Dropping the Atomic Bombs Was Good, Actually

The use of atom bombs to end war with Japan in 1945 was not only defensible, but actively good. The critics who ignore the historical record and embrace presentist analysis fail to deal in reality.

Around this time each year, the Internet is flooded with hot takes about how the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indefensible, unnecessary, and downright evil. These critics label the bombings as one of the prime atrocities of American imperialism and use them as fodder for their argument that the United States is uniquely bad for the world. This year, the hot take machine has been supercharged by the release of director Christopher Nolan’s latest historical film, Oppenheimer. That movie, released on July 21, is a biopic following the career of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists running the Manhattan Project and the man often called the father of the atomic bomb.

The film, which has received plaudits from reviewers and moviegoers, struck a nerve on Twitter, where it was accused of glorifying an act of devastating brutality. These critiques of the atomic bombings ranged from “it was unnecessary” and “Japan was already surrendering” to “Imperial Japan wasn’t that bad” and “the US was the real bad guy in the war.” And these indictments of the American actions in 1945 came from a true plethora of online communities: actual communists, anti-imperialist and anti-war activists (read: anti-American activists), Japanophiles and anime lovers, right-wing Catholics (for some reason), general contrarians, and assorted too-online weirdos.

The problem with this perpetual narrative is that it’s completely, unabashedly wrong. The use of nuclear weapons in Japan in 1945 was not only justifiable, it was at root correct. The decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives, including an order of magnitude more Japanese lives than it took. This is proven by the historical record and is eminently easy to understand if one actually decides to do good history. With that, let’s engage in some good history, shall we?

The most important thing to analyze if we are to assess the justification of the atomic bombings are the actual alternatives which were possible at the time. Not the false revisionist claims that more diplomacy would’ve led to Japanese surrender, nor the idea that the US should just have let Japan dominate Asia and the Pacific, but the proposed alternative options that President Harry Truman would have chosen between. Before that, however, we should touch on why those revisionist claims of imminent surrender are ahistorical nonsense.

Contrary to the confident proclamation of Ms. 1619 herself, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Japanese surrender was not already on the way when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. In fact, Japan had already endured massive death and destruction of its homeland during a long campaign of American saturation bombing, including the use of firebombs. Firebombing was not uncommon in the war – see the examples of Hamburg and Dresden in Germany – but it was especially effective in Japan due to the predominance of wooden architecture in dense cities like Tokyo. The firebombing of the Japanese capital utterly devastated the city, killing over 200,000 people in the process. Still, the Japanese leadership refused to surrender. Okinawa was overrun by American troops and captured (more on this later). Still, the Japanese leadership refused to surrender. Hiroshima was annihilated with a single bomb. Still, the Japanese leadership refused to surrender. Only after the destruction of Nagasaki was surrender on the agenda, and then only because Emperor Hirohito broke a deadlock in the military cabinet. Even then, an abortive palace coup was attempted by hardliners who saw surrender as inimical to their honor.

This intense honor culture was a part of Japanese society going back centuries. It was prominently represented in the samurai way of the warrior – bushido – and was a key aspect of the Japanese desire to fight to the death. Capture was seen as a moral stain on the honor not only of the individual who was captured, but to his entire family tree: past, present, and future. Combine this with the insidious propaganda of the Imperial Japanese government – claims that American troops would massacre and defile civilians, celebrations of kamikaze pilots as heroic sacrifices, and exhortations of suicidal mass resistance to any invading force – and you had a potent brew militating against surrender. There were Japanese soldiers holed up across the Pacific, hiding from capture for months, years, and in some cases decades. Famously, one such soldier was captured on Guam a full 27 years after the end of hostilities; he saw his return to Japan as a matter of “much embarrassment,” not because he held on for so long for no reason, but because he finally gave up.

Imperial Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi, the man who held out for 27 years in Guamanian jungles.

None of this indicates an imminent surrender – not the reality of what actually happened, nor the aspects of Japanese culture which contraindicated capitulation. And even if we treat this faulty assertion in the most charitable way possible, it speaks to a profound disconnect with the situation on the ground, among the decision-makers and those who would have been engaged in prolonged combat. If the Japanese surrender was but a few weeks away, tens of thousands of people would have died in that brief window. Japan was still fighting in mainland Asia, on outlying islands, and in conquered former colonies. What of the American soldiers who would have perished in this extraneous fighting? The civilians the Japanese were deliberately starving? The Japanese troops themselves? Critics of the bomb never reckon with any of these complications of history, instead opting to deal purely in abstractions and hypotheticals.

