By Phil Shannon
Most people now agree that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 50 years ago was a tragedy. But for 50 years, the myth that it was also necessary has been argued by political and military supporters of nuclear weapons. All official commemorations assume that the nuclear bombing, though a terrible thing, was the only way to end the Pacific war without an invasion of the Japanese mainland that would have resulted in massive US casualties. President Nixon used to speak of the "risk of 1 million American dead" if Japan was invaded by US servicemen.
The reality, however, is that millions of Japanese civilians were killed, or still suffer from radiation illnesses, from a nuclear bombing that was militarily unnecessary. The nuclear bombing was a calculated, and criminal, political strategy by the US to extend its postwar expansion into Asia and the Pacific, and to use its nuclear "muscle" to seize other choice bits of global real estate.
By August 1945, Japan was virtually defeated. The bulk of the Imperial Navy had been sunk, its last operational forces destroyed in the battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. The Air Force was reduced to sporadic kamikaze attacks. American B-29 bombers were in range of Tokyo and met little resistance, losing only around 100 planes in 7000 missions in the four months to June 1945, a rate of loss much lower than Germany was able to inflict on Allied bombing raids.
The US naval blockade had strangled the Japanese war economy, which could no longer support anything like its former military strength. Japan was cannibalising functioning civilian industrial plant and machinery to convert it into scrap metal for arms production. Japan's ally, Nazi Germany, had been defeated and the Soviet Union was about to declare war on Japan. Militarily, Japan faced overwhelming odds, and Japanese officials had privately accepted defeat and were making diplomatic surrender overtures to the Allies well before August.
Most US military leaders did not accept the necessity for the atomic bombing. Their intelligence indicated that Japan would capitulate from economic and conventional military pressures in at most two to three months after August, without an invasion of the mainland.
Chief of Staff Admiral Leahy said the bomb was of "no material assistance" in ending the war, adding that its use returned the US to the ethical standards "common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages". General Eisenhower (supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe) believed that "it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing".
General Curtis Le May (the US Air Force commander) said the bomb "had nothing to do with the end of the war". Conventional bombing, he said, "was driving the Japanese back to the Stone Age". He gloated over the March 10 incendiary raid on Tokyo which set a record for the greatest single act of military destruction in history with its 124,000 casualties. Le May was certainly no angel, then or later when he was in charge of bombing the Vietnamese "back to the Stone Age", so his hard-headed assessment of the military irrelevance of the atomic bombing carries some weight.
General Macarthur (supreme allied commander in the Pacific) and thus the military leader with the most direct involvement in potential invasion plans, wrote that, as early as April 1945, "my staff was unanimous in believing that Japan was on the point of collapse and surrender. I even directed that plans be drawn up for a possible peaceful occupation without further military operations".
Others perceived the lack of military need for the atomic bombing, Winston Churchill amongst them. The Manhattan Project scientists who built the bomb were divided on its use. Some opposed its use on moral grounds, but some of those who favoured its use, like the project's coordinator, Robert Oppenheimer, later said that they did so because they knew nothing about the real state of Japanese collapse and were fed only the official line about the necessity of the bomb to prevent a bloody invasion.
Why was the bomb used if it was not needed? The needs of US imperialism spoke louder than the purely military assessments. The US was set to emerge from the war as the strongest imperialist power in history. Its global economic and political rule depended on subverting the potential socialist outcomes in liberated Europe (especially France, Italy and Greece) and in other developed countries, countering the national independence struggles in the postwar decolonisation period (especially in South-East Asia) and containing the Soviet Union's territorial gains, which would lock up a significant part of the globe from exploitation by US capital.
Japan was central to all three considerations. As Japan's economy collapsed from the war strain, the hardships of war-inflicted damage grew. Thirty per cent unemployment, real wages reduced to 10% of prewar levels, and 22 million left homeless from Allied bombing, created the potential for radical democratisation and socialism.
This potential was illustrated when the war ended, as trade union membership rocketed up from virtually zero and factories were seized under workers' control, while half a million workers celebrated May Day in 1946. One of the reasons Japanese authorities had been putting out surrender feelers was the threat of revolution, which they felt would grow from prolonging the war:
"At night, while the rest of the people huddled hungry in bombed out dwellings, those in power entertained one another at luxurious dinner parties, parties that often turned into night-long orgies ... This increasing demoralisation of the people was what chiefly preoccupied Prince Konoye who feared that if, or when, Japan lost the war, the masses would turn to communism as a panacea. The only way to retain the system ... was to terminate the war as swiftly and painlessly as possible." (Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War.)
A socialist Japan would also have been likely to support independence struggles in South-East Asia and thus harm the political and economic control that the US was hoping for in the region.
