Monday, August 6, 2012

Mars and Hiroshima

It seems almost appropriate that NASA's rover "Curiosity" should make its spectacular landing on Mars, named for the god of war, on the 67th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, perhaps the single most spectacular and consequential military action in history. Both events are the result of a uniquely American capability: the ability to put together and execute in a brilliant fashion large, extremely complex, and technologically dazzling operations with long term consequences not only for America but for the world.  For those who hate America and for those who don't, the message is simple: never underestimate the United States when it comes to doing the difficult or even the "impossible." America has an unparalleled ability to carry out large even awe inspiring military and engineering/scientific projects, e.g., the building of the Panama Canal, the D-Day invasion, the Manhattan Project, the moon landing, the invasion of Afghanistan, and now the Mars landing.

On August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber, the "Enola Gay," dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  Nobody knows how many people died in the attack; estimates range from a "low" of 65,000 to about 250,000. Whatever the number, it was part of the "terrible arithmetic of war" in which whole cities in Europe and Asia were turned into rubble, including the March 9-10, 1945, firebombing of Tokyo in which perhaps over 100,000 people died.

I remember being at the UN building in New York on the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. An exhibit had been put up in the lobby to commemorate the event. I joined the small group of European tourists who were being addressed by the UN tour guide, also a foreigner. The young man discussed the bombing as if it were an isolated event, no context. It was as if one day Harry Truman woke up and decided to drop a couple of atomic bombs on Japan.  Seething, I remember asking him where the exhibit was for the attack on Pearl Harbor since without the attack on Pearl Harbor there would have been no attack on Hiroshima. His only reply was, "That's the American version." 

Was the atomic bombing justified? Yes, it was. Truman made the right call. The US naval and air campaign against the Japanese homeland, unlike the Allied bombing of Germany, seriously deteriorated Japan's industrial capacity. The strategic bombing of Japan had by mid-1945 probably cut Japanese industrial production in half. Japan was clearly going to lose the war but its leadership had no intention of recognizing that. As the American invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa showed, the Japanese were brave, tough, skillful, and determined defenders of their home islands. American military planners looked at the casualties from those two campaigns and extrapolated to what it would cost to invade Japan proper. The US military estimated that there would be at least one million American casualties, plus hundreds of thousands of other allied dead and wounded, and perhaps twenty to thirty times that many Japanese casualties in the case of an invasion. Such a campaign in Japan might take one to two years, would result in the total devastation of Japan, and produce a legacy of hatred and bitterness that would last a hundred years or more.

One alternative to an invasion was the slow strangulation of Japan via a naval blockade and a continuous bombing and shelling campaign. That, too, would have resulted in the deaths of millions of Japanese, and a war that would have dragged on for perhaps years.

Dropping the atomic bomb was the only viable option. We should note, of course, that even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, important elements within the Japanese military tried to prevent the Emperor from making his broadcast accepting the Allied terms.  The atomic bombings allowed for a peaceful occupation and rebuilding of Japan, and within the parameters of the "terrible arithmetic" it was the least horrible of the horrible options available.

This is a day to stand in awe of science and the power it has to scare us and to amaze us. It is also a time to reflect on what real leadership, skill, and teamwork look like and can produce.


  1. Just a slight quibble here, the USA did not do the D-Day invasion by herself. While we did provide the vast majority of equipment and soldiers, we likely would not have been anywhere near as successful without our allies.

    I watched the JPL streamcast of the landing. The engineering involved in those last seven minutes is incredible. There are no "do overs" in space at 12000 mph or even 30 mph. What I saw was a room filled with competent engineers, each doing his (and her, there were about 5 women there) job quietly and professionally. What I did not see were any political "science" or art history or victim-studies majors in the room.

  2. Yes, on DDAY but the planning was largely an American effort and the execution relied on the vast resources, technologies and manpower brought to the effort by the USA.

    The streamcast was about as emotional a seven minutes of TV that I have ever watched. Never mind the Olympics.

  3. Thank you for your timely reflections!

  4. Your recitation of Japan's situation in 1945 leads me to believe you've read Richard Frank's "Downfall," an excellent history of the last year of the war. Like you, I think Truman made the right decision. I really don't imagine the political will existed in a war-weary America to pay the price that invasion of the Home Islands would have required.

    Oh, and I did watch the web-cast of Curiosity's landing last night. Marvelous. It was like being a kid again in the 60s. :)

    1. I haven't read "Downfall" but sounds like something I should.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I grew up with sons and daughters of prisoners of the japanese, these wonderful old blokes would never had made it home but for Truman's decision

  7. I was a teenager at the time of Truman's decision and have to differ with pubsecrets' take on the American will to fully engage Japan. Don't think "war-weary" accurately described those of us I knew in the hinterlands. What I saw were folks dedicated to making it work through a long haul.

    Still, there's no question Harry saved millions of lives, including possibly (eventually) mine, so I admit bias.

  8. You also have to consider that any protracted invasion of Japan would include the Soviets coming in from the North and west via Vladivostock. Upon the conclussion Japan would also have been split like Germany giving the USSR a huge advantage in the Pacific. We would probably not have had the Japanese industrial base to provide support in the Korean War and would have also lost South Korea as a result.

  9. My father served as a pilot in the Pacific theatre during WWII. One day one of my sons came home from school and told me that dropping the bombs on Japan was a horrible thing for the U.S. to do.
    My response: It is entirely possible that you would not exist had Pres. Truman NOT dropped the bombs.

  10. I would not have had the uncles and friends of the family who were like uncles had the invasion gone through as planned. They were all still in uniform as of August 9, 1945, and had they been needed they would not have been discharged. Even my Dad probably would have been recalled, his knees would not have been bad enough had they really needed every man jack supporting the invasion.
    And think of the stupidity of the Japanese High Command! Two atomic bombs, AND the Soviets invade, whom they studiously avoided offending, since the drubbing in 1939 at Khalkin Gol.
    I wonder, since my SIL gave me a book of counterfactual histories, if she considered that without the A-bomb Japan would have been divided and unable to stage for the Korean War, so the Pusan pocket would have been the end, rather than the beginning of the end.