Was the US justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War? You debate

For years debate has raged over whether the US was right to drop two atomic bombs on Japan during the final weeks of the Second World War.

This article was first published in July 2014

Atomic bomb damage in Hiroshima, 1945 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Atomic bomb damage in Hiroshima, 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The first bomb, dropped on the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, resulted in a death toll of around 135,000. The second, which hit Nagasaki on 9 August, killed at least 50,000 people – according to some estimates, as many as 74,000 died.

But was the US justified in dropping the atomic bombs? Here, readers George Evans-Hulme and Roy Ceustermans debate.

George: Yes, it was. The US was, like the rest of the world, soldiering on towards the end of a dark period of human history that had seen the single most costly conflict (in terms of life) in history, and they chose to adopt a stance that seemed to limit the amount of casualties in the war, by significantly shortening it with the use of atomic weapons.

It was certainly a reasonable view for the USA to take, since they had suffered the loss of more than 418,000 lives, both military and civilian. To the top rank of the US military the 135,000 death toll was worth it to prevent the “many thousands of American troops [that] would be killed in invading Japan” – a view attributed to the president himself.

This was a grave consequence taken seriously by the US. Ordering the deployment of the atomic bombs was an abhorrent act, but one they were certainly justified in doing.

Roy: No, the US wasn’t justified. Even secretary of war Henry Lewis Stimson was not sure the bombs were needed to reduce the need of an invasion: “Japan had no allies; its navy was almost destroyed; its islands were under a naval blockade; and its cities were undergoing concentrated air attacks.”

The United States still had many industrial resources to use against Japan, and thus it was essentially defeated. Rear Admiral Tocshitane Takata concurred that B-29s “were the greatest single factor in forcing Japan's surrender”, while Prince Konoye already thought Japan was defeated on 14 February 1945 when he met emperor Hirohito.

A combination of thoroughly bombing blockading cities that were economically dependent on foreign sources for food and raw materials, and the threat of Soviet entry in the war, would have been enough.

The recommendations for the use of the bomb show that the military was more interested in its devastating effect than in preparing the invasion. Therefore the destruction of hospitals and schools etc was acceptable to them.

George: The USA was more interested in a quick and easy end to the war than causing untold suffering. They had in their hands a weapon that was capable of bringing the war to a swift end, and so they used it.

The atom bombs achieved their desired effects by causing maximum devastation. Just six days after the Nagasaki bombing, the Emperor’s Gyokuon-hōsō speech was broadcast to the nation, detailing the Japanese surrender. The devastation caused by the bombs sped up the Japanese surrender, which was the best solution for all parties.

If the atomic bombs had not had the devastating effect they had, they would have been utterly pointless. They replaced thousands of US bombing missions that would have been required to achieve the same effect of the two bombs that, individually, had the explosive power of the payload of 2,000 B-29s. This freed up resources that could be utilised for the war effort elsewhere.

Roy: After the bloody battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the death toll on both sides was high, and the countries’ negative view of one other became almost unbridgeable, says J Samuel Walker in Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and The Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan. Therefore, the US created unconditional terms of surrender, knowingly going against the Japanese ethic of honour and against the institute of the emperor, whom most Americans probably wanted dead.

Consequently, the use of the atomic bomb became a way to avenge America's fallen soldiers while also keeping the USSR in check in Europe. The Japanese civilian casualties did not matter in this strategy. Also, it did not prevent the Cold War, as the USSR was just a few years behind on a-bomb research.

At the time, revenge, geopolitics and an expensive project that could not be allowed to simply rust away, meant the atomic bomb had to be hastily deployed “in the field” in order to see its power and aftermath – though little was known about radiation and its effects on humans.

George: Admittedly, the US did use the atom bomb to keep the USSR in line, and for that it served its purpose. It may not have stopped the Soviets developing their own nuclear device, but that’s not what it was intended for. It was used as a deterrent to keep the (sometimes uneasy) peace between the US and the USSR, and it achieved that. There are no cases of a direct, all-out war between the US and the Soviets that can be attributed to the potentially devastating effects of atomic weaponry.

