Hiroshima and the Elided Moral Question
Today is the 70th anniversary of the first deployment of a nuclear weapon against humans. Something that was followed three days later by the second and so far last such deployment. Which raises any number of moral questions. One is there something particularly immoral about nuclear warfare that does not apply to other methods, for example fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden with conventional weapons? But rather than starting the debate from that perspective there seems to be an insistence that the use of the atomic bomb was entirely unnecessary and cruel which in turn rests on the assertion that Japan was defeated, knew it, and was prepared to surrender. But were they? And did the allies know that? If not the moral calculus starts from a totally different spot. My own position is that Hiroshima was necessary but that Nagasaki was a war crime, that the former served to save millions of lives on net while the latter was the result of cynical and cruel calculation and all about post-war positioning. Neither conclusion stemming from a starting point that has nuclear weapons being a moral evil in and of themselves. Instead the moral question then and now was whether dropping the first bomb ended the war or not. To me those who see Hiroshima as an act of evil have one challenge: show that it was more evil than best information alternatives. Until that is settled all else is hand waving.
I start from the perspective that War is a War Crime. That you can be forced into a Just War but you can never wage a Just War. As a popular poster said in my youth during the hottest stages of the Vietnam War “War is not Healthy for Little Girls. And Other Living Things.” A slightly different wording here:
Was World War II avoidable? If not the moral calculus involves bring the war to as just an end as possible while killing the fewest little girls. Did Hiroshima meet that test?
If we had never fought Germany it would never have occurred to us to bomb a single populated city (!) in Japan. Japan took only 15% or America’s military resources; none of Russia’s 600 divisions. Japan’s only claim to military fame was to do Custer’s last stand every time it confronted a fully modern adversary. A resourceless country surrounded by water — tell them to sign on the dotted line or go back to rice farming for the next 25 years. The thought of half a million American casualties — holy cow! For force of habit.
We didn’t have the ability to blockade Japan. And they were not so resource short that they couldn’t use existing infrastructure to rebuild the Japanese Fleet, or at least those components most useful to breaking a Naval blockade, for example submarines. Or even an extended campaign of kamikaze attacks, it not taking a lot of tech or resources to build a one-way flying bomb. In point of fact we needed Japanese naval bases for our own post-war use. One reason I cite Nagasaki as a war crime. It was very close to one of Japan’s largest Naval Bases which was an absolutely legitimate military target. But rather than destroy the docks and other facilities we deliberately dropped the bomb on the city. Even today Sasebo is a major U.S. military base (lime green on this map: http://www.mapsofworld.com/japan/prefectures/nagasaki.html). And in my mind the main reason we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki was that it used a different technology than the Hiroshima bomb and needed to be tested SOMEWHERE. So why not on a city. Well that failed the “little girl” test.
They started the war with six carriers like we did. They finished with six carriers; we finished with a hundred (counting shoe box carriers). I don’t see any reason why they would attack us at that point — they were relatively helpless and would just be inviting more punishment.
Well it took a second bomb and the declaration of war by the Soviet Union to persuade them to accept occupation by the allies and war crimes trials run by the allies. The think is they had enough knowledge about nuclear theory to have an inkling about just how difficult it was to get enough uranium to make a bomb. So there was suspicion that we only HAD one bomb, rather than the ability to crank out three a month.
As for an indefinite blockade and bombardment, I’m sure that we COULD have maintained it, but at great cost to a war weary population. That was the course of action that the air corps and navy had been advocating. I’m not sure that the death toll would have been lower.
one might look up the diary of James Forrestal for some insight into “did they know they were beaten.”
i am not sure they had the ability to break a blockade… who would have been bringing them supplies?
the germans told a different story about the origins of both WW1 and WW2. I doubt anyone here is in a position to evaluate the evidence.
and while I tend to agree that dead is dead whether by atomic bomb or surgical strike, there remains some idea that deliberately killing little girls and their moms is really not nice. and killing a hundred thousand of them at once suggests things about ourselves that we might not want to know about ourselves.
oh, and if dead does not ring your bells, think about horribly burned, maimed, or just watching your mother die.
