Total War — Total Victory

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the United States finally ending World War II with its two atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recent years have seen quite a bit attempted historical revisionism and doubts, particularly by the left, of the morality of President Truman’s decision to use those weapons.

Bret Stephens wrote this in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal:

“Historical judgments must be made in light not only of outcomes but also of options. Would we judge Harry Truman better today if he had eschewed his nuclear option in favor of 7,000 casualties a week; that is, if he had been more considerate of the lives of the enemy than of the lives of his men?

“And so the bombs were dropped, and Japan was defeated. Totally defeated. Modern Japan is a testament to the benefits of total defeat, to stripping a culture prone to violence of its martial pretenses.”

World War II was a total war, at least for the primary belligerents. If total war does not end in total victory for one side, and total defeat for the other, it does not end—a cessation of hostilities is merely a truce and the fighting will inevitably resume.

The 1914-1918 conflict was a total war for the European adversaries, but not for the United States. It ended with Germany agreement to an armistice. At the time of the armistice, German troops were still on French and Belgian soil. None of its adversaries occupied any part of German territory except its overseas colonies. Per the terms of the peace, the German army withdrew across the Rhine and disbanded, essentially unmolested in the process. The manner of what was essentially a conditional surrender made later claims of a “stab in the back” of a victorious army by politicians and bankers plausible. Little more than two decades later, the world was plunged into and even greater and more destructive war in involving the same belligerents.

Not so after 1945. The western allied powers had learned their lesson. They demanded unconditional surrender from both the Germans and Japanese. In May, after its cities had been destroyed, in some cases, utterly, and British and American ground troops penetrated deep its homeland, Germany unconditionally surrendered. Japan meanwhile fought on, even though its cities had suffered as much or even more destruction as Germany’s. Japan’s samurai culture held that there was dishonor in surrender. Defending its many Pacific island possessions, that army often fought to the last man.

A plan for invasion of the Japan islands was formed. Casualties on both sides were estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. The bombs made a forceful invasion unnecessary. Many American lives doubtless were saved. And as an added bonus, because Germany and Japan were left with no doubt they had been defeated, they changed their ethic. Since 1945, neither one has troubled the world.

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