Blogs > Cliopatria > The Atomic Bomb: A Different Perspective

Aug 3, 2005 9:40 am


The Atomic Bomb: A Different Perspective



Each year on August 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima is accompanied by a mass reflection on atomic warfare. This year, in preparation for the 60th anniversary of these tragic events, HNN has put together a large selection of pieces discussing whether the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima was a wise and necessary decision. Already Leo Maley III and Uday Mohan’s article, in particular, and that of Herbert Bix have sparked considerable discussion. I do not wish, by any means, to discount debate over the morality of the bombing of Hiroshima or the very real issues involved in that tragic event. However, this controversy has a paradoxical effect of cutting off debate on the atomic bomb and obscuring a vital issue—namely, the bombing of Nagasaki. To me, the United States committed a far greater crime in the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki than on Hiroshima. Whatever one’s opinion of the bombing of Hiroshima, there are at least various arguments that have been raised in support: the uncertainty that the bomb would work, the need to give Japan a shock, the need to avert an invasion that would be costly in lives, etc. Yet all of these arguments fall down in judging the Nagasaki bombing. Consider the situation: a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima three days previously, to devastating effect. The United States had thereby proven that it had the capacity to make and deliver such weapons. (It is not clear how much their effects in the way of radiation were understood at the time by American military or political leaders). Furthermore, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 8th. There was no reason that the United States could not have waited to determine the Japanese reaction to these events, or to threaten further action, before dropping another bomb.

It is interesting to think of why the bombing of Nagasaki is not generally considered in discussions of Atomic warfare, and the implications of its omission. No doubt the most important reason is that historians, like other people, are fixated on firsts and questions of origins. The Hiroshima bombing ushered in the Atomic age, and is therefore the touchstone of debate. This not only leaves a void in analysis of what happens afterwards, but impoverishes analysis even of the first events. That is, while it can be dangerous to read backwards from later events to earlier ones, sometimes it is very useful. To cite an example from my own work, Franklin Roosevelt’s failure to act promptly to protect the property of evacuated Japanese Americans speaks volumes about the indifference to the fate of Japanese Americans that informed his signing of Executive Order 9066. The fact that the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki without significant debate beforehand tends to indicate that it was part of a predetermined plan or momentum, which nobody saw fit to interrupt. This suggests that a similar inertia, at least in the minds of certain figures, may have played a role in bringing about the Hiroshima bombing—the bomb was available, the United States had gone to enormous trouble to produce it, it would harm Japan, there was no way it was NOT going to be used.


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David Davidson - 8/7/2005

don't forget that Greg Robinson


David Silbey - 8/4/2005

Hmm. I understood that to be the point of the second paragraph of your original post, but I certainly thought that the first paragraph, ending with this:

"To me, the United States committed a far greater crime in the dropping of an atomic bomb on Nagasaki than on Hiroshima. Whatever one’s opinion of the bombing of Hiroshima, there are at least various arguments that have been raised in support: the uncertainty that the bomb would work, the need to give Japan a shock, the need to avert an invasion that would be costly in lives, etc. Yet all of these arguments fall down in judging the Nagasaki bombing. Consider the situation: a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima three days previously, to devastating effect. The United States had thereby proven that it had the capacity to make and deliver such weapons. (It is not clear how much their effects in the way of radiation were understood at the time by American military or political leaders). Furthermore, the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan on August 8th. There was no reason that the United States could not have waited to determine the Japanese reaction to these events, or to threaten further action, before dropping another bomb."

was a generalized consideration of the bomb dropping itself. It was that that I was largely reacting to.


Greg James Robinson - 8/3/2005

I think you are missing my point. In a nutshell, there is a special reflection over the morality of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This reflection not only does not take place in regard to the (more destructive) conventional bombings of Tokyo and other cities, but--curiously enough--it does not even surround the other atomic bombing, of Nagasaki. It is ironic that this should be so, since the bombing of Nagasaki appears less defensible, in terms of stopping the war or proving that the United States had expanded destructive capacity, than was the Hiroshima bombing. Now, whether the two atomic bombings deserve special and unique moral discussion is a very different matter, and one I leave unresolved.


