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Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Truman’s decision

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Even after many years of history and evidence, the viewpoint that Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unjustified has continued. In recent years this viewpoint has been abused beyond just historical falsehood and has additionally been used as a justification for a political agenda, specifically that of non-intervention and pacifism. Historical falsehood is a grave sin for a historian, but its exploitation is even worse. My goal in this article is not to argue the legitimacy or illegitimacy of pacifist, anti-war or non-interventionist beliefs; I have my own opinions, but do not be deceived to think this article supports one or the other.

Since the founding, Americans have been skeptical of the use of military intervention in foreign nations and we’ve leaned towards non-interventionism. Following World War II this changed. With its superior navy and powerful military capabilities, Great Britain had protected trade routes necessary for global commerce and free trade for years. When WWII ended, this luxury disappeared; the British military was exhausted and an entire generation of young Englishmen was dead. Given the role of the United States in WWII, as well as our ever-growing influence and military might, we filled the vacuum created by England. Ever since, for better or worse, the US has been the protector of global trade. Given America’s non-interventionist roots, in recent years there has been pushback against the idea of American intervention. This article neither supports nor criticizes the general notion of non-intervention; however, it does argue that the decision by President Harry Truman and the United States Congress to drop the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was perhaps the most humane option available as the war began to wane.

To defend the United States’ decision to bomb Japan there are three contextual elements I would like to consider. First is the state of the war as WWII came to a close. Second, the culture within Imperial Japan as WWII came to a close. And third, the analysis produced by the Allies with the projected costs of a full-scale invasion of Japan.

The first matter of context helps us understand the situation in which Truman needed to make his decision. Dubbed by some the “Asian Holocaust,” the first thing we notice is the Japanese invasion and treatment of its neighboring Asian countries, especially China. According to the research of Professor R.J. Rummel of University of Hawaii, the Japanese invasion of its neighbors led to the slaughter of 3.9 million Chinese and 10.2 million total deaths over the course of the war. The accounts of Japanese cruelty towards the indigenous peoples of Asian are horrific. Many Japanese Commanders used their swords to behead soldiers, civilians, and prisoners, disregarding international law concerning the treatment of prisoners. The Japanese during WWII were both imperialistic and barbaric.

The second matter of context we must consider is Japanese culture at this time. Japanese culture is historically tied very closely to what is known as the Code of Bushido. The Code of Bushido, “the way of the warrior,” was a chivalrous code emphasizing loyalty, frugality, and honor. These traditional values saw a “revitalization” during the early 20th Century leading up till WWII, but these values were distorted — war was presented as “purifying” and death as a duty. To many Japanese soldiers it was better to commit suicide than to be captured. The “revitalized” Code of Bushido and government structure of Japan led to imperialism and barbarism. As David French explained, “In World War II the Japanese military fought with a ferocity that made al-Qaeda look casual and uncommitted.” The Japanese Military willingly sent thousands of kamikaze suicide bombers to their deaths. ISIS suicide bombers have nothing on these fiercely dedicated soldiers.

The third matter of context we must consider is the Allied analysis of the costs of a full-scale invasion of Japan. When President Truman contemplated the decision he and the Congress had before them, another strategy was being deliberated. This plan was called “Operation Downfall,” a massive invasion of the Japanese homeland by a coalition of Allied forces, though mostly American, to secure victory. However, given the inclination of Japanese leadership to fight to the last man, the Allies feared a colossal body count. William Shockley, a staff member under Secretary of War Henry Stimson, “estimated that the invasion of Japan would cost 1.7-4 million American casualties, including 400,000-800,000 fatalities, and five to ten million Japanese deaths.”

To sum up, given Imperial Japan’s slaughter of its neighbors, given the ingrained culture revolving around the distorted Code of Bushido, and given the estimated number of deaths that would result from a Japanese invasion, it was the correct choice to drop atomic bombs. These bombs resulted in the deaths of at least 129,000 Japanese civilians and soldiers, far less than the potential 10 to 14 million deaths.


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