By July of 1945, the Japanese had undergone months of devastating attacks by American B-29s. Their capital and other major cities had suffered extensive damage, and their home islands were subjected to a naval blockade that made food and fuel increasingly scarce. Japanese military and civilian losses had reached approximately three million, and there seemed to be no end in sight. Despite all this, Japan’s leaders and military clung fiercely to notions of Ketsu-Go: a plan that centered on inflicting such punishment on the invader in defense of the homeland that he would sue for terms. In fact, even after Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Soviet attack in Manchuria, the Japanese military still wanted to pursue that desperate option, but Emperor Hirohito broke the impasse in the Japanese government and ordered surrender. He came to understand that the atomic bomb undermined (as the brilliant historian Richard Frank has noted) “the fundamental premise” of Ketsu-Go “that the United States would have to invade Japan to secure a decision” in the war. Ultimately, the atomic bombs allowed the emperor and the “peace faction” in the Japanese government to negotiate an end to the war.
Of course, the United States eventually could have defeated Japan without the atomic bomb, but all the viable alternate scenarios to secure victory—continued obliteration bombing of Japanese cities and infrastructure, a choking blockade, the likely terrible invasions involving massive firepower—would have meant significantly greater Allied casualties and higher Japanese civilian and military casualties. These casualties would likely have included thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute. Notably, all of these options also would have indirectly involved some “intentional killing of innocents,” including the naval blockade, which sought to starve the Japanese into submission. Hard as it may be to accept when one sees the visual evidence of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses probably would have been substantially greater without the A-bombs.
Moreover, the use of these awful weapons abruptly ended the death and suffering of innocent third parties throughout Asia. Rather surprisingly, the enormous wartime losses of the Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Javanese at the hands of the Japanese receive little attention in weighing the American effort to shock the Japanese into surrender. The losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific, but they pale in comparison to the estimates of seventeen to twenty-four million deaths attributed to the Japanese’s hideous rampage from Manchuria to New Guinea. The thoughtful scholar Robert Newman explains that “the last months were in many ways the worst; starvation and disease aggravated the usual beatings, beheadings and battle deaths. It is plausible to hold that upwards of two-hundred-fifty thousand people, mostly Asian but some Westerners, would have died each month the Japanese Empire struggled in its death throes beyond July 1945.” Surely these persons also are “innocents” deserving of some concern in our moral calculations?
Bluntly put, the atomic bombs shortened the war, averted the need for a land invasion, saved countless more lives on both sides of the ghastly conflict than they cost, and brought to an end the Japanese brutalization of the conquered peoples of Asia.
Subsequent to their use, Harry Truman maintained that dropping the bombs had been necessary, having ended the war and saved numerous lives. This conviction, however, did not stave off his own serious moral qualms about the action. He never again spoke of the atomic bombs as military weapons to which the United States could make easy resort. He rightly indicated some retreat from his pre-Hiroshima view that the A-bomb was just another military weapon.