Was the Hiroshima bomb justified?

By Eamonn Fingleton

It is a question that comes up every year: was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima justified? This year — the 75th anniversary of the attack — the question seems more pertinent than ever.

The bombing, which took place on August 6th 1945, killed perhaps 80,000 people. A second atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later may have claimed as many as 50,000 more lives.

The decision to use nuclear weapons ultimately lay with then U.S. President Harry Truman, and to the end of his days he was to insist not only that his decision was morally justified but that it saved more lives than it sacrificed. His version quickly became conventional wisdom not only in the United States but to a lesser extent in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In some retellings moreover the decision to go nuclear has even been cast as a net benefit to the Japanese people. The idea is that by hastening the collapse of the Japanese military government, it obviated the need for a massive American military invasion of the home islands of Japan, an initiative that undoubtedly would have proved profusely bloody.

As a journalist and author who lived 27 years in Tokyo, I have long been aware that this “Truman version” conceals as much as it reveals. All the evidence is not only that Truman’s resort to nuclear weapons was morally highly questionable but that it greatly compounded America’s subsequent problems in achieving a sincere meeting of minds with the Japanese people in the post-1945 era.

A fundamental weakness of the Truman version is that it posits a false choice. Supposedly Truman had only two options: either he reached for the bomb or he ordered a massive conventional military invasion of Japan. This latter was already being planned by U.S. generals in the summer of 1945 and had tentatively been scheduled to begin in November of that year.

But were these the only choices available? Hardly. An obvious third choice would have been simply to have imposed a naval embargo on Japan. All the evidence is that, by cutting Japan off from vital sources of food and other necessities, an embargo would have proved almost as quick and efficient as atomic bombs in breaking the Japanese militarists’ will (and that’s not even counting the devastating effect that the  Soviet Union’s entry into the war on August 8 1945 was to have — more about that later).

The fact is that Japan was uniquely vulnerable. Already it was one of the world’s most densely populated nations, and in those days, before the rise of factory farming, densely populated nations had no alternative but to rely on imports for the vast bulk of their food. As an island nation moreover, Japan was remarkably dependent on ships to transport such imports. Yet by the summer of 1945 about four fifths of its military and civilian shipping had already been sunk. And had the Allies devoted enough of their submarines to embargoing Japan, they could have sunk much of what remained of Japanese shipping within weeks.

Proponents of the Truman version suggest that a naval blockade would have been almost as cruel as the atomic bomb. Perhaps — but this follows only if you assume that Japanese leaders would have persisted with the war indefinitely. Responsibility for any deaths from starvation in the meantime moreover would have lain in the first instance with Tokyo and not with Washington. After all, at any point, the starvation could have been quickly alleviated if Japan surrendered, something that since Germany had surrendered unconditionally in May 1945, all senior Japanese leaders knew would be the inevitable outcome in any case. To add to the pressure, Washington could have arranged a special demonstration of a nuclear explosion to be witnessed from a safe distance by the militarists’ representatives. Such a demonstration would have been almost as powerful as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in concentrating minds among Japanese leaders (particularly if there was an implied threat that Tokyo would be next).

Proponents of the Truman version often insist that, without the unique shock of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, the Japanese would indeed have persisted with the war indefinitely. But this assumes a degree of irrational intransigence that anyone who knows the Japanese knows is a figment of Western imaginations. The truth is that while the Japanese often appear remarkably irrational, this is almost invariably no more than a facade or a negotiating tactic. If you look underneath the surface, the Japanese are generally found to be behaving perfectly rationally. It is worth pointing out that in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the West first came into extensive contact with the Japanese, the pattern for the Japanese to speak irrationally (in a remarkable cultural phenomenon known in Japanese as tatemae) was widely commented upon. It was wittily satirized, for instance, in W.S. Gilbert’s portrayal of Poobah in The Mikado. In subsequent times, however, under American influence, the West largely lost sight of the tatemae phenomenon, and has tended more and more earnestly to take the Japanese at face value and overlook the Japanese capacity for “nonsense speak”.

But surely, you might suggest, the fighting pattern of Japanese troops in World War II provides conclusive evidence of a culture of extreme irrationality. After all, with remarkably few exceptions, Japanese fighting men never allowed themselves to be taken alive. At first sight this certainly suggests a degree of fanaticism almost unique in the history of war. But it hardly seems so irrational if viewed in context. The truth is that Japan’s fighting men were indoctrinated to believe that if they were taken alive they would be subjected to torture even more extreme than that which they routinely saw visited on countless American troops who had had the misfortune to be taken alive. In other words in opting to kill themselves, Japanese fighters believed they were choosing the lesser of two evils. And in the meantime because they could be expected to fight to the death, they represented a uniquely dangerous threat.

Some commentators have argued that had not Truman resorted to atomic weapons,  hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war would have been massacred by the Japanese in the final weeks of the war. This argument was presented most notably in a book in 1970 by Laurens van der Post, a South African-born British Army officer who had himself been held prisoner by the Japanese for more than three years. There are several weaknesses in  van der Post’s argument, not least that it assumes that the Japanese would have persisted for many more months with a war that, even before the Hiroshima bombing, the Tokyo leadership knew was doomed. It overlooks in particular the fact that for many weeks before August 6, Russia was clearly planning to attack Japan (it had previously been neutral in East Asia). In the end it declared war on Japan on August 8.  It is hard to exaggerate how profoundly this event alone transformed the situation. The truth is that as the East Asian war entered its final stages after Germany’s surrender, nothing terrified Japan more than the threat of a Soviet invasion. The reality is that irrespective of whether Truman dropped the bomb or not, the Japanese would have chosen prompt surrender to the Americans as by far the more acceptable of two evils.  To have continued to resist would have resulted in much of their country coming under Soviet domination.

One aspect of the conventional account that cries out for particular attention is the way Truman chose to present his decision. In a radio address after the first bomb, he suggested that Hiroshima had been chosen because it was a military base. He commented: “We wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” The truth is that though there was indeed a military base in the Hiroshima area, it was NOT the target. Rather the target was the city’s residential and commercial districts. Evidence recently cited by the political scientists Katherine E. McKinney, Scott D. Sagan and Allen S. Weiner suggests that fewer than 10 percent of those who died on August 6th 1945 were military personnel. Writing in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, McKinney and her co-authors added that the Americans “deliberately chose to maximize the number of civilians who succumbed in the attack.”

This seems to settle the matter. It is past time to call a spade a spade. Truman’s decision was driven primarily by a desire for vengeance. The circumstances of August 1945 were certainly extenuating but the desire for vengeance never brings out the best in the human spirit.

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

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