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The decision of the United States to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last year of the Second World War remains up to the present day one of the most controversial topics in both American and Japanese history. J. Samuel Walker wrote in this regard a few years ago that “the controversy over the use of the bomb seems certain to continue.” (Walker, 2005:334) People’s main concern revolves around the legitimacy and necessity of the act. In other words, the question of “were the bombings justified?” is quite relevant within this on-going debate. As Walker noted: “the fundamental issue that has divided scholars over a period of nearly four decades is whether the use of the bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.”(Walker, 2005:334) The arguments both in support and against the dropping of the bombs in 1945 ought to be also examined in this discussion of the event’s validity and inevitability. The main argument in support of the bombings states that the event saved not only American but Japanese lives as well which is considered to be a ridiculous statement by the opposite side of the debate as they continue to underline the inhumanity and savageness of targeting and destroying thousands of innocent lives. As Herbert Feis argued in his book Japan Subdued: The Atomic Bomb and the End of the War in the Pacific, Japan was about to surrender and a couple of more months would have proven that. (McNelly, 1961: 748) What is however interesting to observe is that both arguments are not necessarily exclusive or contradictory which complicates finding an answer to the aforementioned question further. For example, most people who are in favor of the bombings are aware of the primitiveness that killing civilians connotes, but continue nevertheless to legitimize President Truman’s decision as the right one in the context of the greater good. In short, to understand whether the United States was justified in dropping the atomic bombs of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” an exploration of the different arguments and their relevancy, in addition to the historical context, ought to be conducted.
The historical context should be first comprehended before the controversial debate is to be analyzed. It is commonly known that the United States dropped two bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The events that influenced the American government’s decision to proceed are however not necessarily part of the general knowledge and deserve therefore closer analysis. The fact is that the United States was engaged in the strategic bombing of Japan between 1942 and 1945. It has been claimed by some historians that the Emperor began his journey towards peace upon viewing the sites of destruction, misery and death which is an argument used by those critical of the bombing as it underlines the idea that Japan was considering surrender. (Bradley, 1999: 38) While the destruction that the two atomic bombs caused is also known it is thereby relevant to note that the United States had been actively and intensely bombing many of the cities of Japan over the last seven months of the campaign which resulted in the partial or almost full demolition of the astonishing number of 67 Japanese cities. The rates of death are approximated around 500,000 thousand Japanese citizens. A number as high as five million citizens had been made homeless over the course of these months. (Bradley, 1999:32-38) The destruction of Japan had thus been going on for a long time before August 1945. What is also interesting to note is the fact that the Japanese government pushed the United States into dropping the bombs through its dismissal of the Potsdam Declaration which was an ultimatum demanding Japan’s surrender and warning that any other decision would result in “prompt and utter destruction.”(Potsdam Declaration, 1945: 667) Japan’s rejection of the ultimatum is what influenced Truman to drop the bombs as a way of ending the war that had been going on for years. The decision, though nevertheless still horrific, seems more understandable in light of these general historical facts. Japan had been subject to intense strategic bombing for many months and suffered heavy casualties and material losses but continued nevertheless to persist in its antagonistic defying stance which left the United States with limited choices.
The atomic bombs were not built by the United States alone. They were designed and constructed along with the United Kingdom and Canada under what came to be known as the Manhattan Project.( Arsenault, 2010: 1-5) The Hiroshima bomb, also called “Little Boy” was composed of uranium-235 while the Nagasaki bomb, also known by the name “Fat Man”, was mainly made of plutonium-239. The bombs were made to be destructive in a shocking and previously unknown way. In other words, they were constructed as fear-mongering objects whose highly destructive impacts would shock the targeted nation into surrender. (Marshall, Herzenberg, Howes and others, 2010: 228-232) Hiroshima was selected as target due to its strategic and military significance. Hiroshima was after all described as “an important army depot and port of embarkation in the middle of an urban industrial area.” (Szilard) It is thus clear that the bombings were implemented in a very carefully planned manner that served to fully highlight the psychological factors that were set by the Target Committee. These included intimidating Japan into complying fully with the Potsdam Declaration in addition to achieving the most evident results to underscore the strength and power of the Allies generally and the United States specifically.(Jenod, 1982: 265-280) Planning for the bombing had thus been going on for a long time before August 1945 and involved the building of the bombs as well as the choice of the target cities that were for this reason left almost untouched during the night raids to highlight their destruction by the atomic bombs even more after the event. It is clear that the United States was very keen on playing on the psychological factor of war-fare which is exactly why former U.S Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson stated in 1947 that “the atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.”(Time, 1947: 1-2) Japan had shown stubborn resistance and fierce rejection of surrendering and the Allies were worried the war could go on for years in the face of this fact. Japan had been, as has been mentioned, subject to consistent bombing for months but rejected the Potsdam Declaration nevertheless.
