Would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Following the detonation of ‘Little Boy’ 1000 feet above the centre of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 the city became engulfed in a firestorm of biblical proportions. The river became a boiling inferno into which people whose skin had melted off like bacon jumped into for relief. A thick dark cloud, which later emitted black rain, blocked out the sun as the community descended into a loud piercing darkness. One girl who was driving a tram when the bomb exploded was so badly burnt that when she finally made her way home her parents could only identify her through her cracked voice. Most medicine in the well prepared city had evaporated away as their glass containers melted in the heat. These small details could not be recorded by the observation planes flying high above; they reported back that the mission had been a resounding success. At this stage, let’s discuss the title of this article – would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The argument first peddled out is that the dropping of the atomic bombs prevented one million American soldiers dying in a land invasion. This figure is grossly exaggerated and was predicted to be somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 men if the Allied forces did invade mainland Japan. Although one study in June 1945 based on the battle of Okinawa estimated that casualties would be 40,000. Rarely however during these discussions is the potential number of Japanese deaths brought up. A staggering 22 Japanese deaths was estimated for every 1 Allied death, even if this was double the actual number then a ratio of 11:1 is still frightening. As its one quarter and one eighth. The research at the time certainly pointed towards the bombs actually saving lives on both sides.

The morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks has been discussed and debated extensively in the past 70 years. Both cities had been left untouched by any Allied bomb to ascertain the damage which a nuclear weapon would do to a normal city. Both cities had little military presence. Both cities were so stretched in manpower that schoolchildren contributed greatly to most of their inner workings such as public transport and factory work. However we must remember the context of 1945. Both sides in the war had taken part in horrific actions against defenceless civilians. Britain had suffered carpet bombing of their main cities and had in return destroyed their German counterparts with ruthless efficiency. The Japanese had conducted the rape of Nanking while the Americans firebombed Tokyo killing 125,000 in twelve hours. The list could go on indefinitely. Ultimately the attack of civilians at this late stage of the war was not measured using the moral compass of today.

And what of the Soviet Union? Cracks had formed and were spreading in their relationship with Britain and America. Without a common enemy there was little binding a totalitarian communist state with democratic capitalist countries. Throughout the war Russia had suffered the deaths of 27 million people, all of it’s industry was destroyed and it was economically crushed. Stalin wanted huge war reparations and Germany to be squeezed to the extent that they would never have the ability to even consider invading Russia for the third time in three generations. To support this he wanted a buffer zone of Eastern European countries, loyal to Moscow, in order to protect their borders. But it was not just what Stalin wanted which worried the Allies, it was what he already had. In August 1945 62 Red Army divisions were stationed in Europe and should they have wished to move west they would have outnumbered their new enemies by eight to one. What America lacked in soldiers they made up for in nuclear power. And thus, the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan was as much the last shot in World War Two as it was the first shot in the Cold War.

Again we come back to the question, would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Perhaps the question is too vague as arguments have been put forward for the counterfactual options of sending a video of a detonation of a weapon to the Japanese in advance of demanding a surrender, or of detonating one at sea and stating that a city would be next or even calling it quits after dropping the first bomb on Hiroshima. Or simply not dropping one at all. The debate will not end but it will surely influence a similar decision in the future which will eventually come.

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5 Responses to Would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

  1. Sean Munger says:

    Excellent post. This is an old debate in history and one that’s destined to go on probably forever. What strikes me about the debate is how often the morality of potential use of nuclear weapons is compartmentalized from a debate about the morality of war in general. Honestly, factors like casualty numbers for an invasion of Japan, impressing the Soviets, justifying investment in the Manhattan Project, etc. are all pretty meaningless when separated from the deeper questions over the morality of the entire war. Few people (Jeanette Rankin aside) seemed to think that going to war against Japan after Pearl Harbor was immoral; Guadalcanal, horrible as that battle was, seems to be on morally safe ground too; Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, maybe; then we get to things like clouds of B-29s wiping Tokyo off the map in March 1945, and the horrors of the Okinawa campaign, and finally the atomic bombs, and instinctively we start thinking that some kind of moral line might have been crossed. The truth is, there is no morality in war. Period. Trying to draw a line between saying that the use of this weapon under these circumstances is “acceptable,” but the use of that weapon under those circumstances is not, is something akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    Many people also have a misconception that the use of the atom bombs in August 1945 was an agonizing decision that was highly controversial at the time. It was not. It followed very naturally from a million other decisions made by military and political leaders up to that time, and Truman made less of an affirmative decision to do it than he simply refrained from intervening to stop it. If you’ve got tens of millions dead from the most horrible war in history, and you have a new weapon that has at least a fair chance of ending the slaughter quickly, you can easily make a case that it would be immoral not to at least try it–but that of course presumes that the choice to go to war in the first place was moral. The history of World War II is full of these moral inversions, and assuming that the atom bombs created a set of ethical circumstances that were somehow unique is, I think, a fallacy we project on the past from a perspective of what we only came to realize during the Cold War. Nuclear weapons may be exceptional in many ways, but that exceptionality didn’t develop until later. This is what I think has to be kept in mind about this debate.


  2. Michael Snow says:

    Often overlooked or ignored: August 6, 1945, 70th Anniversary Hiroshima
    July 21, 1945: Secretary of War met several top U.S. generals in Germany. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would years later in Newsweek write: “Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.

    “It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude.”
    Would I have dropped it? Too young but my original goal was to be a Marine aviator. https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/


  3. GP Cox says:

    These pictures from being shown over the many years appear to show the damage of the A-bomb, but in fact there was not much left to destroy after the incendiary bombs flooded Japan. FDR had spent billions secretly to develop a weapon and the cost of such a project performed behind everyone’s back HAD to be justified – hence the easy decision to drop the bombs.


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