I recently saw a video clip of a television talk-show host calling President Truman a war criminal for authorizing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have heard others make similar comments. During the late 1960’s it became almost de rigueur on college campuses for professors to argue that the bombs were unnecessary, that Japan was exhausted and ready to surrender. There was only tenuous evidence to support such reasoning at the time, but that did not deter leftists in academe. They reveled in bashing America. What is far more amazing, though, is the persistence of the left’s argument today, long after the declassification and publication of the MAGIC files in 1978. These files—decrypted from intercepted Japanese transmissions—reveal that the Japanese were preparing for a fight to the death.
At the time the bombs were dropped, Japan had a two-million-man army intact in China and another million men or more scattered across Southeast Asia and on islands that we had leapfrogged in the Pacific. To these men, steeped in bushido—the code of the warrior—surrender was unthinkable. The same held true in the home islands, where millions of civilians would come to the army’s aid, should an invasion occur. After Paul Tibbets dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Japan did not surrender. After Charles Sweeney dropped the bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, Japan did not surrender.
Several more days passed before Emperor Hirohito and the Supreme Council for the Conduct of the War finally decided that Japan must surrender. When the militarists learned of the decision, they attempted a coup that very nearly succeeded. Two atomic bombs, and the Japanese militarists were still not convinced!
As astounding as that seems to us today, the reasoning of the militarists was perfectly rational within their philosophical framework: Their intelligence told them that the United States did not have more than one or two atomic bombs left, and, not understanding the effects of radiation, they saw the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as no worse than that caused by the firebombing of Tokyo five months earlier. Reckoning that Japan could survive one or two more hits, they would then mobilize every man, woman, and child to contest an American invasion with fanatical zeal. This was all carefully planned under Operation Ketsu-Go. Except for the very young and the very old, all Japanese civilians were organized into a national militia. Most of their training focused on the use of hand grenades, swords, sickles, knives, fire hooks, and spears. The famous Marine pilot Pappy Boyington, then a prisoner of war in Japan, saw children fashioning spears from bamboo and training with them daily.
The Japanese fortified Kyushu, our intended landing site in Operation Olympic, with concrete bunkers and tunnels and 900,000 troops. Thousands of boys as young as 12 and 13 were practicing running with bomb packs strapped to their backs. They would hurl themselves at American troops and tanks and gain immortality as earthbound kamikaze. Japan also had thousands of kamikaze pilots champing at the bit and 13,000 airplanes at the ready. The Navy had more than 3,000 small suicide boats packed with 500 pounds of explosives in their bows. There were also some 4,000 Fukuryu, suicide frogmen who would detonate underwater charges as landing craft approached.
In June 1945, Gen. Korechika Anami, Japan’s minister of war, said, “When the enemy invades, we will destroy 25% of them while they are still at sea, 25% more will be killed on the beaches, the remaining 50% will be killed as they move inland.” Considering what happened on Okinawa, an island that was then not particularly Japanese and had only recently been incorporated into the Japanese empire, this was no empty boast. Most of our own military leaders thought that our casualties would reach the hundreds of thousands. Secretary of War Henry Stimson told Truman that our casualties could approach one million.
If Americans had blanched at our casualties on Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, what would they do when we were losing thousands by the day for weeks on end? Japanese leaders concluded that we would lose the will to fight and that they would be able to negotiate an end to the war on acceptable terms. By the summer of 1945 American leaders were thinking that just such a scenario was a very real possibility. With the campaign through the Central Pacific fresh in his mind, Adm. Chester Nimitz was unalterably opposed to an invasion of Japan.
Eddie Reardon was a teenage sailor on the carrier Shangri-La that was operating in the waters off Okinawa in August 1945. Like most others in the Pacific who would have participated in the invasion of Japan, he always felt the bomb saved his life. “I remember,” said Reardon in 1991,
the day news came of the Hiroshima bombing. We cheered until it hurt, and asked “what’s an atomic bomb?” I still feel that it was the greatest pay-back in the history of war. Remember Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March! Sleep in peace, boys, we evened the score for you.
Corresponding editor Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.