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The Dilemma of the Atomic Bomb

Alan McGowan
September 4, 2017


by Alan McGowan

AT 5:45 P.M. on March 9, 1945, 334 B-29 bombers took off from Saipan and Tinian Islands in the Pacific, bound for Tokyo. For the next forty-eight hours they dropped incendiary bombs, creating the largest firestorm ever seen or heard and killing upwards of 100,000 people, mostly civilians.

Before dawn on August 6, 1945, Paul Tibbets climbed into his B-29 —named after his mother, Enola Gay — and oversaw the loading of Little Boy, the uranium-fueled atomic bomb. He then took off from Tinian Island for Hiroshima. At 8:16 a.m., the bomb was dropped, killing 80,000 people — again, mostly civilians — including at least twelve American POWs.

Was the destruction of Hiroshima with an atom bomb different from the destruction of Tokyo by incendiary bombs? It certainly seemed to be: The New Yorker devoted its entire August 31, 1946 issue to John Hersey’s article “Hiroshima,” which Roger Angell would describe half a century later as “a work of sustained silence. Its appearance, just over a year after the destruction of the Japanese city in the first atomic attack, offered one of the first detailed accounts of the effects of nuclear warfare on its survivors, in a prose so stripped of mannerism, sentimentality, and even minimal emphasis as to place each reader alone within scenes laid bare of all but pain. . . . The article became a book, and the book has sold more than three and a half million copies and remains in print to this day. Its story became a part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust.”

[caption id=“attachment_62424” align=“aligncenter” width=“660”] Nagasaki, August 9, 1945[/caption]

As many people know, the initial impetus to build the bomb was to prevent the Germans from being the only power to have it. Before it was developed, James Conant, the president of Harvard who chaired the National Defense Research Committee and oversaw the Manhattan Project, fervently prayed that it would prove impossible to make a bomb. Joseph Rotblat, a leading scientist working on the bomb in Los Alamos, upon learning that the Germans were not, in fact, developing a bomb, left the Manhattan Project, saying that there was no reason for the bomb to be developed if the Germans did not possess one. Rotblat was the only scientist to do so, however. He went on to found a leading organization opposed to nuclear weapons, the Pugwash Conferences, and in 1997, he and the organization were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kenneth Bainbridge, the man in charge of the instruments that measured the effects of Trinity, the only test of the bomb before it was dropped twice on Japan, remarked after the test: “[N]ow we are all sons of bitches.” But Richard Feynman noted that when the Los Alamos scientists heard of the success of Hiroshima, they danced in the streets and held a nightlong celebration. It was only later, he noted, that they realized what they had done, and sought to control the weapon they had produced. As James Hershberg stated in his biography of James Conant, there was a growing realization that “science [had] now become political.”

Although there were scientists who urged that before dropping it on civilians there be a demonstration of the atomic bomb that Japanese officials could view, the leaders of the “Nuclear Club,” the group of civilian scientists advising the government on atomic issues, felt that nothing other than actual use would have the shock value needed to induce the Japanese to accept peace. Conant argued that unless the bomb were actually used, the world would not realize its awesome potential and therefore not be aware of the strict measures necessary for its control.

Following victory in Europe, some nine-hundred thousand U.S. troops were at sea heading for an invasion of Japan that everyone knew was going to be the bloodiest yet, costing hundreds of thousands of Allied casualties and many more Japanese. When the troops on those ships learned of the atom bomb strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, every single one of them felt that the bomb had saved their lives. Sure enough, days after the destruction of Nagasaki, the emperor overrode the militarists in his government and accepted the Potsdam Proclamation, indicating total surrender of the Japanese forces.

DID THE BOMB end the war? Controversy began days after the bombs were dropped, and continues to this day. There were many who did not think so at the time: Admiral Leahy, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and head of the Combined Chiefs of the U.S. and the U.K., said, for example: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower also affirmed in 1963 what he had said immediately after the war: “[T]he Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” In his memoirs, recalling a visit from Secretary of War Henry Stimson right after the war, Eisenhower wrote that “I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face.”

