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August 8th, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: Reflections on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Though I was not yet one year old when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), at this time of year, my thoughts always turn to those horrific days. Perhaps it was the reading of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” that made such an indelible impression on me. Perhaps it was because of my long-standing friendship with a Japanese-American born in a Utah relocation camp during World War II. Perhaps it was the singular horror of such an act that prevents its escape from my mind. Whatever the reason, I can never let the anniversary pass without remembering.

Most Americans seem to believe that dropping two bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a morally justified act that ended World War II in the Pacific theater. I have never understood why killing 110,000 people with two bombs is an act accepted with such casualness by Americans. Further, many more people–tens of thousands–who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time of the bombings died in the ensuing months and years as a result of the blasts.

I have always viewed war as the greatest tragedy of human existence. Most people hold human beings in such high esteem that killing them for food is one of the strongest taboos among our kind. War on the other hand is seen as noble, though its purpose is to kill other humans, not for food, but for the sake of control and power. It is true that America was attacked by the Japanese military at Pearl Harbor without provocation. America was required to respond to defend itself against being overrun by a foreign power. The Pacific war was as horrific as the fight against Hitler. I have counted among my friends numerous men who fought on both fronts, some of whom were wounded and suffered, both mentally and physically, for the rest of their lives. Some of my relatives died in the conflict.

Others have pointed to the devastating effects of the sustained bombing of the residential areas of cities with conventional weapons as evidence that war is a human activity that is inherently immoral: Lubeck; Cologne; Essen; Dortmund; Bochum; Duisburg; Düsseldorf; Hamm; Berlin; Hamburg; Dresden; Warsaw; Wielun; London; Coverntry; Rotterdam; Kassel; Darmstadt; Pforzheim; Swinemuende; Caen; Milan; Turin; Stalingrad, Leningrad; Budapest; Belfast; Belgrade; Bucharest; Tokyo; Honolulu; Colombo; Darwin and others. While those killed in the conventional bombings in Dresden and Hamburg approached the magnitude of the losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nothing compares to the instant horror of the bombs dropped on those two Japanese cities.

The widespread belief among Americans seems to be that President Truman had no choice about dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the only way to end the war quickly, many believe. This belief has been called into question by historians who have researched the memoranda, cables, and other communications about the decision to drop those two bombs, as well as the strategic position of US forces in the Pacific at the time. Some believe that a demonstration of the horrible power of atomic bombs would have been sufficient to cause the Japanese to surrender. We will never know whether this is true because that’s not what America’s president did.

The US largely avoided bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki with conventional bombs so that when the atomic bombs were dropped, their effects could be accurately measured. They were, in a sense, pristine targets for determining how effective this new weapon was. Truly, this atomic devastation was an experiment from beginning to end.

When the Japanese Emperor Hirohito decided to surrender, he explained part of his rationale with reference to the atomic bomb: “Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. 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.”

The hatred of Japanese people was so widespread in the US that they were frequently regarded as vermin and caricatured as subhuman. A sizable number of Americans favored the complete annihilation of Japanese men, women, and children. In typical military fashion, the pictures of the two atomic bombings were manipulated for maximum propaganda effect–pictures of dead and wounded people were not allowed; pictures of a mushroom cloud was all that most Americans ever saw at the time. Some graphic images were censored for 22 years afterwards.

A debate about the ethics of the bombings has continued for the last 65 years. Undoubtedly, had the atomic bombs not been used in some fashion, an invasion of Japan would have resulted in the loss of millions of lives. We will never know whether a demonstration of the power of the atomic bomb would have caused Japan to capitulate.

And, based on the opinions of many of our military and civilian leaders, the need for an invasion was far from proven. Prominent voices of dissent about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan included these:

Dwight Eisenhower (in “Mandate For Change,” p. 380): “…in [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. … During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude…”

Admiral William D. Leahy (Chief of Staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, in “I Was There,” p. 441): “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons. … The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

General Douglas MacArthur (as discussed by William Manchester in “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964,” p. 512): “…the Potsdam declaration in July, demand[ed] that Japan surrender unconditionally or face ‘prompt and utter destruction.’ MacArthur was appalled. He knew that the Japanese would never renounce their emperor, and that without him an orderly transition to peace would be impossible anyhow, because his people would never submit to Allied occupation unless he ordered it. Ironically, when the surrender did come, it was conditional, and the condition was a continuation of the imperial reign. Had the General’s advice been followed, the resort to atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been unnecessary.”

