What would you have done?
Next Wednesday marks the 58th year since the first use of atomic weapon against human beings. Whether America should have used these bombs against Japan remains a heated debate in many circles.
The arguments used most often by those who condemn the United States for using atomic weapons:
n The Japanese were going to surrender anyway.
n An invasion or blockade would have been a more humane way to end the war.
n The decision to use nuclear weapons was predicated on politics; i.e., our government wanted to demonstrate to Joe Stalin that the 5 million man Red Army then in Europe would face a similar fate if he moved on Western Europe.
The argument that the Japanese were going to surrender anyway is specious. There are no historical records indicating that anyone in authority within the Japanese government was seriously contemplating surrender in late July or early August 1945, despite the fact that President Truman told the Japanese that survival of the emperor was an acceptable condition of surrender. The Japanese government formally rejected Truman’s offer on July 26, 1945, 11 days before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Japanese wanted to make any invasion of their home islands so costly for the United States that they would be able to sue for peace under terms less than unconditional surrender. It was in light of this that President Truman elected to use atomic weapons to shorten the war and reduce the number of military and civilian casualties on both sides.
The invasion of the Japanese homeland was scheduled to take place in November 1945; 900,000 Japanese soldiers were defending the island of Kyushu against 750,000 American invasion troops. On the main island of Honshu there were 2 million Japanese soldiers defending against an estimated 1 million-man invasion force.
Using the horrific battles of Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa as a reference, where 97% of Japanese soldiers fought to the death, the Japanese military losses due to a U.S. invasion of their home islands would reasonably be expected to be about 2.8 million dead.
During the Okinawa campaign, American casualties ran about 35 percent of the number of troops engaged. Thus, of the 1.75 million men scheduled to assault the Japanese home islands, the U.S. would have realistically expected 500,000 casualties, including 150,000 dead.
One-hundred-fifty Japanese civilians died during the battle of Okinawa. An invasion of the Japanese home islands would have meant the deaths of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions more. Such an invasion had the potential to be the most horrific battle in history.
A blockade was not a viable option because that is a long-term strategy and the results would have been ghastly. A blockade would have slowly starved the Japanese population. Would starving a civilian population to death really be a humane means to end the war?
Six million Asians had already died under Japanese occupation. Waiting for a blockade to take effect would have sentenced millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Malays and Chinese to further death and privation. A U.S. blockade would also have been branded a deliberate racist strategy. How might the nations of the region reacted had we allowed millions more Asians to die when we had the ability to end the war quickly? The world would have never forgiven the United States – and who could have blamed them? Japan had assembled a kamikaze suicide armada and mobilized 1 million soldiers and civilians equipped with a variety of suicide devices to stop our soldiers and Marines on the beaches. They also would have used their vast arsenal of chemical and bacterial weapons against us as they had done against the Chinese earlier during the war.
Captured documents subsequently revealed that the Japanese had planned on executing the 500,000 Allied prisoners of war and internees the moment the invasion began. (Japanese prison camps were notoriously gruesome, where 1 in 3 Americans died in captivity. By comparison, 1 in 25 Americans died in German prisoner of war camps.)
The foregoing should make it patently obvious that sending a message to Josef Stalin was a by-product of using atomic bombs. It was not the primary reason for their use.
Finally, it can be reasonably assumed that the U.S. would have suffered over a million casualties including those interned in Japanese prison camps. The Japanese military would have incurred almost 3 million dead, and we can only conjecture about the horrendous casualties to their civilian population. Compare these figures to the approximate 200,000 casualties that resulted from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If you were in President Harry Truman in August 1945, what decision do you think you would have made?
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org