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.
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