Home > Focus on Japan 2005 > Hiroshima


August 6th, 2005

Today was graduation day for the students of my school, so my eye was not so much on the news today, and I almost missed the fact that today was the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I’ve been to Hiroshima twice and Nagasaki once, and have toured the memorials and museums there (albeit many years ago). I’ve read a certain amount on the matter, though hardly enough to be considered well-read. And in the end, I think I fall somewhere in the middle on the question of whether or not Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes.

In essence, “war crimes” is a variable and subjective term, used mostly by people who are on the receiving end, defined usually by those who win conflicts. It’s hard to distinguish war crimes from regular acts of war. For example, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often mentioned in this respect, but more people died in the firebombing of Tokyo; isn’t that a war crime? Is it numbers? The amount or type of suffering? Or perhaps just how much the news of the act kicks you in the gut when you hear about it?

There are always justifications. Avoiding a land invasion is the most often heard; it would have cost the lives of an estimated 250,000 American soldiers, which is what would have mattered more to American leaders than the number of Japanese killed; but it also would have cost the lives of an estimated million or more Japanese lives, well in excess of the total number killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. A land invasion would have killed not only by combat, but also by suicide and starvation of the long course of such an invasion. One could easily question which would have been the more cruel route.

There is the suggestion that none of this was necessary, that Japan was ready to surrender, was trying to surrender. But the surrender being offered was not unconditional, else it would have been accepted. The conditional surrender of Germany at the end of the first world war had arguably brought on the second; there was good reason to wish to avoid this from happening again, and it says something that the American government was willing to seize the difference at the cost of a quarter-million soldiers’ lives.

Then there is the Soviet influence: America witnessed what happened in Europe at the end of the war there, and knew that Russia would make a similar land grab in Asia. After having practically won the war there over four long, bloody years of battle, they did not want to see the Soviets marching in and taking most of the continent. Russia had agreed to enter the war on August 8th, exactly three months after the German surrender. So that pressure almost certainly shaped decisions as well.

Still, in my mind, that does not justify bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least not the way the matter was handled. Even in the cruel logic of war, there are alternatives. The one that I believe was mistakenly abandoned was that of the warning shot. Instead of bombing Hiroshima, a bomb should have been dropped on a carefully selected, sparesely- or un-populated target near Tokyo. The target should have made the flash and the mushroom cloud easily visible from Tokyo; it should have been in a place where the population was low or almost non-existent, but where the military in Tokyo could easily have visited so as to witness the devastation. Probably the low mountains in west Tokyo or Kanagawa (ironically, very close to where I now live!). There would have been some victims, but only a few compared to the victims of a direct hit on a city. But enough to show the force and deadly power of the bomb, with an impressive flash and cloud display for those still in Tokyo to see. Then America could deliver the message: we have these bombs. We have enough to waste one on a warning shot. A city will be next if you do not signal a surrender in three days.

The argument against this was that we didn’t have enough for a warning shot. But we did have three that could have been used on a certain schedule; if the Japanese would not surrender after one warning shot and two cities destroyed, would they have surrendered at all? There was an argument that if the bomb failed to go off, we would be handing the Japanese a terrible weapon. Well, not likely; even if the bomb were found and it was understood what it was, the damage to the bomb from a drop like that would have made it unusable, not to mention that it would not have worked in the first place. It is highly doubtful that Japan could have used the weapon back against us. Besides, if we dropped it on a city and it didn’t work, the exact same danger would have existed–only in that case, there would be no doubt that the bomb would be instantly found.

So I feel that the bombings as they were carried out, even accounting for hindsight, were not justified; I believe that at least a warning shot was required. If the Japanese leaders had not surrendered after that, then using the bomb on a city would still have been horrific, but with all end games being horrific and weight of the decision in the Japanese court, it would have been somewhat more justifiable. The hoped-for result, of course, is that the Japanese leaders would have been shocked into the realization that unconditional surrender was not the worst of outcomes.

There is the question of the intent of the bombings. Several cities were left unbombed, the reasoning being that the atomic bombs were expected to be used and America wanted to leave cities otherwise unmarred so they could serve as laboratories, experimental grounds upon which to measure the effects of the weapon. This may be true, but I do not believe the oft-implied meaning that America did not need to drop the bombs and only did so to see what would happen. In Japan, it is sometimes suggested that Japan was offering a surrender and America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki just for the experimental value–not exactly a fair representation. Were America certain to win without the bombs and there was no time pressure, I do not believe that the bombs would have been used. Had Japan offered an unconditional surrender before August 6th 1945, I am all but certain the bombs would not have been dropped.

