Today marks the 73th anniversary of the United States’ atomic bomb attack on the Japanese city Hiroshima. Three days later, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Shortly thereafter, Emperor Hirohito took the unprecedented of addressing his people by radio to inform them that the war was “not necessarily going in Japan’s favor.” (This may have lost something in the translation, but has been used as an example of Japanese understatement.)
Recent years have seen quite a bit of attempted historical revisionism and doubts, particularly by the left, of the morality of President Truman’s decision to use those weapons. Many have gone so far to brand Truman as a war criminal. General Dwight Eisenhower, no less, is reputed to have voiced such concerns a the time, though he later repudiated that sentiment.
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. Active fighting ceased with Germany agreeing 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 the Nazis’ 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, by air raids, and British and American ground troops had 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 literally to the last man.
A plan for invasion of the Japan islands was formed. Casualties were estimated to be in excess of 500, 000 American service men killed. That estimate of casualties has been disputed by revisionists. One estimate by some planners reduced that number to 193,000 killed, wounded, and missing. But did that matter. To paraphrase Air Marshal Arthur Harris, head of the British Bomber Command, were all the cities in Japan, who started the war, worth the life of a single United States Marine?
Fortunately for those soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, the bombs made a ground invasion of Japan unnecessary. Many American lives doubtless were saved.
Bret Stephens of the New York Times (formerly with the Wall Street Journal) wrote on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima/Nagasaki:
“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.”
Stephens is correct. The result was the closest to a Carthaginian Peace as the world has seen since ancient Rome. That left Germany and Japan with no doubt they had been defeated. Both changed their warlike culture. Since 1945, neither one has troubled the world.
Note: When going through the periodicals I have saved over the years, I came across an article written by Robert James Maddox, a professor at Penn State, who is also the author of Weapons of War, Hiroshima Fifty Years Later (University of Missouri Press 1995). Here is a link to that article for those interested. Why Truman had to use it