I got myself worked up following the media coverage of Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. After studying history and war in college, I developed a strong opinion about the American use of atomic weapons. I considered posting on my social media, but I remembered this is why I blog and can spare friends my periodic outbursts on controversial topics!
Here is America’s collective memory of Hiroshima/Nagasaki that frustrates me:
We could not have won the war without invading Japan (and losing one million soldiers in the process) without dropping the atomic bombs.
When the bombs were dropped in August 1945, Japan was not an existential military threat to the Allies. The massive USSR had just begun fighting Japan, ending a non-aggression pact. And Japan’s geography made it relatively easy to blockade them to secure better terms of surrender. Japan knew all of this.
While there were pro-war factions of Japan’s cabinet, the Emperor convened a meeting in June 1945 which he uncharacteristically opened with this statement: “I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts made to implement them.”
However, the U.S. demanded unconditional surrender, something that is rare in the history of warfare. Such a demand often drives adversaries to become even more resilient, since unconditional surrender means you won’t even agree that your troops won’t slaughter or enslave civilians. For context, the Union did not demand nor receive unconditional surrender of the Confederacy.
This was a bad policy for this situation, which is why the UK and USSR both strongly disagreed with the U.S. position. It was worsened by the fact that the Japanese revered their Emperor, who was like a deity to them. The Emperor presided over the oldest continuous monarchy on the planet, dating back to 660 BC. So when the US would not even concede that it wouldn’t behead or torture this god-like figure in public, it prolonged the war and made Japanese surrender much more difficult to obtain.
And not only did the U.S. not execute the Emperor after the war, but they kept his position intact as they thought it would be a good bulwark against communist influence! So we prolonged the war and Japanese surrender for no reason.
I’m not a pacifist, and I think WWII was a rare war that met the standards of jus ad bellum (academic speak for the right to go to war,) even though there were morally questionable strategic choices like partnering with Stalin. But, like the intentional firebombing of civilians by the Allies when they were decisively winning the war, the dropping of atomic bombs was not a morally justifiable decision.