Norman Cousins (a consultant to General MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan, writing of his conversations with MacArthur in “The Pathology of Power,” pp. 65, 70-71): “MacArthur’s views about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were starkly different from what the general public supposed. … When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”

Lewis Strauss (Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, quoted in Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed’s book, “The Decision To Drop the Bomb,” pp. 145, 325.): “I proposed to Secretary Forrestal that the weapon should be demonstrated before it was used. Primarily it was because it was clear to a number of people, myself among them, that the war was very nearly over. The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate… My proposal to the Secretary was that the weapon should be demonstrated over some area accessible to Japanese observers and where its effects would be dramatic. I remember suggesting that a satisfactory place for such a demonstration would be a large forest of cryptomeria trees not far from Tokyo. The cryptomeria tree is the Japanese version of our redwood … I anticipated that a bomb detonated at a suitable height above such a forest … would lay the trees out in windrows from the center of the explosion in all directions as though they were matchsticks, and, of course, set them afire in the center. It seemed to me that a demonstration of this sort would prove to the Japanese that we could destroy any of their cities at will … Secretary Forrestal agreed wholeheartedly with the recommendation… It seemed to me that such a weapon was not necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion, that once used it would find its way into the armaments of the world … .”

What we do know is that the United States is the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon against another people. President Obama’s recent commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons is a first step toward eliminating the threat of worldwide nuclear holocaust, but it is a bare beginning as noted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said this past week, “[President Obama] has said many times that he recognizes this is a long-term goal. It is something that will take years of effort by leaders and citizens who recognize the importance of denuclearizing our planet.”

In keeping with this commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons, at this year’s somber commemoration of the 1945 bombings, Japanese officials and citizens were joined by a representative of the US government for the very first time in our history. US Ambassador John Roos said in a statement at the Hiroshima monument, “For the sake of future generations, we must continue to work together to realize a world without nuclear weapons.” Robert Jay Lipton, a US psychiatrist, author, and nuclear weapons opponent characterized the importance of having a US official present at the annual commemoration: “It signifies our joining in honoring the dead–that’s what that occasion is about, honoring the dead–and finding meaning in their deaths. And the overall meaning at that ceremony is warning the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons.”

In keeping with the spirit of honoring the dead from the the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I conclude with this poem, whose authorship and origin are unknown to me. The last line, however, comes from the Cenotaph for atomic bomb victims in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

You saw the bomb floating down.
You saw the blinding flash.
You heard the deafening roar.
You felt the wrath of the flames.
You heard the frightened screams.
You saw so many people fall.
You stood alone among the devastation.
“Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat this evil.”

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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13 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Reflections on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

  1. What you need to appreciate is there where two camps in the Japanese high command at the time:

    1) Fight to the end
    2)Let the Americans come and then we will sue for peace on our terms once we slaughter them on the beaches

    There was no #3. Therefore, What you would have had in Sept of 45 was a blood bath in Japan with the “Band of Bothers”, moving to the Pacific after defeating Hitler, being pitch forked by women and children, and Truman still having the bomb ready to go.

    People need to realize Japan was not going to surrender under anything close to acceptable terms. Leaving Tojo in power was not acceptable. Therefore, the bomb was going to be use (Truman would be impeached if it wasn’t) so the fact it happened early is the best case scenario.

  2. You are forgetting the fact that while these negotiations were going on the Japanese defenders of Okinawa were fighting to the death – as they did on every piece of ground. They were a tenacious enemy – there is absolutely NO evidence that it wouldn’t have been the same if/when we invaded the mainland. The unconditional surrender of the Japanese was essential – just as it was for the Germans. Japan was ‘seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of “face.”‘ All this means is they wanted a way out of taking blame that they started the war. Their soldiers were so indoctrinated that they would not have accepted anything less than the emperor himself capitulating. You cite sources that state Japan was ready to end the war; yes, but not under an unconditional surrender. WWI and Germany ring any bells?
    As far as racism – do a little research on how they treated our dead fighting men – it was barbaric. This is not an excuse for what you call our ‘racism’ it just puts into the context of the times.

  3. Right on. Thank you. Obviously I agree that it was a mistake. My sense is there was an undercurrent that had a “crush the bug” agenda to make a point that America would never be invaded or attacked on home soil ever again.

    Sound familiar?


  4. It seems that those who were not there are about the only ones who deem themselves the best critics of those who had to live it.

