(This is the script of an Afterburner video that ran on May 1st, 2009. Some very minor changes have been made in the print version.)
Recently, a friend and colleague of mine – Cliff May, President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who I work with weekly at PJTV – made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Cliff and Mr. Stewart were having a heated argument on the subject of what constitutes torture and what is merely coercion. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
Cliff May: Do you think that in World War Two we did not inflict pain and suffering on suspects in Europe and Japan–.
Jon Stewart: –I would hope we didn’t waterboard people. I would hope we–.
Cliff May: –We did do Hiroshima. Do you think Truman is a war criminal for that?
Jon Stewart: (pause) Yeah.
Cliff May: You do?
Jon Stewart: Yeah.
This view, expressed by Jon Stewart* and shared by millions, is becoming ever more widely held the farther from the event we become. Stewart and others maintain that the atomic bombings were criminal acts, claiming that the targeted cities received no warning, that they were of no military value, that Japanese resistance was crumbling and their use was unnecessary, and that Japan was trying to surrender at the time of the bombings which were therefore nothing but an unjustified and brutal signal sent merely to show the Soviets who’s boss.
None of these positions stand up to facts.
Let’s come back to the moral issue in a moment. But let’s begin with the historical facts.
Here’s what Stewart himself says about warnings:
Jon Stewart: Here’s what I think on the atom bombs. If you dropped an atom bomb fifteen miles offshore, and you said the next one is coming to hit you, then I would think it’s okay. To drop one on a city, and kill a hundred thousand people…
Cliff May: …You think that would–.
Jon Stewart: I think that’s criminal.
So Jon Stewart’s main point is that if the Japanese had been warned, quote, “then I would think it’s okay.” But the Japanese were warned. After 6 six minutes of grueling research, I was able to discover this leaflet:
This is a photograph of the front side of Office of War Information notice #2106, dubbed the “LeMay bombing leaflet.” Over 1 million of these were dropped over Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 33 other Japanese cities on 1 August 1945 – five days before the Hiroshima bombing. The Japanese text on the reverse side of the leaflet carried the following warning:
“Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives. America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from the oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war. We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately”
Now that’s certainly more warning than our sailors got on the morning of December 7th, 1941. But was that enough? Jon Stewart suggests that the appropriate thing to do would have been to drop the first bomb out at sea as a demonstration. Well, let’s follow Mr. Stewart’s line of reasoning.
The effort to develop the atomic bomb was codenamed the Manhattan Project. It was spectacularly expensive. To give you some idea of the scale of it, the small town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee – where the fissionable materials were produced – consumed one-sixth of all of the electricity generated in the entire United States! The Manhattan Project – alone – likely used more electricity than the entire nation of Japan.
After many years this mighty effort produced four bombs. The world’s first nuclear weapon – a plutonium device code-named “Gadget” — was detonated over the United States of America, just before 5:30 am on July 16th, 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico, in a test firing called “Trinity.”
The Trinity bomb was extremely delicate and its reliability very much in question. It used an exquisitely timed series of conventional explosives to implode a plutonium core and reach criticality. Bomb #3 – Fat Man – was of exactly this type, as I believe was the unnamed and unused Bomb 4. So the Manhattan Project scientists essentially wasted 25% of the total arsenal – the Gadget bomb, in the Trinity test – to be certain that bombs #3 and 4 would actually work. The second bomb – called Little Boy – was a Uranium bullet-type bomb: less efficient, but judged reliable enough so that it would not need testing.
So let’s pick up Jon Stewarts suggestion. We’ve bet the entire farm – all of our best scientists, almost 30 billion in today’s dollars for the bombs and almost that much for the B-29’s to carry them – and we’ve already detonated 25% of the results on a test. We dropped millions of warning leaflets in the days before the attacks. But Jon Stewart says he would only be satisfied if we had demonstrated the weapon. Such a demonstration would have reduced the results of the Manhattan Project by half: four bombs built, two used as demonstrations.
Presumably, following Mr. Stewart’s suggestion, we would send a message to the Imperial High command that says, essentially, “Hey guys, how’s it going? Listen, we’ve got this super-weapon we’ve been working on for two years, and even though you’ve killed hundreds of thousands of our sons and fathers ever since you sneak attacked us without warning back at Pearl Habor, we wanted to show you what it can do. So next Sunday morning, set up some lawn chairs looking out of the ocean – we’ll tell you exactly where – and then right at noon precisely we’ll send one of these bombers out there to drop one of these wonder weapons… but no fair trying to shoot it down, just because you know exactly where and when and what to look for! Because when you see the kind of splash this thing makes, well, you’ll either give up on the spot or you’ll somehow suddenly deserve what’s coming to you when you wouldn’t have deserved it if we hadn’t dropped one in the bay. If this is a little morally confusing, don’t worry: some snarky narcissistic comedian will explain how that works sixty-four years from now.”
