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Ending a War by Starting the Nuclear Age: Was the Bomb Necessary?

On August 6 and August 9, 1945 the United States ended World War II and began the nuclear era.

Was it vital to defeating Japan and ending World War II in the Pacific to use the devastating power of nuclear weapons to wipe out two Japanese cities? That is the question that media pundits and geopolitical policy wonks ask each year in August. The United States and Russia are in talks attempting to limit nuclear weapons’ proliferation, the genesis of which started 75 years ago on August 6, 1945. Liberty Nation has followed the progress of those talks, but what began as an end to World War II has maintained a cloud of nuclear destruction over much of the world.

Most Americans know of Colonel Paul Tibbets and his B-29 christened the Enola Gay, named after his mother. Tibbets and the Enola Gay ushered in the nuclear age, dropping the first atomic weapon, known as “Little Boy,” at 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945 on Hiroshima, Japan. However, Major Charles Sweeney and his B-29, Bockscar, are more obscure in America’s memory.

Major Sweeney piloted the B-29, dropping the second bomb, called “Fat Man,” the last nuclear bomb used in conflict just three days after the first, destroying Nagasaki, Japan. Together the two pilots flew missions that would end World War II in the Pacific but would lay the foundation for the Cold War and the nuclear standoff that continues today. Questions remain. Were the missions of the Enola Gay and Bockscar really vital to ending the war in the Pacific?

To shed some light on the question of whether bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons was warranted, the obvious answer is, “so what if we didn’t?” How would war in the Pacific have played out? Victor Davis Hanson gives us some idea of what might have resulted in his opinion piece in the August 5, 2020 Washington Times, “Our annual August debate over America’s use of atomic bombs?” As Hanson points out, the decision to use these devastating weapons by Democratic President Harry Truman was based on the conviction that if the U.S. did not use these weapons against Japan, alternative options were decidedly bad.

The Japanese military government could have stayed in power with the promise to stop further killing. However, as Hanson explains, “But the Japanese had already killed more than 10 million Chinese civilians since 1931, and perhaps another 4 million to 5 million Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians and members of the Allied Forces since 1940.”

Had this scenario played out with an armistice of sorts instead of an unconditional surrender by the Japanese, the horrors of the war in the Pacific would have been for nothing. The United States could have shelved plans to invade Japan and continued firebombing major cities in Japan until the Japanese government gave up.

Still, the incendiary bombings of Tokyo had already killed as many as 100,000 civilians, and the Japanese government showed no signs of surrendering.  History.com online monograph explains that “In late July, Japan’s militarist government rejected the Allied demand for surrender put forth in the Potsdam Declaration, which threatened the Japanese with ‘prompt and utter destruction’ if they refused.”

Another option for President Truman was to plan for an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Estimates of the carnage that would result were breathtakingly large for both the U.S. and its allies as well as the Japanese military and civilians. The consequences of the U.S. invasion of Okinawa was a good example of what would have been in store for American and Allied forces as well as enemy soldiers and civilians.

The Okinawan campaign cost the U.S. 50,000 casualties, 32 Navy vessels, and 250,000 civilians and Japanese soldiers. In another engagement, the street fighting to lose and then take back the Philippines in 1945, the cost was a quarter-million lives. Some estimates suggest that the loss of life in an invasion of the Japanese islands and the mainland would have been a million-plus – an unacceptable prospect.

Where the whole world was at war, there were no perfect alternatives. There were only some-better-than-others options. Ending World War II in the Pacific with Japan’s unconditional surrender two weeks after the last nuclear bomb was dropped in anger, was the best option under the circumstances. The “bomb” was necessary.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.


Read more from Dave Patterson.

Read More From Dave Patterson

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