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Nagasaki Mon Amour
February 6, 2014 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Unedited footage of the bombing of Nagasaki: This silent film shows the final preparation and loading of the "Fat Man" bomb into "Bockscar," the plane which dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. It then shows the Nagasaki explosion from the window of an observation plane. This footage comes from Los Alamos National Laboratory. (SLYT)
posted by growabrain (126 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Via Alex Wellerstein's Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog
posted by growabrain at 9:40 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]


I wonder why the bomb was painted.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:58 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


That's absolutely horrifying and every single person needs to watch it.
posted by Huck500 at 9:58 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


There's a little caption that pops up explaining the "paint" is waterproof sealant to protect external fuses and some internal components.
posted by Rumple at 10:03 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]


Drop tests of dummy Fat Man atomic bombs
posted by unliteral at 10:08 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


my dad was an army sergeant in the pacific theater during this war. i am naturally sympathetic to whatever it took to bring him back safely to eventually meet my mom.
posted by bruce at 10:11 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]


It's less "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and more "The Wages of Fear", I think.
posted by R. Schlock at 10:15 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]


Sometime back in the 1980's, I was walking through ArborLand mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and come across a table set up, displaying books, with an older gentleman sitting behind the table. The books on display were copies of "Flight of the Enola Gay" by Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. The gentleman sitting behind the table was Paul Tibbets.

It took me a few moments to put all the pieces together, here I was, over 40 years after the event, in a mall in the midwest, looking at the man who flew that plane. It's now another 30 years or so, and I still can't fathom that I stood in front of Tibbets.

There are few events in recent history of that significance in terms of the loss of human life or the impact on our world. Being in that situation, face to face with that individual, feeling that there was a need to make some sort of statement, but seeing the empty and distant look in his eyes... I said nothing...
posted by HuronBob at 10:18 PM on February 6 [35 favorites]


The most recent blog entry is awesome: Sakharov’s turning point: The first Soviet H-bomb test
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:34 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


A completely harrowing way to end my day (though luckily I won't be attempting sleep for another couple of hours at least), but all the same, thanks for posting this. I'd never seen it and didn't even know this footage existed.
posted by sparkletone at 10:35 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


Bruce: Your sympathies are understandable. We thus traded that for the lives of Japanese fathers (and others) who then did not make it back home.
posted by Mercaptan at 10:44 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]


I found the part where text popped up said that "now 70,000 people are dead" very affecting. I had been watching the amazing cloud formations and thinking about how much energy needed to be expended to cause it, ...and right then a reminder of what just happened on the ground.
posted by Hicksu at 10:48 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


One of the single most extreme acts in human history.
posted by chaz at 10:52 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I always struggle a little to understand how the horror of nuclear weapons, for most people, inheres in how big the explosion is and the death and damage it causes instantaneously. The scale of it doesn't really impress me any more than a carpet bombing of the same area would.

What always horrifies me most about nukes is their massed use that results in the destruction of the world. Nuclear winter, fallout stretching for thousands of miles, the collapse of civilization, nations rendered barren and radioactive for centuries, just... everything ruined. In a way, the book Warday was worse for me than On The Beach. In the latter, it's just all over entirely but for a brief pause beforehand; for the former, though, you're left to scrape by in a mockery of what was.
posted by fatbird at 10:57 PM on February 6


The preparation footage was simultaneously terrifying and so pedestrian as to be boring. As it went on my attention started to wander around the image and I kept noticing that some of those dudes appear to have skipped leg day rather a lot. Then I felt bad because this is footage of one of only two atomic weapons to have been used in anger in human history.
posted by Justinian at 10:58 PM on February 6


The increasing tightness in my chest as I watch - the feeling that something traumatizing is about to happen. :-(
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 11:07 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


The firebombing of Tokyo killed many thousands more people, but there's something eerie about a device that four wheels can carry doing the same.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:18 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]


Very generally speaking, Japanese folks tend to regard the bombings and the defeat as an act of God, like a massive earthquake, tsunami, or typhoon.

Someone on Facebook today jokingly said that according to the Japanese, WWII started with the atomic bombings in 1945 and ended with the American defeat at Pearl Harbour in 1941 (the comment was prompted by the lunatic Rightist dog-whistling of several insane NHK board members appointed by the current Japanese PM).
posted by KokuRyu at 11:54 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]


I can't decide what's worse -- seeing the footage of the cloud and knowing what that represents, or reading the comments on the video from people who are grateful for it happening and would be okay with it happening again.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:07 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]


Can't comprehend it. There must be a German word to describe what I feel as I watch this.
posted by a non e mouse at 12:34 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


"Bockscar." I knew the name of the Enola Gay, but I didn't know the name of this plane.

I always struggle a little to understand how the horror of nuclear weapons, for most people, inheres in how big the explosion is and the death and damage it causes instantaneously.

The Earth shattering ka-boom isn't what horrifies people, it's the gruesome aftermath in the days, weeks, and months following the explosion from exposure to radiation:

From their own observations and from testimony of Japanese, members of the survey team divided the morbidity and mortality of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan into the following phases:

"Very large numbers of person were crushed in their homes and in the buildings in which they were working. Their skeletons could be seen in the debris and ashes for almost 1,500 meters from the center of the blast, particularly in the downwind directions.

Large numbers of the population walked for considerable distances after the detonation before they collapsed and died.

Large numbers developed vomiting and bloody and watery diarrhea (vomitus and bloody fecees were found on the floor in many of the aid stations), associated with extreme weakness. They died in the first and second weeks after the bombs were dropped.

During this same period deaths from internal injuries and from burns were common. Either the that from the fires or infrared radiation from the detonations caused many burns, particularly on bare skin or under dark clothing.

After a lull without peak mortality from any special causes, deaths began to occur from purpura, which was often associated with epilation, anemia, and a yellowish coloration of the skin. The so-called bone marrow syndrome, manifested by a low white blood cell count and almost complete absence of the platelets necessary to prevent bleeding, was probably at its maximum between the fourth and sixth weeks after the bombs were dropped."
posted by three blind mice at 1:45 AM on February 7 [8 favorites]


my dad was an army sergeant in the pacific theater during this war. i am naturally sympathetic to whatever it took to bring him back safely to eventually meet my mom.

Either I've misunderstood or you must be trolling. If someone offered me a thought experiment in which I could choose "the subjectivity referred to as 'me' not coming into existence", or as an alternative, "70,000 already existing people incinerated in a gigantic airborne fireball by the USA, followed by thousands more dying in indescribably horrific agony", I'd choose "me not coming into existence."
posted by colie at 1:52 AM on February 7 [18 favorites]


Ur-WMD.
posted by fairmettle at 2:05 AM on February 7


There must be a German word to describe what I feel as I watch this.

"You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like victory. Someday this war's gonna end."

Yeah, and screw all those other dads, moms and kids who were incinerated and maimed to help that happen.

I think this is a little unfair. There would seem to be little doubt that many of these moms. dads, and kids - and a whole lot of soldiers on both sides - would have been killed in the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. How many Japanese defenders walked away from Tarawa, or Iwo Jima, or any of the other islands invaded by the Americans? There was no way out of that war other than a Japanese surrender. A lot of people were going to die one way or the other. There is a legitimate argument that the atomic bombs saved lives on both sides and certainly kept Japan out of the sphere of Soviet influence which was no small benefit to the survivors.

In Guelzo's book on Gettysburg he made the interesting observation that the high casualties in the American Civil war were not a result of better weapons colliding with Napoleonic tactics, but rather the reluctance on the part of an amateur officer corps to order bayonet charges. A short period of brutality would have brought a quicker and cheaper victory to the Union than the prolonged, pitched battles, shooting at each other from a few hundred yards away.