Speaking of hypotheticals, let’s walk through the other options that Harry Truman could have chosen instead of using the atomic bombs on Japan and see why they would have been vastly inferior to what actually happened – both for the Americans he led as Commander in Chief and the Japanese he needed to force into surrender.

The first of the potential alternatives to the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a perennial favorite of the critic crowd: the dropping of an atom bomb off the Japanese coast or on an unpopulated island to serve as a demonstration of the weapon’s immense power. This demonstration would be attended by an official Japanese observer, who would report back to Tokyo on the results and – in the hopes of the plan’s proponents – force a surrender. But the problems with this approach were legion. Who would the Japanese choose, if they complied with this request at all? What if the observer was not suitably impressed? What if the weapon was a dud? After all, there had only been one successful test of the bomb at this point. How long would the surrender process take? Weeks? Months?

That timeline was a huge factor for several reasons. First, as I mentioned, each day without an end to the fighting cost tens of thousands of lives on all sides. Next, the US only had two remaining atom bombs after the Trinity test in New Mexico; additional weapons would take weeks to complete. If the Japanese realized we had run out of our wunderwaffe, there would be no incentive to surrender at all. And that made a demonstration run that much riskier, as it would use up half of our nuclear arsenal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, dithering would allow the Soviets to gobble up more Japanese territory and even invade the home islands. Stalin’s Red Army had already conquered Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, island-hopping from Russia’s Far East and Manchuria inexorably towards Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost home island. Sovietization of any part of historic Japan would have been a calamity on par with the split forced on Korea after the war. North Korea is still languishing under totalitarianism and enforced poverty, while the South is prosperous and democratic. Japan was saved that dichotomous fate through the prompt surrender forced by Fat Man and Little Boy.

Another option presented to Truman was engaging in a full-scale blockade and ramped-up saturation bombing campaign against Japan. Over the prior year, Allied forces had inched closer and closer to the Japanese homeland, finally capturing Okinawa on June 22, 1945, after months of knock-down, drag-out brawling. This campaign was brutal, costly, and time-consuming, but it provided the final stepping stone for an American push on Japan proper. From Okinawa, US bombers would be able to routinely fly sorties over Japan from a far better position in terms of servicing and refueling, and the navy gained control of key sea-based supply lines keeping Japan fed and supplied with war materiel. These were the final two pieces of the puzzle to allow for the strategy of blockade and bombing.

Naval blockades are a tried-and-true tactic, relying on a long process of besiegement to starve an enemy of resources and force capitulation. Of course, this would greatly harm civilians in the process, as the military would be prioritized to avoid surrender. Blockade was used by the British against the Germans in World War I to great effect, even though it was a distant blockade which allowed some neutral shipping. Despite Germany’s status as a continental power, the blockade was painful and contributed to loss of morale and hundreds of thousands of deaths from starvation or related disease. A full naval blockade of Japan would have included neutral shipping and could totally cut off what is entirely an island nation. Millions would have perished over the course of many months. Combine that with a systematic, continuous campaign of saturation bombing of cities, farms, infrastructure, factories, and ports, and you have the recipe for absolute decimation of the Japanese nation. The dramatic post-war success we saw in the decades after 1945 would have been impossible had Japan suffered such a profound destruction, one which would overshadow the atomic bombs by an order of magnitude at least.

The British naval blockade of Germany in WWI.

The final option which Truman could have selected instead of atomic bombing was the most likely alternative: an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands. This amphibious invasion would be a massive undertaking, significantly larger than the D-Day landings in France. As preparations for the invasion began, soldiers from across the Pacific were marshaled in Okinawa to ready for the assault, with backups from the victorious European campaign standing by. The campaign to take Japan was going to be enormous in scale: Operation Downfall (the code name for the invasion) was to include 1,700,000 American troops and immense aerial and naval support at multiple landing sites in Kyushu and near Tokyo. The plan was to roll over as much of Japan as possible in order to force a surrender, but the headwinds were significant, even more so than the campaigning in Europe.

