Japan also held hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war, and subjected them to barbaric treatment every day, beating, starving, withholding medication from, or murdering them. Casualties from continued fighting and from Japan’s atrocious treatment of POWs would have continued to mount every day the war continued. There is an even more important reason, however, that explains why the narrative that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary is untrue. The alternative was a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands, which the Japanese government was determined to resist via national suicide.
Scheduled for November 1945, Operation Olympic was to be the first stage of an Allied invasion of Japan. Its goal was to secure the southern third of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main home islands. The seized territory would provide airbases for land-based aircraft, and serve as the staging area for an even bigger invasion. That was to be Operation Coronet in the spring of 1946, directed at Honshu, the largest and most populous of Japan’s home islands. The operation was to commence with amphibious landings on three Kyushu beaches. Unbeknownst to planners, the Japanese had accurately predicted US intentions and landing sites.
Japanese geography meant that the only viable beaches for large amphibious landings were the ones selected by the planners of operations Olympic and Coronet. The Allies would still have prevailed in the end: the resources committed to the operation dwarfed those of the D-Day landings in France. They included 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, 400 destroyers and destroyer escorts, tactical air support from the Fifth, Seventh, and Thirteenth Air Forces, and 14 divisions for the initial landing. Casualties, however, would likely have been horrific.
Worst case scenarios envisioned over a million Allied and tens of millions of Japanese casualties. Such high estimates are lent support by the fact that Japanese authorities were busy training even women and children to fight the invaders with spears and pointy sticks. At the time, Olympic’s planners were unaware of the highly secretive Manhattan Project. When the US successfully tested an atomic bomb in July 1945, nuclear weapons’ potential was not fully understood by planners. Envisioned simply as “really big bombs”, they had nebulous ideas of using nukes in the November invasion to support the amphibious landings.
3. Japan’s Leaders Were Determined Upon National Suicide
The use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, instead of in the planned invasion of Japan later that year, shocked the Japanese government to its senses. It abruptly ended the war, and eliminated the necessity for Operations Olympic, Coronet, and their expected butcher’s bills. Japan’s leaders were morally bankrupt and cowardly and had refused to confront the fact that they had taken their country into an unwinnable war and lost. Ethical leaders would have shouldered the responsibility for getting their country into such a fix.
Unfortunately, Japan’s leaders were not ethical. They sought to escape the burden of their responsibility via histrionics and determined to immolate themselves and their country with them. So they sought to save face by training women to fight off heavily armed invaders with bamboo spears and training little boys and girls to fight soldiers with pointy sticks. Rather than sacrifice themselves in order to spare their country, Japan’s leaders sought to sacrifice their country in order to spare their egos from the humiliation of surrender.
2. Japanese Leaders’ Dishonorable Notions of Honor
Japanese leaders’ dishonorable notions of honor meant that the estimated cost of an invasion of Japan was upwards of a million Allied casualties, and tens of millions of Japanese, most of the latter civilians. Compared to that, the 200,000 casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an acceptable price. Morally speaking, there was nothing exceptional about the innocent victims of the atomic bombings that would have justified sparing them at the cost of the millions of other lives that would have been lost elsewhere had the war continued.
Another untrue narrative about the atomic bombings posits that Japan was nuked because of racism against the Japanese. The theory goes that atomic bombs were not dropped on Germany because the Germans were Caucasian, and neither the US government nor US public opinion would have stomached nuking them. The Japanese on the other hand were racially different, which made the decision to nuke them easier. While there was undoubtedly intense racism against the Japanese during the war, far exceeding that directed at the Germans, the theory is untrue for a variety of reasons.
1. The Untrue Narrative That Racism is Why Japan Was Nuked While Germany Was Not
It is untrue that racism had anything to do with why Japan was nuked bombed while Germany was not. Germany was not atomically bombed for a simple reason: it surrendered before the atomic bomb was ready to drop on anybody. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th, 1945. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16th, 1945, more than two months after Germany’s surrender. The US atomic program began with a letter from Albert Einstein to FDR advising him of German research into atomic weapons and the danger should Hitler get an atomic bomb first. Nuclear research was viewed and pursued as a life and death race to beat Germany to the atomic punch. The entire goal of the Manhattan Project was to develop atomic bombs to drop on Germany before Germany developed atomic bombs to drop on America and its allies.
The Germans were fortunate in that they surrendered before the Manhattan Project bore the fruits that had been intended all along for Germany. Also, nuclear weapons were not viewed at the time with the same repugnance with which they are viewed today. Far from horrific last resort weapons whose use would be unthinkable except in the direst emergency, atomic bombs in August of 1945 were new weapons whose potential and impact had not yet been thought through. They were simply seen as another bomb, albeit a big and exceptionally devastating one. Modern abhorrence of nuclear weapons did not exist to the same extent when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. Thus, if the US had atomic weapons before Germany’s surrender, there would have been little reason to refrain from dropping them on German cities.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading