Today being the 72nd anniversary of our dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, three days after the first one on Hiroshima, we get the renewed calls for America to “apologize” for its actions which finally succeeded in getting the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, to surrender.
These criticisms, if taken at face value, are either ill-informed given the evidence that existed at the time, or willingly ignore the lack of a suitable alternative course of action. Those explanations assume, of course, that blatant anti-Americanism isn’t the cause.
The horrors of the atomic bomb, no matter its target, are manifest. But medieval warfare wasn’t pretty, either. Can you think of a “nice” way to die? Me neither.
For those readers feeling pressured to “understand” or “apologize” for what were necessary military actions, here are some reminders of the way things were in 1945. Stuff you and your kids probably aren’t getting taught in any school these days. As for my street cred on this, I did serious research on this as part of a college thesis which one professor recommended become a doctoral thesis (before law school interfered). I did enought research to make a compelling. competing viewpoint.
There were many factors which played into President Harry Truman’s decision to use this weapon of mass destruction. Here are some inconvenient facts:
First: Japan remained in the war despite the surrender of its European theater allies of convenience, Italy and Nazi Germany, in April 1945, and further despite a cascading series of losses in the Pacific theater forcing the universal retreat of its remaining, non-captured troops back from the Japanese Empire’s largest size (at one point, it held part of Australia in addition to much of the Far East and the entire Western Pacific).
Second: Notwithstanding our incredible wartime alliance with “Uncle Joe” Stalin, America had concern that the Soviet Union would try to permanently occupy any and all territories which its military controlled. This explains the Allies’ race in Germany to reach Berlin. This also explained the United States electing to proactively end the war with Japan as soon as possible instead of, for instance, bleeding them through a protracted air war and bombing the cities into utter ruin. Not only would the latter strategy almost certainly have produced even greater civilian casualties, but there was no assurance that Japan couldn’t and wouldn’t simply bunker down in its mainland, perhaps indefinitely. Japan historically was a self-sufficient country, not requiring contact with the outside world for sustenance. Blockading Japan would not be like laying siege to a medieval town, or one of the fictional city-states in Game of Thrones. Heck, we might still be blockading Japan today.
Third: If you’re thinking why the United States simply didn’t invade Japan the same way the Allies attacked at Normandy in June 1944, consider the differences in the enemy. The invasion of the European continent required fighting fellow European soldiers, of whom many (at least) were not terribly unlike the Allies culturally (consider the at least nominally-shared Christian faith), and I would argue, many were fighting more out of fear of their own regimes than a hatred of the British or Americans. But the Japanese were a different kettle of fish entirely.
The Japanese had earned a reputation for particular fierce and brutal fighting. The mentality which bred the kamikaze pilot was also expected to infuse its infantry — if not its citizenry. This was the ferocity encountered by American troops as they engaged in their successful, yet arduous, campaign of “island hopping” in the Pacific as they closed in on the mainland. There was no reason not to expect the same type of last ditch intense defense of the Japanese homeland if and when an invasion was launched. Furthermore, military intelligence reported that the Japanese had implemented a complex civil defense system. The result was the expectation that American soldiers would encounter hand to hand, street by street combat throughout Japan, and likely sustain significant casualties along with civilian casualties.
Fourth: Sustained air bombings of the Japanese homeland throughout 1945 succeeded in leveling some major cities. But they did not induce surrender. Japan’s apparent ability to withstand these bombings supported the belief that an invasion would be needed to end the war. As explained above, an invasion was believed necessary but also was not preferred.
One must understand all of these factors in order to see how the decision to use the atomic bomb could be made for humanitarian purposes with a legitimate strategic objective of ending the war as quickly as possible, minimizing civilian and military casualties to both sides and maximizing the chance of preventing a Soviet invasion and later subjugation of the Japanese home islands.
Of course, had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor while using its diplomats in Washington, DC as decoys, this could all have been prevented.