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August 06, 2005

60th anniversary of Hiroshima

Rob has an excellent post about the the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, the Red Army's August Storm, and the moral case against the nuclear attacks. Rob is a military historian, the guy who puts the "guns" in Lawyers Guns and Money.

He argues that the nuclear attack on Hiroshima was not necessary to expedite Japanese surrender:

I do think it's important to note, however, that forcing a Japanese surrender DOES NOT justify the bombing of Hiroshima. By August of 1945, Japan had no capacity to hurt the United States. The IJN was largely destroyed, and the air force was grounded. The United States could do with Japan what it would. Moreover, it was clear to us then and is clear to us now that the Japanese had been talking and thinking about surrender since April, and indeed would probably have accepted the terms that we later imposed upon them (maintenance of the Imperial institution, minimal war crime prosecution, continuance of most of the bureaucracy). The best that can be said of the Hiroshima attack is that it catalyzed the Japanese decision to surrender in August, rather than in October or December. It's remarkable, given the debate in the United States about the use of the atomic weapons, how uncontroversial this conclusion was in 1945. Neither the Navy nor the Army Air Force expected that an invasion would be necessary, even without the atomic bomb. The Army and Marines prepared for an invasion, but in 1945 expected far fewer casualties than the numbers that were later used to justify the atomic attacks. [Read the whole thing, of course.]

Steve Gilliard forcefully argues the opposite case at The NewsBlog.

Update: Orac reflects on the Hiroshima anniversary.

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» Hiroshima from TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime
60 years ago today, the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb called "little boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. More than 55,000 people attended a memorial service in a Hiroshima park today. There is a gripping series in Der Spiegel... [Read More]

» Hiroshima from TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime
60 years ago today, the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb called "little boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. More than 55,000 people attended a memorial service in a Hiroshima park today. There is a gripping series in Der Spiegel... [Read More]

» Hiroshima, Our Incubus from Rubicon
The real question, however, is not the desirability or the morality of Truman's decision. The real question is what we should do now, knowing what we do, living when we do. We have lessons to learn, by looking forward to the world our grandchildren wil... [Read More]

Comments

It amuses me that Steve repeatedly cites a History Channel documentary to make his case. The History Channel: How the Right Wing Wants to Remember American History

I'd leave a comment there, but I swore not to after the "coward" nonsense.

" ... it was clear to us then and is clear to us now that the Japanese had been talking and thinking about surrender since April ... "

That is an inaccurate statement. Some within the Japanese government were talking and thinking about surrender.

Some.

That's like saying 'some were talking and thinking about apposing the Iraq war.'

Those people in Japan had about as much pull as members of congress that opposed the war in Iraq.

"The best that can be said of the Hiroshima attack is that it catalyzed the Japanese decision to surrender in August, rather than in October or December."

OK so, keep racking up those US, British and Australian casualties for another four months? Add in the Japanese casualties on top of that? And what about the standing order to execute ALL allied prisoners of war (including civilians) that was days away from happening?

This whole line of reasoning shows both a lack of understanding of the facts coupled with wishful thinking.

Essentially, we had three choices back then:

1 - drop the bomb

2 - invade the southern islands (operation Olympic) followed on by a strike at Tokyo (operation Coronet). Both would be initiated by large scale gas attacks followed by beach assaults. The estimated total casualties (for both sides) were in the region of 750,000 to a million within the first MONTH of operation Olympic.

3 - Blockade the home islands. Accept the slaughter of those held in Japanese POW camps (civilian as well as military personnel), continue fighting in the Dutch East Indies as well as in Malaysia and Manchuria, and simply starve the Japanese into surrendering.

Which one of those three is "best"?

Lets not forget that the long-term damage caused by radiation sickness was not well understood when truman dropped the bomb. Looking back in hindsight, it would seem that we should have preferred the use of conventional weapons (even if it would kill as many or more people), but that's a piece of wisdom we only gained in the horrific aftermath of Hiroshima and nagasaki.

Civilian and military leaders at the very highest levels had begun to seriously consider surrender in April. They were hardly the equivalent of House Democrats. Your first assumption, that the Japanese government was committed to resistance in the months before August, is historically indefensible.

Moreover, and as I point out in the original post, the dropping of the bomb wasn't the only thing to happen on August 6. The last hope of many war supporters in Japan was to create a divide between Russia and the Western Allies. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria removed that hope.

Finally, the casualty numbers you suggest are, to say the least, controversial. Those estimates went up dramatically in 1946 and later in response to criticism of the decision to use the atomic bomb, and form much of a post-hoc rationalization for the bomb's use. The success of the Red Army in Manchuria is indicative of the actual capabilities of the Japanese Army to resist, which, while not trivial, were also not great.