Japan, unlike Germany in Normandy, was fighting on its home turf, trying to save its historic homeland from invaders. Japanese culture has a proud tradition of never being successfully invaded, going back to the epic failure of the Mongols in 1281. The long march of the Allies towards the home islands – and the Japanese experience defending these beachheads – gave Japan time to prepare a strong defense based on various lines of control, reinforced hidden bunkers, and an all-out civilian mobilization program. The goal was to inflict substantial casualties on the Allied invaders so as to sap morale and eliminate the possibility of unconditional surrender, the deaths of Japanese soldiers and civilians be damned. As described earlier, Japan’s unique honor culture, the government’s propaganda, and its embrace of suicidal tactics in defense of the nation and the Emperor made surrender a nonstarter. These tactics were used in both Saipan and Okinawa, and chilled the American victors of those battles to the bone.

In preparation for the Allied invasion of those two outlying islands, Japanese civilians and soldiers were instructed to fight to the death or commit suicide to avoid capture and humiliation. In Saipan in July 1944, a suicide banzai charge of 4,000 Japanese soldiers ended in death for them all, while their commander who ordered the assault committed ritual suicide. Civilians, including mothers holding their children, leapt from cliffs to their deaths to avoid surrender. In Okinawa, the carnage was even worse. More than 3,000 Japanese pilots died in kamikaze attacks on American naval vessels, killing nearly 5,000 sailors, but this paled in comparison to the toll on land. Japanese soldiers fought tooth and nail with their American counterparts, taking staggering losses; of the 120,000 troops defending Okinawa, only 10,000 surrendered, many after being wounded. The rest were killed to a man in fierce combat. Civilian casualties were just as high, with incidence of mass suicide – sometimes compelled by the Imperial Japanese Army – surpassing even Saipan. Okinawans were given hand grenades by which to kill themselves and any Americans seeking to capture them, and many slaughtered their own families with whatever weapon was at hand before taking their own lives. Whole families were wiped out in these senseless acts. Altogether, over 140,000 residents of Okinawa died during the battle – a full third of the island’s population. American casualties topped 50,000, with nearly 13,000 dead. And this took place over the course of just a few months. The planned invasion of the home islands was slated to take a year.

The Japanese preparation for meeting the American invasion of the home islands was intensive and comprehensive. Operation Ketsugo, as it was called, would comprise 900,000 uniformed soldiers, with a large portion of them sited directly on the planned approach of Allied landings in southern Kyushu. The defenders would outnumber the attackers by several hundred thousand troops, as well as being dug in and reinforced by large-scale mass civilian defense. All men aged 15-60 and women aged 17-40 were conscripted into training with hand grenades, swords, scythes, and primitive bamboo spears and were expected to give their lives en masse to beat back the hated enemy. Daily propaganda campaigns exhorting the populace to “die gloriously” or “die for the Emperor” reached a fever pitch, whipping civilians and soldiers alike into a nationalistic frenzy. Japanese naval forces would use manned torpedoes, midget submarines with explosive charges, and undersea frogmen covered with bombs to attack Allied landing craft on one-way suicide missions. Kamikaze pilots would be sent to their deaths by the hundreds, in constant waves of attack. If the plan was carried out, the US Navy would face more of these assaults in three hours than it did in three months on Okinawa. As a final burning of the bridges, all Allied POWs were to be executed as soon as the invasion began; this would have resulted in at least 100,000 deaths, including more than 15,000 Americans.

Given this information, as well as the experiences of Saipan and Okinawa, the Allies were very skeptical of this plan’s success and the cost it would incur in lives. The development of the ‘Saipan ratio’ was a rule of thumb for the expected Allied losses: for every one American killed in that battle, seven Japanese troops died. The refusal to surrender meant that nearly all Japanese soldiers had to be killed to gain victory. Applying the Saipan ratio to the defenses marshaled in Kyushu would result in nearly 130,000 American deaths, solely to take that single island. The Japanese losses would be immense, including nearly all uniformed soldiers and, if the Okinawa experience held true, upwards of 800,000 civilian deaths (Kyushu’s population was 2.4 million). These calculations are the bare minimum of expected losses, for only one of the multiple planned landings on the home islands. The death toll of Operation Downfall/Ketsugo would be staggering, reaching the millions easily. Japanese propaganda sought the sacrifice of all 100 million Japanese in a glorious final charge to avenge their national honor; the numbers sound absurd today, but they would not have been outlandish in 1945.

