Seventy years ago yesterday, an Army Air Forces B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Following the bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier, Nagasaki’s destruction compelled Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945.
And without President Truman’s choice to use atomic weapons — twice — I probably wouldn’t have been born. After all, in 1945, my grandfather was a Marine field lineman specializing in the hazardous provision of communications wire between the lines; he was assigned to the 22nd Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division, 1st Army. The 1st Army was set to lead Operation Coronet: the assault on Japan’s Honshu Island to seize Tokyo. Based on the increasing ferocity of Japanese resistance as Allied forces approached the mainland, analysts suggested that the U.S. military would lose hundreds of thousands in the invasion of Japan. In three days at the Battle of Okinawa, for example, my grandfather’s battalion suffered 400 casualties.
SLIDESHOW: Hiroshima & Nagasaki
In the summer of 1945, as U.S commanders considered the impending invasion, they were expecting a bloodbath. The A-bombs offered an alternative to this looming catastrophe.
The A-bombs probably saved millions of Japanese lives. Planning total resistance against invasion, Japanese military leaders had armed civilians with improvised weapons such as sharpened bamboo sticks.
In addition, the A-bombs probably saved millions of Japanese lives. Planning total resistance against invasion, Japanese military leaders had armed civilians with improvised weapons such as sharpened bamboo sticks. These civilians were to be thrown against Allied forces. Those who didn’t fight? Suicide rates during the Battle of Okinawa suggest that many Japanese civilians would have committed suicide rather than surrender.
Yet some imagine that there was a third alternative between invasion and atomic bombs: patience. They claim that Japan would have surrendered later in 1945 regardless of U.S. action. Unfortunately, this thinking is delusional, at best. It was not until the bombing of Nagasaki that Tokyo’s momentum swung toward peace. Even at that point, some Japanese military officials moved against the emperor to prevent surrender. They wanted to fight on, gambling that they could compel better terms by bloodying the invading allies. They were prepared to scorch Japan in that pursuit.
To his great credit, President Truman realized that only immediate decisive force would force imperial Japan to fold. Having served in World War I, Truman was personally aware of war’s horror. But he knew that alongside humility and caution in the face of individual suffering, leadership in war also requires honest measurement of awful options. And Harry Truman made the right call.
Celebrating his 90th birthday recently, my grandfather offered a joking solution, referring to Iwo Jima, in case the moment hadn’t been recorded: “We can get a rerun. Like Mount Suribachi.” Life is precious. I’m glad my grandfather and many other American grandfathers and many Japanese civilians didn’t have to die on Honshu’s Kantō Plain.