Even by the grim standards of warfare, WWII was not a conflict lacking in human tragedies. In some Dark Twisted Fantasy sort of way, then, it seems almost fitting (though no less terrible) that the war ended with the ultimate tragedy: the use of nuclear weapons.
Tuesday marked the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with August 9 marking the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Following the example set by former U.S. Ambassador to Japan John V. Roos, the current U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, Caroline Kennedy, attended the Hiroshima anniversary ceremony on Tuesday.
There’s no question that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unspeakable tragedies. Although the exact death toll from the attacks will never be truly known, it’s nearly certain that at least 200,000 people perished in the two attacks. For this reason, I have no problem with President Obama reportedly offering to formally apologize to Japan for the attacks, and understand the continued anger in Japan that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons against their country.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Nonetheless, I also believe that President Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs against Japan almost certainly saved lives. This is undoubtedly true if one accepts the arguments of U.S. leaders at the time; namely, that not using the atomic bomb would have forced the U.S. to launch a full invasion of Japan’s home islands, and this would have killed far more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s impossible to know how many people would have perished if allied forces invaded Japan. However, given the stiff resistance U.S. and allied forces faced during the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific War, it would have been many, many times greater than the 200,000+ people that died from the atomic bombings.
In fact, the casualties from the U.S. strategic conventional bombing campaign greatly eclipsed the number of individuals who died from the atomic bombings. The March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo alone killed some 120,000 Japanese. A ground invasion would have resulted in nearly immeasurable more casualties. As one scholar who studied the U.S. invasion plan, Operation Downfall, notes: “depending on the degree to which Japanese civilians resisted the invasion, estimates ran into the millions for Allied casualties and tens of millions for Japanese casualties.”
That being said, a strong case can be made that Operation Downfall, at least as it was planned, wouldn’t have been necessary even if the U.S. hadn’t resorted to nuclear weapons. In particular, the Soviet Union’s decision to enter the Pacific War against Japan would have certainly hastened Japan’s surrender, and thereby saved lives. Indeed, some have argued, quite convincingly, that “the bomb didn’t beat Japan… Stalin did.”
But even if Operation Downfall as planned wouldn’t have been necessary, Hiroshima and Nagasaki still almost certainly saved lives. Although the Soviet’s entrance into the war further sealed Japan’s fate, it’s nearly unthinkable that — given Imperial Japan’s views of surrendering — the Japanese Emperor and other leaders would have surrendered immediately after the Soviet invasion. Instead, domestic politics and the need to save face would have compelled them to try and fight the two future superpowers simultaneously for a while, even though they knew the effort was futile.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave Japanese leaders the excuse they needed to take the absolutely unthinkable action of surrendering. Indeed, the atomic bombings figured prominently in Emperor Hirohito’s unprecedented speech to the nation announcing Japan’s surrender. “The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization,” the Emperor told a stunned Japanese nation (stunned partly because they had never heard the Emperor speak and partly because they couldn’t believe Japan was surrendering.)
Without the atomic excuse, Japan’s leaders would have ordered that the military continue to fight despite the Soviet’s declaration of war against Tokyo. The fighting that would have ensued before they surrendered would have resulted in far more deaths than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. After all, given the amount of deaths Japan had endured during the war, the leaders could not have surrendered after only 200,000 soldiers were killed.
Moreover, the fighting would have resulted in the Soviet Union conquering and occupying parts of Japan. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, after WWII ended, millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians were scattered all across Asia. The unlucky 600,000 Japanese POWs taken by the Soviets suffered horrendously, being interned in labor camps where they died at an appalling rate (roughly 10 percent by some estimates). Had the Soviet Union conquered portions of Japan, it’s likely that the residents in those areas would have suffered similar fates.
Secondly, allowing the Soviet invasion to proceed would have likely resulted in a divided Japan, with part of the country living under Moscow rule and the rest occupied by the United States. This might have eventually been resolved peacefully in the mold of Germany. However, even the German case resulted in many tense standoffs between nuclear-armed superpowers. Having a second Berlin during the Cold War would hardly have been conducive to peace. On the other hand, a divided Japan could have gone the way of Korea and Vietnam where brutal wars followed their divisions, killing millions in the process. In the case of Korea, between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died during the war and yet the nation remains divided and still technically at war. North Koreans continue to suffer under a backwards and horribly oppressive regime.
But Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably saved the most lives by demonstrating to the world the horrors of atomic warfare. Although the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons took decades to take develop, scholars like Nina Tannenwald have shown the important influence the atomic bombing of Japan had on early Cold War leaders’ views on the use of nuclear weapons. Tannenwald notes that even President Truman, likely haunted privately by his decision to use the bomb, refused his advisers’ attempts to use nuclear weapons again.
Had the horrors of nuclear warfare not been seen with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is much more likely that they would have been used during the Cold War. This would have resulted in far more death and destruction for two reasons. First, there would have been more nuclear-armed nations, all of whom would have had larger arsenals than the U.S. at the end of WWII. Second, the destructive levels of nuclear weapons grew rapidly in the years after the war. For example, when the U.S. tested the world’s first thermonuclear weapon in 1952, it had 700 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It’s unlikely that the world could have recovered from a superpower exchange of thermonuclear weapons.
In sum, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unspeakable tragedies (as was much of WWII). But whether one believes the decision to use atomic weapons was correct or not, and whatever one believes the motives of the U.S. leaders were, that decision ended up saving millions of lives.