I have read, don’t know of my own account, that the English were the first to bomb cities…. not, of course, counting Guernica.
Heard a story on the radio relating the choice of Hiroshima. There was consideration of a demonstration at sea or on a remote military base. However, a city was chosen in an attempt to show the world just how destructive a war with atomic bombs would be. They knew that there were hydrogen bombs in the pipeline and didn’t want countries thinking that nuclear war was winnable. You can disagree with them but you cannot say that they were thoughtless.
I don’t know about first but the English led by “Bomber” Harris did promote unlimited night-time bombing of German cities.
During the latter stages of the war the U.S. Army Air Force bombed by day and targeted things like bridges and factories while the RAF took over at night and just dropped bombs over cities for pure and openly expressed terror purposes.
In point of time I think you could show that the Germans started this with the Blitz and that Dresden was just payback for Coventry but from my perspective strategic bombing as carried out by us and our allies in WWII and then by us in Vietnam was a flat our war crime and “heroes” like Arthur “Bomber” Harris and Curtis LeMay should have been hanging alongside Tojo. Not least because there is no evidence that ‘strategic’ (i.e. bombing civilians rather than explicitly military) bombing really does anything but rally the population around their own war machine.
As for burning and killing we killed more Japanese by fire by firebombing Tokyo than we did at Hiroshima. And few of those died quickly.
As noted in the post I think there are reasonable arguments for why Hiroshima was necessary right alongside arguments that say Nagasaki was a war crime. For me the moral question is whether the act hastened the end of the war and resulted in less dead on net.
“i am not sure they had the ability to break a blockade… who would have been bringing them supplies?”
it doesn’t take a lot of supplies to equip mini-subs and rudimentary airplanes with suicide bombs.
My Dad joined the Navy in 1945 when he turned 17. I am just as happy he spent the next 7 years doing occupation duty in the Philippines and sailing around the Pacific than doing a close blockade of the Japanese Islands not knowing whether this would be the day a kamikaze managed to get through the guns.
War is organized murder.
A month or so ago I conversed with an WW II vet at a clinic. He had a USAAF WW II ball cap. I started a conversation being retired USAF.
His war experience: he was trained as a gunner on B-29’s, he had drawn his assignment to the Pacific, when the bomb ended the war.
His observation: he was glad he did not have to ‘shot at them and that they did not shoot at him’.
The peace from 1945 destroyed any Just War theory used to sell WWII.
Today, as in 1950 and 1954, the bomb is using as fallacious reasoning to justify US aggression.
The insanity that holding up dominoes would make the world safe from nuclear war is Bircher, chickhawk insanity held by rich people holding equities in the military industry congress complex.
Wasn’t Nagasaki a secondary target when the primary target was obscured by clouds? I think Kokura was the primary target.
Well I’ll look it up. But it doesn’t change the basic question of why Nagasaki City would be the secondary target as opposed to the Sasebo Navy Base a couple flying minutes further on.
Kokura and Nagasaki. And “Kokura’s Luck”
“Sweeney and his crew were under orders to only bomb visually. When they got to Kokura they found the haze and smoke obscuring the city as well as the large ammunition arsenal that was the reason for targeting the city. They made three unsuccessful passes, wasting more fuel, while anti-aircraft fire zeroed in on them and Japanese fighter planes began to climb toward them. The B-29s broke off and headed for Nagasaki. The phrase Kokura’s Luck was coined in Japan to describe escaping a terrible occurrence without being aware of the danger.”
I was wondering if the logic of bombing Hiroshima so one’s relatives would not have to face the prospect of some future suicide bomber getting through would be essentially the same logic that convinced the Hebrews they had to kill the Canaanite women and children.
Dale you are confusing two issues entirely. Possibly to deliberately piss me off.
One is the issue of bombing Hiroshima so as to avoid the need for an invasion of Japan that was projected to kill millions of Americans and even more Japanese based on the recent experience at Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
The second is the question of whether a blockade would have been possible as an alternative to either.
