Well, it is well over a month since December 7th passed and I was busy with school work, but 12/7 (Pearl Harbor) and WWII in general have always been some of my favorite topics to study and discuss, so I wanted to take the time to make an argument here concerning President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb, which I believe was ultimately not necessarily the "right" or "wrong" thing to do, but the most "rational" decision to be made at that time for various reasons. This was actually a paper of mine from one of my classes last semester, but without footnotes and references:
Starting with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the Pacific War between Japan and the United States raged on for almost four years until Japan’s surrender aboard the American battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. It was a most brutal and racist war fought over thousands of miles of open sea and hundreds of tiny islands by two adversaries that had been anticipating just such a conflict with each other and war-gaming for over at least a quarter-century before. It was a war of incredible inhumanity in which quarter was rarely asked and rarely given. Although hundreds of thousands of lives total on both sides had been lost over the almost the four year duration of this conflict, what finally brought such a war to a conclusion was the use of two bombs, each with a destructive capacity that had been previously unknown. Although first used on August 6th, 1945, over sixty years later the dropping of the atomic bombs is still one of the most intensely argued decisions both emotionally and strategically.
The destruction that was wrought on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the bombs aftermath, was devastating, but the Japanese government did capitulate soon after. The question since then has been, were the use of atomic bombs necessary or unnecessary, or “right” or “wrong”, to bring about the unconditional surrender of Japan? Based on the American and Allied importance assigned to the policy of unconditional surrender and the numerous factors that President Truman had to take into consideration at that time, the decision to drop “the bomb” was the most rational one to make. “Necessary” and “unnecessary” seem to imply that there were limited or unlimited alternatives that could have brought about an unconditional surrender. While there were such possible alternatives, the consequences of such options were in no way, or any way, clearly visible to an administration that was trying to force an unconditional surrender, nor could the ultimate consequences of those alternative histories be accurately guessed at in hindsight because even the most subtle and unpredictable occurrences can have incredible consequences that would have been impossible to guess at or factor in. “Right” and “wrong” imply moral or emotional arguments which are apt at times, but are difficult to apply to one decision in a war that saw the Bataan Death March, the Rape of Nanking, scientific experiments on human beings, large scale massacres, and the intentional bombing of cities. Was it “right” to drop atomic weapons on the civilian population of a government whom that, even if they had no knowledge of, at least their military was responsible for incredibly “wrong” atrocities? Was it “right” to end a war that had seen so many “wrongs” from all of the major belligerents in such a fashion? It would be incorrect to argue that “necessary / unnecessary” and “right / wrong” hold no place in this debate at all because they certainly do, but in attempting to sidestep the unknown consequences of the alternative options in a “necessary / unnecessary” debate, as well as the various nuances of a “right / wrong” moral argument, as viewed from the historical prism of the summer of 1945 the most rational decision was for the atomic bomb to be used and that rationale was based on many factors, both known and unknown, at that given time.
To see the dropping of the bomb as the most rational decision at that particular moment requires more than just judging the world situation at that particular moment in August of 1945, but must be judged from the context of the whole, and that is the entire war and its consequences up to that moment. World War II was unlike any other war that had ever been fought, both in size and scope. True, some previous wars had been fought by some powers across the globe such as the Eighteenth Century French and Indian War between France and Britain, but while it was fought out at different locations across the world it was limited in the amount of adversaries as well as destruction. It can be argued that The Great War was not even a “World War” because while its participants came from all over the globe, the majority of the fighting took place on the one continent of Europe.
World War II, however, was truly global in the amount of participants and the multiple theaters of war. “World War” aptly describes what was at stake here in terms of the long term direction that world politics would take based on the outcome. This perfectly described all-encompassing “World War” was not just fought on battlefields, but came to cities and induced not only the deaths of millions of citizens, but saw atrocities such as holocaust camps, scientific experiments, mistreatment of prisoners of war, rape on a large scale, and other horrific atrocities that could not, according to the morals of the time, just be written off as “war is hell.” In other words, contemporaries of the years leading up to WWII did not consider their time to be equal to that of Genghis Khan. It was a grueling, all-encompassing, total effort, hateful, racist war in which the Allies had long before determined that it would end only with the unconditional surrender of the defeated Axis alliance that Japan was a full-standing member of. The reasons behind the concept of unconditional surrender were that the victorious Allies would not only be able to dictate and form the postwar realities of the Fascist, militant Axis powers, but also so that the citizens of these defeated powers would under no uncertain terms fully understand who had won and who had lost this war as opposed to many Germans, such as Hitler and his cohorts, who had made excuses for Germany’s losing The Great War. It had been determined by the Allies that this uniquely terrible war was going to be ended in a fashion that would make the chances of another World War in the near future less likely.