There is also the question of Japan’s moral high ground in the retrospective concerning the atomic bombs. Japan has long made an issue and not a little bit of political hay about having been the only country which had been atom-bombed. Japan was the victim, and Japan has the right to the moral voice for peace. Now, if that is said of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the cities themselves, I will fully accept that. But not from the Japanese government or the nation as a whole. The reason for this is that Japan had two atomic bomb projects in progress itself during the war, a little-known truth today, especially in Japan; in fact, the first effort, led by Japanese physicist Dr. Yoshio Nishina at the Riken Labs, pre-dated the American program. One well-known element of this was a German submarine with half a ton of uranium bound for Japan, which was intercepted by the U.S. in 1945. But the point here is that Japan can not necessarily cry foul when its intentions were exactly the same; it is unlikely that Japan would have hesitated to use the bomb on the U.S. were the positions reversed. Which is why I do not accept this being a matter of Japanese moral high ground, but I would absolutely accept the legitimacy of that claim by anyone who experienced the bombings.

All in all, it is a complex issue, and any judgment will by definition be subjective. This is just where my personal opinion lies; I could be misinformed or just wrong, but this is what I see. Your own views are very much welcomed below.

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  1. Brad
    August 7th, 2005 at 09:17 | #1

    Excellent analysis/insight. I was talking about this the other day. Next time I can just plagiarise what you’ve said here. Thanks! :-)

  2. August 7th, 2005 at 17:26 | #2

    As usual Luis, we are in agreement. Even if someone can justify Hiroshima (which is hard to do I feel), Nagasaki truly was the war crime. I will admit I had never thought of your near-Tokyo idea, interesting idea.

  3. Paul
    August 8th, 2005 at 08:52 | #3

    Good entry. However, I think that for us to look back and say that they should have used one as a “warning shot” might be a bit… um… well, it might be us putting too much of our own context onto the matter.

    Obviously, no matter what we do, any look back is going to involve us applying some of today’s thinking and common wisdom to the problem.

    For example, in today’s day and age, it’s considered completely unacceptable to have the amount of “collateral damage” that we used to see from bombings.

    “CEP” stands for circular error probable (or probability). The CEP of unguided bombs in WWII was about 3,300 feet. By the Gulf War, it was roughly 30. The CEP is the radius around a point; inside of that circle is where a bomb will land 50% of the time.

    For example, here’s a quote from a web page I found:

    “It took 108 B-17 bombers, crewed by 1,080 airmen, dropping 648 bombs to guarantee a 96 per cent chance of getting just two hits inside a 400 x 500 feet German power-generation plant; in contrast, in the Gulf War, a single strike aircraft with one or two crewmen, dropping two laser-guided bombs, could achieve the same results with essentially a 100 per cent expectation of hitting the target, short of a material failure of the bombs themselves.”

    My point here is that back in WWII, to have a weapon that had destructive power greater than the CEP was a huge boon. Back then, we laid waste to entire cities- not for the PURPOSE of laying waste to them, but because that was what it took to wipe out the military target in question.

    So for us to look back now and say “well, Hiroshima had gone largely undamaged and the war-making industrial parts of the city could have been individually bombed without the massive civilian casualties that resulted from the nuclear bomb” is probably very unrealistic.

    Back then, wasting all of Hiroshima (slowly, one “dumb” iron bomb at a time) would have been required to achieve the same effect, and probably with some awfully high casualty rates as well.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the land invasion would have cost at least as many lives as suggested, on both sides. Doing the moral calculus leaves the USA on pretty safe ground in using the nuclear weapons, I believe.

    And you can’t make the call based on whether or not history shows the invasion would have been necessary (there are some hints that it wouldn’t have been needed); you have to make the call from the perspective of the American leaders, and they pretty much DID believe (from all the available- and un-massaged- evidence) that we were going to have to invade the mainland.

    So if we keep in mind the perspective that invasion would have been necessary, and we would have had to pretty much lay waste to most/all of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and other cities to take out the true targets of military value, I think it’s a lot harder to say that we should have popped off a warning shot.

    All that said, I certainly WISH we had done so. I think that it’s from a hindsight perspective, though, and therefore unfair to suggest that they should have done so at the time knowing what they knew.

    I’m going to launch into a thought that I’ve been kicking around the past few weeks, and it’s a bit troubling. I hope you don’t mind, Luis, if I hijack your space for a relatively long comment, but I’ve been meaning to get this written down to see if I can find my way through it.