By eliminating the middle term you are quite openly trying to make me out to be a sociopath. Even in the name of snark I don’t much appreciate that.
On reflection I can see a logic thread there that simply poses those as three side by side options: bomb, invade, blockade. But that wasn’t how I posed the question and those that did pose it did so with the implication that a blockade would work. Which in my mind it wouldn’t and couldn’t, either it would have to be so tight that millions of Japanese might have died anyway as the country de-industrialized and was cut off from all world commodities, or that it would be so loose that the Japanese could maintain some level of hostilities up to an including blowing my father up.
But trying to reduce all that to “let’s blow up two cities and kill 100,000s of thousands of people so George Webb can have some sperm in 1957” and imparting it to me is somewhere between laughable and deeply insulting. I am busy following the debate so I will choose laughable.
According to one of our neighbors who was scheduled to be a beach master in the landings on Japanese shores, the bomb was a “life saver”; that is his and his peers. All depends on whose ox is being gored I guess.
Well also the people “his peers” would have been shooting at and shelling from offshore. After all even French civilians suffered a lot when we stormed the beaches on D-Day and they were on our side.
Maybe we could all watch Saving Private Ryan (or for oldsters The Longest Day) and try to grasp the death being dealt out incoming and outgoing. Or you could read up on the Battle of Okinawa. Retail deaths dealt out over 82 days still end up with the same kind of dead as wholesale death dealt out in a microsecond and the days after the bomb.
OK. So we know Kokura was chosen as a target for its arsenal. Supposedly Kyoto was nixed because of its religious significance and Stimson honeymooned there and admired the city. From what I can determine Nagasaki was chosen for a number of reasons. It was a shipbuilding center and a support city for the naval base you have referenced. It was also relatively intact by previous bombing so the post-nuke damage assessment would be clear.
I think the answer to your question is, “Yes”. If you pose the same question about Nagasaki the answer is less clear to me.
Of course my grandfather, a Marine who got malaria on Guadalcanal, would answer, “Hell yes!”
Little John yes indeed.
And I suspect that after having had their country and families bombed during the Blitz and later by V-1s and V-2s that were not exactly precisely targeted that few if any of those British Lancaster Bomber pilots dropping bombs on German cities were much bothered. On the other hand you would have hoped they believed they were advancing the end of the war.
Something I can’t quite allow to people like Air Marshall Harris who knew or should have known this was all about just killing German citizens on the basis of ‘collective punishment’. A designated war crime and one for which we hanged Japanese and German officers after the war. Whereas ‘Bomber’ Harris has a famous statue.
Which to the credit of the basic decency of the British people raised a great deal of controversy in 1992
war has been with us a long, long time. including the slaughter of men, women, and children.
i just wondered if the reasons people did that were pretty much the same over time.
and while i suppose the japanese could have sunk a few blockading ships, in order to continue they would have needed supplies from outside, which by then I don’t think they could have gotten.
and i supposed further than at the point the blockade had reduced Japan to the point of starvation they might have found a way to honorably surrender.
since i don’t know any of this, it is only speculation, not accusation.
except that, well, MyLai, Boer concentration camps, German concentration camps, Katyn Fores, Wounded Knee, the Inquisition, the Heugenot massacres, Guernica, the hanging of “deserters” by the defeated Germanst, … all suggest to me that, at least after the war has started, and i strongly suspect in the hearts of some long before any war has given them an excuse.. there is a love of killing looking for an excuse.
sorry, I said Boer concentration camps: they were British concentration camps. The Brits collected the Boer women and children and kept them in camps with not enough food or sanitation in order to persuade their men to quit fighting. They were not the first to think of this idea.
here is the controversy about ‘oo bombed ‘oo first.
i have no opinion.
OK,,my view is biased.
After serving in the Atlantic most of the war my father was sitting in San Diego waiting to ship-out and join the fleet for the invasion of Japan.
Before you start spreading your opinion about what the Japanese would have done without the bomb I suggest you read some more on the Japanese thinking. I have, and I have no doubt that they would have fought to the last woman and child to resist an American invasion.
