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Moral line crossed long before Hiroshima

September 24, 2015
Roger Ritter
San Francisco

The debate over whether our dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 ended the war, and whether the Japanese were about to surrender anyway, will probably never be resolved. However, I suggest that critics of our decision read “Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire” (1999), by Richard B. Frank, which explains how American leaders learned in the summer of 1945 that their alternative strategy to end the war by invasion had been shattered by the massive Japanese buildup on Kyushu, and that intercepted diplomatic documents also revealed the dismal prospects of negotiation.

Japan’s leaders were willing to risk complete annihilation to preserve the nation’s existing order. They not only wanted to preserve the emperor, but the imperial-militaristic system itself. They were not about to give up, but rather were about to implement Operation Ketsugo, which included arming civilians, old men, women and even children, with sharpened bamboo stakes. The alternatives to the bombs, which were either blockade and/or the B-29 bombing of railway lines – Operation Starvation – or an invasion, would have resulted in even more Japanese deaths, not to mention many American deaths.

The USAF Strategic Bombing Survey was completed soon after the war ended and did not have the benefit of later scholarship or sources. The survey’s conclusions were criticized in “Enola Gay and the Court of History” (2004) by Robert P. Newman, who found that contrary to the survey’s conclusions, all but one of those interviewed in the survey actually claimed that “Japan would have fought to the bitter end” (see American Heritage Magazine, September 2004, p. 14).

Dropping the atomic bombs was horrible. But they were the last bombs in a “rain of ruin” on Japan that began with the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. If the Allies crossed a moral line in dropping bombs on civilians – and I believe we did – then the line was crossed, not in August 1945, but in the summer of 1943, when the RAF and the USAAF bombed Hamburg. After that we saw massive bombing of both Germany and Japan as the only way to win the war. 

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