Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

On the Atomic Bombings of Japan II

Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. On the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, I posted the first part of what was going to be a debate last year between myself and Shawn of the blog Rerum Novarum on the morality of the bombings. Prior to the debate, Shawn and I agreed that the atomic bombings would be justified only if two conditions were met:

1) the bombings did not involve the intentional targeting of noncombatants; and

2) the bombings saved lives, that is, any alternative course of action would have resulted in even greater loss of life.

In my previous post, I argued that the first condition was not met. In this post, I argue that the second condition also was not met. Prior to the debate, Shawn had argued that the second condition, proportionality, had been met by the bombings, and had cited in support some figures on the high number of casualties (both American and Japanese) that could have resulted from a land invasion of Japan. I responded as follows:

As to the second condition, even if we assume that your figures on the likely deaths from an invasion are correct, this does not establish that the second condition is met, as it is not the case that the only two options the U.S. had at the time were to bomb Hiroshima or to invade. On this, a couple of points.

First, the Japanese were already prepared to surrender prior to the bombings. Once the Tojo government fell in July 1944, the Japanese strategy was to sue for peace once they had won one decisive battle so as to guarantee better terms. Originally this victory was going to occur in the Philippines, then in Okinawa, then in Kyushu. The problem was that by the early summer of 1945 the Japanese military was in shambles. They were short of fuel, food, and even weapons. An effective Allied blockade had cut Japan off from virtually all supplies, and the country had been reduced to using the iron fragments from U.S. bombs to make shovels. A report delivered to the Emperor on June 9, 1945 indicated that by the end of the year Japan would no longer be able to continue fighting and would face as great a threat from civil unrest as from the U.S. On June 22, 1945, the Emperor told the Supreme War Council “I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts made to implement them.”

Thereafter Japan made a number of attempts to sue for peace through intermediaries, including most prominently the Soviet Union. The U.S. knew about these attempts, as they had broken Japanese codes early in the war. Examples of some of these intercepts can be found here.

Truman and other top officials even seem to have thought that the attempts to sue for peace were real. The notes for an August 3, 1945, conversation between Truman, Secretary of State Byrnes, and Admiral Leahy (Truman’s Chief of Staff) states that “President, Leahy and JFB agreed Japan looking for peace. President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden.”

That Japan was willing to surrender prior to the atomic bombings is, in my opinion, indisputable. The only question is whether they would have been willing to surrender on approximately the same terms that they eventually did, or whether they would have only accepted somewhat better terms. Personally I think that even if Japan only would have surrendered on significantly more favorable terms than they ultimately did, such a surrender would have been worth it just to keep Russia out of the war. Without Russia’s entering the war in August of 1945, Manchuria and the northern half of Korea would not have fallen under Communist domination, Mao would not have had a base of operations from which to launch attacks against the Kuomintang, and it’s quite possible China would have been spared 30 or 40 million deaths, half of Korea would have been spared the hell on earth that is life in North Korea, and more than 36 thousand U.S. solders would not have had to die to protect South Korea a few years later.

Second, even supposing you think that Japan’s surrender had to be (virtually) unconditional for some reason. Still, the bombings were not necessary. Once Russia entered the war, any hope Japan had of gaining more favorable terms was completely destroyed. They would now be facing threats from two fronts, and could not simply concentrate their forces in Kyushu in anticipation of an American attack. Over 600,000 Japanese solders in Manchuria were forced to surrender to the Soviets within a week of the Russian attack, despite being better trained and better equipped that most of the solders on the mainland. The Soviets already had plans to invade Hokkaido prior to the planned U.S. invasion of November 1, 1945. Once Russia entered the war, then, Japan faced a choice between unconditional surrender and occupation by the U.S. and unconditional surrender and occupation by the Soviets. Given the Japanese fear of the Soviets, I have no doubt what they would have chosen.

Finally, even if we assume, contrary to all this, that an atomic bombing was necessary, it still was not necessary to bomb cities full of civilians. The U.S. could have used the bomb on purely military targets (such as the Japanese troops in Kyushu) or otherwise taken steps to minimize civilian deaths. This was advocated by General Marshall, who said that “these [atomic] weapons might first be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that, he thought we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which the people would be warned to leave – telling the Japanese that we intended to destroy such centers.” See Memorandum of Conversation with General Marshall, May 29, 1945.

