Was Using the A-Bomb Justified?

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 8, 2005

August 6 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the devastating atomic bomb attack against the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.

For the most part, up until the 1960s the predominant view was that theU.S.was justified in its decision to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese. There was a general consensus to accept, at face value, that American leaders had determined that Japan would not surrender, and that their determination to fight to the death against an invasion would have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not a millionU.S.soldiers.

But with the anti-establishment mentality of the 1960s came a new cadre of revisionist historians who began casting the decision to nukeJapanin the context of racism against the Japanese and political opportunism as a show of force to the Soviets. Consequently, for 40 years revisionists have used the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasakito flog America’s conscience.

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For years critics of the decision have asserted that the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary because Japan was so weakened militarily that they realized their situation was hopeless. The revisionists argue that Japan was seeking to negotiate a surrender prior to the bombings. But information from top secret intelligence documents by the U.S. code breaking operation called “Magic” and the British operation called “Ultra” that was declassified in the mid-1990s disclosed a decidedly different situation.

American code breakers had been deciphering Japanese military and diplomatic messages since just before the Battle of Midway. By the summer of 1945, “Magic” was deciphering millions of messages. From these messages President Truman and U.S. military leaders concluded that Japan would not agree to an unconditional surrender.

The revisionists insist otherwise. They point out that in the summer of 1945 the Japanese were seeking a compromised peace to end the war through their envoy to Russia. But based on intercepted Japanese communications, what Japanwas trying to do was make a deal to keep the Soviet Union out of the war.

What the Japanese military rulers really wanted was a deal that would allow their brutal military regime that started the war to stay in power, something the U.S. and the Allies would never have accepted.

Yet the revisionists persist that the primary obstacle that kept Japan from agreeing to an unconditional surrender was the perception that Emperor Hirohito would not be allowed to continue as emperor. According to the revisionists, the Japanese were so loyal to the Emperor that they would have fought to the death to protect him. While that may have been true for the majority of the Japanese, some of the top military leaders did not hold the Emperor in such high esteem. In fact, when Emperor Hirohito announced his decision to surrender, a group of hard-line Japanese military leaders attempted a coup to overthrow him. The coup failed.

Finally, according to the revisionists, the use of the A-bombs were unnecessary because Japan’s military was so devastated that the war would have ended in a matter of weeks anyway. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith even asserted that the use of the A-bombs only shortened the war by two or three weeks at most. But Galbraith and other revisionists couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Japanese had been sheltering their resources in anticipation of an American landing. At the time of the bombings, Japan had over 12,000 aircraft for use against U.S. forces. In terms of land forces, some post war estimates indicate that the Japanese defense forces on Kyushu, the first island targeted for invasion, may have out numbered U.S. forces by a ratio of 3:2. Typically, an invasion force must outnumber defenders by a ratio of 3:1 to be successful. In addition, the Japanese had been training civilians, including children, for attacks against U.S. troops.

The Japanese plan was to inflict such heavy losses that the war weary Americans would seek a negotiated peace. And had the U.S. gone forward with the plans to land on the Kyushu, they would have suffered horrendous casualties. Pre-invasion casualty estimates anticipated the loss of from 100,000 to as many as 1 million American soldiers and from 5-10 million Japanese military and civilian deaths. It has been estimated that for every month that the war continued, between 250,000 to 400,000 Asian civilians still under Japanese occupation would have died.

Revisionists dismiss these estimates as justification for using the A-bombs. But as Dr. James Tent, a professor of history at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, points out, such a dismissal is indicative of the sheer arrogance of the revisionists who, decades after the fact and far removed from the reality of the situation, would presume to judge those who had to make those decisions.

While the revisionists can second-guess the use of such catastrophic weapons on primarily civilian targets, the fact remains that the use of the atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about the end of the war much sooner than any of the other alternatives would have and in so doing saved millions of lives. Given that the Japanese were already responsible for 17 million deaths, it is not hard to conclude that using atomic weapons to end the war was justified.

Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.