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Discussion point – was Churchill right about the atomic bomb?

There was never a moment`s discussion as to whether the atomic bomb should be used or not. To avert a vast, indefinite butchery, to bring the war to an end, to give peace to the world, to lay healing hands upon its tortured peoples by a manifestation of overwhelming power at the cost of a few explosions, seemed, after all our toils and perils, a miracle of deliverance.

– Winston Churchill, writing of the decision by the Allies to use atomic weapons on Japan. Victory over Japan day was seventy five years ago today.

36 comments to Discussion point – was Churchill right about the atomic bomb?

  • Katy Hibbert

    It was a no-brainer.

  • Both sides of the war had been deliberately trying to massacre as many civilians as possible for years. Of course they never considered whether to use the bomb or not.

  • bobby b

    I remember reading somewhere (how’s that for a proper citation?) that over 75% of the dead in Japan’s war against the rest of the world were non-Japanese civilians.

    I think that’s a point that ought to figure in this discussion.

  • Vinegar Joe

    “I led Nine Section for a time; leading or not, I was part of it. They were my mates, and to them I was bound by ties of duty, loyalty, and honour. Now, take Nine Section as representing those Allied soldiers who would certainly have died if the bombs had not been dropped (and remember that Nine Section might well have been not representatives, but the men themselves). Could I say, yes, Grandarse or Nick or Forster were expendable, and should have died rather than the victims of Hiroshima? No, never. And that goes for every Indian, American, Australian, African, Chinese and other soldier whose life was on the line in August, 1945. So drop the bomb.” – George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here

  • Fraser Orr

    I think it is easy to stand back and criticize the decision, but it seems very few criticize the decision to firebomb Tokyo not long before, something that was probably just as destructive as the Nagasaki bomb. There is something about the atomic bomb that makes it special in the measure of morality, a certain yuckiness factor.

    But I think the real historical question is: would Japan have surrendered anyway in short order given the Russian invasion of Manchuria and potentially invasion of Japan itself. I suppose we will never no but the truth is had the invasion of Manchuria been carried out to its end then most of the one million Japanese troops there would have ended up dead.

    Moreover, even disregarding the Russian factor the comparison with the invasion of Okinawa gives us clearly what to expect from an invasion of the main Japanese islands. In Okinawa nearly all of the Japanese garrison there were killed, perhaps 10% survived. But equally importantly perhaps half of the civilian population died either in battle or by suicide. And that is just the Japanese casualties. Projected to mainland Japan the death toll could easily have been in the tens of millions of Japanese.

    The damage to the allied military would not have been as great as that but would still have been huge. Unknown at the time but in retrospect there was a massive typhoon in Japan at the very time the Naval forces would have been at anchor that would have made the battle even more damaging for the Allies.

    So really the truth is that the killing of perhaps 300,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved probably tens of millions of Japanese lives, and certainly millions of allied troops.

    So by any reasonable measure, though horrible and bloody, the dropping of those atomic bombs was an act of mercy and kindness to the Japanese people.

    But getting back to that yuckiness factor, we could perhaps have achieved the same ends by dropping biological or chemical weapons. But we didn’t. War is the breakdown of normal ways of resolving conflicts, where many of the rules are stripped away. For example, in normal conflict resolution the killing of innocents is completely unacceptable, but it is, in war, allowable collateral damage. For war we allow some of the rules to be stripped away. But not all of them. Even unilaterally. So perhaps the atomic bomb was beyond the pale, just as exploding bullets or biological weapons or torturing enemy combatants were. They were new, so rules didn’t exist. And it is hard to say exactly how those rules are determined in such a situation.

  • suburbanbanshee

    A substantial number of the Japanese Army’s crazier and more terrorist members also had cushy jobs at Army HQ in Tokyo. (Before WWII, the Japanese Army was big into blowing up Japanese trains and assassinating Japanese politicians and businessmen. So when I say they were crazy terrorists, I mean it.)

    Many of these ex-assassins decided that they couldn’t possibly let the Emperor surrender after only two atomic bombs, so they planned and tried to destroy the gramophone records of the Emperor’s speech, blow up the radio stations, cut power to Tokyo, and assassinate the Emperor. They were only stopped because less crazy Army guys, and other military and civilian guys, foiled the plot.

