Seventy years ago today a B29 bomber called Enola Gay released a single bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and the world entered the Atomic Age.
One question has been asked frequently today, was it justified?
It is very difficult for us to judge one way or the other since we have never been in such a position. The war had been going for years, the death toll both military and civilian had been immense.
The US had turned the tide but was now fighting to push back Japan island to Island, Iwo Jima alone sent 6,800 Americans home in coffins and left 20,000 wounded. The battle to take Okinawa cost the US 70,000 casualties dead and wounded both.
Japan was seen as a fanatical enemy, it’s soldiers fought to the last, few surrendered and negotiation was extremely unlikely in the face of suicidal defence on land with kamikazes trying to crash into the ships of each invasion fleet.
US generals and strategic planners were talking of casualties to the US that would begin to rival the death toll on the Eastern front in Europe where hundreds of thousands of dead were almost normal, should they attack the Japanese mainland itself.
Was it justified, the two bombs compelled the Japanese Emperor to overrule his generals who even after the bombs wanted to fight on, The fight against Japan was in many ways a war of extermination, troops willing to die to the last man for Japan and so needing to be killed to the last man to end the resistance. Brutal and bloody.
Also as the US advanced island by island the stories of what had been done to both military and civilian prisoners at the hands of the Japanese had become widespread and as the survivors were rescued there seems to have been a widespread view that the only way to end the war was to end Japan itself, Paton with his destroy them and turn their cities into farmland sort of thing.
The bombs may well have spared both the US AND Japan millions of dead.
So in some ways they were justified, they ended the war quickly which was their purpose at the time. Ended the war in a way that the firebombing of Dresden did not, that single night raid which may well have caused as many casualties as BOTH atomic bombs given the huge numbers of refugees known to have crowed into that German city.
Of course there were the other reasons, non military reasons that could have required the dropping of the bombs, political objectives, ending the war quickly kept Russia from moving the bulk of their forces eastward since with German now defeated the only place they were threatened was Manchuria.
Plus the successful detonation of the bombs very clearly demonstrated that they worked, a potent symbol for the post war maneuvering between the western allies and Russia. An event that overshadowed US / Russian relations for a decade to come.
So were they justified, is one death toll to prevent another death toll justified. We live in a very different time than the men who made the decision to drop Littleboy and Fatman, those men were shaped by their time just as we are shaped by our time, and we look at things with very different eyes.
The political leaders of the day thought it was justified, many of the military thought it wasn’t needed but as I said above, there were very likely reasons for dropping the bombs that had nothing to do with Japan and everything to do with the post war political situation.
The war against Japan along with the war against German were wars of attrition, every strategy was intended to smash the enemy, destroy their industry, crush their military and end the war by rendering those nations unable to fight any longer. This destruction included civilian populations and factories who were important to the war effort and extended to the general population as well since it wasn’t possible to target a single factory with the bombs of the day so entire cities were carpet bombed and hundreds of thousands of civilians were considered acceptable if the raids also destroyed the factories.
Were the bombs justified, was Dresden, was every other action against civilians during the war. By the standards of the day, by leaders facing desperate times and staring at defeat they were justified. To those who say they would not be justified by our standards I would ask this, are the drones that fire missiles at groups of civilians seeking to kill one terrorist justified, the bombing campaigns that are almost a daily event in the Middle east, are they justified?
The atomic bombs killed large numbers of people, two cities devastated, each by a single warhead and the radiation left a poisonous legacy, but then Iraq suffers a poisonous legacy from the depleted Uranium rounds that were so freely fired there. One atomic bomb or a thousand raids by armed drones, the death toll is the same but death from one comes in a single flash and death from the others comes again and again in small groups.
Is one justified and not the other, are both justified or neither? Both have happened and are happening no matter what we think. Both were and are the results of politics and of nations using force to impose their will on others.
So in way the politics that justified the atomic bombs is the same politics that justifies the drone attacks.
Japan was the result of European Empire building just as both world wars in Europe were the result of European empire building and the Middle East is the legacy of old European Empires and the expansion of the new American Empire.
So rather than asking were the bombs justified, perhaps we should ask, were the politics that made those bombs necessary justified?