I have often considered the arguments for and against President Harry Truman’s decision to authorize the use of atomic bombs on the two Japanese cities. There is no doubt the decision resulted in a horrible outcome for countless innocent people (not an uncommon outcome in World War II). Tens of thousands of Japanese of all ages were killed in the two atomic-blasts. There are arguments that the Japanese were just about ready to surrender anyway, but there is no doubt they surrendered soon after the two bombs were detonated.
My opinions have been mostly shaped by considering the American and other Allied soldiers in troop ships staging for the invasion of Japan. Those soldiers did not focus on the horror of people being incinerated in Japanese cities or dying of radiation sickness. They instead celebrated that they would no longer have to participate in an invasion that would result in the death or dismemberment of invading soldiers, perhaps including them personally, and millions of Japanese.
My interest in the subject was rekindled by reading and reviewing the book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. The book was selected by the Northern Colorado Common Read (NCCR) for this year. The book is the story of Louis Zamperini. He finished seventh in the 5000 meters at the Berlin Olympics and soon was a bombardier in planes on raids over Japanese targets in the Pacific. He was one of three men who survived a plane crash into the ocean, and he and another man survived for 47 days on a rubber raft before being captured by the Japanese. He suffered brutal conditions and treatment for years.
The book documents numerous instances where the Japanese applied a “kill-all” policy that “…held that camp commanders could not, under any circumstances, allow Allied forces to recapture POWs. If Allied advances made this a possibility, POWs were to be executed.” “An order was issued to all POW camp commanders that “…decisive measures must be taken without returning a single POW.” A clarification said that all POWs at risk of being taken by Allied forces should be “…destroyed individually or in groups…with mass bombings, poisonous smoke, drowning, decapitation (or by whatever method needed to) not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not leave any traces.” The book gives several examples of how the “kill-all” policy was used by the Japanese when Allied forces threatened an area where there were Allied prisoners. (See the “kill-all” order listing of instances where the policy was used by the Japanese on page 464 in the Index of the book.)
Much has been written that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many thousands of Allied soldiers and countless millions of Japanese civilians. An article titled “How the Atomic Bomb Saved 4,000,000 Lives describes declassified documents that were plans for the invasion code named “Operation Downfall.” The invasion was to be in two parts. Operation Olympic would send fourteen divisions to invade Kyushu and Operation Coronet would send twenty-two divisions would invade the main island after massive bombardment. It is interesting that some of the comments about the article (some of course dispute the need to drop the bombs) say that it grossly underestimates the number of casualties.
The book “Unbroken” focuses on the many thousands of Allied prisoners who were to be murdered a few days after the bombs were dropped. The bombs (and the devastation preceding them from fire bombings with conventional weapons) assured the Japanese surrender and forestalled the mass murders of prisoners.
Prisoners freed from the POW camps on trains that passed what had been the city of Hiroshima were astonished at the level of destruction. “Virtually every POW believed the destruction of this city had saved them from execution.” One prisoner who had been on the Bataan Death March observed, in part, “…there was nothing. Nothing! It was beautiful. I realized this was what had ended the war. It meant we didn’t have to go hungry any longer, or go without medical treatment. I was so insensitive anyone else’s human needs and suffering. I know it’s not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn’t. But I believed the end probably justified the means.”
I ask all who vilify President Truman’s decision what they would have wanted him to do if they had been a prisoner of the Japanese and facing the “kill-all” policy when the bombs were dropped. Is that an unfair question? I don’t think so.
As always, I’m willing to listen to voices of reason to tell me what I’ve missed. However, you will have much to overcome if you disagree with me. The horror created by the atomic bombs detonating over Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that many thousands of soldiers did not have to die or suffer terrible wounds in the invasion of Japan. Allied soldiers also did not have to kill Japanese civilians, including women and children, who were being prepared for the invasion armed with sharpened sticks. Tough choice, but I go with what Truman decided.