Wars are better ended sooner rather than later and I don't think there's too much doubt that the atomic weapons brought an abrupt end to the war in the Pacific. Nothing good was going to come out of 1945, this might have been the least nasty.
posted by three blind mice at 2:10 AM on February 7 [11 favorites]


claims that the atom bombs were the only way to bring an abrupt end and that otherwise we would have been absolutely forced to make a land invasion and all those people would have died anyway are rather facile. they're the line we've been fed to make us feel justified and okay with what we did - no, that's not really accurate; they're the line we've fed ourselves, from the top down, in order to make ourselves feel justified and okay about it since before we even did it. the japanese government was already in negotiations to end the war before we did it; whether those negotiations would have led to an outcome the american government was pleased with, i don't know (and probably not; they were most interested in dealing with the soviet union and getting terms favorable to japan, and obviously that wouldn't have been a great thing in the eyes of Our Side), but it was definitely not an all-or-nothing situation where dropping the bomb was definitely justified and the only alternative was a costly land invasion, and there is definitely room for people to justifiably feel shitty about the fact that it was done.
posted by titus n. owl at 2:28 AM on February 7 [18 favorites]


Well, that and field-testing your brand new means of global annihilation, letting everybody else know they better behave.

Killing people by firebombing or infantry charges is not inherently better than blasting them with an atom bomb, but let's not pretend there are any humanitarian impulses at this level of strategic thinking.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:29 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


My father was present at Operation Crossroads; he saw first-hand what the bombs could do. He also saw what war had done to Japan, and felt great sadness for the Japanese people. He saw no active combat, just it's effects. When I questioned him on the use of the bomb, he felt great conflict and ultimately said he was angry at the military leaders who started it all, but never the people of Japan. A few years before he died he went to Japan and folded paper cranes with a group of school kids on a train. There was no shared language but one gave my Dad a hug, which he very much appreciated.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:35 AM on February 7 [18 favorites]


claims that the atom bombs were the only way to bring an abrupt end and that otherwise we would have been absolutely forced to make a land invasion and all those people would have died anyway are rather facile ... the japanese government was already in negotiations to end the war before we did it

It's hard to reconcile modern Japan's position and attitudes with the hardened, aggressive, frankly cruel imperialists of the war years. But the idea that Japan was absolutely close to surrender is just an opinion, not fact.

Some members of the Japanese government were apparently making overtures, but others held fast. The most telling fact to me was that the Volunteer Fighting Corps were organized in the spring of 1945, under the notion that about 30 million Japanese civilians (mostly women and able-bodied men too old to be conscripted) would fight a partisan guerrilla war in the event of invasion. Of course, it's smart to plan for several outcomes, but your opponents also have to consider all of your possible routes as well.

Were the nuclear weapons a display of force for the Soviets? Absolutely. However, history is rarely so simple as to be adequately explained by solitary explanations. Consider these additional points:

-The American public was increasingly war-weary. And part of what makes ANY war so cruel is that the objective is generally to end it as quickly as possible with as little loss of life for your side while loss on the other is nearly irrelevant. Even justified wars aren't planned by humanitarians. The Japanese had already lost, their leadership couldn't seem to form a consensus on whether to surrender, how much time do you give them when your constituents kids are dying?

- The Japanese government had three days to respond after the bombing of Hiroshima. They still hadn't surrendered. This suggests that they weren't as ready to capitulate as the revisionists claim.

We can look back at the loss of life and the related horrors and feel disturbed about how the war ended. I certainly do. But I think I'd be naive to say that without this hindsight, I would have made a different choice than Truman and his advisors did.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:22 AM on February 7 [24 favorites]


the japanese government was already in negotiations to end the war before we did it;

We have something that might change your position, ambassador. Name any uninhabited island in the Pacific. We will demonstrate our new weapon to you there. You don't strictly need to travel to the island; the weapon is sufficiently strong that you will be able to detect it with your seismographs. If you do not surrender after a suitable window of time to analyze your seismic data and confirm, we will choose an inhabited target for the weapon.
posted by Jpfed at 3:30 AM on February 7 [12 favorites]


.
posted by mikelieman at 3:32 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


One thing I have always wondered - it's probably naive, since I am not a general or wartime head of state - is wether a display of the bomb would have brought about the same effects: Pick an uninhabitted island within reach of Japan, leak the test date to the Japanese and Soviets and vaporize the place with one of the two bombs.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:36 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


We have something that might change your position, ambassador. Name any uninhabited island in the Pacific. We will demonstrate our new weapon to you there.

I've always liked that idea, but dropping the first one directly on a city didn't result in an immediate surrender.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:36 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


(On post-preview, Jpfed would probably beat me in Global Thermonuclear War by pushing the button faster).
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:37 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


The use of the atomic bombs on the Japanese need to be spoken of for what they truly were: needless atrocities that would probably qualify as war crimes if treated objectively. They bordered on genocidal and are even more horrific when myth and revisionist propaganda is deconstructed and thrown aside to show that it was completely unnecessary to use them and they were employed for the primary goal of forcing immediate Japanese surrender to ensure the USSR would not be able to claim land as it had done with Germany.

The lie that anything noble or benevolent was part of their purpose is easily deconstructed and any claim that they were employed in order to save lives is a falsehood that aims to remove the critical eye from the act itself, by displacing responsibility for putting them into play.

The bombs were not necessary in any way, and the act should be regarded clearly for what it is: horrific, reprehensible and shameful.
posted by cat_mech at 3:40 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


I am really not trying to stir the pot when I ask: why is the claim that the bombing was necessary facile? Why are the traditional arguments false? I hear a lot of that here, but I'm not familiar with the whys.
posted by Thistledown at 4:31 AM on February 7


One thing that might counter the 'uninhabited island' demo - from the clip, the scientists calculated a 20% chance of failure for the bomb. Wouldn't look too impressive to drop a dud, might reinforce the resistance, be a PR disaster etc. If the Nagasaki bomb hadn't worked, the conventional explosion should have prevented anyone from looking too closely at it, so less problems if it's a dud.

Not trying to justify the bombing or otherwise - it was a very complex situation and we just don't have all the information we'd need to make the right call. Neither did anyone at the time.
posted by YAMWAK at 4:38 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


seventy thousand dead

it's really near impossible for me to imagine making that decision. i understand the arguments about how the alternative was more death, but even so, seventy thousand like *that*.
posted by angrycat at 4:56 AM on February 7


Federation of American Scientists — Status of World Nuclear Forces 2013*:
More than two decades after the Cold War ended, the world's combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level: more than 17,000. Of these, some 4,300 warheads are considered operational, of which about 1,800 US and Russian warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice.

Despite significant reductions in US, Russian, French and British nuclear forces compared with Cold War levels, all the nuclear weapon states continue to modernize their remaining nuclear forces and appear committed to retaining nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.

The exact number of nuclear weapons in each country's possession is a closely held national secret. Despite this limitation, however, publicly available information and occasional leaks make it possible to make best estimates about the size and composition of the national nuclear weapon stockpiles...
What it's like on the receiving end — Nagasaki Journey: The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata August 10, 1945.
posted by cenoxo at 4:57 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan; Missile Is Equal to 20,000 Tons of TNT; Truman Warns Foe of a 'Rain of Ruin'

Oops sorry that was Hiroshima.

Atom Bomb Loosed on Nagasaki -
2d Big Aerial Blow -
Japanese Port Is Target in Devastating New Midday Assault -
Result Called Good -
Foe Asserts Hiroshima Toll Is 'Uncountable' -- Assails 'Atrocity'


Headline stories of the day(s) via NYT
posted by petebest at 5:11 AM on February 7


...it's probably naive, since I am not a general or wartime head of state - is wether a display of the bomb would have brought about the same effects: Pick an uninhabitted island within reach of Japan, leak the test date to the Japanese and Soviets and vaporize the place with one of the two bombs.

