It's Time to Acknowledge that Hiroshima Followed Imperial Japan’s Decision to Launch a Terrible War on Its Neighbors


Mr. Gruhl is the author of the recently published book, Imperial Japan's World War Two 1931-1945 (Transaction Publishers of Rutgers University). His website is: http://www.japanww2.com/.

The fate of Hiroshima cannot be judged without first understanding and acknowledging the full dimensions of the war Imperial Japan unleashed from 1931-1945 throughout Asia and then the Pacific.

Single-minded attention to the atomic bomb casualties and the fact Japan has been an American Asian ally since WWII, skews our attention away from consequences of the greater part of the war Japan in fact started. Yet, when Imperial Japan embarked on war it took 150 times more Asian lives for the purpose of conquest than did the U.S. by dropping two atomic bombs to end the 14-year cataclysmic struggle.(1)

It will surprise most readers to know that Japan attacked and occupied a far larger part of the world and its population than did Germany and her European partners together. Japan caused nearly as many deaths in the East as Germany and her partners did in the West. There was a holocaust, a great devastation, a reckless destruction of life, in Asia as well as in Europe.

Japan initiated the Asian-Pacific War, and arguably WWII, by invading Manchuria and nearby regions from 1931 to 1936, and China proper in 1937. This was followed by the occupation of Indochina in 1940-41. China was the first to defend itself against the Japanese quest for empire. The Chinese, with little material means and internal political problems, fought the toughest and most costly battles and suffered the greatest destruction of life, property and economies. But they did not give up.

Short of war, the League of Nations and the United States opposed Japan’s aggression. This caused the United States to embargo vital war materials to Japan, which aroused Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Japan then invaded resource-rich Southeast Asia: Malaya, Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Borneo, the vast East Indies, New Guinea and ocean islands. This was in keeping with the Japanese militant nationalists' scheme for achieving supremacy in Asia with a “Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.”

It is important to recognize that China and 14 other Asian and Western countries became United States allies following the attack on Pearl Harbor. They fought alongside the United States in a common determination to defeat and demilitarize Japan as soon as possible. The benefits of the abrupt atomic end of the war were just as important to these Allies as to the Americans and Japanese, if not more so.

Japan invaded Asian countries representing one third of the human population. Altogether, the victims of aggression took many forms and were massive in number. The war killed approximately 24 million Allies from violence, atrocities, forced labor, refugee flight and privation. Another 100 million victims were severely affected by the war. (2) These surviving casualties included wounded, raped and tortured, maltreated forced labor, massive numbers of destitute and despairing refugees, the homeless, war orphans, and widows. Others included brutalized POWs and civilian internees. Severe war-caused malnutrition and painful diseases, addicts from Japanese opium sales and ill-equipped and supported Chinese soldiers add to the tragic count. Most of the casualties were comprised of noncombatant children, women, and men. The total casualties approximated the population of the United States at the time.

Imperial Japan’s way of war and occupation rivaled the worst of Nazi Germany’s conduct, as the Allied war crimes trials held in Tokyo, 1946-1948, found:

The evidence related to atrocities and other Conventional War Crimes presented before the Tribunal establishes that from the opening of the war in China until surrender of Japan in August 1945, torture, murder, rape and other cruelties of the most inhumane and most barbarous character were freely practiced by the Japanese army and navy.(3)

The distribution of the catastrophe is instructive. The Chinese and Southeast Asians and ocean islanders suffered about 87% of all Asian-Pacific War deaths. Only 12% were Japanese. Less than 1% were the war-winning Americans and other Westerners.(4) Allied Asia civilians were disproportionately the victims.

Japan, crowded and poor in raw materials, but with a sense of military invincibility saw the creation of an empire as her salvation. Japan was also motivated by its sense of racial superiority over its Asian neighbors. Japan’s imperial regime had volatile ambitions but limited resources, thus encouraging the government to unleash a particularly brutal offensive against the peoples of Asia and surrounding ocean islands.

