Atomic Bombs Are Not Lifesavers

Nuclear test at Trinity Site. Photo: DOE.

One shouldn’t have to state the obvious. It is well known that two atomic detonations, in early August, 1945, killed over 100,000 Hiroshima and Nagasaki residents, revealing the unlimited human capacity for atrocity in wartime. But it seems many U.S. history teachers are still telling students that the atomic bombings somehow saved lives.

Whence cometh such apologetics and euphemizing?

In 1947, some of the U.S. officials responsible for the atomic bombing strategy published a defense of their murderous plotting. They didn’t recount how they targeted previously undamaged urban areas to maximize terror and best gauge the grim effects of their new weapon. Rather, they argued that using atomic bombs to shock “the Japanese ruling oligarchy” was the sole path to a quick Japanese surrender. The only other way to end the U.S.-Japanese war, they claimed, was a full-scale military invasion of Japan, which would have caused “over a million casualties, to American forces alone” and even more Japanese suffering.

President Harry Truman, who signed off on the bombing, also offered the lifesaver rationale. “We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war,” he assured a radio audience on August 9, 1945, “in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” In later speeches, Truman insisted that the bombs spared “a quarter of a million young Americans from being killed.” In his memoir, he upped it to ”half a million American lives.”

The Truman Credo: Atomic attacks caused Japanese leaders to surrender promptly, thus ending the U.S.-Japanese slaughter and sparing otherwise doomed soldiers and civilians. Atomic bombings = war over = lives saved = moral good.

This logic has shaped a long-running historical dispute based on counterfactual arguments. You can parse that debate for yourself—I recommend starting with the work of Barton J. Bernstein—but here is a brief summary:

Defenders of the Truman Credo calculate the number of people likely killed if the U.S. military hadn’t decimated two Japanese urban centers with atomic bombs. Their estimates include potential victims from continued non-atomic bombing of Japanese cities, full-scale U.S. invasion, and unabated crimes by Japanese forces throughout the Pacific region. Their hypothetical total (X) is greater than the number of actual atomic victims (Y). X minus Y equals Z (number of lives saved).

More than just the Credo, these scholars are defending a worldview that assumes the inherent righteousness of U.S militarism. They take great pains to portray the two atomic slaughters in a positive light. They typically deemphasize the role of the Soviet Army’s Operation Manchuria in forcing Japanese surrender, as they don’t want to credit Soviet militarism with saving lives.

Critics of the Credo present alternative scenarios which, if enacted, might have led to Japanese surrender. Truman, they argue, could have interrupted the rush to deploy atomic bombs by accepting the Japanese leadership’s offer of conditional surrender, which meant leaving the Japanese emperor enthroned (which U.S. officials ultimately did). Truman could have at least delayed atomic bombing to see if a Soviet declaration of war prompted Japanese submission, as he expected. His atomic strategists could have arranged a bomb demonstration to overawe Japanese and Soviet leaders.

The critics do well to challenge the celebratory Credo, but they are reactive, having accepted the defenders’ terms of the debate. When counting actual and potential corpses, they typically don’t look beyond 1945. As disciplined historians, they limit their counterfactuals to scenarios that Truman or his advisors actually considered and rejected. Most important, they don’t question the need for U.S. forces to occupy Japan. Conquest, yes, but without atomic bombs.

We can do better. I suggest a more ambitious hypothetical scenario, one that rejects rather than assumes U.S. dominance of the Pacific region. The goal of this thought experiment is not to win a historical debate, not to second-guess Truman and his advisors, but to promote awareness of positive peacemaking.

If Truman and his war planners truly were trying to save as many human lives as possible, and if they weren’t blinded by imperialist and imperious assumptions, and if they had courage to back their convictions, what might they have done differently in the spring and summer of 1945? Three big if’s, but the answer is obvious: Stop killing people. Call it the Humane Truman Campaign.

In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt announced that Allied leaders would accept no less than “unconditional surrender” from Axis forces, including Japan. This was a war between empires, and U.S. imperialists wanted to incorporate Japan and nearby islands into their sphere of dominance. Roosevelt intended to restructure Japanese society—demilitarized, reeducated, politically and economically restructured—so it would serve rather than obstruct U.S. interests. When Truman became president, in 1945, he kept conquest of Japan the top priority in the Pacific; saving lives of U.S. combatants was of secondary importance.