Something similar to that was, in fact, considered. The idea was floated that a representative from Japan be brought to the Trinity test to witness the detonation of the new bomb, with the implication that the US would soon be raining-down this new weapon on Japan.

The idea was quickly rejected for various reasons, one of which was the great fear that the Trinity test would be a dud.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:14 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Wow. I think whats shocking about this is the sheer mundanity of it.

The result of hundreds of years of scientific effort, everything from Newton to Einstein, wielded to inflict the single largest and fastest quantity of human suffering in all of history.

All of this culminates in a couple guys spending the day in the sun, shirtless, loading this thing that's no bigger than a minivan onto a truck, and then going for a beer afterwards.
posted by cacofonie at 5:16 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


i am naturally sympathetic to whatever it took to bring him back safely to eventually meet my mom.

I am more naturally sympathetic to the seventy thousand civilians who were vaporized.

Not sure how common this was, but when I was in grade 1 (1985 or thereabouts), my entire class read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. We then twinned with a school in Japan. We made them a thousand cranes, and they made us a thousand. When I visited my elementary school a few years ago, the cranes were still hanging outside my old classroom, faded, but shining in the sun from a skylight.

I don't know about anyone else in my class, but every crane I folded I wished that nobody would ever die again.

People keep dying for stupid, horrible, pointless reasons. We need to grow up.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:20 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]



Strategy Number One: A Negotiated Peace


In the spring of 1945, evidence mounted that the capacity of the Japanese air force to defend its homeland against escalating bombardment had rapidly deteriorated. This information, accompanied by a sharp drop in losses of American planes and pilots, convinced Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew that the Japanese would be open to a negotiated peace. Grew believed that the Japanese were so nearly beaten by the end of May 1945 that there was an excellent chance that they would capitulate soon thereafter if the unconditional surrender doctrine Truman had inherited from Roosevelt were publicly interpreted by Truman to allow retention of the Japanese Emperor -- the revered symbol of the thousand-year-old Japanese dynasty. Grew was the only official of Cabinet status or of high military rank with access to the President who had had lengthy experience in Japan (ten years as U.S. Ambassador there) and thus was able to assess the attitudes of Japan's ruling group. Grew sought to persuade Truman of his views on May 28, three weeks after V-E Day.[7]


And from This review of a book from the papers of President Herbert Hoover

At the conclusion of the [Casablanca] conference, Roosevelt and Churchill held a press conference. Roosevelt said that he and Churchill…

…were determined to accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Germany, Japan, and Italy…

Churchill said later that he was surprised by this statement. Churchill adds that he was told by Harry Hopkins that the President said to him:

…then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it; and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant “Old Unconditional Surrender,” and the next thing I knew I had said it.

Is it possible that the President made such a strong demand off the cuff? Did it just pop into his mind, as he apparently told Hopkins? Did he not realize a press conference was upon him, with no time to prepare? Of all the things that might have popped into his mind, why this?

Roosevelt repeated the statement later (for example in a February 1943 address to the White House Correspondents’ Association), demonstrating that it was not a passing phase.

Hoover continues:

The Chiefs of Staff were apparently not consulted. Admiral William D. Leahy, in his book, says:

…As far as I could learn, this policy had not been discussed with the Combined Chiefs and, from a military viewpoint, its execution might add to our difficulties in succeeding campaigns because it would mean we would have to destroy the enemy….

Others in the military expressed similar concerns. Such a demand would compel the Germans (and eventually the Japanese) to fight to the last.

posted by petebest at 5:36 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


When they started in with the paint I was really thinking they'd throw a pinup girl or a funny saying on it. Fascinating how casual they were. Great footage. The slowness and unstoppable growth of that mushroom cloud is both mesmerizing and sickening. Had to be done.
posted by ReeMonster at 5:44 AM on February 7


Umimaginably evil.
posted by agregoli at 6:12 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


[A couple of comments deleted. Folks need to cool it and figure out a way to discuss here without making it personal and without turning this into a shit storm. Displaying some sensitivity around this incredibly painful subject would also be extremely helpful if you want to help things go as well as possible.]
posted by taz at 6:12 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


One of the more disconcerting things about the nuclear attacks is how the controversy has totally eclipsed the enormously greater numbers of deliberate civilian deaths from bombing cities, especially firebombing. While I agree that using atomic weaponry should be a no-no, the deeper problem was that targeting civilian populations was already standard policy; this was just applying bigger weapons to the issue.

I'm not suggesting that it's a simple issue, aside from the obvious of "war is bad." All sides were targeting civilian populations, and were deliberately hiding military command structures, materiel, and factories in cities. Given the options and constraints of the time, I'm not sure there was another choice possible. But using the atomic weapons has to understood in that context, rather than as a standalone atrocity.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:13 AM on February 7 [15 favorites]


I think it's just as casual to think what we did was genocidal. I never said that I personally think it was the "right" thing to do and I hate war but we also knew what the Japanese were capable of (Nanking, mass slaughter, the "Total War" scenario). So I'm not begrudging your idealism but human nature isn't like that and never will be, sadly. It's like everyone thinks Japan was just laying around waving peace signs before we dropped hellfire on them for no reason, or something. The complexity of the situation on all sides, historically, tactically, etc is beyond me.
posted by ReeMonster at 6:15 AM on February 7 [7 favorites]


Dip, you articulated my feelings better than I could, thank you.
posted by ReeMonster at 6:17 AM on February 7


I meant to add: I watched the video until the beginning of the mushroom cloud, at which point thinking about what was happening to the people on the ground made me feel so queasy that I had to turn it off. I can remember being shown a film clip of one of the attacks in middle school, so about the same time as FFFM's crane-folding story, after which we also folded some cranes. Something really did change between when my parents were in school in the 1960s and the 1980s in terms of how nuclear weapons and the cold war were discussed -- they didn't grow up folding cranes and talking about the human impacts.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:17 AM on February 7


but human nature isn't like that and never will be, sadly.

I look forward to the day Uncle Sam's vast military carries out its work based on an understanding of 'human nature.'
posted by colie at 6:20 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


but human nature isn't like that and never will be, sadly.

Some of us believe it can be.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:36 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


I -- with difficulty -- accept the justifications for dropping an atomic bomb to end the Pacific War.

I feel like many of these same reasons melt away in justifying a SECOND atomic bomb three days later, for which the only reason was show-of-force demonstration to the Russians.
posted by cacofonie at 6:44 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


It's like everyone thinks Japan was just laying around waving peace signs before we dropped hellfire on them for no reason, or something.

No, it isn't.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 6:51 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Three thing that my senior high school modern history teacher taught us that has always stuck with me is that a) history is multi-causal. b) history as a form of human study is always to some degree reductive - trying to make sense of things in retrospect. c) We have the advantage of looking back - history is time travel in only one direction.

In this thread alone there has been some ~5-6 reasons why Nagasaki and Hiroshima were bombed. I'm sure there are a lot of others out there put forward by historians. And this doesn't even start us onto the broader doctrine of 'strategic bombing' and total war. I don't think there is an answer, as such, but rather a retroactive attempt to understand the particular confluence and context of events according to certain beliefs or intellectual and/or moral positions. There are several reasons why the bombs were dropped, some defensible, others immediately less so, some others reprehensible, some just misguided. We can judge those decisions across various levels, the realpolitik, the moral, the utilitarian, the scientific, and probably more. Can we please just not do it again?
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:57 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


War is hell.

Nuclear war, however, is a special level of hell.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:27 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Dip Flash: "But using the atomic weapons has to understood in that context, rather than as a standalone atrocity."

