Atomic Reflections

Hiroshima and the Bombings

Pictures of mushroom clouds and burned out cities. Accounts of innocent children burned into shadows on the sidewalk. These and other images much like them are the sorts of things that we have become used to when pundits and editorialists turn their attention to atomic warfare and the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, these things have become clich‚s, like the c halk outlines of fallen bodies that vivacious young demonstrators have such fun tracing onto sidewalks. However, aside from lurid descriptions of the effects of the two A-bombs, there has never been any real public willingness to face the issues that should be raised by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contrary to popular perception, the two atomic bombings were not singular events which neatly ended the war at the regrettable cost of 150,000 to 200,000 deaths. They were constituent parts of a larger bombing campaign that remains unexamined in the public conscience to this day.

In our modern minds there is a huge fire-break between conventional and nuclear weapons; a modern taboo has grown up around nuclear arms. This is all to the good, and may it never be broken, but it obscures a proper historical appreciation of the decision to drop the A-bombs. Much hand wringing has been made over this decision. Was it right? Was it wrong? Was it necessary? Should a demonstration have been made first? These questions all loom large in our minds. However, the historical record makes it clear that they did not loom very large in the minds of American decision makers at the time. Actually, this very fact adds somehow to the mystique of the event. How could the American government have taken (what seems to us) such a momentous step without great debate? Searching for answers to this, many revisionist historians (notably Gar Alperovitz in his latest book "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb") have dredged up elaborate conspiracy theories about the bombs being meant not for the Japanese at all, but rather as messages to the Soviets. The first shots across the bow in the great Cold War, as it were.

All this debate -- over whether a demonstration should have been made first, over whether it was meant primarily as a message to the Soviets, over why there wasn't more consideration of the bombs' use -- fundamentally misses the point. The two atomic bombings were not an anomaly. They were not a revolutionary event that requires a revolutionary explanation. The bitter truth is that they followed seemlessly from existing conventional policies. The context missing in consideration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is any understanding of what the air war against Japan was really like well before the atom bombs were even ready for use.

The American bombing effort progressed through a fierce internal debate within the United States Army Air Forces. This debate stretched back to the 1920s, when the Italian theorist Giulio Douhet published his seminal work, "Command of the Air." Douhet argued that future wars would be settled exclusively by vast fleets of bombers which would attack not the blunt appendages of the enemy's military, but rather would go straight for the jugular. Flying easily over borders and battle lines, they would attack the enemy's decisive points directly, in particular capitals. This would deliver a "knock-out blow" that would crush not only the enemy's ability to fight, but even more importantly his very will to fight. Douhet and his followers hoped thereby to avoid another slugging-match in the trenches.

Interpretation of this doctrine in United States Army Air Forces was divided. Beginning in the interwar years, most USAAF professionals argued for a "precision-bombing" doctrine, directed against "critical points" of the enemy's war effort: typically transportation infrastructure, oil production facilities, and key industrial plant, such as aircraft factories. Indeed, the Americans entered the air war in Europe with some disdain for what they called the "baby killing" tactics of the British, who had become committed "area bombers" under the leadership of Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris. The "area bombers" sought not to hit specific "critical points", but struck rather at whole cities. They aimed to "de-house" enemy industrial workers, disrupt the enemy war effort, crush enemy morale, and ultimately simply pummel the enemy into submission.

The relentless progress of the war, with its concomitant coarsening of moral sensibilities, coupled with the inability "precision-bombing" campaigns to have any obvious effect on the German war effort, eventually weakened the USAAF "precision- bombing" camp. It was just as the "precision-bombers" influence was waning in early 1944 that it finally became possible for the Americans to begin bombing the Japanese home islands in earnest. The American air campaign against Japan began with Twentieth Bomber Command, in May of 1944. Flying from Kharagpur, India (which is not far from Calcutta), they had to stage through China in a lengthy series of refuelling hops just to reach Japan at all. It was difficult and ineffectual, and only 112 B-29 bombers were ever commissioned into Twentieth Bomber Command. The real bombing effort against Japan began with the capture of the Marianas, only 2000 kilometres from downtown Tokyo. There, huge air fields were quickly built for Brigadier General Haywood S. Hansell Junior's Twenty-first Bomber Command. Hansell believed strongly in the "precision-bombing" doctrine -- indeed, he had been one of its proponents in the pre-war debates within the USAAF. Now he was in a position to try proving it. The very first raid flown from his new air fields in the Marianas was targeted against the Musashi engine works, where 27 percent of all Japanese aero-engines where produced. In all, Hansell mounted eleven major raids against the Musashi works. Other priority targets included steel plants, in particular their huge coking ovens.

To be sure, these raids produced a fair number of civilian casualties. Despite the term "precision-bombing" it was anything but. So many bombs exploded in Tokyo Bay that a sardonic joke began making the rounds of the Japanese capital: the Americans intended to starve Japan into submission by killing all the fish. Needless to say, a great number of these misses fell not into the water, but into populated areas as well. Nevertheless, the intent was not yet the wholesale destruction of cities. The great fire-stormings were yet to come.

But they were not long in coming. Back in Washington, General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold -- a committed area bombing Douhetist -- was studying bombing tactics and strategy. He even went so far as to have full scale mock-ups of typical Japanese urban areas constructed for testing. His experts concluded that large numbers of incendiary bombs could easily start fire-storms in the mostly wood and paper Japanese cities.

Orders to mount a full-scale fire-bombing raid on the ancient Japanese city of Nagoya, with at least a hundred B-29 bombers, duly arrived at General Hansell's headquarters in December of 1944. To his eternal credit, Hansell officially protested these orders, and delayed any such raids for as long as he could.

No good deed goes unpunished, and on 20 January 1945 Hansell was relieved of his command and replaced by the "hard driving" Major General Curtis E. LeMay. Within a few weeks LeMay had radically changed the bombing effort. Emphasis was switched from attempts at precision-bombing of military targets to wholesale targeting of cities. LeMay ordered a change in the priority of the stocking of his bomb dumps -- less high explosive bombs of the sort needed to destroy military targets and more of the incendiaries needed to light cities ablaze. On 25 February the first maximum effort fire-raid was made on Tokyo, and two nights later the raid that General Hansell had tried to avoid was made when the B-29s fire-bombed Nagoya. On the night of 9/10 March the infamous Tokyo fire-raid was mounted, killing at least a 100,000 people -- almost all civilians. This raid remains the single largest bombing attack ever made, not excluding the two atomic bombings. The total killed that night reached almost the total of immediate fatalities from both Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

In fact, the logic of Arnold's and LeMay's strategy was horribly straight forward: they intended quite simply to crush Japan from the air and thereby force her to surrender. Every major city in Japan was sub-divided with a grid system -- "Urban Areas" they called them, or "UAs" as the acronym-loving military put it. UA/1, UA/2 and so on. American targeting staff kept track of the destruction of each UA, and raids were mounted and remounted until all the UAs in a city had been completed. Then that city's priority as a target was downgraded and operations moved on to concentrate elsewhere. It was that brutally simple.

Before any atomic weapons were even ready for use, the Americans had already killed well over half a million Japanese civilians by these conventional means, perhaps nearly a million.

This is the context in which the decision to drop the atomic bombs must be placed. Indeed, this context makes it clear why there was no real "decision" to make. It was already established policy to smash Japan by air attack, without regard to civilian casualties. That being the case, what difference could using atomic bombs make? What is the essential distinction between using hundreds of bombers to destroy a city by fire-storm, and using one bomber to destroy a city by atomic blast? It was estimated shortly after the war by American targeting experts that the destruction Hiroshima experienced could have been equally achieved by 2,100 tons of conventional bombs, assuming a mixture of high explosive and incendiary weapons, and the right conditions to start a fire storm. With about a ten ton payload each, it would take only 210 B-29s to deliver such a raid. By September 1945, 1000 plane raids were being mounted. In circumstances like that, why wouldn't the Americans use their atomic bombs, and what is so much worse than conventional bombings about their having done so?

Thoughtful readers might point to radiation as one significant difference, and this observation is not without some weight. Survivors of both atomic bombings continued to die painful lingering deaths long after the raids, but conventional burn victims can die long lingering deaths too, and the effects of radiation were not clearly appreciated in 1945. In any event, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki have been turned into permanently tainted wastelands. Both are now normal bustling cities, with no appreciable remaining contamination.

So where does this leave us? Surely the atomic and conventional fire-bombings are of a piece. If one was wrong, then both were wrong. As Thomas Powers observed in an article in "The Atlantic" magazine (July 1995) -- the only article in the avalanche of material commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima I have seen to touch on this issue -- "Those who criticize the atomic bombings most severely do not go on to condemn all the bombing."

This is the principal failing of the arguments (frequently heard now) that the atomic bombings were unjustified because they did not end the war. Unfortunately, this is the issue around which arguments of the American use of two atomic bombs seems to have coalesced. Critics argue that the bombs did not end the war and were thus unjustified. Supporters argue that they did end the war without an invasion and thus were justified. Both sides miss the point.

