Seventy-four years after the bomb
The bomb – that is, the atomic bomb – has been on my mind this week, as it was for all the world 74 years ago when Perry Como crooned: “A friend of mine in a B-29 dropped another load for luck.” More than seven decades later, debate continues to rage about whether nuclear weapons were necessary to achieve final victory in the Pacific theatre, or if the Allies knowingly committed a heinous war crime, confident that their victims would be powerless to retaliate.
In May of 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied forces, leaving Japan as the only Axis belligerent still standing. Ultimatums were made, but both the military junta and the Emperor refused to capitulate.
Thus, the Manhattan Project continued, giving birth to the atomic bomb, which was successfully tested on July 16, 1945. Japanese cities, left untouched by the firebombing campaign, were then chosen for the dropping of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.”
To be clear, the destruction from napalm bombs far exceeded the toll inflicted by atomic weapons. Gen. Curtis Lemay, who had implemented area bombing tactics in Europe, was put in charge of the Marianas B-29 bomber group, which until spring of 1945 had failed to affect the Japanese homefront. The Superfortress was a pressurized, high altitude precision bomber with $3 billion dollars in RD: Lemay turned it into a 400 MPH fly-by-night flamethrower at 5,000 ft.
The results were devastating. A single raid on Tokyo caused over 100,000 casualties. Lemay simply took a world almanac, and continued down the list of Japan’s most populated cities, demanding his crews destroy the enemy or face a court martial. Asked about his tactics later, Gen. Lemay said he knew war criminal charges would come if the Allies had lost the conflict; but there’s no arguing his Clausewitzian attitude towards modern warfare shortened it.
Long before either mushroom cloud, the tactics being used to bring Japan to its knees would
have eventually left nothing but scorched earth. Iwo Jima and Okinawa had just been taken at great cost between February and June of 1945, putting Japan within range of the bombers sitting idle in Europe. Weekly destruction would have turned into daily raids, the only limitation being how many napalm bombs could be produced and shipped out from America.
The one-two punch of nuclear fission made this strategy redundant, though it ought to be noted the pervasive myth “the Allies were out of nukes” is complete hogwash – more were being built and new targets were listed. After consulting with physicists regarding the attacks, Emperor Hirohito made the sovereign decision to surrender to the Allies, with the lone caveat that Japan’s monarchy be preserved in the post-war regime. On Sept. 2, 1945, the Second World War ended.
The resources expended throughout the Pacific War are beyond comprehension: nothing would contend with splitting the atom or designing the B-29 until the Apollo missions. Add to this the casualties – an estimated 900,000 in firebombing and 200,000 by atomic bombs – and the scope becomes truly unfathomable, especially considering this was inflicted from the air by a small number of combatants. Such costs had no precedent in humanity’s long violent history.
The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the indiscriminate tactics used by Allied forces, permanently mar the victor’s triumph. But the intended effect came to pass: peace was concluded, and no nuclear weapons have been used since. In the end, conflict is always brutal, and the temptation to respond disproportionately is constant. Perhaps that old rule of warfare is all we can hope for: the only thing worse than a mistake is not learning from it.