    So yeah, I think that it’s amazing that two atomic bombs turned out to be enough. And I’m glad that we stopped the crazies from their other serious plan, which was to get every woman, child, and old man to fight to the death or commit suicide, preferably before anyone complained about all of Japan’s food supplies getting shipped to a final redoubt for the military only.

  • Plamus

    The alternative was the VFC (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteer_Fighting_Corps) fighting US battleships, aircraft, and marines who had a ton of combat experience in the Pacific and did not have a ton of love an respect for “Japs”. Note from the Wiki article that:

    – “Some 28 million men and women were considered “combat capable” by the end of June 1945…”


    – In actuality, mostly only much less sophisticated arms were available:

    “Molotov Cocktails”
    Simple pointed bamboo or wood sticks
    Swords, bayonets, knives and even pole weapons & staff weapons (e.g. Guntō, Type 30 bayonet, Hori hori, Kamayari/Naginata & Hanbō/Jō)
    Clubs and truncheons such as the Kanabō or even simpler
    Antiquated firearms (e.g. Murata rifle)

    In June 1945 the cabinet reassessed the war strategy, and (of course) decided more firmly than ever on a fight to the last man. This strategy was officially affirmed at Imperial Council meeting.

    They were ready to throw virtually all of their productive age population into a meat-grinder in hope of a miraculous Tennozan. So from a utilitarian perspective, yes, the nuclear devices saved not only American, but also Japanese lives, likely in the millions.

    As for the moral aspect… Well, let’s just mention the Nanjing Massacre, and that in his surrender speech, Hirohito (who personally authorized the use of phosgene gas) had the temerity to utter the words “To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our imperial ancestors and which lies close to our heart.” (How that weaselly warmongering runt and his family avoided IMTFE is mind-boggling.)

    A great, unspeakable crime was committed against the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki… by their government and emperor. It was they who forced the hands of the Americans. If I am attacked by an assailant holding a baby, and my only way to stop them, after countless appeals for them to stop and numerous wounds to their limbs, is to shoot through the baby’s body, I am shooting. It’s tragic and criminal, but I am not the criminal.

  • Stonyground

    I think that it is all too easy to moralise from our perspective when we know the outcome of the war. The people who made the decision to use the atomic bomb did not know how things were going to turn out.

  • Andy Briggs

    Had the bomb been available in June ’44 and the allies had used it against Germany rather than launch D-Day, (assuming a similarly prompt surrender) how many soldiers (including on the Eastern Front) would have been spared, how many civilians would have avoided the bombing firestorms or the Russian reprisals, and how many Jews avoided the forced marches and the gas chambers?

  • Mark

    The scenarios for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, about which we can speculate in the comfort of hindsight here, doubtless would have been as horrendous as all analyses suggest.

    How long would it have taken and how many lives would it have cost? Who knows as it didn’t happen but one can imagine two scenarios: 1. Beating Japan down purely by conventional means (would the soviets have used the opportunity to try and take parts of northern Japan or move further into a prostrate China? Could the US and the soviets have actually come to blows over it?) 2. The conventional invasion getting bogged down or becoming too costly and the nukes are then used.

    Speculating from this distance – knowing as we do what was going on and what was being talked about at the highest levels in the combatants – we tend to forget that the atomic bomb was the secret of secrets and certainly wasn’t known among the general population or the vast bulk of the the various militaries.

    Imagine 1 or 2 and after half a million to a million allied dead and wounded (which I think was the order of casualties projected) the existence of atomic bombs becomes known.

    “Why the fuck didn’t you use these damned things first if you had them!?”

    What would your answer be?

  • The fact that it took TWO of them – not just one – to bring about that end should be all the answer you need…

  • Penseivat

    When stationed in Hong Kong in the 80’s, I met survivors of the civilian internment camp at Stanley and the military POW camps. If the subject of the atom bombs was raised, the general consensus of survivors of both camps was the regret that only two were used.

