The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the end to the world’s largest armed conflict. Many debates have surfaced over the ethics of such an attack. The bomb itself caused massive amounts of casualties while the unknown effects of radiation caused many more deaths amongst the survivors of the blast. Despite the ghastly effects of such a weapon, it offered the best choice for a quick and easy defeat of Japan. President Truman, who authorized the use of the atomic bomb, made a wise decision under the circumstances of the war. The Japanese refusal to surrender, the massive amount of allied casualties involved in invading the Japanese mainland and the ineffectuality of a military blockade in forcing Japan to surrender made the bomb a necessary last resort.
There were several conventional methods that were suggested to bring Japan to its knees. These included a naval blockade, an extensive aerial bombardment or an invasion of the island of Japan. Japan posed little or no offensive threat to American forces. Despite this fact the Japanese were the most tenacious and driven of Americas foes throughout the war. The battles for Okinawa, Wake and Guam all were ample testament to the Japanese willingness to die in the face of overwhelming odds. The kamikaze was a perfect example of the Japanese battle attitude. Japanese pilots would strap themselves into planes laden with explosives and fly them into American ships. By the war’s conclusion the Japanese kamikaze attacks had sunk 3 aircraft carriers damaged 285 craft and sunk a total of 34.
The Japanese also did well in increasing support for the war effort. “Both scientist and publicists were in fact powerful instruments inflaming popular hatred against the democratic countries and in regimenting the people into blindly supporting the war of aggrandizement.” (p.100) This resolve would only have been strengthened had American and Russian forces tried to invade Japan. This almost suicidal type of fighting would have resulted in a tremendous amount of casualties for both sides. American casualties alone were projected at 500,000.
The amount of deaths caused by an invasion would have easily dwarfed those of the atomic bombings. Air power offered American forces a method of remaining relatively unscathed against the fanatical Japanese military while laying waste to entire cities. This was possible because while Japanese ground forces remained strong, air defenses had been severely weakened. This gave American bombers free reign over the skies of Japan. American bombing raids over Japan were inflicting massive amounts of casualties and causing tremendous damage to Japanese cities.
In fact the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki was not as devastating as conventional bombing raids over Tokyo or to previous bombing raids over European cities, most notably Dresden. “In March, 1945, our Air Force had launched the first incendiary raid on the Tokyo area. In this raid more damage was done and more casualties were inflicted than was the case at Hiroshima.” (p.99) Therefore it is very plausible that had the atomic weapons not been dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki the number of conventional bombings casualties of the continued air raids would have been much greater than those of the atomic bombings. The last credible strategy that would force Japan to surrender would be a naval blockade.
This would involve the Navy patrolling the waters around Japan and stopping any supplies from getting through. Japan had sufficient military supplies to fight off an American invasion despite a blockade. This meant that if the blockade were to be successful the Japanese would have to be starved into surrendering. The Japanese mainland could not produce enough food to sustain its massive population for very long. Had a blockade been attempted, any remaining food supplies would have been allocated to the military forces leaving the civilian population to starve. This would have lead to a massive amount of deaths due to starvation amongst the civilian population. This strategy would have lead only to the death of civilians and not weakened the Japanese military or brought Japan closer to surrender. The side effects of atomic weaponry had not been discovered at the time that Truman gave the order to drop the bomb over Hiroshima.
Scientist and military personnel who knew about the atomic bomb were not aware of its radiation side effects. Therefore President Truman was also unaware of these effects when he made the decision to drop the bombs. This is very important because the atomic bomb was seen just as a really, really big conventional bomb. With the information that Truman had been given, dropping an atomic bomb was much like a conventional bombing raid. The atomic bomb provided tactical advantages in addition to its awesome political power. “But the atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.” (p.99) Only one plane needed to be fuelled, crewed and maintained.
The risk of being shot down was drastically lower that of a squadron of planes needed to wreak the same amount of havoc. We now know of the deadly lasting effects of atomic weaponry, but these side effects were unheard of during the war. To Truman in the military aspect the atomic bomb was no different than ordering a squadron of bombers to level Hiroshima with firebombs.
