Thank God for the Atom Bomb

Friday, August 9th, 2019

Thank God for the Atom Bomb, Paul Fussell said:

I bring up the matter because, writing on the forty-second anniversary of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I want to consider something suggested by the long debate about the ethics, if any, of that ghastly affair. Namely, the importance of experience, sheer, vulgar experience, in influencing, if not determining, one’s views about that use of the atom bomb.

The experience I’m talking about is having to come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death. The experience is common to those in the marines and the infantry and even the line navy, to those, in short, who fought the Second World War mindful always that their mission was, as they were repeatedly assured, “to close with the enemy and destroy him.” Destroy, notice: not hurt, frighten, drive away, or capture. I think there’s something to be learned about that war, as well as about the tendency of historical memory unwittingly to resolve ambiguity and generally clean up the premises, by considering the way testimonies emanating from real war experience tend to complicate attitudes about the most cruel ending of that most cruel war.

“What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?” The recruiting poster deserves ridicule and contempt, of course, but here its question is embarrassingly relevant, and the problem is one that touches on the dirty little secret of social class in America. Arthur T. Hadley said recently that those for whom the use of the A-bomb was “wrong” seem to be implying “that it would have been better to allow thousands on thousands of American and Japanese infantrymen to die in honest hand-to-hand combat on the beaches than to drop those two bombs.” People holding such views, he notes, “do not come from the ranks of society that produce infantrymen or pilots.” And there’s an eloquence problem: most of those with firsthand experience of the war at its worst were not elaborately educated people. Relatively inarticulate, most have remained silent about what they know. That is, few of those destined to be blown to pieces if the main Japanese islands had been invaded went on to become our most effective men of letters or impressive ethical theorists or professors of contemporary history or of international law. The testimony of experience has tended to come from rough diamonds — James Jones’ is an example — who went through the war as enlisted men in the infantry or the Marine Corps.

Anticipating objections from those without such experience, in his book WWII Jones carefully prepares for his chapter on the A-bombs by detailing the plans already in motion for the infantry assaults on the home islands of Kyushu (thirteen divisions scheduled to land in November 1945) and ultimately Honshu (sixteen divisions scheduled for March 1946). Planners of the invasion assumed that it would require a full year, to November 1946, for the Japanese to be sufficiently worn down by land-combat attrition to surrender. By that time, one million American casualties was the expected price. Jones observes that the forthcoming invasion of Kyushu “was well into its collecting and stockpiling stages before the war ended.” (The island of Saipan was designated a main ammunition and supply base for the invasion, and if you go there today you can see some of the assembled stuff still sitting there.) “The assault troops were chosen and already in training,” Jones reminds his readers, and he illuminates by the light of experience what this meant:

What it must have been like to some old-timer buck sergeant or staff sergeant who had been through Guadalcanal or Bougainville or the Philippines, to stand on some beach and watch this huge war machine beginning to stir and move all around him and know that he very likely had survived this far only to fall dead on the dirt of Japan’s home islands, hardly bears thinking about.

Another bright enlisted man, this one an experienced marine destined for the assault on Honshu, adds his testimony. Former Pfc. E. B. Sledge, author of the splendid memoir With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, noticed at the time that the fighting grew “more vicious the closer we got to Japan,” with the carnage of Iwo Jima and Okinawa worse than what had gone before. He points out that

what we had experienced [my emphasis] in fighting the Japs (pardon the expression) on Peleliu and Okinawa caused us to formulate some very definite opinions that the invasion… would be a ghastly bloodletting. It would shock the American public and the world. [Every Japanese] soldier, civilian, woman, and child would fight to the death with whatever weapons they had, ride, grenade, or bamboo spear.

The Japanese pre-invasion patriotic song, “One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor,” says Sledge, “meant just that.” Universal national kamikaze was the point. One kamikaze pilot, discouraged by his unit’s failure to impede the Americans very much despite the bizarre casualties it caused, wrote before diving his plane onto an American ship “I see the war situation becoming more desperate. All Japanese must become soldiers and die for the Emperor.” Sledge’s First Marine Division was to land close to the Yokosuka Naval Base, “one of the most heavily defended sectors of the island.” The marines were told, he recalls, that

due to the strong beach defenses, caves, tunnels, and numerous Jap suicide torpedo boats and manned mines, few Marines in the first five assault waves would get ashore alive — my company was scheduled to be in the first and second waves. The veterans in the outfit felt we had already run out of luck anyway…. We viewed the invasion with complete resignation that we would be killed — either on the beach or inland.

