Was the Dropping of the Atomic Bombs Justified?
At the beginning of August 1945, two cities disappeared. The Imperial land surrendered. The world shook. The dropping of the bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” by the plane Enola Gay wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on the 6th and 9th of August. This was a plan to hasten the surrender of Japan and end the war by the Americans but was it really just? Was the cost of so many innocent Japanese civilians worth it? Was there a hidden agenda? In this essay, I shall attempt to reason through gathered evidence and answer the controversial question on whether Truman should have pushed the button.
America had many reasons for dropping the bombs; the surrender of Japan, it would cost more lives to carry on normal warfare, a silent threat to the USSR, such an investment had to be tested. These were raised by many government officials to stop the media hassling them about whether they felt guilty. Surely if there was such opposition to them, something was horribly wrong. America divided itself with their own opinions on whether the decision was made without thoughts of the consequences or Japan had it coming to them.
“The atom bomb was no great decision. It was merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness. The dropping of the bombs stopped the war and saved millions of lives.” This was a comment made by President Truman in a press conference on 6th August 1945 after the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One of the reasons America saw the bombs fit to use was because if there was to be a great loss of life, they’d rather it was not their own. The USA had been using a military strategy known as island hopping which involved pushing the Japanese army back by reclaiming islands until the Japanese only held their mainland for months. Such warfare took great sacrifice in the form of American lives and the thought of losing any more to end the war was an unsavoury option. Truman claimed that he had been told that continuation of normal warfare would cost hundreds upon thousands of American lives. Imagine that spread across the front page. Even if normal warfare was carried out on Japanese mainland, they were not expected to surrender as they were trained with their honour in mind. To fight to the death was honourable, to defend the Imperial land and the Empire was honourable, to become a kamikaze pilot and fly out with an aim to kill yourself in the hope that someone else would share your fate was honourable. Before the bomb was dropped, Emperor Suzuki made a speech to his people solidifying that assumption: “I expect 100 million people of this glorious Empire to join themselves in a shield to protect the Emperor and the Imperial land from the invader.”
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Yet we are not talking about the people who die for honour, but for simple civilians whom the bombs were to meaningfully target. The bomb dropped at a temperature which vaporized any human at ground zero, turning their bodies into charred, horrific statues. It was not only the initial blast which killed people. Though US denied the knowledge of radiation sickness inflicted by the bomb, people still died from it. The radiation sickness included swelling, vomiting, peeling of the skin, cancer and ultimately death. The sickness was so horrifying that one British reporter who arrived a month after the first bomb described it as an “atomic plague”. One prisoner of war, aircraftsman Sidney Laurence, who was liberated from his camp in Nagasaki recalled that “Japanese doctors had no idea what to do with the wounds” and “I was cradling dying people or trying to put this stuff on their wounds. Some of these were the very Japanese who, a few days before, had been treating us so cruelly.” How can the USA have attempted to reason that revenge for Pearl Harbor was a just cause? “We are talking about the people who had not hesitated at Pearl Harbor to make a sneak attack, destroying not only ships but the lives of many American sailors,” was a clever quote taken from James Byrnes, Secretary of State at the time, who attempted to justify the bomb by showing how cowardly the Japanese could be. Yes, seems like a perfect reason to sink to the same level, fight fire with fire. There was division of consciences among the government on such a subject. “The use of such a barbarous weapon was of no assistance to our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated,” was what Admiral D. Leahy, an advisor to President H.S. Truman, recalled in his memoirs. You’d have to feel pretty strongly about something to remember it well enough to publish it but there’s a thought: were the Japanese on the verge of surrender? The Japanese had such views as well, disproving this reason becoming common ground for both parties. “The Americans could have won without using atomic bombs,” was a quote from the Secretary to the Japanese War Minister in 1963, a view which could have been made in hind sight. So if the Japanese were already defeated and revenge was decided to be morally wrong, was there a hidden agenda?
