The Bombs of August


Recently, I dismissed the annual debate over US use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a few words. Now, I wish to discuss that topic while August is yet with us and the debate – however tepid – lingers on. As I noted some time ago in a column on bombing, the August cycle runs something like this: First, someone suggests that there was something wrong with immolating 200,000 Japanese civilians when the war in the Pacific was to all intents and purposes over. Next, irate veterans, conservatives, and liberal "realists" enter the fray and maintain that the Bomb saved a half million – or more – American lives, and was therefore a Good Thing. Sometimes, conservatives complain that "the left" dominates the discussion, the proof being that the matter is brought up at all.

I mean, after all that Ronald Reagan did to make us "feel good about ourselves" – and isn’t that, after all, why we have presidents? – there those "leftists" go, asking us to look critically at a couple of deeds of the US state, at the risk of making us feel bad. There is some sort of confusion of society, people, culture, and state here, but we can leave it to one side. Even so, maybe there are individuals who should feel bad about it. Others of us, born after the event, won’t need to.


The immediate context of the A-bombings included the end of the war in Europe, growing tensions among the Allies, and the absurd US demand for unconditional surrender. Few historians now doubt that for many months before August 8 and 11, 1945, the Japanese government had sought to surrender under a few conditions. Most important to them was retention of the Emperor as living symbol of the nation – in the face of US promises, or threats, to democratize Japan. These threats followed from the view that the whole worldwide bloodbath had been caused, somehow, by the absence here and there of that wonderful political form.

Joseph Grew, former US Ambassador to Japan, was among those who tried to instill some realism into the US administration’s thinking on these matters. Military historian Capt. B.H. Liddell-Hart writes that the unconditional surrender policy needlessly prolonged the war in both theaters.1

US leaders had been pressuring Soviet Russia, which had remained at peace with Japan, to enter the Pacific war. Russia denounced its nonaggression pact with Japan in April. It has been suggested that with Russian entry into the war and with disagreements looming among the Allies over the future of Germany and Eastern Europe, the new Truman administration had a strong motive to use its new bomb on a real target, i.e., a city. This would impress and intimidate the Soviets and make them more tractable about Poland and other matters.2 Bureaucratic momentum doubtless played its role, too. There is no evidence that anyone contemplated not using the bomb, provided the war was still raging when the bomb was ready. I mean, spend all that money and not use the damned thing?

The old saying is that "war is too important to be left to the military." Evidently, it’s too important to leave to the civilians, either.

So, with Soviet troops slogging into Manchuria and US leaders hiding behind their unconditional surrender slogan so as to put off discussing real terms, the bombing went forward and Hiroshima and Nagasaki largely vanished. As for American lives "saved," the US military itself estimated losses at 46,000 in the event of full-scale invasion of Japan’s home islands.3 With Japanese air and sea power destroyed, a simple blockade would have sufficed while surrender negotiations were conducted. Accordingly, many high-ranking officers doubted the need for an invasion. As for the overall position, General Eisenhower, told by Secretary Stimson at Potsdam that the bomb would be used against Japan, answered that "Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary…."4 Historian Gar Alperovitz writes that "before the atomic bomb was dropped each of Joint Chiefs of Staff advised that it was highly likely that Japan could be forced to surrender ‘unconditionally,’ without use of the bomb and without an invasion."5 It follows that surrender with a couple of conditions would have required even less effort.


But before I appear to concede too much to the odd logic whereby one American life equals 10, 100, 10,000, 10n enemy civilian lives, let us look at Allied bombing practices prior to US invention of its new toy. It was Britain and the US that built their air forces around heavy bombers, whose purpose would be strategic terror bombing of enemy civilians. The German National Socialists and the Soviet Communists – whatever their crimes and faults in other areas – built light bombers meant to support tanks and infantry near real battlefields. Göring’s attempt to terrorize Britain into making peace, using planes unsuited to the task, was a costly failure. It served to stiffen British morale and resistance, an interesting point the Allies might have noted had they not been so busy building strategic bombers.

Thus historian David M. Kennedy writes that "the great nuclear blast that obliterated Hiroshima hardly represented a moral novelty…. The moral rules that had long stayed warriors’ hands from taking up weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations had long since been violently breached – in the Allied attacks on European cities, and even more wantonly in the systematic firebombing of Japan." General Curtis LeMay presided over the March 9 firebombing of Tokyo, which incinerated 90,000 civilians. All told, over the next few months US firebombing killed off some 700,000 Japanese civilians.6 The shockwave felt after August 8, 1945 has something to do with the fact that one bomb could now do the good work previously done by thousands. But where, indeed, is the moral difference?


Many conservatives believe that to mention these things is entirely out of order. War is Hell, kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out, and so on. Very pat, I suppose, but there’s not much thinking in there. Left-liberals sometimes complain that US use of the bomb was "racist." I guess they’d be happier if Dresden had gotten one, instead of merely being annihilated the slow way. It is interesting to contrast the reaction of today’s Establishment conservatives with that of Felix Morley, who wrote in Human Events that the atomic bomb represented "the return to nothingness" – a repudiation of the entire Western, Christian heritage. Further: "The measurement of our [moral] loss may be seen, for instance, in the miserable farce put on by those who tried to reconcile mass murder of ‘enemy children’ with lip service to the doctrine that God created all men in his image."7


Noam Chomsky points out that, consistent with the spirit of the times, "a thousand-plane raid [was] launched after the Japanese surrender had been announced but, technically, before it was officially received."8

How many American lives did that post-surrender raid "save"? I guess we’ll never know, although the math looks pretty easy. We do know it killed additional thousands of Japanese civilians.

Some holy crusade. Some greatest generation.


  1. On Grew, see Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), p. 225; on unconditional surrender, see B. H. Liddell-Hart, History of the Second World War (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970), pp. 712-713.
  2. See William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: Delta, 1962), pp. 202-276; Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).
  3. See Barton J. Bernstein, "A post-War Myth: 500,000 U.S. Lives Saved," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 42, 6 (June/July 1986), 38-40.
  4. Quoted in Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy, pp. 284-285.
  5. Ibid., p. 285 (his emphasis).
  6. David M. Kennedy, "Victory at Sea," Atlantic Monthly, 283, 3 (March 1999), p. 76. In later issues of the Atlantic Monthly, irate readers gave Kennedy an earful for daring to mention these things.
  7. Felix Morley, "The Return to Nothingness" in A Year of Human Events (Chicago: Human Events Associates, 1947), pp. 144-147. Morley wrote the piece in August 1945.
  8. Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969), pp. 167 and 210-211 (my emphasis).

I wish to thank Prof. Ralph Raico for some of the references used here.