Yes. The US was quite capable of reducing the population centres of Japan to ash with conventional explosives and incendiaries; it just would have taken a bit longer. The choice wouldn't have been between an atomic bombing and no bombing. It was between atomic bombing and steady flights of conventional bombers followed by invasion.
posted by Mitheral at 7:38 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Where I live (the southern US, in a town where the military is a major employer) whenever the atomic bombing of Japan comes up, the default view is that it was clearly needed in order to save the American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of mainland Japan. I am conflicted on the issue; as horrible as it was, it really wasn't worse in terms of casualties than other attacks on civilians that were practiced by both sides in WWII (it appears the "good" guys were more effective in these attacks). My personal feeling is that it is possible to justify the bombing of Hiroshima (not saying it was justified, just that you can make a reasoned argument for it in the complex of an incredibly destructive war and the political climate of the time) but that there was no real need to bomb Nagasaki. But around here any attempt to argue that the bombings weren't needed falls on deaf ears. That is why I was very interested when it was pointed out to me (perhaps even here on MeFi, can't remember where I first saw the comparison) that the rationale for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was pretty much the same used by General Sherman right here in our state. Usually that makes at least a few people stop and take notice.

But in reality, scorched earth warfare, by whatever means available, is nothing new. And most of the practices involved in it that adversely affect civilian populations were outlawed by the Geneva Convention in 1977. Of course the US has refused to ratify that treaty (along with Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, and India). Isn't our exceptionalism grand? (See also land mine treaty, rights of children, International Criminal Court, etc.)
posted by TedW at 7:47 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I -- with difficulty -- accept the justifications for dropping an atomic bomb to end the Pacific War.

I feel like many of these same reasons melt away in justifying a SECOND atomic bomb three days later, for which the only reason was show-of-force demonstration to the Russians.


You accept the initial bombing "to end the Pacific War," but not the second? I'm not following the logic, inasmuch as the first bombing didn't end the war.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:49 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Rational, intelligent people still think the US was justified in dropping these bombs? What the living fuck
posted by Brocktoon at 7:49 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]


I'm not following the logic, inasmuch as the first bombing didn't end the war.

Since I have similar feelings, although I am not so sure about even the first bomb, I can say that in my case it seems that given the chaos of war and the difficulty involved in bringing such a huge undertaking (the Japanese war effort) to a screeching halt, 3 days was not enough to let the enormity of Hiroshima sink in for the Japanese leadership.
posted by TedW at 7:54 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I've linked it a bunch before throughout MeFi, but Dan Carlin's Hardcore History episode about the use of the bomb is a really good examination of the decision, framing it in the larger picture of the use of air power against civilians and strategic theory going back to World War I. I recommend it really, really highly to anyone with any interest in the topic.

Too summarize Carlin way too briefly, he argues that the question is less "why were the atomic bombs dropped?" and more "what the hell kind of progression happened to make firebombing and then atomic bombing seem like good choices?"
posted by COBRA! at 7:57 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


If the bombs hadn't been dropped, far more Japanese civilians would have been killed by the continued firebombings of Japanese cities. Those firebombings would not have brought an end to the war. So there would have had to be an invasion of the Japanese homeland. A cursory glance at the casualties incurred in the Pacific theatre makes it abundantly clear that an invasion would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, and many hundreds of thousands or millions of Japanese lives. The atomic bombs saved lives by bringing the war to an end. It's horrendous that it took the demonstrated ability to instantly destroy a city - not once, but twice, with the implicit threat of more - to force Japan's surrender. The blame for that lies squarely on the Japanese government and military, and not on the victims of their aggression.
posted by Dasein at 7:57 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


It is impossible to actually travel back in time; deciding what was justified and what wasn't at the time is of little benefit if we don't all agree that this simply should never happen again, anywhere, for any reason.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:58 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Rational, intelligent people still think the US was justified in dropping these bombs? What the living fuck

The majority of Americans think the USA was justified in dropping the bombs.
posted by JeffL at 7:59 AM on February 7


Rational, intelligent people still think the US was justified in dropping these bombs? What the living fuck

Some people are crass enough to disagree with you, yes. Many of them from well-considered positions. How frustrating that must be for you to see such hubris.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:38 AM on February 7 [9 favorites]


Well-considered positions can also be breathtakingly wrong.

Particularly when talking about literally vaporizing tens of thousands of people.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:40 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the biggest U.S. wrongs in a war absolutely full of wrongs, as Dip Flash has accurately pointed out.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:28 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure about that. If Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong, doesn't that make Dresden and Tokyo wrong? And if Dresden and Tokyo were wrong why were they not more wrong than Hiroshima and Nagasaki given the scale of the firestorms involved?

I wrote more because I missed "biggest U.S. wrongs" at first and thought you wrote "biggest wrongs". I'm glad I noticed before I finished this comment! Ultimately, though, Japan is responsible for far more innocent deaths in that war than the USA. If we're categorizing solely in terms of body count.
posted by Justinian at 9:58 AM on February 7


One question that I rarely see asked (or answered) was how much the US knew about the follow-on effects of fallout/radiation poisoning that could be the result of dropping the bombs.

From what I understand, the fact that people would still be suffering and dying weeks later, and the elevated risks of cancer and birth defects for decades later was not something that had been predicted, and therefore wouldn't have been part of the calculus of the decision to drop atomic bombs versus going with a more conventional firebombing+invasion approach.

If you take out the horrible and lingering fallout, and just focus on the bombs as very very efficient ways of causing the destruction that would have otherwise resulted over the period of days and weeks of conventional warfare, I can absolutely see why US military leaders chose the strategy that they did.

And I say this as a non-American who is generally pissed off when people trying to justify today's wars forget that the US is the only country to have used an actual weapon of mass destruction against another.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:59 AM on February 7


That's not true. The only country to use an atomic weapon, yes, but many nations have made use of chemical weapons which are generally classified as WMDs.
posted by Justinian at 10:05 AM on February 7


Bullshit the U.S. didn't know what would happen. Read The Plutonium Files for an eye-opener about the U.S.'s experiments with unwitting test subjects for decades before.
posted by agregoli at 10:13 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Um. Those experiments were post-war? So can't really be evidence of what the US knew pre-post-war?
posted by Justinian at 10:15 AM on February 7


I feel like many of these same reasons melt away in justifying a SECOND atomic bomb three days later, for which the only reason was show-of-force demonstration to the Russians.

Sorry, no. We have the diary of the Japanese Foreign Minister, Shigenori Togo, who met with the Emperor and the cabinet throughout the end of the war. The first bomb convinced the Emperor and some of the cabinet, but the hawks were holding out for the original surrender terms which were a rollback to 1935. It was the second bomb that convinced the hawks to accept full surrender:
At a meeting of the Cabinet on the afternoon of 7 August the War and Home Ministers made reports on the Hiroshima bombing. The Army, pleading the necessity of awaiting the results of the investigation which had been ordered, obviously intended not to admit the nature of the atomic atack, but to minimize the effect of the bombing. On the 8th I had an audience, in the underground shelter of the Imperial Palace, with the Emperor, whom I informed of the enemy's announcement of the use of an atomic bomb, and related matters, and I said that it was now all the more imperative that we end the war, which we could seize this opportunity to do. The Emperor approved of my view, and warned that since we could no longer continue the struggle, now that a weapon of this devastating power was used against us, we should not let slip the opportunity by engaging in attempts to gain more favorable conditions...

The members of the Supreme Council met at 11:00 A.M. I opened the discussion by saying that the war had become more and more hopeless, and now that it had no future, it was necessary to make peace without the slightest delay. Therefore, I said, the Potsdam Declaration must be complied with, and the conditions for its acceptance should be limited to those only which were absolutely essential for Japan. All members of the Supreme Council already recognized the difficulties in going on with the war; and now, after the employment of the atomic bomb and Russian entry into the war against us, none opposed in principle our acceptance of the declaration. None disagreed, either, that we must insist upon preservation of the national polity as the indispensable condition of acceptance.