I am convinced that the bombs saved lives, both Japanese and American.
Be sure to include the mass suicides in Okinawa in your readings.
And something I hadn’t known until yesterday and which in my mind puts paid to most of the “well Japan was preparing to surrender” argument is the following from the Emperor’s Surrender Speech. Because unless he was simply lying it was exactly the prospect of future bombing that motivated his decision. (Which may or may not have paralleled that of the Japanese Imperial Staff)
well, that settles it then. cue the hand wavers.
it’s good to know that the japanese would never have changed their minds. “fight to the death, of course, but not death by atomic bomb.”
and that the emperor mentioned the bomb in his “we gotta quit” speech. he had been looking for a good excuse.
but you know those Japs. very rigid people. while we Americans are more innovative. we can change our minds, or find conclusive proof of what we always knew, in a simple turn of phrase.
Dale I think you much over-rate your snark skills.
As part of his “live-blogging American History” theme, Brad DeLong has been posting official documents, letters, etc. leading up to the Hiroshima bombing. The sources he posted stated that:
1) The official estimate for American troop losses in an invasion of Japan, based on previous campaigns against smaller Japanese-held islands, was about 30,000. (The Japanese army was in Manchuria, and the Russians had agreed to send their army after them.) The modern cliche of around a million appears to be later revisionism.
2) Japanese envoys had indicated that they were ready to accept a conditional surrender prior to Hiroshima, the condition being that the Emperor not be punished or deposed. We refused to accept anything but unconditional surrender. MacArthur then decided not to depose the Emperor, in the interest of stability.
3) Eisenhower was asked his opinion by Sec. of War Stimson and said that the USA should not be the first nation to use the atomic bomb. “That old man got very angry at me.” was the way he described Stimson’s reaction.
During my time at GE, we had licensing agreements with Toshiba and Hitachi, and Tokyo Electric Power was one of our major customers. We struggled to understand the Japanese business culture in our meetings,and there were lots of misunderstandings, due to their inability to give a straight “no”, or any sort of confrontational position – and our inability to understand that.
We had a field problem once with failed welds in instrumentation piping in a couple TEPCO turbine-generators, and I was in our Schenectady plant on a Saturday morning with the manager of engineering, waiting for a scheduled phone call from the Toshiba manager of engineering to discuss our piping analysis results and compare them to Toshiba’s. Our main liaison with Toshiba was there but had to leave for some other commitment. As he was going out the door, our manager asked him, “Don’t leave me hanging. How do I contact Toshiba if I haven’t heard from them in the next half-hour?” He replied, “Dial this number … a Japanese secretary will answer, in Japanese. Say ‘mushi-mushi, Toranaga-san des-ka?” She’ll laugh at your American accent and get Toranaga for you.”
The guy left. Our manager sat behind his desk, and started drumming his fingers on it. After about three minutes, he said, “Heck with it, I’m calling Toshiba.” He dialed, and when somebody answered, said, “This is __ ___. Get me Mr. Toranaga.”
I thought to myself, what happened to mushi-mushi?
If and when we got down to the level of engineer talking to engineer, on technical details, we seemed to understand each other much better, but management to management was a mine-field.
Sorry, with all respect to DeLong’s commitment to history I would need a citation to that 30,000 American deaths. Because I cry bullshit.
The U.S. lost 20,195 killed and 55,000 wounded in 82 days to take one Japanese Island. The Japanese lost a minimum of 77,000 soldiers killed and 40000-150000 civilians killed over 82 days. And we are to suppose that military planners figured we could conquer all the main islands of Japan for only 30,000 deaths?
The main Japanese Army might have been in Manchuria but I have a hard time believing they just left the country without any troops at all or any version of a Home Guard or that they couldn’t moblilize civilian arms workers.
So no I am not going to take DeLong’s claims totally second hand. At least give me a link to is post that actually lays some of this out.
While we are waiting:
Casualty estimates were based on the experience of the preceding campaigns, drawing different lessons:
In a letter sent to General Curtis LeMay from General Lauris Norstad, when LeMay assumed command of the B-29 force on Guam, Norstad told LeMay that if an invasion took place, it would cost the US “half a million” dead.
