Why did the USA take the decision to drop the Atomic bomb?
By Ismail Veli…….
The 7th December 1941 was the day the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The decision to attack the USA turned what was until that point mostly a European conflict into a truly global war that saw human butchery on a scale not seen in history. It culminated with the use of the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945, thus ending a war that had claimed over 55 million people. The decision to use this horrific bomb with the cost of over 110.000 lives just in the initial strike, but many thousands thereafter due to radiation and burns have created controversy, disgust and abhorrence to this day.
In this article I shall try to search and find the reasons why the Americans took a decision that has haunted them to this day. To do this I needed to look for historical plans, and at least try to transfer the mind to the conditions and circumstances prevailing in the immediate period prior to using the bomb, and why the Americans even considered the use of such a horrific weapon on innocent civilians, which by today’s standards would amount to a war crime.
The decision by the Japanese to attack the USA on 7th December can be considered to be the equivalent of a national suicide. The thinking behind the Japanese planners was that if the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour was destroyed, and a rapid follow up conquest of far east Asia to include the thousands of islands in the Pacific, the cost of winning these back by the USA would be so lengthy and costly in human lives, that the US would not have the stomach for such a costly conflict and they would eventually settle for a peace agreement that would effectively still leave the Empire of Japan in control of, China, Indo China the Philippines and many islands of the Pacific.
This miscalculation would cost Japan dearly, the outrage that their attack provoked was not anticipated to the level that it turned out to be. Once the American war machine got into gear the production of 100 thousand warplanes in 1944 alone is so staggering as to beggar belief. The newly found concept of amphibious warfare perfected by the US marines simply bypassed hundreds of islands. The US concentrated on certain groups of islands giving them solid bases on what came to be called ”island hopping”. The remaining Japanese garrisons in the vastness of the Pacific ocean simply remained isolated.
The capture of those islands from the Japanese however were won at immense cost in casualties. The Americans to their horror found that the Japanese would rather die to a man than surrender. The nearer the Americans got to the homeland of Japan the more fanatical the resistance became. The capture of Iwo Jima alone in February-March 1944 saw the Japanese Garrison of 22.000 decimated almost to a man. In return they inflicted 26.038 casualties (6.821 deaths) on the Americans, this horrified the US military planners. The invasion of Okinawa on 1st April 1945, which was considered to be part of the Japanese homeland, gave the Americans more foretaste of what was to come. The Americans were faced with such a fanatical resistance that this operation cost casualties in excess of 100 thousand Japanese and 50 thousand Americans.
The next stage would be the plan that never took place, this was scheduled for 1st November 1945. This was code named operation Olympic. The use of the Atom bombs on the 6th and 9th August 1945 finally convinced Japan that continuing the war was futile, Operation Olympic was never put into operation. Understandably it’s little known to many younger generations.
By late July 1945 the Japanese homeland had been remorselessly bombed by a sustained strategic bombing that was designed to reduce Japan’s industrial capacity to a minimum, thus rendering it incapable of continuing the war. The industry was in ruins. Raw materials entering Japan were negligible, millions of Japanese had suffered death, starvation and casualties, but their determination to continue was as strong as ever.
At the battle of Okinawa the Americans witnessed a new style of warfare that to Western eyes seemed alien. It was here that the Japanese launched massive waves of Kamikaze pilots designed to cripple and destroy the US invasion fleets. The Kamikaze was named after a ”Divine wind”. that destroyed the Mongolian fleet attempting to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281, thereby saving Japan from Mongol conquest, (Strangely the location of Kyushu was the target of the Mongol invasion. This major island was the first stop for the planned invasion under plan ‘operation Olympic’ by the Americans).
This time the Kamikaze would be by thousands of young pilots crashing their planes into the American ships. They believed that each Kamikaze could sink an American ship. The damage done was indeed enormous, the psychological impact on the American troops and planners was one of shock. The Kamikaze did not reverse Japans fate however. The US was determined to take the issue of ”unconditional surrender by the Japanese” to its ultimate conclusion. While the US military brass drew their plans for the ultimate invasion of Japan, the Government pursued their plans on how to bring Japan to heel with maximum damage to Japan, and the least casualties for themselves.