The idea that the bombings were military unnecessary is not simply a piece of “ivory tower” revisionism, but was the view of some of the greatest military minds of the time, which are documented here.

Since the U.S. could have achieved the same outcome without the bombings as it did with them, the bombings cannot be said to have saved lives, and in fact represent needless loss of life on a grand scale. The second condition is therefore not met either.


August 9, 2008 - Posted by | America, History, Just Wage, Morality, Nuclear Weapons, War and Peace


  1. […] second installment on this important topic is now available. PermaLink | | Trackback/Pingback […]

    Pingback by Southern Appeal » On the Atomic Bombings of Japan (Part II) | August 10, 2008 | Reply

  2. “That Japan was willing to surrender prior to the atomic bombings is, in my opinion, indisputable.”

    Quite incorrect. Factions within the Japanese government were willing to surrender, but until after the second atomic bombing they were unable to obtain the intervention of the Emperor to bring about the surrender. Even then there was an attempted military coup by junior officers.

    Richard B. Frank is perhaps the foremost authority on the Japanese surrender. Here is his comment in 2005 on the Japanese peace overture through the Soviets:

    “This last comment triggered a fateful exchange. Critics have pointed out correctly that both Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew (the former U.S. ambassador to Japan and the leading expert on that nation within the government) and Secretary of War Henry Stimson advised Truman that a guarantee that the Imperial Institution would not be eliminated could prove essential to obtaining Japan’s surrender. The critics further have argued that if only the United States had made such a guarantee, Japan would have surrendered. But when Foreign Minister Togo informed Ambassador Sato that Japan was not looking for anything like unconditional surrender, Sato promptly wired back a cable that the editors of the “Magic” Diplomatic Summary made clear to American policymakers “advocate[s] unconditional surrender provided the Imperial House is preserved.” Togo’s reply, quoted in the “Magic” Diplomatic Summary of July 22, 1945, was adamant: American policymakers could read for themselves Togo’s rejection of Sato’s proposal–with not even a hint that a guarantee of the Imperial House would be a step in the right direction. Any rational person following this exchange would conclude that modifying the demand for unconditional surrender to include a promise to preserve the Imperial House would not secure Japan’s surrender.”

    Truman understood correctly that absent the atomic bombs Japan was not going to surrender.

    Comment by Donald R. McClarey | August 11, 2008 | Reply

  3. Mr. McClarey,

    What I say in my post is that it is indisputable Japan was willing to surrender, the only question is on what terms. The quote you provide, which says that Japan was unwilling to accept unconditional surrender subject only to preserving the Imperial House, is not to the contrary.

    Comment by blackadderiv | August 11, 2008 | Reply

  4. Blackadderiv,

    I would ask what terms of surrender would be acceptable to you? Would Japan’s military government keeping Manchuria be acceptable to you, after they “indisputable” killed tens of millions there?

    If you seek further historically background on this issue, I would recommend reading Max Hasting’s “Retribution” (specifically, chapter 19 entitled “The Bombs”) for a through discussion this issue from all angles. Hastings documents the “fantasy” land the Japanese military leadership was living in at the end of the war.

    Many lives were saved–Manchurian, Indo-Asian, Russian, Japanese, and American–by dropping the bombs and forcing an earlier end to the war. We should not look at this “saving lives” test by only thinking of American lives.

    Jon D.

    Comment by Jon D. | August 11, 2008 | Reply

  5. I must be more careful with my parenthesis in the future. The smiley face in my comment above was unintended.

    Jon D.

    Comment by Jon D. | August 11, 2008 | Reply

  6. Jon,

    Suppose that Japan had been allowed to keep Manchuria. I don’t think Japan would have gotten terms anywhere near as favorable as that, but let’s say they did. Without Manchuria as a base of operations, you don’t get Communist China. No Communist China means a billion people not living in oppression and slavery. It also means no Vietnam, which means no Cambodia, no Pol Pot, no killing fields. No Soviet control of Manchuria also means no North Korea, no Korean war, no Kim Jong Ill. If one could have avoided all that just by letting Japan keep Manchuria, it would have been more than worth it.

