Last year I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. It is truly a beautiful city. I was also able to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and museum. It was a very emotional and impactful time. As an American, could not help but feel somewhat guilty. I found myself wondering, “Was it evil? Was it acceptable, given the circumstances.” In what follows, I hope to explain my answer. As we passed the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, I think that it is important to consider these questions.
Please note, I’m not a historian. I’m just a history fan. I have always been captivated by World War 2. The following are my personal opinions, based on the numerous books, films, original documents, and courses I have read, viewed, or taken on this subject.
To understand the dropping of the atomic bombs, it’s important to understand three things; the idea of strategic bombing, the situation of Japanese and American militaries at the time, and the development of the bombs and other options available.
Strategic bombing was an idea that came to fruition during WWII. The basic idea is that in total war, a major force aiding the enemy to continue fighting are the military and civilian industries. So if one side were able to knock out either the ability of the enemy to produce goods necessary for the war, or break the will of the nation’s ability to fight, the war would be over more quickly than if they just fought each other’s armies.
While the idea of bombing civilians might seem barbaric to us today, at the time people were looking back to the horrendous battles of WWI. Over 17 million people (both soldiers and civilians) were killed during the course of WWI. That equates to an average of 6,000 people a day! If you were able to end the war just 2 days earlier, you would save over 12,000 lives. At the time, anything you could do to shorten the length of the war could be morally justified.
At the beginning of the war, all sides hoped to achieve this while limiting civilian deaths (or collateral damage). The German Luftwaffe (Air Force) were the first to use strategic bombing on England. They were soon to realize that precision bombing during the day (to decrease civilian deaths) was nigh to suicide. Bombing planes flying during the day were easily picked off by anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. So, bombing raids at night were adopted. But bombing at high altitudes at night were incredibly imprecise. As one bomber put it, “We looked for city lights and tried to put them out”.
Later as the tide of war shifted, Germany was to feel the bite of strategic bombing, but to a much more severe. German cities were totally wiped off the map. One German city, Hamburg in 1943, would be the first to experience a strange phenomenon known as a firestorm. A firestorm is basically when all the fires (caused by the bombings), cause a fire tornado, that can suck all the air out of a person and turn them into human prunes. In one night of bombing, almost 50,000 people died. This was seen as justified under the rules of war at the time.
Japan would also be firebombed nearly constantly near the end of the war. One bombing of Asakusa in March of 1945, might have led to more immediate deaths than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. And like I mentioned it before, this was seen as acceptable on all sides. All sides participated in these types of attacks. Use of the nuclear bomb did not seem any worse than firebombings.
Another thing to consider is the situation of both American and Japanese armies at the time. Throughout the war the US forces hopped from island to island getting closer and closer to Japan. Every inch toward the home islands gained by the US forces, seemed to lead to more seemingly fanatic resistance by the Japanese army.
In the battles for Guadalcanal in late 1942 would see 7,100 American deaths, and over 31,000 Japanese (out of a total of 36,000). Later in early 1945, the capture of Iwo Jima would see another nearly 7,000 Allied deaths and over 18,000 Japanese deaths. But the worst would be the battle for Okinawa. On Okinawa’s beaches and hills over 20,000 Allied soldiers and an estimated 100,000 Japanese soldiers lay down their lives.
These statistics shocked and horrified Allied leadership. They knew that Japan was in a much stronger defensive position that Germany was near the end of the war (which would see over 190,000 deaths). Japan’s beast and strongest troops, the Kuantung Army (Kantogun) were still watiting in China and ready to defend the home islands. Furthermore, Americans were tired of war. They wanted an end to the war as soon as possible.
Any invasion of Japan would be incredibly difficult. The invasion of Europe on D-Day was incredibly bloody and difficult, and the distance from the staging areas in Britain and mainland Europe was miniscule compared to the entire pacific! Look at the losses of the Japanese armies in the pacific battles, how many would die defending the beaches of Kyushu? The Imperial millitary leaders were incredibly stubborn, and refused to capitulate. Even after the eventual surrender there was a plan to kidnap the Emperor and continue the war. There is some evidence to suggest that the Imperial army leaders planned to use civilians to help fight as well. Some Allied leaders projected that an estimated 10-15 million Japanese would be killed in an invasion.
None of the Allied leadership wanted an invasion of Japan.
The Manhattan project was begun in 1942 in response to German and Japanese atomic bomb projects (yes, the Japanese also tried to build an atomic bomb). The bomb was originally planned to be used on Germany. While later German and Japanese projects would later close, but the scientists of the Manhattan project were able to create their first nuclear device in July of 1945.
President Roosevelt died and the Presidency shifted to Truman. Truman did not know of the atomic bomb until he became Presdent. Put yourself in President Truman’s shoes, the war in the west is over. Millions of people are dead. Everyday more and more families are receiving letters telling them that thier sons and fathers are dead (on all sides). No one wants to fight anymore. Regularly thousands of planes are flying over Japan and dropping death on them. And while there were some groups within the Japanese government, sending out tendrils for peace talks, but the Allies had no assurances that these were serious.
Now you have a new weapon. It could singularly win the war. It seems that Truman and many others did not understand the long term effects of radiation. You could do with one bomb what it normally takes thousands of bombs to do. You are already firebombing cities, and causing these firestorms, how much worse could this new weapon be? One Allied planner said that, President Truman didn’t make a choice. There was no choice to make. He only had one option available to him.
The rest is history.
Was the dropping of the atomic bombs evil? I think… Yes.
Killing for any reason is evil. War is evil.
But, that does not make the people themselves evil. I think that in war good people are forced to do evil things, but that does not make them by necessity evil people. If you take any of us today, and put them in Truman’s shoes, what other choices could you make? Perhaps the nuclear bombings were truly a lesser of two evils.
World War II was the abosute worst time for humans in the history of the world. It was a war full of atrocities, war crimes, death, sadness, and evil. Perhaps committing a great evil is less evil than allowing some evil to continue without end.
I pray that we will never be forced to face such times ever again.