Japan suffered large military losses, but relatively few civilian casualties for most of the long war. Japan lost about 3 million dead, mostly young soldiers and sailors, plus about 18 million badly harmed survivors. Only in 1945 during the fighting on Okinawa and the U.S. bombing of the home island cities did the Japanese endure the full destruction, death, and pain long suffered by the Japanese-invaded peoples of East Asia.

It is useful for Americans to imagine themselves in the shoes of the majority of the victims of the war. How would we remember the war if we had been invaded and suffered the equivalent of one “9/11” per day— every day— on average, from 1941 to 1945? (5) This is what happened to our Asian Allies.

Imperial Japan's military controlled the destiny of the Far East. The long, destructive war Japan started and refused to end on terms that would assure it would not attack its neighbors again, led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By August 1945 each added week of war condemned more Allied and Japanese cities and villages to destruction and doomed approximately 100,000 Chinese and other Allies plus 50,000 Japanese too death; together, about 150,000 per week. The two A-bombs took approximately 150,000 lives, which equaled the carnage of one week of war. There is every indication that the bombs shortened the war by months. My projections show that the use of the atomic bomb saved from one million to three million lives and spared many millions more physically and psychologically wounded victims. (6) City after city in the path of a longer war throughout Asia was spared destruction.

It is critical to understand why it took the severe shock of two atomic bombs to dissuade the Japanese military from continuing the war. The Japanese army and navy officers’ adherence to the Bushido and Shinto ethic had required their young men to fight to the death without exception, for the Emperor and nation. Surrender was not an option. Japan had never lost a war to another nation and had sometimes won against great odds. These leaders believed in Yamato damashii, or raw courage, which in the end would overcome all Western technological and material advantages. The fates would not allow Japan to lose.

Some argue that if we had relaxed our demand for unconditional surrender and had guaranteed the retention of Emperor Hirohito, the war would have ended without the bomb. The reality was that the Japanese military demanded further concessions that would limit the damage to their post war influence. The United States and its major allies had every reason to insist on terms of surrender that stripped Japan's militarists of all influence, and unquestionably demilitarized the nation for the sake of future generations. Clearly this made any concessions to the military impossible and guaranteeing Hirohito's retention a much more difficult Allied decision.

Much has been made of the U.S. fire and Atomic bombing of Japanese cities in 1945. Yet, the reality is that the cost in Japanese lives to end the WWII carnage was only about 2% of all Allied civilians killed by Imperial Japan’s long war. (7)

President Truman's aide at the time, George Elsey, summed up this fourteen year history succinctly: "It is all well and good to come along later and say the bomb was a horrible thing. The whole goddamn war was a horrible thing." (8)

In conclusion, just as Hiroshima demonstrates the tragedy of weapons of mass destruction, so Japan’s aggression demonstrates the far greater tragedy of starting a war in the first place. This is also a lesson we cannot forget.

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  • Notes

    1. Web Tables 3 & 11

    2.Web Table 7

    3. Röling, B.V. and C.F. Rüter, eds. The Tokyo Judgment: The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTF), Vol I and II. Amsterdam: APA-University Press Amsterdam BV, 1977, I: p. 385.

    4. Web Table 2.

    5. Given a U.S. population in 1942 of ~ 135 million / ~ 400 million population occupied by the Japanese or caught in violence and other war caused deaths from 1942 to 1945 = .34 X 15.8 million (1942-1945) (Web Tables 4 & 9) Chinese plus other Allied total war deaths = 5.4 million equivalent U.S. population size war deaths / 1370 days (3.8 years) = 3,941 U.S. population equivalent deaths per day / 3,000 (9/11/01 toll) = ~ one equivalent of all 9/11 deaths per day on average and perhaps destruction equivalents.

    6. Web Table 20.

    7. Web Tables 3 & 11.

    8. McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.442.

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    vaughn davis bornet - 8/23/2010

    I have just read, for the first time, the basic essay and the many learned but conflicting comments, all from 2007.

    Meanwhile, I did write my little essay, as one who served a subordinate role on a Pacific admiral's staff, 1942 to 1946.

    I have to say this: In the above essays, the American Naval officers and men (and the British, of course) and the army personnel in the wings (or survivors or dead of Okinawa), are "indicated" not dwelt on as real individuals facing oblivion.

