August 6th was the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. This bomb, along with the one dropped on Nagasaki, was widely credited for the ending of the Second World War. It saved thousands of lives and announced the United States as the world’s first superpower – which is one side of the story. Others would say that the two bombings were one of the most monstrous events in the 20th century, if not in all of history. So was the Hiroshima bombing justified?
The numbers alone are astounding; 70,000 people were killed on that day alone, rising to 140,000 people within a year of the incident. And this figure goes beyond 200,000 when you include the casualties of the Nagasaki bombing. These statistics alone tell a clear story of the atrocity of the bombing.
However before prematurely judging President Truman, we must put his decision into context. Emperor Hirohito and Japan had already stated that surrender was not an option. Even after the bombings the surprise and anger of the Japanese people at the decision to surrender shows just how true this statement must have seemed to Truman and American citizens. A 1945 study by William Shockley estimated that the casualties of conquering Japan would be somewhere between 1.7 to 4 million American causalities. Yes, you read that right. If one death is a tragedy than 1.7 million is catastrophic.
Many Americans today would say that the two bombings were justified, in 2005 a Gallup poll found that 57% of Americans supported the bombings. Many see the Hiroshima bombing as provoked, pointing out that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, which sparked the war between the two nations. However to blame Japan as the aggressor would be simplistic, as in late 1940 the United States – angry at Japanese aggression in Indochina – began cutting off supplies to Japan, oil in particular. This crippled the Japanese economy causing mass unemployment and untold devastation. Japan are by no means blameless for the war with the US, but it is unfair and frankly ludicrous to say that they provoked the use of the Atomic Bomb.
The strongest argument is that this was a demonstration of America’s new found power. This was a weapon that cost billions of dollars so domestically it was a massive expense. Japan was never going to surrender as long as the opposition only used conventional forces. Possibly more important in the eyes of the American military was intimidating their new rivals, the Soviet Union. Whether we approve of the decision to use the bomb on Hiroshima, the Postdam conference and modern map of Europe would look very different if it had not happened. It is easy to forget that, if the Soviet Union had not gone into the negotiations with the threat of the Bomb over their head, they may not have honoured their agreements at Postdam. If it hadn’t been for the demonstrative destructive impact of the bomb they quite possibly would have gone back on negotiations.
However, 70 years on and the Hiroshima bombing is still a nightmare which many have not, nor ever will awake from. August the 6th, 1945 shall remain the day the United States lost any claim to morality. This decision saved many lives and was necessary to end the war but it was monstrous. Did Truman have good reason to use the atomic bomb? Yes. In the context of war it might have even been militaristically the right decision. But the danger of putting something like this in to context is that it allows room for justification. But regardless of all other aspects involved, the United States made a decision not to fight a nation, but to murder defenceless civilians and to unleash a creation that would haunt the consciousness of a nation and the morality of the world. There can be no justification for this.