Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

August 9 Part I: was dropping the atomic bomb the right thing to do

On August 6, 1945 a single B-29 dropped a single bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. That bomb destroyed the city and killed 66,000 and wounded 69,000 Japanese people, mostly civilians. When the Japanese government failed to respond at all to allied demands for surrender, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 destroying that city and killing 25,000 and wounding 35,000. On August 15, 1945 World War II ended. This is the first part of a two part posting on two questions relating to these events.

Part I of my August 9th posting is devoted to the question of whether dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was the right decision to make at the time. I think the answer to that question is YES for a number of reasons:

First, Japan needed to be defeated totally. A negotiated cessation of hostilities with the Japanese regime was not an option. Japan was far more dangerous and far more aggressive than Sadam Hussein could ever imagine being in his most devilish dreams. By 1945, Japanese forces had killed millions of civilians in China in a genocidal war that rivaled that waged by Hitler in every measure of beastliness. The average estimate is that Japanese forces killed 7.75 million innocent Chinese civilians. Japanese actions in China included massacres, mass rape, slave labor, forced medical experiments on civilian prisoners, chemical warfare, and biological warfare and more. Allowing Japan to continue under its existing regime/political culture was unacceptable. The defeat of Japan required either a full scale invasion of Japan itself (and possibly also China- In 1945, Japan had hundreds of thousands of troops living off the land in China that had yet to be defeated decisively) or some way to convince the Japanese government to surrender before such an invasion became necessary. Dropping atomic bombs was a successful attempt at the second option.

Second, the invasion of Japan was the only other alternative to dropping the bombs. Operation Downfall was to be a two phase invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Phase 1: Operation Olympic was to involve a dozen or so divisions (the 2003 invasion of Iraq involved 3) invading the island of Kyushu (on which Nagasaki is located). Estimates for American casualties in this first phase exceeded a 250,000 (By comparison, Total US military deaths in WWII were arpox. 300,000 up until August 15, 1945). Japan was showing no signs of weakened defense. On the contrary, Japanese military forces on Okinawa fought to the death. At the same time, Japanese authorities encouraged Okinawan civilians to fight the Americans and/or commit suicide. Civilian deaths on Okinawa were on the order of 150,000 with a third to a half of the survivors being wounded (the war was being fought right in their homes, villages and towns after all). American military losses in the Okinawa invasion were about 65,000 killed and wounded out of about 183,000 engaged. American intelligence reported that they expected similar tactics and results should the US invade the Japanese main islands but on a far larger scale. American intelligence also reported that the Japanese military had heavily reinforced their defense of Kyushu in July and early August of 1945. Phase 2: Operation Coronet was to involve nearly two dozen divisions invading the largest island, Honshu. The expected casualty rates reported above are for Phase 1 ONLY.

Third, the bombing of civilians did not begin with the atomic bombs. In fact, bombing of cities in Germany had already exceeded the casualty rates reported in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by using conventional bombs. So at the time the decision was made, the moral decision to bomb civilians had already been made years before. The only thing being considered was whether or not to use a new type of bomb. The type of target was no longer a matter for discussion.

Too often the debate about whether the decision to drop the bomb ignores Japan's war record and seems to assume that the alternative was peace. Neither is appropriate. Also, the debate about atomic bombing of Japan often masks the greater moral dilemma of civilian bombing in general (a tactic the Japanese used extensively in China).

Comments? Discussion?


Dr. Strangelove said...

RxR says, "Japan needed to be defeated totally. A negotiated cessation of hostilities with the Japanese regime was not an option."

Yet there had been quiet negotiations with the Japanese civilian leadership (albeit not the military), some of the earliest communications going back to January 1945. And in the end Japan was permitted to keep its Emperor, so the surrender may well have had a couple of unwritten conditions, despite the "unconditional" description.

But more important, RxR cites an invasion as the only alternative, while there are many who believe Japan would have surrendered without an invasion.

For example, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, after interviewing hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, reported (in part): "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." (Note however: the report assumed continued non-atomic bombings and air strikes on Japan.)

