I was reading a -- self described -- socialist website which was bemoaning the supposedly unethical decision of the US to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Of course, their viewpoint is not mine. For example, they think the desire of the US to keep the USSR out of Japan and the rest of Asia is an invalid consideration, where I think many Japanese and others are probably quite happy such considerations were made. But, even ignoring their blatant fondness for the USSR, I believe their argument is nonsense -- and the same nonsense I have heard many times from others.
The claim is made that the US did not need to drop the bomb, Japan was on the verge of surrender, and Russia's entry would only speed the fall. Unfortunately, history does not bear this out. Immediately prior to the dropping of the bombs, the US fought Japan in some of the most brutally contested conflicts, with Japan fighting to the last man. Japan may have lost most of its navy, but the home islands were well fortified, intelligence said Japan had stockpiled chemical and conventional weapons, and experience showed guerilla conflicts take little industrial support, but can be quite lengthy and bloody.
Even if you doubt these arguments, the fact remains the US at the time thought the invasion would be costly. Operation Olympic estimated a best case of a half million US casualties, with the possibility of several times that. So, whether or not their beliefs were accurate, US planners were concerned about considerable casualties.
And US behavior shows they were using the bombs basically as one bomb substitutes for traditional massive bombardments. They did not hit Tokyo or Kyoto or go for other "terror" targets, they hit targets they would normally saturation bomb, industrial cities providing possible landing zones on each major island.
Some doubt that last point, arguing the radiation would make for poor landing zones, but recall how imperfect our understanding of long term low level exposure was, and how little we knew at the time about the time it took for radiation from a bomb to dissipate. Not to mention that, even if they did, some limited exposure while establishing a beachhead might have been considered acceptable, just as once were friendly fire, exposure of friendly troops to gas attacks, loss of POWs in bombings and so on. Do not make the mistake of confusing modern viewpoints with those of the past. Instead, look at a map and ask why each city was located on the southern end of each island. Granted, it makes for easy bombing, but it also makes the most obvious landing point were surrender not forthcoming.
Some respond by arguing, even if this is true, was it right to kill all those Japanese to save American lives. But that shows a remarkably anachronistic view. At the time, why until the 1990s or later, we viewed war simply. War was meant to keep our citizens alive and kill enemy combatants. If enemy civilians died, it was of no consequence. We did not intentionally target civilians, but if civilians were killed in striking valid targets, there was no regret. It is only in modern times we have come to believe we can somehow fight a "combatants only" war, and lament so loudly over the death of enemy civilians*.
Finally, let us close by asking, even if the US did, to some degree, drop the bomb to either intimidate the USSR, or keep them out of Asia, was that wrong? After all, this is Stalin's Russia we are discussing, the land of purges, planned famines, massive executions in Eastern Europe during overly broad "de-Nazification" trials and purges of supposed collaborators, and so on. Stalin was not exactly the peaceful, gentle man of communist dogma, he was a murdering imperialist, bent on rapid expansion and elimination of any supposed rival. Was it such a bad thing to limit his expansion? And if that limitation also helped win the war, then where is the harm?
So, though I know it is currently fashionable to apologize for the bomb, I just don't get it. We won the war in a way that minimized our casualties. What is wrong in that? Then again, I also don't get contemporary "combatants only" -- or even "casualty free" -- views of war, so maybe I am just out of touch. Still, it seems to me terribly anachronistic to apologize because men over half a century ago behaved based on the values of their time and not of today. (I am still waiting for Italy to apologize for Rome's guilt in subjugating the Mediterranean and western Europe, or Israel for the cultural imperialism of spreading Judeo-Christian religions around the world. Makes just as much sense.)
* Oddly, the one group which lamented enemy dead in the past was the communist movement, whose internationalist doctrine declare they would rather commit treason than kill fellow workers in bourgeois war. Strangely, our modern perspective seems to be driven by a very similar belief, one that was once viewed by most as reprehensible.
I realize the idea that the bomb sites may have been selected with an eye to landing zones is not a common one, perhaps solely my own, but every time I look at a map, the position of both cities on the southeastern edge of the two largest islands forces me to imagine them as potential points of entry. I may be wrong, in fact it is likely I am, but that does not make much of a difference for my argument. The cities bombed were still those likely to have been saturation bombed with conventional weapons had we invaded, which makes me think the nuclear bomb was used, not as a "terror weapon" but just as a very efficient substitute for conventional bombs.
UPDATE (2015/09/24): I just saw some excerpts from a group's report (I think it may have been Human Rights Watch) about civilian casualties during NATO's actions in Kosovo and elsewhere. It is an interesting companion piece to this essay, especially since most of the civilian deaths complained about died during strikes on valid targets. It clearly shows how our view of what is allowable in warfare has changed dramatically since the 1940s. Then again, our "unacceptable losses" in either Afghanistan or Iraq were not even one day of fatalities during the Normandy invasion, so that has changed as well. Not that any death is a good thing, but in the past we had a more realistic understanding of the fact that war involved deaths, both ours and theirs. Having found some other materials, I will probably return to this topic soon, as it is an interesting one, and gives some perspective on the differences between the modern mindset -- at least among popular culture opinion makers -- and that which existed fifty or sixty years ago.