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Hiroshima and Nagasaki: There were other choices

IT WAS NOT INEVITABLE  None of these factors justifies the bombing as inevitable…..

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: There were other choices , NAPSNet Special Reports, September 28, 2015, Nautilus Institute,  by Peter Hayes

 INTRODUCTION There is no single compelling factor to justify the bombings as inevitable, argues Peter Hayes. Rather, a series of decisions and events cumulatively drove the bomb forward from development to deployment at Hiroshima. The later nuclear attack on Nagasaki, moreover, was gratuitous. This report was initially published in the Fall 2015 issue of Global Asia. Peter Hayes is Professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University, Director of the Nautilus Institute and a Global Asia editorial board member.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: There Were Other Choices

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain within living memory. The mayors of these two cities, the first to be annihilated by nuclear weapons, have invited the Group of 7 leaders to meet with Japanese hibakusha(bomb survivors) after their May 2016 summit in Ise-Shima.

If they go — as they should — the question of whether the bombings were necessary should be uppermost in their mind. “Yes” would mean that nuclear deterrence, and its spawn, nuclear extended deterrence, have historical underpinnings justified in universal morality and international law, starting with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “No” would commit them to abolishing nuclear weapons, however long it takes, as the necessary redemption for needlessly sacrificing these two cities.

Today, this choice is starkly binary, albeit complex. In 1945, the decision to use the bomb was not obvious or even well understood by many of the key players.

The simplest of the competing narratives that dominate reflections on the bombings is that these attacks were inhumane in a new and unimaginable way, and simply should never have taken place.1 This is the perspective of the Japanese survivors (although not of the Korean survivors who were working in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time, many of whom wished the United States had dropped more nuclear bombs on Japan). That the bombings were a new type of war crime was the view of the Japanese government, which protested to the US State Department to this effect via the Swiss Legation on Aug. 11, 1945.

The dominant narrative in favor of the attacks admits that the collateral civilian losses were tragic, but holds that the attacks were also justified by abruptly ending the war and saving countless American military and Japanese civilian lives. This line of argument has been challenged by examination of the historical record of US decision-making leading up to the bombings — for example, the influence of post-war geopolitical concerns on the advice tendered to President Harry Truman before the bombings. Careful study has also shown that other factors than the nuclear bombings, in particular the shock of the Soviet entry into the war, may have led to Japan’s actual surrender whatever Truman did.2

The third interpretation of the attacks is the apocalyptic account that seized the imaginations and political agendas of many political and intellectual leaders during the Cold War, but was prefigured even before the first nuclear bombings.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings destroyed nature, stopped time and obliterated all meaning for these cities until they were rebuilt and repopulated. The threatened repeat of the same story was writ large during the Cold War for the entire planet. The absurdist mega-tonnage accumulated by the superpowers threatened to not only destroy hundreds of cities, but to end life as we know it, or even lead to human extinction.


Meanwhile, the entire human population today lives with the knowledge that nuclear war is possible at any moment. The impossible demand that nuclear weapons must never be used but must always work in order to deter their use suggests that eventually next-use and escalation to all-out nuclear war will occur — especially as nuclear weapons spread. In a sense, humans are the walking dead, following leaders who are pathologically immune to the preparations they have made to destroy our existence.

This global risk is the basis of nuclear deterrence, the direct descendent of the original bombings. The logic of nuclear deterrence is that we must make ourselves vulnerable to nuclear destruction at the hands of a nuclear-armed adversary in order to convince them that they in turn will be destroyed by our retaliation — if only because the vaporization of our leadership implies loss of control of our own nuclear forces, in turn meaning that no adversary can be assured that retaliation will not result in response to its first-strike aimed at limiting damage from us in the first place, thus ensuring that they will never attack us with nuclear weapons. Got that?

In this context, “we,” “us” and “adversary” can be any one of the nuclear-armed states, or a nuclear-armed non-state actor able to take states or cities hostage, or to attack them with nuclear weapons — now an additional, contrapuntal theme in the symphony of state-based preparation for wars of nuclear annihilation.

