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Hiroshima, sixty years ago today.

I wonder what it is like to have the entire history of one’s city so tightly bound to a day, and afternoon, a moment that it’s not even necessary to mention what happened on that day, but rather just to say “Hiroshima”, and know that everyone understands.

August 6 was also the opening day of “August Storm”, the Red Army offensive designed to conquer Manchuria. Although not well known, August Storm was one of the most well conceived and executed offensive operations of World War II, pitting the well trained, experienced, and well equipped Red Army against the brave but hopelessly inferior forces of the crack Japanese Kwantung Army. The campaign took two weeks, but for all intents and purposes was over in the first eighteen hours.

When people wonder why, if the Red Army was so powerful by 1945, it was never able to pull off the stunning double envelopments that the Wehrmacht succeeded in executing in the early part of World War II, they forget that the Red Army was fighting against that very same Wehrmacht, the best, or next to best, army in the world. The Red Army between 1942 and 1945 became a perfect meritocracy; competent officers advanced, and poor officers died. By 1945, it was probably the best military organization the modern world has ever seen. The Japanese didn’t have a chance.

I don’t want to make any conclusive claims regarding the relative impacts of the loss of Manchuria and the atomic attack on Hiroshima on the Japanese surrender decision. Both mattered. I’m inclined to think that the former mattered a bit more than the latter, as the Soviet invasion took away Japan’s last hope of foreign intervention, but there are good arguments on both sides. The bombing of Nagasaki was clearly unnecessary.

I do think it’s important to note, however, that forcing a Japanese surrender DOES NOT justify the bombing of Hiroshima. By August of 1945, Japan had no capacity to hurt the United States. The IJN was largely destroyed, and the air force was grounded. The United States could do with Japan what it would. Moreover, it was clear to us then and is clear to us now that the Japanese had been talking and thinking about surrender since April, and indeed would probably have accepted the terms that we later imposed upon them (maintenance of the Imperial institution, minimal war crime prosecution, continuance of most of the bureaucracy). The best that can be said of the Hiroshima attack is that it catalyzed the Japanese decision to surrender in August, rather than in October or December. It’s remarkable, given the debate in the United States about the use of the atomic weapons, how uncontroversial this conclusion was in 1945. Neither the Navy nor the Army Air Force expected that an invasion would be necessary, even without the atomic bomb. The Army and Marines prepared for an invasion, but in 1945 expected far fewer casualties than the numbers that were later used to justify the atomic attacks.

So, I’m not inclined to accept the typical justifications for the Hiroshima bombing. Stalin knew we had the bomb before we dropped it, and knew what it could do. The Japanese had been considering surrender for a while, and the precise timing of the surrender didn’t matter all that much. It could be argued that the bombing forced a peace that prevented the Red Army from rolling up the entire Japanese position in China, but given later events, this can hardly be seen as much of a policy accomplishment.

I find it remarkable that apologists for the bombing now justify it post-hoc through rationalizations that they would never accept for military action today. Whereas it’s common to hear the argument that the bomb was justified in that it saved lots of American and Japanese lives in the end, you rarely hear it contended, even by wingnuts, that nuking Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, or Mecca would be an appropriate way to fight the War on Terror. Certainly there are some, but they don’t represent mainstream thought even on the right. Yet, people across the political spectrum regularly (and I would even say reflexively) accept that the mass slaughter of Japanese civilians living under an authoritarian regime was an appropriate policy to end World War II.

Finally, the debate over the use of the atomic bomb has unfortunately obscured the larger question of the Allied use of strategic bombing in World War II. As I’ve argued before, the destructiveness of this tactic to civilian life and property, against both Germany and Japan, was far out of line with any military gain it might have accomplished.

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