The Allies were intending to invade Japan if it did not surrender after the bombings. The plan was termed Operation Downfall and was cancelled when Japan complied with the Allies’ terms after the 6th and 9th of August. The Allies were aware of the fact that invading Japan would prove more conflicting and problematic in practice. First and foremost, Japan’s geography made it hard to invade the country without the prior knowledge of the Japanese who would therefore be able to predict in a timely and accurate manner the invasion plans and adjust their defense accordingly minimizing with that any chance the Allies have at success. The Allies’ predictions of the casualties as a result of an invasion alike were high on both sides and extended up to a few millions for the Allied forces and tens of millions on the Japanese side. (Muller, 2010: 67-68) Awareness of the complications of land invasion, combined with the realization of the little success of the night raids’ in convincing Japan to surrender, made the Allies consider other choices such as the use of nuclear weapons or chemical weapons.
While the aforementioned points are historical facts, their interpretation has varied over time. For example, the 1946 report, the U.S Strategic Bombing Survey, rejected the notion that Japan surrendered consequential to the dropping of the atomic bombs and argues instead that the Allies’ air supremacy was the main reason behind Japan’s surrender. The following extract from the report highlights this idea further:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion 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. (Zinn, 2003: 422)
Regardless of these interesting points it remains crucial to note the response given by Japanese Prime Minister Kantaor Suzuki in regard to the Potsdam Declaration. The Prime Minister declared that he did not perceive the Declaration to be more than a rehash of the Cairo Declaration which is why the Japanese government reached the conclusion to ignore it instead of give it any serious consideration. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1958) This statement was affirmed by the Emperor Hirohito who did not contradict it in any way. On the contrary, it has been noted by his advisor Koichi Kodo that the Emperor declared that the Imperial Regalia of Japan deserved sacrifice and powerful defense whatever the costs were.( Kido Koichi nikki, 1966: 1120-1121) Therefore, while it is relevant and comprehensible to underline the horrific inhumanity of the bombings it is also pertinent to highlight the fact that this catastrophic event was most likely the main reason behind Japan’s surrender. It was also responsible for preventing the implementation of a future, and far more destructive to both sides, plan of invasion.
The fact is that the Manhattan Project came into existence as a response to the German Nazi threat. The first atomic pile had appeared in 1942 in Chicago and the Allied forces became suddenly very worried about the prospect of the Nazi acquisition of the nuclear weapons before they would be able to do so first. The best theoretical physics were after all conducted in Germany and their ability to build weapons of unimaginable power was therefore a very possible reality that scared the Allies considering the huge disastrous impacts this would have. It is this that led initially to the initiation of the secretive program headed by the civilian scientist Robert Oppenheimer. (Marshall, Herzenberg, Howes and others, 2010: 228-232) The plan was to build an atomic bomb that would knock the Nazis out of their plans to conquer the world. By the beginning of spring 1945 and with the move of the bomb from the realms of theory to reality, the scientists in charge became increasingly weary of dropping the bombs whose long-term impacts were still unclear. The decision to drop the bomb on Japan was the direct result of its military operations against the United States.
