[Updated and expanded from previous posts.]
August 6th marks the dubious day in 1945 where America became the only power to use a nuclear bomb. This continues to spark controversy. From 1945 to 2005 American approval of the bombings has dropped from 85 to 57 percent. And a record low number of Americans are proud of their country. This is somewhat understandable as societal attitudes change and there is a great deal to critique over the decision. But it might also be what the editors at the National Review recently pointed out is part of the crisis of self-doubt gaining traction in America and what Wilfred McClay called a deeply unserious country that doesn’t believe in itself. Yet a proper study of the history surrounding the decision to drop the bombs and an examination of ethics finds the bombing was both justified and necessary.
During the war both sides held a great deal of racial animus towards one another, which suggests the bomb might have been more willingly used because of racism. Though, the bomb wasn’t ready in time to end the war against Germany so that is hard to gauge. Using an area effect weapon that didn’t distinguish between civilians and military targets invites condemnation. The lack of military targets in Hiroshima and the dubious effectiveness of the bomb makes some people say this was terrorism. After all, the Strategic Bombing survey revealed that the trains ran normally a mere two days later and this was often considered a way to stun the Japanese into surrendering and impress the Russians with the viability of the program. (Though it should be noted that both cities had important military components. Nagasaki for example, was home to one of the most important military garrisons and was a foremost military shipping depot, and thus remained a valid military target.) Plus, there were supposedly peace feelers from the Japanese that made this completely unnecessary.
As I will show below, these are all extremely flawed arguments that don’t accurately reflect the historical context and seem like excuses to blame American and undermine moral confidence today, instead of understanding the tragic but justified decisions of the past.
The strongest criticism seems to be the peace overtures. Who doesn’t want the war to end early? This theory argues that the Japanese were ready for peace and only block headed, blood thirsty, and maybe even racist generals kept the war going. These were detailed by a revisionist historian, Gar Alperovitz and thus come long after the fact when it became more fashionable to search and promulgate these theories. More importantly, this theory cherry picks some information and leave out much more important events that shows these peace feelers were completely impotent and U.S. officials were correct when they disregarded them.
The best evidence against this theory comes after the Japanese emperor’s decision to surrender. After the bombs dropped and the emperor wanted peace army leaders challenged and almost reversed the decision through a military coup. It’s incredibly unlikely that minor officials would have produced peace when the atomically convinced emperor almost didn’t. Let me stress, even AFTER the atomic bombs were dropped there were significant factions in Japan that wanted to keep fighting. Peace was not possible before the bombs were dropped. Plus, American willingness to negotiate before the bombs dropped would have emboldened the Japanese and aggressive army generals to think that more fighting would have gotten them more concessions.
Other critics quote leaders who sound authoritative but really aren’t. Many of these quotes also ignore historical context. One example comes from Eisenhower who said: [I believe] that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary…
With all due respect to Eisenhower and other generals cherry picked for opposing nuclear weapons, he was thousands of miles and away and was not privy to the intelligence and decision-making councils that led to it. It would be like Admiral Nimitz second guessing Eisenhower’s decision to stop at the Elbe. Eisenhower is a particularly odd choice for opposing nuclear weapons since his New Look military relied so heavily on nukes and spooks. Those that blanche at the use of nuclear weapons and hate the national security state should probably avoid quoting a general that as president, threatened to use nuclear weapons in the Taiwan Strait crises, and unleashed CIA sponsored coups on democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala that still reverberate today.
Other military critics were vocal against nuclear weapons not because of moral principles, but because of parochial rivalries. The bombs were delivered by bombers, and this helped Curtis LeMay argue for the creation of an independent Airforce. In turn, this would take resources and prestige away from the Navy and Army chiefs, who were incredibly territorial, had differing strategies and demands, and wanted the air corps assets divided between them. Thus it isn’t surprising to find that admirals would elevate the role of commerce raiding in the defeat of Japan and minimize the “barbaric” “toy” dropped by the budding air corps. Their opposition had little to do with the moral concerns of the time and are especially dissimilar from modern antiwar sentiments. In fact, the admirals preferred a blockade of the Japan that would have slowly killed millions, and the army preferred an invasion that would have also killed millions (see below.)
The sad truth is that the Japanese would not surrender without the atomic bomb dropping or millions (of Americans, Japanese, and Chinese) dying from an invasion. The East Asian victims of Japanese aggression are often forgotten in Western centric debates over the war. But the Japanese launched the Ichigo offensive in late 1944 which was comparable in size and scope to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Nationalist Chinese leader Kiang Chai Shek had seen a great deal of bloodshed, but called this period the worst of his entire life. An estimated two hundred thousand Chinese a month were dying at this point in the war. An invasion by American forces on the Japanese homeland would have skyrocketed those figures. Secretary of War Stimson estimated that 400,000 to 800,000 Americans would have died, (including 100,000 prisoners of war that were set to be executed upon invasion), and 5 to 10 million Japanese would have died from an invasion.
