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.