Guest Commentary / August 5, 2022

Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered

The only available measure of the morality of President Truman’s decision is the amount of suffering and death spared.

By Mark Fowler

Seventy-seven years ago, World War II concluded after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan’s unconditional surrender. It is appropriate to revisit those events to determine, with the benefit of hindsight, if those bombings were justified. Justified in the sense only that the net benefit to all combatants outweighed the cost. Who could call the deaths of almost 300,00 people “moral” or “immoral”? Such a catastrophic loss of life defies traditional classification. War creates circumstances calling for action beyond traditional morality.

No one knows the exact number of Japanese civilian deaths. In Hiroshima, an estimated 140,000 died. In Nagasaki, approximately 74,000 died immediately and an estimated 62,000 Japanese died prematurely of cancer or radiation effects. Most of these were civilians. Bombing of civilians or making them intended targets through starvation is not a new tactic now, nor was it then. The Germans murdered millions in Poland alone, almost 400,000 in France, over 600,000 in Hungary, and millions of European Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Overall, an estimated 85,000,000 people all over the world died. Whether nor not killing civilians works as a war tactic is debatable. Many English survivors of the Blitz reported themselves invigorated by simply surviving the London bombings. Sadly, Allied bombing of civilian centers also occurred, with over 20,000 casualties in Dresden, Germany, and 10,000 in Tokyo, Japan. Neither of those events is credited with softening enemy opposition or shortening the war. In Germany, the Nazis capitulated only when Soviet and Allied troops closed in on Berlin.

It is argued by some that Allied insistence on Japan’s unconditional surrender was responsible for prolonging the war. But inasmuch as the prevalent thought was that the Japanese military-industrial complex would never capitulate absent defeat, and that Japan had committed many atrocities against the Chinese where systemic rape was a tactic of war, Allied leaders felt they could not accept anything less than total surrender. Mixed into this calculus was the perceived betrayal and dishonorable attack on Pearl Harbor (no official declaration of war took place prior to the attack).

Word had reached America of the Japanese atrocities against American soldiers in the Bataan death march; of kamikaze attacks on American ships, and of fanatical resistance well beyond reason by the Japanese soldiers causing unnecessary American deaths. For months and years after the war, isolated Japanese soldiers were found still prepared to resist Americans. Nor had Americans forgotten the horrific losses at Okinawa, a Japanese territory 400 miles off the mainland. Taking Okinawa had cost the lives of 12,000 American servicemen and 250,000 Japanese and Okinawans. There were almost 7,000 deaths at Iwo Jima and 20,000 American casualties. At Tarawa, 5,000 Japanese defending the island killed 1,000 Marines and inflicted another 2,100 casualties. Almost no Japanese survived in their characteristic never- surrender strategy. American casualties of this magnitude were unsustainable and unacceptable to the American public.

Given the dramatic increase in destructive power, it was argued at the time that the Japanese be given a demonstration of the atomic bomb’s destructive capability. But the bomb was not reliable; a failure to detonate would leave the Japanese stiffened in their resolve. Moreover, this required a level of cooperation that was nonexistent at the time. The Japanese scientists would have to be told what they were seeing, where to stand, what instruments to bring, and the significance of what they witnessed. Having that information was no guarantee that the Japanese military would surrender. This option was rejected.

Another option was to detonate the bomb at a relatively unpopulated area to minimize casualties, but this posed difficulties as well. There were only a few bombs; they were expensive and potentially unreliable. The Americans could not afford a failure. Interestingly, the bomb was constructed in such a way that if nuclear fission failed, the bomb would self-destruct on impact, making it difficult to reverse-engineer.

In this posture, American leadership, and specifically President Truman, was required to balance American lives against Japanese lives. If a tactic or strategy could be used and was available to end the war definitively and quickly, Truman was obligated to use it. The American public had grown tired of wartime rationing, wartime work schedules, and casualty reports. They were particularly tired of the barbarity with which the Japanese fought. All over America there were widows, orphans, and families who had lost sons, brothers, uncles, and fathers or who could see with their own eyes the wounded, the scarred, and those who suffered psychiatric illness from the war. And they were angry.

Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 thrust Truman into the middle of a worldwide war. Like most vice presidents before and since, Truman had little understanding of the entire governmental and political picture and almost no knowledge of the atomic bomb being developed in the Manhattan Project. This is not to indict Truman’s intellectual ability; he was a voracious reader of history. But Roosevelt and others felt the Manhattan project was “need to know” and Truman was not in that loop. Informed in mid-July of the successful detonation of the bomb, Truman simply nodded. Given the secrecy of the project, there was not widespread debate on the morality of its use.

Operating on the assumption, later confirmed by intelligence, that the Japanese would mount a ferocious defense of their homeland in the hopes they could force a stalemate that might cost thousands of American and Japanese lives, Truman decided to use the bomb and authorized its release when first possible. On August 6, a single B-29 called the Enola Gay piloted by Paul Tibbets carried the bomb to Hiroshima. The bomb, named “Little Boy” notwithstanding its weight of 10,000 pounds, delivered the equivalent of 12,000-15,000 tons of TNT. Some 140,000 people died instantly or within hours of the bomb’s effects. A second bomb named “Fat Man” delivered 22,000 kiloton equivalents to Nagasaki. Some 74,000 people died as a direct result of that attack.

On August 15, the Japanese negotiated a surrender.

The purpose of war is to win. Ideally, the cost of winning is minimized given the resources of the combatants at the time. While it is true that many who died as a result of the atomic bombs did not participate in the atrocities attributed to the Japanese, ultimately the Japanese had to be made accountable for the misery they had inflicted on others. The conduct of the Japanese armed forces made it clear that an acceptable resolution could only be found by crushing them. The bomb spared the lives of many American soldiers, sailors, and aviators. It probably prevented the deaths of many thousands of Japanese and the destruction of their homeland. Given all the factors at play, using the atomic bombs was the best and most reasonable solution.

In the decades that have passed, Japan has rebuilt. Japanese citizens as a whole do not hold grudges against Americans, and their country has been peaceful and prosperous for all of the post-war period. They remain a valued ally today. In the United States, there are millions alive now who might never have been born if Japan had been invaded. The amount of suffering, misery, and loss prevented is incalculable. And the world has learned that the use of atomic weapons carries the potential to end life as we know it. Truman’s choice was correct. The only available measure of the morality of his decision is the amount of suffering and death spared.

Mark Fowler is a former attorney and board-certified physician. He can be reached at [email protected]

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