But the whole point is moot, and Jon Stewart knows it’s moot. We know for a fact that dropping an atomic bomb 15 miles out at sea would not have caused the Japanese to surrender in order to avoid that fate. How do we know? Because we dropped one on an actual city, and they still did not surrender.
Nor were they about to, contrary to what many would have you believe. As the U.S. Navy and Marines approached the Japanese mainland, resistance and casualties increased, not decreased. In six grinding months, from August of ’42 to February of ’43, the Allies lost about 1,500 killed at Guadalcanal. The first battle on Japanese soil – an uninhabited speck called Iwo Jima – killed 7,000 not in six months but in five brutal weeks. Four days after the official end to the carnage on Iwo, Americans went ashore at Okinawa – even closer to the sacred soil. In 82 days almost 13,000 allied soldiers were killed. The US Navy lost 34 ships – many of them to the new kamikaze attacks, which caused the United States Navy to lose more men in that one engagement than in all of America’s previous wars combined. Japanese resistance was not fading. It was becoming ever more fanatical.
After Okinawa, and before the Atomic Bombings, the father of the Kamikaze attacks, Admiral Takijiro Onishi declared:
“If we are prepared to sacrifice 20 million lives in kamikaze effort, victory will be ours!” 20 million people is one hundred times the number killed in the Atomic attacks.
This isn’t an assertion and this isn’t speculation. These are the words directly from the military clique that ruled Imperial Japan. Their battle plan was called Ketsu-Go – it translates roughly as “decisive operation.” On June 8th, 1945 – a little less than one month before the first atomic bomb was dropped, Emperor Hirohito declared Ketsu-Go would be, quote, “The fundamental policy to be followed henceforth in the conduct of the war.” It proclaimed that “Japan must fight to the finish and choose extinction rather than surrender.” Again, we’re not talking about the assertions of a comedy show host, but official policy statements from the God-Emperor of Japan. Special attack weapons were sanctioned, including additional kamikaze air and submarine attacks. Children were being trained to carry backpacks of explosives and throw themselves under American tanks. Admiral Onishi went on to say that 32 million civilians were being trained in the use of “primitive weapons” – that would be bamboo spears – in order to make a heroic last stand.
Opposing Ketsu-Go was the American plan for the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands: Operation Downfall. Phase one – Operation Olympic – would be an amphibious assault on the southern island of Kyushu with over 767,000 American troops: more than four times as many as were used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in Europe. The core of the Japanese defense against Operation Olympic would come from the Imperial Army troops stationed in position to defend Kyushu. That army of 43,000 men was crowded in with various military installations, manufacturing facilities, and 280,000 civilians at the army headquarters, located in the heart of a modest city named Hiroshima. The bomb detonated directly over that army’s parade grounds. Hiroshima was not, as some will tell you, a purely civilian target. Like all Japanese manufacturing centers, the munitions factories, weapons depots, troop barracks and other military targets were dispersed among the civilian population.
At 8:16 am on the morning of August 6th, 1945, a B-29 named Enola Gay dropped bomb number two – Little Boy – which exploded with the force of about 15 thousand tons of TNT. We’ve grown up under the shadow of hydrogen weapons – H-Bombs – but these are thousands of times more powerful than the fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima. If you detonated the Little Boy Hiroshima bomb in the center of Los Angeles Airport, the fatal blast radius remains inside the airport property.
But it produced horrific damage to these wood and rice paper structures. 70,000 were killed almost immediately, and perhaps another seventy thousand would later succumb to burns, injuries and radiation.
The Japanese did not surrender. August 7th passed with no word from the Imperial High Command, as did August 8th. American B-29s continued their firebombing of Japanese targets.
Then on the morning of August 9th, another B-29, Bock’s Car, took off with Fat Man, bomb #3 – a higher-yield, less-reliable plutonium bomb like Gadget. The Japanese city of Kokura was the primary target, but clouds obscured that city so Bock’s Car diverted to the secondary, Nagasaki. It too was overcast, but a brief hole in the cloud cover was enough to give the bombardier an aim point. Fat Man exploded with a force equal to about 22 thousand tons of TNT – about half again that of Little Boy – detonating precisely halfway between the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works, a munitions plant, and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works, which manufactured torpedoes for the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Total deaths a Nagasaki were lower, but about 80,000 people would die from either immediate or long-term effects.
Still the Japanese did not surrender, and still the conventional bombings continued. August 9th passed. August 10th. August 11th. The fourth bomb was being readied, and it started to appear that the air force would have to begin conserving atomic bombs for use during the invasion. You see, even after the second bomb was dropped, Emperor Hirohito was hearing from his advisors that Japan still had 32 million people prepared to give their lives for their emperor.
