Every year on August 6th, the American public is reminded of the first nuclear weapon attack in history: The bombing of Hiroshima.
That, plus bombing of Nagasaki three days later, remain the only instances of atomic weapons used in warfare to this day .
It is estimated that the two bombs killed between 120,000 and 220,000 people, mostly civilians. It remains a turning point in the history of mankind. Although destructive on a scale never-before-witnessed, bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki did end World War II. The act prevented a prolonged invasion of mainland Japan, which most scholars believed saved tens of millions of lives.
Nonetheless, Americans for decades have been treated to musings of historical revisionists about whether the atomic bombings were morally justified. One hypothetical argument is that the Allies could have eventually beaten the Empire of Japan in the same way that the Third Reich was defeated. If the United States had simply continued their invasion of the mainland they would have suffered losses, but still would have reached Tokyo.
Were Japanese lives saved by dropping nuclear bombs?
Opponents of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki argue that this conventional invasion would have resulted in fewer civilian casualties.
They also point out that the Soviet Union would have been able to play a role in the defeat of Japan following Germany’s defeat. The U.S.S.R. declared war on the Empire of Japan on August 9, 1945, and invaded Manchuria immediately thereafter. Their victory was swift and showed the Japanese that the Soviets would no longer sit on the sidelines in the east.
There were no plans, however, for a Russian invasion of mainland Japan. That responsibility would still have fallen to the United States. Therefore, while the U.S.S.R.’s involvement was decisive, it would not have prevented the mass casualties associated with a conventional invasion.
While the argument against bombing civilians sounds appealing, it fails to consider the way in which the Empire of Japan was planning to defend their home islands. According to Japanese military documents, the empire planned to conscript the entire civilian population using a strategy of total war. At the time, the population of Japan was roughly 35 million, with four million of that total being members of their armed forces. In addition to those four million soldiers who would most likely die, a corresponding number of civilian deaths would likely have also followed.
Huge Iwo Jima losses foreshadowed tens of millions of deaths from an invasion
Even all of this does not account the millions of Allied soldiers who would have be killed during such an invasion.
The United States military’s invasion plan, Operation Downfall, called for more than five million servicemen and an additional million British troops. All of those men’s lives would have been put on the line, and assuming a casualty rate similar to that of the Battle of Iwo Jima, roughly 1.5 million would have been killed or wounded.
The casualty rate for American forces was considerably lower than that of the Japanese. Of the roughly 21,000 Japanese troops stationed on Iwo Jima, only 216 were captured –18,000 were killed and, roughly 3,000 fought in the caves of the island for weeks before surrendering.
If that casualty rate of approximately 86 percent were applied to an invasion of the Japanese mainland, more than 30 million people would have been killed in such total warfare.
With that taken into account, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the United States military made the right choice to use nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
(Photo by Charles Levy taken from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack, and photo of atomic cloud over Hiroshima by personnel aboard Necessary Evil.)