President Obama visited Hiroshima recently, which is where in August 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb to be used in war. He did not apologize for our using the atomic bomb either here or at Nagasaki a few days later. But his visit was seen as an implied acknowledgment that what had happened here was somehow different than the ordinary course of World War II. Most people with whom I have talked about the subject say that using the atomic bombs was the right thing to do to force a quick end to the war. The moral equation used is straight-forward – fewer American and even Japanese lives were lost because of the overwhelming display of power. I will address that aspect later. I want to put Hiroshima in the context of some other military events of World War II, conventional ideas of what makes for a justified war, and treaties on the conduct of war that were in force at that time. Because of length, I will cover the context in this article, and justified war and treaties in a subsequent one. My purpose is not to excoriate the United States but to see what we can learn. And there is an obvious need for us to do so. Our record of military interventions over the past twenty or so years is not one of unending success.
“Truth is the first casualty of war” is an observation that is almost self-evident, so much so that it is not certain who first said it. I want to start not at Hiroshima in 1945, but the bombings of Rotterdam, London, and Berlin in 1940. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, there was a brief pause followed by the invasion of Norway. Then Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg on their way to invading France. The Dutch resisted more than foreseen, valiantly defending the port city of Rotterdam. They saw their cause was hopeless and opened negotiations to surrender the city. Nonetheless, on May 14, 1940 German bombers attacked and destroyed the historic city center, killing over 800 civilians. The resulting shock, and the inability to defend against bombers, caused the Dutch government to surrender the country. It is important to note here that the Dutch policy had been one of strict neutrality and that as such, they had refused to coordinate their relatively small military with that of the allies.
In June France surrendered. The German Luftwaffe continually attacked military targets in Britain. The large-scale air offensive against Britain began on August 15 with the intent of destroying the Royal Air Force. German air attacks at first were against military and industrial targets, such as docks, airfields, and factories. On August 23 a dozen bombers made a fateful error and instead of hitting industrial targets on the outskirts of London, struck the center of London instead. The British thought this was deliberate and sent their bombers to Berlin in retaliation. For over a week they dropped their bombs on the city at night. This was large scale, indiscriminate bombing. The Luftwaffe continued to target military and industrial installations and was making progress against the RAF. However, pressure was mounting on Hitler to retaliate in kind for the nightly British bombings of Berlin. On September 7, 1940 the Germans began their first massive bombing of London. In doing so, they left off the pressure on the British aircraft factories and airfields. This is all described in William Shirer’s classic book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. His observations as a war correspondent in Berlin during the bombings are in his book Berlin Diary. As we all know, the German change of strategy was unsuccessful, to put it mildly. In fact, it was a disaster. British aircraft production was put in order, their airfields repaired, and American sympathies for our intervention grew. Remember that Pearl Harbor wouldn’t happen until December 1941.
The stage had now been set for the air bombing campaigns of the war. As Allied air power increased, more German cities came under attack. As described in William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp, bombing the houses of the factory workers did not reduce the production of armaments in those factories. Though there were strategic attacks on such things as railroad bridges and factories making critical components such as ball bearings, often the factories themselves were safer than the surrounding communities. The purpose of the bombing was to sap German moral, which it completely failed to do. German war production continually increased until the final few months of the war when transportation and supply networks broke down. Much of the intact factory equipment, however, was dismantled after the war and used for reparations.
Getting back to Japan, it had bombed the cities of Nanjing and Canton in China in 1937 and caused massive civilian casualties, most notoriously in Nanjing. The nationalist government in Nanjing did not surrender but retreated. During the war the United States firebombed dozens of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed. The rationale used seems to have been a little different than with the Germans. In the case of Japan many small factories were nestled within residential areas. Those houses were extremely flammable, being constructed of wood, bamboo, and paper. Setting the whole area on fire would surely affect Japanese war production, or so it was thought. I have not been able to verify the effect the incendiary bombings had. The firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of the war, deadlier than Dresden, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Japanese war production was definitely declining well before its surrender, but that may have been due to disruption of the shipping of supplies from the mainland. Japan itself, unlike Germany, is a very resource-poor country. Fuel especially was in short supply. Germany, on the other hand, had huge coal reserves.
By the summer of 1945 Japan was isolated, desperate, and ready to surrender. But they wanted to keep their emperor Hirohito, and some Japanese leaders wanted no occupation and no war crime trials. The United States had stated that they would accept only an unconditional surrender. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Soviet Union attacked Japanese positions in Manchuria and Korea. The war was clearly lost, and a communist uprising inside Japan was a real fear. Such uprisings had happened elsewhere and the Communists, of course, had assassinated their Czar and his entire family during the First World War. The Japanese dropped all conditions except the protection of their emperor, which the United States accepted. See Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s book and documentary series, The Untold History of the United States for more information.
Generals MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Arnold; and Admirals Leahy, King, and Nimitz; all thought that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not necessary. The destruction of so many of their cities had not caused them to surrender, why would the loss of two more that had little military value? I myself wonder how things might be different if instead of Hiroshima, the first atomic bomb had been dropped instead on the naval base of Kure. Kure is just 10 miles south-west of Hiroshima. There most of the last of Japan’s large military fleet had been anchored, mainly due to lack of fuel. The remaining large ships were sunk during massive raids on July 24 – 28, or just a week before the bombing of Hiroshima. The Allies lost 133 aircraft during the raids. If instead of the conventional bombing raids the atomic bomb had first been dropped there instead of at Hiroshima, we would be having a different discussion today.
The following countries engaged in massive aerial bombardment of civilians during the Second World War, in chronological order: Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, and the United States. In no case was it an unambiguous success. In the cases of Germany against Britain, and the Allies against Germany, it may have even led to a strengthening of resolve to continue fighting. War production in Britain and Germany continued to climb during the bombings. Interestingly, I did not come across any mention of the Soviet Union doing such bombings. The Japanese bombing of Nanjing led to wide-spread condemnation and did not cause the Nationalist government to surrender. Allied bombings of Japanese cities during WWII may have affected war production there more than in Germany, but it is hard to discern because the greater effect was probably the disruption of Japanese supply lines from the mainland once we had destroyed most of their navy and the rest was ineffective due to lack of fuel. In context, the dropping of the atomic bombs appear to have had little effect on the Japanese ability and willingness to continue the war.
I think this is important because I see a dangerous movement from time to time threatening to use the atomic bomb for peace, based on its supposed usefulness to bring Japan to surrender. Its possible use against Iran (“all options are on the table”) is perhaps the most common of such threats. Overwhelming force and shock doesn’t seem to have that effect, unless the opponent is relatively weak anyways and inclined to neutrality as the Dutch were at Rotterdam. And if that is the case, then there is no reason to use such weapons.
One thing that I think we did right at the surrender of Japan is that we allowed Hirohito to continue as emperor, although he had to renounce any claims to being divine. Being still alive and his life not under threat, he was able to order his troops to lay down their arms and surrender. Holdouts were only few and isolated. Similarly, although Adolf Hitler committed suicide before Germany surrendered, he had transferred power to Admiral Doenitz. It was Doenitz who surrendered Germany to the Allies three weeks later. At Nuremburg he was sentenced to 10 years in prison following a proper trial. This is in stark contrast to what happened in Iraq and Libya following the captures and executions of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Besides the urgency of self-defense, what other principles – if any — should we invoke when fighting a war? I will attempt to address this in my next article.