Starting with Japan’s surprise attack against the vital American base of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the war raged across the Pacific for the next three and a half years. Virtually simultaneously to the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese forces invaded and overtook the American held Philippines, British held Singapore and Malaya, and Dutch held Indonesia. Along with the surprise attacks, their incredibly ill treatment of the captured western forces as well as the native populations added to the hatred and fear of Japan by these so far defeated Allied nations. Reports of The Bataan Death March and the beheadings and near starvation conditions that Allied POWs were kept in filtered out to the Allied public. After these initial successes, over the next six months Japanese forces soon overran Burma as well as sweeping into the islands of the South Pacific and threatening Australia.
Starting with Midway, New Guinea, and Guadalcanal, the Allies started reversing Japan’s seemingly overwhelming tide of victory in the second half of 1942. None of these came easy, but what made it particularly haring in the eyes of the Allies was how Japan’s army fought. Instilled with the Bushido code, Japanese soldiers were expected to, and did, fight to the death. It was either Sun Tzu or Clausewitz who stated something to the effect that the ideal objective when fighting a war was to get your enemy to surrender without even fighting. Whoever did say it never fought Japan. The fighting in all wars is dreadful, but the fight-to-the-death code that Japanese soldiers more often then not fought by made it a kill-or-be-killed war for Allied soldiers as well. Allied soldiers knew the harsh treatment that awaited them in Japanese POW camps, so they gave little quarter to Japanese soldiers who did attempt to surrender anyway. Due to Japanese actions and their Bushido code, as well as western racism towards Japan and some Japanese racism towards non-Japanese, the war in the Pacific became the fight-to-the death that the code demanded regardless if both sides wanted to fight by it or not.
Above is not a simple history lesson on the nature of fighting in the Pacific for the sake of it, but rather to impress the severity and seriousness of the fighting mentality of the Japanese military that President Truman would have to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to use his new atomic weapons. For those who suggest that Japan was a defeated nation by August, 1945, she certainly did not act like one. On the western front in Europe, western Allied forces, mostly American, British, Canadian, and French, made relative quick progress through western Germany after Hitler’s last gasp at the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944. Not that the Germany military simply capitulated in the west, but they did not fight as hard against the western Allies because much of Germany’s military realized that the war was lost and the focus was on fighting their arch enemy, the Soviets. Fighting between Germany and the western Allies had gone pretty much according to the Geneva Conventions in regards to POWs in which they were treated humanly and properly for the most part. German soldiers and western Allied soldiers knew that surrender was an option with each other. By the end of the war tens of thousands of western Allied military personnel had been taken captive by the Germans and hundreds of thousands of Germans had been taken prisoner by the western Allies.
This is in direct contrast to the miniscule amount of Japanese POWs that had been taken in the Pacific and the miniscule amount of Allied POWs that had been taken by the Japanese after the treatment of the initial large scale Allied POWs at the surrender of the Philippines and Singapore. The war in the Pacific was what the war on Europe’s eastern front was – a fight to the death with no quarter expected or given. Soviet forces suffered one hundred thousand dead from the taking of Berlin alone. If the fighting in the Pacific could be compared to the severity of the fighting on the eastern front, what kind of casualties could American forces expect to sustain in the taking of just Tokyo? After their hard won reversals in the second half of 1942 and into 1943, Allied forces, the vast majority of whom were American, came up against tougher and tougher Japanese resistance the further west that Allied forces pushed across the Pacific towards the home islands of Japan. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the kamikaze appeared on the scene for the first time and their suicidal dedication symbolized not only the desperate measures that Japan was willing to take in order to forestall an unconditional surrender, but the ferocity that awaited American and Allied forces the closer that they got to Japan.
The Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, both Japanese home islands, were strategically important for the Allies, but the fighting that had occurred on those two islands is what is relevant here. At Iwo, 21,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed there and fought from the miles of tunnels that had been dug in preparation to repulse an invasion. Over 20,000 Japanese soldiers died defending the small island of Iwo Jima and for the first time since taking the offensive in the Pacific, American casualties outnumbered that of the Japanese with over 27,000 casualties, although less than 7,000 were deaths. An even far bloodier battle followed at the Battle of Okinawa when 100,000 Japanese combatants were killed along with 150,000 civilians. American casualties were over 70,000 with more than 12,000 of those being deaths. Between these first two battles on Japanese home territory, over 120,000 Japanese combatants and over 150,000 civilians were killed, along with almost 100,000 American soldiers who were casualties with at least 19,000 of those being fatalities. This does not include the more than 5,000 Allied sailors who were killed and hundreds of mostly damaged, but also sunken, allied ships due to kamikaze attacks. All of these casualties on both sides for two relatively small islands that, while part of Japanese home territory, were not even part of the main body of islands that constituted Japan.
It was a dire situation that Japan faced by the spring of 1945. Her defensive perimeter in the Pacific had been pushed back to the home islands which were under constant American bombardment as well as strangulation by the American submarine campaign. On top of that, Germany had surrendered unconditionally in the first week of May of that year and now Japan had to face the concentrated efforts of all of the Allied powers when up to this point she had been consistently defeated in the Pacific during a three year period with only a fraction of total Allied power against her. With so much going against her, why did Japan not surrender in the summer of 1945? At issue was the acceptability of unconditional surrender which most Japanese leaders at the time did not find acceptable at least in regards to the unsure status of the emperor. A Japanese emissary did try to negotiate with the Soviets into persuading America into accepting a conditional surrender, but the Soviets refused. What had been decided by Japan’s highest leaders was to continue to fight on in spite of the fact that their navy and airpower were virtually destroyed, their cities were being bombed and fire-bombed virtually on a daily basis, they were now without allies, and Japan itself was estimated to be months away from a winter of starvation.
For all intense and purposes, Japan was already defeated so what did they hope to get out of a protracted war? The answer was a conditional surrender or truce that would not only leave the emperor in place, but also leave postwar Japan occupied-free. They believed that the only way to achieve this was to make an invasion of the home islands too costly for the Allies so as to force a conditional end to the conflict. The plan that they came up with was Ketsu-Go and was meant to be the answer against the upcoming American and Allied planned invasion of Japan codenamed Downfall. Operation Downfall consisted of two separate operations. Olympic, whose goal was to capture the southern half of Kyushu, was to begin on November 1, 1945. The follow up operation, Coronet, was slated for March 1, 1946 and would be an invasion of the main home island of Honshu with the aim of capturing Tokyo and its local productive farm area, the Kanto plain.
A general argument that is used against Truman’s decision to use the bomb is the quarrel over the estimates of American casualties that could be expected to be incurred over the course of Downfall. Estimates at that time, and subsequently, have been for anywhere from 40,000 to 1,000,000 Allied fatalities or all-inclusive casualties. Critics of Truman’s decision seem to act as if the mere discrepancy between the various estimates, or that his advisors disagreed as to what to expect, is somehow an argument against the dropping of the bomb. The issue of casualties should not even be an issue at all in regards to judging Truman’s decision even though the President himself undoubtedly incorporated the uncertainty of casualties while formulating his decision. Historians, writers, and critics who try to make a point concerning the debate over casualties never seem to be able or willing themselves to state an acceptable number of casualties that the American President and public should have been willing to accept during the course of the proposed invasion. Just because Truman had been given various estimates over such a wide spectrum, critics of his decision never seem to state that the “low” estimate of 40,000 deaths should have been acceptable because they know that no leader of a modern democracy would ever find such a number “acceptable” if preventable. The disparity in casualty estimates is given too much unjustified importance in this historical debate to begin with.
Intelligence is another important factor when judging “the decision”, but in more ways than one. American intelligence learned that Japanese representatives had been trying to use the Soviets to mediate a truce or conditional surrender, but it appeared that nothing serious was going to come of it at least in terms of an unconditional surrender. Leading up to the proposed invasion, American intelligence learned that Japan had dramatically increased the number of troops in the proposed landing areas to the point that the ratio of attacking American troops to Japanese defenders would be close to 1:1.
American intelligence had learned some key information here, but rarely does one know exactly how accurate that intelligence is at that given moment. The Battle of Midway was an American intelligence victory, but there were plenty who disagreed with Admiral Nimitz right up until the battle that the attack was indeed destined for Midway. Intelligence seemed to indicate that a Japanese attack was going to occur sometime in early December of 1941, but it did not outright say Pearl Harbor and intelligence officers did not, could not, and would not, interpret it to say Hawaii because it seemed so impossible to believe. German intelligence had failed to anticipate Russia’s recuperative abilities and Stalin failed to pay heed to his own intelligence warnings concerning an imminent German attack in June of 1941. In more recent times, American intelligence conflicted as to whether or not Saddam Hussein still possessed WMDs in 2003 and was eventually interpreted that he did which turned out to not be the case. The recently released NIE report stated with “high certainty” that Iran had suspended their nuclear weapons program in 2003, which contradicts the NIE report of 2005 stating the exact opposite. Only time will tell whether it is either the 2005 or the 2007 NIE report that is correct.
