With the first presidential visit to Hiroshima since 6 August 1945, American media is rehashing the seventy-year old question:
Barack Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, Japan has resurfaced one of history’s biggest and most important debates—whether Americans were justified in dropping the first and only atomic bombs used in war on Hiroshima and its sister city Nagasaki—which killed more than 100,000 civilians instantly and many more afterward.
Many believe it was more than justified. It finally brought an end to the most destructive war the world had ever known. It saved an estimated one million American soldiers’ lives and prevented a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland, a nation that had already fallen to its knees long before.
Others will say it was unethical. It murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Some will say it was merciless and unnecessary because they were, as mentioned above, already a beaten nation by that time.
During his speech in Hiroshima, Obama did not offer any sort of apology for the unprecedented act nearly 71 years ago. And there’s no reason why he should.
It appears to me the biggest mistake that current day critics make is comparing war as we know it today to war in August 1945. No blame there. We try to imagine the situation by the standards we know of. However, the closest we come to war in modern times, whether it be the Islamic State or North Korea, cannot even begin to appear on the same scale as Imperial Japan.
One way to get an author’s attention is to link to a previous piece commemorating the 70th anniversary of Saipan’s fall; Luke Parsnow has my attention for today. He argues the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both necessary and an ethical means to bring about the end of the Second World War. He turns to a 1946 Atlantic article for the thoughts of an “intelligent army officer:”
About a week after V-J Day I was one of a small group of scientists and engineers interrogating an intelligent, well-informed Japanese Army officer in Yokohama. We asked him what, in his opinion, would have been the next major move if the war had continued. He replied: “You would probably have tried to invade our homeland with a landing operation on Kyushu about November 1. I think the attack would have been made on such and such beaches.”
“Could you have repelled this landing?” we asked, and he answered: “It would have been a very desperate fight, but I do not think we could have stopped you.”
“What would have happened then?” we asked.
He replied: “We would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated,” by which he meant that they would not have been disgraced by surrender.
Perhaps Parsnow is living with the same circumstances I am–my grandfather was a sergeant in the 81st Infantry Division. My grandfather maintains that the atomic bombings saved his life and the lives of five of his children that were born starting in 1947. The 81st was slated to participate with the U.S. Sixth Army in Operation Olympic on 1 November 1945, the planned invasion of Kyūshū. That day would have been immortalized as X-Day had the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands gone forward. My father was the first of those five children born postwar. In essence, I am alive because two Japanese cities were nuked in August ’45. Or am I?
The “Proof Through Quotation” Fallacy
Funny how observers of the same sequence of events draw vastly different conclusions. The American commander responsible for Instrument of Surrender was diametrically opposite the unnamed Japanese Army officer on the likelihood that X-Day would even occur:
Norman Cousins was a consultant to General MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan. Cousins writes of his conversations with MacArthur, “MacArthur’s views about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were starkly different from what the general public supposed.” He continues, “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”
Moreover, MacArthur’s opinion was the consensus of American five-stars…
The question of military necessity can be quickly put to rest. “Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” Those are not the words of a latter-day revisionist historian or a leftist writer. They are certainly not the words of an America-hater. They are the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and future president of the United States. Eisenhower knew, as did the entire senior U.S. officer corps, that by mid 1945 Japan was defenseless.
…including fleet admirals:
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, reflected this reality when he wrote, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan.” Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman, said the same thing: “The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”
Another example of the “proved through quotation” fallacy. It’s hard to fathom, but the otherwise extremely level-headed Admiral Nimitz seemed incredibly self-serving postwar…
However, Nimitz did an apparent about face immediately after the end of the war. On a triumphal tour of the US in October 1945, Nimitz said:
The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan.
Nimitz said this in Washington D.C. on October 5, 1945.
Nimitz’s quote is often trotted out as an example of a senior US military leader opposed to the atomic bombing of Japan. That’s simplistic: senior US military leaders knew that Japan was militarily defeated by early 1943 and decisively defeated by mid 1944. The only question was when Japanese leaders would acknowledge their defeat.
Nimitz’s contention that Japan had sued for peace is strange. Japanese leaders had not, in fact, sued for peace. The closest they got to suing for peace was to approach the Soviet Union to ask them to act as intermediaries to the US and Britain (the Soviets spurned the approach). I don’t know what Nimitz had in mind when he said Japan was suing for peace. Intelligence assessments of Japan were circulated at the top levels of the US government. Those reports discussed decrypts of Japanese diplomatic cables revealing Japanese approaches to the Soviet Union that gave some insight into the thinking of Japanese leaders, particularly Foreign Minister Sato. I would be very surprised if Nimitz wasn’t privy to those assessments and the opinion of US Navy analysts that Japan wasn’t ready to surrender in July 1945.
