Seventy five years ago this Thursday the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later Nagasaki was similarly bombed and the morality and necessity of using these weapons has been debated ever since.

For some, nothing justifies the use of atomic weapons.  But in 1945, with a nation weary of war, President Truman had little choice but to consider all his options. By this point in the war the Japanese were fanatical; fighting to almost the last man on Iwo Jima, mass suicides on Saipan and kamikaze attacks during the battle for Okinawa.  Tokyo had already been firebombed killing 100,000 Japanese in a single night, and practically every major city in Japan had been bombed into rubble.  Additionally, documents captured after the war revealed the destruction of Japanese cities had no discernible political effect on Japanese leadership.

Meanwhile to American military planners the prospect of invading Japan was absolutely terrifying.  It was estimated an invasion of Japan’s home islands would result in another year of war with as many as a million U.S. casualties and perhaps ten times that many Japanese.

The idea of detonating a “demonstration bomb,” was proffered but with only two available (a third bomb wasn’t due until late August) military planners didn’t want to “waste” one on an unpopulated area.  Alternately, others argued that using the bomb would deter Stalin from demanding joint occupation of Japan after the war.

The arguments against using the bomb were many and varied.  Some felt the bomb was inhumane because it targeted innocent women and children when Japan was essentially defeated.  After all, conventional bombing had already devastated the country, our Navy had enforced its blockade of the Home Islands, and the Soviets were about to enter the war in Manchuria—a perfect storm for Japanese collapse.

Truman’s refusal to modify his “unconditional surrender” demand of not allowing the Japanese to keep their emperor was one reason some felt Japan hadn’t capitulated sooner.  Others believed while the Hiroshima bomb was necessary, the Nagasaki bomb wasn’t and therefore Japanese lives were unnecessarily sacrificed.  And there were cynics who maintained the bombs were only used to justify their development costs.

But there’s another aspect of the matter we should consider.  Stalin invaded Manchuria just two days after the Hiroshima bomb, and lest we forget, while World War II was ending, the Cold War was just beginning.   And after the war when asked why Japan surrendered so quickly after the Russians invaded Manchuria, Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki explained that if Japan had not surrendered to the United States, the Soviet Union wouldn’t have stopped at Manchuria, they would have taken Korea, Karafuto and Hokkaido.  And for those unfamiliar, Hokkaido is Japan’s second-largest Home Island, and Japanese leadership believed that if the communists were to occupy the island, Japan as a nation would literally cease to exist.

Hokkaido was of great importance to Stalin; if occupied, he could turn the vast Sea of Okhotsk into a Russian lake giving the Soviets an ominous naval presence in the Pacific after the war.

We’ll never know what went on in the minds of Japan’s Supreme War Council and Emperor Hirohito, but given the reverence for their emperor and their fight-to-the-last-man ethos, a very good argument can be made that the fear of being occupied by the Russians was the real motivating factor behind the Japanese surrender.  So while the two atomic bombs may not have had the intended effect on the Japanese, it appears they had an enormous impact on Joseph Stalin who had already gobbled up most of Eastern Europe and had designs on Hokkaido.

So going back 75 years it’s highly likely, if not probable that if the Japanese hadn’t surrendered when they did and Stalin had invaded Hokkaido, then similar to what occurred in East Germany (soon to become the German Democratic Republic) so too the Japanese on Hokkaido would been enslaved under communism for nearly half a century, perhaps in a “Peoples Republic of Hokkaido,” while their centuries old culture was eradicated.

Reframed within the context of an incipient Cold War, there are two questions observers of the matter should ask.  First, would Stalin have refrained from invading Hokkaido if he hadn’t seen the results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and secondly, what would have been the greater tragedy—the carnage caused by two atomic bombs or millions enslaved under communism for nearly 50 years and the elimination of a centuries old culture?

The debate continues…

Quote of the day: “You may not be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”—Unknown

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