Thoughts about the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 16 August 2005 Updated: 01 March 2009: fixed some broken links and made some minor revisions

This is purely my opinion, as always. Those with different opinions are free to challenge me at

1. Introduction

So why is this Baby Boomer moved to write about this subject? Well, that's an easy one to answer. We Baby Boomers (BBs) were the first generation to live out our lives under the threat of atomic (or thermonuclear) annihilation. We BBs spent our formative years living in fear that something might trigger the Thermonuclear Holocaust. It seems to me I'm entitled to offer an opinion.

I'm also an Army (Vietnam era) veteran, opposed to the aims of the Vietnam war, and - for that matter - opposed to other wars that have no substantive basis in terms of an actual threat to our national security. So it might seem that I should be a "peacenik," opposed to the unleashing of the atomic genie in the bottle, right? Well, as I'm going to expound upon in what follows, that's not my position! What follows is the result of watching a number of televised programs attempting to show that we didn't really have to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, because the Japanese were going to surrender at any moment. And it also results from my own experience as "cannon fodder" in the Army. Finally, it results from the unrepentant attitude of the Japanese, who have never fully accepted the responsibility for what they did in that awful war, the ferocity of which was to some considerable extent their own responsibility (or, more precisely, the responsibility of the government they were willing to support).


2. The road to the dropping of the bomb

It's natural for many Americans to consider Pearl Harbor to be the opening salvo of the Pacific War in WWII, but the Chinese know full well that the war began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Many Americans fail to realize that the events leading up to Pearl Harbor were largely driven by the naked and vicious Japanese aggression in China. Our iron and oil embargo of Japan, which many believe to be responsible for the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor, was in direct response to the lack of response to repeated American protests about Japanese aggression in China. Therefore, the road to the bomb has its first harbingers in 1931. Of course, with a bunch of Asians killing each other, it was not obvious to most Americans that we needed to be involved, or even very concerned. Only a few in the U.S. were thinking about the possible consequences. If a simultaneous militaristic government had not arisen in Germany that would eventually menace all of Europe, it's possible we would have stood by without any substantive response to the atrocities by the Japanese in China. But of course, that possible outcome can only be speculation.

During the invasion of China, the Japanese committed many atrocities, including (but not limited to) the so-called Rape of Nanjing, where the Japanese displayed a ruthless brutality that can only be explained in terms of the exploitation of a sort of racism. The Japanese considered themselves racially superior to the Chinese and so it was easy for them the de-humanize the conquered Chinese in the occupied territories. Slaughtering them by the thousands, including women and children, was of no matter to the Japanese troops. Many Americans are only dimly aware of these atrocities, no doubt in part because they were perpetrated on Asians - and, of course, many ignorant Americans consider themselves racially superior to all Asians.

Of course, this contempt that Americans had for the Japanese (and their military capability) ultimately led to the Bataan Death March after the fall of the Phillipines. The treatement of American and British POWs in the aftermath of their defeat in the various colonial outposts of the American and British Empires in Asia was vicious to an extent that many find hard to understand. The Japanese had demonstrated that they were tough, formidable enemies who were quite capable of overwhelming the undersupported garrisons of the American and British empires. Underestimation of them was a foolish mistake. The Japanese, in turn, showed their contempt for those who had surrendered - surrender was unthinkable to the Japanese soldier, as we were about to learn. Thousands of prisoners of war (to say nothing of captured civilians and Filipinos) died from thirst, starvation, disease, and outright murder at the hands of their Japanese captors.

The "medical" Experiments at Unit 731 represent yet another egregious example of Japanese atrocities. During the time of this unit's operation, various hideous experiments were performed, not only on prisoners of war, but also on innocent Chinese civilians - to determine the effects of biological and chemical agents. Vivisections were performed and other appalling acts of torture. In fact, the "information" gained at such a cost was deemed sufficiently important by the victors at the end of WWII that many of the perpetrators got off scot free, in exchange for passing the results of their experiments on to the victors!! This is an awful example of the cynicism of politics. These crimes are among the worst crimes against humanity of the war - they make my skin crawl at the very thought of them. By comparison, the deaths of those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (at least the immediate fatalities) were merciful.

In short, the Japanese showed themselves to be vicious victors in Asia. The "co-prosperity sphere" they would have established would have been as brutal and evil as anything of the sort in the history of humanity, including the Nazis. Whatever sympathy we might feel for the civilian victims of Hiroshima and Nagaski, the regime and its supporters was at least as despicable as the Nazi regime. They are certainly responsible for a roughly comparable number of deaths, but of course those deaths are mostly Asians, not Europeans or Americans. Japan was not some downtrodden victim of American brutality.


3. The arithmetic of the decision

In the months leading up to the decision to drop the bomb, the American govvernment had the powerful testimony of the Japanese war effort itself. As early as Guadalcanal, it became apparent that the Bushido code of the Japanese soldier was responsible for their willingness to fight to the death, whatever the odds. Surrender was impossible under such a code. Unlike the war in Europe, where the ferocity of the defense tended to decline with the realization that the war was lost, the Japanese defenses increased the level of their fighting intensity as the successive island-hopping invasions reached closer and closer to the Japanese homeland itself. Iwo Jima was a terrible bloodbath, to be trumped by the incredibly intense battle for Okinawa that included the deaths of many civilians as a result of the lies told them by the Japanese about the American invaders. This policy was the direct result of the cold calculations of the Japanese government that by increasing the cost paid in terms of American casualties, they felt that their ability to force a negotiated settlement that included their continuance in power was thereby increased. The cost in terms of civilian (including Japanese) casualties was not a significant consideration to these warlords. Whatever price the Japanese people themselves paid was not sufficient to convince these bastards to consider capitulation, irrespective of the obvious fact that Japan was going to lose the war. Let the civilians die protecting us, they decided, opting to continue the hopeless struggle in the face of overwhelming evidence that the war was inevitably lost.