    What I have been thinking is that as horrific as war is, and as doubly-horrific as it is when it’s made against civilians, there is almost a case to be made that to truly defeat a nation and have a clear-cut, successful resolution to a war, you almost HAVE to really thump the civilian population- to an extent that we consider completely unacceptable by today’s standards.

    I’ve been reading a book called “The Human Revolution”, by Daisaku Ikeda. Ikeda is the President of the Buddhist lay organization that I belong to, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI).

    (Now, I don’t want to get into the whole “SGI is a cult” thing, or talk about its effects on Japanese politics. Nichiren Buddhism works for me, SGI is how I practice, ’nuff said. Nor do I give a rip about the personality of Mr Ikeda.)

    The SGI grew very rapidly in the post-WWII era in Japan. I think that there are three main reasons for this.

    First, there was a big vacuum in religious life for Japanese after the war; the nationalistic form of Shito had been pretty thouroughly discredited, because the emperor and nation had been so thouroughly defeated.

    Second, when the US came in, one of the things they did was institute an intentionally agressive separation of church and state. Now people who had been forced to believe and accept Shinto icons and ideas were free to pick what they wanted, free of the government being officially Shinto.

    But the third reason is the one that I’ve really been thinking about. The people of Japan had really been beaten. By the end of the war, conditions were pathetic; basic necessities of life were rationed, bombing was going on, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) were homeless with everything except what they could carry destroyed.

    In short, the people were defeated, not just the military forces or power of the nation. The reason this led to SGI’s explosion in growth is because one of the prime tenants of the Nichiren Buddhist faith is that our ultimate happiness relies not upon our external circumstances, but upon our own wellspring of faith (specifically, faith in the Lotus Sutra- but this “letting go” of attachments to external conditions is, of course, prime in Buddhism in general.)

    What spurred me to think about this was some discussion that I had with my father, who has been very pro-Bush and was pro-Iraq-war. (This from a Vietnam vet. Sigh.)

    He pointed out, correctly, that in the areas of Iraq that are suffering greatly from the insurgency, the common people are at least somewhat complicit in what’s going on.

    If the common people, if the majority of the citizens, were angry and fired up against the terrorists, they’d be doing something about it. They’d be turning them in, not letting them hide in their basements and homes, keeping an eye out for suspicious packages. They’d support the Iraqi government’s peace-keeping forces.

    They don’t, and I am starting to think that the reason why is that the people aren’t really defeated- or at least haven’t been defeated by us. (They were pretty well beaten down and defeated by Saddam and his secret police.)

    Because of this, the nation is still effectively at war with our occupying forces.

    Now, I know this is oversimplifying many things; the biggest one is a belief that I happen to share, the belief that most of the trouble is coming from Sunni groups who see the end of their gravy days. The Sunnis are a minority in Iraq, and worse they don’t happen to live where the oil is- so they think they’re screwed if they have to live in a democracy where the Shiites will have the majority, and they’re screwed if the nation splits up because then they won’t have any oil wealth.

    Nonetheless, I think there is something to be said for the *people* of a nation to be defeated. If they have not suffered and paid, if they have not come to a realization in their minds that whoever their nation was fighting has truly “owned” them, then it’s going to be a lot harder to keep them under control.

    If we look at other conflicts around the world, since WWII, I think this is at least somewhat borne out. The various conflicts don’t end merely because one side or the other wins a sometimes-overwhelming military victory against what we classically think of as military forces.

    For example, the Israeli-Arab conflict is, for all intents and purposes, over from a military standpoint. The Israelis won, convincingly. But the Arabic peoples of the area, specifically the Palestinians, didn’t really get defeated in the overwhelming, crushing defeat sense- or at least not by Israel.

    So they continue to fight, and we’ve only seen the moves to peace working out because finally, FINALLY, there are enough (or almost enough) people on both sides (but particularly the Palestinians) who are sick enough of the war to support a peace being made.

    Ireland? Similar deal. The IRA never really won any actual military victories, but the war didn’t end until the people got sick and tired of it. Until, in short, they were defeated.

    In many conflits (the various Yugoslavian messes come to mind) the warring parties didn’t really quit until the war came home to BOTH sides (particularly the Serbs).

    This has turned into a long entry, and with a lot of thinking-out-loud in it. But what has really gotten me thinking is whether or not we have any hope of success in Iraq without having actually defeated the people of the nation.

    In the areas where we’ve had enough peace and quiet to successfully build things like schools and powerplants and water treatment facilities and medical clinics, we’re doing okay.

