Recently, an obituary was published in the New York Times for Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the commander and pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Naturally, this provoked another discussion of the morality of dropping the atomic bomb itself. Two extreme examples and a more moderate opinion can be summarized in the story in the link below:
After reading this, I decided to write a reply, which I'll reproduce here:
Many people like to argue that if Eisenhower himself thought the dropping of the nuclear bombs was unnecessary, dropping them couldn't have been necessary. He has, after all, been quoted as saying the war would have ended shortly afterwards, even without the nuclear bombs. However, he based this on the assumption that conventional bombing - i.e., the continued firebombing of Tokyo and other major cities - would continue. The firebombing of Tokyo had claimed more lives - perhaps a 100,000 people in one night - than any individual atomic bombing, and continued firebombing (of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe) would have no doubt killed more Japanese civilians than the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Incidentally, firebombing - the indiscriminate bombing of civilians as a part of a campaign of “total war” - has also been considered a kind of war crime).
Eisenhower wasn’t naive enough to believe that the Japanese government, which had manifestly no interest in protecting the lives of individual citizens (since it considered them only important in their capacity to devote themselves to the Imperial house), could be expected to surrender based on the rational assessment that they could never win the war. The most reasonable politicians in Japan were able to make the assessment that they could never fully defeat the US before the war had even begun, and were simply hoping that the initial attack and advance of Japanese troops would succeed in just leading to a kind of truce wherein Japan would have free reign in Asia. But the militarists and the Emperor had beliefs about the strength of Japan and its inevitable victory unconstrained by any sort of rationality, and they were the ones to make the final decision about surrender. They believed that the Japanese would triumph based on superior spirit alone. And the only thing that made them reconsider surrender was the atomic bomb, since it was a weapon no amount of spirit could conquer.
There’s no doubt that many people in Japan, citizens and some politicians alike, wanted the war to end. Ascribing the spirit of “bushido” to all the people in Japan is a bit ridiculous, and I wouldn’t argue that all the millions of citizens would really have voluntarily gone out with their sticks pointed at our soldiers. Unfortunately, they were not in any sort of position to influence the government, barring some sort of revolution - which would require the kind of popular uprising and resistance against the government unthinkable then (and now, really) in Japan. Those ordinary people would likely have been compelled to fight - as were the citizens in Okinawa - or if unwilling, to commit suicide, by the true believers. And some people, kids who had been sufficiently propagandized, for example, would have done it willingly (this I know directly from my friend, who was a teenager at the time, and though now an incredibly genial and bright old man who went to the best engineering university in Japan, confessed he was convinced his duty at the time was to fight Americans to the last with a spear).
For me, living in Japan for the last few years, this has been a common topic. I’ve visited Hiroshima and wept at the pictures and exhibits in the Atomic Bomb Museum. As a high school teacher, it was impossible to look at the tattered remains of a schoolgirl’s uniform or a boy’s lunch box and not immediately connect this massive killing with the kids I knew and saw everyday. It’s much more difficult to try to justify the death of one person in that situation - not to mention thousands. But I feel like the decision to bomb Japan is a decision very difficult to take outside of the context of the world at that time. At the time, the US was convinced that Japan would simply refuse to surrender without a ground invasion. Plans were drawn up for the invasion, and hundreds of thousands on both sides expected to die. Our knowledge of Japan came from the words of the Japanese government, which promised a “hundred million bamboo spears” awaiting us. Having seen the kamikaze and the defense of Iwojima, we could believe them. Inside the country itself, the military and the Emperor were intent on continuing the war. The military wanted to fight until the end. The Emperor, though recognizing the impossibility of absolute victory, had rejected demands for surrender, as he was determined to wrest a promise from the Allies of protected sovereignty. Obviously, this was not something the Allies were willing to offer (would we have offered to allow Hitler to remain in power?). There may have been widespread discontent in the citizenry and in parts of the government, but not any from the people who actually would determine the country’s policy.
The decision was therefore made to drop the bombs. The bombs were dropped, the rational Japanese were able to convince the militarists to give up (though, as noted above, some still attempted to stage an uprising and take control of the Imperial palace), and the war came to an end. The bombs were a terrible thing to do to another country, but in a terrible time, a justifiable decision. With the belief that hundreds of thousands of Americans would have died, it was justifiable. It could also be justified to argue that millions of Japanese would have died. To argue that the atomic bombing may not have been necessary because the Soviet Union would enter Japan, or that conventional bombing would have eventually forced them to give up, or that unseen political turmoil in Japan would have rendered the bombing unnecessary, is analysis after the fact, and not information available at the time. To appeal to the rationality of Japan is to apply the current situation of modern democratic Japan or a peaceful world to a time and place that was neither democratic nor peaceful. People in Japan often seem to talk about the atomic bombings as though they just appeared out of nowhere, rather than as the final part of a long world war, for which Japan bore a large responsibility. That’s not to say that Pearl Harbor justified doing anything we wanted, but that the bombing should not be taken out of the context of the greater war. Terrible decisions had to be made in terrible times.
For me, it’s much more instructive to think about how the war started, and how it became so easy for us to kill each other. Neither side had a clear sense of the other as a similar human being before the war, and this was only further bolstered by the wartime propaganda necessary to make killing easier. Belief in Japan in the innate racial purity and superiority of Japanese made it possible to do terrible and insane things, and contributed to the refusal to acknowledge defeat. The breakdown of democracy as it existed in Taisho period Japan and the investment of all national power in the military and the Emperor was something that could not have happened without the involvement, or at least, inaction of the Japanese populace. Could Japan have attacked so easily if it were a true democracy at the time? Could we have so easily firebombed Tokyo and Dresden if we hadn’t vilified the people of both countries? Why are we able to be so cavalier about the deaths of thousands of people from bombing? These are the types of questions that are extraordinarily relevant, and we’re likely to learn a lot more and prevent similar tragedies in the future by thinking about why it all happened then second-guessing the past.