Just before noon on August 9, 1945, an American B29 warplane appeared high over the historic Japanese port city of Nagasaki. Its only mission? To drop a plutonium atomic bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man” on the enemy population below. The resultant explosion, equivalent to 22,000 tons of TNT, killed between 30,000 and 40,000 people, almost entirely civilians. (Max Hastings, Inferno, Knopf, 2011)
Now, on the 75th Anniversary of this attack, while also remembering the uranium-based predecessor used against Hiroshima three days earlier, controversy continues over whether these devastating assaults were justified. Why Nagasaki? The city was not a military target. More confusing is that Nagasaki’s population included a uniquely significant number of Christians. In photos taken after the bombing, one can see the ruined Roman Catholic Urakami Cathedral, its walls still standing defiantly amid the surrounding rubble.
Why Nagasaki? That query is easy to answer: A primary target of that second atomic bomb was the more militarized city of Kokura. But a thick cloud cover prevented that mission and saved its population. The B29 was redirected to a secondary target, Nagasaki. The horrific weapon had to be unloaded somewhere to further demonstrate newly-invented American firepower as a warning to Japanese warlords. (Michael Beck, Forbes Magazine, August 6, 2020)
The much harder question: why were any atomic bombs dropped against a Japanese nation that was already clearly on the verge of losing the war? Revisionist critics have gone so far as accusing the American president, Harry Truman, who ordered the attack, of being personally responsible for those thousands of unnecessary civilian deaths. When the former president was given an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1956, one of its protesting professors, Gertrude Anscombe, angrily labelled him “a war criminal.” (Rossen Vassilev, Global Research, updated August 4, 2020)
Critics of the 1945 bombings point out that the American military had two less catastrophic options: The Air Force could continue their very effective campaign of dropping more of its vast arsenal of non-radioactive, but still-powerful, conventional bombs on strategic Japanese cities; the Navy could maintain the blockade of these enemy islands, starving its people into surrender. Some even argue that it was no insignificant co-incidence that Japan, its citizens of another race, was targeted, not Caucasian Germany. (Of course, Germany had already surrendered before the atomic bomb was first tested in July, 1945.)
In my opinion, defenders of the controversial American atomic bombing make a stronger case for those fateful decisions of August, 1945. George Jonas, writing in the National Post (August 7, 2015,) concisely summarized their argument:
—the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an abrupt end to the war and prevented Germany or Japan from completing scientific work on producing their own atomic bombs. (Germany had already pioneered the use of advanced weapons such as jet planes and V2 rockets.)
—it avoided the necessity of an invasion which would have cost American troops up to 100,000 casualties. As Jonas dryly noted: “Truman had contended for the American presidency, not the Nobel (peace) Prize.”
Many historians agree that these bombings quickly ended the war before the Soviet Union could take full advantage of implementing its strategy of seizing more territory in China and Korea, lands which Japan had occupied. Stalin had only belatedly declared war against Japan on August 8. (Gordon Corrigan, The Second World War, Thomas Dunne Books, 2010.) Interestingly, Corrigan writes that desperate Japanese leaders had earlier approached the USSR, hoping to use Stalin as a mediator to negotiate an end to the conflict against the Americans , but on terms more favorable to Tokyo. He refused.
Why did American war planners not propose an invasion as an alternative to atomic bombs? In fact, an invasion was initially planned for November, 1945. However, in the interim, US marines were learning bitter lessons from their assaults on two enemy-defended Islands, Iwo Jima and Okinawa earlier that year. Japanese troops fought bravely and skillfully against overwhelming odds. Many chose suicide over capture. In defending their homeland, any remaining armies protecting Japan itself would resist even more fanatically. (Michael Beck.) Kamikaze pilots had successfully sunk 27 US warships in the few previous months and damaged 2164 more at a cost of 4907 lives of American sailors. This carnage would surely be repeated against any invasion force (Hastings.)
No one can watch those horrific black and white images depicting the radiated and burned survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without immense sadness. Atomic bombs proved to be a horrific weapon as the scientists had predicted. Yet, as an almost forgotten footnote to this controversy is the fact that those two bombings also saved the lives of thousands of Prisoners Of War, including Canadians captured at the fall of Hong Kong, who were being confined under unimaginably inhumane conditions in Japan.
I recall one conversation with a Canadian POW who described a terrifying plan of his captors to kill every prisoner should an invasion occur. Televised war documentaries confirm that Japanese leaders were determined to hide any trace of their multiple atrocities by murdering all remaining witnesses. A prolonged naval blockade or conventional bombing of Japan would have taken many months before forcing its surrender. Too many innocent prisoners would die from toiling as slaves in mines and factories, from starvation rations and torture while awaiting eventual liberation.
After Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito, in a rare radio address, finally and reluctantly ordered his nation to surrender on August 15. The only small concession the Allies agreed to was to allow Hirohito to continue as Emperor, but serving under the orders of General MacArthur, assigned by Truman to become the country’s de- facto ruler. The peaceful rebirth of a democratic modern Japan had begun.