The United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city Hiroshima 70 years ago this week. In the blink of an eye, 80,000 people and most of the city they lived in were erased. The atomic death toll rose to nearly 130,000 when a second bomb fell on Nagasaki three days later. As the lingering effects of burns and radiation poisoning compounded, the bombs of August may eventually have killed close to a quarter of a million people.
Though I wouldn’t be born for another nine years — or, rather, because of that — I am eternally grateful that President Truman made the decision to use the bomb. My father was in the U.S. Army in 1945, fighting his way across the Pacific from one bloody little island to the next.
Without the bomb, he would almost certainly have been part of an Allied invasion of Japan, and there was a good chance he would have died, along with several hundred thousand other American soldiers and sailors. In anticipation of the slaughter to come, U.S. commanders had already ordered half a million Purple Heart medals.
And, of course, the casualties wouldn’t have stopped on the beaches, or even in the mountains where the last surviving Japanese soldiers would have still been fighting a guerrilla war months, or even years, later. (Some holdout Japanese troops in the Philippines didn’t lay down their arms until the 1970s.) They would have cascaded on through history, possibly including me and three brothers and sisters who would never have been born if my father had died in that invasion.
For all my selfish reasons for supporting the use of the bomb, it’s a little understood fact that — though it may sound crazy — the principal beneficiaries of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the Japanese themselves. In an invasion, they would have died by the millions.
At the time of World War II, the Japanese military practiced a samurai military code known as bushido in which surrender was equated with dishonor. (“Bushido is a way of dying,” explains one of the code’s early texts.) Bushido was not just a culture but official military policy.
Hideki Tojo, the senior army commander who would soon become prime minister, in 1941 ordered his troops never to surrender. “Do not live in shame as a prisoner,” he instructed them. “Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.”
They obeyed, in profusion. Japanese soldiers died in ratios as great as 8 to 1 over Americans during the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, often refusing to surrender even in the most abjectly hopeless situations.
When American troops didn’t kill them, they frequently killed themselves. Some 5,000 Japanese soldiers are believed to have committed suicide during the three-week battle for the island of Saipan, more than a sixth of the entire Japanese death toll. (The number of Japanese taken prisoner: just 921.)
Massive civilian casualties would have been inevitable in an invasion of Japan. As terrible as the death toll at Hiroshima was, it wasn’t even close to being the war’s deadliest American bombing raid against the Japanese.
A napalm attack on Tokyo five months earlier killed 100,000 people in a single night and left a million homeless. How many cities would U.S. planes have burned to the ground during the three months or six months or a year it would have taken to win a ground war?
What happened to the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an awful thing, a horrifying vision of the fragility of human existence. It should never be the subject of football-style cheering, though I can certainly understand why most Americans felt that way in 1945.
But that doesn’t mean it was wrong. As terrible as it was, it prevented even more terrible things by ending a horrifying 14 years when the entire world was making total war on itself.