Americans commemorate the nation’s victory in World War II through a series of anniversary dates. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, are two such mileposts in our common memory that evoke stories of heroism and sacrifice on the path to ultimate triumph.
Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, hold a more complicated place in our minds. Seventy-six years ago, the United States became the first and only nation to drop atomic weapons on civilians, instantly incinerating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bringing an end to the war in the Pacific.
The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 120,000 people in the immediate blasts, and tens of thousands more died in the radioactive aftermath, an act of violence in a century filled with unspeakable slaughter. And the bombings were a demarcation, inaugurating an atomic age in which human beings harnessed science and technology to create weapons of previously unimaginable power.
In this episode of History As It Happens, world-renowned war historian Sir Antony Beevor answers one of the most difficult questions to arise in the aftermath of the war: Was it necessary to drop the bomb?
“I don’t believe the alternatives were as straightforward as some people have argued,” said Mr. Beevor, who holds to the traditionalist view among scholars that the bombings were necessary in the face of intractable obduracy on the part of the Japanese military leadership.
“Some claim that the invasion of the Red Army across northern China starting on the eighth of August was going to force Japan to surrender. One has to remember that the Imperial Japanese general staff was absolutely obsessed about Communism and would have been prepared to fight to the end far more desperately against the Red Army than against the Americans,” said Mr. Beevor, citing one example of Japanese intransigence despite the warning in the Potsdam Declaration to surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.”
The traditionalist view has come under attack for decades as historians have unearthed more information about the thinking inside the Truman administration.
Revisionists, including historian John W. Dower, have argued Truman chose not to pursue alternatives for a host of reasons, including what has become known as the “atomic diplomacy” thesis: that U.S. leaders sought to send a message to Stalin about the post-war world before they would have to face a massive Soviet military presence in the Far East at the same time the Soviets were consolidating their hold on Eastern Europe.
Mr. Beevor said that whatever the motivation, dropping the bomb probably saved lives, both American and Japanese.
“One has to remember how many people were dying already. We have the battle of Okinawa. Twenty-five percent of the civilians on Okinawa were killed over the course of that fighting, so the Americans had a very clear idea by that stage of how desperate the defense of the home islands were likely to be,” Mr. Beevor said.
Estimates of U.S. casualties in a land invasion of Japan ran as high as one million, although as the planning continued several estimates came in significantly lower. Moreover, the invasion of Kyushu was not scheduled until the fall, the invasion of the main island of Honshu not until March 1946. This raises the question: Why rush to drop the bomb in August 1945?
“There were altogether some 132,000 Allied prisoners of war who were dying of starvation, and all of those would have died by March 1946,” Mr. Beevor said.
After the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Allies heard not a peep from the Japanese leadership, who not only remained opposed to surrender but had started mobilizing the entire population to participate in a defense to the end.
Still, Mr. Beevor said the atomic bombings, as well as the months of fire bombings of dozens of Japanese cities starting in Marc 1945, can be safely considered an atrocity, defined as the wanton killing of non-combatants, in a war full of atrocities. For more of Sir Antony Beevor’s insights about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the debate among historians about their necessity, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.
* (Correction: The story has been updated to show the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.)