CONCERNING THE ATOMIC BOMBING OF JAPAN

The horror of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 has caused many people to say that it was an unjustifiable act, that it could have been avoided, even that there was no real military value in it. Now, over 50 years after the event, the major facts around this matter are known, probably as well as they ever will be. These facts indicate overwhelmingly that the use of those atomic weapons ended the war against Japan without its total annihilation as no other known event could have. Further, their use demonstrated the horrors so vividly that the world has never used one since, which would almost inevitably otherwise have occurred sooner or later, especially during one of the many phases of the Cold War.

In The Night of the New Moon, the South African author Laurens van der Post demonstrated at length and as definitively as one could wish his own extensive experiences of Japan, both as a privileged invitee to Japan before the War and later as the leader of an Allied prisoner of war camp under the Japanese. He was utterly convinced that the Japanese would have fought virtually to the last man without such a physically, mentally and spiritually overpowering event as the atomic bomb. Van der Post knew the Japanese, their language and had a deep insight into their national psychology, having visited that country on their invitation - travelling much on board a Japanese vessel - before the 2nd World War and later having been captured and imprisoned by them in Java and spent 3 years in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. His knowledge of the language and the Japanese code of beliefs and conduct saved his life several times and that of many of his fellow prisoners in the camp of which he became the natural leader.

Van der Post entered an impromptu television debate on a major U.S. T.V. network after an interview with a Japanese doctor, who was about 70 years old and had been born under the Emperor Meiiji and who had been interviewed about his experiences at Hiroshima on the fateful day. Van der Post tried to compress the quintessence of his many experiences with and under the Japanese into ten minutes discussion with this Japanese doctor. He later wrote: "I tried to stress how certain I was that if the atom bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war would have dragged on, the Japanese would have fought as they had fought everywhere else to the bitter end, in the islands of Japan proper. I told him that I believed this because those two terrible bombs must have seemed as supernatural to the Japanese as they had seemed to me when I first heard of them in the darkness and the danger of our own prison. Somewhere in the unconscious minds of the Japanese people, I argued with the eloquence of an absolute conviction, it must have looked as if their Sun Goddess Ama-Terasu herself had hurled fragments of her sun at Japan to shatter it out of its suicidal course and show it in incontrovertible fashion that it had to stop and mend its ways."

It is evident from the tremendous scorn deeply felt and shown by all Japanese soldiers from the first for any of their enemy who surrendered, that this was unthinkable for themselves. This attitude largely caused their almost casual torturing and killing of prisoners of war. In battle, the Japanese fought to the death. Surrender was extremely rare, even after the U.S. had spread the word through repeated broadcasts using captured Japanese and through a massive information campaign on every front by loud-hailers and by dropping leaflets that no retribution whatever would follow surrender.

Added to this was the psychology of the entire Japanese nation at that time, which was extremely implacable, a kind of uniform fanaticism that resulted both from extreme totalitarian methods of inculcating uniformity and from subservience to the Emperor and Japanese traditions, including the samurai ideas of 'no surrender' to the point of suicide, which was universal in wartime Japan. Being captured was below the honour of anyone. Hence the Kamikaze attacks on the U.S. fleet, of which 25 vessels were sunk and 157 other damaged by these suicide attacks. At the time of the atom bomb, Japan still had available 5 million fighting men in all; 2.3 million on the mainland, 5350 kamikaze pilots and planes and 3,300 one-man suicide boats. Meanwhile, Allied prisoners of war were dying daily in large numbers in gruesome Japanese concentration camps.

The planned U.S. invasion which the atom bomb attacks obviated the need for would have employed 650,000 soldiers and the estimated causalities (including Japanese civilians) would have been around 1 million persons. Further, the Japanese in China were employing a burnt earth policy to control the huge areas their forces could not patrol, causing hunger death and other enormous sufferings to many millions of people. In all, some 32 million Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese, directly or indirectly. Add to this the historical fact that the Chinese army had never at any time so much as threatened Japanese territory.

