How did bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki save lives?

Robert Brooks Contributor
How did bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki save lives?

Answer: Bombing Hiroshima saved lives because Japanese culture did not allow surrender. More total lives would have been lost through a traditional land-based military campaign.

Bombing Hiroshima ultimately saved lives because Japanese policies coupled with their unwillingness to surrender would have led the country to fight both the US and the Soviet Union simultaneously. The combined death toll on all sides would have been in the millions, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands that were a direct result of the atomic bombs.

August 6, 1945, 8:16 AM: An American B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay drops an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

80,000 people, both military and civilians, are killed in the blast, with another 35,000 injured.

60,000 people would die from the radioactive fallout by the following year.

One Bomb: That was just from one of the two bombs dropped on Japan during World War II.

The numbers are staggering, especially when considering that a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki just three days later on August 9. The death toll rose, as well as the destruction of property reaching into the thousands of buildings in both cities.

How is it, then, that even though the lens of history, there is still a debate over the decision to drop the bombs on Japan, a small, island nation that was seemingly nearly defeated? How do historians assess President Harry Truman’s belief that lives were actually saved by taking this extreme action? It’s an answer that is simply impossible to pin-down with absolute certainty, but it’s one that deserves to be analyzed from every angle.

A vast devastated area with only a few burned out buildings standing

The Operation Meetinghouse firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9–10, 1945, was the single deadliest air raid in history; with a greater area of fire damage and loss of life than either of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

In order to begin, we must first flip back through the pages of history to contextualize the conflict. World War II had already resulted in an enormous amount of deaths through conventional war techniques. Take the firebombing of Tokyo early in the year, for example. In that campaign alone, 120,000 Japanese died. Despite the unfathomable loss of life, the Emperor of Japan still showed no intention of surrendering, an action that was forbidden in the Japanese culture. Surrender simply wasn’t an option and somewhat shockingly, the Japanese people had been told they were winning the war.

It ultimately became clear to President Truman and his advisors that the United States would have to invade Japan in order to defeat the adversary. Operation Downfall, the name given to such an invasion, was hotly debated at the time, and remains so today.

“Depending on the degree to which Japanese civilians resisted the invasion, estimates ran into the millions for Allied casualties and tens of millions for Japanese casualties,” one scholar stated.

A devastated area very similar to the one of Tokyo above

Bombing Hiroshima: Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bombing

Having said that, other scholars believe that because the Soviet Union had entered the war against Japan, the fate of the small island nation was sealed. This perspective indicates that the Japanese would have surrendered knowing that both the US and the Soviets were opponents, thus eliminating the need to use the atomic bombs at all.

Herein lies the question: given the Japanese cultural taboo regarding the act of surrender, would they have laid down their arms knowing that both the U.S. and the Soviets were staging an invasion? We can never truly know, but some historians argue that Japanese civilians would have fought to the death using any weapon they could manufacture, therefore all but guaranteeing one of the bloodiest battles ever known to mankind.

Americans know a bit about standing up to a seemingly stronger adversary….and winning. The Sons of Liberty and the colonial army were able to accomplish what no one thought was possible at the time: defeating the larger, better-equipped British army. Could the Japanese have been counted out at any point, and how many lives might have been lost in the fight either way?

Bombing Hiroshima

Bombing Hiroshima: The Enola Gay dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Paul Tibbets (center in photograph ) can be seen with six of the aircraft’s crew (three on each side).

Most historians do agree that bombing Hiroshima and President Truman’s decision did save lives. The policies of Japan coupled with their unwillingness to surrender would have led the country fighting both the US and the Soviet Union simultaneously, even in utter futility. The death toll on all sides would have been in the millions, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands that were a direct result of the atomic bombs.

The first bomb was dropped on August 6th, the second on August 9th. At that point, the Emperor spoke to his people and said, “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, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

The Emperor knew the United States had the bomb and ultimately was not afraid to use it during the war. Weighing his options, he did something unthinkable to both Japanese citizens and people around the world. He surrendered on August 10, 1945, thus saving millions of lives both at home and abroad.

Cover Photo: The atomic cloud over Hiroshima, taken from the “Enola Gay” flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku on August 6th, 1945. Written by: Deborah Hansen on August 5th, 2019. Be sure to sign up for Tag The Flag’s nonpartisan newsletter to have trivia like this and more delivered to your inbox every morning.