Zachary Keck

Yes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki Definitely Saved Lives

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Zachary Keck

Yes, Hiroshima and Nagasaki Definitely Saved Lives

The Pacific Realist responds to Ward Wilson about whether the atomic bombings of Japan saved lives or not.

On the occasion of the 69th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings last month, I wrote a piece arguing that the decision to use the atomic bomb had saved countless lives– even if that had nothing to do with why the U.S. dropped the bomb. Last week, The Pacific Realist had the great pleasure of featuring a guest post by Ward Wilson, a fantastic and insightful nuclear expert, which ostensibly refuted my earlier piece.

As it turns out, Wilson and I are largely in agreement on the central point of my initial article. In the article, I had argued that even if the Soviet Union’s war declaration was the decisive event in Tokyo’s decision to surrender, the atomic bombings provided the Japanese leadership with the face-saving excuse they needed to justify surrendering to the Japanese populace. Given the prevailing national sentiments in Imperial Japan, without the atomic excuse the leadership would have had to continue fighting even if they knew it was futile. After all, Japanese leaders had long instilled in the population the notion that surrendering was the ultimate sin, and that honor necessitated that they sacrifice themselves in the name of the Emperor.

Wilson noted in his piece that Japan’s military largely obliged during the war. “Out of 31,000 Japanese soldiers stationed on Saipan, only 921 were taken prisoner after the fighting there,” he points out. I’d add that the few Japanese soldiers who had been taken prisoner during the Pacific War were largely shunned by their friends, families and communities upon their return. Meanwhile, the Japanese populace at home had endured the unprecedented U.S. strategic bombing campaign without calling on their leaders to surrender. In fact, they were shocked and largely in denial when the Emperor did announce Japan’s surrender.

In this context, it’s unthinkable (absent the atomic excuse) that Japan’s leaders could have surrendered to the U.S. and/or the Soviets before the invasion of the Japanese homeland even commenced. Instead, they’d have to continue fighting for (at least) a substantial period of time, if not until the bitter end, which would have ultimately resulted in more deaths than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Wilson seems to agree with me on this. On the one hand, he argues that “Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki had little impact on the decision making of Japan’s leaders. It couldn’t, therefore, have ‘saved lives.’” At the same time, he admits, “After the war, most officers and former government officials followed the emperor’s lead in blaming defeat on the Bomb. It was, after all, the perfect explanation for losing the war. Who could blame Japan’s military for losing to a ‘miracle’ weapon?” Indeed, no one could blame the Emperor or the military for losing the war OR surrendering given this new miracle weapon, which is why the Emperor emphasized it during his surrender address. It therefore did save lives.

There is a slight disagreement between Wilson and I on a secondary issue that he introduces but claims to be “largely uninterested” in. Specifically, he notes that even if it is true that the atomic bombings saved lives, “there is an important distinction that gets overlooked when you compare people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki with people killed in an invasion of Japan. The casualties in an invasion of Japan would have been largely soldiers, the people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost all civilians.” Furthermore, Wilson notes, “Killing civilians isn’t morally equivalent to killing soldiers and comparisons like Keck’s have to be thrown out on moral grounds even before other things are considered.”

As it turns out, we agree on the moral equivalency of this issue–I did not claim nor do I believe that killing soldiers and killing civilians is the same thing in a normative sense. However, I (and many astute readers, I’d note) disagree that a U.S. and Soviet invasion would have killed fewer Japanese civilians than the atomic bombings. In fact, as one of those said readers, Lauren Garza, shares in the comment section of Wilson’s article: “At the time [of WII] my 85 year old mother-in-law was a teenage girl in Tokyo and went through the fire raids there with all the attendant horrors. But was also training at lunchtime with an eight foot bamboo spear and getting drilled on how to dash under tanks with dynamite strapped to her back. So don’t talk blithely about how most of the casualties in an American invasion would have been soldiers.”

As this story and so many others in Imperial Japan illustrate, even if the invasion focused primarily on military targets, far more than the 200,000 civilians who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been killed. Indeed, this was certainly the trend of World War II as a whole. As Wilson himself has pointed out elsewhere, “During World War II… an estimated 50 to 70 million people died. Of these, an estimated 47 million were civilians.” There’s therefore no reason to think the invasion of Japan would have resulted in only or even necessarily primarily military deaths, or that the civilian death toll would have been less 200,000 civilians. This is especially true given that, as Lauren usefully pointed out, the Japanese civilian population– including teenage girls– were preparing to fight the foreign armies if they invaded.

In short, there is every reason to think that Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved untold lives, both military and civilian.

Ultimately, however, Wilson is less interested in debating whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives, and more concerned with whether nuclear weapons actually deter or not. I agree that this is the more important issue. It is also the issue that Wilson and I am in the greatest disagreement about, as I’ll explain in a follow up post.