In a study done by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in April, the figures of 7.45 casualties/1,000 man-days and 1.78 fatalities/1,000 man-days were developed. This implied that a 90-day Olympic campaign would cost 456,000 casualties, including 109,000 dead or missing. If Coronet took another 90 days, the combined cost would be 1,200,000 casualties, with 267,000 fatalities.
A study done by Admiral Nimitz’s staff in May estimated 49,000 U.S casualties in the first 30 days, including 5,000 at sea. A study done by General MacArthur’s staff in June estimated 23,000 US casualties in the first 30 days and 125,000 after 120 days. When these figures were questioned by General Marshall, MacArthur submitted a revised estimate of 105,000, in part by deducting wounded men able to return to duty.
In a conference with President Truman on June 18, Marshall, taking the Battle of Luzon as the best model for Olympic, thought the Americans would suffer 31,000 casualties in the first 30 days (and ultimately 20% of Japanese casualties, which implied a total of 70,000 casualties). Admiral Leahy, more impressed by the Battle of Okinawa, thought the American forces would suffer a 35% casualty rate (implying an ultimate toll of 268,000). Admiral King thought that casualties in the first 30 days would fall between Luzon and Okinawa, i.e., between 31,000 and 41,000. Of these estimates, only Nimitz’s included losses of the forces at sea, though kamikazes had inflicted 1.78 fatalities per kamikaze pilot in the Battle of Okinawa, and troop transports off Kyūshū would have been much more exposed.
A study done for Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s staff by William Shockley estimated that conquering Japan would cost 1.7–4 million American casualties, including 400,000–800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese fatalities. The key assumption was large-scale participation by civilians in the defense of Japan.
Outside the government, well-informed civilians were also making guesses. Kyle Palmer, war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, said half a million to a million Americans would die by the end of the war. Herbert Hoover, in memorandums submitted to Truman and Stimson, also estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 fatalities, and those were believed to be conservative estimates; but it is not known if Hoover discussed these specific figures in his meetings with Truman. The chief of the Army Operations division thought them “entirely too high” under “our present plan of campaign.”
The Battle of Okinawa resulted in 72,000 US casualties in 82 days, of whom 12,510 were killed or missing (this is conservative, because it excludes several thousand US soldiers who died after the battle indirectly, from their wounds). The entire island of Okinawa is 464 sq mi (1,200 km2). If the US casualty rate during the invasion of Japan had been only 5% as high per unit area as it was at Okinawa, the US would still have lost 297,000 soldiers (killed or missing).
Nearly 500,000 Purple Heart medals (awarded for combat casualties) were manufactured in anticipation of the casualties resulting from the invasion of Japan; the number exceeded that of all American military casualties of the 65 years following the end of World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 2003, there were still 120,000 of these Purple Heart medals in stock. There were so many left that combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to keep Purple Hearts on hand for immediate award to soldiers wounded in the field.
As far as that “Japanese Army was in Manchuria”. Well it mush have been a YOOOOGE expeditionary force. Because when Japan surrendered the Allies found more than tokens left behind.
The beach masters were on the beach, not offshore. As you probably know, one million casualties were estimated in the prospective invasion of Japan. Tough to blow off his point from an arm chair.
I took “peers” a little more broadly than just a handful of beachmasters.
not snark. my sincere evaluation of the way humans come to coclusions. have just been reading story of british misinformation. but of course you can always rely on american sources. not only are they true but they are often prescient.
my spelling is getting worse, but new machine does not allow me to correct.
Coberly your apparent new e-mail address threw this into moderation.
(and your “prescient” shot is snark)
well, bless my soul. snark it is. but the other wasn’t. don’t worry too much about the new machine. far too painful to write on.
i don’t know what the casualties of an invasion of Japan would have been. what i was calling attention to was the art of the public opinion manager: excluded information, excluded possibilities.
but i’ll admit this much: the bomb was used. twice. no doubt the people who used it the second time had the same reasons as the people who used it the first time.
i can’t change any of that. i would… when i was younger… have liked to educate people to the dangers of bad thinking that would lead them to another such moral question.
i did not know at the time that it was in the synapses. you can no more see yourself by self reflection than the people you throw “self reflect much?” at.
