How to remember Hiroshima

Historia -

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, after the atomic bomb drop by the US Air Force,
August 9, 1945. Photo: The Art Archive / National Archives Washington DC

With the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki we can expect more than the usual serve of historical controversy between so-called “Hiroshima Revisionism” and defenders of the received wisdom that the bombings were necessary to bring the war with Japan to an end without a bloody and horrific invasion of the home islands.

But these debates are misguided – by the time the atomic bombs were dropped, the United States had already spent five months in a concerted campaign of area and precision attacks against industrial and civilian targets with hundreds of thousands of casualties.

People will argue incessantly over the necessity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki yet it is rare to find similar debate over incidents such as the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, which killed more people in one night according to some estimates than either of the atomic bombings, and was arguably just as necessary to the war effort.­

In their proper historical context the atomic bombings are not exceptional cases of “necessary evil”, merely the most publicised and well-known instances of a strategy of area attacks against densely populated sectors of Japanese cities which proceeded in earnest from March 1945 onward.

From a moral standpoint, there is no significant difference between targeting civilians with conventional weapons versus targeting them with atomic weapons, and there can be no denying that Japanese civilians were the intended target of area bombings. In the words of the US Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), the “proper target” was “the basic economic and social fabric of the country”.

The USSBS was commissioned in November 1944 to provide a review of strategic bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific. The numerous USSBS reports offer a reasonably detached and impartial view of the war’s progression and outcome, ranging from the observation that directly targeting Japan’s rail and transport networks “would have more effectively and efficiently destroyed the economic structure of the country than individually destroying Japan's cities and factories”, to the more sangfroid calculation that:

“given an adequate supply of atomic bombs, the B-29s based in the Marianas had sufficient strength to have effectively destroyed in a single day every Japanese city with a population in excess of 30,000 people.”

The USSBS is not a definitive historical authority, but it does offer an insight into the informed perspective of the American government in the aftermath of the war. It is therefore revealing to examine how the USSBS represented the bombing campaigns to a contemporary and restricted audience. As the report on Japanese morale explains:

“The air attack on Japan was directed against the nation as a whole, not only against specific military targets, because of the contributions in numerous ways of the civilian population to the fighting strength of the enemy, and to speed the securing of unconditional surrender. The American attack against the ‘total target’ was successful.”

In the USSBS report on the urban complex of Tokyo-Kawasaki-Yokohama, we are told that the greatest damage to Japan’s industrial activity was achieved not through direct targeting of industrial plant and equipment, but indirectly as a result of area attacks:

“the destruction of homes, the injury or death of relatives and friends, the disruption of local transportation and other public services, all had produced a critical rise in absenteeism at the plants and lowered the efficiency of the remaining workers.”

These indirect effects were not accidental, with area raids as opposed to precision attacks in this region accounting for 79 percent of the bombing by tonnage. This is what targeting the economic and social fabric of a country looks like.

In total, the USSBS estimated 43 percent of Japan’s 66 largest cities were destroyed by bombing raids, while approximately 1.3 million people were injured, 900,000 killed, and 8.5 million evacuated from the cities.

Why do we ignore the other bombings?

If area attacks against civilian targets were so common, why do we fixate on the atomic bombings as though they alone amount to a breach of wartime ethics and conventions?

The answer appears to be simple ignorance. People were not well informed about the area bombings targeting the civilian populations of Japan and Germany. By contrast, the atomic bombings were widely credited by both sides in the Pacific war with ending the conflict and preventing further loss of life.

The USSBS report on the atomic bombings argues that they provided a pretext for ending the stalemate between pro- and antiwar factions within the Japanese government:

“in the atomic bomb the Japanese found the opportunity which they had been seeking, to break the existing deadlock within the Government over acceptance of the Potsdam terms.”

The Emperor of Japan attributed his surrender in part to the new weapon, telling his subjects:

“the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

And just prior to the surrender, President Truman told the world:

“We have used [the bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans. We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us.”

In fact sections of Truman’s speech indicate just how ignorant the public were of the intentional targeting of civilian areas that had been carried out for months prior to the atomic bombings:

“The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately, and save themselves from destruction.”

Is it any wonder that many people still believe Hiroshima was a “military base” or fail to realise that the US had already been bombing Japanese cities and killing, not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of civilians?

Our errant fixation with Hiroshima and Nagasaki is due not to the exceptional moral character of those actions, but to our limited understanding of how the war was waged in its final half-year. Opinion polls have, since 1945, asked respondents what they would have done “if you had been the one to decide whether or not to use the atomic bomb against Japan”; in the broader context of the targeting of civilians, the question is flawed. The moral line separating combatants from non-combatants had long before been crossed, months earlier in Japan and earlier still in Europe.

The standard argument that the intentional targeting of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified because it brought about near-immediate surrender and prevented many more deaths through costly invasion must be rejected – not because the atomic bombs did not help bring on Japan’s surrender, but because the intentional targeting of civilians was already well and truly underway on a massive scale without the pretext of immediate surrender.

The argument must be recast, and it is as cold as critics of the bombing might expect: the methodical targeting of civilian areas for at least five months prior to and including the atomic bombings was deemed strategically valuable. As the USSBS put it:

“In addition to enormous physical destruction, the strategic bombing of the home islands produced great social and psychological disruption and contributed to securing surrender prior to the planned invasion.”

The urgency of the atomic bombings, the narrative of a desperate act that brought a terrible enemy to its knees, the fixation on “the bomb” as opposed to the many thousands of tons of bombs already dropped on densely populated urban areas, all of this is belied by the simple fact that in Europe and subsequently in Japan, the intentional targeting of civilians was already an established tactic utilised by all sides in the war, only utilised more effectively by the Allied powers.

On the one hand, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still symbolises for us all the moral quandary of making civilians part of the “total target” in wartime. On the other hand, the narrative of the atomic bombings conflates this moral issue with the immediacy of Japanese surrender, leaving a poorly-informed public with the impression that the moral line between combatants and non-combatants was crossed only when it was guaranteed to have an immediate and profound impact on the war.

Time and again we are presented with the choice: drop the atomic bombs, or risk a far more deadly land invasion. But we now know that the same logic motivated not only the atomic bombs but the preceding five months of conventional bombing with no immediate hope of surrender and no clear sense of how many should die to force capitulation.

This realisation shifts us away from the simple narrative of using the atomic bombs to force Japanese surrender, and back to the far messier logic of abandoning the moral distinction between combatants and non-combatants for the sake of uncertain strategic benefits.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at