Eisenhower also questioned the use of the bomb when the idea was presented to him in 1945, later writing in his memoirs that he believed that Japan was "already defeated" and that "our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was... no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives." (But certainly Eisnehower believed the alternative would also be costly in lives and resources.)

MacArthur also said the bombs were, "completely unnecessary from a military point of view." (But when a General says something is "unnecessary," that is precisely what he means. Since there were other plans available, the bomb was not strictly "necessary."0

Of course, even without an invasion, the "conventional" attacks on Japan were terrible. The Tokyo firestorm claimed more lives than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. I think this is why the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, MacArthur, Eisenhower, and others felt Japan could be made to surrender via devastating air-strikes without an invasion--and that's exactly what happened!

Some have said that we could have detonated a bomb in an uninhabited area as a demonstration. But I think that probably would not have been effective. A "live" demonstration was, alas, the only way to truly make the point. But did we need two?

Stalin opened his front in the war on August 8th--between the atomic bombs. Might we not have waited a little longer to see the effect? RxR's contention that the Japanese Gov't "failed to respond at all" to allied demands for surrender is silly. Between the entry of the USSR into the war, and the seemingly nonsensical descriptions of the Hiroshima devastation at mid-morning, surely it would have taken more than 72 hours to for the Japanese government to figure out what happened and take action! We ended up waiting until August 15th for the Japanese surrender. Using RxR's logic, we should have dropped another bomb on the 12, and another on the morning of the 15th, since we still had not heard from Japan.

So what I conclude is this: without the first atomic bomb, the war probably would have ended in a few weeks or months anyhow, without a US invasion. But more Americans--and probably more Japanese--would have died also. But I think we could have waited a few more days to see the effects before nuking them again.

Anonymous said...

We could not have dropped a third bomb on the 12th because no third bomb was available to be dropped at the time. There were only a handful of bombs and only two were sent to the base in the pacific from which the raids began.

As for the idea that Japan needed more than 72 hours to respond, previous negative responses had taken place within 24 hours. Why should a positive response take longer?

I think Dr. Strangelove is correct that a demonstration would not have worked. But I'm a little suspicious of the sincerity of MacArthur's statements in particular. MacArthur was a fierce advocate of using H-bombs in Korea five years later. Also, both MacArthur and Eisenhower were Republicans who anticipated running against Truman (or his Democratic successor) for the Presidency soon. I don't think that makes what they said completely invalid but it should keep us from using their word as if it were the gospel truth.

As for Japanese willingness to surrender, even when the surrender actually took place, it was a very near thing. An attempted coup d'etat with the goal of continuing the war nearly succeeded in capturing the Emporer and preventing his radio address. But a black out caused by an American bombing raid disrupted the coup.

Was the Japanese surrender total? The emperor remained in office. But MacArthur became the defacto American Viceroy of Japan and he both wrote and imposed the current Japanese constitution. It is far from clear that the US could have imposed such a peace on Japan if it had sat in Okinawa and waited on the Japanese authorities to come around to surrendering on their own.

Finally, I'd point to Japanese troop movements and invasion preperations as indications that the Japanese intended to resist an invasion. They moved several divisions to Kyushu (the exact planned location of the first phase of the invasion). Schools were closed and the students given rudementary military/suicide mission training. Certainly, intelligence on whether Japan was about to surrender was mixed (such things always are). But I would hardly call it a slam dunk that Japan was on the verge of surrendering anyway. And given Japanese policy for the previous 15 years, I can understand why the majority of American policy makers at the time tended to believe that Japan intended to fight on.

On the moral issue, I'm completely in agreement that using WMDs and bombing civilians in general are wrong. But both of those boundaries had long since been crossed in WWII and the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s and 1940s. The tone of the current debate is dominated by the sense of Japanese victimhood and American atrocity. This masks both Japanese culpability for what their leaders and soldiers did.

I think a far better debate would be about how one defeats a government organization that is willing to use such weapons without using them yourself. That is what The Lord of The Rings explores from a moral perspective. But what about the practical perspective? How does one go about defeating a powerful and ruthless military power that has widespread support among a large civilian population? 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

RxR says, "We could not have dropped a third bomb on the 12th because no third bomb was available to be dropped at the time." He is correct. My error! The third bomb would not have been ready for use in the theater until August 17th at the earliest.