There was the option not to fight which would have left China and much of Asia in the hands of a regime as bad as Hitler’s. Yet one has to wonder how long the imperial Japanese would have felt comfortable with the U.S. in Hawaii so they would probably have attacked America again anyway. The U.S. could have continued to bomb them. The firebombing of Tokyo and conventional attacks actually caused more deaths than the nuclear bombs so that couldn’t have been a better option.
The U.S. could have blockaded the country. The admirals at the time and later scholars argued that the U.S. had already destroyed much of Japanese shipping and merchant marine by August 1945, and this may have been what Eisenhower meant by already defeating Japan, but then America would have to wait for the country to starve to death. That would have caused more deaths and in a slow manner arguably worse than two nuclear bombings. Its effects would have been unevenly felt across the population. With the elites that caused the war suffering far less than the population that fought it. It also would have given the Japanese army in China more time in their genocidal war against China. So between deaths from famine and deaths from the Greater East Asian War that option would have killed millions more than the bombings. Even then, any peace offering from the emperor would have likely faced a coup just like the surrender after the atomic bombings. Keep in mind that the admirals who argued for this possibly unjust and criminal course are the same admirals being quoted out of context today for entirely different reasons than the military leaders originally intended.
Dropping the atomic bomb quickly ended the war which prevented the Soviets from invading as well. The first atomic bomb was dropped literally the day after Stalin finalized plans to invade Japan and he invaded a day after the second bombing. The Soviets treated Eastern Europeans to show trials, mass deportations to the gulags, the Soviet army’s refusal to help the free Poles in the Battle of Warsaw etc., so it was a good option to end the war quickly and prevent the negative effects of Communist rule seen in East Germany and Eastern Europe even today. You can easily argue that the Japanese Constitution and rebuilding under MacArthur was far preferable to Soviet occupation.
After looking at the other options and strategic context in late 1945, the decision to drop the bomb was moral and justified. In fact, ending the war for mere hundreds of thousands compared to the abject blood bath and millions of deaths that awaited all sides is the reason why the allied leaders considered this weapon a godsend. Even though Michael Walzer opposed nuclear weapons, he also said that ending a war swiftly with a minimum of causalities is the greatest kindness a leader could offer. Secretary of War Henry Stimson exemplified the latter idea when he said: My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.
In short, every other option than using nuclear weapons was worse. Taken in vacuum nuclear weapons are horrific, but that weapon wasn’t used in a vacuum and its incredibly unfair to blame America for being barbarians while ignoring the context that justified and compelled their use. This is probably because few have studied military ethics in depth, they simply think that some things are “bad.” But again, considering every option and the context of their war the dropping of atomic weapons was justified and necessary. The war was ended more quickly, saving lives, including millions of Asian lives.
Americans and members of the church must rightly
hope to avoid the tragedy of any having any conflict. But Vladimir Putin’s
invasion of Ukraine sadly reminds us that the specter of war can never be
vanquished with hopeful thoughts. Americans can recognize that war,
particularly defending life against the most genocidal regimes of the 20th
century, was necessary, and the atomic bombings were a necessary and justified
choice in World War II. And every
American should strive to have the knowledge and tools to properly judge the
morality of the past, which in turn provides the moral confidence to justly
proceed in the present.
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 For a good overview, see John Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, (New York: Basic Books, 2009), chapter 7.
 Micheal Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, (New York, Basic Books, 2015), 250-260.
 Howard Zinn, “Breaking the Silence.” ND. (https://web.archive.org/web/20071201172331/http://polymer.bu.edu/~amaral/Personal/zinn.html Accessed August 6th, 2021.)
 The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Report: 24. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effect of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 6. https://docs.rwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=rwu_ebooks
 Julian Borger, “Hiroshima at 75: Bitter Row Persists Over US Decision to Drop the Bomb, The Guardian, August 5th, 2020, (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/04/hiroshima-atomic-bomb-us-japan-history (Accessed August 6th 2021.)
 Gordon H. Change, He Di, “Eisenhower’s Reckless Nuclear Gamble over the Taiwan Strait,” American Historical Review 98 (December 1993), 1502-1523.
 Keith McFarland, "The 1949 Revolt of the Admirals" Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College Quarterly. XI (2): 53–63.
 Morgan Deane, Decisive Battles in Chinese History, (Westholme Press, 2017), chapter 12.
 Strategic Bombing Survey: Summary Report, 11.
 Michael Walzer, Just Wars, quoting Moltke the Elder, 47.
 Henry L. Stimson, as quoted in The Great Decision: The Secret History of the Atomic Bomb (1959) by Michael Amrine, p. 197