Monday, January 28, 2013

Use of the Atomic Bomb

For some reason, I have always been fascinated and saddened by our use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese in WWII.  As Americans, we are supposed to be own the moral high ground yet we are the only country to actually use nuclear bombs as weapons of mass destruction. I always wondered whether there a way of either warning Japanese civilians or demonstrating the power of the weapon prior to its use. Were there other military targets that would have lessened the civilian impact? Why was the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki just three day later? Why not give the Japanese a chance to surrender after Hiroshima? 

In May of 1945, a secret Committee of American military, political, industrial and scientific leaders and British representatives (it was termed "interim" until Congress created a bill to more permanently deal with military and peace time use of nuclear energy) was formed to assist Secretary of War Henry Stimson on nuclear policy. Four scientists were added as advisors to the Committee including Professors Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer. During the Committee meeting on May 31, there was a debate regarding the use of atomic bombs against Japan. Most of the discussion concerned a possible technical demonstration of the bomb that may preclude its actual use. 
  • Would a failed demonstration have the opposite effect and somehow steel the Japanese resolve?Could it just make us an International laughing stock? 
  • Would Japanese observers believe what they saw and not think it was trickery of some sort?
  • Could we afford another bomb for demonstrations purposes as we only had enough fissionable material to make a few bombs
  • If they were warned, wouldn't the Japanese utilize all their available aircraft and radar to shoot down the plane carrying the bomb?
  • Would a staged demonstration in the desert have as much psychological impact or the modern term "shock and awe" as a surprise use of the bomb against a Japanese city?
Dr. Arthur Compton later recalled:

At the luncheon following the morning meeting, I was seated at Mr. Stimson's left. In the course of the conversation I asked the Secretary whether it might not be possible to arrange a nonmilitary demonstration of the bomb in such a manner that the Japanese would be so impressed that they would see the uselessness of continuing the war. The Secretary opened this question for general discussion by those at the table. Various possibilities were brought forward. One after the other it seemed necessary that they should be discarded. It was evident that everyone would suspect trickery. If a bomb were exploded in Japan with previous notice, the Japanese air power was still adequate to give serious interference. An atomic bomb was an intricate device, still in the developmental stage. Its operation would be far from routine. If during the final adjustments of the bomb the Japanese defenders should attack, a faulty move might easily result in some kind of failure. Such an end to an advertised demonstration of power would be much worse that if the attempt had not been made. It was now evident that when the time came for the bombs to be used we should have only one of them available, followed afterwards by others at all-too-long intervals. We could not afford the chance that one of them might be a dud. If the test were made on some neutral territory, it was hard to believe that Japan's determined and fanatical military men would be impressed. If such an open test were made first and failed to bring surrender, the chance would be gone to give the shock of surprise that proved so effective. On the contrary, it would make the Japanese ready to interfere with an atomic attack if they could. Though the possibility of a demonstration that would not destroy human lives was attractive, no one could suggest a way in which it could be made so convincing that it would be likely to stop the war.

After luncheon, the Interim Committee went into executive session. Our Scientific Panel was then again invited in. We were asked to prepare a report as to whether we could devise any kind of demonstration that would seem likely to bring the war to an end without using the bomb against a live target.

Ten days later, at Oppenheimer's invitation, Lawrence, Fermi, and I spend a long week end at Los Alamos. We were keenly aware of our responsibility as the scientific advisers to the Interim Committee. Among our colleagues were the scientists who supported Franck in suggesting a nonmilitary demonstration only . We thought of the fighting men who were set for an invasion which would be so very costly in both American and Japanese lives. We were determined to find, if we could, some effective way of demonstrating the power of an atomic bomb without loss of life that would impress Japan's warlords. If only this could be done!

Ernest Lawrence was the last one of our group to give up hope for finding such a solution. The difficulties of making a purely technical demonstration that would carry its impact effectively into Japan's controlling councils were indeed great. We had to count on every possible effort to distort even obvious facts. Experience with the determination of Japan's fight men made it evident that the war would not be stopped unless these men themselves were convinced of its futility.