    In my 2009 essay about how it looked to those of us in uniform at the time, there is, I think, a reality, an emotionalism, a presentism, that would improve all but a few of these 2007 essays.

    Many who dwell on the awfulness of using the atomoc bombs seem to run out of steam, that is, of empathy, when it comes to consideration of the American and British personnel who would have had to repeat "Okinawa" by "invading Japan."

    To use a theoretical statistic like, say, "300,000" American casualties in an invasion without a little written moaning and groaning is not excusable, in my view.

    Thus "objectivity" taught in seminars comes into frontal play where it has no business. There is nothing objective about all those ships of ours sunk, with dead boys, in 1945. There is nothing casual about Japanese everywhere fighting to the last man--almost--all over the far Pacific and SURELY doing so side by side with civilians in their Homeland.

    I have always felt that Southern historians writing of the War for Southern Independence showed a certain understanding of casualties among their ancestors.

    It is time, I say, for all who write on the use of the Bombs to turn their emotions loose on American uniformed dead and potential dead of 1941 to 1951. I have never felt all that objective when considering the matter!

    VAUGHN DAVIS BORNET, Ylc and officer during WWII, Sept. 41 to Jan. 46, USNR, one who survived and didn't suffer all that much, thank goodness.

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    D. M. Giangreco - 12/7/2007

    An article that provides a comprehensive look at the practical realities of both the US invasion plans and Japanese countermeasures is Edward J. Drea's “Previews of Hell: Intelligence, the Bomb, and the Invasion of Japan,” Military History Quarterly, 7 (Spring 1995), 74-81, which was published with extensive endnotes in Drea's book In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army, (Lincoln, Nebraska, and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998) as Chapter 11, "Intelligence Forecasting for the Invasion of Japan: Previews of Hell," 154-68. More recently, it has also appeared as Chapter 3 in Robert James Maddox, ed., Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism, (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 59-75.

    Ronald Dale Karr - 12/7/2007

    Obviously, there is no way of knowing what would have happened if the US had invaded the Japanese home islands. It's important to remember, though, that the US and its allies had some crucial advantages too. By August 1945 they had gained absolute sea and air supremacy over Japan. Because of severe oil shortages, the Japanese armed forces were increasingly immobile. The large Japanese forces still on the Asian mainland, in China and elsewhere, including some of their best remaining troops, could not be used to defend the islands.
    Once ashore, American forces, potentially in the millions, could employ the rapid flanking movements that have formed the core of US tactics since the Civil War, to isolate and fragment the Japanese forces, no matter how fiercely they may have resisted, if necessary, starving them out. Would things have gone the way they did at Okinawa? Maybe not. Okinawa has only 467 square miles; Honshu alone is nearly 200 times larger! It would have been much, much more difficult for the Japanese to amount an effective defense over such a large area, especially with less experienced troops and officers.
    Plus, the Russians could also potentially send millions of troops as well. How long would the Japanese have held out against such a force? Of course, we'll never know.

    Robert Lee Gaston - 12/6/2007

    I doubt that President Truman based his decision on some kind of a revenge blood lust based on Japan's agression. The military and political managers that contribute to these kinds of decisions are a fairly cold blooded lot.

    I’m guessing that the U.S. political leadership’s decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan was largely shaped by two essential factors. The first was the military experience in the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The second factor was the Soviet Union’s invasion of the Japanese northern islands.

    American military estimates would have been largely based on the lessons learned during the battle for Okinawa. Here, during 82 days of fighting American causalities were about 50,000 (610 per day). In addition, Thirty-six U.S. ships were destroyed, and another 368 were damaged. Japanese causalities were in excess of 100,000 men. Fewer than 10,000 Japanese soldiers were made prisoners at the end of the action.

    The causalities among the civilian population were also horrific. More than 150,000 Okinawans were killed. This amounted to about 30% of the civilian population. In addition, 50% of the surviving civilian population was wounded by the end of the 82 day battle.