    But just as success breeds success, failure also breeds failure- and in the areas where there’s not enough peace to win over people by showing them good stuff (because we can’t get the good stuff done), the only way to then win over the people is by defeating them in a harsh manner.

    (This whole line of thought really scares me in one way- it suggests that the Osama-led types are going to have to try and take their war to the Westernized peoples as harshly as possible when they realize they can’t possibly defeat us militarily.

    The prime way for them to do that will be to nuke us.

    Likewise, I have to wonder if it will be possible for us to truly and completely defeat the Islamic world without also using nuclear weapons, or making massive amounts of war upon over a billion people, from Western Africa to Indonesia.

    Just as the US-Soviet conflict had doomsday as a possibility, this new alternate version of a Third World War promises to deliver death and destruction on an almost unthinkable scale.

    I believe our strategic planning would do well to take the lessons of the Cold War and try to “win” this new Islamic War in the same way- pray we can keep the lid on the WMD genie long enough to defeat them economically, rather than through projection of power.)

    Bringing this all back to where it started, I think that perhaps in the end chapter of WWII, the US *had* to deal Japan a huge blow- and not just to the military complex.

    By dropping the bomb and so completely defeating the people, we won the war much more effectively than we ever could have in a piecemeal fashion.

    I notice, Luis, that you started off your blog entry by wondering if the US was guilty of war crimes- and you never really say “yay” or “nay”, choosing instead to suggest that “well, they *should* have dropped a warning shot, but the US leaders weren’t really war criminals, either.”

    Is it really that difficult to draw the line? I suppose it mainly depends on your definition of “war crimes”, as you point out in the second paragraph.

    Me, I come firmly down on the side of “no”. The German leaders responsible for the Holocaust, those were crimes against humanity. The way the Japanese treated their prisoners, those were war crimes. The US trying to win the war but not intending, ultimately, on killing as many humans as possible? Not a war crime.

  4. Luis
    August 8th, 2005 at 12:32 | #4


    My point here is that back in WWII, to have a weapon that had destructive power greater than the CEP was a huge boon. Back then, we laid waste to entire cities- not for the PURPOSE of laying waste to them, but because that was what it took to wipe out the military target in question.That’s assuming that the purpose of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was to take out the military installations in the city–but I don’t think that was the purpose of the bombing. The purpose of the atomic bombings was to convince the Japanese government that they were facing such massive and overwhelming destructive power that they had no choice but to surrender or be exterminated. And, in my opinion, using one such bomb simply as a warning gives a rather strong impression that the one firing them has enough to spare, giving the impression of greatest power.

    As for perspective, I think we often underestimate the ability of people in the past to see forward. I would suggest you read the Franck Report, submitted to the US government almost two months before Hiroshima; it suggested the aforementioned “warning shot,” though the report itself was in the far greater perspective of a foreseen world-wide post-WWII nuclear arms race. Call the scientists who authored the report naive or not, the fact is that there was indeed perspective before Hiroshima on all aspects of the atomic bombing, including humanitarian ones. Note that in the report, they make note of the fact that we refrained from using them:We have large accumulations of poison gas, but do not use them, and recent polls have shown that public opinion in this country would disapprove of such a use even if it would accelerate the winning of the Far Eastern war.As for whether the US leaders were guilty of war crimes, what I was trying to say is that this is a matter of perspective. In one respect, they had available an option that was known to them, the idea of a warning shot, and could have used it but did not, resulting in the horrific deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If I were, for example, someone who had survived one of those two attacks, I could easily consider them war criminals. This might be bolstered by an opinion that intentional bombing of civilian populations is a war crime, a point you argue against in your comment; I agree in that I do not think civilian bombing could have been avoided. But others might think differently, and so conclude differently.

    On the other hand, if one sees civilian bombing as a necessity; if one sees no great difference between conventional and mass-destruction killing; and if one gives the US leaders the benefit of the doubt on uncertain tactics in the face of a long, bloody ground battle and an impending Soviet invasion–then it would be difficult to see the US leaders as guilty of war crimes. This is the view often taken by Americans, that while gruesome, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably merciful and quick, and that things would have turned out much worse if they had never been used at all.

    I tend to fall into the second camp in terms of strict definition. I cannot say that there was any guarantee concerning the warning shot, it is simply the way I would have gone. I cannot fault Truman too much for having foregone that option, but I can still be critical that it was not taken. I do not see him as a war criminal, I simply think he went the wrong route.

  5. Tim Kane
    August 9th, 2005 at 02:14 | #5

    I think that without the use of nuclear weapons Japan would have been invaded. The casualties would have been far greater than those of the Nuclear explosions, of course, and much greater than the estimates.

