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Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Why Both Had To Happen

Robert is a freelance writer/researcher in the Seattle, WA area. He covers current political, economic, and geopolitical news.


Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is the only burial ground in the country that holds servicemen from every war in U.S. history. From the Revolutionary War and Civil War, to Vietnam and Iraq, soldiers who have fought and died defending our country, are buried in the ground among their military brothers and sisters.

This Memorial Day weekend, one must pay tribute to these brave men and women and count themselves lucky to be residing in the United States of America. Many have died in the past so that all may enjoy freedom and prosperity in the present. For instance, many American soldiers died taking islands in the Pacific from the Japanese during World War II. President Obama, in his final year in office, went to visit the former empire of the Rising Sun, after stopping off in Vietnam, not to apologize, but to acknowledge the harsh history year of 1945.

Obama’s historic trip to this part of Japan is the first by any U.S. president since that fateful day 71 years ago. Conservative critics call this the final leg of his “Apology Tour,” an eight year process that started in 2009 when he asked the world for forgiveness for America’s past transgressions. “The President will shine a spotlight on the tremendous and devastating toll of war,” a spokesman said. It was in no way an outright apology for past American action, nor was it a rehashing of history. The gesture is yet another sign that the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is doing everything in his power to cement his legacy as the president who ended wars, brought the world together, and therefore made it a safer place.

Spoiler alert, he didn’t.

The August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would emerge as the symbols of the worst of the atrocities committed during the deadliest worldwide war on record. George Friedman wrote in Geopolitical Futures that “few understood what an atomic bomb was” in 1945, “and as its meaning penetrated global consciousness, its use was seen as uniquely immoral.” The pair of strikes killed upwards of 200,000 people, and since it was with such new and devastating weapons weapons at the time it would become viewed by armchair analysts as unnecessary actions, representative of the cruelty of all-out war.

Critics of the nuclear option forget that around 100,000 died during the firebombing of Tokyo just months before, as many as 130,000 Germans died in Dresden over three days of Allied bombing runs in mid-February, and at least 82,000 American and Japanese troops combined died during the slogging 82-day long battle of Okinawa that ended in June. The severity and high body count of that campaign to overtake Okinawa Island, about 350 miles south of the Japanese mainland islands, was one of the main drivers that steered President Truman in the direction of the atom bomb.

A mushroom cloud rises over Nagasaki, Japan on an August day in 1945


A Deed That Had to be Done

After the full effect of devastation in Japan came to be known, a real sense of fear and anti-Americanism swept across the globe. Our intervention into Vietnam further asserted that the U.S. was war-hungry and ready to commit crimes of humanity, even genocide. The use of two atom bombs to end an extremely deadly war became emblematic of America’s propensity to commit atrocities in order to maintain their newly found superpower status. Unfortunately, and somewhat confoundingly, these bombs needed to be dropped on big cities to prevent future casualties.

But why did we drop two?

After the bomb detonated over Hiroshima, President Harry Truman again called for the Japanese to surrender. If they refused, Truman said to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” After initially refusing the terms of surrender, Japanese Emperor Hirohito ensured that another bomb would be dropped on another city, this time, Nagasaki. After that, Hirohito finally accepted the terms of surrender and on August 15th, it was finalized.

One theory to the motivation behind the bombings is that they were a show of force for Soviet Union to take note of, as opposed to a necessary action taken to hasten the end a horrifyingly deadly war. There were reports that Japan had hinted at surrendering, but, in reality, they had no such motivation to surrender unless forced. Interestingly, the Soviets, our “allies” at the time, congratulated the U.S. for the bombings, impressed at first, but a few years later would condemn the bombings as an avoidable murder of 200,000 civilians.

It is important to keep the historical context of the war in the forefront of this nuclear discussion. As stated, Tokyo, the center of the government, was under fire. Still, the Japanese did not surrender.

The Japanese Empire may have been on the verge of defeat in 1945, but the Japanese leadership did not accept that premise. Once the U.S. annihilated two major cities, Hirohito and the leadership finally came to grips with reality. Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender to the Allies, making a ground invasion with American troops unnecessary, saving countless lives.

Obama’s recent trip back to the scene of the “crime” has reignited debate over the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Along those same lines, many are using our violent history with Japan to make the case for nuclear non-proliferation.

The Use of Nuclear Weapons

Can we live in a world without nuclear weapons some day?

