Seventy-five years ago, in August 1945, America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War Two. Ever since, there has been passionate debate about whether it was necessary to use nuclear weapons on Japan. Critics of the action say Japan was ready to surrender, even without the bombings, and the U.S. military’s estimate of the casualties — both American and Japanese — resulting from an invasion of Japan set for late 1945 was vastly overstated.
The critics’ case does not persuade me. Here’s why.
I’m a former naval nuclear weapons officer. I’ve stood at Ground Zero in Hiroshima and felt heartsick as I looked at the mementos of nuclear destruction housed in the museum there. My military experience showed me the horror of nuclear weapons, up close and personal. I’ve literally had my finger on the red button which could launch fiery kilotons of death to submarine crews — men whom, if I met them today at a social function, I’d probably like very much, despite differing political beliefs. I long for the day when global politics will safely allow the world to disarm and eradicate all nuclear weapons. Like Gen. Eisenhower, who said “I hate war as only a general can,” I hate nuclear weapons as only a nuclear weapons officer can. Yet as horrible as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, the alternative of not dropping the bombs would have been far worse for American forces — and for the Japanese as well, both military and civilian.
The atomic bomb brought the war to a quicker end. It is well known that Germany was rushing to develop its own atomic bomb. What isn’t widely known is that Japan was doing the same thing. In the last months of the war, two German submarines were captured en route to Japan. One had a cargo of lead, the other had a cargo of deuterium or “heavy” water. Both are radiation-shielding materials; both were intended to help the Japanese effort to build their own nuclear weapons.
When Germany surrendered, Hitler’s successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz, ordered all submarines to proceed to Allied ports. One of them, the U-234, ended up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Its cargo included 560 kilos of uranium oxide intended for Japan. Atomic research by Japan continued until our B-29s knocked out their extraction and enrichment facilities. Yet even then they persisted. Robert Wilcox, author of “Japan’s Secret War,” said Japan’s problem was not a lack of nuclear know-how. “They knew the physics needed for creating the bomb and the engineering needed to build it. It was lack of element resources like uranium that was the real problem for them.” he said.
If Germany and Japan had succeeded, history as we know it would be quite different. Most likely, you and I would be speaking German or Japanese. Just imagine a world map in which Germany ruled all of Europe and Japan ruled the Pacific. Do you think their quest for empire would have ended at our shores? I don’t.
The Soviet Union was also at work on an atomic bomb because the Manhattan Project’s secret had been leaked by several Manhattan Project members who were secretly Communists. I therefore agree with Edward Teller, also a member of the Manhattan Project and the so-called father of the Hydrogen Bomb, who said in his 2002 memoir, “We had no choice.” In such an arms race, there is no slowing down, let alone turning back.
I also agree with Gen. Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, who likewise said it was necessary. He had been a colonel in the Army Air Force then. When I had the privilege of meeting him at an Army Air Force reunion in the mid-’90s, he’d been promoted to general. I asked him about his feelings of conscience over the event. He replied, “I had a duty to perform. I’ve never lost a single night’s sleep over it.” I respect his warrior attitude and I recommend his memoir, “The Return of the Enola Gay.”
Equally to the point, Gen. Tibbets told me that when he lectured publicly, he was sometimes thanked afterward by people who said the bomb saved their lives. Most of them were American soldiers and sailors who’d been fighting in the Pacific, preparing for Operation Olympic, the massive invasion of Japan planned to begin in November 1945 and continue through March 1946, extending the war for probably another year. Based on experience from the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, military planners estimated American casualties at more than 1,000,000 dead and wounded. Japanese casualties were estimated above 2,000,000. Japan, although clearly losing the war, still had tremendous military resources — both men and weapons — in readiness to defend its homeland. In addition, the civilian populace was being armed and trained to kill invaders.
Surprisingly, however, some of the people who thanked Gen. Tibbets were Japanese civilians who lived during the war or were descendants of wartime soldiers and civilians. The Emperor and the warlords had declared a policy of “no surrender, no retreat” for Japan if it was invaded. Everyone — young and old alike — was commanded to fight to the death for their homeland and, given the mindset of strict obedience that had been inculcated in the Japanese, the command of their divine imperial ruler could not have been disobeyed. It was simply unthinkable for them. Many of them did not want to fight to the death, Gen. Tibbets was told, but they felt they had no choice. The atomic bomb, therefore, actually saved the lives of millions of Japanese.
It is to the enormous credit of America that, for all the nuclear saber-rattling the world has gone through since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we’ve been able to avoid another such event because of America’s military strength. I am anti-war but not anti-military. America needs a strong military to protect us from those who wish us great harm, and the world is full of them. Nuclear weapons have helped to hold things together for America and the world. It’s time for the critics to acknowledge that — even as America continues working toward global nuclear disarmament.
So on this occasion — the 75th anniversary of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan — think about this statement: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.”
(John White is a local author, veteran, and commander of VFW Post 10052.)