  • Itellyounothing

    It never ceases to amaze me how far this argument gets from sanity.

    Both bombs were the nicest way to end that war actually available.

    The lack of willingness to make difficult decisions and knowing when it’s time to make them is exactly why the world is this broken.

  • NickM

    I’m from Newcastle. I once temped at NICO, HMRC in Longbenton. At the time the World’s second largest office complex (after the Pentagon). It wasn’t built to administer NI. Oh, no. It was built as a hospital for the projected Operation Downfall casualties. That is one to ponder. As is the fact the Japanese were going to fight to the last schoolgirl (yes, they were training schoolgirls with bamboo spears) and by using an unprecedented weapon Japan felt it could surrender with dignity (the official article of surrender makes that quite clear). The nukes were horrifying and terrifying and that is why they worked. Japan surrendered with some level of honour before the Russians could properly get their boots on and, you know, somehow I doubt I’d be typing this on a Sony with a Samsung screen if that had happened. I don’t just mean the post-war Japanese/Korean economic renaissance but we could have had Japan divided like Germany and a Tokyo Wall like Berlin and another massive Cold War flashpoint. In short the use of nuclear weapons at the time quite probably prevented a full scale nuclear war of truly apocalyptic proportions.

    I am also a physics graduate and when it comes to blowing the fuck out of things why should the chemists have all the fun? I have also seen Enola Gay in the duralimin at the US NASM. Best. Museum. Evah!

    But, setting aside my personals here… Harry Truman made absolutely the right choice – no ifs or buts or whatevers. That war had to end (and end soon) and he had the system to do just that.

    Oh, lest I forget, I have also been to Harry Truman’s house on Key West (also recommended – as is Key West in general) and it was fascinating. He was an interesting guy and I think in no way did he take that decision lightly. To quote from his successor in The White House, Dwight Eisenhower, “We have guided missiles but unguided men”. Well, we didn’t exactly have guided missiles in 1945 but we did have a guided man. He made an awful, terrible choice but the correct one. It was the lesser of the evils but sometimes you just gotta go with that and Truman had the moral courage to do that. Because sometimes you have to do that when you are Commander in Chief.

    PS. Operation Meetinghouse – the napalming of Tokyo killed more than the nuclear bombings. This has already been stated here but it deserves to be said. Without the nukes there would have been more Meetinghouses and God alone knows what Hell would have been wrought on Japan.

  • Jacob

    “Had the bomb been available in June ’44 and the allies had used it against Germany”

    Then some Divine Justice would have been done – since the bomb was developed mostly by Jewish Scientists who have fled Nazi Germany and migrated to the US.

  • Jacob

    “decission by the Allies” ??
    Were “the Allies” consulted? I wasn’t aware of it.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Jacob asks, Were “the Allies” consulted? I wasn’t aware of it.

    According to Hansard, on 16 August 1945 Churchill said the following to the House:

    On 17th July there came to us at Potsdam the eagerly awaited news of the trial of the atomic bomb in the Mexican desert. Success beyond all dreams crowned this sombre, magnificent venture of our American Allies. The detailed reports of the Mexican desert experiment, which were brought to us a few days later by air, could leave no doubt in the minds of the very few who were informed, that we were in the presence of a new factor in human affairs, and possessed of powers which were irresistible. Great Britain had a right to be consulted in accordance with Anglo-American agreements. The decision to use the atomic bomb was taken by President Truman and myself at Potsdam, and we approved the military plans to unchain the dread, pent-up forces.

    From that moment our outlook on the future was transformed. In preparation for the results of this experiment, the statements of the President and of Mr. Stimson and my own statement, which by the courtesy of the Prime Minister was subsequently read out on the broadcast, were framed in common agreement. Marshal Stalin was informed by President Truman that we contemplated using an explosive of incomparable power against Japan, and action proceeded in the way we all now know. It is to this atomic bomb more than to any other factor that we may ascribe the sudden and speedy ending of the war against Japan.

    If Churchill’s account is true it seems that one of the Big Three – the UK – was involved in the decision and the USSR was informed. Although it is possible that Churchill was exaggerating the UK’s input to the final decision (although his claim that nobody spent much time wondering if they should go ahead rings true to me), it is undoubtedly true that the UK played a significant role in the Manhattan Project and was kept apprised of progress throughout.