I suppose somewhere lost in the discussion of Hiroshima is the morality of "total war." Shall the conduct of war be limited to miltary combatants?

After the firebombing of Dresden and up to 100,000 dead German civilians, perhaps is should be no surprise that an even more destructive agent was used later. When we speak today of combatants illegal and otherwise, when we consider terrorists and their "ideology of hate," when we use dark means to advance our cause of light, are we not somehow doing all of this in the light of that fireflash in Hiroshima and its twin and inseparable moral shadow?

If there are no innocents, can there be any guilt?

A meditation on Hiroshima here.

Heretik,

Interesting question. I think that the legacy of the Allied use of strategic bombing would have been enough to reinforce the doctrine of discrimination without Hiroshima, but it's an open question.

However, I do think it's a bit dishonest to use the "Hiroshima saved American lives" argument without taking seriously its implications. There are perhaps many cases in which the wanton slaughter of civilians living under an authoritarian government would save the lives of American soldiers. To use this as a justification for such slaughter is abhorrent. Much of Gilliard's case (and the wingnut case, which here is about the same) rests, unfortunately, on this position. As far as I'm concerned, it's indefensible.

TB,

There were more options than the ones you list. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were a few issue at play, two of which are related but not coterminus. Should a nuke have been used, and if so, should it have been used on a civilian target? A demonstration explosiion? or on a purely military target such as a naval armada?

Certainly, some of those who'd worked on the bomb suggested a demonstration of its power.

None of the above is to imply that the bomb should've been used, but deciding to use the bomb doesn't imply that we had to vaporize thousands of civilians.

Personally, I find the bombing of Nagasaki to be far less defensible than Hiroshima. With Hiroshima, at least, you could argue it as an unfortunate but necessary demonstration of American power. Nagasaki, not so much.

In sheer volume of deaths, more people died in the Tokyo firebombings, which were comparable to Dresden. So many people were incinerated that they're still not sure to this day exactly how many died.

I guess what we're really arguing about is whether or not the bomb should have even been developed, much less used.

I've already commented over atRob's blog, but I feel like propagating this meme from Melanie: Have folks here seen http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001001583 =blank>this from Editor and Publisher, about the rather systematic suppression of Hiroshima footage until the 1990s?

Just as now, with torture and Iraq - how can there be reasoned discussion of these issues when no one has seen the consequences?

Mnemosyne - The bomb was going to be developed sooner or later. Particularly for a uranium gun-type device the physics is trivial, so much so that the hiroshima bomb was not tested before use. The only tests conduscted were of the plutonium implosion type device used on Nagasaki. Given the cold war it was a near certainty that one side or the other would develop nuclear weapons.

THe Japanese still had a massive and effective force on mainland ASia. Over 4000 civilians per day were dying due to desperate Japanese measures - slave labor, food deprivation etc. Even if we could have waited out the Japanese, even if they would have surrendered without an invasion (which was a negligible possibility), the bombs probably saved lives.

Actually, what I love is that in Steve's initial post, he's already pissy and self-righteous about the fucking History Channel -- "I'm sure it aired in the UK as well. He should have watched it" -- and then gets all defensive when he gets called out on this bullshit in the comments.

I don't want to pick on Gilliard, or revisit the whole "coward" debacle. I generally like Steve's blog. But holding up the History Channel as a definitive authority on anything is embarrassing beyond words, and Steve definitely deserves all the grief he's taking for it.

I mean, The History Channel. Sweet jeebus.

Njorl,

As I've pointed out in other places, the Japanese Army was in the process of being taken to pieces by the Red Army. Crack units of the Japanese Army were annihilated in short order by Operation August Storm, launched on August 6, 1945. There is little doubt that the Russians would have rolled up the rest of the Japanese mainland position in short order.

You are, however, correct about the importance to the Japanese war effort of the mainland stronghold. Many high ranking Japanese Army officers believed that the Army on the mainland would be the trump card in any peace negotiations. The Western Allies might have the stomach, they reasoned, for an invasion of Japan, but would not want to conquer the rest of East Asia, as well.

The Red Army took care of that problem, and foreclosed this option for the Japanese.

Finally, I simply don't understand this line of thinking that a Japanese surrender was a "negligible possibility". The Japanese made CLEAR that they were interested in peace after April 1945. They sought conditions for their surrender, many of which the US met after 9/2/1945. This is a matter of public, historical record. Why people insist that the Japanese would have resisted regardless is unfathomable to me.

I hope people realize that the atomic bomb had ZERO effect on the military situation at the time. It's only impact was psychological. The United States could have destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with conventional weapons just as easily (more easily, perhaps) as it did with atomic ones. Japan was no more or less vulnerable to attack after August 6 than it was before. At best, the bomb provided the psychological shock necessary to motivate the Japanese into a surrender that they were already strongly considering.

