The question persists after 71 years about whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. Was there an alternative that could have prevented the destruction of those cities and the deaths of some 200,000 (we’ll never know for sure how many) people?
Yes, there was another way, but it would have ultimately caused far more bloodshed than the atomic attacks of August 1945.
The combined work of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Naval Adm. Chester Nimitz had reversed virtually all of Japan’s military conquests by mid-1945. But the victories were costly. The Japanese remained as entrenched as ever. And there were still the home islands of Japan to be conquered.
MacArthur started developing a plan for the invasion of Japan in early 1945. He had no illusions about the difficulty of what lay ahead. The Japanese Army had been decimated in the Pacific, but there were still two million active duty Japanese soldiers on the home islands. In addition, the Japanese homeland defense campaign – the Ketsu Operation – was prepared to turn every man, woman, and child old enough to carry a weapon into a guerilla fighter.
MacArthur’s plan, called Operation Downfall, consisted of two separate segments: Olympic and Coronet. First would come a massive U.S. naval and air bombardment the likes of which had yet to be seen in the Pacific war. Then, Operation Olympic would kick off an invasion of the southernmost island of Kyushu.
When the war in Europe ended in May, Olympic was scheduled for November 1, 1945. Coronet was to follow on March 1, 1946, with the goal of invading the island of Honshu, destroying the Japanese Army on the Kanto Plain, then seizing the Tokyo area.
Downfall was epic in scale, dwarfing the Normandy invasion in Europe a year earlier. Olympic called for an invasion force of over 700,000 men, while Coronet would have hit Honshu with 40 divisions. By comparison, the U.S. deployed 12 divisions on D-Day.
By late 1945, America possessed the most massive war machine the world had ever seen. With Nazi Germany out of the way, MacArthur had all the support he would ever need to complete his mission. But Downfall was still something of a gamble.
MacArthur privately confided to Secretary of War Henry Stimson that Downfall would cost a million American casualties, with over 250,000 dead. To put that number in perspective, just over 400,000 Americans were killed in all of World War II. Estimates of Japanese deaths in Downfall reached between five and ten million.
How long could Japan withstand such a pounding? Would their will to resist outlast American tolerance for such a high number of soldiers getting killed in the field? With history unfolding as it did, we never had to find out.
It’s hard to see how people can tie themselves in knots over the use of Fat Man and Little Boy when it is plainly evident that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was far less costly in terms of lives than Operation Downfall.
We have a duty to remember what was the general mindset that led to these decisions at the time. The world had been embroiled in bloodshed and savagery for almost six years, with sixty million people dead. It was time to bring the killing to an end in short order, and we used nuclear weapons to do it. I hope we never have to do so again, but in 1945 we did what we had to do. And there should be no guilt over it.