Hiroshima, the Best of Bad Choices


(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.→

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  • frank kodadek

    the fact is Japan begged for end or war, armistice, But America chose to teach them a lesson. a war crime in my estimation. As bad as the Germans and the Japs were the USA is worse in the same way…take alook at the true story how USA used white phosporus shells on many hospitals in Falluja,Iraq, melting people in their beds, some 6000 civilians deaths…and….only a French newspaper chose to print it…I guess the rest of them were bought and paid for.l

    • Bryant Davis

      Frank, you should really the first part of Jefferson’s essay: http://theunion4ever.com/1000-centuries-of-death/hiroshima-1/

      In it he talks about how the idea that the Japanese were begging for peace is actually a sort of historical old wives tale. They never begged for peace. The Japanese government was too paralyzed with infighting to ever actually make anything resembling a coherent offer of peace. Not even the first A-bomb was enough to break the deadlock. Instead, what the idea they wanted to surrender stems from is this moment when the “Peace Party” in the Japanese government told their ambassador in the USSR to “hint” that they wanted peace, but when the USSR asked for them to explain themselves and offer an actual proposal, the Peace Party panicked, got caught by the hardliners, and ended up responding to the USSR’s inquiries with nothing but incoherent diplomatic gobbledygook. The whole affair was such a mess that the USSR didn’t even think it worthy of informing the US about until after the war was over.

      Which kind of bring up another of Jefferson’s points, that the reasons the atomic bomb was necessary because the war needed to end as quickly as possible. The longer the war dragged out, the more and more crippled and ineffectual the Japanese leadership became. If the US had waited 6 months to starve it out or to make landings, by there might not have been a Japanese government left to surrender while there still would have been millions of heavily armed, well-trained, undefeated Japanese soldiers roving around warlord-style in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China.

      As for Fallujah, the use of White Phosphorus was against the rules of war. No question. But the use of an illegal and brutal weapon during a desperate battle with an actual enemy isn’t anywhere close, I don’t think, to being on the level of something like the Rape of Nanking, where the horrors were utterly gratuitous, or the German’s refusing to give food to Russian civilians behind their lines (even when there was plenty to go around) so that they could intentionally starve them to death in order to make room for future, merely theoretical German settlers.

      The war crime idea, though is important here I think because it’s central to what Jeff is asking with all these essays. What happens when a war crime saves lives? Does it become a necessary war crime? Even a “good” war crime if its ultimate result is more people living and breathing than if it had never happened?