Map of the plans for Operation Downfall, the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

To put the cherry on top of this bloody sundae, the home islands were not the only Japanese-held territory that would have been invaded had the decision to drop the atomic bombs not been made. Ruthless fighting was still ongoing in China and Korea, with tens of thousands killed daily and significant territory still held by the Imperial Japanese Army. The British and its ANZAC auxiliaries would have had to invade the Malay Peninsula – formerly a British imperial possession – in a quest to liberate long-suffering Singapore. That invasion would have included nearly a million men on both sides, contesting difficult jungle terrain in a battle that was likely to take more than a year. Suffice it to say, Allied military leaders argued forcefully (and correctly) against this plainly destructive campaign of invasions, preferring to either starve the Japanese out or use saturation bombing to force surrender. The atomic bombs, being far less deadly than any of these realistic alternatives, was the easy choice for President Truman to make.

Now that we’ve walked through why the atomic bombs were without a doubt the least destructive means of ending the carnage of World War II in the Pacific, what of the targeting choices? Critics of the bombings often argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were purely civilian targets and the attacks constituted a horrific war crime. Besides the problematic moral judgments here (more on which soon), were these cities actually targeted for their civilian populations? And why weren’t other targets chosen instead?

Neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki was a primarily civilian target lacking in important military facilities. Both were, by the standards of the time, absolutely legitimate targets. Hiroshima, the site of the first bombing, was a key military target and would likely have been saturation bombed had the invasion plans went forward. It was the home of the military command for the defense of Kyushu, the planned site of the first Allied landings, as well as the site of numerous important war industries. Nagasaki was a key port and the home to significant Mitsubishi factories which were engaged in war production of aircraft, vehicles, and munitions. Those factories were hit almost directly by the atomic bomb, which detonated away from the city’s primary residential districts. Nagasaki was previously evacuated, and its surrounding hills somewhat dampened the blast, reducing the death toll.

Other targets were considered, but did not work for various reasons. Tokyo and Kyoto, the cities which comprised the historic heart of Japanese culture, were spared obliteration on account of the fact that their destruction would make lasting peace all but impossible and Japanese resistance far fiercer. This rationale, attested to by the historical record, contradicts the revisionist claim that Kyoto was granted a reprieve because Secretary of War Henry Stimson had honeymooned there; Stimson indeed visited the city, but this played no part in the targeting decision. The city of Kokura was initially chosen over Nagasaki, but was obscured by clouds and smoke, making proper sighting of the bomb infeasible. Nagasaki was the secondary target and the crew of the B-29 bomber were indeed able to hit their mark this time around.

In short, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets, contrary to the claims of the revisionist critics which focus entirely on the civilian nature of both cities. On this, the historical record is crystal clear.

Another issue that the atom bomb’s critics frequently mention – especially those of the communist, anti-war, or anti-imperialist bent – is the fact that the United States was the only nation to use this terrible weapon in wartime. In their fantasy world, if the US never used the bomb, nobody else would have either and world peace and comity would have spontaneously broken out. Kumbayas all around. This is a blatantly absurd hypothetical that is deeply out of touch with reality.

American soldiers capturing Japanese fighters during the Battle of Okinawa.

The race for the atomic bomb was on before the inception of the Manhattan Project, as the Nazis were well on their way to the precursor steps for the superweapon. The Soviets knew the ins and outs of the American attempt to build nuclear weapons, as their spies were located throughout the American government and the upper echelons of the security state. Stalin’s USSR was going to get the bomb, one way or another, within a few years after the Americans did. The idea that had we not used the bombs on Japan, no military use would have ever occurred is patently ridiculous. Weapons like this, ones which change the nature of warfare, are not left on the testing range to attract cobwebs. Given the Soviet Union’s record of human rights abuses, outright territorial conquests, political genocide, and civilian targeting, their use of the bomb would have been far worse for the world. Their use would also be more destructive because the technology had improved in the meantime. The USSR tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, just four years after its testing in the New Mexico desert; those intervening years had seen the yields of these weapons increase significantly, auguring much more death and destruction.

