The Alternative Would Have Been Worse

The Americans dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago was atrocious, but right. Anything else would have cost more human lives.

Seventy years ago on Aug. 6, the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese harbor city of Hiroshima. The second American bomb exploded in the sky over Nagasaki. There are no words to describe what happened after those instruments of mass murder were dropped. The human language was not made for that.

One could stay technical and speak of the uranium core, the chain reaction, the gamma radiation, the white-hot fire ball, whose heat scorched the skin even miles from the dropping point, and the shock wave, that traveled as fast as sound, razing houses to the ground and turning window panes into thousands of tiny deadly projectiles.

”I had a lot of milk that day, which he drank. I think my child sucked the poison out of my body. He died shortly after. Yes, I think, my child died for me. “ – Eiko Takoa

The young mother was only 750 meters (approximately 2,460 feet) from the explosion center in Hiroshima.

But maybe it would be better to let a survivor speak here. Eiko Takoa, a 21-year-old Japanese woman, was taking the tram when the bomb fell. She was 750 meters away from ground zero. The tram just arrived at a stop: “As I had my son on my arm, a young woman in front of me said to me: I am getting off here. Please take my seat.

We swapped places when a weird smell and sound suddenly filled the air. It got dark and before I knew what had happened, I had jumped off… I was holding my son and looked at him. He had been standing next to the window, and I think, shards of glass had pierced his head. His face was disfigured because blood was running down it. But he looked at me and smiled. I will always remember him smiling. He did not understand what had happened. So he looked at me with a smile on his bloody face. I had a lot of milk that day, which he drank. I think my child sucked the poison out of my body. He died shortly after. Yes, I think, my child died for me.”

Comparisons with Genocides Are Precluded

If a person’s heart does not ache for such a story, he does not have one. And thus, there are people who use Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the same breath as Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago, as if democratic America had joined the ranks with Nazi Germany and a totalitarian Soviet Union in August 1945. Frankly, that is ridiculous.

No matter what you think of the bomb, it was an act of war. It belongs to a completely different category than the genocide of the European Jews or Stalin’s “big purge.” But are the bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes? Maybe. One just has to remember that the alternative would have been a lot worse.

The military junta that ruled imperial Japan had no scruples. Under their regime, Japan occupied Manchuria to get its raw materials. In 1937, Japanese soldiers killed tens of thousands of Chinese civilians in an unforgettable massacre that lasted many weeks. They ambushed Pearl Harbor and occupied the Philippines. They forced Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese women into prostitution. When thinking of the horrors of the atomic bomb, remember also what the Kwatung army’s famous “Unit 731” did in Manchuria: infecting Chinese civilians with pests and anthrax and conducting atrocious experiments on prisoners of war.

Crazy Aims Using Rational Methods

However, the Japanese rulers were coldblooded and calculating, not crazy. Already in July 1944, they knew that there was no way for them to win the war: American troops hopped from island to island despite strenuous resistance; American bombers burned Tokyo to ashes with repeated attacks. The Japanese navy had been defeated in the Battle of Midway in 1942, after which supplies to Japan were cut off and they had to live off meager rations.

However, the Japanese leaders cared nothing about their own civilians’ suffering. They did not fight for the well-being of the Japanese, but for their honor. And the regime reckoned it could defend this honor in one last big battle. It wanted the Americans to pay a very high price for invading the Japanese main island.

After all, nobody had managed to conquer Japan for 2,000 years, and the Japanese also believed that the Americans were decadent and cowardly, meaning they could not stand high losses.

Complete Contempt of Their Own Population

The plan was called “Operation Ketsu-Go,” or the crucial mission. The Japanese knew that the Americans could only land in one area due to the mountains: the southern shores of Kyushu, on the most southern main island. So, Japanese soldiers entrenched themselves on the beach – 900,000 of them. They were under orders to sacrifice their lives for their country. Some 5,500 Kamikaze airplanes were on stand-by to throw themselves at the Americans in hourly attacks, and 1,300 ships and submarines were also supposed to take part in the suicide attacks.

Furthermore, the regime mobilized the Japanese version of the German “Volkssturm.” All men aged 15 to 60 and all women aged 17 to 40 were ordered to bear down on American soldiers with bamboo canes. Around 1 million Japanese civilians would have been part of this nightmare.

The Americans of course knew that if they invaded the Japanese main island, they would have to face one last big battle. They never thought that they would have had to face such a large number of suicide attackers. Henry Stimson’s war office had nonetheless estimated 1.7 million, maybe even 4 million, dead and wounded American soldiers. And they believed that the conquest of Japan would cost 5 million to 10 million civilians their lives. Many of these victims would have starved.

Even after the Japanese capitulation on Aug. 15, 1945, the supply situation was horrifically bad: In November, the country only had enough rice left for four days. For years, Japan was on the verge of a hunger crisis, and the Americans supported them with difficulty. If the war had continued even just a few months, the American Air Force would have targeted the Japanese railroad, as there was hardly anything left to bomb. In that case, nobody would have been able to avert the famine.

Saving the Japanese from Themselves

Would it not have been enough to demonstrate the effectiveness of the atomic bomb to the Japanese leadership? Would it not have been possible to detonate it over areas without human settlements for a “wow” effect? By now, we have access to all the documents, and we know exactly what the discussion in Japanese headquarters was about.

We thus know that Emperor Hirohito, who was in office until 1989, supported the “Ketsu-Go” fully. And we know that the majority of decision-makers still did not consider laying down their weapons, even after Hiroshima had burned down. This was partly due to the fact that they did not comprehend what terrific damage this weapon had caused. Only after the dropping of the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki did the “Peace fraction” prevail, opposing a minority that wanted to fight until the full destruction of Japan to uphold their honor. A Japanese historian retrospectively sums it up: “The atomic bombs were a godsend for the ‘Peace fraction’!”

There is no doubt. The dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man was atrocious. Atom bombs are terrible weapons. Hopefully, they will never be used again. There are no words for a mother suffering the loss of her child. However, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only spared the Americans tremendous suffering, but also the Japanese population.

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