Published on April 20, 2018.
When I was a boy, my father told me how, at the age of twenty-one in the Navy, he had trained for the land invasion of Japan. He learned ways to kill with his bare hands that he never discussed with anyone to his death. When President Truman decided to forego the land invasion in favor of using a terrible new weapon, my father felt his own life had been saved. I agreed, and I credit President Truman’s decision as one reason for my own existence. The decision to use that terrible new weapon has been discussed and debated ever since and may always be. The three main arguments for the decision are that it ended the war faster; it saved the lives of all those who would have died in the land invasion on both sides, including innocent lives; and it established American military dominance of the World during the period following the war. The four main arguments against the decision are that it took innocent lives not only immediately but for decades afterward due to radiation; it started the nuclear arms race; and it eroded our moral authority. In my view, the reasons for the decision outweigh the reasons against.
There is no real debate that the bombings ended the war faster, though there are those who say Japan was on the verge of surrender. There is no evidence of this. According to historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, author of the 2005 book Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan, the cabinet was divided, even after Hiroshima was bombed, between those who wanted to keep fighting with Russia’s help and those who wanted to surrender with outrageous demands of the Americans. The debate was ended by the Emperor, who decided to surrender. “He didn’t do that because he was really concerned about the fate of the Japanese people,” Hasegawa said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes magazine. “He didn’t surrender after the firebombing [of Tokyo]. The crucial point was that he just wanted to preserve the emperor system as head of the Shinto religion.” He knew that time had run out, that there was no defeating atomic bombs. Learning that Russia was on our side also contributed to the decision.
A year before, as the United States military advanced across the Pacific islands, tens of thousands of Japanese citizens jumped off cliffs to their deaths rather than dishonor their emperor or themselves by surrendering. In the summer of 1945, if their emperor had called for it, the entire nation of men, women, and children would have fought every American invader to the death, turning the entire country into a battlefield. The outcome would have been the same in the end (United States victory), but it would have taken longer and would have resulted in the deaths of perhaps most Japanese people in Japan as well as thousands of Americans. The suicides of thousands upon thousands of Japanese in previous battles shows the majority of Japan would have chosen death over surrender had their emperor requested it. This would have meant almost certain death for thousands of American invaders. On August 9, in announcing the second bombing, on Nagasaki, President Truman stated, “We have used it [the atomic bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” That was clearly his rationale.
Immediately after the war, the United States of America remained alone in possessing nuclear weapons. Russia’s first successful test came in 1949. This set the tone of America being the World’s “leader” in post-war weapons technology. Ironically, our atomic effort also motivated Russia and other powers to develop their own, leading to what has been called the “nuclear arms race”. However, the United States remained dominant in both weapons and peaceful technology until Russia’s successful launch of the first human-made space satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957.
It is true that the atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man took innocent lives, even over decades through radiation, but far fewer than would have been taken during a land invasion. The population of Japan at the time was almost 72 million persons, and it is inconceivable that a land invasion would have cost fewer than the roughly 300,000 killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those killed in a land invasion would also include women and children. Is it better to kill women and children in two towns or across an entire nation? As horrible as this question is, there is only one answer. Innocent lives are always taken in war, and a war was going on. At that point, with Japan refusing to surrender despite the military reality, the only choice was between a land invasion or a bombing that might end the war sooner. How best to reduce the number of lives lost? By reducing the number of lives lost.
The radiation from the bombings persisted for decades, teaching the World of the horror of nuclear weapons, leading the United States and all other countries in the World not to use them again. This too was the right decision. The Geneva Conventions govern the treatment of prisoners, whereas the Hague Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land (1899) and the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (1907) govern the treatment of civilians during wartime. The United States of America signed these agreements, and President Harry S. Truman was bound by them. “The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited,” the 1899 Hague Convention declares before specifying that “To employ poison or poisoned arms,” and “To employ arms, projectiles, or material of a nature to cause superfluous injury;” is prohibited. Also, “The attack or bombardment of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited.” Also, “In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps should be taken to spare as far as possible edifices devoted to religion, art, science, and charity, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not used at the same time for military purposes.” The 1907 Hague Convention adds and reiterates the following: “To employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering,” and “The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended,” are prohibited, and “In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.”
Radiation certainly falls under the category of poison, superfluous injury, and unnecessary suffering, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki were determined to be military targets. On July 25, 1945, President Truman wrote in his diary: “I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. . . . He and I are in accord. 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.” President Truman’s August 9 public statement on the bombing of Nagasaki also contained these remarks: “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” As for the radiation, its effects were by no means understood, the first test of the atomic bomb having been conducted on July 16, nine days earlier, on uninhabited desert.
The United States’ development and use of atomic bombs impressed the World and led other nations to pursue nuclear weapons, starting the nuclear arms race. However, Adolf Hitler had pursued such weapons for years himself; the possibility of making them was an open secret, and the United States not pursuing them would not have prevented anyone else from doing so. It is likely others would have done so—and perhaps used them on the United States. In such a situation, the wisest course of action for self-defense is to get out in front of the others, which is what we did. It could be argued that atomic weapons were a necessary stage of development before cooler heads prevailed—cooler heads, ironically, prompted to prevent mutually assured destruction by the very existence of nuclear weapons. “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together,” the English musical group the Smiths sang in the 1980s. The instinct of self-preservation is stronger than the desire not to harm others, and that is why the arms race would have occurred no matter who was first.
The moral authority of the United States has been criticized, even condemned, as a result of their using nuclear weapons in 1945, but this is erroneous. Ending a war faster, saving far more lives than otherwise, and ceasing to use nuclear weapons when their devastating effects become apparent are the acts of a moral power. There are those who say that killing civilians is immoral, but civilians die in every military conflict, and the alternative to using the nuclear bombs on Japan was that of allowing more to die on both sides. Russia joined our fight against Japan on August 8. President Truman had sought Russian involvement to end the war as fast as possible, but a Russian invasion of Japan would also have had greater costs than did the nuclear bombings. The fighting from island to island for months would have been disastrous for Japan, Russia, and the United States. Once the atomic option appeared, it became the least of the evils, saving Russian lives as well.
Ultimately, President Truman’s decision ended the war, saved lives from three concerned nations, and ensured the United States’ status as the World’s reigning power after the war. Though innocent lives were lost, the radiation persisted for decades, and the decision began the arms race, the good outweighed the bad and once we learned of the dangers, we stopped using them. We made the right decision based on the information we had at the time, then, when we got more information, we made the right decision to stop using them. The right decision depends on the context, and the context had changed. In August 1945, dropping two bombs was the right decision. On August 10, the Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, wrote in his diary, “Truman said he had given orders to stop atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids’.” To have dropped three or more would have been wrong, and to have dropped any since would have been wrong. What is the right thing to do depends on the circumstances, and I thank President Truman for my existence, which I owe in part to the bombings.