There could be. The end of the Second World War signaled the build up to the start of the Cold War, a period of tension, conflict and competition between the USSR, USA and their respective allies. An outright war was prevented with the bombs, America’s subliminal threat to the USSR. Both sides had the power to annihilate the other and the rest of the world combined but the friction between the sides was not realized until the end years of World War II. USA dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima two days before the USSR attacked Manchuria and Korea. They would not have to fight long but could gain influence easily and the UK and USA were unwilling to have Russia take any part in the carve-up of Japan in the post-war years, primarily because it was a notoriously Communist nation. “Stalin was poised to hurl his troops against the Japanese. Both USA and Britain were alarmed at the prospect of Soviet penetration that matched the takeover of Eastern Europe,” is a quote which supports the theory that Britain and the USA had issues with USSR and its seemingly unplanned ruthlessness. During the Cold War itself, Winston Churchill commented on USSR’s achieved influence on the East as “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” A physicist working on the Manhattan Project (the project which developed the two bombs) was quoted saying “there was no moral issue while working on the bomb – the free world needed to be saved”. This was initially assumed to be associated with Japan but made more sense when linked with the progressing Communist nation of USSR who had much influence over other countries. USA could also anticipate the growing tension between them and the USSR, previously allies during the Nazi progression, and noted that their tactics in the East could hint a need for conquest. Truman would need to end the War faster in order to escape having two fronts as Hitler did when he failed to break war with the USSR before attacking Britain. The bomb seemed the trick.
To put it simply, the bombs were weapons. Devastating, but still just weapons. That’s probably all they were anticipated to be when authorization was given to start the Manhattan Project to develop them. The bombs were initially supposed to be used against the Nazis as there were fears that they had already made a discovery which could lead to their own Hiroshima (a case of who gets there first has the power). “The original discovery that made it possible was made in Germany, and we had believed that the German scientists were ahead of us in the development of the nuclear weapon. I shudder to think what would have happened if Germany had been first to acquire the weapon,” was a quote taken from Eugene Wigner, a physicist working on the project supporting this theory. It was even obvious to scientists specializing in alternative areas. “After Otto Hahn’s and Fritz Strassman’s discovery [nuclear fission] it became evident that sooner or later some country would make an atom bomb,” was said by Joseph Hirschfelder, a chemist from around the time. The bomb was made with out conscious realisation that the scientists were creating a weapon: it was simply something they were told to create, an invention as it were. “My feeling was something like, “Well it worked!” There’s no great emotion to that, except that it worked. I think it was later that I and many others began to think about the consequences, about what could be done with such a powerful device,” was taken from Edward McMillan, a physicist working on the Project. The bombs were expensive, about $2000million a piece. At a time when the Allies were suffering from post-air raid cities, still using rations and with government money which could be used elsewhere, such an investment could not be created to no avail but that still does not justify having to test the bombs on a city. “A demonstration of the bomb might best be made on the desert of on a barren island. Japan could then be asked to surrender,” was written on a note from American nuclear scientists to the government in June 1945 but would probably be seen as throwing away money. By the time the bombs were fully developed, Germany had surrendered but Japan was still at large: opportunity came knocking.
In conclusion, I shall return to the title of my essay: were the bombs justified? I do not believe so. Firstly, I shall gather the evidence to support my answer. Japan was crippled with so many of its soldiers killed during island hopping and on its knees. Perhaps they were not ready to surrender but nothing a little prompting and negotiating could not fix: the sword, it seems, is still the first choice above the pen. The reason put forward that the bomb was perfect for revenge on the Japanese and avenging the losses at Pearl Harbor seems childish and immature. Of course, I do not expect USA to take it lying on their backs and I acknowledge that even the Bible says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” but it does mean an eye only for an eye, a tooth only for a tooth. James Byrnes implied that the attack on Pearl Harbor was cowardly and yet what were the bombs? They did not gleam with nobility. No, all they showed was that even in this intelligent day and age, you are still able to fight fire with fire. As to it was too great an investment to waste, it seems awful that a war-ravaged world should even consider to put a ridiculous amount of money into the creation of something which generated such fear worldwide, not only to the enemy. H. Ward said that “the bomb was dropped to begin the peace with a warning to Russia” but technically it created no peace, only beginning the Cold War, a time when there was a constant fear that either the USA or USSR would “push the button,” end everything and as for saving lives, the reason is stereotypically American. It is patriotic, it is relatively logical but it is greedy and self-centred. That reason was to save American lives, showing that they look out for “number one.” They denied knowledge of the horrific sickness they inflicted on thousands of innocents, a thought which shook the world over and over ‘til this very day. If I may, I shall end this essay with a very fitting quote by Captain Robert Lewis: “As the bomb fell over Hiroshima and exploded, we saw an entire city disappear. I wrote in my log the words: “My God, what have we done?”