The summary conclusion in the May 31 Committee report stated :

...that the weapon be used against Japan at the earliest opportunity, that it be used without warning, and that it be used on a dual target, namely, a military installation or war plant surrounded by or adjacent to homes or other buildings most susceptible to damage. 

A recommendation memorandum issued by the Scientific Panel to the Interim Committee on July 16, also stated:

...we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.

But the July 16 recommendation also illustrated the deep divide within the scientific community: 

The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon

Many of the scientists who were working in the Bomb project believed that the use of the Bomb could be a deterrent to future wars not just a way to end the war with Japan. This utopian belief was voiced by Niels Bohr and championed by Robert Oppenheimer. Dr. Compton' explained this view:

We were glad and proud to have had a part in making the power of the atom available for the use of man. What a tragedy it was that this power should become available first in time of war and that it must first be used for human destruction. If, however, it would result in the shortening of the war and the saving of lives--if it would mean bringing us closer to the time when war would be abandoned as a means of setting international disputes--here must be our hope and our basis for courage.

This belief was not shared by other scientists including Leo Szilard whose letter in 1939 co-signed by Albert Einstein originally convinced FDR to begin a bomb development effort. They felt that the military use of the bomb against Japan was morally wrong and would lead to an International nuclear arms race. 

Unfortunately, neither Bohr or Szilard were proven correct. The bomb did not end all future wars. As to the hope that not using the bomb would lead to International cooperation? Morality and altruism did not win the day. An arms race was inevitable. 

The Soviets would already knew about the Manhattan Project when Stalin was told by President Truman about the successful Trinity bomb test of July 16 at the Potsdam conference on July 26. They had multiple spies within the Manhattan Project itself. It was later revealed that Klaus Fuchs, a scientist with the British contingent at Los Alamos, and David Greenglass, an engineer and brother-in-law to Julius Rosenberg had fed atomic secrets and documents to Soviet agents. In the 1990s, with the declassification of Soviet intelligence materials, which showed the extent and the type of the information obtained by the Soviets from US sources, a heated debate ensued in Russia and abroad as to the relative importance of espionage, as opposed to the Soviet scientists' own efforts, in the making of the Soviet bomb. The vast majority of scholars agree that whereas the Soviet atomic project was first and foremost a product of local expertise and scientific talent, it is clear that espionage efforts contributed to the project in various ways and most certainly shortened the time needed to develop Soviet atomic bombs. 

In addition to the actual use of the bomb, I was always troubled by the targeting of cities and the concommitant large civilian casualties. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizeable garrison.

On May 10-11,1945 a committee of Los Alamos leaders led by General Leslie Groves met to discuss targeting of the atomic bombs against Japan. Possible targets were based on the following qualifications:

(1) they be important targets in a large urban area of more than three miles in diameter, (2) they be capable of being damaged effectively by a blast, and (3) they are unlikely to be attacked by next August. 

Hiroshima was listed as a high potential target along with Kyoto, the former capital of Japan (Note: Nagasaki eventually replaced Kyoto on the list. I can only imagine the death and devastation if the bomb was dropped on a city with a population of 1 million people) :

Hiroshima - This is an important army depot and port of embarkation in the middle of an urban industrial area. It is a good radar target and it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focussing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage. Due to rivers it is not a good incendiary target. 

The report specifially mentioned the psychological impact of using the bomb on these locations:

It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released.

Unfortunately cities with large civilian targets had to be considered as primary targets. Earlier conventional air attacks initially targeted key industrial facilities. From March 1945, they were frequently directed against urban areas mainly because Japanese authorities dispersed the industrial equipment and machinery throughout the nearby cities to limit the effects of the bombings. The line between military and civilian, residential, and industrial was often non-existent.

Another major factor in the use of the bomb was averting a full scale invasion of the Japanese mainland. Yes, the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was horrific but how many more Japanese and Allied lives would have been lost if the bombs were not used? An invasion was already planned for November 1, 1945 of the southernmost main Japanese island, Kyūshū and a second operation for the capture of the Kantō Plain, near Tokyo on the Japanese island of Honshū scheduled for March 1946.  

