While there have been more thorough debunkings of this idea than the one I'll put forward here, I hope this post can be enough to at least plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of any defenders of the bombings who may read this.

Conventional wisdom is that the only options to defeat Japan were the atomic bombings or a full-scale invasion that would have only killed more people than the bombings did; the evidence for this idea, though, is extremely lacking. The US had insisted on "unconditional surrender," refusing to state that the Emperor of Japan could be allowed to keep the throne--even though, ultimately, he was allowed to do so. Secretary of War Henry Stimson would write that "on this question [I] later believe[d] that history might find that the United States, by delay in stating its position, had prolonged the war," and that "a large element of the Japanese Cabinet was ready in the spring [of 1945] to accept substantially the same terms as those finally agreed on[.]" Winston Churchill, too, would later write about how Stalin had received a message that "Japan could not accept 'unconditional surrender,' but might be prepared to compromise on other terms" and that "I dwelt upon the tremendous cost...if we enforced 'unconditional surrender' upon the Japanese."

Japan had been badly devastated already, and for this reason even the highest generals in the US military saw an atomic bombing as unnecessary. The man who would ultimately oversee Japan's reconstruction, Douglas MacArthur--not known for being one to shy away from war and the ugliness thereof--was one of the dissenters to the use of the bomb. Journalist Norman Cousins would later report that "[t]he war might have ended weeks earlier, [MacArthur] said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor." MacArthur also stated that his staff "was unanimous in believing Japan was on the point of collapse and surrender."

Perhaps the single most important military figure in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower, would also later say he had had reservations about the use of the bombs. He would write in his memoirs that "I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act...first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives." The fact that it is not just leftist historians but also the great military men of the day and age who actively questioned the use of the atomic bombs should seriously challenge the assumption that the bombings were justified.

So it was against this backdrop, with a war continuing against a devastated country because of a dubious insistence on "unconditional surrender," that on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, "Little Boy," on Hiroshima. The city had been selected partly on the basis that it was "a large urban area of more than three miles in diameter," and that "a large part of the city could be extensively damaged." Perhaps this was considered to be important for the purposes of "obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan;" the destruction of a large city--meaning, consequently, the deaths of many civilians therein--being supposedly necessary to have a strong psychological effect on the Japanese.

According to the myth of the atomic bombings that has been propagated in the years since, the Japanese refused to surrender after this first bombing, and it was only after it was clear that no surrender would be issued that the second bomb was dropped. Not so. The decision to drop the second bomb was made on August 7--the day after the first one was dropped. The next day, the Soviet Union announced its declaration of war against Japan--a serious blow to the country, as the foreign minister had hoped the USSR would serve as a mediating force in negotiating the end of the war.

Before the news of the Soviet declaration of war reached Japan, however, according to the Foreign Minister at the time, the Emperor said that "measures should be conducted to insure a prompt ending of hostilities." It was early the next day that the news of the Soviet war against Japan, and the invasion of Manchuria, reached Tokyo. After this news, the Japanese Prime Minister told the cabinet that "continuation of the war is totally impossible...we have no choice but to accept the Potsdam terms." By this point, of course, it was the very day of the second bombing. In fact, the news that Nagasaki had been bombed reached the Cabinet before the meeting had ended.

The significance of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion is so great that some historians have argued that it, rather than the atomic bombs, was the major factor in leading to Japan's surrender. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa of University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote that:
what decisively changed the views of the Japanese ruling elite was the Soviet entry into the war. It catapulted the Japanese government into taking immediate action. For the first time, it forced the government squarely to confront the issue of whether it should accept the Potsdam terms. In the tortuous discussions from August 9 through August 14, the peace party, motivated by a profound sense of betrayal, fear of Soviet influence on occupation policy, and above all by a desperate desire to preserve the imperial house, finally staged a conspiracy to impose the “emperor’s sacred decision” and accept the Potsdam terms, believing that under the circumstances surrendering to the United States would best assure the preservation of the imperial house and save the emperor.
Hasegawa argues that it is likely Japan would have surrendered to the United States even if neither of the atomic bombs had ever been dropped, due to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Some have gone even further, such as the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (established by the Secretary of War in 1944), which concluded that "certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

In any case, it is abundantly clear that there was no attempt to give Japan an appropriate amount of time to consider surrender; rather, it was assumed that more bombings than one would be necessary. In fact, more bombings were planned, but scrapped after the Japanese surrender. Not incomprehensibly, the apparent eagerness to use the atomic bombs even before it was clear they were necessary has led historians like Peter Kuznick of American University and Mark Selden from Cornell to conclude the motivation had more to do with intimidating the Soviet Union and starting the Cold War than winning the war against Japan.

There is also, in addition to the questions of necessity and morality, the question of legality. While many of the treaties that comprise international law today were not in effect at the time of the bombings, some important ones were, such as the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The conventions prohibited "poison weapons" and "attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended," as well as mandating that "all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments." The atomic bombings arguably run afoul of all of these rules.

In fact, the question of the bombings' legality was brought before the District Court of Tokyo in 1963, in the case Ryuichi Shimoda et al. v. The State. Noting that "Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not cities which were resisting an attempt at occupation by land forces at that time," and "were not in immediate danger of occupation by the enemy," the court concluded that "the aerial bombardment with an atomic bomb of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an illegal act of hostilities under international law as it existed at that time, as an indiscriminate bombardment of [undefended] cities." The court further argued that:
it can safely be concluded that besides poisons, poisonous gases and bacteria, the use of means of injuring the enemy which cause injury at least as great as or greater than these prohibited materials is prohibited by international law. It is doubtful whether the atomic bomb with its tremendous destructive power was appropriate from the viewpoint of military effect and was really necessary at that time. It is indeed a fact to be regretted that the atomic bombing of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took away the lives of tens of thousands of citizens, and that among those who have survived are those whose lives are still imperilled [sic] owing to its radioactive effects even now after eighteen years. In this sense it is not too much to say that the sufferings brought about by the atomic bomb are greater than those caused by poisons and poisonous gases; indeed, the act of dropping this bomb may be regarded as contrary to the fundamental principle of the law of war which prohibits the causing of unnecessary suffering.
Knowing all of this, it becomes clear what the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki truly were: at best, grossly misguided and trigger-happy measures taken to end the war; and at worst, an act motivated by a desire to display military might, and marked by a chilling callousness toward human life. There is one thing, though that, in my belief, it is clear that neither bombing was: defensible.

Further sources:

CORRECTION: Originally this post stated that Ryuichi Shimoda et al. v. The State was decided in 1964; it was decided in 1963.

1 comment:

  1. News in the USA today is always about "what I think might have happened" or "What I think could happen" rather than facts. In fact, we can not know what would have happened if we had taken a different road.