December 7, 1941 is a day the United States will always remember as the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor. At 7:49 a.m 183 Japanese dive and torpedo-bombers along with Zero escorts began the attack. They were succeeded by 168 more Japanese aircrafts that launched another attack an hour later. The event caused considerate amounts of damage to the American fleet resulting in the destruction or heavy damage of eighteen warships and 188 aircrafts. A number of 2,403 Americans died as a consequence of the unpleasant surprise the Japanese delivered that morning. (Morrison, 1961:19-27) The USA was thereby engaged in an economic warfare with Japan for many years prior to the attack. In fact, the antagonism felt by each side for the other was very clear. For example, President Roosevelt did not make a secret of his dislike of the Germans and the Japanese. He was supported by figures as Henry L. Stimson who became secretary of war in 1940 and proposed not long after that for the country to impose economic sanctions on Japan in order to obstruct the advance of Japanese power. (Streissguth, 2005: 12-22) The conflict between the U.S and Japan did not stop here. The Japanese kept trying , before and after Pearl Harbor, to eliminate US’s strategic importance in the Pacific which led to many naval battles among which is the famous Battle of Midway that was the direct result of America’s ability to intercept and prevent another destructive attack carried out by Japan. It is thus clear that like the U.S, Japan was also engaged in psychological warfare and attempted to place pressure on the United States at many times in order to promote their plans of establishing the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. (Morrison, 1961:19-27)
Regardless of all these historical facts, many people still question whether the war had to end with the bombings. This is, ironically enough, the result of many of the factors noted. The Japanese military attacks against the United States and the continuing conflict between the two nations makes people believe that certain racist American attitudes toward Japan motivated the decision to use the bombs.(Boyer and others, 2008: 613) As has been however illustrated, it was Germany who was the target from the beginning of the Manhattan Project. It is however also clear that the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were selected to especially demonstrate the destructiveness of the bombs and move Japan to surrender. Historians still debate whether Japan was ready to compromise and would have done so without the bombings which is a point of vital importance serves in this on-going controversial the debate. What is however factually documented is Japan’s rejection of any kind of compromise until as late as 28 July, 1945. Thereby, it was only after the Hiroshima bombings that the Japanese government was ready to discuss the Potsdam Declaration which leads to the conclusion that the bombing brought about the end of a long and bloody conflict in a very controversial and destructive way.
The debate over nuclear weapons is inarguably one of the most pressing questions of our time. Its ability to instantly make states military threats and nullify a greater power’s conventional military is a great fear to states benefiting from the existing balance of power. All states fear the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, but what each state fears the most is the likelihood of its enemies using nuclear weapons against them. Nuclear proliferation is not the bane of the United States; rather it is its inability to control nuclear limitation. What past administrations have failed to realize is that their national security policies aimed at fighting threats and selectively deciding good nukes from bad, has in fact led to decreased stability abroad and to an increase in nuclear proliferation. This argument is nowadays evident in examples as Pakistan, Iran and North-Korea. Using nuclear/atomic bombs has thus always been a very debatable and volatile decision due to the moral, ethical and human considerations attached to it. It is this that served and continues to impact the debate about the necessity and justifications of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan.
Kenneth Waltz makes a clear distinction between the desire to develop nuclear or atomic weapons for defensive purposes and for deterrence purposes. Waltz states that nuclear weapons developed for deterrent purposes are not used as a fortification but rather as an ability to inflict a massive amount of damage upon an enemy so as to deter them from desiring to attack. Such deterrence requires a large stockpile of powerful weapons as to assure complete destruction of an enemy’s state ability to retaliate, and well protected arsenals on stand-by alert capable of delivering a second-strike so as to deter preemptive surprise attacks. Only the United States could claim, in that summer, to possess such capabilities. This illustrates also one of the main arguments in favor of the bombings. When the aforementioned historical events are taken into consideration it can be argued that the United Sates initiated the bombing for both defensive and deterrent purposes which are generally considered to be relevant considerations during times of war. After all, the deterrent purposes of the United States were centered around fortifying Japan from carrying out more attacks against the Allies in general and the U.S specifically. In this way, the development of the atomic bombs decreased the risk of being attacked because “if states can score only small gains because large ones risk retaliation, they have little incentive to fight”. (Waltz, 1981:5) In other words, even if the dropping of the atomic bombs was not the main reason behind convincing Japan to surrender, it did without doubt raise the cost of war to a level that was unacceptable for its relative gains to this East Asian country.
From a realist perspective, states are assumed to be rational actors. However, what would happen if a non-state actor was able to gain access to a nuclear weapon; could they be trusted to act in the same rational matter with the same constraining forces acting upon it? As has been noted, this was one of the main reasons behind the development of the Manhattan Project. The terrifying prospect of Germany’s acquisition of this kind of weapons moved the Allies into developing their own. What does really serve to shed a very negative light on the bombings regardless of the historical context is the fact that even the scientists who developed the weapons had no exact estimate about their potential impacts.
