This Monday will mark the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese surrender which ended World War II. Before that day arrives, there were two other 72nd anniversaries. Wednesday marked the 72nd anniversary of dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, while Sunday marked the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Few events have been debated in hindsight more passionately. Public approval of the bombings has decreased significantly since 1945. In 2015, Pew Research said that 57% of Americans feel the bombings were justified, down from 85% in 1945. However, the modern debate is a tale of moral hindsight gone wrong.
Crisis In The Pacific
The Pacific War was only getting more and more intense as the Allies got closer to Japan. In October 1944, Kamikaze attacks had begun by the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In 1945, American forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in American history at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The US Navy suffered more combat deaths at Okinawa than it did in all previous wars combined. Japanese resistance was getting fiercer, not weaker, and the invasion of the home island would be even more fierce.
Considering the nature of the war in 1945 it is no wonder that the public overwhelming supported President Truman’s decision at the time. Those who question dropping the atomic bomb cannot even begin fathom the cost of an invasion of Japan.
Military experts had estimated that an invasion could result in 1.7-4 million Allied casualties, including 400,000-800,000 deaths. To put a potential 4 million casualties into perspective, that number equals the size of the American Expeditionary Force during the First World War. Further, the modern Veteran’s Administration estimates that 651,031 service members gave their lives for their country in battle from 1775-1991 in battle.
Japan’s Refusal to Surrender
Many cite the 129,000 civilian casualties as evidence that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were evil acts. However, the facts suggest that these numbers were actually highly restrained. It was estimated that the invasion would result in the loss of 5-10 million Japanese lives.
Japan had no intention of surrendering on its own. Two months before Hiroshima, the Japanese government made clear that was their goal to, “prosecute the war to the bitter end in order to uphold the national polity, protect the imperial land, and accomplish the objectives for which we went to war.” One Japanese admiral even said that Japan could achieve victory if was willing to sacrifice 20 million lives.
So great was the belief in the Bushido ethic that some members of the Japanese military were willing to overthrow the god-king emperor in August 1945 to keep the war going. Only when Japan’s leaders realized that there may be no country left did Japan finally surrender.
Judging History Through Hindsight
Despite the clear evidence at the time that the atomic bomb was essential to victory, our modern debate still rages on. The recent drop in approval can be attributed to people living 72 years later, fully aware of the war’s outcome.
The overwhelming majority of people who consider the atomic bombings to be evil were never a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine charged with invading Japan. They have the luxury of not standing in a landing craft, ready to invade Southern Japan. Nor are they stationed aboard a ship that may soon be targeted by a kamikaze strike.
Those in other countries are in no position to lecture us, either. No other country in world history was ever faced with the dilemma of how to conduct an amphibious invasion of a country like Japan in 1945.
Studying history is full of second-guessing the decisions of others. Sometimes, we rightly criticize the moral failings of those who came before us in order to learn from their mistakes. Other times, we pass judgement from on high about a decision, focusing on the results. This kind of revisionism is myopic, and those who engage in it typically don’t explore the alternatives that individuals actually had at the time.
The facts suggest that President Truman made the only rational decision available to him. He saw the atomic bomb as a way to end the war without a bloody invasion. That was a decision for which all of us–American, Japanese, or otherwise–should be forever grateful.