Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dropping the bomb

I'm going to comment on the ethics of nuking Japan. This is one of those perennial issues that America-bashers constantly raise. There are two extremes we need to avoid: "my country right or wrong," and "blame America first." 
For me the war has a personal dimension. My late father was a WWII vet who served in the Pacific theater. He was radio operator in the Air Force. His squadron conducted reconnaissance over Japan. He had some interesting stories to tell:
i) He trained on B-17s in Alaska, then flew on B-29s in Florida. 
ii) Our pilots discovered the jet stream. They exploited the jet stream as a tailwind, making the planes fly twice as fast. The Japanese figured we must have some secret technology to make our planes so fast. 
iii) One time their plane crash landed on lift-off.  The cause was sabotage. 
iv) One time he saw ball-lightning form on the outside of the plane. 
v) One time a window blew and the gunner was sucked out of the plane.
vi) My father knew a day before that we were going to drop the A-bomb on Japan. Not because he was in the loop. He was a lowly staff sergeant. It was accidental. He and some buddies were joking with a high-ranking officer on base about dropping that new-fangled A-bomb on Japan. The officer's reaction was horrified–not because it was in bad taste, but because he was in the know. Because his facial reaction as a dead giveaway, he went ahead and told them that, as a matter of fact, they were planning to nuke Japan the very next day. Of course, my dad and his comrades were severely admonished to keep that to themselves. 
I'll begin by reviewing the standard argument for nuking Japan:
In World War II the Japanese military fought with a ferocity that made al-Qaeda look casual and uncommitted. In Okinawa, the Japanese hurled more than 1,000 kamikaze suicide bombers at the American fleet, and tens of thousands more kamikazes readied to defend the Japanese home islands. Japan still held huge swathes of Chinese territory, where unrelenting war and mass-scale atrocities had already cost more than 10 million Chinese lives.Just as disturbing, recent American experience in Saipan and Okinawa had illustrated the extent to which the Japanese civilian population would suffer in any further close combat. By some counts, up to one-third of the total civilian population of Okinawa died during the American invasion, many by suicide as parents killed children, then themselves, rather than fall into allied hands. At Saipan, Japanese civilians committed suicide by the hundreds — sometimes cutting their own children’s throats — persuaded by Japanese propaganda that Americans would commit unspeakable atrocities against civilians. Assuming similar behavior during an invasion, estimates of additional Japanese casualties ran into the millions — with American casualty estimates wildly varying but certainly no less than hundreds of thousands.Faced with the twin realities of inevitable Japanese defeat and staggering civilian and military casualties, the allies did the right thing: On July 26, they issued a surrender demand, the Potsdam Declaration.  The Japanese rejected it, the atomic bombs followed roughly two weeks later, and the war ended.As the horror of World War II begins to fade into distant memory, it’s imperative that we not let the Left control the narrative. Already in pacifist Christian circles, I’ve seen historically illiterate professors and pundits condemn the Hiroshima bombing with greater ferocity than they condemn the rape of Nanking, much less Japan’s years-long reign of terror in China.
I'll also quote a few statements by Curtis Lamay which gives an idea of how military advisers at the time viewed the conflict:
  • We’re at war with Japan. We were attacked by Japan. Do you want to kill Japanese, or would you rather have Americans killed?
  • From his autobiography, also requoted in Rhodes, 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb', p. 596

  • As far as casualties were concerned I think there were more casualties in the first attack on Tokyo with incendiaries than there were with the first use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The fact that it's done instantaneously, maybe that's more humane than incendiary attacks, if you can call any war act humane. I don't, particularly, so to me there wasn't much difference. A weapon is a weapon and it really doesn't make much difference how you kill a man. If you have to kill him, well, that's the evil to start with and how you do it becomes pretty secondary. I think your choice should be which weapon is the most efficient and most likely to get the whole mess over with as early as possible.
  • The World at War: the Landmark Oral History from the Classic TV Series
  • , p. 574

From early on he argued that, "if you are going to use military force, then you ought to use overwhelming military force. Use too much and deliberately use too much... You'll save lives, not only your own, but the enemy's too."

The point isn't that we necessarily agree with him, but in assessing the morality of nuking Japan, as well as the morality of those responsible, we need to take their intentions into account–instead of simply imposing our own viewpoint onto the issue.  
i) There were some notable critics of the war. Eisenhower and MacArthur opposed dropping the bomb. However, Ike was a political rival who ran against the Truman administration, and MacArthur had an ax to grind with Truman. 
ii) The problem with alternate history is that, as a matter of fact, we never get a chance to find out how that would have played out. Since the counterfactual alternatives were never tried, we don't know how well or badly they would have fared in comparison with what we actually did. 
Even if successful, the alternatives would still prolong the war effort, leading to more American dead and wounded. Even in a best case scenario, how many US soldiers should we sacrifice to spare Japanese civilians? And, of course, you could have a worse-case scenario for American soldiers and Japanese civilians alike. 

iii) I also expect that Hirohito had a very sheltered upbringing. That would leave him terribly out of touch with reality. It would take something spectacular to shock him into awareness. I'm reminded of The Last Emperor in the Forbidden City. True, that's China rather than Japan. But I presume that in both cases, the royal family had little exposure to the outside world, much less the modern Western world. 

iv) One fresh perspective comes from John Wheeler, the renown physicist who worked on the Manhattan project:
When Wheeler learned the news, he was devastated. He blamed himself. “One cannot escape the conclusion that an atomic bomb program started a year earlier and concluded a year sooner would have spared 15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them,” he wrote in his memoir. “I could—probably—have influenced the decision makers if I had tried.”
What's striking about Wheeler's lament is that he essentially reframes the discussion. He thinks we should have dropped the bomb sooner! He laments the fact that we didn't develop it faster and deployed it sooner so that we could have ended the war earlier. The sooner WWII ended, the more lives that would save for all parties concerned.

Moreover, that seems to shift the hypothetical to possibly dropping the bomb on Germany. At least for starters. 


  1. Very good posting. You brought up a point which I've railed against for years - people here in the 21st century imposing 21st Century views and morality on the events of the past. Back in the early 20th century the idea of fighting a "humanitarian" war was to strike quick, strike hard, and win completely ending the war for all parties involved as soon as possible. Now we have history 'professors' who are addicted to the politically driven concept of a "limited" war (best way ever developed to loose a war) and inject that "sensibility" into their review of past wars making our fathers and grandfathers out to be barbarians. The best way to read history is the same as the best way to read the Bible - let it speak for itself, let it change us rather than us trying to change it.

  2. Japan was a very westernised country in 1941. The national sport was baseball. Hirohito had travelled to Europe as a young man. He was no dictator, although he was not a puppet either. If any Japanese appear sheltered and out of touch with reality in August 1945 they were in the war party in the cabinet and among the military brass.

  3. I'm just glad they didn't develop the bomb from Fluorine. That would have only added unnecessary insult to injury.

  4. Though provoking. Posted here , with many responses.

  5. It should also be duly noted that Japan had its own atomic weapons program underway as develop and detonate the "genzai bakudan" all began when Japan purchased a working cyclotron in 1938 from U Cal Berkley (how's THAT for irony") 1944 they had a working nuclear reactor on the Korean peninsula near Konan,and were receiving highly refined uranium oxide from Germany by submarine...had Truman not decided to use "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" and the Allies had invaded Japan in late 1945.that might very well have been enough time for them to develop a low yield U235 "collision" type bomb and detonate it in the vicinity of the US 3rd Fleet....such a scenario belongs in back issues of "Nightmare Comics"