The plans for operation Olympic began to be drawn. The numbers of military personal and anticipated Japanese defenders were by today’s standards so enormous as to beggar belief. A short table below gives some idea as to what was planned in this enormous operation.
Initial invasion force to attack the Southern island of Kyushu 650.000 regular American troops
- 9000 aircraft
- 20 aircraft carriers
- 111 battleships, Cruisers and destroyers. In addition the USA had a staggering 2902 vessels at its disposal for transport, amphibious and logistical support. Let’s not forget that the shores of Los Angeles in the USA were 5.520 miles away. The final plan for the conquest of the whole of Japan would require an estimated 5 million Allied and American troops.
- Facing these the Japanese had at their disposal for the defense of their homeland the following
- 2.300.000 regular troops
- 28 million volunteers, though most were not well armed, many simply had bamboo sticks. Their courage and refusal to surrender made the Japanese a formidable force.
- 10.700 aircraft, half of which were Kamikaze suicide planes.
The once powerful Japanese navy since Pearl harbour had been virtually destroyed to the point that it was hardly a credible force, therefore it was not even taken into account by the US military planners. What frightened the US planners above everything else was that if small numbers of defenders in the battles of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Saipan and Guadalcanal to mention just a few fought to the death, and in turn inflicted massive casualties on the US troops, what would the cost of an invasion on the main motherland be?
The estimated American casualties to bring Japan to heel was in excess of a million dead and wounded. The capture of Kyushu alone was estimated at a minimum of 50.000 casualties. Though the size of the Japanese troops and aircraft were enormous, their effectiveness was reduced by malnutrition, lack of equipment and above all training of pilots which were nowhere near the quality and experience of the Americans at this stage of the war. On the plus side their devotion to their emperor and willingness to die without question made them a formidable fighting force.
By August 1945 the strategic bombing by the Americans and the damage done to Japanese cities, homes and loss of civilian life was truly horrendous. Each month the US dropped 40.000 tons of bombs on Japan, nearly half the buildings in 60 cities had been reduced to rubble. The city of Toyama alone was 96% destroyed by the bombings. As most Japanese homes were built from wood, the bombings started fires that were often uncontrollable. On 10 March alone Tokyo suffered with 72.000 killed and 182.000 homes destroyed, this left 1.150.000 people homeless.
Rice imports, the staple diet of the Japanese was reduced to only 11% of its required needs, foods like cereals and soy beans were so low that the whole population was suffering from malnutrition. fuel, cotton and wool was in such short supply that people suffered from the harsh winter conditions, soap supplies alone were down to 4% of needs. In addition the population suffered massively from TB and fatigue. Chronic diarrhoea, lice and scabies was common. In spite of all their suffering the people considered their emperor in a god like manner and surrender was not an option. In spite of all the above the Japanese propaganda machine led their people to believe that they were inflicting such heavy casualties on the Americans that they could not possibly beat Japan. No one in the American government under-estimated the massive logistics and manpower needed to bring Japan to heel. There were however still some in the government under President Truman who were opposed to using such a hideous bomb. This included Military as well as political figures.
The Americans would not contemplate anything other than unconditional surrender, and were determined to force Japan to that conclusion no matter what. No thought was given to the immense suffering of civilian casualties. their main concern was the potential casualties to American lives in the event of an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Estimates of US casualties varied from 100’s of thousands to over a million. All agreed that the cost to American lives would be very costly as the Bushido code of no surrender by the Japanese would exact a frightful toll of US lives. It was against this backdrop that the decision to use the Atomic bomb was taken.
6th August 1945, a day of shame for humanity!
The American perspective has been explained in some detail. On 6th August the world was to witness the fearful wrath of the ability of humans to use destructive weapons in its worse form. The Enola Gay with the Atomic bomb, strangely named ‘little boy’, mission 13′ took off from North Field Trinian island at 02.45 local time to its fateful destination. There was no turning back. The captain Colonel Paul Tibbets, and his specially hand-picked crew had been training for this day for over a year. Only Tibbets had a real idea of the destructive nature of the bomb he was to drop. The rest had some idea, but were not 100% certain.