The years between the American development of the bomb and the Soviet matching of the technology were critical for the remainder of the 20th century, ensuring that America was able to hold its own during a tumultuous period in geopolitics. America’s sole possession of nuclear weapons allowed us to push back on a conventionally superior Soviet Union in Europe and around the world. The strategy of containment was predicated on this nuclear advantage. It also played a major role in one of the biggest Western victories of the early Cold War: the Berlin Airlift. If not for the deterrence factor presented by the atomic bombs, the Soviets would have easily shut down the constant air traffic needed to supply West Berlin. If a unified Berlin was controlled by the East Germans (read: the USSR), the entire history of the Cold War would have changed. Communist control of Western European nations would not be out of the realm of possibility. And that certainly would have been horrible for the future of mankind.

The atomic use in Japan showed the Soviets that we meant business and were not afraid to defend our interests and people by all means necessary. It also showed the world the power of this new weapon and contributed heavily to the fact that we have not seen another use in the decades since, despite many conflicts, some between nuclear states. American hegemony, built on the back of the atom bomb, brought an enormous boon to the world, particularly the poorest of all. And none of this would have been possible without the use of this superweapon to end war with Japan.

After all this evidence, it is supremely clear that the revisionist critics of the atomic bombing of Japan have the historical record entirely wrong. Not only was the use of nuclear weapons the best possible option available at the time to reduce loss of life and end the war, it saved millions of lives, deterred the Soviet Union from totally dominating Europe, and has prevented any nuclear use since. These are the awesome legacies of the Manhattan Project and President Truman’s decision. But not only are the critics wrong on the historical record, they’re wrong on the practice of history generally. And this gets to the heart of the matter.

The revisionists that come out of the woodwork every summer to decry so-called American imperialist atrocities are at root presentists. They use history purely as a cudgel to achieve their political ends in the current day. This approach is exemplified by the flawed and untruthful 1619 Project, which maliciously distorts historical reality in order to incite racial animus today and promote progressive ideological goals. The presentist approach to summer 1945 is terrible history meant to tear down the idea of America as a force for good in the world. In the current moment, that is even more important, as we are faced with a wide variety of direct challenges to our power and the world system we inaugurated after the end of WWII. The diminution or denial of America’s moral force in that conflict is a calculated stab at the heart of our modern nationalism, just as the 1619 Project tries to destroy the reverence for our founding era. Neither will work if we recall the tenets of good history.

The presentists want to judge the past by the standards and mores of the present, totally removing themselves from the historical process and posing as disinterested observers from on high with perfect moral judgment. But judging history by modern standards is the exact opposite of doing historical analysis. Proper understanding of the past can only be gained by viewing it as those who lived at the time did; applying contemporary standards to past experience does not aid understanding, it drastically undermines it. These temporally-challenged critics ignore the historical record because it does not conform to their preconceived notions of morality or justice. That is not history, it’s activism. Beyond that, it’s narcissism. Believing that you are the pinnacle of moral judgment just because you live in the present is, to be frank, silly and childish. After all, the decisionmakers of 1945 also lived in their own version of the present.

In that version of the present, America and Japan were locked in a total war, marshaling all of their resources and engaging all of society in the war effort. In a total war – as we saw in World War I – military targeting of civilian infrastructure and cities was the norm. Defeating the enemy required breaking his morale and forcing a total surrender. Japan started the Pacific war – either by invading China in 1937 or by bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941 – and brought totality to the fore. Beating this avowed enemy, and their Nazi German ally, necessitated a totalizing approach on the part of the Allies as well. To do otherwise would be to unilaterally disarm and put your nation at a serious disadvantage in an existential fight. No leader in his right mind would have done that. The man who decided to drop the atom bomb, President Harry Truman, had experienced the reality of total war on the front lines and knew its impact on the soul of man. He fought in the trenches in 1918 and saw echoes of its wanton destruction in the battles for Saipan and Okinawa. Sacrificing more souls purely out of fear of using the atomic bombs was out of the question. No man understood that more than Truman.

If we are to really engage with and understand the nuances of the past, we must take it on its own terms. To do otherwise would be to fail at the most basic task of historical analysis. To fail at that task deliberately so as to push a political narrative in the present, is egregious, wrongheaded, and backwards. It is an insult to the discipline of history. In reality, it is no less a form of propaganda than were the lies of the Imperial Japanese government. And, to quote Ms. 1619 herself: “Propaganda is not history, my friend.”

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