Not Everyone Wanted to Bomb Hiroshima


Leo Maley III has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Maryland, College Park, and Uday Mohan is the director of research for the Nuclear Studies Institute, American University.

Paul W. Tibbets Jr., retired brigadier general and former businessman, died on Nov. 1. He'll forever be remembered for what he unleashed the morning of August 6, 1945.

That day Tibbets's B-29 -- christened the "Enola Gay" after his mother -- dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The blast, fire and radiation killed 140,000 people. Many others were scarred and injured for life. Most of the bomb's victims were women, children, the elderly and other civilians not directly involved in the war. Those victims also included American and Allied POWs and thousands of Koreans forcibly conscripted by the Japanese as wartime labor. Thus began the nuclear age -- an age that grows ever more dangerous with the continuing spread of nuclear weapons.

Tibbets stridently defended the atomic bombing of Hiroshima for the rest of his life. Like Harry S. Truman -- the president who made the decision to drop the atomic bomb -- Tibbets, whose job it was to implement the presidential directive, claimed never to have lost any sleep over the bombing. He went so far as to reenact the Hiroshima bombing in 1976 at a Texas air show.

Tibbets insisted that the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, destroyed by a second atomic bomb just three days later) was absolutely necessary to bring about Japanese surrender before a bloody American invasion of the Japanese home islands. Many Americans agree.

For Tibbets, history was unambiguous: Unleashing nuclear weapons was justified; all criticism of the atomic bombing was suspect. For the last twenty years or so of his life, Tibbets repeatedly denounced "revisionists" for questioning the necessity or morality of the atomic bombing of Japanese cities.

Through his many public statements Tibbets reinforced the widely held notion that only untrustworthy revisionists or members of the irresponsible 1960s generation have criticized the atomic bombings. Tibbets was dead wrong.

Contrary to conventional opinion today, many military leaders of the time -- including six out of seven wartime five-star officers -- criticized the use of the atomic bomb.

Take, for example, Adm. William Leahy, White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war. Leahy wrote in his 1950 memoirs that "the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender." Moreover, Leahy continued, "[I]n being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."

President Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe during World War II, recalled in 1963, as he did on several other occasions, that he had opposed using the atomic bomb on Japan during a July 1945 meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson: "I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon."

Adm. William "Bull" Halsey, the tough and outspoken commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, which participated in the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the final months of the war, publicly stated in 1946 that "the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment." The Japanese, he noted, had "put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before" the bomb was used.

Nor do all Pacific war veterans agree with Tibbets's defense of the atomic bomb. To give but one example: Responding to a journalist's question in 1995 about what he would have done had he been in Truman's shoes, Joseph O'Donnell, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who served in the Pacific, answered that "we should have went after the military in Japan. They were bad. But to drop a bomb on women and children and the elderly, I draw a line there, and I still hold it."

These are but a few of the military voices that have been critical of American use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recalling these voices -- those of both influential and ordinary military figures -- should make us reject Tibbets's insistence that the atomic bombings were militarily and morally justified. Only by challenging and resisting Tibbets's comfortable view of history will Americans be able to confront, honestly and critically, one of the most disturbing episodes in the nation's past.

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    saira hoda - 11/23/2008

    It is interesting how poisonous gas was declared as a war crime when used against soldiers, but the atomic bomb, which was used against civilians (for the most part), was not. When countries go to war, the main targets are the opposing country's militia, and not their civilians. Any member of the army should know that death is an outcome when going to war, since they are the ones fighting for our country. However, the bomb killed, mostly, civilians, which is considered highly unethical. Not only did these two bombs kill civilians, it also left the survirors in agonizing pain, due to the radiation sickness, and this created a slow and highly painful death. Any POW in Hiroshima or Nagasaki also suffered as much as the civilians. All in all, the atomic bombs should have never been used due to the fact that it was the civilians who took the hit and suffered.

    Joseph Mutik - 11/10/2007

    You "forget" the Shanghai and Nanking massacres the use of live Chinese for bayonet practice, the no rules Japanese behavior with prisoners of war. The list is very long and it proves that without the convincing power of the A-bomb Japan wouldn't surrender.

    Ted Becker - 11/10/2007

    Was Hiroshima the only time during the War that the US bombed civilians--women and children? No. What do the generals and others who harp on "women and children" have to say about that.
    Secondly, in regards to the possibility that the A-bomb did or did not save lives. It most certainly saved American lives. I may be overly cynical, but by that time in the war, were US generals really worried about Japanese causalities? The A-bomb definitely provided certainty -- the possibility of surrender, fighting to the end, guerrilla warfare--all these possibilities are unknowns.
    That said, war is a damn shame. All future wars should be settled by vicious personal attacks in the comment-sections of popular political blogs.

    omar ibrahim baker - 11/10/2007

    At best the use of the A bomb could be justified by the number of Allied and Japanese lives saved by stopping the war at that point in time.
    (Another junction in history where the end justifies the means!)

