T he 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, has not so far provoked the kind of anguished debate that accompanied the 50th anniversary. The lack of controversy is fitting because there wasn’t much soul-searching at the time. In 1945, 85 percent of Americans approved of a step deemed necessary to end the war and head off a costly invasion of Japan. Only with the Axis threat long vanquished have numerous historians and philosophers come forward to claim that the use of the A-bomb was unnecessary and an atrocity that blemishes American honor.
These criticisms rest, it seems to me, on a profoundly ahistorical assumption: that there was something unusual about what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s true that the atomic bombs were, by many orders of magnitude, the most powerful explosives ever employed. But the havoc they caused, with a combined death toll of more than 100,000, was far from unprecedented. By the time the Enola Gay took off, at least 600,000 Germans and 200,000 Japanese had already been killed in Allied air raids. Conventional explosives had reduced all of the major cities of both countries to rubble. In the end, no more than one-third of the total Japanese deaths from air raids – and just 3.5 percent of the total land area destroyed – could be attributed to Fat Man and Little Boy.
Far from being unusual, then, those two A-bombs merely marked the culmination of an already well-established principle: that urban areas were fair game for aerial attack. The first such raid occurred on Aug. 30, 1914 – less than 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight – when a flimsy German monoplane dropped five small bombs on Paris. Britain and France quickly retaliated with their own raids on German soil. Though losses from aerial bombardment were minuscule during World War I (Germany suffered 1,900 killed and wounded), vast improvements in aircraft after 1918 ushered in an age of annihilation.
The Western democracies protested in 1937 when the German Condor Legion pounded Guernica and Japanese aircraft did the same to Shanghai, but it did not take long for them to emulate the enemy’s example. Starting in 1940, the Royal Air Force unleashed bomber raids against German cities, to be joined in 1942 by American B-17s and B-24s. Long-range B-29s (whose development cost more than the Manhattan Project) allowed Japan to be added to the target list in 1944.
To avoid the implication that they were guilty of “terror” bombing, Allied leaders claimed they were simply “de-housing” German workers or eliminating “cottage industries” that supported the Japanese war effort. But they knew perfectly well that bombing was so inaccurate that hitting anything, even a major war plant, required saturating a large area – including plenty of civilians – with high explosives or incendiaries.
Oh, how times change. Today we can put “smart” bombs through the window of an office building. Along with greater accuracy has come a growing impatience with “collateral damage.” A bomb that goes astray and hits a foreign embassy or a wedding party now causes international outrage, whereas 60 years ago the destruction of an entire city was a frequent occurrence.
Does this make us more enlightened than the “greatest generation?” Perhaps. We certainly have the luxury of being more discriminating in the application of violence. But even today, there is cause to doubt whether more precision is always better. During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States was so sparing in its use of force that many Baathists never understood they were beaten. The butcher’s bill we dodged early on is now being paid with compound interest.
It is hard to imagine how many more GIs and Tommies would have perished in 1944-45 had Anglo-American leaders flinched from using all the means at their disposal to hasten the end of the war. Indeed, if the United States had staged a blood-drenched invasion of Japan while holding back its atomic arsenal, President Truman would have been indicted for that decision too.
I can’t claim to have worked out the moral calculus of bombing. I remain troubled by the deliberate killing of civilians, whether by the United States or by its enemies. But I don’t think the atomic bombing of Japan was a uniquely reprehensible event. There is plenty of blame to go around for the horrors of World War II, and most of it belongs to the original “Axis of evil.” In short, I refuse to participate in the self-indulgent second-guessing that has become a growth industry in the history profession.
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