    Comment by blackadderiv | August 11, 2008 | Reply

  7. Well said:

    “Yes, no more Hiroshimas. But to take the atomic bombing of Japan totally out of context and use it to highlight one nation or one city’s suffering is morally offensive. The war with Japan, with its racial overtones on both sides as well as the undeniable cruelty and barbarity by the Japanese military, should have been ended the second it was possible to do so. Anything less makes the moral arguments surrounding the use of the atomic bomb an exercise in sophistry.”

    Comment by Joe | August 12, 2008 | Reply

  8. Mao carried on a viable military operation against Japan and a sustained insurrection against the Kuomintang all through WWII, without having Manchuria as a base. The KMT was completely incompetent, and its military was staggeringly corrupt. As soon as the U.S.S.R. became able to deliver substantial aid to Mao, the KMT’s defeat was merely a matter of time.

    That aid did not have to be delivered via Manchuria, any more than Mao had to operate from Manchuria. Mongolia had been a Soviet satellite since 1924, and the chief Communist area of operations in wartime China was immediately south of the Mongolian border. Soviet control of Manchuria was a convenience but not a necessity. The subsequent dark and bloody history of Mao’s China would doubtless have been largely similar without it.

    Your understanding of the Japanese position on surrender also seems inadequate. Donald McClarey quoted documents showing that the Japanese were NOT willing to surrender, or rather, that the factions holding effective political power were not willing. Here is a relevant quotation from Richard B. Frank’s article (linked by Joe above):

    ‘[W]ith the complete release, we learned that there were only 3 or 4 messages suggesting the possibility of a compromise peace, while no fewer than 13 affirmed that Japan fully intended to fight to the bitter end.’

    We know, and it was known at the time, that even before the war the extreme belligerent faction of the Japanese military was prepared to assassinate any politician who dared to oppose it. The attempted coup by the junior officers in August, 1945, shows that this danger still existed. If successful, they would have destroyed the Emperor’s recording advising surrender before it could be broadcast.

    If the facts were as you have presented them, I would agree with your conclusions. But you have made important omissions, and I find that I must reserve my assent.

    Comment by Tom Simon | August 15, 2008 | Reply

  9. Blackadder,

    Most historians who have studied the matter agree with your argument. J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote n 1990:

    “Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why the Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.”

    Comment by Charles | August 17, 2008 | Reply

  10. Most historians who have studied the matter agree with your argument.

    The “experts” in a given field have often been in the wrong historically Charles…ask those experts in physics such as Lord Kelvin who once said that machines heavier than air could not fly. The uneducated Wright brothers proved Kelvin and his allies wrong. Other examples could be given but that suffices for the time being other than noting that “appeal to authority” even when validly done (and it so often is not) is a weak form of argumentation.

    J. Samuel Walker, chief historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote n 1990

    Considering how much material came out after 1995 (including the declassification of a whole bunch of previously top secret material), you would do well to not pin your hopes on the supposed “scholarly certainties” from eighteen years ago.

    Comment by I. Shawn McElhinney | August 23, 2008 | Reply

  11. Response to “Blackadder” on the Atomic Bombings -Part II of II:

    For easier following I am going to post an outline of the content of my postings and yours as a follow up to that posting so that readers will know what each posting covers in a kind of summary form. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I finally was able to find the time to respond to the second part of your series. Going over these delicate subject matters which often involve more heat than light so I want to thank you again for your civility in accordance with the genuine dialogual principles to which we agreed on last year.

    Comment by I. Shawn McElhinney | August 23, 2008 | Reply

  12. The “experts” in a given field have often been in the wrong historically

    True, but non-experts have tended to fair even worse.