Have folks here seen this from Editor and Publisher, about the rather systematic suppression of Hiroshima footage until the 1990s?

It's a little hyperbolic to present it as "the footage was suppressed until the 1990s!" since the article itself says it was only "suppressed" until 1970, though new footage has been released more recently. Even that seems a little suspect, since Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour was made in 1959 and contains some heart-wrenching footage of atomic casualties.

It's like saying that the color footage of the war that the Army shot but only recently released was "suppressed!"

Finally, I simply don't understand this line of thinking that a Japanese surrender was a "negligible possibility". The Japanese made CLEAR that they were interested in peace after April 1945. They sought conditions for their surrender, many of which the US met after 9/2/1945. This is a matter of public, historical record. Why people insist that the Japanese would have resisted regardless is unfathomable to me.

Have you read Downfall, by Richard B. Frank? He makes a pretty compelling case that the men who were in charge of the Japanese empire at the time were more than willing to continue the war at all costs. Even after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the negotiators for Japan continued to insist that the Emperor be allowed to retain ALL of his powers, including the power to dissolve any democratic government that might be formed.

You can argue the moral necessity of dropping the Bomb, but the military necessity was pretty clear.

Here's my Hiroshima take, taking a broader view.

It certainly is inviting mockery to cite the History Channel as an authority - although, in his defense, he seems to mainly cite it for factoids, not analysis or nuance. And the history channel can generally be trusted on factoids.

I think the first sentence of the passage he is responding to - "The idea that it was militarily necessary to drop the atomic bomb in 1945 is now discredited" - is overly broad and conclusory, and he is right to object, at least to that. For it to be true, there would have to be a definitive meaning of "militarily necessary," which of course there isn't.

Rob -"I hope people realize that the atomic bomb had ZERO effect on the military situation at the time." This is only true from the view of an omniscient outside observer. Given the information available to the Japanese at the time the effect of the atomic bomb was the realization that the destructive power of a single US bomber had been multiplied by a factor of roughly 10. That is a nontrivial change in the strategic situation. The Japanese high command had every reason to believe that over the following month the home islands could be reduced to dust. It's possible that this fact had no impact on the surrender decision, but frankly that seems a little unlikely.

Dennis,

Nice take.

Mnemosyne,

So, wait, you're suggesting that the negotiators used the same tactics after the bombing as they had before? Great, I'm glad we agree that the bombing was unnecessary.

Andrew C.,

That's an interesting point, and I don't know how much the Japanese High Command knew about the bomb. I do know that Japanese nuclear research was fairly advanced (a bit more advanced than German, according to some sources), and that there were some scientists who understood what the bomb was, how difficult it was to make one, and what might be expected in the future. How much, and in what direction, of an effect they had on policy I don't know.

However, the Japanese leadership stood by and watched as dozens of other cities were reduced to rubble by US bombers, some in attacks more deadly than the one launched on Hiroshima. The civilian deaths didn't move them nearly as much as the military defeats on the battlefield, both at Okinawa and in Manchuria. I still think that the primary effect of the bombing was psychological, rather than military.

Lindsay,

Sorry for having this fight on your blog, rather than mine.

Whenever I think about the chain of events leading up to the use of the atomic bomb, I get this depressing sense of inevitability. Once we understood that it could be built, we had to, because Hitler certainly would. And once it was built we had to use it because ultimately Stalin would figure it out, so he had to know that we had already built one and it worked. And we had to use it on cities because Stalin and/or Japan needed to know we were willing to do so. And then we had to drop a second one just so they'd know we had more than one.

And I also try to wrap my mind around the moral stance at the time regarding bombing cities. As if we could somehow bomb them into submission. (Wasn't anyone listening to Churchill??) The origin of strategic bombing was to disable the enemy's ability to produce tanks and guns etc, and I suppose one could argue that the factory workers were not completely innocent, but by the time Dresden and Tokyo came around it was about suffering.

So, wait, you're suggesting that the negotiators used the same tactics after the bombing as they had before? Great, I'm glad we agree that the bombing was unnecessary.

Er, no. I'm "suggesting" that, prior to Nagasaki being bombed, the Japanese negotiators continued to insist that Hirohito be allowed to remain not only the titular head of state, but keep all of his powers. After Nagasaki, they agreed that Hirohito would be demoted to a mere head of state (like the King of England). In fact, one of the terms of the agreement was that Hirohito had to give a radio address announcing that he was not, in fact, a god.

In other words, the Japanese negotiators changed their demands after the atomic bombs were dropped. That's, um, pretty much the exact opposite of what you're trying to claim I said.