David Silbey - 8/3/2005

"In any case, this begs the question of why the Americans did not wait to see the impact of the first bomb plus the Soviet invasion."

Why wait?

The United States had spent the last nine months destroying Japanese cities with a variety of weapons, atomic and otherwise. They had not waited after Tokyo in March. Why wait after Hiroshima in August?

The separation of the atomic bombings as being _special_ morally has the potential to both condemn and exonerate the United States. Condemns because we used nuclear weapons. Exonerates because setting aside nuclear weapons effectively ignores that the US had already stepped over the city-killing line months if not years earlier.


Greg James Robinson - 8/3/2005

I have not heard this. It sounds dubious. First, I question where the Japanese would have obtained such information--and although they had their own small-scale nuclear program, they were clearly taken by surprise by the bombing--without knowing that the US had only the two bombs in stock, or how the Americans would have been aware of what the Japanese knew, such that a second demontration would be necessary. Secondly, the fact that the Americans had such demonstrated capability and could produce such bombs in time would have sure weighed in any case. In any case, this begs the question of why the Americans did not wait to see the impact of the first bomb plus the Soviet invasion.


David Perkins Billington - 8/3/2005

I believe the Japanese knew we had a uranium bomb program but thought (given the arduous process to enrich uranium) we only had enough fissile material for the test blast and the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima. We demonstrated at Nagasaki that we had a plutonium bomb capability as well and as a result Japan surrendered.


Jeff Vanke - 8/3/2005

Allport's second point is very important and very neglected.

And I second Robinson's main argument to focus more discussion on Nagasaki. Charles de Gaulle once wondered, in private, whether Nagasaki might have been excessive.


Eric Leigh Muller - 8/3/2005

Michael, I couldn't disagree more. We are not "far after the fact," and the record of the decisionmaking process is, I imagine, largely intact and available.

If we flinch at assessing the morality of the attacks in their moment, then our current assertion that "such tactics are no longer justifiable or appropriate" will be just that--an assertion, to set aside the next time we feel pressed to do so by what frightens us.

(Incidentally, I don't know enough about the decisionmaking process that led to either bombing to pass judgment on them. So this isn't a hidden argument that either or both were actually immoral. It's just an argument against the urge to suspend judgment of historical actors.)


Eric Leigh Muller - 8/3/2005

Michael, I couldn't disagree more. We are not "far after the fact," and the record of the decisionmaking process is, I imagine, largely intact and available.

If we flinch at assessing the morality of the attacks in their moment, then our current assertion that "such tactics are no longer justifiable or appropriate" will be just that--an assertion, to set aside the next time we feel pressed to do so by what frightens us.

(Incidentally, I don't know enough about the decisionmaking process that led to either bombing to pass judgment on them. So this isn't a hidden argument that either or both were actually immoral. It's just an argument against the urge to suspend judgment of historical actors.)


Alan Allport - 8/3/2005

I have heard the "knockout blow" thesis but it does not seem to me convincing as a reason that entered people's minds, precisely because it was clearly part of a larger campaign that nobody thought to adjust.

Why can't the 'knockout blow' have been a contributory factor in the decision not to alter the timetable? Why can't there have been positive as well as negative reasons ('nobody thought to adjust') for what the Americans did? I don't see anything necessarily contradictory about Truman sticking to a pre-agreed timetable because there were solid arguments in favor of it as well as the simple momentum of events.

I have not heard of 10,000 people dying per day. I would be interested to know about this.

Robert P. Newman ('Truman and the Hiroshima Cult') made the calculations. I used his low-end estimate, by the way - the high-end estimate would be more like 13,000 deaths a day, or a Hiroshima every 12 days.

It does not alter the question of intentionality, but it changes the equation about whether the bombing was justified (if it could be shown that the Nagasaki bomb was indeed responsible for hastening surrender.)

I doubt there is ever going to be absolute evidence for that one way or another. No doubt the Japanese eventually surrendered for all kinds of reasons. Saying that the A-Bombs were irrelevent to the decision seems to me as silly as saying that they alone produced the decision.