  • The Japanese shot first. Massively. They were behaving abominably in China even before that. They kept right on doing terrible things to everyone they captured. They earned those bombs.

  • Mr Ed

    The matter is frankly beyond reasonable argument, those who oppose the attacks, apart from deluded pacifists would have been those who always want the West to lose, no matter who the enemy.

    For some historical perspective, Dr Mark Felton’s excellent historical Youtube channel has a video on the plans for a third nuke on Japan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I34pxr23Nhw and speculates as to a possible target. He also runs through the events referred to in the many excellent posts above. What is of note is that initially, it was not clear that the USAAF had a bomber capable of carrying the Nukes and the RAF, who were planning ‘Tiger Force’ for a final assault on Japan, had some ‘Black Lancasters’ deployed with a view to them dropping the bomb, and he runs through a counter-factual scenario. Needless to say, American hackles were raised at the prospect and efforts increased to make the necessary adaptations.

    I can’t put in hyperlinks due to gremlins.

    And for the final word, a fictional soldier from the British Army in the Eastern Theatre, Battery Sergeant-Major Williams, surely has the final word: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4uivPpzCGo

  • Gingerdave

    Of course it was right to use the atomic bombs, to finish the war quickly, without having to invade Japan and incur the casualties, and to remove the chance of the Russians taking some of Japan.

    The reason people complain about the use of the atomic bombs is a cold war mindset of “nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be bad, therefore nukes are bad, therefore it was wrong to nuke Japan.”

  • bobby b

    Just as an aside, my now-dead grandfather always bemoaned that we didn’t have the bomb on December 8th, 1941. In many minds, its use became completely warranted with the Pearl Harbor attack.

  • Mr Ed

    bobby b

    As a lawyer, you will know that the first rule in court is ‘Don’t ask someone a question unless you know the answer.’. Yet the Japanese government in 1941 must have asked themselves ‘What will the Americans do after we attack Pearl Harbor?’ without being able to honestly say that they knew the answer. The rest followed accordingly.

  • Sean

    Using the atomic bomb complies with two morals of war:

    1) Win it (losing is worse).
    2) Do it quickly (delay cost lives).

    War sucks – and the worse it is the less likely we are to employ it.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex) (August 16, 2020 at 3:42 pm) is correct that under the agreements, use of the bomb was to be agreed by the two powers (the British Empire and the USA) who had agreed to pool their projects into a single project. Truman did not honour all the agreements made but he did honour that one. Stalin was informed at Potsdam but his permission was not asked. (One of the agreements was not to share the information with Russia. Through his spies, Stalin already knew something about western atomic research. What he learned at Potsdam was that the bomb was ready and worked.)

  • Fraser Orr (August 16, 2020 at 2:49 am), as regards “yuckiness”, people at the time regarded the atom bomb as simply a more powerful form of bomb. The Germans and Japanese began the bombing of civilians. Churchill then promised that they who had sown the wind would reap the whirlwind. A very small number of allied citizens objected to the area bombing campaign, and could therefore (and presumably did) consistently object to using the atom bomb. The vast majority of allied leaders and peoples thought of it as just another form of bombing – which, in terms of numbers killed and areas destroyed, they were correct to do. The single largest Tokyo incendiary raid was more than twice as lethal to life and property than the Hiroshima bomb.

    The idea of the bomb as “yucky” is post-war. Intellectuals have a lot to do with spreading the attitude, but they were able to get traction through the idea that a huge nuclear exchange could end civilisation or even human life. That of course was completely irrelevant to the decision to bomb Japan. Also, as radiation sickness became widely known, it invested the atom bomb with some of the ‘invisible and therefore sinister’ aspects of chemical and biological weapons, and that contributed to the very post-war change in feelings about atomic weapons.