    Comment by blackadderiv | August 24, 2008 | Reply

  13. Shawn,

    The quote is still basically true. It still represents the predominate opinion among most scholars of the subject. The additional material and research that has come out since 1995 generally agrees with Walker’s quote, but that additional evidence has also weakened the certainty of the opinion. It would be more accurate to say that most but not all historians hold the opinion, so it is not a consensus. There also seems to be more issues where scholars disagree. It is also more accurate to say that most scholars think that the atom bombs were likely not needed, but many do not know conclusively. But otherwise the opinion still holds up.

    I’ll substantiate the argument that the bombs were not needed and condition II was not met with more than relying on the say-so of experts when I have time available to do so.

    Comment by Charles | August 24, 2008 | Reply

  14. Blackadder:

    So often major discoveries have been made by “non-experts” who have not limited themselves to what the “experts” have said cannot be done. The example of the Wright Brothers vs. the Esteemed Lord Kelvin of the British The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge is only one of many examples. And as you will see if you read Lord Kelvin’s file on Wikipedia, he was a brilliant highly credentialed man and an inventor/innovator of his own right. But in some areas he had some blind spots -the statement on the impossibility of machines heavier than air flying (made in 1895) was one. He also claimed in 1897 that “radio has no future” which we all know is patently false. Then there was his 1900 claim that “[t]here is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement” -a statement made five years before Einstein’s famous 1905 paper on relativity was published. And Lord Kelvin was a physicist mind you.

    Nor of course is he the only “expert” to have been seriously disproved in one or more areas within their own fields of expertise by upstarts without their credentials or pedigree. I posted back in January of 2007 in one of my “points to ponder” threads a slew of “experts” whose “authoritative pronouncements” were later disproven by non-experts. This is why opinions and conclusions should never be accepted uncritically by anyone regardless of their “expert” status.

    Now in saying these things I am not claiming that the current majority view is wrong per se, only that there are a variety of ways of approaching a given subject and oftentimes there are established patterns of thought that track along predictable lines without taking into account alternate ways of viewing the evidences.

    Oh and lest I forget to mention it, the second part of my response was blogged yesterday. Here is the thread if you are interested:

    Response to “Blackadder” on the Atomic Bombings -Part II of II

    And again, I thank the host of this blog for his charitable handling of these oft-incendiary issues.

    Comment by I. Shawn McElhinney | August 25, 2008 | Reply

  15. The previous note was intended to be addressed to Blackadder and Charles.

    Comment by I. Shawn McElhinney | August 25, 2008 | Reply

  16. Here’s my response to Shawn’s second posting on the subject:

    Shawn is correct on many points regarding the historical evidence. In particular, both Shawn and Donald R. McClarey are correct that Japan was not ready to surrender on terms acceptable to the US at the time of the atomic bombings. The MAGIC intercepts, as Shawn and Mr. McClarey point out, clearly show that the Japanese were not yet ready to surrender if only the emperor were retained. Additionally, historians looking at Japanese sources have also concluded that the Japanese government was not of the verge of surrendering at the time of the atomic bombings. Almost all the historical work done since 1995 agrees with this conclusion.

    But because the Japanese were not willing to surrender at the time of the atomic bombings does not mean that the Japanese would not have been willing to surrender on terms acceptable to the US a few months later given the rapidly deteriorating and desperate situation that Japan faced at the end of the war. The combination of the Soviet entry into the war, the naval blockade of Japan, the conventional bombing campaigns against Japanese cities in the spring and summer of 1945, the vast destruction of the country’s industrial, agricultural, and transportation resources, the critical shortage of war supplies particularly fuel, the growing scarcity of food, the falling morale of the Japanese military and civilian population, Japan’s extreme military weakness, and the steadily growing strength of the peace party within the government likely would have led to the surrender of the Japanese on acceptable terms before the planned invasion of November 1, 1945.

    Leahy and Eisenhower seem to agree with this position. They opposed the dropping of the atomic bombs because the Japanese were already defeated and given the desperate conditions in Japan at the end of the war, it was only a matter of time before they would surrender. Both of these military leaders’ opinion were not influenced by the MAGIC intercepts. I agree with Shawn that we can discount the opinions of those military and government officials who opposed using the a-bombs based solely on their belief that the Japanese would have surrendered at the time of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki if the US had only made it clear to the Japanese that they could retain the Emperor. I also agree with Shawn that the Air Force’s opposition to using atomic bombs can be also discounted for the reasons he stated.