Stefan T. Possony examines the impacts of the bombings more in his essay “The Atomic Bomb Political Hopes and Realities”. The author points, like many others before and after him, to the great psychological effects of the atomic bomb that transcend the physical ones. Possony noted that the “atomic bomb climaxed die psychological warfare against Japan and accelerated the surrender of that country”. (Possony, 1946:147-167) The atomic bomb’s unprecedented destructiveness caused however “turmoil of fear and despair” in the world and shocked everybody into a state of reflection on the future of the world. (Possony, 1946:147-167) The psychological impacts of the bombs were tremendous and worthy of the high costs associated with developing them and that were approximated at around 2 billion dollars. The bombs managed thus to achieve the aims they were built for and it is this which made up for the high developing costs for the Allies.
To take the discussion about the morality of the bombing a step further it is important to provide a balance between the pros and cons of each side. Joseph M. Siracusa highlights this further in his article “Atomic Diplomacy Revisited Martin J. Sherwin: A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance.” The author mentions Martin J. Sherwin’s commentary about the negatives of the bombings: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki rose as symbols of a New American barbarism and as explanations for the origins of the cold war”. (Siracusa, 1976: 627-631) This highlights the shift in the American point of view regarding the event. While at the end of World War II most Americans accepted Truman’s reasoning and the need for sacrificing over a hundred thousand civilian enemy lives, the perception changed due to the rise of new arguments and new evidence claiming that the bombings were unnecessary. Many people came thus to question the conventional wisdom of “Truman was saving lives” and came to blame many of the political and social complications on the event itself. The highlight the line between truth and fiction the pros and cons of each side should thus be noted down first.
People who perceive the bombings to have been justified argue that it prevented the occurrence of more casualties at each side of the battle. Most people who were alive during the period of Hiroshima and Nagasaki affirm the belief that Truman did indeed drop the bombs merely because of military reasons, or in other words, to end the war. The timely end of the war was known to be preventative of the need for land invasion which translated into more casualties estimated in the millions rather than the thousands. Ironically enough, Truman was thus indeed saving lives by dropping the atomic bombs. People who question Truman’s decision, the revisionists, argue that this former president should have opted for different methods to end the war, such as more negotiation. Japanese fighting style and persistence spoke however for itself. Their antagonism of anything American went far due tot he complications between the nations that led to the U.S placing a trade embargo on Japan which only increased the hatred felt. The antagonism is also perceivable in the way American soldiers were treated when captured by the Japanese. Prisoners of war were tortured to death and some were forced to participate in walks termed the Death Marches. An American soldier noted even that he was forced to bury his friend alive by the Japanese. (Tanaka, 1998: 45) These are just a few examples that underline what has been mentioned before. The relationship between Japan and the United States was very complicated due to a long history of competition for power in the Pacific region. The dropping of the bombs in the aftermath of the rejection of the Potsdam Declaration and the lack of success of the night raids seems to be the most logical conclusion through which a terrible prolonging of the war was prevented. Lives were thus indeed saved.
The Revisionists believe that Truman had different reasons for bombing Japan. (Ferrell, 2006) It is on this basis that the criticism of the American Administration’s decision to bomb Japan is based. Revisionists believe that the destruction of the two Japanese cities served different purposes. They interpret it as a revengeful response to the event of Peal Harbor and Japan’s treatment of the American prisoners of war. Revisionists argue that the bombings were carried out to further Truman’s political ambitions of being reelected. Truman was afraid he would ne be elected if the public came to know about the spending of two billion dollars on a project that was not used. Others state that Truman merely dropped the bombs to impress Stalin. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan was thus perpetuated for the wrong reasons according to the Revisionists. (Ferrell, 2006) However, as has been highlighted, the atomic bombs were initially constructed to counter a possible growing German/Nazi threat. To analyze the whole event as a conspiracy implemented and carried out for the advancement of one’s personal goals and the fulfillment of feelings of revenge seems to undermine rather than validate the arguments as convincing evidence.