The bomb had to be dropped visually, therefore 3 weather planes had taken off to report visibility over possible targets. These were Nagasaki, Kokura and Hiroshima. The prime target was Hiroshima but if there was too much cloud the other two cities were alternative targets. The meteorologist had chosen 6-9 August four months previously as the most suitable days. Major Claude Eatherly was the officer of the weather plane ‘Straight Flush.’ At 32.000feet above Hiroshima he observed a small rim of cloud, but the sky had a 10 mile wide gap that gave perfect visibility for the Enola Gay to drop the bomb.
The decision was taken. He radioed to Colonel P.Tibbets in a coded message Y2.Q2.B2.C1, which effectively relayed weather conditions over Hiroshima at 15.000 feet. Hiroshima’s fate was thus sealed. It was 08.09 hours Hiroshima time and the city was sighted by the crew. They were ordered to put on their arc-welder’s goggles in order to protect them from the flash after impact. The order was to release the bomb at 08.15 hours local time. Flying at 285 miles an hour the B29 Bomber’s timing had to be a split second decision. At 17 seconds past 08.15 hours and just under 30.000 feet the Enola Gay’s bay doors were opened and ‘little boy’ was released. The B29 made a 150 degree turn which gave it the ability to put greater distance from the expected blast. It took exactly 51 seconds for the bomb to explode. It was still 1850 feet in the air and 200 yards from its target point. The crew turned to see a flash and a double shock shook the plane. They were about 15 miles from the blast. They soon saw the mushroom cloud rise to the sky which soon rose to 40.000 feet. The crew of the Enola Gay could still see the atomic cloud 360 miles away on their flight back. The impact incinerated everything in its path.
At its epicentre it vaporized thousands of people going about their business. Nothing had prepared them for this bomb. Burning typhoon winds simply ripped their cloths and skins leaving nothing but skeletons. Whole buildings, factories and trains were flattened in the most horrific spectacle that humanity could imagine. A radius of 2 miles across was a burning oven of agonizing heat and destruction never before witnessed in the history of mankind. The temperature was estimated to be close to 6000 centigrade. Those who survived became the living dead. The agony and suffering was so immense that to die became a blessing. It seemed inconceivable that humans could possibly devise such a weapon so horrendous in its nature simply to annihilate its fellow humans. If this wasn’t enough a second bomb was scheduled for the 11th August but with good weather forecasts for the 9th the drop was brought forward. The target was the city of Nagasaki. This second Atomic bomb finally convinced the Emperor of Japan that continuing would end in the destruction of Japan and finally did the unthinkable by announcing Japan’s surrender.
Part of Emperor Hirohito’s Radio Broadcast, accepting the Potsdam Declaration.
”But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone–the gallant fighting of our military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of our servants of the State and the devoted service of our 100,000,000 people–the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.
Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
It seems incredible to us today that such a bomb could be used, just as incredible was that many Japanese still wanted the war to continue. While many patients and wounded in hospitals were weeping about the surrender, others were dropping leaflets by plane encouraging people not to surrender. They felt it better to die with pride rather than live with such a disgrace. Their anger in hearing of the surrender turned to cheers when they picked up the leaflets encouraging resistance to the humiliation. Common sense finally prevailed however. With the Russians invading the northern Kuril islands as part of their Manchurian front, the Japanese Emperor as stated in his speech knew full well that continuation would result in the total occupation and possible annihilation of Japan.
Looking at events from today’s perspective and trying to analyse events of any chosen period in history is often subjective. Our approach and awareness combined with hindsight gives us a different point of view. One thing we can say with certainty is that the conditions and respect for human life was of a different magnitude. Though war, prejudice, darn right callousness and misconceptions seem to be a common feature of human nature, the slaughter of the first, and in particular the second world war proved that in the hands of maniacs whole populations can be steered to such a level of cruelty towards its own species as to make one wonder why we dare to call ourselves ‘civilized’, we are definitely not that.’
The deaths of at least 100 million people in the endless conflicts of the 20th century, and the spectacles we witness on our news channels every day proves that for all the advances in education, science, medical and space technology, our primitive instincts are as strong, if not worse than the days our ancestors walked out of the caves!
Sources used for this article from the writers own collection of:
The World at War series volumes published 1966-74
The Times Atlas of World history. 1993, 4th edition.
Osprey Military Campaign series. Iwo Jima 1945. By Derrick Wright published in 2001
The World War 11 Data-book. Facts and figures by John Ellis. First published in 1993