The British T.V. series The World At War, nr. 24, showed interviews with members of the Japanese War cabinet, government and armed forces which made it perfectly clear that the Japanese forces would resist until death and did not wish to surrender, even after the two nuclear weapons had been used. Only the first ever radio message of their emperor, Hiroshito, declaring the surrender was sufficient to sway the country to accept the inevitable. Even then a revolt sparked by news of the emperor's message by fanatical officers nearly succeeded. And Japanese forces on several islands still resisted the conquering armies until the last man, even well after the armistice.

The papers of the wartime U.S. ambassador to the USSR, Averell Harriman revealed that claim that the commanding general of the US Air Force, Carl Spaatz and his deputy, had "both felt Japan would surrender without use of the bomb, and neither knew why the second bomb was used." In fact, Japan did not surrender until a week after the first bomb fell. General Dwight D. Eisenhower advised Truman not to use the bomb and later said, "it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing". Further, it is claimed that Henry Stimson, US secretary for war, argued that surrender might occur if there were assurances the emperor would not be harmed. That no-one else but the Emperor could surrender on behalf of the Japanese, was not realized, however, until after Hiroshima.

The Japanese were offered negotiations before the Potsdam Conference (ending July 2 1945) but replied that they wished to retain the larger part of their Empire and must have the emperor as their supreme leader, not just to keep him unharmed. At Potsdam this offer was rejected as "unworthy of consideration". On July 2, however, Stimson also told Truman: "The Japanese nation has the mental intelligence to recognize the folly of a fight to the finish." However, this latter statement conflicted with all experience of the Japanese throughout the entire war, and the more especially so as the war came to the Japanese homeland. It is even less credible when one remembers how the Nazis fought on to the last house in Berlin and succeeded to a large extent in putting into effect their 'Gotterdammerung policy' of destruction of all industry and infrastructure before the advancing Allies throughout the Reich.

The complications of the last phase of the war, being fought on the largest battlefield in history against 5 million Japanese forces spread throughout Indonesia, from Singapore to northern China and on many Pacific islands ultimately made the dropping of the atom bombs a virtually inevitable military and political decision. In hindsight it appears to have been far-sighted and realistic as the only means of ending the war almost immediately and thus with minimum overall casualties.

Japanese leaders under Tojo had been trying for months to enter negotiations for peace with honour through the Russians. But Stalin did not convey these initiatives to the Allies as he had agreed, evidently because he intended to enter the war against Japan on the Chinese mainland, which he also later did at the first opportunity, two days after the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Stalin wanted to annex new territory for the USSR, which he even succeeded in to some degree by taking the Kurile Islands, which are still held by Russia in 1995. The Americans were aware, though secret intelligence, of the Japanese probes and also realized Stalin's intent of occupying Japanese territory. Under conventional warfare conditions, Stalin would surely have prolonged the war as much as possible in order to consume strategic territory.

The Japanese leaders received an U.S. ultimatum of unconditional surrender (as agreed at Potsdam), which they chose to refuse, possibly as a negotiating step in hoping to be able to get better terms, but more likely because no-one could presume to announce surrender except Hiroshito himself. The refusal to surrender was taken by the U.S. as a clear sign that the war would be protracted and so many more thousands of U.S. lives would be lost through invasion of the mainland. It was calculated to last for another 15 months. The Japanese had concentrated forces to massively repel US landings on the mainland, not least so as to obtain better terms of surrender. Therefore, the first bomb was used. It could not be risked as a mere 'demonstration' because a) there were only two bombs for use in all and b) this would mean giving advance warning of the place and time of dropping, which would risk endangering the warplane used. Further, if it failed, it would convince the Japanese of the fallibility of their enemies and also weaken U.S. prestige in relation to the Soviets and others.

Those who decided to drop the bomb, even including Oppenheimer, really did not have any clear idea of the extent and type of sufferings which would arise from radiation sickness. Oppenheimer was deeply shocked when he saw the evidence after Hiroshima and felt that he had 'blood on his hands'. The many effects of radiation, however, were quite obviously neither known nor studied in any depth until the U.S. forces had occupied the whole of Japan. The 10 kiloton uranium bomb there was almost clairvoyantly named 'Little Boy', for though its destructive power was immense compared with conventional bombs, it became a tiny weapon by comparison with what was later developed during the Cold War, when Kruschev even tested a 60 megaton bomb (that is equiv. of sixty million tons of TNT!) in the atmosphere (and he even threatened to release a 300 megaton bomb likewise). After his work, Oppenheimer quickly turned against the development by the US of the H-bomb (by Edward Teller), which eventually led to his being officially discredited by the U.S. authorities through the famous hearing which withdrew his security clearance. Thus did the U.S. treat its greatest wartime scientific hero! Wise after the event, many critics of the dropping of the bombs do not realize the entire situation or the relative lack of knowledge at the time.