Jeffrey Lewis wrote a piece in Foreign Policy reflecting on the nuclear issue, “our debates about Hiroshima reduce the victims of 1945 to the role of extras in their own murders.” Misunderstanding the realities of war, Lewis further fails to realize that many more had to die in order to end the war with finality. He went on to say that “there was no decision to use the bomb, just an enormous amount of institutional momentum that rolled over haphazardly raised objections and qualms.” While America did bring about a high body count for Japan on those two days in August, it is heartless to say our leaders did not grapple with real moral conflicts in this crucial decision. Their hands were forced. The wheels might have already been in motion, but the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s stubbornness ultimately gave the American military no choice but to unleash the full capability of its arsenal.

And yet, from 1945 to 2016, after a 50 year Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, neither nuclear power has destroyed each other and no other nuclear nation has come close to ushering in a nuclear holocaust.

Calling for “a world without nuclear weapons” at this point is a little bit of a pie in the sky attitude, but Obama and others of his optimistic nature still discuss it as a possibility. Lewis asks, “is disarmament as fanciful as the idea that the threat of nuclear holocaust will keep the peace forever? Or as fanciful as the idea that we need never stop resorting to war to settle international disputes, because political leaders will always recoil at the horror of nuclear war before things spin out of control?” Hiroshima and Nagasaki might show us all how much we need to stay away from war. Ultimate, all-out war, like we saw during the 1940s between major world powers, is something that would be much more dangerous today, with a handful of nuclear weapons states. If another world war started, who is to say nukes won’t be used right away, to end the war quickly and decisively?

John Bolton, former ambassador to the U.N., did not like President Obama going to Hiroshima. Bolton wrote an opinion piece in the New York Post on Thursday, saying Obama’s “penchant for apologizing is central to his legacy. He may not often say ‘I apologize’ explicitly, but his meaning is always clear.” To Bolton, Obama desires to “reduce America’s influence in the world,” and this cannot be done. While somewhat controversial, Obama’s overseas trip is 70-plus years after the fact. Japan is now an indispensable ally and critical check to a rising China. But, what is the president actually accomplishing in going over there to talk about it?

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Neoconservatives like Bolton believe Obama’s two terms as president have essentially been one long “Apology Tour.” Starting in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009, Obama stated that after 9/11, Americans gave in to fear, saying, “in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals,” pursuing instead, a strategy “based on fear rather than foresight.” While our country has certainly made many mistakes in the past, it is not the current president’s job to go around the world apologizing for them.

Obama’s legacy-building year of 2016 appears to be a bookend to his 2009 overseas trips, always going where no one else dared: Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, and now Hiroshima, Japan.

Obama is a foreign policy idealist. He believes in the “arrow of history,” once saying, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For Obama, pursuing our own self-interest as a nation is selfish. We must work to strengthen the international institutions. Never mind the fact that they have done nothing so far to stop the war in Syria, halt the spread of radical jihadism, or stem the flow of refugees from the Middle East to Europe. During Obama’s tenuous time at the top, we have seen: the appeasement of the Iranian mullahs, the opening to a socialist regime in Cuba, the withdrawal of American soldiers in Iraq (then the hasty reinsertion of them), the realization of militaristic aspirations by China, and a rising Russia led by strongman Vladimir Putin.

After leaving in 1945, Japan had killed over 14 million people during their occupation of China. In Europe, Hitler’s Nazis exterminated over 6 million Jews throughout Europe. Discussing what is just, in terms of warfare, is a convoluted endeavor. Discussing necessity is a simpler matter. The U.S. had to strike the Japanese hard enough to make it hurt. The Japanese are a proud people who do not give up easily. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ghastly acts, but they had to be done to save masses of American, Chinese, and Japanese lives down the line.

U.S. President Barack Obama hugs Shigeaki Mori, an atomic bomb survivor, in Hiroshima, Japan on Friday, May 27, 2016.


Americans Souring on 1945 Bombings

Americans’ views on this matter have changed rapidly over the past decade. Looking at the chart below, you’ll see that in 1995, almost 60% of Americans approved of using the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945. The number remained pretty steady at 57% as recently as a July 2005 Gallup poll. However, in CBS’ most recent poll released this month, Americans are now split on the decision to bomb Japan, with 43% approving and 44% disapproving.

Breaking these numbers down further, the jump in disapproval seems to be due to the fact that America is getting younger. Older Americans generally approve of the bombings, whereas younger people tend to disapprove. Amazingly, 58% of men approve, while 54% of women disapprove. Americans are divided by race as most white Americans approve and more non-white Americans disapprove. On political lines, most Republicans approve and Democrats disapprove.

