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Alternative to blast was many deaths

By Josh Ushay - posted Wednesday, 10 August 2005

Last Saturday markeds the 60th anniversary of US President Harry S.Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in World War II. It is clear that Truman’s decision was a watershed event in world history.

It represented a stark and sobering reality unprecedented in human experience: never before had humankind had the capacity to destroy itself so efficiently. Unlike the invention of the crossbow and the discovery of gunpowder, the dawn of the nuclear age demonstrated that war now had the potential to destroy human existence altogether, rather than serve as a means to an end as it had in the past.

It is also clear that Truman’s decision proved to be decisive as much as it was divisive. The ongoing historical debate between supporters and detractors represents one of many times in history were both sides raise compelling points of view. The anti-American ideologues, however, are a glaring exception. While moderate critics present a strong and perhaps convincing case, the more recent charge that Hiroshima was the first act of nuclear terrorism and that Truman, as a result, should have been tried as a war criminal, borders on the preposterous.


Moderate critics, firstly, raise some fair and valid points. There is evidence to suggest that Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks were more a means through which to curb potential Soviet expansionism than they were an effort to end World War II. Because the United States seemed to disregard a number of ambiguous peace feelers emanating from the Japanese Government prior to the attacks, it can be persuasively argued that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were actually not-so-subtle reminders that the United States was serious in its requests for a liberal democratic post-war Europe, rather than an attempt to nullify an immediate threat to global peace and security.

The fact that the United States failed to seriously consider any alternatives to the atomic bomb and the fact that Japan was considered by some to have been on the brink of collapse anyway, means that Truman’s decision to risk immense civilian destruction - from what was at best a secondary war imperative - was unnecessary, and therefore, unjustified.

What is neither fair nor valid, however, is the idea that there exists some sort of moral equivalency between Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons in World War II and the actions of figures like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tsung, Slobodan Milosevic or Osama Bin Laden. Conclusions such as these are dubious, to say the very least. Apart from trying to find evidence to fit a pre-existing, ideologically driven conclusion, they ignore and disregard a number of critical counter-arguments.

History has revealed that the major alternative to the atomic attacks was an allied invasion of the Japanese islands. The reason why this was overlooked stemmed directly from the American perception of the Japanese military: a perception that was not unreasonable given the evidence available at the time.

Japan’s conduct on the world stage up until that point suggested it was a fanatical power who would seek its ends through all means necessary. The tendency of the Japanese military to fight to the last man and kill as many of the enemy as possible; its employment of kamikaze suicide bombers on American navy carriers; its documented treatment of POW’s; and its largely unprovoked pre-emptive strike on American forces at Pearl Harbor, seemed to make clear to Truman that the only way of defeating an extremist power like Japan was through extreme measures.

Rather than risk an estimated 200,000-300,000 American lives in a Japanese invasion, American officials therefore decided the atomic bomb was the most effective means through which to make the futility of continuing hostilities absolutely clear.


And, using the atomic bomb against Japan had other advantages. It meant the United States had an ultimate, and at least temporary, guarantee of security if the Soviet Union decided to be as aggressive as many at the time were beginning to believe.

Whether or not the ends justified the means, therefore, is a legitimate question for legitimate debate, and one that will no doubt continue to polarise opinion in the years to come. But to base such opinion on a deeply prejudiced anti-militarist, anti-American world-view that excludes crucial evidence, means that those towards the middle of the road are the ones that have the most credibility.

Was the decision to drop the atomic bomb a complicated one? Certainly. Was Truman a terrorist or a war criminal for doing so? Certainly not.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on August 6, 2005.

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About the Author

Josh Ushay lectures in American foreign policy and international security at the Queensland University of Technology.

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