Response to ‘The Lies About Hiroshima’ by Cameron Reilly

By | August 9, 2008

On the TPN blog, Cameron talks a bit about the wholesale acceptance of the ‘it preserved lives’ justification for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He doesn’t accept it at all, and quotes from an article by John Pilger questioning this justification.

I read three main points in what he says and cites:

  • evidence of a desire for ‘demonstrating the weapon’
  • evidence suggesting Japan was willing to surrender before the bomb was dropped
  • that if Japan was unwilling surrender unconditionally, she could have been coerced into doing so through conventional means short of a land invasion (such as strategic bombing).

I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to determine that the US purposefully refrained from accepting a Japanese surrender in order to test their weapon. That said, the evidence does seem to suggest this as a possibility worth considering.

Anyway, here’s what I said:

I think you’re right that there was a desire to demonstrate the new weapon to the world in the decision to drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But, I’m also pretty convinced that there wasn’t another way out that would have resulted in less loss of life, assuming the Japaneses weren’t willing to sue for peace.

I don’t attach any special moral value to the use of a nuclear weapon as opposed to, say, massive loss of life due to strategic bombing or a land invasion. Consequently, it doesn’t seem logical to suffer or cause more deaths than those caused by the bomb in order to avoid it’s use*. I’m not a military expert, but given the casualties caused by strategic bombing and the experience of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, I think both would have resulted in more deaths. I’m not sure you’re arguing that these would have been better choices, though.

I also don’t see it as particularly useful to dwell on the fact that American generals held such gung ho attitudes towards the war – it’s awful, but I’m not convinced any other winning side would be more gracious.

To me, the really interesting part of this is the possibility of Japanese surrender, and the suggestion that these overtures were simply not followed. This is a pretty strange attitude for the American government to have taken, particularly given the losses taken at Okinawa and Iwo Jima – conducting those campaigns in the face of a Japanese desire to surrender (and, given the losses taken on both sides) would be truly twisted.

Have you seen any more evidence of this desire? It would be really interesting to see primary source material for this – particularly on the idea that America was treating the late Pacific campaign as preparation for an eventual confrontation with Russia.

One telling piece of evidence to attitudes at the time was recently mentioned on BoingBoing – a survey of scientists at a US national lab in Chicago taken four days before trinity. The plurality of votes was for ‘a military demonstration in Japan followed by a renewed opportunity for surrender’, suggesting that no such opportunity would exist during the lead up. Even more interestingly, the second most voted option was for a non-military demonstration in front of Japanese delegates – meaning that those who voted for the military demonstration were actively deciding that people needed to die for the ‘demonstration’ to be compelling. Chilling..

Anyway, interesting and provocative post, as always..

* Of course, to honestly play ethical calculus with this, you have to take into account the long term effects of the bomb on the environment and the surviving populace; effects that simply weren’t understood at that time. The risk of these long term effects can’t then have been considered, and it’s pretty reasonable to be appalled by this.