It must be stressed that to Truman the bomb did not fall into the military taboo of chemical weapons or poising wells, but instead appeared to be a very powerful conventional bomb. Before the bombs had been dropped the Japanese government was at a standstill over matters of peace. The roughly equal civilian and military parties were locked in a struggle over surrender. The only way in which surrender could be achieved is if a consensus could be achieved amongst the parties. The military leaders refused to back down, unwilling to accept defeat and dishonor. The massive toll that American bombing attacks were taking on Japan had no effect on the military leaders who ready to fight to the end. Had this deadlock remained the Japanese would have fought until they all starved to death because of a blockade or had been bombed into oblivion. Only when the atomic bombs were dropped the deadlock was broken and peace achieved.
This act caused the Japanese emperor to end the political deadlock and demand surrender. “He (the Emperor) hardly would have dared to do so until the explosion of the atomic bomb destroyed the argument that Japan could secure a better peace if it continued to refuse to surrender unconditionally.” (p.99) This was a rare event indeed as the emperor traditionally left politics to the politicians.
“Even thereafter, the Army heads accepted the decision to surrender only because the Emperor’s openly declared conclusion relieved them of shame and humiliation, and lessened their fear of disobedience by their subordinates.” (p.99) The demand for peace showed the amount of political power that the bomb held. For without a doubt it was the atomic bomb that caused Japan to surrender. It was a forceful enough message to prod the normally withdrawn emperor into action for peace.
In the unconditional surrender that the United States presented the Japanese government it was demanded that the Emperor be removed from his god-like state of power. Some historians criticized this clause because they felt it might have prevented the Japanese government from deciding to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped. The Emperor was so highly revered in Japan that his removal would only occur under the most dire of circumstances. The Japanese military leaders would never have allowed this to happen without direct intervention by the Emperor. Even if the United States had agreed to allow the Emperor to stay in power the Japanese would have not agreed to surrender.
It was defeat, not the terms of the defeat that the Japanese military leaders so vehemently opposed. The American public wholeheartedly backed the unconditional surrender of Japan. “A Gallup Poll in June had shown that a mere fraction of Americans, only 7 percent, thought he had should be retained after the war, even as a puppet, while a full third of the people though he should be executed as a war criminal.” (p.112) In respect of the American lives sacrificed, nothing but unconditional surrender would have sufficed. “Unconditional surrender was an objective too long established, too often proclaimed; it had been too great a rallying cry from the time of Pearl Harbor to abandon now, Byrnes insisted. Truman had reaffirmed it as a policy in his first speech to Congress on April 16.
” (p.112) In addition to these factors a negotiated peace would be tantamount to political suicide. “Politically it would be disastrous, Byres was also sure.” (p.112) The very idea of negotiation with Japan seemed deplorable the vast majority of Americans.
It has also been argued that a demonstration could have been held for Japanese officials on an uninhabited island. This, if it had worked, would have spared Hiroshima and Nagasaki devastation while still revealing the atom bomb’s fantastic power to the Japanese. Assuming that the Japanese would have even agreed to this, there was no guarantee that the fickle atomic bomb would detonate properly. Assuming that the bomb detonated correctly it would still pose several large problems for America. First and most obvious was that one of the three bombs that were left which were difficult to produce and very expensive to procure had just been used to annihilate an area of no military value at all.
Secondly the Japanese might have taken this to mean that the United States lacked the resolve to use such a weapon. Thirdly air defense in cities such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been put on high alert diminishing the chances of a successful nuclear raid. If the bomb failed to detonate, this would spell political disaster for America.
Besides looking very foolish, America would have caused even greater diehard sentiments among the Japanese. “They (Byrnes and Groves) believed that if it did not come off “as advertised,” the Japanese would take fresh heart and fight harder and longer.” (p.98) Determination to fight to the very end would have grown greatly in the face of that American folly. Had the bomb not detonated properly over Hiroshima its existence would not have been exposed nor would its failure. Falling for several thousand feet the bomb would have reached a terminal velocity of several hundred miles per hour and smashed apart upon impact had the detonator not functioned properly. This was the possibility that the scientist in the Manhattan project could have predict most accurately. President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons on Japanese cities is best described as the lesser of evils.
With the options available to him, the atomic bombings proved to have the potential for the least casualties for both sides while ending the war quickly. This policy of maximum violence led to the quick end of the deadlock in Japanese politics. Had such a policy not been used the war could have dragged on for months or perhaps years more with mounting casualties on both sides.
The political power of the atomic bomb was unmatched and proved to be the only force that could get the emperor to intervene in Japanese politics and stop the hostilities. The atom bomb proved to be the ultimate ambassador in a war where conventional politics were futile.