  • Plus one to the point of suburbanbanshee (August 16, 2020 at 2:53 am). After the second bomb, and Russia’s invasion of Manchuria, and US announcements that fooled the Japanese into thinking the US would now be dropping another atom bomb every few days (in fact they had only one more nearing completion after which there would have been a longish delay), the vote split three-to-three for and against surrender. The Emperor then used his casting vote to decide for surrender. The plot suburbanbanshee describes was then attempted, failing only because a key minister, though personally a supporter, felt unable to defy orders given to him directly by the Emperor in person (he escaped from this dilemma by committing ritual suicide).

    It therefore seems about as certain as historical what-ifs can ever be that any lesser pressure would have resulted in the war continuing longer.

    One fairly rapid effect of continuing just a week or two would have been the murder of Allied prisoners in Malaya. Realising (correctly) that the Allied forces in Burma would soon redeploy against Malaya, the Japanese decided to kill those of their prisoner/slave-labourer captives who had not already died of their less-than-tender care. The preparations were made and the schedule for carrying them out set.

  • bobby b

    Another aspect of the issue is that of proportional response – truly one of the most idiotic principles in war.

    We like a market economy because it fosters a market. A buyer looks at a seller’s offering, decides if the price is acceptable, and accepts or declines. One of the many benefits of such a system is that it eases the way for transactions to occur. More transactions occur more quickly in such a transparent meeting.

    Proportional response in war – as a defensive, reactive measure – does the same. The warlord thinks “if I attack the next village and kill 100 of their people, they will do the same to me in retaliation. I can accept such a price for the possible return, and so . . . attack!”

    If, instead, the warlord has to wonder what the response will be – will the attacked village come back and wipe out the entire attacking village, causing disproportionate damage? – arguably you will see fewer decisions to begin the transaction.

    Would you drive a new car off the sales lot if the price would be announced to you after you leave? Likely not. In such a system, sales would drop. In the system of the world that determines whether to go to war, not knowing the scope of the response you might trigger would likewise stifle warring impulses.

    And so I would argue that The Bomb was justified the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

    Of course, as a counterargument, you could merely begin every war with a total preemptive massacre – but that’s what alliances are for. “Japan, go ahead and crush the Philippines so that they cannot retaliate – but the USA will then crush you.”

    (Mr. Ed, I think they did ask that question. I just think that, in their arrogance, they couldn’t answer it correctly. They thought we’d fight back, and lose. We were coarse, obvious barbarians. They had the heavens on their side. Why worry what the undisciplined oafs would do?


  • Paul Marks

    In 1945 the Japanese had mobilised 28 million men and women to fight to the death.

    True many of them only had spears, they would not have been hard to kill.

    But 28 million – plus all the other millions of children and so on one would have had to kill.

    “One could have promised them the Emperor would not be harmed” – WE DID, that is why they surrendered AFTER the Atomic Bombs.

    Just promising “the Emperor will not be harmed” would not have been enough for a surrender BEFORE the Atomic Bombs.

    The true mistake was made long before – way back in the late 1860s.

    The failure to back the government of the Shogun – his enemies had vast amounts of modern weapons, but the forces loyal to the Shogun did not (they were blocked).

    There was a deliberate choice to back the “modernisers” in Japan – but what did this actually MEAN?

    First it meant backing people who were MORE hostile to the West (look up what the Satusuma Clan did before the “Restoration”) – aggressive, expansionists.

    And it also changed the nature of Japanese society.

    It became a society of mass CONSCRIPTION and mass state education – to create a mass military society for wars-of-conquest.

    The old Samurai (from the loyal families) were banned from carrying their swords – those that did not kill themselves were exiled into the far north.

    There was a peasants revolt in the 1870s against the new regime – against the new taxes of the regime.

    Peasants who could not pay the new taxes were told “sell your daughters”.

    Sell them to brothels – and not high class ones either.

    “Things will get less aggressive over time”.

    No they did not – as with Italy and Germany the new regime became more and more aggressive over time.

    By the 1930s anyone in the Japanese government who expressed doubts about wars of endless conquest was chopped to pieces – literally.

    As with Italian and German “Unification” (i.e. the conquest of the Italian lands by high taxed militarised Piedmont, and the conquest of the Germananic lands by high taxed militarised Prussia) the backing of the “New Japan” a Japan of mass education (teaching the young to be fanatical), mass conscripton and endless war and conquest, was a blunder.

