The decade's most triggering comedy
Sunday, August 6th, marks the 78th anniversary of the use of an atomic weapon on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days hence we will commemorate the obliteration of Nagasaki in the same manner. The success of the film “Oppenheimer,” about the mercurial physicist who headed up the Manhattan Project that brought forth the nuclear age, has prompted rethinking on the subject. This is a good thing.
Much time has passed since these two seminal events not just in World War II, but the history of the human race. It marks the moment when the world saw the power our scientists at Los Alamos had unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. The power to destroy an entire city with one bomb was inconceivable before 1945. Now, nuclear weapons are glibly accepted as just another arrow in the quiver of our and other nations’ national defense. And yet, such a sublime anniversary and how it has shaped the post-war world, should be contemplated more than it is, regardless of how much time passes.
Of course, the key question remains: Was the use of nuclear weapons on Japan necessary? It is a question that haunts us to this day. For me, I must answer this by placing myself in the position of then-President Harry Truman, who made the decision to go forward with the missions. And as such, I must ask myself: what other choices did he have?
To answer this, let us first remember the situation in which Truman found himself in the summer of 1945. It is easy for us today, comfortable in the eighth decade of our Pax Americana, to forget just how devastating and violent the war had been. By July 16, 1945, when the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert detonated the first atomic bomb, Germany had surrendered and Europe lay in quiet ruins. But on the other side of the world in the Pacific, Japan, though battered and bloodied and with its empire greatly reduced, appeared far from willing to capitulate.
On the contrary, the closer the U.S. armed forces got to the home islands, the more ferociously the Japanese resisted. From September 1944 to June 1945, the U.S. Marines, Navy, and Army had fought a series of battles that were bleeding them dry: Peleliu, Leyte, Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Each battle had been weeks-long slugfests that saw U.S. casualties steadily mounting at an alarming rate. Indeed, Okinawa, the final and largest battle of the Pacific War, had also been the bloodiest. Some 12,500 US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines had been killed with four times that wounded. And tellingly, the highest number of “battle fatigue” diagnoses (what we now call PTSD) were reported on top of the physical wounds from seemingly endless and exhausting combat with a foe who was determined to sell his life dearly for his god emperor. Reports from Okinawa also showed morale was crumbling, and the replacements fed into the meat grinder were often poorly trained and bewildered. Many didn’t even survive long enough to have their names included in the unit rolls. To be sure, Okinawa was a victory, as the island was eventually secured after 72 days of combat, but at a horrific cost; even the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, Jr., was KIA. And as bloody as it was for the U.S. and Allies, it was worse for the Japanese. Figures are hard to verify, but over 110,000 Japanese troops and probably an equal number of Okinawan civilians if not more perished in what one Marine described as “Hell’s cesspool.”
So the agonizing dilemma that Okinawa and other ferocious fights prompted in the White House when considering the use of the atomic bomb was this: If the Japanese would fight so fiercely for these tiny dots of land in the Pacific, what would be the price to take Japan itself? Planners grimly predicted anywhere from 250,000 to one million U.S. and Allied losses. These would be stacked on top of the already 400,000 plus American dead the war had cost us. And who knew how many Japanese would eventually perish as every man, woman, and child would have been turned into warriors steeled to defend Dai Nippon from the Western barbarians? In fact, one U.S. Marine veteran offered: “I would hate to have been involved in the landing on the mainland of Japan. I doubt we could have pulled it off. We didn’t have the personnel.”
So it was while contemplating this disquieting prognostication that Truman was presented with a means to hopefully convince Tokyo that further resistance was futile. One must imagine, as were Truman’s advisors, how the American people would have reacted if, after burying anywhere from a quarter million to a million more of their sons, husbands, and fathers, they learned that Truman had had in his possession a potential war-ending weapon, but declined to use it. Indeed, impeachment would have been the least of his problems.
For Truman, therefore, there really was no choice. Some historians today — as did some of the more militant Japanese leaders at the time — argue that the losses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no worse than those of the firebombings of cities like Tokyo, in which 14 square miles of the capital had been burned out and some 100,000 Japanese civilians with it — making March 10, 1945, the deadliest one-day wartime death toll in history. And what finally tipped the balance was the U.S. backing away from its demand for “unconditional surrender” as that would have meant ending the imperial reign, and perhaps trying Hirohito for war crimes. Although Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who would be Japan’s de facto ruler during the occupation, understood that as the Japanese viewed Hirohito as a god and would obey any imperial edict, his survival and assent to an orderly occupation was indispensable to transitioning Japan into a peaceful and productive nation. We can never know.
Still, there was something awesome and sinister about the idea of just one B-29 with one bomb being able to inflict the same carnage upon a nation as one thought required hundreds. Hirohito and others who saw the handwriting on the wall understood that the war had entered a new, apocalyptic phase never before seen in human history. Hiroshima, they thought, may have been a fluke. A one-off to be endured and ignored. Indeed, no response to Truman’s ultimatum for surrender was forthcoming in the days after August 6th. But when on August 9th, the B-29 “Bock’s Car” dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, it became clear to the Japanese that Truman’s promised “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth” was not just bravado. True, we had no more bombs at the ready yet, but, of course, Tokyo didn’t know this. So they finally yielded to reason and agreed to “endure the unendurable” as Hirohito instructed his subjects.
As for the world the bombings ushered in, it is still too early in the new age of the “after” in the historical timeline to tell whether setting loose the nuclear genie meant the end of such global cataclysms given Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) or, more ominously, simply began the denouement of the human race as the Damoclean sword of annihilation hangs above us, just waiting for a moment of global instability, or an empowered madman with access to a nuclear arsenal, to end us all. What we can say, however, is that if one were to graph the escalation of global war dead and suffering from ancient times until the end of 1945, the line moves inexorably from the lower left to the upper right. After 1945, though there is still war, the line drops precipitously. Perhaps, as Truman had intended, the use of atomic weapons as a deterrent to continued and future aggression has saved countless lives over the years. Whether this is just a breather before the final mass extinction of the human race, or an ushering of a less deadly epoch, only time will tell.
But in 1945, Truman made the right — indeed the only — choice available to him. And as the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons in combat (so far) it gives us much to think on … but nothing to be ashamed of.
Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, author of two novels, and columnist. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, NY Daily News, National Review, The Federalist, The Hill, Zerohedge, and Daily Wire. His newest book, LIFE IN THE PITS: My Time As A Trader In The Rough-And-Tumble Exchange Floors comes out in December and is available for preorder.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.