  5. I have enjoyed many of your thought provoking articles. As with articles past, I find this article to be well written and your argument well presented. I, however, do not share the conclusion of some that the Japanese were ready to surrender.
    After many years of research and study on my own, I have come to the conclusion that this was the most responsible course of action on the part of President Truman for the American people and our allies. Japan was still engaged in brutal combat with our forces and fully engaged in the whole scale genocidal destruction of the Chinese people.
    It took the full force of these bombs to assure the total defeat, and acceptance of that defeat, by the Japanese armed forces.
    A point you neglected to include in your article is that even after the bombs were dropped there was still a segment of the Imperial Army ready to continue the fight. Some officers of the Imperial Army even attempted a coup d’état and the de facto kidnapping of the emperor in the hours before the emperors recorded voice was broadcast over Japanese radio. But for the bravery of emperors’ chamberlain and a low level radio bureaucrat they may have succeeded in stopping that broadcast.
    To be sure, war is a tragedy that we must and should not engage haphazardly. Ask anyone who has participated in acts of war if they liked it. I don’t think you will find anyone who has enjoyed fighting. But there are times when there is sufficient casus belli to support a just war doctrine. There are times when war, as disgusting as anything created by man, must be fought. The participation of the United States in the Second World War meets, and to my thinking exceeds, those criteria. The bombing of Japan was moral, justified, and necessary. Had Nazis Germany not surrendered as it did, then it would have been equally justifiable to unleash the destructive power of Little Boy and Fat Man on that country.

  6. How many people died in an attack where war had not been declared. Where everyone was at peace when we were attacked. How quickly we forget.

  7. Some of you are lucky you get to have an opinion. Over 65 years ago most of Europe and parts of Asia did not get to have one.

  8. War is seen as noble? And you define war as the killing of other humans “for the sake of control and power”? You seem to be woefully lacking in the ability to differentiate between the AGGRESSORS and the DEFENDERS in war. For only one of these two is war for the sake of control and power. For the other, it is for the preservation of their own lives and freedoms. Of course no peace loving people ever wants to have to engage in the human tragedy of war in order to defend themselves, but we must when our lives and livelihood are at stake.

    Regarding the dropping of the bombs, it is not a revelation to know that there were doubts and reservations among some on the use of atomic weapons. There were also many, such as Leslie Groves who headed the project for the military, who saw the use of the bombs as a clinching blow. As you show, that debate is still going on. I believe the decision that was made was heavily influenced by the fact that only TWO bombs were ready to use. Plutonium for one bomb had been used as a test at the Trinity Site in New Mexico because scientists were unsure of the design – the mechanisms for detonating the uranium of the Little Boy and the plutonium of the Fat Man being different. With only TWO bombs available it was deemed best not to potentially waste one on a demonstration; they had to get more effect. I feel that if the US had had three or four or five bombs available, they might have gone the demonstration route first. You can’t mix up a batch of plutonium or enriched uranium in an afternoon, it was a long process.

    I don’t know why we would give stock to Hirohito’s lament about the bomb’s ability to destroy innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Wasn’t he the one who sent planes to destroy Pearl Harbor, and anyone who happened to be there at the time? All that being said, I think we all recognize the tragedy of war and the loss of human life. And whether by atomic bomb, by conventional bombs, or by having one’s body hacked to death by clubs and swords like they did in the good ol’ days, we can pray for peace but be ready if someone tries to destroy us.

    I don’t want a nuclear free world as long as there are evil aggressors out there. I want nuclear weapons in the hands of the peace loving benevolent people who may be called upon to defend themselves, and at the same time, nuclear weapons MUST be kept out of the hands of those who would use them aggressively. That is a more sure way to peace than for the peaceful to leave themselves defenseless.

  9. Had there been the time and the means to drop twenty atomic bombs instead of only two, then perhaps the Japanese people would have been fairly repaid for their treacherous initiation and utterly bestial conduct of the Pacific war.

    A couple of weeks before Hiroshima over 100,000 were killed in a bombing raid on Tokyo with conventional weapons. Why are there no protests over that?

  10. The Japanese got everything they deserved when the atomic bombs were dropped. Only when they were faced with complete annihilation of their country via the extermination of their army and navy across the Pacific, the destruction of their shipping and denial of war materiel, and fire-bombing and atomic bombing of their cities, and the entry of Russia into the war would they consider surrender. Perhaps you should read up on the murder, rape and torture of millions civilians and POWs conducted by the Japanese.

    For instance:

    mass executions
    bayonet “practice”
    gruesome beatings, torture, amputation, disfigurement, mutilation
    forced marches with “sun treatment” and deprivation of food and water
    transport of humans (hell-ships and rail cars) in incredibly inhumane conditions
    human shields
    live burial
    rape and sex slaves
    biological warfare and chemical weapons
    forced labor
    denial of medical care
    human experiments

    The Japanese got what they deserved.