    However the fact that the great majority of its victims were women, children and elderly NOT directly involved in the war effort raises some questions:
    1-Was there not a MILITARY objective where it could have been used that would have imparted the same message of shock and awe?

    2-Is it NOT that the US definition of TERRORISM revolves primarily around the victimization of women, children and elderly not involved in the war effort?

    3-Would not the use of the A bomb by the USA in this case qualify as an act of terrorism according to the very same American standard definition of Terrorism?

    Oscar Chamberlain - 11/8/2007

    As I understand it the Soviets had agreed to attack the Japanese forces on the Asian mainland.

    On their own, I don't think they had the capacity to invade Japan, except perhaps for some lightly held islands. Even then, invasions across water in this period were very difficult without the right equipment. Unless they or we were building a lot of landing craft, Soviet troops could not have participated until after key ports had been seized and the areas around them stabilized.

    Roger Mansell - 11/7/2007

    As the Director for the Center For Research, Allied POWS Under The Japanese, I have had the privilege of interviewing over 300 former POWs of the Japanese and dozens of Japanese civilians and soldiers of the Japanese Empire.

    All knew that Japan would fight to the very last man. With but one exception, all knew that the Japanese military had issued orders to murder each and every POW or internee when the Allies invaded Japan or threatened to recapture areas with POW camps.

    Such massacres were already known to have occurred in Ambon, Palawan and a myriad of other places. Americans, who had escaped two years earlier, had reported the Japanese atrocities in the Philippines, especially the mass slaughter of the Philippine Scouts’ leadership and the horrors of the Bataan Death March. The reports had been classified Top Secret so that the public would continue to focus all efforts in Europe.

    Despite Army General Yamashita's order to make Manila an "open city" as MacArthur’s armies closed in, the Naval Commander began a systematic slaughter of every man, woman and child he could find. More thousands perished when neutral country Embassies, filled with refugees, were sealed and set afire. These Naval personnel fought to the death of the very last man.

    Children in Japan were being trained to attack Allied soldiers with sharpened spears. If twenty died to kill one American, it was considered acceptable.

    The Japanese militarists had no illusion about their defeated status yet were willing to sacrifice every living Japanese rather than surrender- Emperor or no Emperor. With the extreme shortages of food, Japanese authorities already planned to deny food to the elderly and those too young to fight in the coming “Decisive Battle”.

    Grasping for fly manure in the pepper, the revisionists cite the post-war sentimental rationalizations of war time commanders such as Admiral Leahy, one of the earliest of the revisionists. Perhaps the current crop of revisionists should understand, hopefully in a blinding flash of the obvious, that no soldier wants a war.

    The casualties on Iwo Jima and Okinawa would be a pittance were any invasion to occur on the mainland of Japan. The Japanese had already withheld over 2000 Kamikaze planes to attack any invasion force. Underground aircraft manufacturing plants continued in production. No early detection of the Kamikaze attacks would be feasible as the airfields would be close to the landing areas. Almost all of these planes were housed in underground caves. Suicide submarines by the score waited to reek destruction upon the Allies.

    The Japanese, just like the Germans, were also working diligently to develop atomic weapons. They would not have hesitated to use them against the Allies.

    Considering the realities facing Truman, to not use the bomb would have been criminal. Millions of Japanese civilians and millions of their soldiers were spared the insanity of suicide for an ersatz God. As a nation, they were very aware they were defeated but it is nonsense to believe they wanted to surrender. Only an Armistice, wherein the Japanese would stop fighting and they would retain what they conquered, could possibly have been acceptable to the ruling militarists and the Emperor. Only when the Emperor realized he could die with the next bomb, did he accept defeat and capitulate.

    As for the Soviet Union, all they sought was control of more lands. They started the war in Europe, allied with Hitler, by seizing Poland. With the defeat of Germany, Stalin simply seized control of eastern Europe. With the defeat of Japan, he sought the same control in Japan but was thwarted by MacArthur’s absolute refusal to let them occupy any portion of the Japanese mainland.

    The Japanese, determined to deflect approbation for their deliberate mistreatment of the POWS, began the orchestrated effort to demonize the use of the atom bombs as “inhumane”. With their handmaidens in the communist party, the illusion of fact became the bible for the revisionists’ theories to denigrate and weaken American resolve.

    As every former POW would gladly state, “Thank God for the atom bombs.”