The military representatives, however, held out for proposing additional terms--specifically, that occupation of Japan should if possible be avoided or, if inescapable, should be on a small scale and should not include such points as Tokyo; that disarmament should be carried out on our responsibility; and that war criminals should be dealt with by Japan.
From here.

Critics of the bombing tend to focus on the "atomic" part, but terror bombing had been going on for a long time already, and both Dresden and Tokyo had suffered firestorms that killed many more in one night than the atomic bombs did. In local terms, the atomic bombs, even including followon deaths from radiation and fallout, weren't worse than firebombings, and in larger terms, the whole policy of terror bombing was obviously the larger moral crime. Very little about the atomic bombings separate them except for their efficiency.
posted by fatbird at 10:18 AM on February 7 [10 favorites]


yes you are right, sorry. my timeline of the book was mixed up. But I believe they were well aware.
posted by agregoli at 10:25 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Rational, intelligent people still think the US was justified in dropping these bombs? What the living fuck

That's how ideology and propaganda works long-term. We're now having a debate on this bombing on the terms set out, and with the conceptual vocabulary that's sanctioned, by our ruling elites.
posted by colie at 10:25 AM on February 7


What? What conceptual vocabulary and terms do you suggest?
posted by Justinian at 10:27 AM on February 7


That's how ideology and propaganda works long-term.

You know, this really is an area where there has been lots of scholarship and tons of source material on all sides, and had a very active debate ever since. It's not the elites trying to narrowly constrain the terms of the discussion.
posted by fatbird at 10:28 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I'd never heard that Nagasaki was the secondary target, and Kokura was only spared by heavy cloud cover that hindered visibility. I'm having difficulty comprehending the magnitude of this shift and how trivial its basis. How would it feel to a resident of Kokura, or their descendant, knowing your existence turned on little more than caprice? The only remotely analogous situation I can think of is the 1983 Russian false alarm averted by Stanislav Petrov.
posted by sapere aude at 11:32 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Rational, intelligent people still think the US was justified in dropping these bombs? What the living fuck

posted by Brocktoon at 7:49 AM on February 7


The majority of Americans think the USA was justified in dropping the bombs.
posted by JeffL at 7:59 AM on February 7


Okay, but that wasn't their question.

Two of the most chiling and deeply moving moments in my life were visiting the airfields on Tinian that the bombers took off from and also the hypocenter of the Hiroshima bombing.

It was hard for me to comprehend that I was actually touching the ground at the beginning and end points of one of the most important and devastating events in human history. It was interesting to me what had become of the two places.

Tinian is largely undeveloped, and the old US military installations are shrinking into the landscape. The atomic bomb loading pits are glassed-in and have informational plaques. But they're out in the middle of nowhere at the end of a runway. We had rented a car and drove right down the middle of the same asphalt the B-52 took off from. I understand the Northern Mariana Islands are remote, and not a big tourist destination, but I felt the site deserved more in the way of acknowledgment, the relative lack of which struck me as rather callous - as though to say, "we did our job here and the consequences are trivial." On our drive around the island we were dogged by a bus full of Japanese tourists snapping photographs.

I was in Hiroshima on the anniversary of the bombing. Tens of thousands of people were present for the "Peace Memorial Celebration." There was a moment of silence at about 8:15 am or whatever time the detonation was. We went in the museum where all of the installations had the same message - roughly that Japan had been aggressive and warlike, but had learned through tragedy that that was wrong. The shattered skeleton of the building directly below the blast was left standing, after much controversy, to serve as an ugly reminder of the horror of violence.

There was no sign of bitterness, neither in the ceremony, nor the museum displays, nor the people.

It's hard for me to imagine my fellow Americans taking away the same lesson from that war, or any war.
posted by univac at 11:34 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


I think that's primarily because the lessons you learn from a war fought on someone else's soil and which you either win or "lose" because you give up and pull your forces home are very different lessons than those you learn when you are utterly defeated and forced to admit your defeat on your own soil.

Witness for example the difference in what Germany learned from its loss in the Great War vs its loss in the Second World War.

America has never suffered the second sort of loss so it's taking a lot longer to learn the same lessons. I don't think that's a comment on the moral character of the respective nations of Germany, Japan, or the United States. Had Japan emerged as victorious from the Second World War as the United States did, it's likely we would have learned the Japanese lesson and they would have learned ours.
posted by Justinian at 11:43 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]


colie: "Either I've misunderstood or you must be trolling."

Paul Fussell's fairly classic and contrarian "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" deserves a read; I can't choose a single quote to highlight without doing the piece an injustice, but as an academic specializing in cultural and literary history who was, at the time of the bombing, a 21-year-old lieutenant already twice-wounded in the European theater preparing for the ground invasion of Japan, he has some important things to say.

If you talk to any veteran who served in the Pacific theater in 1944-1945, they can still tell you the estimates for casualties expected for the ground invasion of Japan, for both the Allies and Japanese military and civilians. Those numbers are very high.

Justification for the atomic bombs? I don't know that. But even as we recoil in horror from the atomic bomb (as I think we all ought to do), we should remember that this was not an easy moral question in 1945, and these are not easy moral questions today. And we should also remember humanity is capable of incredible wartime horrors WITHOUT needing an atomic bomb: the Firebombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, the Katyn Forest Massacre, the Death March of Bataan are all ample testament, from the same war, to that.

War ethics is hard because the right answer is, "Let's not have a war in the first place." Everything that happens once a war is going on is pretty terrible, and a debate about how much more or less terrible any particular strategy is is depressing, discouraging, and leads to terrible conversations like "should we drop this horrific new bomb on civilian-occupied cities, leading to 70,000 casualties, or should we invade Japan leading to 300,000 casualties?"

(This is why, incidentally, I don't really believe in "just war" theory ... once you're in a war, you're going to do bad things, and they're not made better because it's a "just" war. I'm willing to accept that sometimes war is unavoidable, but that doesn't make it "just." I'm glad that we have rules of war and people try to follow least-harm principals and so on, because that's better than not having them, but it still doesn't render actions in war "good.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:16 PM on February 7 [15 favorites]


fatbird: "terror bombing had been going on for a long time already, and both Dresden and Tokyo had suffered firestorms that killed many more in one night than the atomic bombs did. "

Depending on who you want to believe the Dresden fire bombing "only" killed 25K people. Certainly the reports of 100K were wildly inaccurate. Still that's a lot of people with conventional weapons. Weapons that could have been turned on Japan in great numbers now the the war in Europe was wrapping up.

sapere aude: "I'd never heard that Nagasaki was the secondary target, and Kokura was only spared by heavy cloud cover that hindered visibility. I'm having difficulty comprehending the magnitude of this shift and how trivial its basis."

It's a great trivia stumper that I wheel out when talk gets around to how people only remember first place finishers: "What was the backup target for the second atomic bomb dropped in WWII". A disturbing number of people can't even name the target that was hit and practically no one knows it was the back up target. I actually got in an argument once with a guy who didn't know/believe the US had used an atomic bomb against people let alone twice.
posted by Mitheral at 12:59 PM on February 7


The nuclear bombings were one of the most horrible mass deaths in history. However I think that they were lucky for Japan's future in a way. The Soviet army was in Manchuria at the time. Japan could easily have ended up like Korea.

Other than that, many American soldiers were saved, not to mention the greater number of Japanese who would likely have died in an invasion and heavy air bombing.

Truman would have been wrong to needlessly sacrifice the lives of those American soldiers in an invasion when the war could be ended immediately, as it was. His primary obligation was to America and its soldiers.