…after singing an entirely different tune prior to the Japanese surrender:
On June 19, 1945, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended proceeding with the invasion of Kyushu and Truman accepted their recommendation, the Commander in Chief and Chief Naval Officer of the United States Navy, Admiral Ernest J. King had a letter from Nimitz recommending that the invasion of Kyushu be cancelled. King did not mention Nimitz’s opposition in the high level debates about the invasion and he was bucking the support of the Joint Chiefs, MacArthur and many others for the invasion.
Nimitz’s reasons were simple: OLYMPIC was planned assuming that Kyushu would be defended by roughly 200,000 Japanese troops. A 3 to 1 superiority was a rule of thumb for a successful operation with minimal casualties, so OLYMPIC would field about 780,000 troops.
Nimitz was always a discerning consumer of intelligence (unlike MacArthur) and US intelligence had picked signs that Kyushu had been heavily reinforced. In June 1945, intelligence analysts working for Nimitz believed Kyushu was defended by 600,000 Japanese troops (the real number was over 800,000 Japanese defenders). A rough parity between attackers and defenders didn’t mean the invasion would necessarily fail, but it did mean US casualties would be very heavy. So Nimitz wrote to King laying out his concerns and recommended that OLYMPIC be cancelled in favor of the invasion of Honshu (Operation CORONET) in 1946 and a continuation of the blockade of Japan and the strategic bombing campaign.
Nimitz learned of the Manhattan Project in February 1945. Whether the atomic bombs would work and whether they would be ready before the end of the war was an open question, but the increasing likelihood of their readiness led Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff George C. Marshall to consider plans to drop up to ten atomic bombs on Kyushu in support of Operation OLYMPIC. In early 1945, Nimitz enthusiastically supported the use of atomic bombs in the invasion of Kyushu.
When a debate erupted about the use of the third atomic bomb in early August 1945, Nimitz endorsed Tokyo as the target.
Nimitz didn’t object to use of the atomic bombs in OLYMPIC or express any reservations about their use before Japan surrendered.
This raises an obvious question–where did this high-ranking consensus come from? Three words–secret intelligence reports.
Military Intelligence–Wrong Even in Hindsight
Nimitz and the other five-stars knew the dirty little secret from the Sixth Army’s G-2:
Immediately after U.S. troops occupied Japan, U.S. intelligence officers began interrogations of Japanese officials. The U.S. Sixth Army G-2 section, including the Marine V Amphibious Force, interrogated the officers of the Japanese Second General Army, the organization responsible for the defense of Kyushu, and its subordinate units, which Sixth Army forces would have fought had the invasion taken place. The report of those interrogations was published on December 31, 1945, but was immediately classified Top Secret and hidden from public view. It remained so for more than a half century. Since 2006 the document has been publicly available through the U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Library at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. The information contained in that document provides a much more accurate assessment of what the U.S. Sixth Army would have faced if it had invaded southern Kyushu as planned.
800,000 front-line troops on Kyushu? Turns out the figure was a bit off:
By the end of the war, Japanese strength on and near Kyushu had increased to 14 divisions, including four in northern Kyushu, plus seven infantry and three tank brigades. An antiaircraft division and two fortification units along with assorted headquarters and a communications brigade completed the forces on Kyushu and nearby islands. Most of these units were activated after May 1945. At the time of the surrender, there were 78,283 men in northern Kyushu who would have been held in reserve and 276,550 in southern Kyushu who were to meet the invading forces—a total of 354,833 men. No further reinforcement before the invasion was expected.
Huh? Well, 355,000 battle-hardened men can still do a lot of damage…
Japan Did Not Keep Its Best Troops at Home
It was generally believed that Japan kept its best troops at home to defend the homeland, but such a belief flies in the face of the psychology of the militarists responsible for taking the country to war. Until mid-1944 when U.S. forces captured Saipan, Japan’s military leaders and the troops they led were convinced that they were invincible and that their forces would defeat Japan’s enemies thousands of miles away from the homeland. Consequently, only four divisions of the Imperial Japanese Army—roughly 70,000 troops—remained in the Home Islands when Japan launched its offensive into Southeast Asia in December 1941. That number rose to only 11 divisions —approximately 165,000 men—by mid-1944.