And the invasion was going to take place: there’s no question about that. It was not theoretical or merely rumored in order to scare the Japanese. By July 10, 1945, the prelanding naval and aerial bombardment of the coast had begun, and the battleships Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and King George V were steaming up and down the coast, softening it up with their sixteen-inch shells.

On the other hand, John Kenneth Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, “a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.” But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7,000 per week. “Two or three weeks,” says Galbraith.

Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.

(This came up a couple times, a few months back.)


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Included in the plans was the transfer of the troops in Europe to the Pacific. Men who had gone ashore at Anzio and Normandy or who had fought the Bulge would now be asked to assault Japan.

    It was intended that the European forces would be transported across the US in locked trains that they could not escape.

    If all that had happened, would the Republic have survived, or would we have gotten a full-blown fascist dictatorship?

  2. Uncle Kenny says:

    Really? Locked Trains?

    My father was one such soldier, returned from Europe and on his way across country headed for Japan. Somewhere along his August journey he transitioned from invasion force to occupation force. I’d love to see an authoritative source for “locked trains” as dad failed to mention that part to me.

  3. Kirk says:

    Actually, not… Those “men who went ashore at Anzio and Normandy” were mostly dead by that time. It was the units which were headed to the Pacific, units which were filled with men who’d gone into Europe as replacements or who’d seen little combat. There was a rotation scheme in play; the men who’d actually done most of the fighting were going to be in units slated for occupation duty, and the men without much actual combat time were going to the Pacific.

    Which created a lot of angst and animosity when the war ended while most of those units were still in transit to the Pacific, and their members were perfectly placed to be released from service in the USA, leaving the long-service veterans stuck in Europe while their juniors were demobilized. Luck of the draw…

    As well, those plans for “locked trains” going across the US? They were never used, never employed, and likely would not have been needed. There were already troops in transit when the war ended, and they had no more of a desertion problem than any other. The Army kept planning for worst-case, and nearly always got better from the men they were shepherding into the house of war.

  4. Lu An Li says:

    “He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway.”

    The Japanese were trying to surrender. With terms. No occupation of the home islands. No disarmament. No war crimes trials. Etc. The Big Three had agreed to unconditional surrender, so a peace with terms was out of the question.

  5. Neovictorian says:

    Related: “Why I Don’t Feel Bad About Hiroshima and Nagasaki“:

    Nuclear weapons have in the years since 1945 acquired a particular mystique and legend as a kind of special tool of the devil, through media repetition and scary stories. They are indeed, terrible and their use again should avoided at almost all costs. But that’s all post facto to August 1945. I’ve read the biographies of most of the U.S. leadership at that time, those of the main scientist participants in the development of the bomb, Gen. Groves book, and much other WW II historical material; and for you in 2015 to blithely speak of “amoral monsters in our nation’s capital” is easy, but really, a gross oversimplification.

  6. Kirk says:

    The thing about the use of the atomic bomb on Japan that nobody wants to acknowledge is that the odds are quite good that the only reason Japan still exists today is because of those bombs.

    Had a conventional invasion taken place, in alignment with both American and Japanese planning for that event, the results would have been horrific. American casualties were projected to be around a million men, and the usual exchange ratio would have meant that the Japanese were going to lose a considerable chunk of their population to conventional effects like starvation and so forth. Assuming that the planned use of civilians in the defense plans worked out, with them charging using improvised pikes…? The intent for them to kill American wounded left behind, and all the rest of the plans? Public and military sentiment would have mandated a virtual extermination campaign. At the least, relief supplies would have been a very low priority, and we already know what dire shape the Japanese were in even without an invasion to dislocate even more of their agriculture and economy.

    Even had the US invasion been halted by the great typhoon that hit about the time of the planned assault, the outcome would have been horrendous for the Japanese. Even if the US had been driven off like the Mongols were, the result would have probably been an enforced blockade that would have included sinking every Japanese coastal merchant ship, bombardment, and bombing campaigns. In the end, even without an invasion, Japan would have been starved into submission, with a truly horrendous and destructive human cost.

    Absent the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I think that the Japanese would have effectively ceased to exist as a nation. The public sentiment after the invasion losses, or the losses from the typhoon would have demanded it, and there’s really no way they could have turned the taps on for humanitarian relief, and maintained public support for it. Without the nukes, Japan would simply not have survived.