    The estimates of one million Japanese civilian casualties is way to small in my mind. It would have been at least three million and maybe ten times more. The economic structure would have totally collapsed. Roving American fighters and ground attack plains would have straffed farmers in their fields the entire length of Japan. Not one fishing boat would be left afloat 12 months into the invasion.

    Following surrender, Japan still had a big problem feeding itself, even with the presence of American armed forces and aid. Had the U.S. invaded Japan those who didn’t die fighting the Invasion likely would have starved to death, or died from disease. Hokkaido would have gone to the Soviet Union, and maybe parts of northern Honshu as well.

    The Atomic Bomb was unbelievably cruel. So was area bombing of cities. Because of being attacked at Pearl Harbor, which American’s felt was unprovoked and without any warning and therefore “dastardly” American’s felt little simpathy for the Japanese at the time.

    The people who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not die in vain. They saved Japan and gave it, what turned out to be, a reasonably good future.

    Most of the alternative decisions available to the Japanese leadership in early 1945 would have brought a much worse and ruinous future for Japan. And yet they were inclined to choose those other decisions. There was only a thin thread available to Japan to a prosperous and good future. And that thread was surrendering sooner rather than later. A later Surrender may have found Japan partitioned between occupying forces, with much less rolling stock (necessary to avoid starvation) and much greater damage to infrastructure, and many more deaths to starvation and diseases releated to starvation.

    Under such circumstances, for the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the atomic bomb was a disaster, but because of that, it spared the rest of Japan the violence of Invasion and everything that went with that – the deaths would have been in multiples of millions.

    If the American’s had thought that they would lose less lives by invasion, they would have done that even if it would have cost Japan millions of people. Such is the nature of war.

    A demonstration bomb seems like it would have been a good idea. I think they should have dropped one in the middle of Tokyo Bay where everyone could have seen it. But Truman had to weigh all the potentialities and made the decision as he saw fit. Most of the decisions Truman made, time has shown, were well made. And he always had Republican’s breathing down his throat. 20 years out of power, they would later blame Truman for losing China and being soft on Communist. This political dynamic gave birth to Joe McCarthy. And this dynamic impelled America’s poor decision making going into Vietnam. Those bombs helped bring WWII to an end. They also served as notice to the destruction we are capable of doing. The use of the weapons was terrible, and very distructive, but those people who died there did not die in vain. Millions of people around the world have been spared nuclear war because of the horror of witnessing what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Unfortunate as the use of those weapons were, like the tank* in WWII, they may have actually saved more lives than they consumed.

    *Invention of the tank helped restore mobility to warfare and actually reduced battlefield deaths, especially in France. In WWI Britain lost more men from one battle (the Somme) than they did from WWII altogether – this is largely do to mobility of war fare, ending the paramount tactical role of the trench and trench warfare, with horrifically high casualty numbers, first exprerianced during the American Civil war.

  6. Paul
    August 10th, 2005 at 17:21 | #6

    Fair enough on the Hiroshima issue, although I think you’re still trying to have it both ways a bit- if they should’ve dropped a warning shot, then they should NOT have dropped the first on a city- which means that action was wrong, and when you undertake a “wrong” action with a nuclear weapon, that’s a pretty big undertaking. One that I’d think rises to the level of “war crime”.

    Anyway, I’m still kicking around on the whole idea of needing to defeat not just the military of an area, but the people. It’s bugging me, because I think it has bad implications for our future.

    Seattle, WA

  7. Frankie
    October 23rd, 2006 at 03:32 | #7

    I haven’t read all the comments above, but the use of nuclear weapon was definitely the biggest error made by the Americans. The dropping of the bomb was the start of the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I remember that the American scientists were all against the use of the a-bomb and have signed a petition to the US president at that time, but this letter never reached the President. Also, you can find the recording of the President at that time (H. Truman), saying that the bomb was dropped on a military base and not on a city. The thing that really surprises me is that people today are afraid about the a-bombs, look at Iran, North Korea etc., but the unbelievable fact is that only the U.S. have used it and dropped it on a city killing hundred of thousands of people almost 60 years ago. Yes 60 years ago, not year 1995 or 2001. I think we all have short memories. Nuclear weapons should not exist anywhere in the world, period.

  8. Anonymous
    December 14th, 2006 at 14:50 | #8

    The atomic bombs dropped on Japan represent a massive wound for the collective conscious of humanity.

    I AM SO VERY SORRY such a thing happened.

    Such mass murder stands alone as the standard for the very worst of human depravity.

    PEACE and healing,

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