28 July 2020   Leave a comment

Katherine E. McKinney, Scott D. Sagan, and Allen S. Weiner have written an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists entitled “Why the atomic bombing of Hiroshima would be illegal today”. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a highly contested event in international relations, but the title of the essay is misleading. In my opinion, the use of the atomic bomb in 1945 violated pre-existing laws of war, notably the prohibition against killing civilians. But the fact that the bombing was illegal is not really the issue. The discussions conducted by US officials at the time centered almost exclusively on the question of how to end the war against Japan, the terms of Japan’s surrender was almost exclusively a political question.

The laws of war had been extensively by all sides during World War II. The carpet bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, the Japanese treatment of US and allied prisoners of war, and the German V-2 bombing of London were all violations of the Geneva and Hague Conventions. And the war was conducted against the backdrop of extraordinary violations of human rights in the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

There are essentially three political considerations that are relevant to the analysis presented in the article. First, was the US demand for unconditional surrender by the Japanese an impediment to an earlier conclusion of the war without either an invasion or the use of the atomic bomb? There is considerable evidence that the Japanese were seeking an end to the war that did not involve the abdication of the Emperor or his trial as a war criminal. Ultimately, the US did accept the continuation of Hirohito’s rule, but with massive restrictions on his role in political and military affairs. After dropping the bomb, there was little question about the ability of the US and its allies to demand these restrictions, but there is room to doubt that such a course of action would have been possible absent the shock of the bomb. It is perhaps more useful to discuss why the US and the allies decided to issue such a stark demand on an adversary. The demand for unconditional surrender was tied to the outrage against the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, anger at Japanese conduct with respect to allied prisoners of war, and the ingrained racism in the US against non-white populations. US officials should not have succumbed to these non-strategic matters.

The second consideration is the possibility of an allied invasion of Japan. In the absence of the atomic bomb, such an invasion would have involved both American and Soviet troops (Stalin had promised in Yalta to send troops six months after the end of the war in Europe). The evidence from the American amphibious assaults on the islands of Saipan, Iwo Jima, and other islands suggested to military analysts that the deaths involved in the homeland of Japan would have been comparable (Iwo Jima had witnessed 21,000 Japanese deaths and almost 7,000 American deaths–the size of Iwo Jima was only 8 square miles). The estimates of the likely losses in an invasion of the Japanese homeland were all over the place. The US had two strategic plans for the invasion, Operations Olympic and Coronet:

“The main concern for the Americans was the potential for huge casualty rates. Nearly every senior officer involved in the planning did his own research regarding American casualties – this was based on the experience America had fighting the Japanese since Pearl Harbour.

“The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that Olympic alone would cost 456,000 men, including 109,000 killed. Including Coronet, it was estimated that America would experience 1.2 million casualties, with 267,000 deaths.”

“Staff working for Chester Nimitz, calculated that the first 30 days of Olympic alone would cost 49,000 men. MacArthur’s staff concluded that America would suffer 125,000 casualties after 120 days, a figure that was later reduced to 105,000 casualties after his staff subtracted the men who when wounded could return to battle.

“General Marshall, in conference with President Truman, estimated 31,000 in 30 days after landing in Kyushu. Admiral Leahy estimated that the invasion would cost 268,000 casualties. Personnel at the Navy Department estimated that the total losses to America would be between 1.7 and 4 million with 400,000 to 800,000 deaths. The same department estimated that there would be up to 10 million Japanese casualties. The ‘Los Angeles Times’ estimated that America would suffer up to 1 million casualties.”

Again, the issue is whether the allied demand for unconditional surrender was reasonable. Faced with these losses, it may have been the case that the allies would have accepted some conditions rather than invade. Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to this counterfactual.

Third, and finally, the decision to use the atomic bomb was based on a number of considerations: the desire to limit further US casualties, the desire to end the war quickly, the perceived need to send a message to the Soviet Union and to avoid it from being a party to the Japanese surrender (which ultimately failed–the Soviets took control of North Korea and the Kurile Islands in the northern part of Japan, issues which continue to fester today. There was a concerted effort by some of the nuclear scientists, led by Leo Szilard, to not use the bomb because of the potential civilian losses.

Ultimately, the decision to drop the bomb was rushed and not really subject to careful study. The first test of the bomb (“Trinity“) occurred on 16 July 1945 and the bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945. The decision was made by a President who had only been in office since the death of Franklin Roosevelt on 12 April 1945 and who had little or no foreign policy experience and was unaware of the existence of the bomb until 25 April 1945. Truman later claimed that he did not lose a moment’s sleep after making the decision: “For his part, Truman never regretted his decision—nor did he ever gloat, even in the face of decades of second-guessing by those who disagreed with him. Truman made the decision, and, as he was fond of saying, ‘that’s all there was to it.’”

The real question is not whether dropping the bomb was legal. It is whether the future use of an atomic bomb could ever be justified. For me, the answer is an emphatic no. But I doubt that anyone in power would ever ask me for my advice.

Posted July 28, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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