  11. Don’t forget that the Japanese actually had the Bomb. You only have to Google “Genzai Bakudan” Don’t get fooled by old History books. They well deserved to be devastated by Hiroshima and Nagasaki nukes.

  12. As Alzheimer’s took over my Father when he died. He cried and cried over his Pacific experience. The atrocities of the Japanese turned our boys into war criminals also. This war had unspeakable brutality. Men who had no brutality in them, had to literally fight fire with fire. Dad captured two Japanese soldier’s and was berated for it. His superiors did not like it, his captives liked it even less. Both were unconscious or totally beaten of he would not have been able to literally risk his life to bring them in. Taking Japanese soldiers alive was nigh on impossible. He made friends with one. Together they were in Tokyo. They agreed, Tokyo was worse than Nagasaki. People forget the horror of firebombing. Although there was disagreement, even among two men who met in deadly hand to hand combat and found a way to be friends. The Japanese prisoner still thought we could find another way to end it. It was very hard on both men to look at the devastation we wrought on Japan. Starvation was so severe and watching children die. The Eastern idea of combat was based on honor. They had no qualms about millions of people dying in combat. That was honorable. Last Japanese surrender of WWII was in 1980. These people were not going to give up. The prisoner spoke of his outrage about waking up in a POW camp. The agreement among the two men, former deadly enemies, lifelong friends, came to this. We must never do this again. Another difference is rarely noted. When the Axis powers committed atrocities on other peoples, we cleaned up the mess. When we committed atrocities, we cleaned up the mess. THAT was how two men who met in a death struggle got to be friends. The Japanese prisoner became a doctor. He credited my Dad with not only saving his life, he credited my Dad with saving thousands in Nagasaki. He saw American GI’s against orders, Dad included, go hungry to feed starving Japanese children. In my Dad’s case, he helped clean up the Bataan death march, plenty of reason to hate the Japanese, yet he could not. He just did not have that in him. What bothers me is how quickly we go to war still. It bothered them also. The point of the article is the callousness we view war from our arm chairs. Our fathers and grandfather’s did horrible things. The Americans of that great generation knew how to turn swords into plowshares, better than anyone who came before them. I fear better than anyone who has come since. The best reason for NOT dropping the bomb I have heard came from the Franke report, if anyone bothers to read that part of history. However, the Soviets proved that theory wrong, since Soviet spies were already stealing atomic secrets at the time of the report. We had no choice. We came to immediate aid of our victims. We did it to save millions so steeped in a code of honor, they were not strong enough to save themselves. We did what we did to save lives. Anyone who says differently dishonors my Father, who fought hard, without hatred, and loved harder. Do not insult my Father’s memory by forgetting that part of historical fact.

  13. Two more points, sorry to write so long. The Potsdam demand for “unconditional” surrender was sent through diplomatic back channels to the Japanese. Soviets, Switzerland and Sweden. The definition of “unconditional” was defined. In other words they gave the conditions. War trials for the guilty. Maintaining the emperor. Disarming of Armed forces. Occupation of Japan by allied forces. Allied forces would not leave until a democratic system was put in place. Even after Hiroshima, the best the Japanese leadership could come up with was a 50/50 decision. The Japanese doubted that it was indeed one bomb. Only after Nagasaki did they believe it. Still a 50/50 split decision and only after the Emperor was told by a Japanese prince that It was doubtful the royal family could survive much longer, fear of dying by Japanese hands as well as American bombs, did the emperor finally put an end to this madness. Truman stopped bombing for awhile to give them time to decide, since the Japanese reaction to our original back channel efforts was answered with, “We can’t decide this all at once.” The time without bombing was just being used in more war preparation, including a final Banzai attack in the South, which the Japanese commander did not want to make. Yet, he still followed orders. According to my Dad, no pictures could describe what he saw. I did see pictures of the devastation and dead within the 22 years mentioned in the picture. We were still a democracy. I wish I still had them. It still would not illustrate the smell, sounds and horror. Fire bombing was instant death. Nuclear bombing is instant death followed by years of radiation sickness and death. Both were horrible. Firebombing creates tornadoes of fire destroying all in it’s path. No innocent child deserves to be killed by either method, but if the choice is killing 250,000 children or millions, and this was the choice we were left with, by all information available. I think the least worst choice was made. They were horrific choices.

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