The Japanese could have surrendered after Hiroshima, but unfortunately they didn't. Nor did they surrender immediately after Nagasaki even.
posted by knoyers at 2:13 PM on February 7


They should have dropped it in Tokyo Bay, killed a lot of fish, and gotten the Emperor's palace wet. That would have been an effective demonstration.
posted by Apocryphon at 2:21 PM on February 7


Brocktoon: Rational, intelligent people still think the US was justified in dropping these bombs? What the living fuck.

I think, what you’ve done with this statement, is to sum up the truly awful thing about war: it forces good, rational, smart people to choose to do terrible horrible things. Even if they are justified and necessary. War is a terminal illness of the moral fabric that makes us human.


Eyebrows McGee: We should remember that this was not an easy moral question in 1945

I will always remember this clip of Oppenheimer. Not just for the famous quotation, but for his expression of sorrow and the haunted look in his eyes.
posted by cacofonie at 3:05 PM on February 7


The problem with the "costs of land invasion" argument is that there is very, very little evidence that said invasion would have been necessary.

I read an excellent book, Hiroshima Nagasaki, by Paul Ham last year that reviews evidence which makes it abundantly clear that a) Russian invasion had far more impact on surrender than bombs, and b) the naval blockade was brutally effective and would have resulted in necessary surrender in mere months anyway.

He also goes into the disgusting numerous and bald lies the us government told about the bombings, their casualties, and the effects of radiation. No one could defend us govt after reading that.

Finally the whole "US soldiers got their lives saved" argument, even if true, elides the fact that those military lives were paid for by civilian lives. By children's lives. Neither location was a genuine military target and the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was centred the cbd, literally kilometres away from the factories at edge of city that were military.

It's a strong read, I recommend it.
posted by smoke at 3:19 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:20 PM on February 7


Smoke, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were undoubtedly military targets by the standards accepted by all sides at the time. Nagasaki, for example, was a huge seaport and the great majority of the city's population were employed in the war effort. The only reason it hadn't been leveled already by conventional bombing was geographical.

Mass air bombings of cities is absolutely horrible but it's something everybody considered part of war. Which is, as Eyebrows McGee correctly points out, one of the reasons you don't freakin' go to war in the first place. Because you end up doing crap like mass bombing raids on cities if you consider it necessary enough.
posted by Justinian at 3:40 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Ham goes into primary sources about target selection in the book Justinian, military destruction played almost no part in ruminations. Shock and awe was the main factor and civilians not considered. Better strategic targets were ignored because they lacked the visibility of destroying a relatively pristine city (e.g. parts of Tokyo, which had already been trashed too much)
posted by smoke at 3:47 PM on February 7


Oh, I agree that other considerations were paramount. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't have been considered valid military targets absent those considerations if you see what I mean.
posted by Justinian at 4:10 PM on February 7


Oh right, yes that makes sense
posted by smoke at 4:21 PM on February 7


If you think dropping weapons of mass destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good thing, then you must also believe that it rational to use nuclear weapons in the future.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:28 PM on February 7


Under a previous username, in a thread about photos of Hiroshima, I wrote this about my great-uncle, who worked at Los Alamos developing the A-bombs.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 7:32 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


the naval blockade was brutally effective and would have resulted in necessary surrender in mere months anyway.

At the point the atomic bombs were dropped, Japanese were already starving to death in significant numbers; under a blockade, the projected deaths were 100,000/month. So, three months, 300,000 civilians starve to death. Is that better than the deaths from the atomic bombs?

If you think dropping weapons of mass destruction on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good thing, then you must also believe that it rational to use nuclear weapons in the future.

I've never heard anyone say that the use of the atomic bombs was "good", just that the alternatives to their use were worse. But if you think there's no possible circumstance where the use of a nuclear weapon might be the morally rational choice, then you're accepting that there are things not worth using nukes for--like permitting far larger numbers of dead under equally horrific circumstances.
posted by fatbird at 8:56 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


At the point the atomic bombs were dropped, Japanese were already starving to death in significant numbers; under a blockade, the projected deaths were 100,000/month. So, three months, 300,000 civilians starve to death. Is that better than the deaths from the atomic bombs?

That hypothetical was under consideration by no one, though, it's completely post-hoc.

From Dower's Embracing Defeat
In mid-October, in a memorandum to President Truman summarizing conversations with MacArthur and his aides, the special presidential envoy Edwin Locke, Jr. reported that "the American officers now in Tokyo are amazed by the fact that resistance continued as long as it did." Indeed, so great was the economic disarray, he added, that in the opinion of some Americans the atomic bombs, "while seized upon by the Japanese as an excuse for getting out of the war, actually speeded surrender by only a few days."
posted by smoke at 9:57 PM on February 7


Yes, in the opinion some Americans. We also have evidence that there were plenty in the Japanese command who didn't want to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped. Maybe the Japanese would have surrendered in a week or two and the bombs were completely unnecessary. Or maybe they would have held on for months and tens or hundreds of thousands would have died. Or maybe they would have surrendered early but fallen into the Soviet sphere of influence. Or maybe...

It's quite clear that things were chaotic and I don't think anyone can say with a reasonable degree of certainty what would have happened had the bombs not been dropped.
posted by Justinian at 10:02 PM on February 7


From what I understand, the fact that people would still be suffering and dying weeks later, and the elevated risks of cancer and birth defects for decades later was not something that had been predicted, and therefore wouldn't have been part of the calculus of the decision to drop atomic bombs versus going with a more conventional firebombing+invasion approach.

It's true that nobody new too much about the effects of radiation, mostly because not many people had been exposed at the time - and even later, the number of people that have received such high doses is tiny. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are to this day one of the main sources of data for the health effects of ionizing radiation, as human experimentation is obviously a no go , and doubly so for the large numbers of people that would have to be irradiated to get any kind of statistical power for studying long-term effects.

You may be right that ignorance about the long-term effects of the bomb might have been a factor in the decision, but I'm seeing a more sinister spin to it: if you know nuclear war might be coming some day, you need to know the effects of a real bomb on real people - how else will you prepare to defend your population?
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:02 PM on February 7


That hypothetical was under consideration by no one, though, it's completely post-hoc.

Okay, so we're back to invasion or bombs. And for bombs we have the diary of the foreign minister who said, from his recollections of cabinet meetings, that the Army and Navy cabinet ministers wanted to hold out for conditional surrender even after the Emperor had announced that he wanted to accept the Potsdam Declaration because of the first atomic bomb's effect on Hiroshima. Even after Russian entry into the war, they wanted to counteroffer with the same terms of conditional surrender. What alternative was there?
posted by fatbird at 10:09 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]



. We also have evidence that there were plenty in the Japanese command who didn't want to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped.


This is true, see fatbird's comment. There was even an attempted coup, once it became clear that the Emperor himself wished for surrender. However, in the Japanese context, the emperor's wish made surrender inevitable, especially when the whole cabinet knew.

I do agree it's a maze of hypotheticals, but given that, I feel there was too much ambiguity to justify it, and when you read the primary sources we have about the US thinking around it, beyond Truman's wish to avoid invasion, they are not edifying. MacArthur, Eisenhower, and other high placed officials all opposed it (though MacArthur had varied reasons, and stimpson had mixed feelings during and after) - it was far from unanimous at the time, though that too gets elided nowadays.

Given that, it shouldn't have happened I feel. Subsequent denials, lies etc from the US also cast a pall on their motivation for me.

Whatever you believe - and I do think you can make a case - it was never an unavoidable choice, the only choice, or the best choice. It was a choice.
posted by smoke at 10:43 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Even after Russian entry into the war, they wanted to counteroffer with the same terms of conditional surrender.