    Donald E. Staringer - 11/6/2007

    It is interesting to me how seldom writers who approved the bombing bring up the fact the invasion of Japan was not to begin until Nov 1st. We know that General Marshall had ordered 7-9 bombs be made for the invasion. There seemed no reason to believe we could not have had those bombs by that date.
    As we have learned since 1945 in Korea and Vietnam the US could wait out negotiations to find an acceptable peace. If we had the wisdom to withhold use of the bomb until the position of the emperor could have been clarified, the Russians entered the war, and we used the increasing number of bombs for non-military use the chances for the Japanese surrender were very long. The number of Americans killed in the interum would have been minimal and as General McArthur said the role of the soldier is protect the innocent. No invasion of Japan need ever to have happened and the tragedy of Hiroshima was our reluctance to consider the non-use of the bomb. So it goes . . .
    PS: Do remember we did not gain an unconditional surrender and as the joint chiefs argued at Potsdam a statement that the emperor could be retained might have been enough for surrender.

    Joseph Mutik - 11/6/2007

    What about North Korea and the former North Vietnam (today one communist Vietnam)? China also has a capitalist China in Taiwan. Vietnam and China pursue now a pragmatic communism.
    I only used the model in existence when a country was partly occupied by communist forces (the former two Germany states too).

    William Mandel - 11/6/2007

    I agree about the division that would have occurred without the bomb. But inasmuch as the Soviet Union is now more-or-less democratic capitalist Russia, there is no particular reason to hold that north Japan would be communist today or to conjecture about the history of Japan in the intervening half-century. Communism has failed worldwide, with the single exception of Cuba where its survival is much more a matter of preserving that country's independence from a permanently hostile U.S. than success of an alternative society.

    William Mandel - 11/6/2007

    The dropping of the Bomb was a political decision with the purpose of keeping the Soviet Union out of sharing in the occupation of Japan as it did in the occupation of Germany. Moscow had committed itself to entering the war against Japan as soon as it could redeploy the millions of its troops 6,000 miles to the west that had been needed to defeat Germany and take Berlin.It did in fact very rapidly smash Japan's largest land force, the Kwantung Army in Manchuria.

    Jeffery Ewener - 11/5/2007

    My father, like Mr Canellis's, also fought in Europe, in his case from 1942, when he participated in the Dieppe Raid, and later through Normandy, Holland and Germany. Following the German surrender in May 1945 he and other Canadian forces were given the choice of de-mobilizing or shipping out for the Pacific. He chose the Pacific, and always explained it was because he knew he would be shipped home, and transported to the west coast by train to board a ship for the west Pacific. He was betting, he said, that Japan would have surrendered before he got to the coast, and he would end up beating his fellow soldiers, most of whom understandably opted for de-mobilization, home. He won that bet. Now, my father was an inveterate gambler, according to those who knew him in those days. But still, what he was betting on must have been at least a minority position among the prevailing wisdom, one which he happened to find persuasive. It's not likely he would have been alone, or anywhere near it, in his assessment, since he was, after all, betting his life. And it did turn out he was right.

    Mr Mutik makes an excellent point. The unspoken motivation for the immolation of Hiroshima & Nagasaki was to prevent the Russians -- who were about to attack Japan, as they had agreed (with us) to do within 3 months of the German surrender -- from carrying out what would probably have been an overwhelmingly successful invasion of the Home Islands. They, not us, would have done the heavy lifting in that invasion (as they previously had done in Europe), and they, not the United States, would thus have become the dominant military fact-on-the-ground in Japan. The A-bomb was dropped not to save American lives, but as an opening manoeuvre for position in the Cold War.

    Joseph Mutik - 11/5/2007

    The bomb prevented a soviet invasion of Japan, unavoidable if the war continued.

    Gregory Canellis - 11/5/2007

    After surviving 266 days of combat in Europe, my father's unit was given a 30-day furlough, after which, they were to begin training for the invasion of Japan. The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan made that invasion, that was estimated to cost 100,000 American casualties unnecessary. The decision to drop the atomic bombs saved more lives than it cost. Paul Tibbets should be buried with full military honors, not be afraid that his grave marker will attract protesters. This article, quoting three individuals who were against the decision to use the atom bombs was a waste of my time to read it.

    John Nicholas - 11/5/2007

    It is nice to quote high ranking military people at a point in time 1 - 18 years after the fact.

    The more important question would be their quote at the time of the event.

    It is easy to sit back with 20-20 hindsight.

    All three of these comments concern the Japanese being defeated. None of them comment on the Japanese actually surrendering without a guarantee that the national polity would be unchanged.

    Also, being critical of a decision is not the same as making the decision differently.

    John Nicholas