Approval drops 14% over past decade


Obama Doing What He’s Saying?

In his speech Friday in Hiroshima, President Obama proposed an unworkable solution: “Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them.” How do you suppose we do that, Mr. President? And why haven’t you done your part?

A new counting of the nuclear weapons stockpile shows that the Obama administration dismantled the smallest number of warheads of any post-Cold War presidency. This statistic, put out by the Pentagon, reveals the huge gap between Mr. Obama’s rhetoric and reality.

The new figures disclose that the the Obama administration rid us of only 109 warheads in 2015, the fewest of his presidency, down from the 356 dismantled in 2009. And yet, Secretary of State John Kerry told us last year that “President Obama has decided that the United States will seek to accelerate the dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads by 20 percent.” This does not seem to be the case, however, as the numbers prove that Mr. Obama has reduced the nation’s nuclear stockpile at a far slower rate than either George H.W. or George W. Bush, the three presidencies before him. Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, questioned the administration’s logic. The total reduction from the end of 2008 to the end of 2015 is 702 warheads, or 13.3 percent, Mr. Kristensen noted, “no small number,” but still, that rate represents “the smallest reduction of the stockpile achieved by any previous post-Cold War administration.”

While nuclear weapons are indeed a horror that should not be spread anymore, the thought that countries would make themselves less safe by disarming themselves completely is an unworkable solution. Even if we all agreed to get rid of our nuclear weapons and agree that none should ever be built again, it is naive to think that is an actual possibility. Now that the technology is out there, countries will do what they can to defend themselves because they rightly pursue their self-interest.

Will America do what is best for herself or whatever makes her feel “better?”


Not bad but lacking on February 17, 2017:

Glad you raised the point about fire bombing other cities. Clearly cities were being destroyed without a-bombs.

But one point you didn't raise, was that the Soviets joined the war and attacked the Japanese the day before the 2nd bomb. I'd argue they felt more threatened by the Red Army - who just destroyed the Nazi war machine - turning its attention toward destroying Japan and seizing their seized territories.

Doesn't that make a little more sense than - they didn't get the message that we were serious about using a-bombs after the first one...but that SECOND one really showed them we meant business. Cmon now

I know it's unpopular to praise the Soviets but they were FDRs allies

credence2 on May 31, 2016:

Thank you, sorry I missed your response. As time passes, people not keen to history judges the world from a 2016 perspective. The truth is that one has to put oneself in the shoes of the man making the decision to drop, with an understanding of the mood of the country and the choices that had to be made in 1945. As so many say, hindsight is 20/20. I am certainly not a conservative in most cases, but this time, being a historian trumps ideology. I have to not make the mistake of using early 21st century ideals and values in a mid 20th century setting, part of which was a war weary population. Truman was a progressive relative to the times in which he lived, but he still made the best decision, really, the only possible decision under the circumstances.

So, the answer is that as those times move further into the past, people forget what things were actually like. The more time passes, the less relevant the war remains.

It is a pleasure, we shall talk again.

Robert Carbery (author) from Seattle, WA on May 29, 2016:

Credence, thanks for the comment. Any thoughts on why the approval rating has tanked so much over the last 10 years? Especially among liberals...

Credence2 from Florida (Space Coast) on May 29, 2016:

Yes, Iam a lefty and I support President Truman's decision to place the well being of the United States and its armed forces ahead of the interests of an enemy combatant. If I were faced with the decision, even with the limited knowledge available about the effects of radiation on the people there, I still would have had to do it. They were warned to surrender and it fell to deaf ears.

Hxprof on May 29, 2016:

I think you did a great job addressing this subject. And you touch on a point that I've often considered, that being how effective a job we did in annihilating cities by firebombings, killing nearly as many as died in either atomic bombing. So our capability for destruction via conventional means isn't less than our capability for destruction via nuclear means. But, we can destroy so much with a single bomb/warhead, and it takes so little effort.

I think the reasons so many disapprove of these bombings today are 1) They're too far removed from the circumstances that led to the bombings, and don't understand why we did it. 2) The continual threat of nuclear war - something you touched on in your piece. Who wants to see that happen on a widespread scale? Scary. 3) The long term effects on people from those areas and their children. What a terrible thing to do that we've impacted people of later generations is what they think.

The bombings saved so many lives.

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