Saturday, August 06, 2005

August 6, 1945: Sixty years and millions of "what-ifs" ago

We have heard many people argue President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. Nearly all of those viewing the decision from hindsight are unable to see that far back to the world that was, for they were either not alive or were too young to remember. Hindsight, contrary to popular statements, is not necessarily twenty-twenty, whatever history one reads.

We know the figures of the thousands who died on Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and other Pacific islands taken from the Japanese. We have heard projections of the millions who may have died in an invasion of the Japanese homeland, being planned even as the A-bombs dropped.

We have read speculation that Japan was nearly defeated, anyway, and would soon have surrendered if the bombs had not been dropped. Remembering how the Japanese fought nearly to the last man on the islands, and the kamikaze pilots, and the fanatical defense of their cause, country, and emperor, as well as the continuing propaganda from Tokyo, one may doubt that scenario, though, once again, no one knows.

Civilian men, women, children, and Japanese soldiers on Okinawa leapt from cliffs to their deaths on the rocks below rather than surrender. There were Japanese soldiers in the jungles of the Philippines, for another example, hiding out and refusing to surrender for decades after the war! It is hard to imagine the Japanese were "about ready to surrender, anyway," before the atomic bombs dropped.

One of the biggest arguments against having dropped the bomb centers on the radiation and fallout that caused so much poisoning and suffering and death following the blasts. Again, consider the world that was. Those who dropped the bomb, even those who developed the ghastly machine, did not know the extent of that effect. How could they have known? It had never exploded over people before. So we can argue and speculate sixty years later, and we can grieve anew for the dead. But we need to remember that Truman did not know the total effect of those explosions. No one did.

As long as this is the season for speculation, here is yet another idea to consider. It is one that I have not heard debated before, although it probably has been discussed somewhere over the years. How do we know that the atomic bombs over Japan not only ended the war and saved millions of lives by making an invasion unnecessary, but also saved millions more, perhaps even all human life on the planet, in the years that have followed?

Here is the "argument." By dropping the bombs, we ended a terrible war, though inflicting horrible casualties and damage. All of that showed the world what atomic bombs can do. If we had not done that, had only demonstrated the force of the bomb's power over some uninhabited atoll, for example, would the political leaders in the post war world have fully realized the destructive nature of the bomb?

Isn't it possible that Russia or China, for example, would have decided to use the bomb against us, or against us and the South Koreans, or against the Afghans, or against Formosa? And remember that General MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese in Korea. Had cooler heads not learned earlier about the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the potential for worldwide nuclear holocaust, might MacArthur have been given permission? Once more, the answer is, "We'll never know."

The U.S. military was exploding atomic bombs in the desert and marching troops in under the cloud to test their ability and the effects of radiation on soldiers for years after Hiroshima. It somehow seems logical, knowing the military "need" to learn how all its weapons perform in warfare,that if the world had not become educated by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those weapons would have been used by some country at some time against other cities and people somewhere.

So, without the knowledge gained from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I ask again, might there have been a world-wide nuclear war by now? The answer, one more time, is that we will never know. Just as we do not know how other tactics might have worked to end the fighting with Japan in 1945.

Right after the Chernoble atomic power plant in the USSR spewed radioactive steam around the globe decades after Hiroshima, the Soviet leadership began to soften their stance and move toward additional missile treaties. Those years following Chernoble also saw the fall of the Iron Curtain and the USSR. Perhaps there was more cause-effect from the near melt-down at Chernoble than we now know.

At the least, the power plant disaster showed the Russian leaders and the world once again that we are all down wind. Gorbachev had to think about that. Our leaders certainly did.

Then perhaps the horrible devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ugly and painful deaths of so many people in those cities, was a "cause" that "affected" the world's leaders in ways that have prevented even worse atomic wars since then. As I keep saying, we'll never know.

But those arguing that the bombs should not have been dropped back in a world they never knew, and one no longer in existence, do not know that, either.

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Anonymous Bambi Bill said...

I must say that I really agree with this piece. The "what ifs" will never be answered to everyone's satisfaction, but the bombs did what they had to do at the time. At the time--not in retrospect but at the time.

8/06/2005 9:04 PM  
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3/02/2007 1:23 AM  
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3/16/2007 1:12 AM  

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