August 6th and August 9th passed by this year without much fanfare. Once upon a time, the world marked these two dates with solemnity, mourning, and remembrance.
And for good reason.
On August 6th, 1945, American forces dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, it dropped a second A-bomb on Nagasaki. A total of 200,000 people died almost instantly in the two attacks.
The world had never witnessed destruction of this kind. It was a terrifying and remarkably effective display of American military prowess.
And it paid off.
Within hours, the Japanese government, which was preparing to defend itself against an American land invasion, declared its unconditional surrender.
To this day, the A-bomb attacks on Japan remain controversial. For years, historians have debated whether targeting civilian populations could be morally justified by the principle of “military necessity.”
And even if it could, should America have let loose the most terrifying weapon the world had ever seen?
American leftists and pacifists have long charged that President Truman was guilty of a “war crime.” In addition to the initial fatalities, radiation poisoning of the survivors led to slow deaths for thousands more Japanese in the ensuing years.
Images of their suffering were seared into the public conscience for years after the end of the war. It led many to condemn the United States and to demand reparations and an apology.
Critics also challenged the military necessity argument. Truman, they say, was aware of Japan’s likelihood of surrender, months before the A-bomb attacks. But he persisted in moving forward to send a signal to Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union that America saw itself as the world’s leading superpower in the emerging post-World War II era.
Truman may well have understood the powerful “demonstration effect” of unleashing the A-bomb, but historians now agree that his chief concern was to avoid a protracted land war.
In fact, there’s no solid evidence that Japan was preparing to surrender without a fight. Nothing in the mentality of the Japanese or in the policies of their imperial government ever suggested as much.
True, some elements in the government were ready to sue for peace, but they had little influence. The militarists had the upper hand. Japan was prepared for a long-drawn-out land battle with the West.
And the cost of that battle would have been immense.
Recently uncovered planning documents and cables have demonstrated that the Truman administration foresaw at least 250,000 and possibly a half a million casualties resulting from an American attempt to invade Japan by sea.
The bloody war would have sputtered on for decades, with Japanese hold-outs likely conducting guerrilla warfare. The American public might well have tired of the war and wondered what we were actually fighting for.
Even targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki was something of a humane gesture. The United States had earlier bombed heavily populated Tokyo with much larger casualties, military, and civilian. It deliberately avoided that this time.
Instead, America chose two relatively unpopulated cities to send a powerful signal to Japan to surrender immediately – or expect even worse.
The attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed our world. Nuclear weapons became “thinkable” as weapons of war. Both the US and the Soviet Union began developing and stockpiling huge arsenals that could sustain a full-scale nuclear exchange between the two countries.
The threat of nuclear weapons figured into hostilities in the Korean and Vietnam wars, limiting their escalation. And in 1961, the two superpowers played a dangerous game of brinkmanship over alleged Soviet missiles in Cuba.
In recent years, lesser powers, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and North Korea have developed their own smaller nuclear arsenals for possible use in regional conflicts. The possibility that such conflicts might become a tinderbox for world war has worried about the big powers.
Meanwhile, the US and the Soviet Union have negotiated substantial reductions in their own respective arsenals. Most but not all of the long-range inter-continental ballistic systems that might have destroyed both countries and much of the world are gone. These reductions began under Ronald Reagan and have steadily progressed under presidents of both parties ever since.
Looking back, it turns out that America’s strategic nuclear superiority may have provided just the deterrent the world needed to limit the threat of another full-scale World War.
There have been dozens of smaller low-intensity wars – and the occasional Iraq-type conflict — but none has threatened to draw in the big powers and risk another global conflagration. And no nuclear weapons have been deployed.
The threat of nuclear war remains. Putin in Russia has been rattling his saber of late. As long as forces hostile to freedom and democracy persist the United States has a special responsibility to retain some portion of its nuclear deterrent.
It‘s the best guarantee that the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as tragic as they were, will never be repeated.