Aug. 10, 1995
Ever since the Smithsonian Institution earlier this year tried to
give us all a guilty conscience about the B-29 named Enola Gay,
we've been inundated with a torrent of breastbeating about the
dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The 50th anniversary of
August 6, 1945 is supposed to make us all hang our heads in shame.
Newsweek accompanied pages of ugly pictures with a poll reporting
that Americans now think dropping the bomb on Japan was "wrong."
But the poll demographics tell a different story. The senior
citizens whose lives were on the line in World War II approve of
the bombing, while the younger generations that don't remember
World War II have the luxury of sanctimonious second-guessing.
For the men who fought World War II, the atom bomb was a lifesaver
in every meaning of the word. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima meant
the difference between life and death to hundreds of thousands of
our best and brightest young men.
Dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima meant that those fine young
American men could come home, grow up to live normal lives, marry
and raise families, instead of dying a tortured death 5,000 miles
away. The lucky ones would have identifiable graves.
What the Hiroshima bomb accomplished was to preempt General George
Marshall's horrendous plan to defeat Japan: an island-by-island
invasion at a projected cost of a half million American deaths.
The first phase, called Operation Olympic, would have sent 650,000
American servicemen starting November 1, 1945 to try to capture the
island of Kyushu. It would have been a slaughter because the
Japanese were prepared to defend Kyushu with 540,000 troops and
5,000 kamikaze planes.
The follow-up invasion, called Operation Coronet, was scheduled to
start the drive toward Tokyo on March 1, 1946. U.S. plans
projected an invasion force of two million men.
Marshall couldn't have had any illusions about the hideous human
cost of such an island-by-island invasion. Iwo Jima had given us
On February 19, 1945, 30,000 Marines landed on that little five-
mile island, and five days later planted the U.S. flag, an event
immortalized in the most famous war photograph in history. When
the Iwo Jima battle ended a month later, the price we had paid for
raising our flag was 26,000 casualties including more than 6,800
dead (including three of the six men in the photograph).
Japanese soldiers were tough fighters. Under orders not to be
captured alive, only 1,000 were taken prisoner while 22,000 died
defending Iwo Jima.
With those kinds of casualty figures, only a reckless disregard of
American lives could cause a U.S. leader to send American troops to
invade Japanese home islands. But that was the Marshall plan, even
though he knew from the coded messages we had intercepted that
Japan planned to defend its home islands with 2.3 million troops,
another four million Army and Navy employees, and an armed militia
of 28 million, all sworn to fight to the death.
Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman's military adviser, predicted that
30 to 35 percent of U.S. soldiers would be killed or wounded during
the first 30 days of an invasion of Japan. The Hiroshima bomb
saved those lives, as well as those of about 400,000 Allied
prisoners of war and civilian detainees held by the Japanese, whom
Japan had planned to execute in the event of an American invasion.
President Harry (the buck stops here) Truman didn't have any
difficulty making the atom bomb decision, and he shouldn't have.
He told reporters in 1947 that "I didn't have any doubts at the
time" because the decision saved 250,000 to 500,000 American lives.
"I'd do it again," Truman said in 1956. In 1962, he added, "I knew
I'd done the right thing."
Nor did other Americans at the time have any qualms about the loss
of life in the country that had started the war with a sneak attack
on Pearl Harbor. Newsweek, for example, cheered the fact that
"perhaps one million persons were made homeless" by our firebombing
The argument is made today that we should not have dropped the bomb
because "Japan was already seeking to surrender." In an interview
with veteran journalist Philip Clarke in 1962, Truman answered,
"The bombs were dropped after Japan had been warned that we had
discovered the greatest explosive in the history of the world and
then we asked them to surrender. They did not do it."
Japan didn't even surrender after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped.
It took the second atom bomb at Nagasaki, three days later, to
induce Japan to surrender.
Instead of being haunted by the ghosts of Hiroshima, Americans
today should remember the American heroes of Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal,
Midway, and Okinawa, and rejoice that the survivors of those bloody
battles lived to come home to America instead of being killed on
the beaches of Japan.