Although U.S. troops landing on Saipan in June 1944 caused the Japanese to consider the possibility of an invasion of the Home Islands, real preparations for home defense did not begin until early 1945, when it became apparent that the Home Islands were threatened. By mid-1945, the Imperial Japanese Army had built up a homeland military force of an estimated 1.5 to 1.9 million men organized into 53 divisions and support units, but nearly all of those divisions had been organized within the preceding six months and were made up of recent recruits and reservists, many of whom were no older than 16 or as old as 60.
Less Than Half of Japan’s Military in the Home Islands
The bulk of the Imperial Japanese Army remained overseas in China, Manchuria, and Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands were in the Philippines, New Guinea, and on Pacific islands where they had been isolated and cut off from resupply, reinforcement, and evacuation to the homeland. Of the 14 divisions on Kyushu when the war ended, seven had been organized since May, and their personnel had minimal military training. Not only was their training inadequate, Japan’s arsenals lacked the arms to equip new units. Less than a quarter of the light machine guns needed were available and only half of the necessary rifles. Bayonets were in short supply, and mortars were used in place of artillery. With the country’s factories being bombed into rubble and its cities turned to ashes by constant Boeing B-29 Superfortress firebombing raids, there was little likelihood an adequate supply would ever be produced.
It was also believed that Japan’s best troops were brought home to defend against invasion. Except for a few divisions that transferred from Formosa and Manchuria (two former Manchurian divisions were on Kyushu), Japan’s deployed military forces remained overseas throughout the war. Although there were an estimated five million men in the Japanese military at the end of the war, less than half were in the Home Islands and the only ones overseas that still had lines of communication with the homeland were those in China, Manchuria, Indochina, and Korea. Even those lines were threatened by Allied air and sea power.
14 Divisions At Kyushu
The Japanese Army remained intact—the only one of Japan’s armed services that did—but by mid-1945 it was hardly an army of battle-tested elite troops. Few soldiers in Japan had ever seen battle and since the country was never invaded, never would. Even the troops returning from Formosa and Manchuria lacked combat experience. Formosa was a Japanese possession and the only combat in Manchuria since the 1930s had been against communist partisans, who were more interested in revolution than in defeating Japan. When General Douglas MacArthur’s staff began planning Operation Downfall, a two-pronged invasion of Japan, in the spring of 1945 there were three Japanese divisions and one independent brigade on Kyushu, a total of some 62,000 men. In May, after the surrender of Germany and the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese high command began reinforcing the large island in anticipation of an invasion. Two divisions were brought out of Manchuria while another came down from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, and the 40th Army headquarters transferred up from Formosa to take charge of the defense of the western sector of southern Kyushu.
The bulk of the reinforcement consisted of establishing and activating new units using troops already on the island in other capacities supplemented by new recruits and recalled reservists.
Damn. Not so tough, were they? MacArthur was legendarily dismissive of intelligence, so the postwar interrogation reports probably didn’t faze him, but the admirals undoubtedly were dumbstruck by the aviation reveal:
It was commonly believed that Japan had thousands—perhaps as many as 10,000—special attack aircraft available to use against an Allied invasion fleet. Such a number was put forth by some Japanese interrogated after the war and was included in monographs published in 1946. It was believed that kamikaze attacks would have started while the invasion fleet was somewhere between Okinawa and Kyushu and would have continued through the landings and against the troops after they were ashore. The Second General Army officers told a different story.
No Plans to use Kamikazes
In answer to the question of how many combat-type aircraft they expected to have available and how they were to be used, they replied that they had 800 bombers and that most would be used in the special attack or crash-landing role against the transports while the invading force was still at sea. They also stated that a reserve of some 70 percent—560 aircraft—would be held on Kanto and in Korea for use against later landings. In short, the Japanese officers revealed that there were fewer than 1,400 airplanes, not 10,000, available for use against an invasion of the Home Islands.
The Japanese indicated that although some aircraft would initially be used as conventional bombers, as the attacks continued they would also be ordered to the crash-landing role. They stated that there were no plans to use kamikazes against troops during and after the landings and that no air support was planned for the ground troops as the supply of aircraft would be exhausted in attacks on the fleet. The officers also responded that there were no jet- powered missile launching sites on Kyushu at the time of the surrender. Ten possible launch sites in northern Kyushu had been surveyed, but construction was never begun. They further revealed that rocket-powered aerial bombs were still in the experimental stage and were not yet in the inventory.
Japan had run out of kamikazes after the Battle of Okinawa. In light of this evidence (which was so explosive the U.S. kept it under wraps for 60 years), it isn’t surprising the five-stars and the rest of the brass came to the conclusion the war was won prior to August, 1945. Nothing could be further from the truth.