The question as to whether or not the United States was morally correct in its decision to drop atomic bombs against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will likely never be settled. There are individuals in both camps who provide legitimate arguments for and against taking this action.
What we must not forget about are the horrors that come when atomic or nuclear weapons are used against cities. The widespread devastation from the initial blast instantly kills military targets and civilians. Then the radioactive fallout that occurs afterward can kill hundreds of thousands more through cancer, genetic mutation, and birth defects. That’s why some say that the use of these weapons is never justified.
At the same time, proponents will claim that the only way to end a war is to take unpalatable actions that force an end to the conflict for good.
It is easy to look at the advantages and disadvantages of dropping the atomic bomb through the lens of history. These key points reflect more of the struggle that decision-makers faced in 1945 when the time came to hit the release button.
List of the Advantages of Dropping the Atomic Bomb
1. It served as retribution for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Proponents point out that it was Japan who launched an unprovoked attack against the United States to bring Americans into World War II in the first place. Congress never declared war on Germany either. The first declarations came in response to the attack that took more than 2,400 lives on December 7, 1941. The Japanese intended the attack to be a preventative action that would keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering in Southeast Asia. Dropping the atomic bomb was a fitting conclusion.
2. Dropping the bombs changed the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although devastating to the civilian populations in each city, changed the nature of the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the European front resolved its conflict, tensions quickly rose between the Americans and the Russians about what to do in the Pacific theater. Dropping the atomic bombs was a direct declaration of military might.
Since the U.S.S.R. was lagging behind in the race for nuclear armament, it placed the Americans in a position where their country would become the only true superpower after 1945.
3. A traditional invasion could have cost many more lives.
The most common advantage usually cited for dropping the atomic bombs is that the action would spare more lives than it cost. There had been recent battles at Okinawa and Iwo Jima that had already cost the American military forces thousands of lives. Over 418,000 people had already been killed fighting this war that never reached U.S. shores. Everyone was tired of the conflict by the time the two atomic bombs were ready to be dropped. Add in the kamikaze attacks from the Japanese, and the world wanted the conflict to be over. A significant death toll on Japanese soil would be the only way to end the war because everyone would have fought until their dying breath otherwise.
Up to 226,000 people were killed during the two bombings, which is far less than the estimates of 1 million to 10 million casualties predicted with a traditional invasion.
4. It stopped the Russians from further invading Japan.
The Soviet-Japanese War is a component of World War II not often discussed. The Soviet Union declared war against Japan on August 8, and then quickly invaded Manchukuo the next day to terminate control over the puppet state. The defeat of the Kwantung Army helped to facilitate the country’s surrender only a week later. The Japanese had hoped that the Russians would act as a third-party facilitator to end the war, but this action became a significant component of the eventual surrender.
Dropping the atomic bombs prevented the Russians from fully taking over the island nation with their proximity to it. This action preserved American interests in the region as well following the Potsdam Declaration that called for the surrender to take place. The Soviet Union was already claiming European territory. It wasn’t much of a stretch to think that they’d want Japan as well.
5. The atomic weapons created the longest era of continued peace in human history.
The governments of the world began to shift their priorities from conquest and colonization to rebuilding and wealth management after World War II. It created the United Nations, an “upgraded” version of the League of Nations that tried to form after the first world war. The developed countries of the world, including those with communist tendencies, looked for ways to limit the influence of adverse authoritarianism in the world.
Even when you include the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the modern conflict against terrorism, there have been fewer conflicts between major nations since 1950 than at any other point in recorded human history.
6. Allied forces had already tried conventional weapons without success.
During a campaign in March 1945, bombers flew over Tokyo to release conventional bombs on Japan. There were over 100,000 people killed during these attacks, equal to the devastation that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The only difference was that there wasn’t any radioactive fallout that occurred afterward. This assault on one of Japan’s primary cities didn’t stop the kamikaze attacks or movements in Southeast Asia. If anything, the mission seemed to intensify the desire of the Japanese to bunker down.
It was the radioactive threat in combination with the Potsdam Declaration promising “utter destruction” that finally broke the resolve of the Japanese.
7. The two cities were already on the schedule for conventional bombing.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were selected by the U.S. leadership because of their strategic influence for Japan. Military commanders were planning a conventional bombing campaign against the two communities if the government decided not to go through with their plans for the atomic weapons. After the results in Tokyo a few months before, there is no reason to think that the number of casualties would have been any less. The only disadvantage between the traditional and atomic approach was the threat of radiation, which was why the decision to move forward was eventually made.
8. The decision to use atomic bombs was not entirely an American decision.
The Quebec Agreement fused the Manhattan Project and the Tube Alloys Project into the Combined Policy Committee to control the joint development of atomic weapons. The United States and the U.K. both agreed not to use the bombs against each other or pass data on to other countries. It also gave the Americans veto power over the post-war commercial or industrial uses of this technology.
The British had to give permission for the atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan for it to be a legal act of war at the time. The Quebec Agreement was signed in August 1943, and permission to deploy the weapons against Japan was granted in July 1945.
List of the Disadvantages of Dropping the Atomic Bomb
1. The attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki involved mostly civilians.
The goal of attacking the two Japanese cities was to reduce the desire for conflict in the Japanese culture. The American government targeted Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of the military influences in each community. Although there was an effort to spare civilians from the atrocities of this weapon, up to 126,000 civilians were killed in Hiroshima, outnumbering military deaths by a 5-to-1 ratio. It was even worse in Nagasaki, where up to 80,000 civilians were killed and an estimated 150 soldiers. If any other country at any other time in history killed that many non-combatants, U.S. officials would have been brought up on war crimes.