    Soviet accounts of the fighting in the northern islands indicates similar determined resistance, but on a smaller scale. This likely would have intensified as Soviet efforts reached further south.

    We need to examine the likely results if a worse case scenario played itself out and the following occurs:

    President Truman decides against using nuclear weapons and Japan does not capitulate under the pressure of continued strategic bombing and naval blockade. End the end he is forced to invade Japan.

    Consider the following results.

    There are 800,000 American casualties with 300,000 dead.

    The Soviet Union continues its campaign in the north.

    The war ends in mid-1950 with the following situation.

    Japan is divided, with the Soviet Union occupying the Northern half of the island.

    The Soviet Union also occupies Manchuria along with the entire Korean peninsula.

    Both the United States and the Soviets by now have nuclear weapons.

    Finally, it leaks that the United States had useable nuclear weapons in 1945 that would have ended the war as early as September, 1945.

    We cannot predict the impact of these circumstances on the state of American politics, or even the nature of American government in the post war world of the 1950s and 60s. One can only think that the situation described above would at best, would have lead to a profound American isolationism, and a world wide economic depression. At its worse it could have greatly increased the chances for a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

    For all its horror the use of nuclear weapons against Japan may have been Truman’s best option.

    D. M. Giangreco - 12/5/2007

    There are a number of fine works on Japan in World War II, but Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix would probably come closest to answering Mr. Karr's question.

    Ronald Dale Karr - 12/5/2007

    "In 1945, the Emperor, in total command and alignment with his military leadership, was fully prepared to sacrifice the lives of every man, woman, and child in Japan to maintain his lust for an Empire.

    We may have given the Emperor a "get out of jail" card but the facts do not change. He was then, and always shall be, reponsible for the war in the Pacific."

    So Tojo and company just went along for the ride? It was all Hirohito's idea to conquer Asia?

    Roger Mansell - 12/5/2007

    The difficulty today in recognizing the reality of Japan's naked aggression is compounded by revisionists who keep insisting Japan was attempting to negotiate an armistice.

    Japan's idea of an armistice was simple: keep everything "as is", retain what they had conquered, retain the Emperor and absolutely no Allied soldiers to occupy Japan.

    Knowing they were defeated has no relationship to being ready to surrender. Upon surrender, Japan notified all of its embassies around the world to begin a campaign demonizing the United states for the use of "an inhumane weapon" with the explanation that it would detract from their mistreatment of the POWs.

    Even after the Emperor surrendered, Japan contimued to murder POWs, especially airmen. Efforts were made to "spirit" the surviving Doolittle flyers back to Japan and hide them until they died. Such was the continued animus of Japan's leadership.

    Those who disliked America quickly joined the chorus, especially the Communists who transformed this into a "peace movement" with the aim of weakening the United States.

    Japan, unlike Germany, has never acknowledged the evil they spread in the Far East and remain, to this day, in total denial. Tearful apologies are meaningless without accepting responsibility for their actions.

    In 1945, the Emperor, in total command and alignment with his military leadership, was fully prepared to sacrifice the lives of every man, woman, and child in Japan to maintain his lust for an Empire.

    We may have given the Emperor a "get out of jail" card but the facts do not change. He was then, and always shall be, reponsible for the war in the Pacific.

    Ronald Dale Karr - 12/4/2007

    And of course, the Russians were coming!

    Alonzo Hamby - 12/3/2007

    My comment was not particularly a matter of supporting Mr. Hall or arguing with him--save on the point of whether Le May was responsible for the speedup of the timetable. That said, in the situation that existed and was perceived in August, 1945, just about everyone from Truman on down wanted to get the war over with as soon as possible. The people who felt the most urgency were the actual combatants.
    It is easy to think in retrospect that a week or two would not have made much difference, but people on the mainland of Asia and in areas scattered throughout Southeast Asia were dying every day--combatants from relatively small-scale combat operations, civilians from malnutrition, disease, and from the misfortune of being collateral combat damage.
    If the war had lasted another ten days, the total might have been ten or twenty thousand--less than those killed at Nagasaki to be sure. But in a real life situation who thinks that way?