RxR also says, "As for the idea that Japan needed more than 72 hours to respond, previous negative responses had taken place within 24 hours. Why should a positive response take longer?" Well, here are a couple of reasons. (1) It's easier to issue a standard denial--or wait--than it is for a government to agree to reverse a decade-long policy. (2) Governments tend to take the notion of "unconditional surrender" rather seriously.

I'd like to hear RxR's thoughts on the second atomic bomb at Nagasaki. Might we not have waited a few days after the Soviet declaration of war to see how Japan would respond?

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Nagasaki? If I recall my history correctly, the Japanese had been repeatedly asked to surrender all summer so its not like they had to debate the issue for the first time after Hiroshima. So I'm not convinced that a 72 hour time frame was all that unreasonable. (not that is really part of my argumet but as a side note I am intrigued that casualties were so much lower at Nagasaki. Had they figured out what was going on?)

Anyway, there is a lot of speculation about whether the Nagasaki bomb or the Soviet invasion of Manchuria provoked the surrender. In the end, I doubt we'll know for sure. Both events happened very close together and so its hard to say what was what. After the war, Japanese politicians (especially retired nationalists and Junta members) may have had personal and political reasons to spin history a particular way.

Of course from Truman's point of view at the time, a Soviet partition of Japan would be nearly as bad an outcome as a US invasion (for both the American and Japanese). One could argue that the Nagasaki bomb was the first shot of the Cold War. But given the enormity of the death toll anticipated in an invasion, I wouldn't rule out that it was merely a response to Japan's continued refusal to surrender. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

It seems a bit unreasonable to expect a US President to hold off using a weapon that would seem sure to end the war when (1) horrifying civilian casualties were nothing new, (2) surrender was not certain or imminent, and each day cost American lives, with or without an invasion, (3) the magnitude of Japanese war crimes and atrocities, which matched or exceeded anything the Nazis did, made it plain that each additional day of Japanese rule meant the it would cruelly kill more civilians in medical experiments or other means, and (4) the longer Japan survived, the more likely that its pieces would have to be shared by more countries. It's easy to forget just how absolutely monstrous Japan's government was, and how it is likely they would have killed hundreds of thousands, even millions, of more civilians if the government had lasted another few months.  

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Wellcome back LTG! Hope you two had a nice honeymoon!

Yes, I think there is a lot of hand wringing about Truman's decision that fails completely to look at it from anything other than a 21st century perspective. The view from Washington in 1945 would have been far different! 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

I keep coming back to Nagasaki.

The official bombing order (July 25, 1945) makes it clear that there will be SEVERAL bombings, not just one.

"The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will
permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the
targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki...

2. Additional bombs will be delivered on the above
targets as soon as made ready by the project staff..."

Yet in Truman's personal diary, written on that very same day, he describes that we have "discovered the most terrible bomb in history" and says, "This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th... The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I'm sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance."

It's also striking that Truman's announcement to the American people about Hiroshima was given on the 9th, after Nagasaki as well (but the speech does not mention it.) Is it possible that Truman was unaware of the plan to drop two bombs in quick succession? And Truman never mentions the cities by name in his diary... is it possible that the nature of the targets was not adequately explained?

Anonymous said...

There is no way to put this all on Truman or the US authorities. The Japanese government started the war (by its brutal, imperialist attacks in China and then with attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Phillipines etc). The Japanese government had been repeatedly asked to surrender that summer (long after its eventual military defeat one way or another seemed obvious). But they fought on. Many in the Japanese leadership did not think that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima changed anything. Americans were bombing and destroying cities. Some of the hard liners didn't see a difference between doing so with hundreds of B-29s or 1.

The Japanese regime was badly disconected from its people. I recently saw a documentary about Emprorer Hirohito in which he was shown visiting Hiroshima after the war. He was so clueless about it that his comment was a sort of suprised, "There seems to have been a considerable amount of bomb damage here." Geez! (And Americans got pissed because GHW Bush didn't know how much a gallon of milk cost!)