Yes, but this is because they thought the Russians were on their side, diplomatically, and because of the ambiguity - which the US were well aware of - of what would happen to the Emperor under an unconditional surrender.

By making it clear that the Emperor would not be executed or charged with war crimes, the Japanese would have been far more likely to accept the surrender earlier. But the US didn't want to that necessarily.
posted by smoke at 10:48 PM on February 7


I highly recommend Downfall by Richard Frank, it's a serious history book covering the political and military decisions that led to Truman's decision to drop the bombs. Especially interesting are the parts about the moral of the troops as well as how much more fighting there was to do and how many causalities (on both sides) would be expected in a conventional bombing/invasion scenario.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:54 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Interview with Ham, author of the book I mentioned, here. Obviously, it doesn't do the book - which is massive - justice, but it might interest a few people.
posted by smoke at 11:14 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


it was never an unavoidable choice, the only choice, or the best choice. It was a choice.

You're right, it was a choice, and I think history has shown it, post facto, to be the least worst choice. At the time, it was a reasonable choice, even from a moral perspective--an expeditious end to the war being moral if only considering raw body count. As I recall from earlier discussions of the opinions of Eisenhower et al., their alternative was to continue (as outlined by the Strategic Bombing Survey) with the conventional bombing of cities that was already as destructive of civilian life as the atomic bombs would be, except that lacking the clear demonstration of power, would have continued past the next two cities. And McArthur's opinion isn't to be taken seriously--he requested discretion to use atomic bombs on the Chinese in the Korean war, long after a deeper understanding of nuclear weapons had taken hold.

in the Japanese context, the emperor's wish made surrender inevitable

This is hazy. the Japanese have a long history of sidelining Emperors who were inconvenient for a powerful faction's desires--the position of Shogun largely came about because someone wanted to rule Japan without the ugliness of actually murdering the Emperor, so they just locked him up in his palace and ruled as his plenipotentiary.

Reading more of Togo's diary, he recites an earlier conversation with the Emperor that clearly implies that the Emperor has to be careful not to advance too boldly against the Army and Navy, for fear of being put aside similarly. The Emperor was inclined to accept the Potsdam Declaration before the first atomic bomb, but needed the demonstration of it to clearly argue against conditions.

Interview with Ham, author of the book I mentioned, here.

He's very blythe in that interview about the "six warlords", and treats them as a unified front, a collective dictatorship. We know now that there was a deep split in the cabinet, but that the doves, including the Emperor, feared the hawks, who had all the military power. We also know that they were, in fact, quite shocked by the "special bombs".

Many months before the dropping of the bombs, the cabinet had accepted that the war couldn't be won and had shifted to a strategy of intransigent defence, hoping to exhaust the U.S. and sue for peace on more favourable terms. The hawks were ready to accept a withdrawal of Japanese forces from all the territory they'd conquered, which could only be viewed as a loss, but on acceptable terms; this tends to argue against any sort of "national act of seppuku" such as Ham proposes. After months of punishing bombing, you had three days in which two atomic bombs were dropped, and the Russians entered the war against them, after which they surrendered. It's hard not to view those three days as decisive.
posted by fatbird at 11:32 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


He's very blythe in that interview about the "six warlords", and treats them as a unified front, a collective dictatorship. We know now that there was a deep split in the cabinet, but that the doves, including the Emperor, feared the hawks, who had all the military power. We also know that they were, in fact, quite shocked by the "special bombs".

He does go into much more detail about this - including that context - in the book. He really simplifies his argument for broadcast. Indeed, I would be most interested to see what you made of it, if you're ever inclined to plough through it. I came to it from much the same position you have - least worst option, decisive in ending the war, but it really won me over.

Regardless of whether we agree or not, it's delightful to have this kind of convo with people who know what they are talking about.
posted by smoke at 11:54 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Regarding Least-worst, I can't help but wonder what could have happened if the US had made it clear that they would keep the Emperor much, much earlier, and waited say a couple of weeks after Russia invaded Manchukuo.

Ham does bring up in the interview, the idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki frightened the world off from using bombs in the decades hence. Another intriguing hypothetical (though he dismisses it, I think you can at least argue they certainly added graver considerations to using them).
posted by smoke at 11:59 PM on February 7


frightened the world off from using bombs in the decades hence

This is more than a hypothetical I think. A serious argument could be presented that over the following years of the Cold War, there was never a 'Let's show those guys what we can do to them ...' type of consideration, because the example was already there. It could be said of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that 'They died, that others (perhaps all of us) might live.'
posted by woodblock100 at 1:01 AM on February 8


I was eleven years old when those bombs were dropped and even school children had had three and a half years of being afraid every day during that war. I don't think children have been very much aware of any war we've actually engaged in since then, although the Cold War certainly was taken to the classroom. Did they actually teach kids to 'duck and cover'?

WWII produced more American casualties than any war before or since, 1,078,162 casualties with 292,131 killed in action. It was frightening and demanding of all our resources to be engaged in war simultaneously in Europe and in the Pacific. Truman had no good choice, as has been said, only a least worst choice but he did have to make a choice.

I don't have the same assurance that I can discern what our President should have done in WWII that some people seem to have or that I feel about our wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. Our wars have always seemed to be about "those people" can't be allowed to do X and we are going to go and stop them but, in WWII in the Pacific, surely we remember Pearl Harbor. We are a hawkish nation and too often unjust but we didn't act unilaterally in the Pacific.
posted by Anitanola at 2:07 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Anitanola: "Did they actually teach kids to 'duck and cover'?"

Yes. I was scared of nuclear attack most of my early teens.
posted by Mitheral at 8:00 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


The firebombing of Tokyo killed many thousands more people...

More from Restricted Data – Who Made That Firebomb?:
The incendiary raids against Japan dropped numerous types of bombs in different combinations. But the one to focus on, because of its ubiquity and importance in the Pacific theatre, is the AN-M69 Incendiary Bomb. This was a cluster-based napalm weapon developed by the Standard Oil Company, specifically designed to destroy Japanese civilian houses. The most common cluster assembly (the M19) held 38 individual AN-M69s and would release them 5,000 feet above the target. The wind would catch their parachute streams, moving them apart from one another and orienting them nose-down. (Doing this would also arm the bombs by pulling out their safety plungers.) After impact, the bombs would wait 3 to 5 seconds, seemingly inactive. This is to make sure each one is lying on its side, so that, finally, a stream of burning napalm would be explosively blasted out of the tail: “If unobstructed, the burning fuel charge will travel up to 300 ft horizontally, and when it strikes a surface, the flaming fuel charge smears out producing a mass of flames 6 to 10 ft high.”

Each B-29 could carry 40 clusters in their bomb bays. So that’s 1,520 AN-M69s per plane, and the raids could range from dozens to hundreds of planes. You can do the math, there. Over 40,000 tons of AN-M69s were dropped on Japanese cities during the war. It took about 125 tons per square mile to completely burn out an area of a Japanese city. The AN-M69 had, a once-classified postwar report announced triumphantly, “the highest fire-starting efficiency per cluster, or per ton, or per bomber of any incendiary bomb” developed during the war.
Hellfire and brimstone, delivered from the sky onto your doorstep by the power of science and industry.
posted by cenoxo at 8:24 AM on February 8


Japan Air Raids.org – Welcome to JapanAirRaids.org, a digital archive dedicated to the international dissemination of information about the air raids conducted by the United States Army Air Forces and Navy against Japan ... these materials include: public domain primary and secondary source documents; air raid survivor accounts; discussion of the “on the ground” effects of air raids ; and analyses of the U.S. strategic bombing campaign itself.
posted by cenoxo at 8:52 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Many of them from well-considered positions

Is that a nice and cozy position where they've never had their friends or relatives crushed by their own house? Apparently a "well-considered" opinion can overlook those dirty details in favor of bullshit speculation.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:12 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Brocktoon is right. The whole second half of this thread is bullshit speculation, which is worse than just bullshit.
posted by colie at 12:22 PM on February 8


Are you two for real?
posted by fatbird at 1:05 PM on February 8


Are you?
posted by colie at 1:14 PM on February 8


"The whole second half of this thread" is a rather indiscriminate target.