Even after the disintegration of Hiroshima, the Japanese Government was unable to reach internal agreement on surrender. The Japanese authorities concealed the facts from the nation, stating that a large type of bomb had been exploded, but saying little more. Citizens were advised to wear white clothing in case of further attacks. Three days after Hiroshima, the Nagasaki plutonium bomb was therefore dropped. This last bomb proved sufficient to tip the scales in favour of the Japanese peace faction, with the aid of the Emperor, who advocated surrender. Yet the Japanese military were still against surrendering, and young officers invaded the palace to try to steal the recording of the Emperor's announcement and stop the surrender.

Many assert that the second bomb - the 40-kiloton plutonium 'Fat Man' - need not have been dropped. If so, one can say that it is easy to be 'wise after the event' in such momentous matters, but at the time the dropping of these two bombs were regarded, from a purely military viewpoint as to industrial destructive capacity, as the first of a series of eight that were planned to knock out all Japanese war industrial potential if this proved necessary before the end of the invasion. Further, the plutonium bomb was a prototype of several other bombs in production that would have been used to destroy the whole Japanese armaments industry in the face of continued warfare.

Not until 4 days after Nagasaki did the surrender actually come. This fact tends strongly to show that those who thought a surrender would have been negotiable in April or May 1945 if only the Emperor's rule had been guaranteed then were mistaken. Besides, it is very unlikely that the Allies could have concluded so much earlier, for they were extremely concerned to save Allied lives, as the dropping of the nuclear bombs underlines. The fire-bombing of Tokoyo claimed many more lives than Hiroshima and caused much greater damage. Several other cities had been drastically fire-bombed before Hiroshima without the weakening of the Japanese hostilities, even though their navy was crippled.

The U.S. radio-surveillance organization code named Magic, which continuously monitored and decoded massive amounts of Japanese traffic, provided decisive information on the will and intent to continue fighting to the bitter end by most of those commanding the 2 million soldiers and massive 'home guard' of old men, boys and women besides. (The American Magic, Ronald Lewin. Hutchinson 1982)

This momentous historical event both concluded the greatest war known to history and began the atomic age to alter the entire politics of the globe thereafter, leading to military stand-off and stalemate between all great powers. One can but reflect that nothing but the actual use of the weapon would have made the world aware of its terrible effects. Sooner or later, it would surely have been used, since the problem of making the world aware of its nature would have been insurmountable without such a real demonstration. And apart from this, it seems unlikely indeed that the secret of atomic power - and hence of explosions - would have remained hidden from humanity, as developments in physics moved inexorably in that direction. As Einstein's biographer, Ronald W. Clarke, remarked on the very first splitting of nucleus of the uranium atom at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute by Otto Hahn in the last weeks of 1938: "Less appreciated is the ironic way in which theoretical research produced the prospect of an ultimate weapon just as the world was preparing for war. No dramatist would have dared to arrange such fortuitous events in such apparently contrived order."

For decades after Hiroshima, it was still extremely difficult indeed to spread adequately realistic and proper information of the dangers of nuclear weapons even in the West, even though two such weapons had already been used and their general effects make known across the world. This was most especially so in the USSR. The megaton weapons of the 1950 and onwards were vastly much more deadly, yet even so there were an appreciable number of persons in military and civil life until the 1970s who still thought such a war could be won!

Therefore, since the advance in physics almost inevitably led to the idea of nuclear weapons and to the development of them under pressing circumstances, a believer in God's omnipotence can well conclude that this was actually unavoidable as a step in the development of mankind and for the best of the world, considering the mess that mankind had by then made of its historical opportunities. The fear of annihilation and the folly of war has at least been imprinted on the human psyche more strongly than ever by the awful vision of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 'mutually assured destruction' has so far caused the great powers to draw back from any ideas of military confrontation.

Robert Priddy, (1995)


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