But our hypothetical humane Truman abandons the “unconditional surrender” doctrine and calls instead for a ceasefire in the Pacific and peace negotiations. After all, the USA is safe from Japanese attack, U.S. ships have Japan blockaded, and Soviet forces are moving eastward toward Japanese lines. For months, Japanese civilians, faced with food and fuel shortages and fire from the sky, have been quitting factories and fleeing cities, not preparing to fight to the bitter end. Faced with impending military collapse, Japanese leaders want to talk.

The threat of ceasefire unsettles Truman’s top advisors. Secretary of State James Byrnes argues that only unconditional surrender will satisfy U.S. public opinion. Secretary of War Henry Stimson insists that U.S. officials must rule over postwar Japan to achieve Roosevelt’s goals. Humane Truman rebuffs them by pointing to the Atlantic Charter (1941). In that document, President Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill stated their purported war objectives, including “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and “sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”

Truman gets his way, but what will these peace talks entail? Let’s use our imaginations, friends. Hypotheticals have no limits, and millions of human lives are at stake, so let’s be bold and pursue positive peace. (For those unfamiliar with peace theory, a temporary break between wars—the absence of war—is negative peace. Positive peace is nonviolent resolution of underlying conflicts that otherwise lead to war.)

Affirming self-determination for all peoples, our peace summit must be inclusive, with representatives from throughout the western Pacific: Chinese, Koreans, Malaysians, Samoans, and so forth. Hawaiians, too. To focus their minds, the delegates first tour the harrowing remains of Okinawa, then convene at a large table. Japanese leaders, through their diplomats, offer to recall all troops. Soviet leaders reciprocate. U.S. leaders promise not to invade Japan and not to persecute the emperor. War over = lives saved.

There’s fallout but it’s not radioactive. Truman’s atomic advisors are disappointed that they won’t get to demonstrate their new bomb’s slaughter capacity. Gen. Douglas MacArthur is upset that the full-scale invasion of Japan is cancelled. Still, most U.S. military brass are pleased, and the U.S. public, like the masses throughout the region, are thrilled that the enemy has withdrawn and the boys are coming home.

Next, being so concerned with preserving lives, our courageous Truman proposes making the Pacific pacific—an ocean without empires, without foreign occupiers. Leave the Philippines to the Filipinos, Okinawa to the Okinawans, Timor to the Timorese, Vietnam to the Vietnamese. Emperor Hirohito agrees—he’s seen war ravage his people. Together, the assembled delegates compose a Pacific Charter, borrowing from the Atlantic one: “The nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force.” U.S. and Japanese leaders denounce imperialism and offer reparations to their former colonies. Demilitarization of the region is carefully scheduled. Truth commissions are arranged. Mohandas Gandhi (Hindu/Buddhist), Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Muslim), and Bernice Fisher (Christian) will provide nonviolence training wherever invited. All conference participants embrace the principles of self-government and nonaggression, making the next war far less likely. Curing the war disease is positive peace-making. That’s how you save lives!

Yes, the Pacific Pacific Conference is hypothetical, but, unlike the Truman Credo, it can’t be disproved because it has yet to be tried. Positive peacemaking was incompatible with the imperialist worldviews of Japanese, U.S., and Soviet leaders, and mostly unknown to them. Roosevelt claimed that the Allies would rid the world of war—through total war. The actual ending of total war in the Pacific—including Operation Manchuria and U.S. urban bombing to force Japanese submission—was negative peacemaking. The war went into remission, but many of the imperialist germs that caused the outbreak were still in place. Indeed, the conclusion of the U.S.-Japanese-Soviet war led, undeniably, to a divided Korean Peninsula and to French recolonizing attempts in Southeast Asia, leading respectively to the Korean War and the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. That’s at least four million violent deaths right there. That’s historical fact. Without a cure for the disease, one war leads to the next.

So, teachers, please don’t say that atomic bombs are lifesavers. History-telling isn’t neutral; consider the implications of the lessons you offer. Rather than perpetuate an imperialist worldview, you can encourage students to imagine a better way.