An invasion of Japan was certainly going to result in a huge cost, not only to the Allied (mostly American) invaders, but to the Japanese population. In effect, the increasing ferocity of the defenses at Iwo Jima and Okinawa made it painfully clear that any invasion of the Japanese homeland was going to be worse, not better, in terms of the casualties on the part of the invaders. This was manifestly going to be an awful invasion, to include mass slaughter of civilians, as well as exacting a terrible toll on the invaders. It's quite possible that the Allied casualty figures would have been on the order of 1 million, and the Japanese military casualties were going to be at least twice that. With the civilians being "enlisted" to sacrifice themselves to the Allied invaders, civilian casualties would probably be at least as high as the Japanese military casualties, and perhaps even higher. It was going to drench the Japanese homeland in blood, both American and Japanese

It was going to be a very high price, indeed, simply to try to force a negotiated settlement on the Allies, rather than admitting the possibility of unconditional surrender. At the same time, it seems clear now that there was increasing reluctance - after the awful campaigns on Iwo Jima and Okinawa - of the American military to conduct such a campaign. Of course, the colossal arrogance of Douglas MacArthur would not admit the possibility of not conducting an invasion in the face of continuing Japanese resistance even after the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. But it's at least possible that continuation of the blockade and conventional (and fire) aerial bombing of Japan could have been chosen, rather than risking all the casualties of an invasion. How many Japanese would have starved and been killed by conventional bombs and fire storms before the government finally was forced to surrender?

In either case, the pure arithmetic of the problem makes it clear that a quarter of a million fatalities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki pales in comparison to the Japanese fatalities in either an invasion or a blockade and bombing campaign. In the former, the casualities would also include on the order of a million Americans. You do the math, and decide how you want it to go!


4. Therefore ...

History records that Truman and the rest of the American government struggled some in reaching their decsion, but the arithmetic was inescapable. Of the evils they could see, the least of them was dropping the atomic bomb. It offered the chance to end the war quickly, with an ensuing large reduction in the overal casualty figures (including Japanese). Yes, it is conceivable that some other course of action would have brought the war to an end without having to drop the atomic bomb. But the fact is that at this date, such an alternative view ignores the huge tolls fighting the war by conventional means, and is mostly based on a revisionist view of history. We know things now we didn't know then about what was going on in Japan. Although it is conceivable that the war might have been ended without dropping the atomic bomb, it seems to me that those in charge of making this decision could not, and did not know what we know now. The terrible consequences of unleashing the possibility of first atomic, and then thermonuclear war on the world could only have been obvious to those of us who have seen those consequences unfold. At the time, they were only possibilities. The reality they confronted was a hideous butchery the like of which the world had never seen and which most of us have never even remotely experienced. Perhaps only those of us who have been soldiers - pawns to the politicians willing to sacrifice us for political ends - can understand the great joy felt by soldiers at the end of that terrible war. From the viewpoint of those soldiers, nothing could be greater than the prospect that one would actually survive.

If the Japanese, who started the war, were forced to pay a high price for the actions they had initiated - well, too bad, but it's not without some substantial measure of Biblical, eye-for-an-eye justice. If the Japanese had known the consequences of their decision to invade China in 1931, perhaps they might have chosen to try another path. As it is, they made their decision, and the Japanese people were forced to live with the consequences of that choice made by the military-dominated government that they obeyed. Like the Germans, they were forced to accept bitter defeat, as well as to suffer the losses of both soldiers and civilians in a war they themselves fought with no mercy. If no mercy was offered in the response, is that a matter of injustice? Frankly, I don't think so. They sowed the wind, and they reaped the whirlwind.


5. The reluctance of the Japanese to confront their history

Perhaps what galls me the most about all of this is the biased perspective that permeates Japan to this day. In this view, the evil Americans dropped the evil bonb on the innocent citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese are suffering to this very day. Well, the facts are that the Japanese collectively were far from innocent, and the policies of the government they supported were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent victims outside of Japan. Droppng the bombs undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of Japanese, either in an invasion or in a blockade/bombing campaign. And the Americans were not vicious, vindictive occupiers - rather, we supported the implementation of a democratic form of government and paid billions of dollars for the reconstruction of Japanese society after the war, to the point where the Japanese have become major competitors for world markets. By losing the war, Japanese society has achieved all the aims their fascist government ever dreamed of for Japan, and more. They have become prosperous beyond anyone's wildest dreams at the time, and have a democratic society as a bonus. Because of post-war limitations on their military, their budget has been largely focused on developing a powerful economy and led to their ability to buy what their military was unable to hold after its conquests. Whatever the cost to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we did Japan a favor by eradicating their military dictatorship and unleashing the civilian productivity of their society.

What I resent, therefore, is that the Japanese government has never offered a real apology to Americans for their vicious and dastardly assault on Pearl Harbor. [Their relations with China have not been good for the same reason.] Their history books continue to vilify America for dropping the atomic bomb while not properly educating the Japanese people about the perfidies they perpetrated during the War. If they could admit their mistakes and apologize for them to us and the whole world, it would go a long way toward preventing such things from ever happening again. As it stands, unrepentant fanatics from WWII are regarded as heroes in Japan. That is unbelievably galling and represents a revisionist historical viewpoint that is a grotesque caricature of the real situation. I, for one, do not believe it was a mistake to use the atomic bomb on Japan. It was perhaps a mistake to develop the bomb in the first place, but its use to hasten the end of the Pacific War is perfectly correct, in my opinion.