Monday, August 6, 2007


With the Trinity test, the Manhattan Project was effectively complete — and was a success. The atomic reactor under the Stagg Field stands at the University of Chicago had proved the nuclear chain reaction would work. The uranium enrichment effort at Oak Ridge had been successful; the cyclotron-based effort in Berkeley was successful, though less efficient. The plutonium production efforts at Hanford were sucessful. And the Trinity test proved the design group was successful in designing a potentially weaponizable plutonium device; the uranium device was never tested since there was never any question that it would work as intended. (My wife and I visited Trinity Site in July of 2005 as part of the National Atomic Museum’s 60th anniversary commemoration of the Trinity Test.) The question now became how and whether to use atomic weapons against the enemy.

By the time of the Trinity test, however, it had already been decided (subject to President Truman’s final decision) to assure “the successful combat use of an atomic bomb at the earliest possible date after a field test of an atomic explosion and after the availability of the necessary material.” Targets had already been selected using criteria that required military significance in a large, largely intact, target city. Hiroshima was included as an industrial center that was an army embarkation port and the southern headquarters of the Japanese army; it became the target for the first atomic bomb used in war — the uranium bomb which had never been tested. The heavy industrial city of Nagasaki was a secondary target behind the military arsenal and steel center of Kokura.

The atomic cloud over Hiroshima
August 6, 1945

Two years ago, I heard a spokesman for the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) express his opinion (as if it were fact) that the “viewpoint” that the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki speeded the end of World War II was “no longer respectable.” I also heard spokesmen for that group state that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian, not military, targets. And I saw their demonstrators’ signs quoting General Curtis LeMay saying that Japan would have collapsed within two weeks with or without the use of the atomic bombs. (That sign — which may or may not have been accurate — made me think of LeMay’s equally accurate Congressional testimony that a ballistic missile was a physical impossibility.)

I respectfully disagree with the LASG and its supporters on several grounds.

First, these cities were not “non-military”, not “civilian targets.” They were selected as potential targets because of being military-industrial centers and military command centers. Yes, they were selected from among the list of potential targets in part because they had not previously been heavily attacked, but that does not make them invalid as targets. As targets, they were no less valid than Berlin, Tokyo, and Dresden.

Second, the purpose of any military attack, first and foremost, is to reduce or end the enemy’s ability and willingness to wage war — to damage the enemy and to convince him that he cannot win. This was precisely the purpose of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even so, even after the atomic attacks, Japan’s military council still intended to proceed with a fight to the death under their Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive) strategy. It was only in the early hours of the day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki — the second atomic bombing — that the emperor intervened with the decision for surrender. (Incidentally, had Japan not surrendered when it did, the third atomic bomb was said to have been targeted for Tokyo as soon as it could be transported to Tinian Island from the U.S. — and that third bomb was on its way.)

Third, the number of casualties to be expected in an invasion of the Japanese home islands, which would have been necessary had the Japanese not capitulated after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been horrendous. The number of American casualties, both in absolute numbers and as a fraction of the invasion force, increased exponentially island by island as the American forces approached Japan. Entry onto the home islands would certainly have been even more costly. The invasion plans had already been made under the overall title of Operation Downfall, incorporating two separate invasions under the code names Olympic and Coronet. General Douglas MacArthur projected at least a million U.S. casualties (killed and wounded) in the first year of these invasions. We now know the defending force was more than three times what was expected then, making the one million casualty estimate quite possibly a substantial underestimate.

Fourth, the number of Japanese casualties in the invasion and in the pre-invasion bombings would have been even larger than the number of American casualties, and far larger than the number in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something like 100,000 people died in the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945. Similar bombings of multiple Japanese cities would have preceded any U.S. invasion. It would not have mattered to those killed whether they died from conventional or atomic bombing — whether their cities were destroyed by one bomber or a thousand.

Fifth, and more personally, there were the American prisoners of war — including those captured at Bataan and put through the Death March, like my uncle — being held on the Japanese home islands. The POW camp commanders had standing orders to execute all prisoners in the event of an invasion. By avoiding the invasion, making it unnecessary, the atomic attacks directly saved these men’s lives.

The revisionists among us would pretend that Japan’s situation in the middle of 1945 was hopeless, that Japan knew it was hopeless and was seeking to surrender, and that the American government knew this and dropped the atomic bombs anyway. The reality is that, in spite of their losses, the Japanese military was still insisting on fighting on and — if it hadn’t been for the atomic bombs — would have done so. The use of the atomic bombs therefore saved hundreds of thousands of lives — at least — and may have saved millions. (And, given the larger than expected numbers of defenders, there’s no guarantee the U.S would have prevailed in the invasion of Japan.)

The revisionists either ignore or never knew the conditions of 1945 and what they meant to those who lived through them. At the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Trinity Test, I met a pilot from the European Theater of World War II. In the summer of 1945, he already had orders to the Pacific Theater, which were cancelled after V-J Day. His comment: “This bomb saved my life!” The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also almost certainly gave me (among many others) the chance to be born. They allowed my father, a veteran of the Normandy invasion, to return home to marry my mother instead of being sent to be part of the Japanese invasion (which would have been much larger — and bloodier — than the Normandy invasion he had been a part of). His brother is the uncle mentioned above who survived the Death March and was in a POW camp in Japan at that time. There are many similar stories, some by recognized writers, some gathered and published by newspapers and others, and most less generally available. All are worth seeking out. And virtually all include a recognition of the huge number of casualties — Allied, Japanese, and others in the Japanese-occupied countries — avoided because of the war’s end.

Leon Smith, one of the 509th Composite Bomb Group’s three weaponeers on Tinian Island, was asked by a Japanese documentary film crew (including three individuals from Hiroshima) a number of years later how he felt when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. (By a flip of the coin, the other two weaponeers flew on the missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Smith would probably have flown on the atomic bomb mission to Tokyo had that mission been necessary, but flew on the post-war test at Bikini Atoll instead.) He recounted his response as follows:

I pointed out there had been a long war — intensive battles starting in the South Pacific, moving ever northward toward Japan. I talked about the 30,000 Japanese soldiers, 20,000 civilians, lost on Saipan. On Iwo Jima, which was roughly halfway to Japan and a fighter base, 60,000 Marines went ashore, and suffered the highest casualty rate they’d ever suffered in any Marine operation. The Japanese had 21,000 defenders. 20,000 died. The battle for Okinawa had just been completed at the end of June. There over 100,000 Japanese soldiers died. 125-150,000 civilians.

General Marshall believed that defending Japan were 2.3 million soldiers, 4 million navy men, and 28 million armed civilian militia. I said the invasion was scheduled for November of ’45. I thought the casualties would have been simply unreal — beyond comprehension.

I said, “How did I feel when the bomb was dropped? I felt a sense of relief.” I was confident that the war would soon be over. That I could go back and see my wife whom I’d seen very little since our marriage in 1941. The U.S. and its allies could go back to their homes and their families. And the Japanese could go back to their families. Yes, I felt a sense of relief.

Today is the anniversary of the Enola Gay’s flight to Hiroshima, the anniversary of the day Leon Smith’s relief began.

UPDATE: Jules Crittenden has an excellent article on this World-Changing Anniversary over on Pajamas Media. Go read it!

UPDATE II: Nagasaki link added in second paragraph.

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