What if … Atom Bombs Weren’t Used

(This is an opinion piece. You might want to skip this post if such things offend you).

It is interesting to see that sixty-five years from the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the issue is still controversial. It is not extremely surprising to me at least because I belong to that small minority who believed the surrender of Japan would have arrived even without the use of the atom bombs. Holding this view point as I do, I had a few debates back in college, beyond college, and in workforce. And writing this post flared up the debate again … this time with my girlfriend. She wrote this beautiful piece below to help ‘elucidate’ a few points. I guess it elucidates me not to date history majors (:P love you). Anyhow, two of us went over the piece, abridged it, and I suggested we put a few photo-related themes in. And here it is:

These days, we often forget that the atomic bombs were nearly used on Japan during the Second World War. With the anniversary of the Soviet declaration of war on Imperial Japan (or as they call it in Orwellian jargon of Socialist Democratic Republic of Japan, “Fraternal Help for Pacification”) looming, it is hard to remember another more obscure non-event that would have also happened sixty-five years ago today, had it not been for President Truman’s decision two weeks prior. The bible-quoting haberdasher from Missouri wrote in his diary on July 25th 1945 that with an atomic bomb, military objectives and soldiers and sailors will be targets indiscrimately along with women and children. He overruled the Department of War which was advocating its use, by writing: “It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, and it should not be made useful.”

X-Day, November 1st 1945

The Battle of Okinawa and its devastating aftermath prompted the United States to look for alternatives to subdue mainland Japan. But with Truman vehemently against the atomic bomb and the Soviet invasion of Japan imminent, the United States had no choice but to go forward with the plans for Operation Olympic. In the ensuing decades, much had been made of heroism on the beaches of Miyazake, from Carl Mydans’ photos of X-Day landings to Clint Eastwood’s box-office hit Our Boys of Kyushu, but it was tragic and demoralizing that Japan’s strategic geography, its awaiting guerillas and kamikaze troops meant the Allies casulties were high. Despite these setbacks, the war in the Pacific was over in eighteen months. With the Soviets invading from the north, and the Americans blockading the ports, the Japanese morale was soon cracking. That winter, Emperor Hirohito sat in pallor as his youngest brother denounced him in the privy council. But the martial law imposed to quell riots in Tokyo and Yokohama was the signal to the wider world that Japan would fight to the bitter end. That end arrived on 24th January 1947, with Emperor Hirohito signing the instrument of surrender inside the war-ravished Imperial Palace in front of General MacArthur and Marshal Vasilevsky.

MacArthur, Hirohito and Vasilevsky after Japanese surrender

The next day, the flag used by Commodore Perry when he entered Tokyo Bay in 1853, was flown atop the Imperial Palace. Hidden behind that iconic W. Eugene Smith photo of flag rising — which now graces the National Pacific War Memorial in Chesapeake, Virginia — were deeper discomforts that there might be an ‘influence gap’ between the U.S. and the Soviets. With the war for mainland Japan consuming most of American manpower, Truman failed to prevent Turkey, Iran, Greece, Italy and Korea from falling into the communist camp. Churchill bemoaned this failure in his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, London. Encroaching Soviet sphere withered away America’s last remaining shreds of isolationism, but like Wilson before him, Truman was too occupied by a single issue to fully grasp America’s place on the world’s stage. In his magisterial book “Colossus: the Price of America’s Empire”, Niall Ferguson wrote, “Truman’s moral decision not to use the Atom Bomb — which rehabilitated his posthumous reputation — was revealed only after his presidency, the end of which was prematurely facilitated by hesitance and spinelessness he displayed towards the blockaded citizens of West Berlin.” That November, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York — an isolationist who reverted his stance to vehemently urge America to join Britain in her courageous but eventually doomed Berlin Airlift — had all the good reasons to be smiling manaically from ear to ear when he held up a newspaper predicting his victory four hours before the polled closed.

Dewey campaigned as a decisive leader and won

In 1950, Japan was divided into North and South Japans with Tokyo itself jointly administered between the Soviet Union, China and the United States. In 1955, the Chiyoda Wall dissecting the Imperial Palace went up; in the years that followed, its importance was underlined in two famous presidential speeches made in front of it: Adlai Stevenson’s “Today we are all Japanese,” and Ronald Reagen’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall”, but back in 1955, so palpable were the fears that the Soviet Union would drive 20 miles down the 36th parallel delimitation line to invade Tokyo that the wall came as a relief.

The idea of using the atomic weapons seems ridiculous now, knowing as we do the atom’s perverse effects. But back in the 1950s, everyone entertained those ideas; Generals MacArthur and Le May nearly prevailed upon President Dewey to use them when the Soviets invaded Korea and Hungary and squashed revolts there. There were proposals to use nuclear weapons to shot down Russian satellites, to quell insurgants against American-supported dictators in South America, and to control weather. Senator Joseph MacCarthy of Wisconsin denounced Dewey as a red agent for his refusal to use them against the Russian fleet. Only with President Steveson’s gentle explanation after the Cuban Missile Crisis, did we finally come to terms with the dangers of what Oppenheimer called, “Destoryer of Worlds”. Even then, we didn’t fully understand the true horror of nuclear weapons until Richard Nixon annihilated North Vietnam.

To yearn nostalgically for the destruction of multiple Japanese cities is definitely a taboo, but it is always tempting to indulge in some alternative history. Atom bombs would undoubtably have ended the war before the Soviets joined it, and would have led to the American occupation of entire Japan, not just its southern parts. And without the constant anxieties about the Soviet presence in the Far East, America would not have gone into Vietnam. Without the costly war for Japan, American would have prevented the communist encroachments in China and East Europe. On the other hand, a Japan devastated by nuclear bombs and its population alienated by such inhumanity would not have warmed up to Americans occupiers who dropped the bombs. It is equally hard to imagine a modern futuristic Japan without the industrial centers in the south. But all these counterfactuals aside, this much is certain: despite its high human costs and less-than-satisfactory outcome, Operation Olympic was America’s finest hour.

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0 thoughts on “What if … Atom Bombs Weren’t Used

  1. I really think we’re missing something with the A-bomb discussions:
    The _ONLY_ difference between the A-bomb and other raids we’d done is that it only took 1 airplane. From a strategic and tactical standpoint, that’s massive, but from a moral standpoint it’s not. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I believe, aren’t even in the top 5 in numbers of civilians killed in a single bombing raid.

    I’m not defending them. I’m saying that the moral grounds against using nuclear weapons strictly from a number-of-killed-civilians doesn’t hold much water in this context.

    Also, when, in human history, has anyone ever invented a weapon and not used it?

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