The discussion over at Brad Delong's blog a couple of days ago is informative. Especially the fact that we had intercepts that made it clear that those on the Japanese side suing for peace had no actual power to make such offers. That, to me at least, means that there were two options

1) Use the bomb, hope it shocks them (and those watching) into peace.

2) Don't use the bomb, slug it out through the conquest of the islands.

The "bulls***, they would've surrendered" line that gets carped is crap. If the Japanese, the people whose society created the code of bushido, were training peasants, or more dramatically for those who know a bit about Japanese culture and history, training WOMEN to fight, then you can be damn sure their leaders meant to fight to the death.

If you're going to fight to the death - why didn't the A-bomb rally the population? If we didn't have / use the A-bomb, we would have continued with the firebombing - there basically no anti-aircraft at that point and the firebombing was v.effective (except no radiation).

Remember at the end of a war it's all about the deal you cut - there is a lot of positioning /headfaking going on - for all the "unconditional" conditions, we did agree to let the Emperor stay.

We can speculate all over the place, but we should also clean up after ourselves.

The "bulls***, they would've surrendered" line that gets carped is crap. If the Japanese, the people whose society created the code of bushido, were training peasants, or more dramatically for those who know a bit about Japanese culture and history, training WOMEN to fight, then you can be damn sure their leaders meant to fight to the death.

Women fighting wasn't that huge a shocking thought surely? This is the same country who invented the term Kunoichi right?

And this wasn't some backwards miilitary nation of your romantic ideals we're talking about, this is a country that had taken to the concept of total war like a duck to water, they'd already been using men woman and children to fight against the allies, partly because they believed that the allies would rape and murder them anyway, but mainly because they had nothing else to fight with alot of the time, they'd lost and it was only the really fantical leaders of the imperial army who were keeping japan from surrendering, the same leaders who still wanted to fight on after hiroshima, and who had up until nagasaki been quite prepared for every man woman and child on the japanese mainland to die in it's defence.

I'm confused though, as to why people who are already prepared to have their nation slaughtered to the last child would suddenly decide to surrender to the same terms they'd refused the day before, just becasue america could slaughter the country faster? They'd know that america could already mass bomb japan into a crater conventionally so why would america's ability to do the same thing but with fewer planes really cause them to pull an about face on the terms of surrender? The imperial army commanders who wanted to fight to the last man would still have been in charge and still been just as unwilling to surrender even after nagasaki surely? It doesn't make absolute sense.

I'd like Rob to explain about what actually resulted from the little military coup that almost happened a few hours before nagasaki got bombed, I'm not a historian and don't know all the details (what little I do know is gleamed from history channel type documentaries and not from careful study of the subject) but I'd guess that something happened to neutralise the fanatics in the army as a result of the coup and not the bombing itself, that would make more sense than fanatics just suddenly not being fanatics due to atomic rays or something.

I do know that Japanese nuclear research was fairly advanced (a bit more advanced than German, according to some sources),

That's completely wrong.

Japanese nuclear research was rudimentary at best, and funding was pulled completely by 1942 (apart from paying the rent for lab space and the stipends and salaries of 3 researchers).

The Japanese were NEVER close to the Germans in this respect (or any other for that mater) let alone exceeding their capabilities.

Rob, look, I understand that you're an historian, and I'm just a guy who's read a lot of books on this subject, but a lot of what you say runs counter to a lot of what's known (i.e. Rhodes's "The Making of The Atomic Bomb").

A lot of what you're saying sounds very much like those coulda-woulda-shoulda shows on TV; 'IF the Japanese had put more money into their bio-weapons research, and IF they'd put more money and time into long range bombers and IF they hadn't been bombed flat by 1945, then, boy oh boy, San Francisco COULD HAVE been in lots of trouble', or 'IF Hitler had listened to Heisenberg and IF they'd moved quicker and grabbed more raw uranium from Slovakia and IF they'd just funded von Braun more, that New York COULD HAVE been a smoking crater'.

Sure, I KNOW there were elements within the Japanese gov't that wanted to surrender. They knew how untenable their situation was, just like some of the generals within the Third Reich new how bad their situation was by '43. But neither of those groups had the pull.

And on top of that, the people at the top of the Japanese government weren't listening and they were, to put it mildly, highly aggressive, militaristic jerks.

What, Japan was ready to collapse and there were going to surrender anyway, and we just happen to bomb Hiroshima & Nagasaki before they could fold?

Coincidence is not causality.

Just because a boxer is punch drunk and out on his feet doesn't mean they know that the fight is over except for them having to hit the canvas. I've seen plenty that keep swinging and swinging, even though in their mind all they see is little tweeting birds.

Every play much chess? Ever play against someone that you know you've got mated in 15 moves, and you offer them a draw but they refuse it and keep plugging away?

Same deal, only for real.

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