In order to underline the point made previously about the bombings’ purpose in eliminating the possibility of the implementation of Operation Olympic it is crucial to make an accurate comparison between the two. In order to do that effectively one must have a clear knowledge of the type of destruction that “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” caused on the 6th and 9th of August, 1945. The Hiroshima bombing resulted in the death of 66,000 people and destroyed over two thirds of the city while the Nagasaki bombing killed 39,000 people and brought half the city to the ground. In total, around 105,000 Japanese people died on those two fateful days. Operation Olympic was predicted to be more destructive on a larger scale. To understand Japanese lack of desire to compromise it is important to refer briefly to the Samurai tradition which affirmed that the most honorable way for a man to die is for Japan and the emperor. Americans were stunned by the Japanese civilians’ desire to take this philosophy to the extreme despite the casualties they suffered from the bombing of 67 cities. This is confirmed in the fact that the Japanese army was preparing for a possible land invasion by American forces through training the civilians in diverse methods of fighting with the usage of simple sharpened bamboo poles. The fact is that even if Operation Olympic was carried out American forces would have a hard time stabilizing the cities captured decreasing thereby the effectiveness of the whole campaign. In addition to this, the civilians’ complete loyalty and devotion to the cause is highlighted in how children were trained to be “Sherman carpets”. In other words, they were strapped with TNT and taught to throw themselves under American tanks. Their death was celebrated as honorable as it served the higher purpose of killing the enemy. Japanese civilians showed a general preference of death to surrender. For instance, in Saipan 900 Japanese committed suicide when faced with the possibility of being captured by American forces. (Bradley, 2003: 68-77) It is thus safe to assume that Operation Olympic could have gone on for many and many more years consequential to this dominant Japanese mentality that celebrated the cause of fighting as a mater of honor.
The conclusions to be reached from the aforementioned are clear and seem to suggest, despite the undeniable human losses and destruction of Japan, that the bombings were indeed justified. The only way Truman’s motives can be understood is through an analysis of the results of his actions and decisions. This is important to include in order to clarify the many fallacies surrounding the Revisionists” claims. It is interesting to note that Truman’s exact reasons for initiating the bombing remain unknown and unnoted even in his personal diary. While it is thus possible that he could have carried the bombing out for personal reasons and selfish ambitions, it is also evident that Hiroshima and Nagasaki did save lives. From the observations made and the facts and theories noted it is however also clear that this conclusion is hard to reach when a person fails to look at the bigger picture, the larger consequences and unpreventable events that would have most likely occurred if the war had gone on. About a 105,000 Japanese people lost their lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This number is clearly very high and does not even include the number of casualties or the people who continued to suffer from the impacts of radiation and pollution due to the bombing. No one can therefore disregard the disastrous significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in human history as a whole. The events were and are tragic to reflect on. However, while the aforementioned number is indeed very high it is significantly small in comparison with the estimated millions of lives that would have been lost on the American and Japanese side if the war had continued. Therefore, while Revisionists like to underline Truman’s personal and selfish desires for carrying out the attack, the historical and political context of the act signify the need for a drastic solution to deal with a nation who would otherwise not surrender. It was only through the clever manipulation of the bombs as psychological weapons that the American government finally succeeded in making Japan reconcile with the idea of surrendering.
The number of Japanese people who died in the night raids is many times greater than the 105,000 noted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki which suggests that witnessing death on a large scale was not something the Japanese were not accustomed to. Nevertheless they refused to surrender due to their sacred Samurai traditions and deep antagonism of Americans. The number of people who died in the raids of the 67 cities is approximately 500,000 people. This is stunning indeed as it would have provoked some kind of reconsideration of tactics by a different country. Japan persisted nevertheless in its stance and declared to perceive the Potsdam Declaration to be no more than a hollow threat. Therefore, while the atomic bombs took Japan and the world by surprise they are by no means different, in regard to the outcome, to the air bombings or the planned land invasion that would have prolonged the war many more months at the least. The atomic bombs resulted in many casualties but prevented the occurrence of more destruction and more death in the long turn. These findings can however only be fully comprehended when one moves in perspective to focus on the larger context scenario. The bombings did end the war more quickly and resulted in fewer deaths than if the war was allowed to continue which, most likely, would have been the case without Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has been indeed suggested that Japan was considering surrender before the atomic bombs but there seems to be no clear-cut supporting evidence in regard to this as the government and the emperor stressed the need to remain strong and fight until the last breath. Being faced with the reality of complete and fast annihilation forced Japan however to reconsider. Nagasaki and Hiroshima shifted the focus in power to the Allies. Truman’s motives should therefore not be criticized in the light of the result of his actions. While the following rule is generally wrong, it is very pertinent in this case scenario: the end does indeed justify the means.
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