[This essay first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason on August 5, 2003 — FWP]
Once upon a time, a group of gamblers who controlled the nation of Japan looked around them at a vista that gleamed with opportunity. A host of prizes stood temptingly near, theirs for the taking. There loomed but one hazard: America, a large, wealthy, but martially disinclined nation at the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean. There was a chance, small but not to be dismissed, that America would object to Japan’s imperial ambitions in the Pacific, owing to its Hawaiian and Philippine possessions. That risk bothered some of the Japanese oligarchs greatly.
The Tojo faction believed it necessary to eliminate the American threat by destroying the United States Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor. The Yamamoto faction believed that this would increase the risks; that, even if its Pacific Fleet were destroyed, if America did not immediately sue for peace, American industrial strength converted into an instrument of war would crush Japan utterly.
The Tojo faction prevailed. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbor in the most consequential act of war since the Battle of Waterloo. The battleship flotilla of the United States Pacific Fleet was destroyed, along with seventeen hundred American casualties.
On December 8, Admiral Yamamoto’s nightmare materialized: Congress voted to declare war on the Empire of Japan.
It wasn’t until the Battle of Midway that it became clear that America would defeat Japan. During the first months of the conflict, the Japanese enjoyed success after success. America was still learning how to use the new weapons of maritime combat, the aircraft carrier and the submarine, in an effective way. However, after the stunning defeat dealt to the Japanese at Midway, it could no longer be doubted that America would prevail. Tojo’s gamble had failed.
Gambling is an essential aspect of Weltpolitik. One can never predict the actions or reactions of other nations with certainty; different cultures value particular things, such as surrender, subjugation, and “face,” quite differently. More, one can never be perfectly sure that one’s armed forces will prevail in some imagined contest. For there is always a maximum price one is willing to pay for victory.
American arms surged across the Pacific, recapturing the Japanese strongholds one at a time in bloody battles that cost thousands of lives and have given rise to some of the most exciting war stories ever recorded. The naval war gradually became a matter of attrition and suppression, as American submarines and patrol boats interdicted those strongholds against resupply from Japan’s Home Islands.
But the Japanese, though thoroughly beaten and fully aware of it as early as New Year’s Day of 1945, would not surrender. Japanese pride would not permit it. Tojo and his associates could not face the prospect of humbling themselves before gaijin conquerors, or worse, being tried for war crimes committed in Burma, Korea, Manchuria and the Philippines. Though they had gambled and lost, they refused to fold their cards. They stayed at the table, increasing their stake to the complete destruction of the Home Islands.
So American air power, launched from bases dotted around the western Pacific, commenced the reduction of the Japanese military-industrial base. Huge bombing sorties darkened the skies of Japan’s major cities, carpet-bombing industrial centers until not a roof could be seen for miles around. Japan’s air defenses proved unable to stop them.
But the Japanese still refused to surrender. Saving face and averting humiliation before the despised white race remained more important still.
In the early summer of 1945, with the war in Europe concluded, American war planners tried to assess what it would cost to defeat Japan on its own soil. Their predictions were frightening. Most of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe would have to circle the globe to invade Japan. Casualty estimates from the urban combat the planners foresaw were horrendous. The worst case figures hovered near a million American dead: five times our total losses in the European theater.
President Truman had to decide how much he was willing to pay to compel an unconditional Japanese surrender. Pacifying Japan, which had proved itself to be the most aggressively inclined of all the Pacific states, was important, but was it important enough to spill that much American blood?
The arrival of the atomic bomb gave Truman a new option, and a new risk. After the tests at White Sands, it was clear that America had a superweapon at its disposal. However, the supply of such weapons was not large. At that time, the refinement of fissionable uranium 235 was done by cyclotron, and it was not a rapid process.
Truman had to choose among a number of risky courses: an amphibious invasion of Japan that would strain American naval power to its limits and take a dreadful toll in American lives; a demonstration to Japanese witnesses of what the new weapons could do, without actually using them against a Japanese target, in the hopes that it would be enough to evoke surrender; or the atomic bombardment of one or more Japanese military-industrial centers.
On August 6, 1945, Truman ordered the atomic bombing of one of three Japanese cities. Kokuru, the first city on the target list, was bypassed because of forbidding cloud cover. Hiroshima, the second target, wasn’t that lucky. “Little Boy,” a 12 KT weapon, was delivered to it by the Enola Gay, a B-29 commanded by Col. Paul Tibbets.
The Japanese surrender was still not forthcoming. On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, immediately moving into Manchuria and Sakhalin Island and cutting all communication between those regions and the Home Islands.
On August 9, Nagasaki was atomic-bombed by “Fat Man,” a 20 KT weapon. Truman swore that further resistance by Japan would bring a rain of atomic fury that would leave the Home Islands a heap of lifeless ash From that moment until August 11, when Japan’s Emperor broadcast his nation’s surrender, the entire Truman Administration held its breath.
There were no more atomic bombs. Truman’s threat of the atomic destruction of Japan was a pure bluff.
The gamble paid off. Japan capitulated, Tojo and his principal henchmen were tried and executed for war crimes, and with time and American supervision, Japan learned the ways of peace.
But there were other gambles as well. Why not compel capitulation by destroying Tokyo? It would have eliminated the Japanese military command and left the Home Islands completely passive before an American occupation. Surely the idea occurred to the president and his war planners. Was the projected cost in Japanese lives too high?
What if either Little Boy or Fat Man had failed to detonate? The loss of face to the United States, and the increase in the will to resist of the Japanese, would have been considerable. With no more fissionable uranium, America would have been hard pressed to try again.
Finally, what if, after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan had still refused to surrender? Even as the Emperor capitulated, troops loyal to the Tojo faction were assaulting the radio station, trying to prevent the broadcast. Had they succeeded, how would the war have continued? Would the invasion of the Home Islands by American troops have gone forward as previously envisioned? What would the cost in lives have been? Would the Soviets have seized still more Asian territory, perhaps the whole of Korea and one or two of the Home Islands as well?
We will never know. What we do know underlines what a risky business war is, how many uncertainties it holds, and how much faith in oneself and one’s cause is required to set forth to war at all.
And we know this: even a victorious war is horrible. A war accurately remembered contains infinitely more grief and terror than triumph or martial pride. Even for those wars that must be fought, even when all goes according to plan, the best caption for any war is the one uttered to the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, fifty-eight years ago tomorrow, by Col. Tibbets as he banked the Enola Gay into its return flight and viewed what military science had done: