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The way we debate Hiroshima is all wrong
There was no dilemma between invading or bombing Japan. The plan was always to do both. And the question was whether to negotiate first.
The G7 conference last week was held in Hiroshima, a Japanese city famous outside Japan for being the site of the first nuclear attack in history. U.S. President Joe Biden visited the memorial park at the hypocenter of the blast, without apologizing for the U.S. decision to drop the bomb during World War II. Naturally, it’s sparked a rehashing of a debate that Americans have been having since 1945.
The debate over whether Biden should have apologize includes a few different questions: whether dropping the bomb was a crime, who is responsible for making things right, and what role historical apologies have to play in that. I’d just like to draw attention to some writing that has changed the way I think about the first part of the question.
That debate started before the radioactive fallout had even settled. The official U.S. line has been that the bomb was a sort of mercy-killing for the Japanese Empire, which was refusing to end the war. Faced with the prospect of a drawn-out invasion that would have killed millions, President Harry Truman forced Japan to surrender by wiping out just two of its cities.
Others have argued that the nuclear bombs were unnecessary to end the war. The most popular rebuttal, from left-wing history Gar Alperovitz, is that fear of a joint U.S.-Soviet invasion was enough to force Japan to surrender. Indeed, in the same week as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union broke its years-long ceasefire with Japan and attacked the Japanese colonies.
But in reality, there was no dilemma over whether to “bomb or invade” Japan, the historian Alex Wellerstein points out that:
The plan was to bomb and to invade, and to have the Soviets invade, and to blockade, and so on. It was an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to ending the war with Japan, though there were a few things missing from the “everything,” like modifying the unconditional surrender requirements that the Americans knew (through intercepted communications) were causing the Japanese considerable difficulty in accepting surrender. I’ve written about the possible alternatives to the atomic bombings before, so I won’t go into them in any detail, but I think it’s important to recognize that the way the bombings were done (two atomic bombs on two cities within three days of each other) was not according to some grand plan at all, but because of choices, some very “small scale” (local personnel working on [the U.S. bomber base in] Tinian, with no consultation with the President or cabinet members at all), made by people who could not predict the future.
Wellerstein, whom I’ve interviewed before, has really changed the way I think about nuclear weapons, both during and after the war. I recommend reading his whole article about the Hiroshima debate, and Wellerstein’s work in general.
At the time, there was no notion that one or two or five or ten nuclear bombings were “enough” to end the war. Really, how could anyone have predicted that? Nuclear bombs had never been used before and Japan didn’t know about their existence. There was a whole list of targets lined up after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Military planners even considered using nuclear bombardment to clear the beachheads during the upcoming invasion. U.S. troops would charge in 48 hours later and mop up the survivors. What a horrible thing to imagine.
(The United States actually did simulate a “tactical nuclear attack” in the 1950s, having troops march towards nuclear explosions during the Desert Rock exercises. The Soviet Union and China also ran similar experiments.)
Of course, U.S. military could have revealed its nuclear arsenal without a sneak attack on civilians. Some of the American nuclear scientists had proposed a less deadly “demonstration,” Wellerstein points out. The original idea was to destroy Chuuk, a sparsely-populated island that hosted the main Japanese naval base. Another idea was to set off a bomb over the sea within view of the Emperor’s palace.
But the United States was already bombing and leveling Japanese cities with regular weapons. The firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945 killed around 100,000 people, more than the immediate effects of either nuclear bomb. Fire, like radiation, causes a slow and painful death. Nuclear weapons were just seen as a more efficient way to accomplish similar ends.
Truman let the generals use their new wonder-weapon as they saw fit. He only realized after the bombings that nuclear bombs were a terrifying new technology that had to be placed under direct presidential control. A decade and a half later, the military was still secretly delegating nuclear authority to low-level commanders, former nuclear planner Daniel Ellsberg writes in his memoir The Doomsday Machine.
Although he was only a student during the war, Ellsberg also chimes in on Hiroshima:
There was no new decision to be made in the spring of 1945 about burning a city’s worth of humans. The atom bomb did not start a new era of targeting or strategy or war making in the world. Annihilation of an urban civilian population by fire had already become the American way of war from the air, as it had been the British way since late 1940.
At the beginning of the war, bombing civilian cities was considered a massive escalation that even Nazi Germany sought to avoid. A string of small developments slowly normalized “annihilation of an urban civilian population” from the air. Nazi siege warfare in Europe justified British “strategic bombing” against German industry which provoked tit-for-tat “terror bombing” against cities by both sides. The United States learned to do it more thoroughly than Germany or Britain, first with napalm and later with uranium.
The moral question in 1945, both Wellerstein and Ellsberg imply, was whether to demand Japan’s unconditional surrender or offer better terms.
The Allies could have negotiated a peace treaty acceptable to Japanese leadership. Some Japanese factions were sending out feelers for an agreement that would end the war in exchange for preserving the Emperor’s religious role. That is similar to the decision that the U.S. occupation ended up making anyways.
On one hand, the Allies had good reason to worry that a negotiated peace would just allow Japan to rearm itself. After all, Germany had done so after World War I. The Japanese Empire, like Nazi Germany, preached that Japanese people were a superior race on a mission from the gods. Within the regime, the peace faction was much weaker than the dead-end militarists.
Japan had shown brutal and aggressive tendencies during the war: biological experiments on Chinese civilians, mass sexual abuse against Korean /Chinese/Filipino women and girls, extreme mistreatment of Western prisoners of war — and yes, air raids against cities. Some critics have argued that the Japanese government today plays down the firebombing of Tokyo to avoid drawing attention to the fact “that it was Japan who initiated the first-ever air raids on Asia’s cities.”
On the other hand, it wasn’t irrational for the Japanese leadership to delay surrendering. Putting one’s nation at the mercy of a revenge-minded victor is a risky move, to say the least. Although surrender turned out alright for Japanese people in the end — if anything, the U.S. occupiers were too merciful to known war criminals — the leadership had real reasons to worry about the Allies’ plans for a defeated Japan.
With or without nuclear weapons, that is the real question that the United States faced. And while the choice to use nuclear weapons no longer exists, the dilemma of negotiation versus surrender is still a live issue. Ukraine’s allies, for example, grapple with a similar debate over whether to negotiate with Russia or aim for Russian defeat.
I don’t have a simple answer to these questions, except to say that war is the worst thing human beings can do to each other, even the “good” wars.
(Wow, these past two posts have been really depressing. My next few should be about something lighter.)
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