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Using nuclear weapons on Japan

LAURENCE REES: What about the question of the legitimacy of nuclear weapons?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: Remember, the nuclear physicists were alarmed by the prospect of actually using it. The guys who collaborated on the Manhattan Project wanted a demonstrative test somewhere to show the power of this new weapon, and the whole decision to use it is still shrouded in all kinds of controversy. Was it directed principally against the Japanese or was it a warning to the Soviet Union who by this time were massing along the borders of Manchuria and actually breaking into Manchuria and advancing through this territory that Japan had conquered and were heading towards Japan itself? So was it really meant to deter the Soviet Union? And if that’s the case it makes it morally much more ambiguous. I don’t think you can argue against bombing German or Japanese cities on a moral level because we had no choice. I mean, these nations had declared war and they were waging barbaric wars against combatants but also civilians. They were engaging in genocide, the Japanese in China and the Germans in the death camps in Germany and Eastern Europe, so we had to fight them.

But you can say our certain methods and actions are justified- maybe it’s okay to bomb Hamburg but is it okay to bomb Dresden in 1945 and just burn it out? And is it okay to keep pulverising Japanese cities instead of, say, negotiating with the Emperor and asking what it will take to get him to surrender? If we leave your throne intact, and we leave you intact with symbolic powers, will that get you out of the war? We were very foggy about what we wanted to achieve which allowed the Japanese Generals to really dig in. There are other interesting aspects about the decision to drop the atom bomb.

It was routinely said that it saved five hundred thousand to a million US casualties, because if we had to invade the home islands there would have been up to a million US casualties. Those numbers just seemed grossly exaggerated, I mean, between D Day and the liberation of Paris, Anglo-American Canadian forces lost something on the order of two hundred and twenty-seven thousand troops, fighting against a German army that was much better equipped and much more redoubtable than the Imperial Japanese Army in Honshu and Kyushu. So if the Germans could only pile up two hundred and twenty-seven thousand casualties, how is this really exhausted, depleted, poorly equipped Japanese army that was left on the home islands going to generate four times that number of casualties? So I think that number’s been played with a lot. In Truman’s defence, he had this weapon and he had done a lot of damage to Japan, but he’d repeatedly asked them to surrender and they refused to surrender.

We had the Soviets breaking into Manchuria heading towards Japan and he had to make a tough call. And by that point nuclear weapons didn’t have the sort of taboo reputation they have now, they were regarded as exceedingly dangerous and that’s why we went after them and felt we had to have them as a deterrent to the Germans, who we also knew were going after them. But they hadn’t been used and so this was a first use and some might have said that it’s just an upgraded version of other weapons in our arsenal. That said, people like General Dwight Eisenhower and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy were appalled by its use. They said, this is barbaric; I can’t believe we did this. But Truman was in the Whitehouse and the President has to make tough decisions and not pass the buck, so he took that decision and it did end the war and it doubtless saved tens of thousands of American lives.

So, it remains an open question but I’m sure there’s an awful lot of American families who are grateful that he took that decision. Another interesting consequence of that decision, of course, was that it allowed the Japanese to sort of wipe the whole slate clean. I mean, look what they did in World War Two. They fought a war as bestial as the German war. They engaged in genocide and mass rapes in cities like Nanking where soldiers were encouraged to loot all, burn all and kill all. They decimated China. And then their treatment of Allied prisoners, whether Australians or British or American, was appalling. They reduced these people to gibbering wrecks by their exploitation and abuse of them. And yet by dropping the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Emperor afterwards was able to claim that they were a victim of this American technology; a martyr, if you will. And that, to this day, continues to affect our record of this war and our analysis of this war, and the Japanese have still not owned up to the horrible things they did, which is in part because of the decision to drop the atom bombs. I don’t include that in a criticism of Truman’s decision because he clearly wasn’t thinking in that way, but that’s one of its impacts.