But what's interesting about the "we should have waited" argument is that its advocates think they have themselves a cost-free option - what difference would it have made if we had let the Japanese dither for a few more days, or weeks? They seem to forget that there was a war going on. The world did not stop turning because of the events of August 6. A few more days or weeks after Hiroshima would have made a great deal of difference to a very large number of Chinese, and Indonesians, and Koreans, and Allied PoWs starving in slave labor camps, to name but a few.

But then, the moral question is usually posed simply in regard to atomic bombing, rather than strictly on the plane of lives taken--the bombing of Tokyo was far more deadly than either atomic bombing yet has not inspired the countless commemorations and controversies that Hiroshima (and NOT Nagasaki) has.

I agree, and I think it's a morally incoherent obsession - it's as if people find the idea of an atomic attack more objectionable than the consequences of that attack (so, for instance, if the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had simply been boiled in oil, it wouldn't matter quite so much).


Michael Heinz - 8/3/2005

As I mentioned above, we were killing just as many people with traditional munitions in the fire bombings of Germany and Japan.


Michael Heinz - 8/3/2005

Total War, strategic bombing and fire bombing were part of the war on Germany as well. IIRC, the casualties of the fire bombing of Dresden were higher than the casualties of the Hiroshima bomb.

That said, it really is difficult to assess the morality of the attacks this far after the fact; the traditional reason given for the second A bomb drop was that the Japanese still hadn't surrendered and we still weren't sure they would. That coupled with the inability to precisely destroy only strategic targets (i.e., factories, military targets) makes me wonder if the attacks were quite as bad as some make out.

It's better, I think to simply assert that such tactics are no longer justifiable or appropriate and should never be used again.


Greg James Robinson - 8/3/2005

I have heard the "knockout blow" thesis but it does not seem to me convincing as a reason that entered people's minds, precisely because it was clearly part of a larger campaign that nobody thought to adjust.
I have not heard of 10,000 people dying per day. I would be interested to know about this. It does not alter the question of intentionality, but it changes the equation about whether the bombing was justified (if it could be shown that the Nagasaki bomb was indeed responsible for hastening surrender).
But then, the moral question is usually posed simply in regard to atomic bombing, rather than strictly on the plane of lives taken--the bombing of Tokyo was far more deadly than either atomic bombing yet has not inspired the countless commemorations and controversies that Hiroshima (and NOT Nagasaki) has.


Alan Allport - 8/3/2005

Two points:

1) Surely one of the reasons for the swift attack on Nagasaki was to dispel any hope amongst the Japanese die-hards (grasping for any possible justification for the continuation of resistance) that the Hiroshima bomb was a technological one-off that could not be repeated for a long time. By using a second bomb three days later Truman gave the impression - a false impression, as we now know - that the US had an inexhaustible supply of these weapons and could continue the atomic bombardment of Japan at will.

2) Whenever the United States is condemned for not giving the Japanese government endless time to hem and haw about whether or not it was going to surrender, I wonder why the 10,000 or so people who were dying every day because of the continuation of the Pacific war are never given a moment's thought. In effect, Japan was committing a Hiroshima every two weeks throughout Asia in the summer of 1945. Yet these are largely invisible casualties.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/3/2005

I largely agree -- the arguments which are used to justify Hiroshima founder on Nagasaki, and I've never, that I can recall, seen a really good argument in support of it.


David Silbey - 8/3/2005

"The fact that the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki without significant debate beforehand tends to indicate that it was part of a predetermined plan or momentum, which nobody saw fit to interrupt."

In fact, Nagasaki was part of a larger continuum of bombing; not just Hiroshima, but the strategic bombing campaign of 1944-45 that had already largely incinerated the cities of the Japanese homeland. A number of those raids killed as many or more people than were killed in the atomic bombings, including the March 1945 Tokyo raid that killed over 80,000 Japanese.

There's a good article on that campaign in the Journal of Military History:

Thomas R. Searle, "'It Made a Lot of Sense to Kill Skilled Workers': The Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945," Journal of Military History 66/1: 103-34.

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