Strictly speaking, it is almost certainly true that the atomic bombs themselves did not end the war. The emerging historical consensus, excellently summarized in Murray Sayle's long article in the July 1995 issue of "The New Yorker", is that the two atomic bombings were not, in fact, the real cause of Japan's surrender, but merely coincident with it. Some traditionalists consider this heretical revisionism, but scholarly research is making it clear that the Japanese leadership began looking for a face-saving way out of the war weeks, if not months, before they had ever heard of atomic bombs. In fact, the US government's own Strategic Bombing Survey -- written only a few years after the war no less -- concluded that "Japan would have surrendered [by late 1945] even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war [on 8 August], and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

So, very probably it was not the atomic bombings that prompted Japan to surrender. But what about the bombing campaign (atomic and conventional) over all? Speaking of Emperor Hirohito and his role in pushing the Japanese government to surrender, Mr Powers points out that "What distressed him was the destruction of Japanese cities, and every night of good bombing weather brought the obliteration by fire of another city." The devastation and suffering of Tokyo was painfully visible to him from the Imperial Palace, and all signs in the historical record point to this terrible panorama having made a profound impression on the Emperor. Probably far more of an impression than the destruction of two provincial cities; by that point of the war reports of devastated towns were arriving after "... every night of good bombing weather." The only thing remarkable about Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that they had been devastated not by fleets of bombers, but by single planes -- a technical distinction that was not even clear to the Japanese in the immediate aftermath. Most survivors of Hiroshima thought that they had just experienced another typical fire raid.

This underlines once again just why there was so little debate about the atomic bombs' use, and why no demonstration of the bomb on an unpopulated area was ever seriously considered -- the destruction of Japanese cities was ongoing, with or without atomic weapons. Indeed, five days after the Nagasaki bombing the Americans launched raids on three targets with a combined strength of 1,000 planes, dropping 6,000 tons of conventional explosive. No one ever commemorates those raids.

While the new historians are correct to point out that it was not the atomic bombings per se that drove Japan to surrender, it is disingenuous of them to disconnect the atomic bombings from the larger bombing campaign. Without the overall bombing campaign against Japanese cities, they may well not have surrendered as early as they did.

So the real question then becomes, not were the atomic bombings justified, but was the overall bombing campaign justified? Fighting a war against an enemy like Imperial Japan may well have been a just cause, but is it morally acceptable to slaughter civilians in the pursuit of that just cause? Is it justified to kill well over a half a million civilians outright, in the hope that the war will be ended so much the quicker, perhaps sparing a greater number in the end? And, more generally, should the Allies have been prepared to suffer greater military casualties to avoid the killing of essentially innocent civilians?

This is the question that remains contentious, and so few have been willing to tackle. In its general sense, the McKenna brothers tried to raise this issue in the very controversial "Death by Moonlight" episode of their much maligned series, "The Valour and the Horror." The highly emotional response to that documentary reveals just how hot this question remains.

Unfortunately, the McKennas' rather muddled examination of the issue deteriorated into a personal attack on the character of "Bomber" Harris and his aircrews, without really examining the heart of the Douhetist argument. This is a shame because the Douhetists did have an argument that still has not been settled. There was much euphemism and dishonesty in description of the bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan (US President Truman even insisted on describing Hiroshima as a "Japanese army base"), but those air force professionals who were behind it all were quite clear about what they were doing. They honestly believed that by crushing the enemies' cities from the air, they could force an early conclusion to the war without costly land campaigns, thus on balance saving lives -- enemy and friendly, military and civilian. With hindsight, in the case of Germany they were certainly wrong, but it is less clear that they were wrong about Japan. The devastation of her cities may well have been a necessary factor in the Japanese government's decision to sue for peace.

But does that justify it? I confess that I have no pat answer. For me, this is not an entirely abstract question, for I am a regular officer in the Canadian Forces, and I can easily empathize with those servicemen who would have been called upon to lay down their lives had an invasion of Japan been necessary. But I must say, my instinct is that we should indeed have been willing to accept some casualties in order to leave the civilians out of it. That those in uniform accept an unlimited liability in order to spare civilians is a large part of the traditional basis of military honour. But the maddening question becomes: how many more casualties? And would a strictly military campaign have, on balance, saved more civilian lives in any case?

As the McKenna controversy makes clear, we have still not come to terms with the legacy of our Second World War bombing campaigns. Indeed, like the dog that did not bark, I think it highly significant that in all the outpouring of commentary upon the two atomic bombings, virtually all of it ignores the larger bombing campaigns of which Hiroshima and Nagasaki were merely constituent parts. Instead, we have built the two atomic bombings up into great, almost mystical, events that transcend everything that came before them and, by extension, everything that has come since. This is dishonest, for it separates us from those events, as if the bombs fell somehow from Mars. Surely, the real issue raised at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not the merely technical matter of the weapons' atomic design, but the moral question of what means may be used -- even in war -- to achieve victory?
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