2. Americans killed allied forces with their atomic bombs.
There were at least 12 American prisoners of war who were killed during the atomic bombing in Japan. Both were from B-24 bomber groups: the Lonesome Lady and the Taloa. Another casualty came about from the FGF Hellcat that took off from the USS Randolph, a young man named John Hantschel. There were at least 7 Dutch POWs and 1 British POW held in captivity that lost their lives during this incident as well. The same justification for dropping the bombs is used to support this outcome. If a traditional invasion had occurred, their lives would have likely been lost anyway.
The 12 POWs from the U.S. are remembered at the Hiroshima memorial with the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs. Normand Brissette was one of them, and his family says that you can’t go to the Peace Memorial Park without knowing that the goal is to never have atomic/nuclear weapons launched against cities ever again.
3. It placed the value of American lives over those of the Japanese.
After the Manhattan Project completed the work of the atomic bombs and made them available for release, President Harry S Truman assembled a committee to consider the question of initiating an assault with this technology. The group was chaired by the Secretary of War at the time, Henry Stimson. The group came to a robust consensus that using the bombs was the only choice because that solution would likely end the conflict without more American families losing loved ones to the war.
None of the survivor stories of the Japanese bombings are as profound as that of Sakue Shimohira from Nagasaki. Her older brother and father had already been killed in the war. There was an air raid warning, so everyone went into the shelter. Her 16-year-old brother Masuichi had told her about the bombing in Hiroshima and how it had happened after the all clear, so she stayed when everyone else left. That bomb would kill her mother, sisters, and 1,400 of the students at her school. Three days later, the radiation exposure would kill her brother too.
4. The war was already almost over when the bombs were dropped.
Although we will never know for certain what would have happened if the atomic bombs hadn’t been launched, Japan was already at the cusp of defeat. Their kamikaze suicide attacks were a last desperate effort to stop the naval blockade that reduced access to supplies. Conventional bombing of military targets would have eventually eliminated any defensive resources without the devastation of a radioactive device that took hundreds of thousands of lives. It may have been only weeks or a couple of months before the Japanese eventually surrendered anyway.
Even Stimson, who campaigned for launching the bombs, said, “Japan had no allies. Its navy was almost destroyed. Its islands were under a naval blockade, and its cities were undergoing concentrated air attacks.”
5. Innocent people not involved in the conflict were harmed by the bombs.
Sadako Sasaki was only 2 when the atomic bomb fell out of the sky on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The impact of the weapon was felt near her home, but she was able to survive the initial blast just one mile away from ground zero. Caught in the black rain afterward, she would develop acute malignant lymph gland leukemia. Many of the children of the city experienced a similar diagnosis because of their exposure.
Sasaki believed that if she were to fold enough paper cranes, then she would be able to survive her cancer. Her goal was to create 1,000 of them, but she only folded 644 before passing away. Her family and friends completed the task, and then buried them with her. At the city’s museum and memorial visitors are encouraged to fold cranes during their visit to promote world peace. President Obama folded some that are currently on display there.
6. There were numerous child victims born after the bombings.
Japan experienced a sharp increase in the number of birth defects after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We know now that any exposure of 0.2 Gy or greater faces an increased risk when having children. The Japanese never documented the number of miscarriages and stillbirths that happened in the decade after the conclusion of World War II. There were additional issues with birth defects that made life challenging for families as well. We really will never know the overall impact of the decision or the thousands of lives impacted by it.
7. The Japanese experienced a surge in cancer rates for the next 50 years.
People do not always develop cancer right away after radiation exposure. Sasaki received her leukemia diagnosis about 10 years after what had happened. If people receive 1 Gy exposure or higher, then there is a significant increase in risk for cancer development. Almost half (46%) of the cancer-related fatalities that happened in and around Hiroshima and Nagasaki are attributed to the fallout, like the black rain, that occurred after dropping the bombs.
The black rain radiation can still be detected on the clothing of survivors still today. Slight amounts of cesium-137 were found on a shirt donated by Toyoko Matsumiya in 2012 to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial that shows the stains from the event. No one knows how far the reach of this radioactive impact was at the time.
8. We would have kept using atomic bombs until Japan surrendered.
Once the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, there was no turning back from this approach. Doing so would have communicated a sign of weakness. That’s why there were additional missions planned if the first efforts against Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not produce the desired result. There were three bombing missions scheduled for September, and then another three planned for October as well. It wasn’t until a pause by the order of President Truman on August 10, 1945, stopped this process.
Although the actual city targets were directed with the order to launch and influenced by weather conditions (Kokura was the initial target of the Nagasaki bomb), it is believed that Niigata or Kokura was the next intended target if a surrender did not occur. In total, there were 12 planned missions against the country.
Verdict of the Advantages and Disadvantages of Dropping the Atomic Bomb
“There can be no justification for the killing of children by U.S.-led forces in Syria, Iraq, and other war zones since 9/11,” wrote John Horgan for Scientific American in 2015. Americans have killed over 1,000 children directly or indirectly in war zones around the world between 2001-2019. Even the Pentagon has acknowledged that some of these deaths violate international humanitarian law.
Even if only one-third of the population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were children, that means between 40,000 to 70,000 children were killed by the atomic bombs. Masaaki Tanabe was 7 when the event happened, but he was 40 km away at his grandparent’s home. His mother and 1-year-old brother were killed instantly. “I don’t want to speak about it because it still hurts and makes me feel sick,” he told The Guardian in 2005. “I have never told my own family about it.”
The advantages and disadvantages of dropping the atomic bomb must teach us a lesson about war. We might have differences of opinion, but all of us are human. We might come from a variety of cultures and places, but each of us has a life that is equally valuable. War is unnecessary if we can set aside greed and envy to share with others. Even if we can accomplish this feat, the morality of this choice will likely never be settled.
Crystal Lombardo has been a staff writer for Future of Working for five years. She is a proud veteran and mother. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.