The American nuclear bombing is argued over. It’s said by some that incinerating the few hundred thousand civilians involved was necessary, wise, and just; it’s said by others that it was a colossal crime, perhaps a genocide, perhaps comparable to the more famous atrocities of the Axis powers.
Now I’m not an expert on history, and I don’t have the time to become one. But I’d like to hold an opinion here. But it’s very easy to either 1) get drawn into the endless going-over of various details, estimates and counter-estimates, and so forth, or 2) avoid that simply by adopting an overall interpretation of all these events which fits with your other views, at the cost of making assumptions or judgements that others can simply reject.
So I want to see if there’s a way to reach a confident and well-supported view without being an expert, both for me and for any readers. My goal is that after reading this post it will be extremely hard for anyone of good faith not to condemn the bombings.
(I will note in passing that there’s actually something rather queasy about treating these two bombs in isolation – hundreds of thousands of civilians were deliberately killed with conventional bombs in Japan and in other countries. So if in doubt, assume that whatever I say here applies to those as well – but I shall not try so strenuously to prove this)
So my intention is basically to lay out, tentatively, a few things which, to the best of my very patchy knowledge, aren’t subject to dispute – which don’t depend on any contentious inferences, but just on obvious facts.
1) The allied leaders insisted on unconditional surrender, which was perceived to carry the threat of deposing the Japanese emperor.
2) In actual fact, the emperor was not deposed during the allied occupation.
3) EDIT for clarification: Some of The Japanese leaders were making peace offers (whose sincerity can be doubted) before the dropping of the atom bombs, but were very concerned to safeguard the imperial throne (note I say that the Japanese leaders were – that says nothing about popular opinion in the country).
4) This was because they were very clearly not going to win, and could seek only to ensure the most favourable terms of their defeat.
5) The Japanese leaders’ attempts to negotiate peace to a great extent hinged on the USSR, who were not yet at war with them when the last ‘ultimatum’ was delivered by the allies. This ultimatum (the Potsdam declaration) was rejected.
6) On the same day when the 2nd atomic bomb was dropped, the USSR declared war on Japan and its troops attacked Japanese territories in northern China.
7) At the time when the last ultimatum (the Potsdam declaration) was issued, the allies were aware of the Soviet plan to declare war on Japan, and also of the creation of the atom bomb. But neither was explicitly mentioned to the Japanese.
Now if any of these facts is disputed, I’d be open to hearing that; but as far as I can see, they are all a matter of public record.
So given these facts, in particular 3. and 4., it seems to me that it cannot possibly be said that the dropping of the atom bombs was ‘necessary’ in order to get Japan to surrender. If the Japanese were seeking to surrender, then it must have been within the power of allied leaders to get such a surrender without further hostilities, and certainly without escalating beyond conventional weapons.
Indeed, it seems quite likely that such a surrender could have been secured by merely guaranteeing the security of the imperial dynasty. This would not be ideal from the perspective of revolutionary communists, but it would nevertheless be clearly preferable to genocide.
But even if there were other issues that would have needed to be agreed – for instance, if the Japanese leaders insisted on retaining control of certain of their territorial conquests (this doesn’t seem to be a well-supported possibility but what would I know?) – it seems at least undeniable that revealing the fact of the USSR’s imminent declaration of war/assault on China would have had a good chance of securing such a surrender (if not of securing the desired unconditional surrender). If such a chance existed, then it should have been attempted.
So what all of this implies is that there were at least three methods that had a good chance of securing a bloodless surrender by the Japanese leaders: dropping the requirement that surrender be unconditional, revealing the Soviet intention to attack (possibly by the Soviets launching such an attack), or, of course, merely explaining in detail that an atomic bomb had been developed, or demonstrating this by explosions in unpopulated areas. A fourth option, of course, would be to more substantially give up on the desire to invade Japan, saving lives in conflict though at the cost of potentially leaving a militaristic and, arguably, fascist regime in place (but for how long, before the Japanese themselves did away with it?).
It is quite possible that some of these three methods might not have worked; it seems very implausible, though not impossible, that none of them would have worked. Nevertheless, the point remains that none were tried.
Hence the conclusion seems inescapable; in choosing the drop atomic bombs on civilian targets, the allied war leaders, in particular the Americans (though the actions of the Soviets and British are also to be heavily criticised), chose freely to prioritise the fulfilment of whatever strategic goals they had above the most elementary principles of justice in war and human decency.
Such actions, it seems to me, cannot be denied to be war crimes.