Sunday, August 06, 2006

Hiroshima in History: The 61st Anniversary of the Dawn of the Nuclear Age

Today's the 61st anniversary of the U.S. nuclear attack on Hiroshima, the first of two nuclear strikes on Japan designed to end the War in the Pacific. The two strikes marked the opening of the atomic age, and the Japanese case is the only historical example of the use of nuclear weapons. It's no surprise, then, that the bombing of Hiroshima has been surrounded by controversy since 1945.

There is some consensus, however, that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima shortened the war and saved lives. As the U.S. military's island-hopping campaign in the Pacific progressed toward Japan in the first half of 1945, military planners took pause at the loss of life at Okinawa, where over 12,000 American and 110,000 Japanese troops died, plus the loss of an estimated 150,000 civilians. U.S. officials expected a mainland invasion of Japan to be fiercely resisted, by military and civlians alike, fighting "to the last man." Expected casualties were estimated at upwards of 250,000 U.S. soldiers and a total of 1 million people in all (Source: Carolyn Rhodes, Pivotal Decisions: Selected Cases in Twentieth-Century International Politics, 2000).

In an essay published last July, on the eve of Hiroshima's 60th anniversary, Richard Frank, the author of
a respected history of the Guadalcanal campaign, published a commentary piece in the San Fancisco Chronicle defending the decision to drop the bomb on Japan:

What if the United States had chosen not to use atomic weapons against Japan in 1945?

Americans typically believe that an invasion of Japan would have been the consequence, but four other possibilities have been raised: a diplomatic settlement; Soviet intervention in the Pacific theater; continuing war with dire effects on millions of Asians trapped in Japan's empire; and a new strategic bombing directive.

Contrary to wishful theories, no realistic prospect existed for a diplomatic settlement. The American aim of unconditional surrender was not just a slogan. It constituted the keystone to the enduring peace that followed. It provided the legal authority for the occupation of Japan and the ensuing fundamental renovation of Japanese society.

Japan's leaders opposed unconditional surrender precisely because they understood it meant the extinction of the old order dominated by the militarists and their consorts. That old order had started a war that killed more than 17 million people -- most of them Asian noncombatants. The strongest evidence that compromise remained out of reach is that even when the Japanese government finally issued its first real surrender offer on Aug. 10, 1945, it still demanded that the United States guarantee that substantial power would remain in the hands of the emperor.
Read the whole story. Frank argues that the bombing of Hiroshima saved millions of lives, as Japan faced imminent famine had the U.S. plan for conventional bombing of the Japanese railway system been effected:

Had the war continued for two weeks or perhaps only a few days, the destruction of the rail system would have brought about the mass famine that probably would have prompted the Japanese to capitulate. But this also means that Japanese would have died by the millions.

What history without Hiroshima illustrates is that there was no alternative happy ending to the Pacific War. When realistic consideration is given to the alternatives, atomic bombs stand as the worst way to have ended the war -- except all the others.
The nuclear devastation of Japan in 1945 fed strong demands historically for the non-use (and even the abolition) of nuclear weapons. For my previous post on the difficulties in halting the spread of nuclear weapons, which includes a discussion of the rise of U.S. nuclear primacy and the collapse of mutual assured destruction, click here. For my post on the implications of the Battle of Midway for the direction of the Pacific War, click here.

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