  7. David Foster says:

    The ‘conventional’ fire bombing of German and Japanese cities…Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden…also carried an enormous human toll, though they did not have the ‘end of the world’ connotations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    There is a very good German movie about Dresden, which I reviewed and used as a springboard for discussion, here:

  8. TRX says:

    “A-bombs were unnecessary”

    “If they saved even one Allied life…”

    The Army’s job was to kill the enemy. The A-bombs let them do their job more efficiently with less loss of life. Our lives, not the enemy’s.

    They didn’t want to get nuked, they should have left Pearl and Manila alone.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    The military’s legitimate job is first to deter attack, then to win the war when it comes. The world being what it is, killing the enemy is almost always the way to win the war. Projecting a willingness and ability to kill the enemy is the best proven way to deter attack. You do what it takes, no apologies.

  10. Graham says:

    I always found the argument from combined Japanese and Allied lives entirely persuasive and still do. An invasion would have been much worse. Could hardly have been better.

    And we had all already accepted mass, city-destroying aerial bombing as legitimate.

    But I have periodically wondered if anyone else was left who would make the argument that it was Truman’s job to worry about American and Allied lives first and foremost. Glad to not be the only one.

    I have heard it said that he should have worried more about Japanese civilian lives, given the Allied personnel would all be military members. Military/combatants versus civilians is certainly an argument I can understand, but I only the once heard it applied in such a border- and nationality- and indeed side-neutral way.

    Sometimes I don’t get folks these days.

  11. CVLR says:

    I can’t help but notice that there’s a question which no one ever seems to ask about the Second World War, namely, Why, on God’s green earth, pursue a policy of extirpation?

    Not only is it morally questionable, it’s completely ahistorical. Overwhelmingly, wars were (and are) essentially skirmishes between two contestants: maybe a couple of big battles, followed by some negotiated rearranging of outer territories according to the consensus relative power betwixt them.

    A reasonable policy would have been to beat the Japanese out of the Pacific, take every one of their islands, kick them out of Manchuria, and leave it at that. Negotiate a peace with many concessions.

    I wish that these military strategist people had a better moral sense. It’s going end in tears for us, sooner or later.

  12. Freddo says:


    It would be a lot easier to argue that most of history is mass migrations and the associated wars, our relatively short period of the concept of Westphalian sovereignty being an exception rather than the rule.

    Also, AFAIK the policy vs Imperial Japan was “unconditional surrender” and not “extirpation”. The long term effects of nuclear fallout are vastly overhyped, for example see

  13. Sam J. says:

    There’s good evidence that they were very close to an Atomic bomb. For all those whining about Hiroshima, what do you think the Japanese would have done with their bomb? If the Japanese would have had a bomb they would have bombed us. See, “Japan’s Secret War: Japan’s Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb” by Robert K. Wilcox. Wilcox talked to one of the scientist that said a nuke was successfully tested off the coast of what is now North Korea a couple weeks before Hiroshima. They didn’t have enough material for more though.

    Further VERY STRONG confirmation comes from the enormous resources put into the ultra long range submarine that Japan built carrying only three airplanes. They only military use for such a vessel would be if it carried nukes.

  14. Graham says:


    I’m torn on some of the moral questions of the Pacific War and America’s responses to it, then and after.

    For example, I appreciate that the attack on Pearl Harbor would appear to be ‘dastardly’ [IIRC FDR used the word] in the era of the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the League, and especially in a nation whose Secretary of State could have said of espionage that, “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” And I do not precisely deny that it was duplicitous, and not in keeping with selective contemporary practice about declaring war.

    Still, the notion that all wars were declared formally in advance was never universal, and was then extraordinarily recent. And opening a war with a surprise attack on a military target perfectly capable of defense isn’t exactly in the same order as doing the same with a civilian target. [As it happens, when 9/11 back then was compared to Pearl Harbor, I thought that rather an insult to the Japanese, among others.] And all that would be true even if it hadn’t been a heightened period of political tension between the US and Japan when forces should have been more alert, and if the Japanese hadn’t actually been trying to deliver a declaration. That and the ostensible horror that it was a Sunday, as though Sunday should have been significant to Japanese.

    All that to say, the reaction to Pearl has always struck me as a level of outrage understandable in the moment, although very much a product of American culture, but which was unnecessarily prolonged into the postwar discussion.

    To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m getting at here. I suppose for me that was a symptom of one kind of over the top US approach to the war, and that I’m OK with it as a rhetorical device as long as the people saying it aren’t overly internalizing it.

    Similarly, and in the same spirit, Halsey [IIRC] proclaiming that after the war Japanese would be spoken only in hell. If he actually thought Pearl would justify a response like that, it’s too much. And if the US had pursued a policy of genocide against Japanese in the Pacific, that would have been too much.