The point is that not only can intelligence be right or wrong but how it is interpreted is equally as important. President Truman could not compare intelligence contemporary to that particular moment with any absolute certainty as to any possible outcome. This is not at all to suggest that intelligence is useless because this not true at all. However, when dealing with the running up to the greatest invasion of all time and uncertainties of monumental magnitude that can mean the difference between success or failure and the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, including your own and that of your enemy, hinge on your decisions, when an option is available that might bring such a war to a certain end, it was rational and justifiable to use that option.
What would the alternatives have been if the atomic bomb had not been used? It is impossible to say with certainty, but based on the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, there is no reason to believe that both operations Olympic and Coronet would have been anything short of a blood bath in the face of Japan’s counter-invasion operation Ketsu-Go. Japanese military planners had not only correctly guessed the American invasion areas for both operations, but their timing as well. On top of that, kamikazes were to be used against troop transports this time instead of carriers, and Japanese civilians, including women and children, were expected to fight to the death as well using any weapons available, including spears. Even if American and Allied casualties were at the low end of the spectrum, Japanese military and civilian casualties would almost certainly have been horrific and much greater than the combined destruction of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Other alternatives were to continue the bombing and incendiary bombing against Japan as well as keeping the successful submarine campaign against Japanese merchant shipping in place until Japan was starved into submission. Nobody can tell how long that would have taken even though the winter of ’45 – ’46 would have been horrible for Japan and maybe Japan’s leaders would have accepted defeat by the following spring. Considering how strong-willed Japan as a nation had been and the demands and sacrifices that their leaders had not only asked for but people responded to up to that point, surrender due to bombings and starvation in the spring of ’46 was no certainty as well. Japan’s leaders still could have refused unconditional surrender in the hopes of American home front support eroding for a war that seemed all but over.
In terms of “right” versus “wrong”, how “right” would it have been to fire bomb and starve a nation into submission over a period of a few months? The shock value of the atomic bomb, the fact that one bomb could immediately kill so many as well as have long term consequences for many more, seems to outweigh, in the minds of many, the slower death by incendiaries and starvation that could have been an alternative, but might have wound up killing more. When the issue of American casualties comes up and the idea that there was an “acceptable” level as opposed to dropping two atomic bombs, it would be fair to ask, “How many Japanese were their leaders willing to sacrifice in the face of an invasion or bombings and starvation?” In the minds of Japan’s leaders, what were their acceptable casualty numbers and ratios and how could they justify them?
In the face of all of this, a perfectly rational question would be, “How necessary was an unconditional surrender?” That would be hard to quantify because the right type of conditional surrender could have been very close to an unconditional surrender. However, unconditional surrender would virtually guarantee that America would have a say in the future development of Japan, as it did with Germany and Italy as well, so as to make the chances of a future war much less likely. Considering that the future of the world was at stake in WWII, the ferocity of the fighting that raged for years around the globe including the Pacific, and the national and total mobilization efforts that were required to fight that war, the United States and her allies had every right to demand nothing less than an unconditional surrender that would help ensure that the world would develop more in line with their own interests.
Another argument that some make when passing judgment on Truman’s decision is to categorize it as a “entering the postwar message to the Soviets”. That could reasonably be described as one of Truman’s motives for using the bomb and could very well be correct. Well, President Truman did have to worry about the Soviet’s postwar intentions as the Cold War eventually proved his own misgivings about that situation correct. A protracted war with Japan that would allow the Soviets to quickly expand their influence in Asia, and possibly Japan itself, would not have been in America’s postwar interests. To say that this was Truman’s main reason if not only reason to drop the bomb is not intellectually honest at all when judging the situation in the Pacific as it had developed over a three year span and what both the United States and Japan faced in August of 1945.
It feels more “right” to argue that the use of the atomic bombs were “unnecessary” because frankly it feels immoral and “wrong” to argue otherwise. To defend the incineration of almost 200,000 civilians is not easy and alternatives always arise as to what more humane action could or should have been taken. What if President Truman had demonstrated the power of the bomb to Japanese observers instead? It is a fair question, but one that does not answer definitively whether or not Japan’s leaders, some of whom saw it as Japan’s obligation to die for their emperor, would have been convinced by reports from a proving ground. Japan’s supreme leadership was tied three to three as to whether or not to surrender unconditionally even after the dropping of the second atomic bomb. It took the Emperor to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of surrender and even then his government had to face down a coup by younger officers over the next couple of days. Another fair question is, “Why didn’t Japan’s leaders just surrender when faced with utter defeat, bombardment, starvation, and were without allies?” The fact is that regardless of who the leaders are of any nation they face multiple options and choices that they must weigh. To bring the world’s bloodiest and costliest war to an end the quickest and bloodless way foreseeable, while taking everything else into consideration at that moment as well as the accumulated experience of the preceding years, President Truman made the most rational decision available.