The most immediate concern of US capital and government during August 1945, however, was to stop the Soviet Union's advance into Japan and a possible geographical power-sharing arrangement with the Soviet Union similar to that which prevailed in Europe at the end of the war with Germany and which was based on the military power balance between the Allies and the Red Army.
As soon as Germany was defeated, US President Truman could dispense with his forced alliance with the Soviet Union against the imperialism of German fascism. He turned to the offensive in his quest to eliminate or reduce Soviet influence from Europe and Asia. The atomic bomb was central to this revived anti-Soviet policy. As Truman wrote in his diary, once exploded in Japan, the bomb gave him "an entirely new feeling of confidence" in his dealings with Stalin and "put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war".
Secretary of War Stimson saw the bomb as a "master card" of diplomacy. Secretary of State Byrnes sought to use it "to make Russia more manageable". General Groves, in charge of the Manhattan Project, said that he had always understood that "Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis". Edward Teller, a Manhattan Project physicist, "considered Russia as an enemy from the beginning".
The professional military leaders who opposed the use of the bomb on military grounds were right but irrelevant to the structural interests of US multinational capital. The dominance of the political-economic pro-bomb lobby over the military realists is illustrated by General Eisenhower, who moved from opposition to the bomb during the war to threatening its use against China during the Korean War when he became president and who advised later presidents to use it in Vietnam.
The politics of the atomic bombing become evident from the timing of its use. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed to force the capitulation of Japan before the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan and advanced into Japanese-held Manchuria, northern China and Japan itself. This tactic worked.
The Allies had agreed at the Yalta conference of Truman, Churchill and Stalin in April that Russia would declare war on Japan on August 8. Following the successful July test of the A-bomb in the Nevada desert, however, Truman negotiated a week's delay to August 15 for Russia's entry into the war against Japan. This allowed the Manhattan Project to swing into top speed to produce two bombs, which were then dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on August 14. The atomic bombing thus was successful in keeping the Soviet Union out of China, Japan and Asia, leaving these as a US corporate playground. "Our dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan", confided Truman to his diary, "forced Russia to reconsider her position in the Far East".
Militarily it was not necessary to bomb the two Japanese cities. Truman had rejected options which would have demonstrated the power of the bomb without causing the terrible casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had rejected inviting Japanese observers to the Nevada test explosion in July, rejected a demonstration explosion on an uninhabited Japanese island, rejected the choice of the less densely populated city of Kyoto as a target and rejected providing a warning to allow for evacuation from Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Truman's intent was to cause maximum carnage and terror in two heavily populated, industrial cities, the better to display US power, to keep the Soviets out of the Pacific, and not to save the lives of US servicemen.
The political value of the bomb was made obvious as, with the war now over, expenditure on the bomb increased — from $43 million in August to $59 million in October — and research on the thermonuclear H-bomb went full throttle.
The myth that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a "necessary evil" is still in vogue. It is a dishonest cover usually trotted out by those who, in the tradition of the deceitful Truman, support nuclear weapons ("reluctantly", of course) as a necessary evil and who oppose nuclear disarmament. Chief amongst these have been the politicians and their capitalist constituency, primarily in the US, who have threatened the further use of US nuclear weapons — Korea in 1953, Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1962, Vietnam in the '60s, and on at least 20 other occasions since the end of World War II.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a crime of the US ruling class and we should never forget that. There were many crimes committed during World War II — Auschwitz, Japan's Unit 731 in Manchuria and the fire-bombing of Dresden amongst them — but the killing of masses of people (78,000 people were killed instantly at the centre of the Hiroshima blast) and its harvest of leukaemia, still-births and congenital malformations in future generations, all from a single weapon, and all for the sake of the dividend returns of US-based multinational capital, was an atrocity with its own unique level of horror.
The total yield of all the non-nuclear bombs used in World War II is 2 million tonnes of TNT, the yield of just one modern nuclear weapon.
Fifty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear bandit states of the world, led by the US and supported by uranium-rich countries like Australia, pack a nuclear punch equal to 1 million Hiroshimas. Forty thousand "necessary evils" are aimed at the world's people. We should ask, "necessary for whom?". For the world's ruling classes to protect their wealth and power by the threat of nuclear terrorism.
But stronger than all the nuclear megatonnage is the power of people's protest. When Nixon considered using the nuclear bomb against Vietnam, he was not bluffing. The reason he gave, in his memoirs, for not ordering a nuclear strike was that there were too many angry Americans on the streets protesting against the Vietnam War. The world's working classes have the power to get rid of the economic and military bosses and all their bombs once and for all.