The atomic bombs certainly established US dominance immediately after the Second World War – the destructive power it possessed meant that it remained uncontested as the world’s greatest power until the Soviets developed their own weapon, four years after the deployment at Nagasaki. It is certainly true that Stalin and the Soviets tried to test US dominance, but even into the 1960s the US generally came out on top.

Roy: The price to keep the USSR in check was steep: the use of a weapon of mass destruction that caused around 200,000 deaths (most of them civilians) and massive suffering through radiation. However, it did not stop the USSR from creating the same weapon within four years.

It might be argued that, following the explosions, Japan virtually disappeared from the world stage while the USSR viewed the bombing as an incentive to acquire the same weaponry in order to retaliate in equal force if the atomic bomb was ever used again. Considering the tension between the two countries, a similar attack with tens of thousands of civilian casualties would have created a nuclear apocalypse.

If the US had organised a demonstration, as they had briefly considered, the USSR would still have responded in the same manner, while Japan – which had made clear overtures for a (un)conditional surrender – could have been spared. Furthermore, by postponing the use of the bomb, scientists would have had time to understand the test results, meaning further anguish, like the Bikini Atoll [a huge US hydrogen bomb test in 1954 that had major consequences for the geology and natural environment, and on the health of those who were exposed to radiation] could have been avoided.

George: The large civilian death toll that resulted from the bombings can be seen as a small price to pay by the United States in return for their assertion of dominance on the world stage.

The USSR’s development of an atomic weapon had been underway since 1943, and so their quest for nuclear devices cannot be solely attributed to the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It should also be considered that the Soviets’ rapid progress in creating an atom bomb was not exclusively down to their desire to compete with the United States, but from spies passing them US secrets.

Postponing the use of the atom bomb would only have prolonged the war and potentially created an even worse fate for the people of Japan, with an estimated five to 10 million Japanese fatalities – a number higher than some estimates for the entire Soviet military in the Second World War.

Ultimately, the atomic bombs did what they were designed to do. They created such a high level of devastation that the Japanese felt they had no option but to surrender unconditionally to the United States, hence resulting in US victory and the end of the Second World War.

Roy: Of course civilian casualties of another nation would have been acceptable to the USA. Japan had made clear overtures to peace, but cultural differences made this nearly impossible (the shame of unconditional surrender goes against their code of honour).

The determination to use an expensive bomb instead of letting it rust away; the desire to find out how devastating it was and the opportunity to use the bomb as a strong showcase of US supremacy, made Japan the ideal target.

Obviously, the USSR would eventually succeed in creating the a-bomb. Therefore, making Hiroshima & Nagasaki the example of the tremendous power of the bombs would make it clear to the USSR that they too needed such weapons to defend themselves.

Moreover, other countries claimed the right of nuclear weapons to defend their citizens. Consequently, the tragic bombings became the example of an arm’s race instead of peace.

Furthermore, since Japan was already on the brink of collapse the bombing was unnecessary, and peace talks would have taken place within a decent time frame (even after the cancelled Hawaii summit). The millions of deaths calculated by Operation Downfall [the codename for the Allied plan for the invasion of Japan near the end of the Second World War, which was abandoned when Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] actually show that only desperation and honour stood between Japan and unconditional surrender.

George, from Wolverhampton, is currently studying for his A-levels, which include modern history, at Kenilworth Sixth Form in Warwickshire. He volunteers for the National Trust as a room guide at the Baddesley Clinton Estate. He has a passion for military and political history, and enjoys visiting historical sites across the UK.

Roy, 29, from Belgium, has a master's degree in the history of the Catholic Church; an advanced master's degree on the historical expansion, exchange and globalisation of the world, and a master’s degree in management. He has worked as a complaint manager for the city of Leuven, and is now an inspector for the Cadastre [tax office]. Last year during his honeymoon Roy visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. Photos taken immediately after the 1945 bombing have left a lasting impression on him.

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