The official United States Bombing Survey established by Franklin Roosevelt and reaffirmed by Harry Truman, stated on July 1, 1946:

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

Nevertheless, although we did have considerable intelligence on Japanese thinking, through the intercepts of Japanese messages via a program called MAGIC, none of these critics could know what the Japanese themselves thought, particularly the Emperor, who ultimately had to make the decision as to whether to continue the war. In the end, of course, he said the war should stop. Was it the atomic bomb that prompted him?

Gar Alperovitz, professor of political science and history at the University of Maryland, was one of the first to weigh in on the question with a 1965 book, Atomic Diplomacy, which claimed that the bomb, horrific as it was, did little to persuade the Japanese to surrender. Next to weigh in was Murray Sayle, an Australian journalist who lived in Japan for thirty years, with a 1995 article in the New Yorker, written after Sayle read accounts of the Japanese wartime cabinet meetings that had just been made public. He, too, determined that it was not the atom bomb that had caused the emperor to change his mind and surrender, but rather the entry of the Russians into the war.

A more recent entry in the debate is Racing the Enemy by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a Japanese historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who heads their Cold War Studies program. He also claims that it was the Soviet entry into the war, not the atomic bomb, that ended the war, and claims as well that President Harry Truman, persuaded by his Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, altered the original draft of the Potsdam Proclamation, taking out the notion that the Japanese could keep their emperor upon surrendering for fear that the the surrender would take place before the Americans could use the bomb. Unless the bomb were used, thought Truman and Byrnes, Congress would question the $2 billion spent on developing the atomic weapon.

We also know that there were forces in the administration who thought the Russians would and could play a vital role in getting the Japanese to surrender; this is basically the reason that Russia was pressured at Yalta to agree to intervene. Truman, who did not want to go to Potsdam, the last of the “Big Three” Allied conferences, did so primarily to get Stalin to affirm his intention to enter the war against Japan. When Stalin did so, Truman wrote in his diary, “ . . . fini Japan when that happens.”

A May 30, 2013 article in Foreign Policy by Ward Wilson makes a similar analysis and goes through an elaborate examination of the timeline of events to raise serious questions about the standard assumption that, of course, the bomb ended the war. The article starts by declaiming that “The U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan during World War II has long been a subject of emotional debate.” True enough, but why so? The answer lies deep in the mixture of science and politics that produced the most terrifying set of weapons that we have ever produced. Both the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb are orders of magnitude more destructive than any other weapon. Nothing else comes close.

WHY IS IT important? What relevance does it have today? Bill Clinton’s Defense Secretary William Perry, an expert in nuclear weapons, in his compelling 2015 book, My Trip to the Nuclear Brink, makes a strong case that we are in grave danger of a nuclear holocaust unless serious steps are taken to avoid it. Proliferation of nuclear weaponry — to Pakistan, North Korea, and very nearly Iran — have caused global political crises and, in the minds of some, have seemed arguably to be cause for preemptive military, even nuclear, strikes. But why does the actual bombing, seventy-two years ago, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still matter?

It matters because it was the only time that a nuclear weapon was detonated in anger against an enemy ­— and because if it did result in, or coincide with, the ending of the war in the Pacific, is therefore seen by many as a necessary act of war. Yet even if these nuclear attacks did result in the Japanese surrender, it does not follow that they were ethically permissible. Poison gas might well be useful in war, but nations have agreed that it is impermissible to use. Torture of prisoners might, indeed, achieve the desired results, but civilized nations at the very least deny that they use it. Even as war has grown more and more terribly destructive in its weaponry, it has become more bounded by international consensus about what constitutes war crimes.

The atomic bombing of Japan also matters because of an important reality it reveals: If we possess nuclear weapons, there is the temptation to use them. In fact, however, no nuclear weapons have been used in wartime since. What constrains nations’ leaders from using their weapons? Is it only the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), as the Cold War nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the USSR was called — or are there other human factors at work?

Gar Alperovitz, in his books Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam and The Decision to Use the Bomb, argues that a primary reason the U.S. decided to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to demonstrate our power to the Russians and to keep them from having any influence in Asia. Quoting numerous American officials, including Truman himself, Alperovitz makes a very strong case.

However, Bradley F. Smith, in his book Sharing Secrets with Stalin, makes an equally strong case that since the Americans and Russians were sharing a great deal of sensitive intelligence on both the European and Pacific fronts, it was unlikely that the United States would have used the bomb to impress the Soviets. Specifically saying that Alperovitz is wrong, Smith points out that the two nations were sharing secrets up to and including the use of the bombs against Japan.

In fact, as the war in the Pacific approached its end, the endgame of the U.S. was hotly debated, as were the communications to be made to Japan. Files recently made public reveal the sharp differences of opinion as to how to end the war quickly and decisively, with full consciousness that the American public was becoming increasingly weary of the slaughter.

The debate centered on a number of issues. One of them was the role of the Japanese emperor after the war. Many Japanese people believed that Hirohito, the 124th descendant of Emperor Jimmu, was a deity. They had never even seen or heard the emperor, but believed their nation to be personified by him. It is difficult to translate kokutai, the word the Japanese used to define their nationhood, but it had to do with a mystical notion of Japan.

By the spring of 1945, the “defeat” of Japan was all but certain. The country had practically no navy, and though it had 2,000 planes, it had lost most of its skilled aviators. What it did have was two million troops, most of them willing to fight to the death. Very few Japanese soldiers had surrendered in battle thus far, both because of their fanaticism and because they were led to believe by their leaders that they would be tortured and killed should they be captured.

In the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima is a quotation from a statement made by Korechika Amani, chief of the Japanese Army, calling for “a million deaths with honor.” There was a faction in the Japanese armed forces, personified by Amani, that believed that if the Japanese nation could not keep its kokutai, its essence, which included the emperor, it would be better not to exist. It was not clear, therefore, that Amani would have agreed to any terms of surrender that would not preserve kokutai.

The Allies, however, were clear on one thing; the Japanese should not ever be able to be the military aggressor they had been. Did that require toppling the emperor, perhaps trying him as a war criminal? After all, Hirohito had authorized all of the Japanese military’s atrocities and aggressive actions, including the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the infamous Bataan death march in 1942 (in which 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers were forced to march eighty-five miles to their prison camp), the beheading of many POWs, and many other atrocities.

ANOTHER ISSUE was whether or not a planned invasion was needed. Even before use of the atom bomb was considered — many in the armed forces who were planning the endgame did not even know about it — an alternative to an invasion that was being considered was massive carpet bombing of every city in Japan. However, given the lack of response to the already intensive “fire-bombing” of Tokyo and other cities, it was finally decided that the invasion should go forward, and troops were already on their way to its first phase when the bombs were dropped. Would a massive bombing campaign, which would have killed thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of civilians, have been a more ethical way to end the war than dropping two atomic bombs?

The Japanese themselves were divided on how to proceed. The Japanese military felt that fighting should continue, to inflict such a cost on the Allies that they would agree to keep Japan pretty much intact, with no occupying forces, after its surrender. The Japanese navy, however, was much more amenable to ending the war on terms dictated by the Allies. There was also a “peace party,” which advocated the ending of the war, although it had to work underground.

The Japanese Communist Party, founded in 1922, was very active at this time, and was growing in size during the war. This is one of the reasons why the emperor, fearing the domestic unrest that might increase if the war continued, agreed to the peace terms in the Potsdam Proclamation.

Emperor Hirohito had obviously been thinking of ways to end the war, since he had dispatched Ambassador Sato to Moscow in the hope that Stalin would intervene with the other Allies to provide a “soft” ending to the war, avoiding the very harsh conditions that Hirohito was afraid the Americans and British would want to impose on his country. He was obviously quite aware of the conditions under which Germany had surrendered, which amounted to total and unconditional surrender. In fact, according to Hasegawa, the primary reason he decided to take a stand in the Supreme Council of Japan and declare that the country would accede to the demands of the Allies was his realization that this was not possible once the Soviets actually entered the war.

In examining the reasons that Truman and others in the U.S. administration were in favor of dropping the bomb, the issue of race and anti-Japanese racism must be faced. Whereas we were fighting the Nazis in Germany, implicitly focusing on one group within German society, we were fighting the “Japs” in the Pacific, implicitly including all of the Japanese people as the “enemy.” Ronald Takaki in his book Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Bomb is the most explicit in his analysis of this, tracing Truman’s anti-Japanese remarks from 1911 onward, although Alperovitz also examines this aspect of the Pacific war. Of course, it was not possible to drop the bomb on Germany, as Germany surrendered before the bomb was ready, but the question does arise as to whether the bomb would have been dropped on Germany had it been ready before the country surrendered.

The answer to that question is complicated, since there were tactical reasons not to bomb Germany. The feeling was that Germany was more technically sophisticated than Japan, and could therefore benefit more from advanced planes that were shot down over Germany. It is known that the Germans assiduously examined everything they could.

The B-29 was much more sophisticated than either the B-17 or B-24. It was never assigned to the European theater of war, only to the Asian one, because of the fear of the Germans learning too much if it were shot down there. However, it was the only American plane that could carry the atomic weapon, which weighed more than five tons. Although there is some indication that Roosevelt wished he had the bomb to use during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in December 1944 and January 1945, the issue never came to the fore. There were never any plans developed, therefore, to use the bomb in Europe. It is also likely that racism did play a role in making it easier to consider using “that awful thing” (Eisenhower’s phrase) against the “Japs.”

DEREK IDE, in a publication of the Hampton Institute, has done an admirable job of summarizing the arguments in regard to dropping the bomb. Roughly speaking, there are three groups of points of view. There are the traditionalists, who make a very strong case supporting the point of view of most Americans, that it was primarily the dropping of the bomb that caused the Japanese to surrender. Then there are what Ide calls the revisionists, who call that idea into question, and present an equally powerful argument that the bombings were not necessary, but were motivated primarily to prevent the Soviets from gaining a foothold in Asia.

Then there are what Ide calls the consensus group, who agree that the bomb was not necessary, but disagree that the Soviets were the main reason. This group argues that a strong reason for dropping the bomb was that the more than $2 billion that had been spent -- and this is in 1945 dollars, mind you -- would have been considered wasted if it could not be shown that the bomb had ended the war. That is why the 1947 Atlantic article by Stimson, stating that the bomb ended the war and saved millions of lives, was so important: It defined the point of view of most Americans.

In the end, what are we to think about this? Did the bomb shorten the war, and save lives, both American and Japanese? A second question, related to, but separate from, the question of the bomb shortening the war, is: Was the United States morally justified in dropping it? Was James Conant right that the world had to be shocked in order to realize the controls that must be put on this destructive weapon?

Despite the arguments going back and forth on the first question, it is likely that there were three influences on the emperor as he thought about the war and its end. One was certainly the entry of the Soviets into the war, signaling that Moscow was not going to be helpful in obtaining a “soft” ending to the war. Another was the prospect of increasing domestic unrest, led by the Japanese Communist Party, which had bitterly opposed the war. Third, the bomb had an influence on the emperor’s thinking: He had no way of knowing that the two bombs dropped were the only ones the U.S. had, and may have thought Japan faced a continuing reign of nuclear terror. It is also conceivable that it gave him an excuse to end the war, using the bomb as a way of saving “face,” as Eisenhower said he was seeking.

This does not absolve the United States from moral complicity in being the only nation to use a nuclear weapon against an enemy. Nor is it a reason for us to continue to own and develop nuclear weapons. It does, however, point out that in war there are nothing but difficult choices. What were the alternatives to using the bomb? They included massive carpet bombing, using conventional weapons, on every city in Japan, which General Curtis LeMay of the Army Air Force already had planned. It is LeMay who said: “There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders.”

Was the firebombing of Tokyo morally superior to the use of atomic weapons?

In some sense yes, although it is hard to say that the firebombing that took place was morally superior to anything. The atomic weapon is different, and was known to be different when it was dropped. It took more than three hundred planes to destroy sixteen square miles of Tokyo; it took one plane to annihilate Hiroshima. Already in 1945 it was known that there was an even more horrendous weapon in the wings, what we now know as the hydrogen bomb, the fusion weapon that Edward Teller insisted on developing, starting during his time in Los Alamos.

We will never know whether the Japanese would have surrendered if the emperor had only been worried about domestic unrest and the entry of the Soviets into the war, but the behavior of the Japanese armed forces in the battles of Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Saipan, and Tinian, to name but a few, where the soldiers fought almost literally to the last man -- very few prisoners were captured -- gives us pause.

Alan McGowan is an executive editor of Environment magazine. He is associate professor of interdisciplinary science in the Department of Natural Science and Mathematics at Eugene Lang College at the New School, and was founder of the Gene Media Forum and president of the Scientists’ Institute for Public Information, a major bridge between scientists and the media.