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Hiroshima and Nagaski: Two Opinions

In the sixty-five years since the twin atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been hundred of articles and books written on the consequences of their development and use.  Many scholars consider the development and use of nuclear weapons as among the most important events of the twentieth century.  This view is justifiable because those of us born during the Cold War remember how dangerous the world seemed at times.  Considering that there were more than fifty thousand nuclear weapons in the world by the mid-1980s, one mistake by the United States or the Soviet Union could have ended civilization or possibly the human race.  At Hiroshima and Nagasaki we saw the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons:  nearly a quarter million dead immediately, two cities destroyed within seconds and lingering radiation that killed thousands more over the weeks, months, and years following.  The idea that the same could happen again, but on a much larger scale, helped convince world leaders that they could and should reduce their stockpiles while still adequately defending themselves.  As a result, there are less than half as many nuclear weapons today as there were just a quarter century ago.

But if we focus our discussion on the use of two nuclear weapons against Japan in August 1945, there is much more debate and much less clarity.  At least two sets of opinions have emerged from this decades-old debate.  The first set of opinions concentrates on whether we should have used nuclear weapons against Japan, given that Japan was already on the brink of defeat.  Stated differently, the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary and therefore immoral.  But in a sense, this is an irrelevant position because nuclear weapons were, in fact, used.  The second set of opinions is that it was necessary to use nuclear weapons because their use ended the war quickly without an invasion that would have cost millions of lives and may not have succeeded.  And in fact the war did end within weeks of their use. 

Those who adhere to the first opinion believe that Japan was already defeated or soon would be; especially with the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific.  This same viewpoint further suggests that a blockade would have been sufficient to force the Japanese surrender.  Therefore, it was immoral to use such weapons against a defeated nation.  But again, this is a moral judgment made out of context.  No matter who suggests what, we simply don’t know what the Japanese would have done had we invaded the Home Islands.  There were no clear indications that they would surrender without their terms being met, even with the hoped-for influence of Soviet mediation on their behalf (which never occurred).  Furthermore, within the Japanese government, there were several factions fighting to influence the Emperor, whether for peace or continued war.  To judge what the Japanese might have done is to make a judgment out of context and out of time.  There is no data to support the position that the Japanese would have done one thing or another.

The second opinion is that it was necessary to drop the atomic bombs in order to end the war as quickly as possible and avoid an invasion that would have cost millions of lives, destroy an entire nation, and extend the war for another year at least.  There was little doubt within the Truman administration that an invasion of Japan would be difficult to mount and sustain.  But in the end there was also little doubt that the Allies would eventually win, despite the millions of Japanese soldiers and thousands of aircraft and ships that awaited them.  Also, there was considerable concern within the Truman administration that the American public had no stomach for another year of war.  The war had raged for nearly four years and cost the Allies hundreds of thousands of dead, injured, and missing.  The prospect of another year of slaughter and destruction would not sit well with the American public, or so it was assumed.

Given these factors, Truman had little difficulty in making his decision.  The point here is that within the context of the time and conditions of war, it is easier to understand why the bombs were dropped.  It’s reasonable to assume that there were discussions on the moral aspects of using such destructive weapons, but weighed against the alternative of continued war, President Truman decided to use the weapons available to him.  His decision, within the context of his time, was not a moral decision; it was a strategic and political decision.  It’s easy for us to look back and make a moral judgment about a past event; all we have to do is voice our opinion.  But is this being too subjective for historians?  For us, sixty-five years later, to turn his wartime decision into a moral judgment, does President Truman and the entire Allied effort an injustice by imposing our opinions on past events.

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