Thursday, May 12, 2016

Japan and the atomic bomb

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a story about President's Obama's planned visit to Hiroshima, revisiting the question of whether the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb on Japan. The article quoted a prominent revisionist historian:

“The top American military leaders who fought World War II, much to the surprise of many who are not aware of the record, were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender, and — for many — that the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral,” Gar Alperovitz, a leader of the movement to revise the United States’ own historical accounting, wrote last year in The Nation.

The Times today published my short letter responding to this point:

To the Editor:
The assertion that Japan was about to surrender has been a staple of revisionist criticisms of the atomic bombings. The claim is largely empty.
Even though Hirohito and his military leaders were fully aware by the fall of 1944 that military defeat was inevitable, the emperor exhorted them again and again to fight to the death.
The United States Army chief of staff, George Marshall, later concluded that the bombings’ effect was more psychological than military: It allowed Hirohito, fanatically obsessed with honor and imperial destiny, to “surrender without losing face.”
Leesburg, Va.
The writer, a military historian, is the author of “Air Power.”
Here's some additional context, from my book "Air Power." The most significant point is that Japan's notion of ending the war peacefully was so far removed from anything approaching "surrender" that it was delusional. Japan was simply not on the "verge of surrender," but rather at the behest of their emperor was prepared to commit national suicide rather than ever willingly capitulate. I've highlighted a few key points in boldface:
It would prove convenient for decades afterwards, convenient to both the defeated Japanese and the victorious Americans, to adhere to the story that Emperor Hirohito had been a remote, passive figurehead who bore no responsibility and no guilt for Japan’s military actions during the war. The truth was different. As his biographer Herbert P. Bix found from an exhaustive examination of Japanese documents that became available only after Hirohito’s death in 1989, the Emperor asserted strong control over both overall war policy and specific military operations—often with disastrous consequences for Japanese troops and Japanese civilians alike. Far from agonizing over his people’s mounting suffering as American forces pressed relentlessly on toward the Japanese homeland, far from advocating surrender once Japan’s defeat had become a near certainty in the fall of 1944, the Emperor exhorted his commanders again and again to fight to the death. He saw his people’s willingness to sacrifice their lives in the tens or hundreds of thousands, millions even, as proof of what he called “our imperial destiny.” As far as the Emperor was concerned, dying for the Emperor was the greatest virtue that his subjects could aspire to.
Many of them agreed. On New Year’s Day 1945 the Emperor inspected the special ration packets being prepared as the last meals for the “special attack forces,” young men who had volunteered to fly their gasoline- and explosive-laden planes into Allied ships, and troops, and bombers. There was no shortage of enthusiastic volunteers. The name kamikaze given to the suicide forces meant “divine wind,” an allusion to the miraculous typhoons that, in Japanese legend, twice in the thirteenth century arose to repel the invading Mongol fleet. . . . To Hirohito they were the supreme manifestation of the superiority of the Japanese spirit of sacrifice and honor. During a briefing on the battles raging near the Philippines in early January, the Emperor astonished his military aide by twice rising and bowing deeply when his aide mentioned one of these “special pilots.”. . .
In [1945] April Hirohito, blaming his ministers for the continuing military failures, brought down the Japanese government. A new cabinet agreed to put out feelers to the Russians for mediation to help end the war. But the new cabinet’s vision of “peace” was so far from the Allied terms of unconditional surrender that any retrospective criticisms of the supposed unwisdom of that inflexible Allied policy were probably beside the point. The new Army Minister, Korechika Anami, insisted that since Japan was still holding territory it had conquered, Japan had therefore won the war and any peace treaty must acknowledge that fact. “Concurrently,” Bix notes, “the controlled press waged a daily die-for-the-emperor campaign.”. . .
To Americans, to the world, the atomic bomb was a weapon so powerful that no sane person could possibly continue to believe that further resistance was possible. Yet the atomic bombs killed considerably fewer people than had LeMay’s months of conventional firebombing. The new weapons had fallen on two provincial cities far from Tokyo; indeed, the principal reason Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets was that almost all of Japan’s other major cities had been burnt to the ground already, and making charred debris bounce, it was thought, would constitute an inadequate demonstration of the new weapons’ awesome destructive power. But the result was rather the same, since most Japanese had not even heard of the atomic bombings by the time of the Japanese surrender, much less were they pressing their government to capitulate because of them. If the Emperor had told them to fight on, the Japanese people would no doubt have fought on.
The Japanese Army certainly still wanted to fight on. A cabinet meeting summoned to discuss the Hiroshima bombing the following day was cancelled because the Army representatives didn’t show up: they claimed to have “more pressing business.” Hirohito himself vacillated and procrastinated on issuing a surrender statement to the very end, even after the second bomb was dropped on August 9. “Obviously,” noted Bix, “Hirohito sought to justify his decision to surrender by citing the dropping of the atomic bombs.…Whether the emperor and his advisers ever really believed that, however, is unlikely.”
Years later George Marshall would be one of the first to recognize what had happened: “There is one point that was missed and that frankly we missed in making our plans,” Marshall admitted. “And that was the effect the bomb would have in so shocking the Japanese that they could surrender without losing face.” Japan’s leaders had known at least since spring, and probably for a full year, that, militarily, their situation was hopeless. . . . If destroying an entire major city from the air in a single night were enough to make a country surrender, Japan should have surrendered a couple of dozen times already. The timing of the Japanese surrender in the wake of the atomic bombings said more about the peculiar thrall of the Japanese nation—and its leaders in particular—to a nationalistic ideology of honor and supreme self-sacrifice than it said about the logic of victory through air power.

One other very important point: Alperovitz's assertion that "top American military leaders who fought World War II . . . were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary" is an extraordinarily misleading and out-of-context statement. All three services did indeed try to argue that they each could have won the war without the bomb: the Navy claimed that its blockade of Japan would have starved Japan into submission. The Army confidently asserted that MacArthur's invasion plans would have succeeded in occupying and defeating the home islands. And even the Air Force was wary of giving the bomb too much credit, lest it undermine their broader claim that strategic air power won the war, with or without the new weapon: the Air Force took pains to point out that 210 conventional B-29 raids could have delivered the same explosive force as one atomic bomb.
So yes, they all claimed the bomb was "unnecessary," in the sense that the war could have been won without it. Yet Alperovitz ridiculously fails to go to the next question and ask, At what cost? The naval blockade would have taken months or more and would have killed more Japanese civilians than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did. An invasion would likewise have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and also taken until 1946.
The historical record is in fact manifestly clear that nothing short of months more of fighting — and untold civilian and military deaths — would have led to Japan's defeat absent the atomic bombings.