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The Enola Gay on the ramp at Tinian in August 1945

Dec 2, 2017
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The Enola Gay on the ramp at Tinian in August 1945 (Wikipedia).

Sixty-two years ago today, a B-29 nicknamed Enola Gay set off on its appointment with destiny. In its modified bomb bay, the massive Superfortress carried a single weapon: an atomic bomb, earmarked for the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Just after 8:15 a.m., local time, Enola Gay dropped the weapon, which detonated about 2,000 feet above the city center. An estimated 70,000 Japanese military personnel and civilians died in the blast; thousands more eventually succumbed to the long-term effects of radiation unleashed by the bomb.

Almost immediately, a debate began over necessity of the Hiroshima attack–and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, which followed three days later. Many of the scientists who helped developed the weapon rejected its employment, as did a number of senior U.S. military personnel, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, and Admiral William Leahy, President Truman’s Chief of Staff. All believed that Japan was defeated militarily, and opposed Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, early opposition to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Hagasaki (based on moral and military principles) has morphed into something more sinister, a revisionist belief that the attacks were not the concluding acts of World War II, but rather, an opening blow in the Cold War. According to this view of history, the strikes against the two Japanese cities were not only unnecessary; they were wrong, even criminal.

Amid such rot (which always appears this time of year), it’s refreshing to see someone get it right on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and better yet, to see his thoughts published in–of all places–the U.K. Guardian, which will never be identified as conservative paper.

Yet, that’s exactly what you’ll find on today’s opinion page in the Guardian, where liberal writer Oliver Kamm presents a strong case for Truman’s fateful decision. He notes that U.S. military opposition to the bomb was muted; there is no documentary evidence that any senior officer publicly disagreed with the Commander-in-Chief. While some expressed misgivings in private (as Eisenhower did in a conversation with Secretary of War Henry Stimson), none of the generals and admirals resigned over Truman’s decision, nor even offered to step down. Whatever their concerns, America’s military leaders decided they could live with the President’s choice.

On the other hand (as Kamm observes) there was ample evidence that the planned invasion of Japan would result in thousands of additional casualties on both sides. In the Okinawa Campaign (April-June 1945), the U.S. suffered 72,000 casualties, to secure the airfields and anchorage that the islands offered. Victor Davis Hanson and other historians believe the staggering toll from Okinawa–and the prospect of even higher losses during an invasion of Japan–influenced the decision to use the atomic bomb, in hopes of ending the war sooner.

Indeed, some Japanese historians believe that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki allowed the “peace elements” within their nation to prevail; prior to the raids, there was considerable division within the government over whether Japan should surrender, and what terms it might agree to.

As for the notion that Japan was “already defeated,” Kamm quotes one of Japan’s highest wartime officials, Kido Koichi, who estimates that the atomic bombings “prevented” 20 million Japanese casualties. That suggests a foe who was determined to continue the fight, no matter what the cost. That suggests a war that would have dragged on for years, at a shocking cost in human lives.

Additionally, it’s worth remembering that some of our forecasts about an early Japanese surrender were inherently flawed. The post-war U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey claimed that Japan would have surrendered before the end of 1945, under the weight of sustained fire-bombing attacks against urban areas. But the assessment was predicated on the deployment of additional B-29s to the Pacific Theater, and the transfer of some air assets from Europe as well.

Military data indicates that there were only about 1,000 B-29s in the Pacific in August 1945; the Superfortress had a troubled development and deployment history, the result of a complex design and the “rush” to get the new bombers into combat. While some of those “teething” problems had been mitigated by mid-1945, there is no guarantee that the Army Air Corps could have (a) deployed the required number of additional bombers and crews; (b) secured and prepared the required bases, and (c) destroyed a sufficient number of Japanese cities to force a “conventional” surrender by late 1945. In that respect, the Bombing Survey’s predictions about a sustained campaign against Japan are hopelessly optimistic.

History should record that President Truman–a man who was completely unaware of the atomic bomb program until FDR’s death–made the necessary and difficult decision to use those terrible weapons on Hiroshima and Nagaskai. As Mr. Kamm writes:

“..Our side did terrible things to avoid a more terrible outcome. The bomb was a deliverance for American troops, for prisoners and slave labourers, for those dying of hunger and maltreatment throughout the Japanese empire – and for Japan itself.
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