Some Manhattan Project scientists foresaw this outcome. Petitioning President Truman on July 17, 1945, they wrote: “If after this war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.”3 After the first nuclear test at Alamagordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945, the US military itself knew it. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, told Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson two days later: “I no longer consider the Pentagon a safe shelter from such a bomb.”4


Each narrative provides only a partial account of the bombings. Depending on who you were and where you stood at 8:16am on August 6 and 11:02am on August 8, the bombings could be viewed as tragic, heroic or a precursor of apocalypses to come. Even the most prescient of the scientists, military officials and political leaders had only a limited understanding of the full destructive power of nuclear weapons and their impact on the conduct of states and the resulting structure of international affairs.

In reality, the bombing was the result of many decisions, culminating in the choice of targets, and the go-order given to the military on July 25, 1945, to deliver the first bomb as soon as weather permitted visual bombing after about Aug. 3. Thus, to answer the question “was it inevitable,” one must specify what the bombings aimed to achieve, and then address each of the possible drivers of the decision. If one or more of these drivers turns out to have been contingent, then other choices could have been made, the nuclear bombings might not have occurred and the Cold War balance of nuclear terror might not have emerged, at least not in its fantastic incarnation of mutual assured destruction.

The simplest choice revolved around whether using nuclear weapons against Japanese cities was necessary to win the war. The short answer is no. US air and naval power had already driven Japanese forces from most of their forward-deployed positions, the United States was assured by July 1945 that it would win the war against Japan.

Was the choice made to minimize US military losses in an assault on the Japanese mainland, given the Japanese rejection on July 29, 1945, of the allied demand at Potsdam for unconditional surrender? This is debatable. The standard argument, based on the battles to take Iwo Jima and Okinawa, is that it saved millions of lives — not just military lives that would have been lost in the course of invading Japan, but also more Japanese civilian lives than had been combusted already in the fire bombings of sixty-four Japanese cities by early August 1945. The obvious riposte is that many of these invasion-related casualties could have been avoided by simply starving out rather than invading Japan.

By that August, the rapid execution of whole cities was already part of the arsenal of modern total war — German, American and Japanese. In a military sense, the nuclear bomb was simply more of the same, adding little to the incendiary bombs already in use except for the contribution of shock waves and radiation and the compression of the horrible act into seconds from hours and days. Japanese leaders had already proven immune to the effects of firebombing, and it is not clear at all that the nuclear bombings actually led to the Japanese leadership’s capitulation on August 11.

Moreover, the historical record shows that other factors than minimizing casualties played an important part in the American calculus……….


None of these factors justifies the bombing as inevitable. Rather, the decisions made in each domain cumulatively drove the bomb forward from Alamogordo onto Hiroshima. The nuclear attack on Nagasaki, intended to reinforce the psychological impact of Hiroshima and to portend the wave of additional nuclear strikes referred to in the Aug. 6 press release (in fact, a bluff, because only two nuclear bombs existed), was gratuitous. Arguably Nagasaki had little or no further impact on the already minimal impact of the Hiroshima bombing on Japan’s willingness to surrender; the second bomb could have been held in reserve for later demonstration use without executing a second city. Truman could have waited a few days to see if the pending Soviet entry into the war led to immediate surrender in Tokyo.

By the end of the war, the world was awash with blood. Leaders were inured to making strategic decisions that killed millions of people. Millions of individual soldiers became skilled at killing their enemy in an intimate, first-hand manner. The ferocity left laws of war lagging far behind the rapidly evolving practice of killing on an industrial, massive scale never before seen.

The drive to end the war on American terms, to underscore American power to all parties, not just Japan, and to demonstrate and control this new source of political and military power, absolute in ways never before available, drove the decision to push violence to a new extreme…….


September 30, 2015 - Posted by | 2 WORLD, weapons and war

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