For 60 years the United States has agonized over its unleashing of the world’s first nuclear weapon on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. President Harry Truman’s decision to explode an atomic bomb over an ostensible military target–the headquarters of the crack Japanese 2nd Army–led to well over 100,000 fatalities, the vast majority of them civilians.
Critics immediately argued that we should have first targeted the bomb on an uninhabited area as a warning for the Japanese militarists to capitulate. Did a democratic America really wish to live with the burden of being the only state that had used nuclear weapons against another?
Later generals Hap Arnold, Dwight Eisenhower, Curtis LeMay, Douglas Macarthur, and Admirals William Leahy and William Halsey all reportedly felt the bomb was unnecessary, being either militarily redundant or unnecessarily punitive to an essentially defeated populace.
Yet such opponents of the decision shied away from providing a rough estimate of how many more would have died in the aggregate–Americans, British, Australians, Asians, Japanese, and Russians–through conventional bombing, continuous fighting in the Pacific, amphibious invasion of the mainland, or the ongoing onslaught of the Red Army had the conflict not come to an abrupt halt nine days later and only after a second nuclear drop on Nagasaki.
Truman’s supporters countered that, in fact, a blockade and negotiations had not forced the Japanese generals to surrender unconditionally. In their view, a million American casualties and countless Japanese dead were adverted by not storming the Japanese mainland over the next year in the planned two-pronged assault on the mainland, dubbed Operation Coronet and Olympic.
For the immediate future there were only two bombs available. Planners thought that using one for demonstration purposes (assuming that it would have worked) might have left the Americans without enough of the new arsenal to shock and awe the Japanese government should it have ridden out the first attack and then become emboldened by a hiatus, and our inability to follow up the attacks.
As it was, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, General Tojo’s followers capitulated only through the intervention of the emperor. And it was not altogether clear even then that Japanese fanatics would not attack the Americans as they steamed into Tokyo Bay for the surrender ceremonies.
These are the debates that matured in the relative peace of the postwar era. But in August 1945 most Americans had a much different take on Hiroshima, a decision that cannot be fathomed without appreciation of the recently concluded Okinawa campaign (April 1-July 2) that had cost 50,000 American casualties and 200,000 Japanese and Okinawa dead. Okinawa saw the worst losses in the history of the U.S. Navy. Over 300 ships were damaged, more than 30 sunk, as about 5,000 sailors perished under a barrage of some 2,000 Kamikaze attacks.
And it was believed at least 10,000 more suicide planes were waiting on Kyushu and Honshu. Those who were asked to continue such fighting on the Japanese mainland–as we learn from the memoirs of Paul Fussell, William Manchester, and E. B. Sledge–were relieved at the idea of encountering a shell-shocked defeated enemy rather than a defiant Japanese nation in arms.
About a month after Okinawa was finally declared secure came Hiroshima. Americans of that age were more likely to wonder not that the bomb had been dropped too early, but perhaps too late in not avoiding the carnage on Okinawa–especially when by Spring 1945 there was optimism among the scientists in New Mexico that the successful completion of the bomb was not far away. My father, William Hanson, who flew 39 missions over Japan on a B-29, was troubled over the need for Okinawa–where his first cousin Victor Hanson was killed in the last hours of the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill–when the future bomb would have forced Japanese surrender without such terrible loss of life in 11th-hour infantry battles or even more horrific torching of the Japanese cities.
Hiroshima, then, was not the worst single-day loss of life in military history. The Tokyo fire raid on the night of March 9/10, five months earlier, was far worse, incinerating somewhere around 150,000 civilians, and burning out over 15 acres of the downtown. Indeed, “Little Boy,” the initial nuclear device that was dropped 60 years ago, was understood as the continuance of that policy of unrestricted bombing–its morality already decided by the ongoing attacks on the German and Japanese cities begun at least three years earlier.
Americans of the time hardly thought the Japanese populace to be entirely innocent. The Imperial Japanese army routinely butchered civilians abroad–some 10-15 million Chinese were eventually to perish–throughout the Pacific from the Philippines to Korea and Manchuria. Even by August 1945, the Japanese army was killing thousands of Asians each month. When earlier high-level bombing attacks with traditional explosives failed to cut off the fuel for this murderous military–industries were increasingly dispersed in smaller shops throughout civilian centers–Curtis LeMay unleashed napalm on the Japanese cities and eventually may have incinerated 500,000.
In some sense, Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only helped to cut short the week-long Soviet invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria (80,000 Japanese soldiers killed, over 8,000 Russian dead), but an even more ambitious incendiary campaign planned by Gen. Curtis LeMay. With the far shorter missions possible from planned new bases in Okinawa and his fleet vastly augmented by more B-29s and the transference from Europe of thousands of idle B-17s and B-24, the ‘mad bomber’ LeMay envisioned burning down the entire urban and industrial landscape of Japan. His opposition to Hiroshima was more likely on grounds that his own fleet of bombers could have achieved the same result in a few more weeks anyway.
Postwar generations argued over whether the two atomic bombs, the fire raids, or the August Soviet invasion of Manchuria–or all three combined–prompted Japan to capitulate, whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a stain on American democracy, or whether the atomic bombs were the last-gasp antidote to the plague of Japanese militarism that had led to millions of innocents butchered without much domestic opposition or criticism from the triumphalist Japanese people.
But our own generation has more recently once again grappled with Hiroshima, and so the debate rages on in the new age of terrorism and handheld weapons of mass destruction, brought home after an attack on our shores worse than Pearl Harbor–with more promised to come. Perhaps the horror of the suicide bombers of Japan does not seem so distant any more. Nor does the notion of an extreme perversion of an otherwise mainstream religion filling millions with hatred of a supposedly decadent West.
The truth, as we are reminded so often in this present conflict, is that usually in war there are no good alternatives, and leaders must select between a very bad and even worse choice. Hiroshima was the most awful option imaginable, but the other scenarios would have probably turned out even worse.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.