Saturday Aug. 6 marked one of the United States' most important but unheralded anniversaries. It is remarkable not only for what happened on that date in 1945 but for what did not happen subsequently.
What did happen was that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped a uranium-based atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It hastened the end of World War II, which concluded within a week after the dropping of a plutonium-based bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. Approximately 140,000 died in Hiroshima from the acute effects of the "Little Boy" bomb, and about 74,000 more in Nagasaki from the "Fat Man" bomb.
About a year after the war ended, the "was it necessary?" Monday-morning quarterbacks began to question the military necessity and morality of the use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities. Since then, there have been eruptions of revisionism and uninformed speculation on this subject, perhaps the most offensive of which was the Smithsonian Institution's plan for an exhibition of the Enola Gay for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The exhibit was to emphasize the victimization of the Japanese, mentioning the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor only as the motivation for the "vengeance" sought by the U.S. (The exhibit as originally conceived was eventually canceled.)
The historical context and military realities of 1945 are often lost in judging whether it was necessity for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons. The Japanese had been the aggressors, launching the war with a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and subsequently systematically and flagrantly violated various international agreements by employing biological and chemical warfare, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, and brutalizing civilians and forcing them to perform slave labor. More than 50 million people had perished during the war, many of them civilians.
What did not happen as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the massive Allied (largely American) invasion of the Japanese home islands that was being actively planned. As Allied forces closed in on the home islands, the intentions of Japan's senior military leaders ranged from "fighting to the last man" to inflicting sufficiently heavy losses on invading American ground forces that the U.S. would agree to a conditional peace. As U.S. strategists knew from having broken the Japanese military and diplomatic codes, there was virtually no inclination toward unconditional surrender.
Finally, because the Allied military planners assumed "that operations in this area will be opposed not only by the available organized military forces of the Empire [of Japan], but also by a fanatically hostile population," astronomical casualties were thought to be inevitable. A study performed for the staff of Secretary of War Henry Stimson by physicist William Shockley estimated that the invasion of Japan would cost 1.7-4 million American casualties, including 400,000-800,000 fatalities, and 5 million to 10 million Japanese deaths. These fatality estimates are, of course, in addition to those who had already perished during four long years of war; American deaths were already about 292,000. In other words, the invasion of Japan could have resulted in the death of twice as many Americans as had already been killed in the European and Pacific theaters!
A critical element of the Shockley analysis was the assumption of large-scale participation by civilians in repelling invading forces. This assumption is supported by a recent book, "The Most Controversial Decision," by the Rev. Wilson Miscamble, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, who blames "the twisted neo-samurai who led the Japanese military geared up with true banzai spirit to engage the whole population in a kind of kamikaze campaign." He added, "Their stupidity and perfidy in perpetuating and prolonging the struggle should not be ignored."
Much has been made of the moral line that supposedly was crossed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, but far more significant were the decisions earlier in the war to adopt widespread bombing of civilians – initially by Hitler in attacking English cities and later by the Allied devastation of, for example, Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo. As Dr. Kori Schake, professor of international security studies at the U.S. Military Academy, put it in an e-mail to me, "It seems to me morally significant that we were already engaged in fire-bombing cities; the use of a more efficient weapon to do so was therefore an even smaller jump.'
In World War I, Europe lost almost an entire generation of young men. Combatant fatalities were approximately 13 million. In 1945, Allied military planners and political leaders were correct, both tactically and morally, in not wanting to repeat history. They understood the need to consider the costs and benefits for the American people, present and future. Had they been less wise or less courageous, the American post-war "baby boomer" generation would have been much smaller.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was a U.S. government official from 1977 to 1994.