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Can We Admit That Bombing Nagasaki Was Cruel?

America was asleep at the wheel when it dropped the second bomb.

Words: Ryan Karr
Pictures: Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr./Restricted Data

At high noon on August 9, 1945, a glistening B-29 Superfortress named Bockscar appeared in the cloudy skies above Nagasaki, Japan. At almost the exact same moment, three days after the destruction of Hiroshima and the dawn of the atomic age, Japanese leaders reconvened to discuss the prospect of surrender to the United States. They failed to surrender fast enough to save Nagasaki and nearly one hundred thousand citizens from a most horrible fate. 

Much of the blame for Nagasaki’s fate must rest with Japan’s leaders, who stubbornly refused to yield long after it was clear they had lost the war. But American leadership also failed. President Truman never ordered Bockscar into the air. He and his advisors never asked whether another bomb was necessary, or whether the Japanese were considering surrender. 

The United States dropped the second nuclear weapon because it was available, the war was not quite over, and almost no one — not the public, media, churches, or senior US officials — seemed to bat an eye anymore at the idea of massive civilian casualties. Why would America not use another bomb? It was nuclear holocaust on autopilot. 

Much of the historical debate has understandably centered on the Hiroshima bombing. The results there were even deadlier, it represented a terrifying turn for humanity, and there is a reasonable debate to be had as to whether it was justified. Some have argued against the bombing by suggesting that the Japanese would have surrendered regardless, or that the real reason the bomb was used was to send a signal to the Soviet Union. I tend to concede that the bombing was necessary to shock the Japanese leaders out of their delusional march to national suicide. Still, I wish US leaders would have thought more seriously about the wider consequences of dropping the bomb, and that they had either conducted a demonstration off the coast of Japan first or issued an unambiguous ultimatum before destroying a city. Chances are, none of that would have changed the ultimate fate of Hiroshima, but Americans’ collective consciences would be cleaner. 

The United States dropped the second nuclear weapon because it was available, the war was not quite over, and almost no one — not the public, media, churches, or senior US officials — seemed to bat an eye anymore at the idea of massive civilian casualties.

Nagasaki’s fate is harder to justify because of several uncomfortable truths.

First, there are reasons to believe that the Hiroshima bombing and the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan three days later were sufficient to convince the Japanese Emperor—the man who finally broke his government’s deadlock—to surrender on the almost-unconditional terms that were ultimately agreed upon. In late June, the Emperor made it known to his advisors that he wished to end the war, but the Japanese War Council remained deeply divided into August on whether the terms could be improved. After Hiroshima and the Soviets’ declaration of war but mere hours before the second bomb was dropped, the Emperor reportedly assured his Prime Minister that he would accept surrender on any terms.  At the first full leadership meeting after Hiroshima, the Emperor finally broke the sacred tradition of policy non-interference and ordered surrender with the one condition of continued Imperial rule. 

That leads to the second uncomfortable truth: the Nagasaki bombing occurred so quickly after Hiroshima that it arguably did not give Japan enough time to surrender. The Japanese only had three days — and less than a day after news of the back-breaking Soviet invasion — to make sense of the inconceivable reports trickling out of the ruins of Hiroshima, for the peace advocates to politically maneuver around the military leaders, and for Japan’s leaders to finally give up everything they had fought for. By the time the leaders finally convened for the first time with the Emperor, Bockscar had already destroyed Nagasaki. 

The third uncomfortable truth is that US leadership was asleep at the wheel during this three-day period. At no point after Hiroshima was Truman briefed on Japanese peace machinations. At no point did anyone discuss with the President whether another bombing was necessary. At no point was there a high-level conversation about how long to wait before either reaching out to Tokyo, or destroying another city. That decision had already been delegated to military commanders in the field — commanders who would not know about Japanese decision making and who were not tasked with weighing gargantuan moral issues involving the lives of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians. That was the job of the President and his military and civilian advisors, and they effectively dodged the question. Truman may have even been surprised to learn how quickly the second bomb was dropped, and he finally ordered a stand-down in nuclear bombings the next day. 

In light of these truths, the bombing of Nagasaki seems cruel. I contend all America had to do was wait a bit longer after Hiroshima to see if the Japanese would surrender. 

Many argue that it was the combination of Hiroshima, the Soviet entry into the war, and Nagasaki that compelled Japan to capitulate. It is true that the most fanatical Japanese military leaders — the most powerful decision makers besides the Emperor — still believed that after all three events, Japan could secure better terms of surrender by forcing a bloody American invasion of the homeland. But the Emperor finally overruled his military commanders. Perhaps the Emperor would not have intervened and ordered surrender absent the second nuclear bombing, no matter how long America waited after Hiroshima to drop it. I believe, however, based on the Emperor’s instructions to the Prime Minister hours before Nagasaki, that he was ready to intervene after Hiroshima and the Soviet entry alone. We will never know, of course, because America only gave them three days, and because US leaders failed to ask crucial questions in the interim.

Even if you believe US leaders did not owe the Japanese anything after four years of bloody, vicious war and that they did not need to care for the well-being of Japanese civilians more than Japan’s own radical leaders, US leaders owed a better, more thoughtful process to the American people — to a nation which has long prided itself on its morality.

They owed it to my grandfather, a B-29 pilot who helped raze many Japanese cities to the ground. My grandfather flew over Hiroshima a week after it was destroyed. The scene, along with his intermingling memories of countless other Japanese cities he helped set ablaze, haunted him for the rest of his life. They haunted him not because he thought the Japanese were innocent, but because it laid bare the lie that his military leaders had told him: that he was not targeting civilians. Truman wrote the same lie in his diary – that the atomic bomb would target “soldiers and sailors…and not women and children.”

Why does this matter now? 

First, the saga shows the importance of thoughtful, formalized decision-making processes, especially when the stakes are highest. The fact that there was not a single executive-level discussion about the merits of deploying the atomic bomb at all should shock anyone who has been involved with government or bureaucracy of any kind. The best way to get the most just decisions is to formally solicit a range of competing views and weigh them carefully. It is as relevant now as it was then. 

Second, Nagasaki shows the peril of vesting too much authority to the military, even during war. Too much power in the hands of the military leadership is sometimes disastrous, as it was at the end of the Korean War, throughout the Vietnam War, and for Nagasaki. It is not surprising that men tasked with winning the war wanted to use whatever weapons they had available as quickly as possible. Truman should not have made them bear a disproportionate part of that responsibility. 

Third, Nagasaki demonstrates what happens when the traditional checks and balances of society lose their moral compass. The media and religious institutions, in particular, went along with the “ends justify all means” thinking that dominated during the war; failing to question American leaders when they abandoned previously held convictions against systematically targeting civilians. Americans were blinded by understandable but still troubling rage — a rage that buried American principles under a mountain of dead Japanese civilians. Propaganda-fueled racism, the kind that led to the illegal internment of Japanese Americans during the war, probably also played a role. 

Truman and his advisors were mortal men dealing with unimaginable death and destruction. God help us if we are ever in their shoes. And while they deserve praise for winning the war and charting a path to decades of unparalleled relative peace, it is also appropriate to point out where they fell short. War is hell, and civilians deaths are unavoidable in total war. But when there are options that can prevent innocent bloodshed and accomplish the same goal — as was the case before we dropped the second nuclear bomb — policymakers should err on the side of mercy, if only until the alternatives are exhausted. It is America’s moral responsibility.   

Ryan Karr is a national security professional.

Ryan Karr

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