    Even Shinto changed – from a religion of traditional nature spirits (local shrines) to “State Shinto” essentially a made up religion – designed to justify state power, endless war and conquest.

    19th liberalism backed Italian and German “unification” and it backed the fall of the Shogun and the creation of a “New Japan” – and I believe it was mistaken to do so.

    There was reform of the old system in Japan – a lot of the old regulations and restrictions were going (and rightly so), there was no need for a violent Revolution in 1868 and the creation of an entirely new government, with higher taxes, mass education (designed to make children fanatical supporters of the state) and mass conscription for wars of conquest – which started in 1895 and just carried on.

  • Paul Marks (August 17, 2020 at 8:55 am), it would not have been easy for anyone in 1868 to foresee the Japan of the first part of the twentieth century. The decision to back the Meiji Restoration was natural.

    To see the Japan of 1870, where pictures and busts of Abraham Lincoln were common, you need to look at the Japanese in the United States in WWII, who stayed loyal, despite at first being treated as potential traitors. To see the Japan of 1915, you need to look at the Japanese in Brazil in WWII, who were loyal to Japan to the point of absurdity, despite their host country treating them well.
    (This reflects immigration policies and patterns, Japanese immigration to the US being halted and that to Brazil being encouraged at the time the social change in Japan was occurring.)

    Perhaps the symptoms were indeed there from the start (the possibilities very obviously were). But I think that, without hindsight, it would have been harder to foresee than much else, much closer to the time (that our political class did not foresee).

  • Deep Lurker

    Holding off on Hiroshima and Nagasaki wouldn’t have benefited the US, and ultimately wouldn’t have benefited the Japanese – but it WOULD have benefited the Soviet Union. Funny how McCarthyite and Birchist ‘paranoia’ about Soviet agents of influence keeps turning out to have a point.

    (Also, the scientists who balked about A-bombing Japan had looked forward to A-bombing Berlin. Which likewise just coincidentally would have benefited the USSR if the Bomb had been ready earlier or the fall of Nazi Germany had been delayed.)

  • Quentin

    Yes, Churchill was right. Why is this even up for discussion?

  • UsedtobeBanned

    After the defeat of Germany the thousands of four engined bombers which had flattened that country were heading Japans way and would have done far more and extensive damage than the two nuclear bombs did.

  • It took a while for me to question this one, but I realized they were surrounded and not able to continue to prosecute the war. The West insisted on this new, progressive doctrine of ‘unconditional surrender’.
    There’s no justifying it. And it likely wasn’t even meant for Japan, which already knew it was defeated, but to put the rest of the world on notice.

  • bobby b

    “It took a while for me to question this one, but I realized they were surrounded and not able to continue to prosecute the war. The West insisted on this new, progressive doctrine of ‘unconditional surrender’. There’s no justifying it.”

    They started out surrounded.

    If you’re attacked by a mad dog, do you fight only until it backs a few feet away, and then turn your back to it and consider the fight over?

    More than once, I mean.

  • but I realized they were surrounded and not able to continue to prosecute the war

    Oh FFS. Are you aware of the Kyūjō incident? Even in mid August 1945, the idea Japan was unable to continue to prosecute the war was not shared by elements of the Japanese military.

  • It took a while for me to question this one (august, August 21, 2020 at 9:14 pm)

    Will it now take you a while to question the conclusion this questioning took you to?

    Perry asks if you have heard of the Kyūjō incident? Well, you will have if you have read the prior comments (see here and here).

    Someone else asked the same question – and reached a different answer: President Truman, who, with his advisers, made a careful assessment in June 1945, at the end of which Truman said he “had hoped that there was a possibility of preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other” but “was clear on the situation now and was quite sure that the Joint Chiefs of staff should proceed with the Kyushu operation.”

    So it’s not like the question of invading Japan was not asked at the time, by someone who would have preferred to avoid “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other”. (N.B. the successful atomic bomb test was July 16th – a full month after the June 10th review, which it did not influence.)