    On the other hand, as a piece of motivational war rhetoric I’m fine with Halsey’s comment. It was a war on the grand scale and for the most profound goals, and there was no need to dance around that. Men had to be rallied to fight Japan under the harshest of physical and mental conditions and against one of the toughest, most skilled, and most vicious battlefield enemies. They weren’t an army of mercenaries fighting an 18th century cabinet war. Same with all the racist content of the battlefront and homefront. Total war is what it is. There’s only so racist America’s war effort can be considered when it was being carried on with and in support of Chinese and Filipinos. I’m sure plenty of American soldiers were bigoted or at least condescending to their Asian allies [and imagine what went on in the latters' minds and private quarters], but the really harsh language and violence was pretty targeted against the actual enemy people. I may not like that as a peacetime way of life or as the normal mode of your average military action, but there are times when the fact that the enemy is the enemy and the nature of the war overcomes all that.

    Or to sum up, the Americans of that day may have overreacted to Pearl compared to what it was, they may have used language that would get you expelled from grade school today, and they may have gone full-Hun in sending back skulls of slain enemies for decorations, but they never pursued an exterminationist policy against Japan.

    If anything, the US occupation remains one of the most generous things ever done by any nation to another in the immediate aftermath of victory.

  15. Kirk says:

    “If anything, the US occupation remains one of the most generous things ever done by any nation to another in the immediate aftermath of victory.”

    And, yet… It could have gone entirely the other way.

    One of the things that most people discussing this miss is that a key component to the whole thing working out the way that it did was that the Japanese capitulated, and then stayed capitulated. There was no legacy of ongoing insurrection; no irredentist forces out in the countryside ambushing American forces or fighting the government.

    This is probably a key reason why the Occupation went the way it did–Japan did not engage in fantastic resistance fantasies, the way that the Arabs and the Afghanis did. If the Japanese had gone in for things like what the Iraqi regime remnants did, I suspect that the whole effort to get them back on their feet would have gone to hell in a handbasket, and in very short order.

    Just like the fact that there was no prolonged invasion to harden attitudes against Japanese civilians, this factor gets left out of a lot of people’s ideas on the matter. Had Japan gotten what the Japanese military wanted, a prolonged Gotterdamerung against invading troops, I would wager that the actual result would have been far different than the one we actually got, and the response would have been, at best, utter American indifference to the famine that was stalking Japan. We would have let them starve to death, and probably helped the process along with judicious bombing and destruction of Japanese fishing and transportation assets.

    The Japanese managed to do a convincing “roll-over surrender” move, and won the battle for American hearts and minds. It could have very easily gone the other way, and to a degree that is horrifying to contemplate.

    If you want a solid idea of what American public opinion was on the matter, and an understanding of it all, you should go back into the stacks and dig through the pre-WWII magazines and books on the Orient, then follow them through the war itself. The whole thing becomes very illuminating–My Grandmother’s family had ties to the Methodist missionary community in China, and there were a lot of very influential members of that community who were agitating against the Japanese activities in China and Korea, going back to the 1920s. You can feel the attitudes hardening, as you read up the decade-plus period leading into the war.

    The whole thing gets very little attention in our histories, but the pressure put on Roosevelt via the varied missionary groups to China really made the war happen–Absent that pressure, I doubt that anyone would have cared, or done a thing about it.

  16. Graham says:


    Some very good points. It wasn’t the only factor, but I think the ultimate willingness of the US to allow the continuation of the Emperor and Japanese government, and to work through them for demobilization and reconstruction [Army and Navy Ministries being "First Demobilization Ministry and Second Demobilization Ministry" is my fave bureaucratic sidenote of the time], and MacArthur’s often criticized cosying up to the Emperor, played huge roles in quashing coup attempts and resistance talk. The Japanese may have coopted the US in some ways, and never quite acknowledged all their vices, but they accepted the huge ideological changes the US ultimately put on them to a large degree and still live with them even when I think they’re nuts, and in return the US got to coopt the imperial government and its public credit to get the job done.

    Pretty smart, as such things go. There was no option for that in Germany. If the July plotters had won in 1944, a Japan-like scenario would still have been the absolute best case scenario they could have had, if that. Otherwise, forget it.

    Interesting you highlight the role of the China connection in American attitudes to Japan. The role of that particular overseas American community in shaping American policy and public opinion is largely forgotten now. The American romance with pre-Communist China played a huge role in events. Much easier now to just say well the Americans must have hated Japan because they were racists. Sure, but not so clear as all that.

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