Nagasaki (as I pointed out in the original post) was the largest city on the island slated for the first phase of the invasion. The operational center of the defense of Kyushu was centered around Nagasaki (but the fact remains it was primarily a civilian target).

Some plans for the invasion called for using several atomic bombs to establish a perimiter around the invasion beach. The plans were for the bombs to be dropped almost like close air support! This indicates two things. American military leaders thought of atomic bombs as just really big bombs - not dangerous, radioactive things that poison land, air and water for years. What's more it may give a hint about the motives for the Nagasaki bomb. Since Nagasaki was very close to the first invasion beaches, it may been as much a bombing to prepare for the coming invasion as an attempt to make that invasion unneccessary.

World War II was a bloody, bloody affair. The overwhelming majority of deaths were caused directly by Japanese and German actions. On average about 18,000 people died every single day between 1936 and 1945. About 100,000 people died in the two atomic bombings. Those bombings (conservatively), shortened the war by three months. And those three months (if the death rate in central Europe in the winter/spring of 1945 is an indicator) would have been considerablly bloodier than average.

As General Buck Turgidson said , "...Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed."

What we are dancing around here is this question: Is it moral to kill 100,000 people to save 1,000,000? Is it moral to - through inaction - allow 1,000,000 people to die who could have been saved by killing 100,000? 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

Here's three things on which we agree, RxR:

(a) I fully agree that the war was started by the brutal Japanese and German goverments, and that it was a "bloody, bloody affair." I don't think anyone disagreed with that.

(b) I also agree that killing a hundred thousand to save a million is the right thing to do (and I didn't hear anyone disagree with that either.)

(c) And I do not believe that Hiroshima or Nagasaki, just because they involved atomic rather than conventional explosives, are morally worse than the deadlier Tokyo firestorm.

But (a) + (b) + (c) does not imply that it was right to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It all hinges on the facts regarding (b). And they are not a "slam dunk." Consider:

(I) Is it true that dropping an atomic bomb was the only way to end the war short of a U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland? NO. There is strong evidence that Japan would have surrendered within weeks or months without atomic bombs or invasion. Instead of weighing atomic bomb vs. ground invasion, the right measurement would be to weigh atomic bombs vs. continued conventional air strikes. This makes the choice less clear... but I suspsect at this point it still tilts in favor of the atomic bomb because the conventional air strikes were also so deadly.

(II) Is it true that we had to drop atomic bombs on civilian targets? NO. In fact, it would appear that Truman intended to attack "purely" military targets. And then there was the option of a demonstration explosion instead of a city-killer explosion. Neither option might have been as effective. But might they have been worth a try, for the sake of saving 100,000? This also makes the choice less clear.

(III) Is it true that we had to drop two bombs? Why Nagasaki? There is good evidence that the Japanese High Command had not yet fully understood the importance of Hiroshima when the second bomb fell. And in the meantime, Stalin had declared war and invaded, which altered Japan's outlook considerably. What about following up Hiroshima with a demonstration explosion? Or waiting a couple more days before striking? Again, these questions make the choice less clear. In fact, I cannot see a good justification for Nagasaki.

In the end, RxR is correct that WWII was so bloody that dropping the atomic bombs doesn't even make the list of the top 10 atrocities. Maybe not the top 20. And I have no doubt that our understanding of atomic weaponry in the years following World War II have colored our perceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki more darkly. But it is still good that RxR brought up the issue, and it is good that we continue to debate it.

Even in the worst of times, in the most horrific war, life has value. Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind us that even when facing an enemy as brutal as the Japanese government was, our actions against civilian populations will have repercussions long after our foes are dead. Let us hope that, should another horrific choice face us in the future, we will take more care to consider all other options before resorting to nuclear warfare.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with your point (I). The evidence that Japan was about to surrender was not strong at all. It was mixed at best. If Japan was about to surrender before Hiroshima why didn't they surrender immediately after Hiroshima when asked AGAIN to do so? Why was military training of children continuing? Why were troops being relocated to areas expected to be invaded shortly? Mixed evidence. If Japan's government was unanimously determined to fight on or even if that government was divided, your assertion that Japan was clearly about to surrender is not supported.