    Shawn argues that ending the war quickly was important because of the kamikaze threat of the new jet fighters that Japan was developing. Such jets did not pose much of a threat because Japan did not have enough fuel to fly the planes. With no domestic production of oil in Japan and the country completely cutoff from oil imports, Japan had oil inventories of only 0.8 million barrels at the end of the war. Japan’s navy needed 1 million barrels to operate, so it had completely shutdown at that point in time. Japan’s planes were fliying an average of two hours per month in the final months of the war because of the lack of fuel. In a few months, Japan would have completely run out of oil. A blockade would likely have been very effective in facilitating a quick surrender of Japan because of the shortage of fuel alone.

    Comment by Charles | August 26, 2008 | Reply

  17. Some additional comments that I have regarding Shawn’s Part II posting on his blog.

    1) Shawn greatly underestimates the significance of the Russian entry into the war upon Japan’s decision to surrender. Shawn apparently is not familiar with the recent schloarship focusing on Japanese materials that indicate that the Russian entry into the war was an important factor in Japan’s decision to surrender.

    2) Shawn also too easily dismisses using the atomic bombings either in a demonstration or against purely military targets that woud have involved far fewer civilain deaths: “The idea that the bombs would be ‘tested first’ as if we had no shortage of stock was not feasible.” The US would have produced a third atomic bomb later in August, three more in September, and an additional three bombs in October. Given that nine bombs would have been available prior to a planned invasion of Japan on November 1, some sort of demonstration testing of an atomic bomb that minimized the number of deaths was quite feasible. Since it was a feasible option that was considered by the Truman administration, rejection of this option was unjustified and immoral. Such a testing of the bomb would have been a more adequate warning than the vague and general threats the US made prior to the bombing of Hiroshima.

    3) Shawn’s estimated 1 million Japanese and non-Japanese lives saved by speeding the end of the war by six weeks is highly debatable. Many scholars of the subject, probably most, reject such a high figure.

    4) Finally, Shawn has limited success in undercutting the quotes of the many military leaders who thought the dropping of the atomic bombs were unnecessary and immoral. (I have previously noted where I agree with Shawn on discounting these quotes.) Shawn argues that since the MAGIC intercepts show that the Japanese were unwilling to surrender at the time of the atomic bomb droppings, one must conclude that the use of the atomic bombings was necessary to end the war on acceptable terms to the US. He attempts to refute the opinions of military leaders who opposed the use of the atomic bombs by arguing that either they did not know about the MAGIC intercepts or if they did know, their opinions make no sense.

    But knowledge via the MAGIC intercepts of the unwillingness of the Japanese to surrender at the time of the dropping of the atomic bombs does not invalidate the opinion that the Japanese were likely to surrender in a short period of time. Admirals Leahy and King had access to the MAGIC intercepts yet opposed using the atomic bombs because they did not believe its was necessary to a quick end to the war. They believed that a continued blockade would have led to a Japanese surrender within a few months. Although almost all historians today recognize that the Japanese were not ready to surrender at the time of the dropping of the atomic bombs because of the MAGIC intercepts, most historians believe that it is likely the Japanese would have surrendered in a few months given the desperate situation they faced. Since knowledge of the MAGIC intercepts does not necessarily negate the opinion that the the Japanese were likely to surrender before the end of 1945 without the atomic bombings, the opinions of miliatry leaders who did not have access to the MAGIC intercepts and thought the atomic bombings were unecessary cannot be so easily dismissed.

    Some of the military leaders quoted (e.g., Leahy, McArthur, and Chennault) opposed the atomic bombings not only because the bombings were militarily unnecessary but also because they immorally targeted noncombatants. Knowledge of the MAGIC intercepts would not have affected their opposition to the atomic bombings based on their moral objections to the mass bombing of noncombatants. As I have previoulsy noted, the civilans of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were noncombatants in the context of a planned invasion of Japan. And these military leaders recoginized that.

    Comment by Charles | August 30, 2008 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: