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Note to the hypothetical reader: this post is not any fun at all.

We passed an important anniversary recently. August 6th was the date of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. At the time of writing, August 9th, the date of the attack on Nagasaki, is still a couple of days away.

A time for sober reflection. Is it also a time to take shameful stock of our capacity to inflict horror upon the innocent?

It would be all pure and liberal of me to condemn the way the Americans ended the war with Japan, and perhaps even true to form, since I’ve grown more liberal and progressive over the years. Yet I can’t. I don’t see how anyone who’s studied the Pacific War, in all its stark, vicious brutality, could have any moral certainty about the way it was brought to its swift and absolute ending. I’ve come to the view that given the available alternatives, the impetus to use the atomic bomb must have been overwhelming, and the moral implications of failing to do so just as troubling, no matter whose lives, friend or enemy, were weighed in the balance. Churchill once remarked that no one in his right frame of mind, standing in Harry Truman’s shoes, would have hesitated for a second to use the weapons that the Manhattan project had put at his disposal, and no one, at the time, would seriously have considered any other option. This is from Triumph and Tragedy:

The final decision now lay in the main with President Truman, who had the weapon; but I never doubted what it would be, nor have I ever doubted since that he was right. The historic fact remains, and must be judged in the after-time, that the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never even an issue. There was unanimous, automatic, unquestioned agreement around our table; nor did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise.

The self-serving musings of a cruel man? If so, then what are we to think of Truman, who made the final call? Was he some sort of monster? Or perhaps he was simply inured to killing on a grand scale? There are those, perhaps thinking themselves charitable, who’d argue that the decision was no more than a continuation of the ongoing insanity by other means, and that it was only to be expected that everyone’s moral compass was profoundly out of whack at this juncture in 1945. Under the circumstances, then, contemplating the incineration of whole cities was just one more step down a road already long-travelled. Regrettable, and wrong of course, but understandable.

There’s something to be said for that line of argument. After all, destroying cities from the air was something we had down to a science by August 1945, we’d done it across Europe and Japan a hundred times, and as it turned out, Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t even the most destructive such raids – that distinction belongs to the bombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 were killed in an incendiary-induced fire storm in a single night. You might say that the atomic missions required fewer aircraft, and involved more shock and awe, but that’s all. If you were fine with how the war had been conducted thus far, why would you have any qualms about what was, essentially, more of the same?

That can seem to make sense, but still, I can’t hold with it. It’s too simple. I don’t believe that Harry Truman was any less horrified by the power of the new weapons than we are, and I don’t think the decision to use them was just a par-for-the-course outcome of another amoral day in the office. I’m not at all convinced, either, that we’re in a better position to judge the morality of Truman’s choice from this comfortable distance of over seven decades. To sit here now, and view the atomic attacks in isolation, ignoring all the horrible realities that informed Truman’s decision, is to my mind simply naive and ill-informed at best, smug and intellectually dishonest at worst. Even if Truman, or anyone in his position, could have made the choice based purely on an enlightened sort of utilitarian calculus, even one driven by an underlying humanitarian urge to destroy the fewest lives as possible on both sides, he would have found himself in a Hellish bind. The choice was not between killing something over 100,000 people, or letting them live. The task was to pick among a set of uniformly ugly options, each of which involved the violent deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, within some of the more dire scenarios. The real difficulty would have been coming up with any morally or even logically defensible reason to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction, if they really might end the war over night.

It wasn’t as if there was any way forward that didn’t involve similar mass destruction, one way or another. We seem to have lost sight of that. Maybe that’s because we’ve lost all sense of the context.

It seems to me that within the public consciousness, the arc of the war in the Pacific is less familiar, somehow less compelling, than the fight against the Nazis in Europe. Perhaps the rights and wrongs seem more stark and easier to comprehend when it comes to defeating Hitler and his crew, though on the facts I don’t see why (one might be tempted to suggest that we’re less concerned about a war in which the victims of mass murder are primarily Asians and others not of European stock, though this, too, would perhaps be smug). I think it’s simply harder, today, for people to wrap their minds around the Pacific war. It was complex, full of long-range naval operations and repeated amphibious landings, a war of incremental advances, characterized by bloody struggles to secure the control of obscure and unpleasant little tropical islands that seem nothing more than insignificant specks on a map.

Perhaps the nature of the Pacific theatre, most of it a vast expanse of trackless water, in itself makes the campaign more difficult to grasp. We all have a more or less solid grip on the geography of the European theatre, at least the parts that we fought in – Normandy, France, Holland, Germany. We can form a mental image of the theatre of operations, it’s all familiar territory (unlike the Eastern front, which I’d wager is also a mystery to most of us in the West). Who, by contrast, has an easy intuitive handle on the various island chains where Americans repeatedly came up against entrenched Japanese forces, in all those depressingly similar battles that seemed never to amount to a decisive victory? Where are the Solomons? The Gilberts? The Marshalls, the Carolines, the Marianas? Who can find Truk on a map, or Tarawa, or Peleliu? Where’s Iwo Jima? Or for that matter, Leyte Gulf or the Bismarck Sea?

Yet so many of these places involved fights of extraordinary viciousness, fighting so tough, bloody, and soul-destroying that one has to resort to Kursk, or Stalingrad, to find anything as bad or worse. While largely forgotten today, all of those island fights loomed large in contemporary consciousness, given their apparently disproportionate human cost.

Even the censored news reports made it clear: going at it hammer and tongs with the Japanese was terrifying. Every assault was a monumental struggle. They tended to dig themselves in so deep on those rocky islands that even the prolonged bombardment of battleships, hurling shells that weighed upwards of a ton, could do nothing much to wear them down before the Marines had to wade ashore in their exquisitely vulnerable landing craft. The Japanese fought fanatically. They engaged in tactically senseless but psychologically devastating Banzai charges, often at night, seemingly eager to die. They rarely surrendered, however hopeless their situation, preferring instead to fight almost to the last man, and to die en masse. Long after the outcome was determined, you still had to root the last of them out of their bunkers, caves and holes, one by one, with terrible weapons like flamethrowers, the use of which would sicken even the most hardened veterans.

Look at the casualties:

  • Guadalcanal, a series of battles fought ashore and in the surrounding sea for the largest of the Solomon Islands, was the first big fight. The Japanese lost about 30,000 men, over 600 aircraft and 24 warships, while the Americans lost over 600 aircraft, 25 warships and about 7,500 men.
  • At Tarawa, the Americans suffered over 3,000 casualties in three days, taking out a Japanese force of fewer than 5,000.
  • The Battle of Saipan, a much later operation in the Marianas, killed another 30,000 Japanese troops, as well as thousands of civilians, many of whom preferred suicide to living under U.S. occupation. The Americans suffered about 13,500 casualties, of which 3,500 were deaths.
  • Peleliu cost the Americans about 1,800 dead and about 8,000 wounded, 40% of the attacking force, in a battle with 10,000 Japanese, dug in to underground fortifications and fighting with a tenacity that defies description.
  • The Battle of Iwo Jima, in 1945, was a murderous no-quarter-given bloodbath over a rock that was about 12 square miles in size, basically a volcano with a flat plain attached.  Of about 22,000 in the Japanese garrison, 21,000 were killed. The Americans suffered 20,000 wounded and 6,800 killed.
  • Then there was the June, 1945 battle for Okinawa, considered one of the Japanese home islands, and fought over all the more tenaciously on that account. Few realize that this, not Normandy, was the largest amphibious operation in history. The invasion involved nearly 50,000 U.S. casualties, about 18,000 of which were K.I.A. The Japanese lost about 100,000 of 110,000 men. As many as 100,000 civilians were also killed, many, again, by suicide.

It was at Okinawa that the Kamikazes, first encountered in the Philippines, came in wave after wave to assault the invasion fleet parked offshore. It was at Okinawa that mothers, terrified by stories they’d heard of American brutality, threw their children off cliffs and then jumped after them. Think of it: a hundred thousand defenders had to be slaughtered to capture a small island of about 500 square miles, a little less than a fifth the size of Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province.

What would it take to invade Japan proper?

We now know the particulars of the plans that were drawn up for the final invasion of the Japanese main islands. This blog post is not the place to go into great detail, but it was anticipated that the two phases of Operation Downfall would require commitments of literally millions of men. In the initial wave of 750,000 troops to take Kyushu, perhaps half a million would become casualties, 130,000 of those K.I.A. Reinforcements on the order of 100,000 per month were likely to be needed. God only knew what Japanese losses would be; and this was just the battle for Kyushu. The subsequent operations to bring about the conquest of the entire country would be just as bad, and nobody was willing to predict how long it would take. The invasion of Honshu was scheduled for late 1946, and the war might then be over some time in 1947, or it might drag on until 1948.