[or was it “self-examine much?” which is the step just before “suture self.”
One point of my post, if it was read, was to point out that the logic for Hiroshima doesn’t necessarily apply to Nagasaki. Which is why I called the first ‘necessary’ and the second a ‘war crime’. And yes I have thought about this a good deal and might even have engaged in a few moments of self-reflection. And that public opinion manager thing cuts both ways, I have seen descriptors of the effects of the bombs by moral absolutists on the issue that were factually wrong and clearly designed to weight the scales. But all in a good cause. Because it always is.
I should have quit this long ago. But you can’t just assert that the logic of A does not apply in case B. You’d have to make a fairly good effort to show why it does not apply. Because if the the first bomb was necessary to save a million American lives, the people who dropped the second bomb… i think they had the same names as the people who dropped the first bomb, just to confuse the public… could say that their reason for dropping the second bomb was to save a million American lives.
And yes of course the propaganda machines on all sides work just about the same.
And, if my reading of “if it was read” is correct: you can’t just claim that because you wrote something anyone who read it would know that your logic was the final clarifying word of truth.
Dale I didn’t just assert it. I made an argument for it. Which either I didn’t make clear or you ignored.. If you would like me to make it again or do it at more length than I will. But telling me that I made no effort at all is belittling. Again. And Still. I get a little irritated at lazy arguments telling me that I have been lazy.
I can’t win with you. I can’t even call it a draw and walk away with honor. I tried in my last to be fair and reasonable, given what i think i know about human “reason”, mine as well as yours.
Your argument about the distinction between 1 and 2 did not seem to me to be any argument at all against those who would claim that one was necessary to save a million lives and so was 2. and your statement that “if it was read” certainly seemed to imply that “if it was read… the logic was clear.”
what i think you need to try to do is realize that i don’t see the world exactly the way you do, not because i am out to get you, but because my synapses were formed by slightly different experiences. I am prepared to accept that I may need to keep that in mind as well.
at some point this makes the whole point of “argument” somewhat unclear: is it just to irritate other people? is it to rally our friends? it seems rarely to convince,or change minds.
I am quite tired of it. But this whole business of standing on the border and demonstrating our fierce manliness seems to be built into the whole survival of the fittest regime. I am trying to quit. Let me go in peace.
Live long and prosper.
This is one of those correlation versus causality arguments. Yes, the Japanese surrendered about a week after Nagasaki was bombed, but it was a lucky coincidence.
There’s a lot of disinformation out there. No, there were no Japanese peace feelers, just as there had been no German peace feelers on the European front. World War II was not like World War I. The enemy prime minister was not going to resign, and there wasn’t going to be an armistice.
The estimated American casualties in conquering Japan were about 200,000 based on the casualties in Okinawa. Americans knew that in an invasion the Japanese military would fight to the last man, and the Japanese civilians would fight or commit mass suicide or both. I have no idea of where that 30,000 number comes from.
I read through the New York TImes (on microfilm) for the months before the atomic bombs were dropped. There were about two or three major raids every week, as there had been against the Germans before VE day. In April, one raid on Tokyo killed about 200,000, though it is hard to get a solid number since Tokyo was full of refugees from Japan’s rapidly shrinking co-prosperity sphere.
The difference between earlier raids and Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that only one bomb was needed. The two bombings were timed close together as a bluff. The next atomic bomb would not be ready until November. The bluff worked. Suddenly the Japanese government was willing to discuss ending the war. A week before it was teaching schoolchildren how to fight with sharpened bamboo stakes. Correlation or causality?
P.S. Don’t put all war criminals in the same basket. There are about three billion people alive today thanks to a war criminal in the first world war.
P.P.S. For a great take on World War II read: http://www.leesandlin.com/articles/LosingTheWar.htm