I completely agree with your point (II) about civilian targets. Morally, the Allies should not have bombed civilians in either Germany or Japan (although the issue of who bombed civilians first is relevent as retaliation is something I'd be willing to see as different). However, given that civilians had long been targeted and given that Truman and his advisors seem only to have seen atomic bombs as "just really big bombs." I don't think its realistic to expect them to have started the "do we bomb civilians" debate from scratch. For them the question was "We've got a really big bomb. Should we use it?" It would have been much better to have dropped the bomb on some mass of Japanese troops (for example the several divisions recently transfered to positions outside of Nagasaki itself).

As for Dr. Strangelove's conclusion: I think his eloquent conclusion makes my point about why humanity is fortunate that the bombs were dropped while the technology was fairly new. It is the debate we are having now (and that people had in the 1950s too) that is key. Our own moral self recrimination about these bombings - and the mounting horrors that we observed in the years as radiation effects became more clear - have helped to make us reluctant to use such weapons again. A demonstration explosion on an unpopulated island would have left all this far too theoretical I fear. And what worries me more is that had Truman not seen what the bombs did, he would have found it politically expedient to allow MacArthur to use H-Bombs (which are many times more deadly than A-bombs) against China.


// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

It is reasonable to believe the Japanese required more than 72 hours to figure out what happened at Hiroshima and decide to surrender unconditionally, especially given the division in opinion between their military and civilian leadership. Remember that this was taking place in 1945 amid the fog of war (radio jamming, telephone lines bombed to hell...); it was not 2005 with the internet and 24-hour news cycles. Communications took more time back then, as did sorting out what happened, and decision-making still does take a long time, especially when the decision to be made is so important.

Do you believe that Japan would not have surrendered if we had not bombed Nagasaki? What if we had waited a few more days, or dropped the second bomb on an uninhabited target--or purely military target--instead?

Anonymous said...

This sounds to me that RBR wants to think that killing 100,000 people in such a manner was a good thing. If so then why do we not continue to use such weapons in other wars were the loss of life may continue to rise to a point where the use of Atomic Weapons would decrease the loss of life in total. So Do the means justify the ends. Americans have been told that the bomb ended the war. Bombs kill thats it. If you think that killing is so great just do your self in before you convince others that it is so wonderful.  

// posted by Morning Star

Dr. Strangelove said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dr. Strangelove said...

Morning Star asks: if dropping atomic bombs saved lives at the end of World War II, why have we not dropped atomic bombs to "save" lives in other wars since then?

At first, I thought there were two simple answers. One is deterrence: dropping a bomb on Hiroshima wouldn't have ended the war if Japan had nukes too. The second is that we really haven't been in another situation like World War II since then.

But Morning Star's question got me thinking: what is it about WWII that makes it seem so different? RxR would have us believe that, unlike Vietnam, Korea, Iraq (etc.), the Japanese government during World War II was so bad and was such a grave threat to the rest of the world that it simply had to be destroyed. And if unconditional surrender is required, I believe it follows that using deadly force--even atomic weaponry--is an acceptable means to achieve that goal. But that's a pretty strong premise.

After all, having committed grave crimes is not the same thing as still being a threat. By August, 1945, Japan was no longer a threat to the rest of the world. They were burning and beaten. Yes, Japan might well have become a threat again in a few years if unchecked, but we could have contained them, couldn't we? So why could we not have signed a conditional surrender and avoided further bloodshed?

To answer that, I think one must put oneself in the shoes of the Americans forced into the Death March at Bataan, or of the hundreds of thousands of slaughtered Chinese, or of the widows from WWI whose children died in WWII... and then one can feel the answer. We learned from Chamberlain that one cannot trust future leaders to do what is requried contain aggressive regimes. And we understand that sometimes there must be justice. Maybe these are the points RxR was trying to get me to see all along.

Yes, bombs kill. But they are not the only things that kill. In a world that contains as much evil as ours does, sometimes there are no good choices.