Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Day the World Ended

The 60th anniversary of Hiroshima has ticked over to revived debate about the action's utility and morality. Some points worth considering -

The moral significance of the atomic bombs was less dramatic in context then it appears today. By August 6 1945 US air raids had claimed some 800,000 Japanese civilian casualties, including some 300,000 dead. The decision to kill large numbers of civilians had been worked out over Dec1944-Feb1945, with General LeMay's appointment to USAAF 21st Bomber Command and the replacement of precision bombing with incendiary attacks. Area bombing and incendiary raids had been employed against Germany since early 1942, resulting ultimately in the deaths of between 750,000 and 1,000,000 Germans.

Conventional bombing had also comprehensively destroyed Japan's war economy by August 1945, so that in military terms the atomic bombs contributed nothing to Japan's surrender. In short, the atomic bombs were simply the logical extension of the strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan. Only with the postwar development of missile technology and of steadily more destructive warheads did the implications of this new technology become clear.

Regarding the vexed question of the bombs' political influence, the key point is that Japan's surrender was achieved because of Emperor Hirohito's unprecedented intervention to command his cabinet to accept the Allies' demand for unconditional surrender. That the bombs were the immediate catalyst for Hirohito's decision is hard to debate, but once again it is unlikely that they were decisive in the larger context. According to his own statements Hirohito decided to command surreder because he believed continuation of the war would result in the nation's destruction, an obvious fact by mid-1945, i.e. before the atomic bombs were dropped. What Hirohito needed to intervene was sufficient support within the government and a deterioration in Japan's situation to the point where it was clear that surrender was the only alternative to national annihilation. Both these conditions had materealised by August 1945; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less events in themselves than the apocalyptic climax to a long and violent process. Conversely, had Japan been in a position to feasibly continue the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities would probably have failed to compel Tokyo's surrender.

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