    Bert S Hall - 12/3/2007

    Re: LeMay and weather patterns.

    So ... a few days delay owing to weather would have been so bad?

    I think Alonzo Hamby's comment supports my point.

    Alonzo Hamby - 12/3/2007

    Ed Moise is of course right that the statistics of Japan's aggression in East and Southeast Asia are widely known, but that does not mean that the revisionists acknowledge them. Indeed most revisionist works on the bomb downplay them to a remarkable degree. Several years ago, reviewing Gar Alperovitz's THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF AN AMERICAN MYTH (1995), I was struck by the almost total inattention to the battle of Okinawa, to cite just one example.

    Bert Hall makes a point about the quick deployment of the Nagasaki bomb that has long been troubling to many historians, including defenders of the use of the atomic bomb. However, it was not Le May's thirst for blood that accelerated the timetable for the use of the second bomb. Rather it was a developing weather pattern that threatened to shut down air operations for several days.

    It seems to me also to be much too glib to believe that the end of the war could have been negotiated simply by promising "the retention of the Emperor." In the absence of the coercive power of the atomic bomb, there would have been many i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed--all of them involving the fate of the servants of the Emperor and whether they would have been tried as war criminals. It seems clear that to many senior Japanese officials and military officers "the fate of the Emperor" really meant "the fate of the 'Emperor system.'"

    Finally, the use of the bomb needs to be understood against the context of the bombing campaigns in Europe that had been going on for more than three years and involved the destruction of huge areas of cities and infliction of enormous civilian casualties. Rightly or wrongly, such tactics had come to be taken for granted by August, 1945. To about everyone involved the only difference was that they could be executed with one plane and one bomb.

    Bert S Hall - 12/3/2007

    First, Mr. Gruhl emphasizes the frightful brutality of Japan's quest for empire, but he makes the classic American mistake of asserting that the attack on Pearl Harbor was motivated by the Roosevelt administration's embargo on steel, oil and other vital materials. The main reason for the attack, as well as the concurrent(and equally successful) attack on the American bases in the Philippines, was to interdict American support for the Royal Navy in opposing Japan's planned capture of Hong Kong and Singapore.

    Both cities fell to the Japanese Imperial Army within months, and they were the strategic prizes that made the risk of attacking the USA worthwhile in the eyes of Japan's military planners. Attacking the US would not restore steel or oil shipments, but doing so helped give Japan control over vital supplies in Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

    Second, while Japan's brutality may possibly justify the use of nuclear weapons to end the Pacific War, the question of whether two atomic bombs were needed remains open. The timing of the second attack, the one that devastated Nagasaki, was far too quick to allow Japan's antiquated decision-making apparatus to come to terms with the implications of Hiroshima.

    Again, it is classic American dogma to assert that the sharp shock of two nuclear blasts was what was required to end the war, but there is no such high-level strategizing in the historical record. The decisions were left to the man on the ground, General Curtis LeMay at XXI Bomber Command. LeMay, whose eagerness to demonstrate that air power alone could win the war made him perhaps the worst person alive to make such decisions, chose the target cities and the timing of the drops. He was also the last American officer to be empowered to deploy nuclear weapons without explicit presidential authorization.

    Edwin Moise - 12/3/2007

    It is not "time to acknowledge" these things, they have been acknowledged for decades.

    On some matters of detail Gruhl is claiming to know more than is really knowable. When he says that approximately 24,000,000 people in the Allied nations (broadly defined) died as a result of Japan's aggression, this is excessive precision; nobody is really in a position to know how many there were, to the nearest million. If one follows the link to his statistical tables, one finds that the "approximately 24 million" was rounded off from a figure of 23,877,137, which ws really excessive precision.

    But the broad outline of his argument--that in World War II Japan was waging a remarkably brutal and bloody war of aggression--is not the new idea that he would have us believe. It is the conventional wisdom, and has been the conventional wisdom for many years.

    There is not now, and never has been, a "Single-minded attention to the atomic bomb casualties" causing most people to think of Japan as having been only a victim, and not a perpetrator, of massive atrocities in World War II.