(This is the second of two articles on the atomic bombing of Japan; you may also want to read part One, which discusses how Hiroshima and Nagasaki led directly to Japanese surrender.)
In the twilight of World War II, the United States used a largely experimental weapon on a non-military target, a city of civilians and a small soldiers’ hospital, a city with kids in it. Some died terrible but quick deaths, from fire or smothering heat. Some wandered for hours before release, skin burned into the crisp black sheath of a charred marshmallow. As their eyes dangled, pushed out of their heads by the force of the blast, they slowly and desperately searched for water, piled into streams, jumped into wells and suffocated there under other thirsty bodies. Over weeks and months others lost their strength, then hair, then lives from radiation poisoning. Many took years to die. A few still live on in scarred, fractured bodies, social pariahs whose presence exhumes painful memories.
Like the time-frozen eye of a storm, this photographic point in history has incited a maelstrom of controversy. And the great debate has far too often indulged in hypothetical scenarios, in revised paths to peace, written in comfort by men in turtlenecks who manage to end the war more harmoniously than all the leaders of 1945 combined. The emotional logic behind these theories is simple: as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of great brutality, there must have been another way to finish the war without sacrificing so many civilians. All you have to do is sift through facts until that path shows itself.
I am not unsympathetic to this view. The idea that Hiroshima was an evil and avoidable act is very tempting – how could dropping an experimental weapon on hundreds of thousands of civilians be anything but? Surely, we say to ourselves, there must have been another way – any other way – to convince the Japanese to surrender. Surely there must be something better than burning and poisoning non-combatants – women and children and wounded men – to persuade their leaders that surrender was the only option.
And yet this is not the case. When revisionists hold up alternatives to Hiroshima and Nagasaki like miraculously rediscovered jewels, careful scrutiny reveals the deep, corrosive cracks that stretch from the surface to the core of each one. Although it seems anathema to admit it, the data suggest that attempting these alternatives would have led to greater loss of life, or anarchy in Japan, or prolonged and deadlier fighting. The atomic sacrifice of two cities, as awful as it is, stands alone as the clearest and brightest solution. It was a cruel war.
Here I’ve assembled a few of the most popular alternatives, many of them theories that I once adhered to or considered. In this list I include as well the reasons why, upon examination, they are little more than (non-erotic) historical fanfiction.→