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The Atomic Bomb

LAURENCE REES: And if the Americans are officially committed to 'precision' bombing in ideal circumstances, isn't it ironic that they develop the atomic bomb - the least 'precision' weapon imagineable?

CONRAD CRANE: Well, we start to develop the atomic bomb because we think the Germans are developing the atomic bomb. If they’re going to use it against us we have to have it, and if we had got it ready before the Germans had surrendered it would have been used against the Germans. We knew it was a war ending weapon, that’s what it was built for. We knew it was going to be an awful weapon. But moral calculus is a messy business, you ask how could you drop this immoral weapon? Well, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of casualties invading Japan and even though American leaders know this bomb is going to kill a lot of Japanese civilians, their first obligation has got to be to their own people.

There is a sense that despite what some writers have put out, there was no good information to show that the Japanese were getting ready to surrender. So everybody’s facing this bloodbath and there is a chance to end the war with this bomb. Even Stimson writes that one of the reasons he approved the dropping of the atomic bomb was to end the fire raids. He said, look, the fire raids are worse than what we’re going to do with this bomb, we’re burning down 60 something Japanese cities, we’re killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese, if this will end the war then let’s use this bomb.

LAURENCE REES:  And, of course, in a sense any 'moral' threshold had long been crossed because of Le May's firebomb raids.

CONRAD CRANE: Right, I agree, I think that the real moral threshold is crossed on the night of March 9th 1945 with the big fire raid on Tokyo. And even then it still takes a second bomb to get the Japanese to really come around and finish it.

LAURENCE REES: Le May, as you said, occasionally had warning leaflets dropped on Japan alerting people to forthcoming raids. So why wasn’t something similar tried before the atomic bomb was dropped? 

CONRAD CRANE: Of course the use of some kind of warning was discussed, and what was decided was that if the bomb didn’t work, because they didn’t know if the bomb was going to work, it would have been a massive embarrassment.

But the other thing they were concerned about was if they told the Japanese where the bomb was going to be dropped, the Japanese would gather all the POWs at the point of attack.

LAURENCE REES: But they could at least have announced to the world 'we have in our possession the most extraordinary weapon of destruction ever created'.

CONRAD CRANE: There were some kind of veiled threats, but they’re not real specific, and again there was the sense that we didn’t quite know what we had and we weren’t quite sure it was all going work. Some of it’s a little bit hasty and I sometimes argue that the decision to use the atomic bomb is made on the 8th of December 1941 when FDR signs the order to start the project to build it. Once it gets built it’s going to get used, it’s just the nature of military technology in many ways. Then, here’s another perspective on the bomb: I attended a conference in Tokyo and I gave a presentation on Curtis Le May burning down Tokyo in Tokyo, with a Japanese audience of historians and military officers. At the conclusion of the speech and my talk, which was a very good exchange with the audience, one military officer whose father had been in the Tokyo raid said afterwards that he’d always hated the Americans for what they did, but after he’d heard Le May’s thought process and what he did he understands that this was just not a blind move, that there actually was a set of rational decisions that led to that, and he understands why Le May as a military man made that decision.

But at the end of it a senior Japanese historian stood up and said, in the end, we must thank you Americans for the fire raids and the atomic bombs. Of course, I’m not quite sure what’s going to come next after this unusual lead in. But, again, everybody let him have this last word with us. And he said the reason is, because we were not ready to surrender. We probably would have surrendered eventually with the degradations of the submarine attacks and everything else by the end of 1945, but by that time the Soviets would have invaded Hokkaido as they were planning to do, and the end result would have been a North Japan and South Japan like East and West Germany, and Japan would have been divided between the Communists and the Americans. Our country may have never come back together again. And because of the fire raids and the atomic bombs it was enough of a shock to get us to surrender in the summer of 1945 before this partition could happen. He said that we were eventually going to lose the war anyway and these actions forced us to surrender at a time that preserved our national unity for the future, and that would not have happened if the atomic bomb had not been used. So in hindsight, he said, these were necessary. I thought it was an interesting perspective coming from the Japanese to say that.

Again, hindsight is always 20-20, and part of the problem with the whole Japanese surrender scenario is you don’t know what would have been different if any one of the series of shocks had been taken away. There are different individuals affected by different pieces of the calculus that brings the Japanese to surrender. The Soviet entry is very important. The atomic bombs are important, the fire raids are important, the submarine campaign is very important, the advancing ground campaign that is approaching the Japanese mainland is very important, and it’s all this series of shocks that produces the result. You take away any one and it’s hard to tell exactly how history would have gone.

LAURENCE REES:  I've talked to one or two people who regard the fire bombing campaign and the dropping of the atomic bomb as some kind of equivalent to the Holocaust.  What is your view on that? 

CONRAD CRANE: The Nazi Holocaust kills ten times more people than the strategic bombing campaign in Europe. The airmen who executed this campaign are risking their lives with every mission. None of the executioners of the Holocaust are doing that. The airmen are out to end a war, to win a war with this air campaign and that is not what the Holocaust was designed to do. In fact, the exercise of the Holocaust actually interferes with the effective execution of German war aims and German operations. Perhaps the best story I’ve heard about this comes out of the Nuremberg trials, and it was at night in a local tavern and there are a bunch of journalists who are arguing this very issue about the relative morality of what was going on in the death camps versus the strategic bombing campaign. And the journalist who ended the debate basically said that the Germans knew that any time they wanted to end the bombing campaign all they had to do was give up. If we had given up, if the Allies had given up our struggle, the Holocaust would have been much, much worse. And that really, I think, outlines the differences pretty clearly.

LAURENCE REES: There’s a big debate in Britain almost to this day about the fact that members of RAF bomber command never received a campaign medal. So after the war there clearly was some kind of moral unease about what had been done.

CONRAD CRANE: Well, Ira Eaker, the American Air Commander, who really wasn’t devoted to the precision bombing doctrine like some of the other American Commanders, eventually turned against the city raids because he said we don’t want to be tarred with the moral backlash that comes after the war, which I think is going to be terrific. And he thought that we can’t let history convince us of ‘throwing the bomb at the man in the street’, I think that’s exactly the way he worded it. And so he had a sense that the image of air power would forever be tarnished by what was going on. And so that’s another factor involved in this, besides the morality and the efficiency arguments, that there’s also a sense that public opinion’s going to turn against us from these actions as well. So there was a sense of that, but the greatest crime for the Allies in World War Two would have been losing the war. And we’ve got to remember that as well.