There’s a lot of loose revisionist talk about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Phrases like “war crime” get thrown around, and of course the fact that the horror of atomic warfare is something pretty much every nation today regards as the near-ultimate extreme act.
In today’s climate, having witnessed the outcome and suffering of the citizens of those cities, it’s easy to ask how could any decent human being use these awful weapons on a fellow human being?
Looking at it through today’s lens gives a false perspective. Look at it from Harry Truman’s point of view. Four years of war, and a military staff telling you that you have two choices: you can send hundreds of thousands of US troops to invade Japan, or you can use a wonder weapon of such power that it could end the war in days.
There are counter arguments: some say that the atomic bomb was dropped as a sign to Russia not to invade Japan. That’s plausible as a partial reason, but even if it were true, it raises an issue. If Russia had invaded Japan, when would the Russians have pulled out? About the same time they pulled out of East Germany? The US occupation ended in 1952 leaving Japan a stable democracy.
The other argument is that Japan was looking to surrender anyway. Again, there is some credence to this. But they wanted a guarantee that the Emperor would not be executed. If Germany had looked for the same for Hitler, would the allies have agreed? Here were the Japanese government willing to sacrifice their own civilian population in street fighting to save one man? The ending of the Living God status of the emperor was vital to making Japan a democracy, and that meant he had to be held accountable. As it happened, the emperor wasn’t executed in the end.
Another argument made is that the US should have detonated the weapon somewhere harmlessly but visible to the Japanese, perhaps even inviting the Japanese to witness it. But people forget how unreliable the first atomic bombs were. Supposing it hadn’t exploded? Secondly, grotesque as it sounds, the sheer horror of the two bombed cities was the message in itself. Think we’d regard atomic weaponry with the same horror we do today without the bombings?
Harry Truman made the best choice available to him. Today, we would not think of using an atomic bomb to end a conventional war, but that’s after decades of learning of the aftermath of the Japanese attack. But at the time, as president of a country that had already sent thousands of its sons to their deaths to defeat Nazism and the Empire of Japan, it is hard to see how Truman could have done anything else.