Upon hearing of the successful Trinity test of the bomb in New Mexico on July 16, Winston Churchill said:

Up to this moment we had shaped our ideas towards an assault upon the homeland of Japan by terrific air bombing and by the invasion of very large armies. We had contemplated the desperate resistance of the Japanese fighting to the death with Samurai devotion, not only in pitched battles, but in every cave and dug-out. I had in my mind the spectacle of Okinawa island, where many thousands of Japanese, rather than surrender, had drawn up in a line and destroyed themselves by hand-grenades after their leaders had solemnly performed the rite of harakiri . To quell the Japanese resistance man by man and conquer the country yard by yard might well require the loss of a million American lives and half that number of British --or more if we could get them there: for we were resolved to share the agony. Now all this nightmare picture had vanished. In its place was the vision --fair and bright indeed it seemed --of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks....

The Japanese were also given both official and unofficial opportunities to surrender prior to the use of the bombs in August 1945.  Strategic bombing in 1945 (including the use of incendiary "fire" bombing) was devastating Japan. By mid July, US Military Intelligence had intercepted and decoded secret messages that suggested key members of the Japanese government were trying to find a way to terminate the war. The actual terms were unimportant so long as the term "unconditional surrender" was not used.

At the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945, a declaration was issued by the Allies that listed the terms of Japanese surrender. The declaration called for the immediate and unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces. This ultimatum stated that, if Japan did not surrender, it would face "prompt and utter destruction" although the document did not make any mention of atomic weapons

The Japanese government did not disclose the declaration to the Japanese people. However, the ultimatum was broadcast to the Japanese Home Islands on the radio while leaflets describing it were dropped from American bombers. Although picking up leaflets and listening to foreign radio broadcasts had been banned by the government, the American propaganda efforts were successful in making the key points of the declaration known to most Japanese. As a result, Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki felt compelled to meet the Japanese press, to whom he reiterated his government's commitment to ignore the Allies' demands and fight on. The major stumbling block was the demand for unconditional surrender. The Japanese wanted to keep their Emperor and their form of government. While holding to their absolutist religious and cultural beliefs and without considering the fatal impact on their people, the Japanese government refused and the war continued.

In a letter dated January 12, 1952, President Truman described his understanding of the necessity of using atomic bombs to end World War II. 

I asked General Marshall what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy. The other military and naval men present agreed. I asked Secretary Stimson which sites in Japan were devoted to war production. He promptly named Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among others. We sent an ultimatum to Japan. It was rejected.

I ordered atomic bombs dropped on the two cities named on the way back from Potsdam...Dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives, and gave the free nations a chance to face the facts. "

One final item-on August 15,1945 Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan has lost the war in a radio broadcast to his nation. "Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers". 

Amazingly, just one day before the Emperor's announcement, a military coup was attempted by the Staff Office of the Ministry of War of Japan and by many from the Imperial Guard of Japan in order to stop the move to surrender. In my opinion, this dispels the conclusion from the post-war US Strategic Bombing Summary report that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.

After years of internal debate, my opinion has changed. What I never fully comprehended was that the Manhattan project was not an academic exercise to see if a bomb could be developed. It was a military operation to develop a super-weapon that could affect the outcome of WW II. A weapon that was always intended to be used against our enemies. 

I now believe that the atomic bomb was the right thing to use against Japan. If it did not directly end WW II, it certainly hastened the Japanese government's decision to surrender. By avoiding the invasion of the Japanese mainland, Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually prevented hundreds of thousands of military and civilian causalities that would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Also an arms race with the Russians was inevitable whether we used to the bomb against Japan or not. 

Finally, I realized that the use of the bomb must be viewed through the lens of war.  In many ways, it is very easy to sit back with almost 70 years of hindsight and ask how certain decisions would avoid the loss of life. But what political or military leader when faced with an intractable fanatic enemy would not use a weapon that could immediately end the most devastating war in human history.