It was by no means clear that the U.S public could sustain that effort, or that the military could bear up under the stress of a war of outright annihilation in which civilian deaths might outnumber military casualties. The forces that had just won in Europe, weary soldiers looking forward to going home, would have to be committed to the new and even uglier battle in Asia. Mutiny was a possibility, if one that nobody liked to talk about. Just the thought of a scaled-up Okinawa that lasted for years was enough to make the likes of Curtis LeMay and Chester Nimitz blanch.

You can read about Operation Downfall here:

It was expected that before it was all over millions would die, including perhaps five million to ten million Japanese.

There are those who have since argued that Japan was near collapse by 1945, and that no apocalyptic invasion was actually necessary, but there are good reasons to doubt this, and Truman, certainly, was in no position to make any such rosy assumptions. If you thought that the most plausible alternative to dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was Operation Downfall, what would you have done?

True, there were other scenarios on the table, including a naval blockade that would, essentially, starve the Japanese into submission. Was that supposed to be preferable? Pushing millions into starvation? How long would that take? Wouldn’t an invasion still, ultimately, be necessary anyway? In the meantime, surely, Japanese war industry, deprived as it might be of resources, would still need to be bombed to keep it in a state of disarray – no?

How was any of that more merciful?

What about a negotiated settlement? This might seem reasonable to us. It most emphatically was not to anybody in 1945. Anything but unconditional surrender was off the table, period. The militarism and fascism that had brought on the war needed to be rooted out, irrevocably, utterly, permanently. This time there would be no replay of the whole mess a couple of decades later, which is how WW II, coming on the heels of WW I, seemed to those who were fighting it. In 1918, there was a negotiated armistice; look what that led to. No. Never again.

And what would we be saying about Truman today, had he shrunk from the use of atomic weapons? Would we contemplate the graves of the multitudes, including the hundreds of thousands of extra ones dug for U.S. servicemen, and think “Good call Harry, it hurt like Hell but it was the right thing to do”? Could an American President have faced his own people and told them that he thought it better, overall, if upwards of half a million more of their young men never came home? History would pillory any leader who’d made that choice. Look at our verdict on Neville Chamberlain. Truman’s epitaph would have been “He could have ended it in a fortnight, but chose instead to sacrifice millions”. I have no doubt about that.

No doubt I over-simplify, but I’m convinced that the most in-depth and sophisticated analysis of the ground truths of August, 1945, will lead inexorably to the same place. There was no better option than dropping the bombs. Truman made what may well have been the most inevitable decision of the war. Horrible? Of course. Can I or anyone, reasonably, be fully comfortable with it? No. Was it wrong? I can’t say that. Nor can I say I wouldn’t have done the same. I can only be glad that it never fell on me to make such a choice.

It fell instead on a good man who never suspected he’d find himself in such a bind. Harry Truman never wanted to be President, and didn’t expect he’d have to be. When Roosevelt died, he told the assembled cabinet that he felt as if “the Sun, the Moon, and all the stars have fallen on my head”. He knew nothing, until that moment, about the Manhattan Project either. He was Vice President, but not in a “need to know” office. The most momentous decision of his life was forced upon him suddenly, and without much time to weigh it. He made the call.

Later, Robert Oppenheimer met with Truman and told the President that he felt as if he had blood on his hands. The man whose desk bore a plaque that stated “The Buck Stops Here” was taken aback. The blood was on nobody’s hands, he told Oppenheimer, save his own. He made the call. He stood by it. There was no point in any scientist being a cry-baby about it now. Truman, assuredly, was made of unyielding stuff, and we may find his feelings towards Oppenheimer insensitive, but they were also the hallmark of a man of moral courage.

We could use his kind today.

One comment on “Are You Really Sure You Would Have Decided Differently?

  1. Kunga Shiwa & the Search for Enlightenment says:

    I just watched Hacksaw Ridge on Netflix, and oy. I think if I was being honest, I would have said “Let’s get this horror over with. I hope History remembers what we were preventing here”.


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