August 6 marks the dubious day in 1945 where America became the only power to use a nuclear bomb. This continues to spark controversy. There was a great deal of racial animus during the war, with both sides holding disdainful views of the other. The lack of military targets in Hiroshima and the dubious effectiveness of the bomb make some people say this was terrorism. After all, the Strategic Bombing survey revealed that the trains ran normally a mere three days later and that this was a way to stun the Japanese into surrendering and impress the Russians with the viability of the program. Plus, there were supposedly peace feelers from the Japanese that made this completely unnecessary. These arguments have gained popular currency to the point that it is common to call the bombing a “war crime,” and millennials increasingly believe the bombings were unjustified and immoral. These are all extremely flawed arguments that don’t accurately reflect the historical context and seem like excuses to blame instead of understand.
The peace overtures, for example, were completely impotent, and the U.S. was correct when they disregarded them. The best evidence of this comes after the Japanese emperor’s decision to surrender. After the bombs dropped and the emperor wanted peace, the military challenged and almost reversed the decision through a military coup. That makes it incredibly unlikely that minor officials would have produced peace. Plus, American willingness to negotiate would have emboldened the Japanese to think that more fighting would have gotten them more concessions.
The sad truth is that the Japanese would not surrender without the atomic bomb dropping. Without that bombing, the U.S. would have to rely on a conventional invasion that would have extended the war many more months. An estimated two hundred thousand a month were dying at this point in the war. The Japanese launched the Ichigo offensive in 1944, which was comparable in size and scope to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. An invasion by American forces on the Japanese homeland would have skyrocketed those figures, especially after the bloody battles at Iwo Jima.
There was the option not to fight, which would have left much of Asia in the hands of a regime as bad as Hitler’s. You also have to wonder how long they would have felt comfortable with the U.S. in Hawaii, so they would probably have attacked America again anyway. The U.S. could have continued to bomb them. The firebombing of Tokyo and conventional attacks actually caused more deaths than the nuclear bombs, so that couldn’t have been a better option.
The U.S. could have blockaded the country. Scholars argue that the U.S. had already destroyed much of Japan’s shipping and merchant marine aspects by August 1945, but then they would have to wait for the country to starve to death. That would have caused more deaths and in a slow manner, arguably worse than two nuclear bombings. It also would have given the Japanese time to kill more Chinese soldiers and civilians. So between deaths from famine and deaths from the Greater East Asian War, that option would have killed millions more. Even then, any peace offering from the emperor would have faced a coup just like the surrender after the atomic bombings.
Dropping the atomic bomb quickly ended the war, which had the felicitous side effect of preventing the Soviets from invading as well. The atomic bombs were dropped literally the day after Stalin finalized plans to invade Japan. Eastern Europeans liberated by the Soviets were treated to trials, mass deportations to the gulags, the Soviet army’s refusal to help the free Poles in the Battle of Warsaw, and many more horrors, so that wasn’t a good option. It is an easy argument to make that the Japanese constitution and rebuilding under MacArthur was far more preferable to Soviet occupation.
After looking at the other options and strategic context in late 1945, the decision to drop the bomb was moral and justified. In fact, ending the war for 60,000 deaths (actually about 170,000 when both bombs are included) compared to the abject blood bath that awaited all sides is the reason why the allied leaders considered this weapon a godsend. It’s why Truman said he never lost a night’s sleep over it. Thus, every other alternative was far worse, but that doesn’t stop the pacifist “blame America, soldiers are barbaric Nazis” story line. That is the made-up history. Again, considering every option and the context of the war, the dropping of atomic weapons was justified and necessary. I just hope when individuals need the military to protect their rights, you won’t be so quick to throw them under the bus as war criminals.