“With luck, we will repel the invaders before they land,” said General Yoshijiro Umezu, with the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still smoldering.
Japan would have eventually surrendered without the atomic bombs. It might have taken an invasion, with perhaps a million American soldiers killed or wounded, and three, or five, or seven, or twenty million Japanese civilians as well. A post-war American bombing survey concluded that Japan probably would have capitulated by November or December, prior to an invasion – but that was only because the firebombings would have continued for another three months, or four, or six. Before the atomic bombings, 40% of the much, much larger city of Tokyo had been flattened as effectively as ground zero at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Kobe, the size of Baltimore, had been 55% scoured – wiped clean off the map – by conventional bombs. Osaka, with a population about equal to Chicago, had been 35% destroyed; almost sixty percent of Yokohama – about the size of Cleveland – had gone up in flames in conventional bombing raids… None of this devastation had brought Japan to its knees. But the Atomic Bombs did.
And the idea that had we not dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their populations would have been spared is also fallacious. Had they not been victims of the atomic attacks, those populations would have been subjected to firebombings as had the above named cities and scores of other industrial centers. The death toll from conventional bombing may have been somewhat higher, or somewhat lower, but there is no believable scenario that does not result in the deaths of tens of thousands in these cities, even had the atomic bombs been withheld.
On August 12th, three days after Nagasaki, Hirohito was asked by a relative if the war should continue if surrender meant the loss of the Imperial family and their social structure. He replied, “Of course.” August 13th passed. Then, on August 14th, the Emperor relented. As he was traveling to the radio station to announce the surrender of his empire, he narrowly escaped by kidnapped by Imperial Japanese officers determined not to let even the God-King end the war.
But he did end it. And when he finally ended it, he said why he ended it:
“The enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization… This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”
Japanese pilot Mitsuo Fuchida led the air attack against Pearl Harbor. After the war, he told Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, quote: “you did the right thing. You know the Japanese attitude of that time, how fanatic they were. They’d die for the Emperor. Every man, woman and child would have resisted the invasion with sticks and stones if necessary. “
The use of the atomic bombs saved – at minimum — hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives from continued conventional bombing. If the invasion had been necessary – and no one at the time had any reason to think it would not be necessary, given the pattern of resistance – then millions more Japanese would die holding bamboo spears and wearing explosive backpacks. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers would have been killed. Perhaps including this one:
I got to know this man over the course of my life. He was just a regular Army 2nd Lieutenant who got to Germany just as the war there was ending. He and all of his friends knew where they were headed next, and having watched the Marines fight and die for every inch of sand they took, they frankly did not think they were going to come home.
When the word came of the Japanese surrender, they were stunned. The Marines were stunned. Navy pilots – tough, battle-hardened men who had seen horror Jon Stewart and I will never be able to imagine, thanks to them – those men burst into tears at the news. They were going to live. They were going to go home, because of the decision that Harry Truman made that day.
This man would go home and marry this woman:
They’d have four children, and some of those children would have children.
The oldest one would play some little league baseball, then go to high school, then make movies, and finally that little boy would write this essay, because Harry Truman gave his father a chance to come home.
Jon Stewart wants to call Harry Truman a war criminal? If Harry Truman is a war criminal for the atomic bombings, then Roosevelt is one for the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden. And if Roosevelt is a war criminal for causing the fiery deaths of civilians, then Abraham Lincoln – whose Union armies burned Atlanta and Columbia to the ground in order to end that war – well he must be one too.
And if, by the snowy standards of these liberal’s Olympian intellect and morality… if Harry Truman is essentially the same creature as Adolph Hitler – war criminals – then these people, the actual victims of real war criminals become a little less to worry about. Don’t they?
Mr. Stewart, you do no exist on some superior intellectual plane – and most certainly not on a moral one. You can slander the men who have given you a life where the toughest decision you have to make is what to have your assistant get you for lunch. But those people who came home as a result of Harry Truman’s courage deserve a hell of a lot better than to be told that their lives are worth less than your moral discomfort. And the de facto “voice of a generation” should be someone not quite as self-centered as you.
*Shortly after he called Harry Truman a “war criminal,” Mr. Stewart apologized for the comment.
(A great deal of the background material of this essay was found in a remarkable book called Flyboys, written by Flags of our Fathers author James Bradley. While it deals primarily with the capture and brutal execution of American Naval Aviators on Chi Chi Jima, it is exhaustively researched and examines both the conventional and atomic bombings of Japan in great detail. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, although I will say the details of the Japanese treatment of Amrrican POW’s and Chinese civilians is not for the weak stomached. )