His hands clenched in rage and he questioned whether he should ruin the jovial atmosphere of our salon of ideas that was taking place in a bar in Las Vegas. A friend of mine and his roommate came to visit me when I lived in The Meadows, as it was once called, and the mood had been broken.
“Did you mean that?!” The roommate questioned me.
I meant it then as I mean it now when I declare: the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima was one of the greatest acts of humanity in history.
No, it was not a glorious thing nor a happy occasion. All at once, it was awful, horrifying and tragic, a turning point, life-saving and above all else, necessary.
In a nanosecond, thousands were obliterated. Many more would die gruesome deaths and all of it was outright tragic.
However, as we mourn the estimated 160,000 deaths in Hiroshima and the 40,000-80,000 deaths that would take place in Nagasaki days later, we must be ever-mindful of the memory of the dead while fully understanding that these deaths that occurred in Japan was but a fraction of those that would have died if the bomb had never been invented or had never been dropped.
Right now is about the time armchair quarterback historians pipe up- “Truman didn’t have to drop it!” They’ll belligerently claim. They will throw out pseudo-historical perspectives: “It was just to show the Soviet Union the weapon we had,” “U.S. officials knew Japan couldn’t go on much longer. They didn’t have to drop it!”
I heard it in the bar that night from the enlightened college kid lecturing me just as I have heard it a thousand times before. Sure, we knew that the Japanese we licked… but it seems nobody told them that, because up until the day the U.S. dropped the bomb(s), the Japanese fought ferociously.
The Japanese soldier was famous for that. To surrender was a great dishonor, thus why our Allied POWs were treated as subhuman garbage and tortured- they were, to fanatical Japanese, a disgrace for having been captured alive. Therefore, we could not count on mass surrender during the invasion of Japan.
I reminded John of what the situation looked like. School-age girls and boys were training with sharpened sticks, learning how to kill the Western invaders. Civilians trained to learn how to be suicide bombers. Their emperor, civilians and soldiers alike were told, was a God- a deity for which they should all be willing to sacrifice their lives. Surrender was out of the question.
I reminded John to look at the bigger picture: as men in our mid-twenties, we would have been in the war. Would we not breathe a sigh of relief to have learned that the horror of war, the loss of millions of lives, would now be rendered unnecessary? How enlightened of John to cast judgement on the strategic decisions of others when he remained cozied in the air conditioned paradise of a bar on the Vegas Strip, basking in the warm glow of neon lights and the comfort of an existence free from banzai attacks, suicide bombers and kamikazes.
Just months earlier, U.S. Marines witnessed what these “all-but-defeated” fighters could do- In places like Iwo Jima, where Americans died by the bushel and in places like Okinawa, where the civilian population was used to kill Americans.
No, the Japanese at the time of the bombings could never have won the war. But that’s not the point. The militaristic Japanese empire had made it clear: surrender would never be an option for the brutal Japanese militarists.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a staunch defender of the use of the bombs. He writes:
Historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson has called attention to two factors that for both tactical and ethical reasons argued for the use of America’s nuclear weapons against Japan. First, “thousands of Asians and allied prisoners were dying daily throughout the still-occupied Japanese Empire, and would do so as long as Japan was able to pursue the war. (Gideon Rose, the editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, has estimated that during every month of 1945 in which the war continued, Japanese forces were causing the deaths of between 100,000 and 250,000 noncombatants.)
Second, according to Hanson, “Major General Curtis LeMay planned to move forces from the Marianas to newly conquered and much closer Okinawa, and the B-29 bombers, likely augmented by European bomber transfers after V-E Day, would have created a gargantuan fire-bombing air force that, with short-distance missions, would have done far more damage than the two nuclear bombs.”
In short: not only would the land invasion have caused more loss-of-life, but the fire bombings would have devastated Japan’s civilian population.
Further, as the war lingered on, allied prisoners continued to be tortured and slave laborers captured from other nations continued to die. How could we not use a bomb to hasten the war and still call ourselves moral?
The decision to drop the atomic bomb was a cold, calculated one. How does one weigh human life? In truth, if such a macabre task must be done, there really is only one way: with numbers.
According to a study done by the office of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, a fullscale invasion of Japan would have cost 1.7- 4 million American casualties with an estimated 400,000-800,000 of those being fatalities.
The Japanese, however, would have been ill-equipped, but fanatical in their diligence. The number was rougher, but the study estimated between 5 and 10 million Japanese fatalities.
If we must do gruesome arithmetic, the answer seems clear: millions dead on both sides or, roughly, 200,000 dead in Japan from the bombing.
Thus, my bold assertion: dropping the Atomic bomb was one of the greatest acts of humanity. Japan could have easily sued for peace, but simply refused to. Faced with two choices: mainland invasion or bombing, President Truman chose the latter and in doing so, saved millions of lives.
That doesn’t mean that we should be so cold as to not offer a remembrance for the lives lost on that day. However, as we mark the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, we must be careful how we demonstrate our remembrance and must resist revisionist attempts to shame America for our part in dropping the bomb.
We ended a war, we toppled a militaristic regime that threatened half the world and we did it in a way that saved millions of lives.
The soy latte-sipping crowd might find it fashionable to armchair quarterback the decisions of the men who would be tasked with condemning millions of U.S. soldiers and Japanese civilians to death; but in truth, the decision to drop the bomb was really no decision at all: it had to be done.
As for me, I am just a student of history. I end this tale of controversy with the words of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay:
“Do you have any idea how many American lives would have been lost had we launched a ground invasion of Japan, instead of dropping the bomb? And how many Japanese lives? I sleep so well because I know how many people got to live full lives because of what we did.”