Such subtlety is thrilling to read.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 1:18 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Are you?

Well, I've been arguing from primary and secondary sources, I've been discussing the situation and considering various perspectives, and responding to counterarguments. I'm grappling with an historical event that's relevent to our recent history and our possible future. So yes, I'm for real.

You've been parading your disgust for us, and that's it, as if anything else is contemptible.
posted by fatbird at 1:21 PM on February 8 [4 favorites]


Brocktoon is right. The whole second half of this thread is bullshit speculation, which is worse than just bullshit.

Certainty doesn't make for very good history, I find. Little you've posted in this thread demonstrates you know very much about the bombings at all.
posted by smoke at 1:29 PM on February 8


What was the practical difference between a "conditional" and an "unconditional" surrender? Japan kept its emperor and historic territory; would things have been much different if the surrender was "conditional"? Also, was a conditional surrender actually offered, or was it just one of the things that was being discussed?
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:58 PM on February 8


The bomb sight used to direct the atomic bombs to their target was the Norden bombsight the secrecy of which was held to the the highest standard.
The ritual of using a Norden bombsight at air bases was rigid, (including its use at the McCook Army Air base). The bombsight was kept in a fortified storage building. When it was to be used, it would be brought out of the storage building by a contingent of armed guards. It was kept in a zippered bag until it was put in its place aboard a bomber (B-25, B-17, or B-29), by the plane's bombardier. Returning from a mission, the bombsight was again placed in its zippered bag, removed from the plane under the watch of an armed guard, and deposited back into its storage building, which was also under a constant guard
One of the key components of the bomb sight were the actual cross hairs the bombardier used for sighting. The cross hairs were made from actual human hair; specifically that of Mary Babnik Brown whose 34" long blonde hair at the time of her donation had never been treated with chemicals (besides pure soap) and never been ironed making it strong and ideal for use in the sight.

The bomb sight was the target of the largest German spy ring to operate on US soil. 32 agents of the Duquesne Spy Ring were eventually prosecuted for their efforts.
posted by Mitheral at 3:13 PM on February 8 [10 favorites]


Mitheral: Wow, that's an amazing story, thanks.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:24 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


What was the practical difference between a "conditional" and an "unconditional" surrender?

The Potsdam Declaration was that the allies would accept only unconditional surrender, which practically meant "we're not negotiating". The Emperor publicly rejected unconditional surrender, and the cabinet counteroffered, via Sato in Moscow, an end to hostilities, Japan withdraws from occupied territories, no foreign occupation of Japan, no war reparations, the Emperor retains his position (meaning the cabinet continues to rule Japan), and Japan handles its own disarmament and war crimes. To the extent the allies responded to the counteroffer, it was blanket rejection of negotiations, it was Potsdam or nothing. So, for historical purposes, we don't really know what the Japanese were willing to accept because negotiations never took place, so Togo's diary doesn't record cabinet discussions on actually surrendering until after the bombing of Hiroshima.

I'm uncertain at what point the allies allowed for retaining a figurehead emperor, specifically whether or not it was after Japan signalled its intent to surrender unconditionally (i.e., was it a concession after the fact for practical purposes of pacifying the Japanese, or was it actually a last-minute negotiation that broke a stalemate).
posted by fatbird at 3:29 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]


What was the practical difference between a "conditional" and an "unconditional" surrender?

As in all this, nobody can really know unless they can somehow access some large sample of timelines. Otherwise all you have are guesses, and mostly guesses that don't tell you much about what might have happened but really only tell you about the vaguely-moral sensibilities of the person making the guess. Much like all the discussion about whether the bomb was in some way necessary or what the consequences of not dropping it would be; obviously nobody can know within any reasonable margin of error.

As a matter of semi-legality, the difference is stark. A negotiated conditional surrender simply ends the war under whatever the terms were and doesn't affect anything not touched by the agreement. An unconditional surrender ends the existence of the losing polity, putting what had been its territory and people entirely under the control of the victor(s). At the end of the war, there simply was no such place as Germany or Japan any more -- there were just territorial zones occupied and totally controlled by France, Britain, the US, and the USSR. It seems pretty obvious that the UK and US had "learned" a "lesson" from the Great War, which ended with a relatively magnanimous armistice or surrender followed by a vindictive peace. Instead, the end of World War II was characterized by an absolute insistence on the total surrender of a completely defeated, broken, and starving enemy followed by a magnanimous peace.

In any case, at one extreme the practical difference may have been none whatsoever, a purely semantic piece of nonsense that would make no difference at all. At the other extreme, a conditional surrender might have set up a postwar period similar to that after the Great War and set us up for a third world war in the sixties or seventies fought with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Where in that continuum it would have fallen is simply not knowable, and not even amenable to reasonable guesses.

Japan kept its emperor and historic territory

That's one way to think about it. Another entirely valid way to think about it is that Japan lost absolutely all of its territory in the world upon its surrender and occupation by the US. At that point, there was no legal government of Japan except for the United States military, the emperor was the emperor of a nonexistent empire, and the continued existence of any sort of nation of Japan was entirely at the sufferance of the US.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:43 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


Which I think was the second most important lesson of the first World War and one we learned very well; absolute victory followed by a just, merciful peace.

Of course we completely failed to learn the most important lesson which is that war is awful and we shouldn't engage in it unless absolutely necessary. One out of two is better than zero out of two, I guess, but it's still not great.
posted by Justinian at 4:29 PM on February 8 [2 favorites]


One aspect of "unconditional surrender" was that, in WWI, Russia withdrew from the war unilaterally following the Russian Revolution, freeing up German troops for the Western Front and catching the allies by surprise. A big component of the agreement at Potsdam between Stalin, Churchil and Roosevelt was just that no one would negotiate a separate peace with either Germany or Japan--they were all in it together until until the Axis was totally defeated, and this made potential American negotiations with Japan fraught, not just in terms of domestic politics, but in terms of maintaining a much needed alliance.
posted by fatbird at 5:00 PM on February 8


Just finished reading the Wikipedia page on the surrender of Japan, which (assuming no gross mistakes in its recounting) makes a few things clear:
  1. Even after both bombs and the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuko, the same split in the cabinet remained between hawks and doves. The hawks continued to argue for no acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, right up until five days after Nagasaki when the Emperor finally declared his intent to the cabinet to accept Potsdam.
  2. Shortly after Nagasaki, the cabinet collectively responded to the Potsdam Declaration with conditional acceptance, the condition being that the Imperial gov't be preseverved, meaning Emperor and cabinet continue to rule Japan. Allies refuse.
  3. There was a brief cessation of attacks following Nagasaki, but after the Japanese signaled conditional acceptance, and then after a day failed to signal unconditional acceptance, air raids resumed on a massive (conventional) scale.
  4. The Emperor meets with the cabinet, informs them that he intends to accept Potsdam, listens to (and rejects) further arguments by the hawks to keep fighting, and instructs the cabinet to prepare for him to address the country. Cabinet meets afterwards, unanimously accepts the Emperor's will, coup attempt, next day the Emperor broadcasts his rescript including the famous phrase "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage".
So Japan surrendered by unconditional acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, and the retention of the Emperor (and not including him in the prosecution of war crimes) was at the discretion of the U.S. gov't., rather than part of a negotiated surrender. Hirohito apparently offered to take responsibility for the war and war crimes, and was refused.
posted by fatbird at 1:12 PM on February 10


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