Thursday, August 06, 2009

On this Day in 1945

(reposted from August 6, 2007)

At 8:15 AM on August 6, 1945 an atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan. Approximately 78,000 civilians were killed on that day. Six months later the death toll had risen to about 140,000 people.

There are many arguments in favor of dropping the bomb just as there are many arguments against it. What's clear is that in the context of 2007 we are not in a good position to judge the actions of countries that had been at war for many years.

The most important lesson of Hiroshima is that war is hell and many innocent people die. It's all very well to enter into a war with the best of intentions—as the Japanese did on December 7, 1941—but it's foolish to pretend that when you start a war there won't be any suffering. When you do that you can really say that the victims of Hiroshima died in vain.

The killing and maiming of civilians is an inevitable outcome of war, no matter how hard you might try to restrict your targets to military objectives. Before going to war you need to take the consequences into account and decide whether the cost is worth it.

One of the many mistakes in Iraq was the naive assumption that it would be a clean war with few casualties and no long-term consequences for the Iraqi people. Yet today, the numbers of innocent lives lost in Iraq is comparable to the numbers lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And what is the benefit for Iraq that outweighs the cost in human lives? Is it "freedom" and "democracy"?

Hiroshima was not a glorious victory. It was ugly, heartbreaking, and avoidable. War is not an end in itself, it is the failure of peace. War is not an instrument of your foreign policy—it is an admission that you don't have a foreign policy.

[The top photograph shows the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945 (Photo from Encyclopedia Britanica: Hiroshima: mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, 1945. [Photograph]. Retrieved August 7, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online. The bottom image is taken from a Japanese postcard (Horoshima and Nagassaki 1945). It shows victims of the attack on Hiroshima.]


  1. Can't say I'm all that well-versed on the subject of WWII. But here's one question that I've always had.

    What was the rationale (if there even was one) for dropping the bombs on densely-populated civilian targets? It seems to me that the U.S. could have achieved its objectives by bombing either military targets or rural areas, as a show of force - i.e. to show that the U.S. had the technology and the will to implement it. Why deliberately seek to kill as many innocent civilians as possible?

  2. One of the many mistakes in Iraq was the naive assumption that it would be a clean war with few casualties and no long-term consequences for the Iraqi people.

    Correction: our leaders didn't care about casualties or long-term consequences for Iraqis.

  3. Anon, it was mainly to bring a swift end to the war.

    Both the Japanese military and Emperor Hirohito rejected the Potsdam Declaration, and in doing so, condemned all of Japan to "...prompt and utter destruction."

    Do you think an invasion of Japan would have produced any less casualties?

  4. What's key is that unlike Germany, Japan hasn't learned to maturely grasp with the legacy of the pain and suffering it inflicted on other peoples. The horrors of Dresden and RAF firebombing of German urban centers did not prevent Germany from grappling with its past crimes. The self-pity that Hiroshima generated, however, did.

  5. Anonymous #1, there was not enough bomb grade fissionable material to make more than two bombs (after the initial test at Alamogordo).

    If we were going to use them to end the war, it had to be the real thing.

    That said, the university where I did my undergraduate work had several professors who were "leftovers" from the Manhattan Project. I can tell you that to a man they wrestled with the moral implications of their work at Los Alamos for the rest of their lives.

    In August 1945, there were virtually no targets left undestroyed in Japan. Yet, they still refused to surrender. The war had to end.

    Many of us had fathers in the Pacific Theater of Operations in 1945, and we just wanted the war to end so they could come home.

    Enjoy your moral pontificating from the luxury of not having been there, or having any close personal investment in the outcome of the war.

    And while you're at it, look up a little information about the Japanese rape of Nanking, and other atrocities against civilians inflicted by the Japanese.

  6. It's a mistake to think the atomic bombs were somehow an escalation of the types of destructive warfare being carried out in that region. The firebombing attacks of highly populated cities like Tokyo, made up of mainly wooden houses, caused far more fatalities.
    There is a serious argument over whether the second bombing at Nagasaki was necessary. I so seriously wonder whether it was done as a show of strength to Stalins army who were rapidly approaching Japan through the Korean peninsula at that time.

  7. Hiroshima was destroyed because the weather was good that day. Ostensibly there was a military target, same as all the other cities that were destroyed (Coventry, Dresden etc). However, the aim was clearly a form of terrorism - to increase the death toll on the home front to make people fear for their lives and so decrease support for their government.

    As to whether it was a civilian target. Well, all the soldiers were conscripts and so no more deserving of death than anyone else. Once you've accepted the logic of mass killing as a war aim, it really doesn't matter who you kill. Cities are good as targets of convenience.

  8. Hiroshima contained the headquarters for the 2nd army and marines. It was also a major supply centre for the Japanese war effort.

    Nagasaki was a prime anchorage for the japanese navy and major industrial base...esp. shipbuilding and heavy weapons.

    In addition to military significance, all possible targets for the new weapons were "test beds": relatively unscathed by conventional bombing, and in an urban area (easy to check destruction from aerial photos).

    If Japan had to be invaded then it was estimated that millions of allied servicemen would lose their lives. I don't think Japanese casualties would have been considered (although, considering Okinawa, they would have numbered 10 times the allied casualties). So, it might be said that the nuclear attack on Japan saved the long run.


  9. I hate to get biblical here but Japan sowed the wind at Pearl Harbor and reaped the whirlwind at Hiroshima.

  10. Hi Larry (et al), I have to disagree with you on one of your points, that war is not an act of foreign policy, that it is a lack there of (particularly in the context of WW2). War is the ultimate expression of foreign policy, it is the last remaining act of policy, for years acts of appeasement and isolationism did not keep us out of WW2. Glen Larson once wrote in one of his television shows that “war is not the opposite of peace; it is the opposite of slavery”. Personally, I think this is the best description of what war is really about, if you are not willing to defend your way of life, some one else will enforce theirs upon you. It really is that simple, it isn’t nice, it isn’t pretty, and it’s seldom just, especially to those caught in the middle. Some of the Islamic terrorist groups have stated that their aim is for the complete reformation of the entire world into their vision of Islam.
    Now, all that said, none of that is a defense of GWB, he was on the wrong end too, he wanted to Americanize the rest of the world. War is not useless, it is awesomely (denotation) useful, also maddeningly disgusting.


  11. If we were going to use them to end the war, it had to be the real thing.
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  12. In "The History of E=m c-squared", David Bogdanis states that based on his research in the Eisenhower Library, the Japanese were willing to surrender prior to the bombings under one condition: that the Emperor not be punished or deposed. We would only accept unconditional surrender, and dropped the bombs to get it. Eisenhower told Secretary of War Stimpson that the U.S. should not be the first nation to use the atomic bomb, and "that old man got very angry at me." MacArthur later decided to keep the Japanese Emperor in place for stability.

    Assuming that is factual, I think we were wrong to drop the bombs.

    On a possibly related matter, I saw elsewhere (I think on Jerry Pournelle's blog), that celestial navigation is no longer taught in the Armed Forces because the the WWII era training films were full of references to the Japanese as sub-human gooks.

    Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and all that.

  13. Hiroshima manufactures some of the torpedoes that destroyed Pearl Harbor.

    The argument that the decision to drop the bomb was as much political as moral is a pretty convincing one. Also as someone said, the moral line had already been crossed earlier with firebombing. Truman was worried about the Soviets interfering in Japan and wanted to establish a presence there before they did. You can read Gar Alperowitz's work on this which is pretty exhaustive.