The decision by the U.S. to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945 remains the only use of nuclear weapons in wartime. It is also, arguably, the most controversial decision made by the U.S. in World War II.
However, the decision to use nuclear weapons was not only justified, but it was a moral imperative for the U.S. in their desire to bring a faster end to a bloody and destructive war.
The bomb saved American and Japanese lives, brought a swift end to the conflict and kept the USSR out of Asia. It was, undoubtedly, one of the hardest decisions ever made by a Commander in Chief, but it was certainly the right choice.
The shifting nature of war
The two World Wars evolved and changed the official rules of war. Prior to these conflicts, the goal of militaries was to attack other armies. But the industrial revolution changed all of that.
But the industrial revolution changed all of that. Instead of cities being separate from militaries, the arms and munitions factories formed the backbone of modern armies.
Technological progression blurred the distinction between soldier and civilian, as George Friedman, founder of the global news source Stratfor, noted:
By World War I, the center of gravity was no longer the army but the factories and the workers who produced the engines of war. The distinction between soldier and civilian, critical to all modern notions of military morality, dissolved. The ability to wage war disappeared when the factories did. But given the location of factories, by necessity in cities, any attack on these factories would kill not only workers but also their children, and the milkman’s children. This was, by definition, total war — the only war that could be waged in the industrial age.
With every soldier and civilian involved in the war effort, the key to success in the World Wars was destroying cities, and thus provoking civilians to revolt against their government. This town bombing approach worked in Europe, but Japan was another story.
Dropping the nuclear bomb saved lives
It is popular in liberal revisionist history to say that the end of the war was inevitable; the Japanese knew defeat was imminent, and there was no military imperative to drop the bomb. This mindset is wishful thinking that applies a Western worldview to a country that did not share that mindset.
Had the Americans not dropped the bomb, they would have been forced to invade the Japanese mainland in what was known as “Operation Downfall.” The U.S. plan would have been the largest amphibious assault in history — and one of the bloodiest, with casualty estimates ranging into the millions for Americans (for comparison, the U.S. lost an estimated 419,000 men in WWII overall).
The losses for the Japanese would have been just as catastrophic. The Japanese amassed forces in preparation for the invasion in an attempt to match the U.S. man for man.
They also armed civilians, according to Tom Rogan:
Planning total resistance against invasion, Japanese military leaders had armed civilians with improvised weapons such as sharpened bamboo sticks. These civilians were to be thrown against Allied forces. Those who didn’t fight? Suicide rates during the Battle of Okinawa suggest that many Japanese civilians would have committed suicide rather than surrender.
The dropping of the bombs eliminated the threat of Japanese civilians being forced to stand in front of invading forces or commit suicide.
Launching the all-out invasion of Japan would have led to the destruction of much of the civilian population of the country, with potentially millions dead on both sides. In contrast, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in approximately 200,000 deaths and injuries.
The Russians did not bring an end to the war — nuclear power did
A second favorite talking point of the left is the argument that the Japanese surrendered because the Russians declared war against them. However, this suggests that the honor-driven culture of Japan, which was prepared to fight to the death with the Americans in an all-out invasion, was willing to surrender to Russia.
Even those who condemn the use of the bomb can find little evidence that the Russian entry into the Pacific theater forced the Japanese to surrender. This is largely because that argument assumes that a nation whose culture was vastly different from those in the Western world would use Western military strategies in their fight.
But Japan did not and would not succumb to Western strategies. Even in the hours between the bombs dropping and Japan surrendering, some military leaders attempted a coup against the Japanese emperor so they could fight to the death.
Indeed, the Japanese emperor himself admitted in his surrender speech that the nuclear bombs were the driving influence on immediate surrender:
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.
Nuclear power is an immense responsibility
Then-President Harry Truman’s decision was a difficult one, perhaps one of the hardest decisions in American military history. President Truman called nuclear power the “awful responsibility” because it gave man the unimaginable power to wipe entire cities off the map.
However, despite that responsibility, neither President Truman nor the men involved in dropping the bomb hesitated to use it. They understood the importance of ending the war quickly after four long and bloody years in Europe and the Pacific. Innumerable lives were saved, military and civilian, by forcing Japan to surrender.
One of the qualities of true leadership is that it is unwavering even in times of crisis. The men who dropped the bomb saved the lives of a generation of young Americans and probably as many or more Japanese citizens. Let us hope we never forget their leadership — and wisdom.