The Atomic Lesson
I am one who was never been persuaded that when it comes to the use of the atomic bomb on Japan there is much point to debating "what if" -- except for this one question: What can we learn from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki decisions that will help to prevent a repetition of nuclear hollocaust in the future?
Certainly, once you embrace the oft-restated U.S. demand for "unconditional surrender" of the Japanese, the Hiroshima bomb seems more defensible, morally and militarily, than the quick (and massively deadly) follow-up over Nagaski. Neither our nuclear scientists nor our military leaders were entirely sure that either bomb would work or what the immediate aftermath of an atomic explosion would be (much less the long-term effects of radiation poisoning).
We know that some consideration was given to providing a "demonstration" explosion on a deserted Pacific island in hopes of scaring the Japanese into a surrender, but misgivings over the possibility of a dud and lingering uncertainty over the measurable impact on observers of a test blast, together with the last-ditch mentality of Japanese militarists already being seen, for example, with Kamakazi pilots, led Truman to reject the "demo" approach as too risky and uncertain.
The same cannot be said about the Nagaski explosion. By then, the horrible destructive power and genocidal character of the Hiroshima bomb was evident. It was by then too clear that everything had changed, for the Japanese and for us.
But did we allow sufficient time for this lesson to sink in, and prevail, among those in charge of the Japanese war effort? Were we prepared to rapdily re-open negotations and accept a sudden Japanese surrender? I am doubtful.
On the other hand, when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima we had on hand only two functional atomic bombs. Nagasaki was the second one. The U.S. tactical thinking was that it would be more prudent to use the second one at once and leave the Japanese guessing how many more we might have than to hope they 'got it' after the Hiroshima bomb and didn't figure Hiroshima was a one-off.
The terrifying destruction of two entire cities within a few days had the desired effect on the Japanese: They surrendered unconditionally. Would they have done so, given a few more days after Hiroshima, or if we'd been able to arrange their surrender immediately after Hiroshima? We'll never know, at least in the parallel universe we inhabit.
If we made one mistake that is evident now, and was equally evident then, it was in openly -- and credibly -- demanding "unconditional surrender" from our enemy. When your adversary is persuaded he can gain absolutely nothing by surrender he will never give up. Faced with such a demand, he commits to total war against you and to the bitter end. When your enemy is committed to total war against you, it is natural for you to respond in kind.
Posters of Kaisar Wilhelm eating babies are publicly pinned to the walls in London [in W.W. I]. Flyers show up in Berlin warning that the British rape German women and enslave their men. Each side propagandizes their own people to believe that the other is "crazy" and "hates" your "way of life" and is subhuman.
Raymond Aron wrote of this in his seminal book, The Century of Total War. So, too, did sociologist Leo Kuper, who drew a close connection between genocide and total warfare in his book, Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. There, Kuper wrote:
The changing nature of warfare, with a movement toward total warfare, and the technological means for the annihilation of large populations, creates a situation conducive to genocidal conflict. This potential was realized in the Second World War, when Germany employed genocide in its war for domination, but I think the term must also be applied to the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S.A. and to the pattern bombing by the Allies of such cities as Hamburg and Dresden."Having committed to total war, your enemy must persuade the populace to support it, and so he finds that to exact the needed support of the populace he must demonize you. He must, among other things, depict you as something less than human, something that is so irrational as not to deserve life.
On the receiving end, the villification becomes mutual. Robert W. Rieber and Robert J. Kelly may have coined the word "emnification" to describe how mass killing of civilians can be made to seem acceptable. In a City University of New York paper about the Cold War competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., they wrote:
The rhetoric of the Cold War confrontation was soon awash with the themes of barbarism. In Soviet political demonology, the United States was caricatured as a greedy beast intent upon seizing control of the world by bankrupting it and by plundering the meager resources of the weak and poor. Similarly, American propaganda churned up images of the Soviet Union trampling and crushing its weaker neighbors under its military juggernaut, while fostering international subversion."Was the mass death of civilians and the complete obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagaski (or Dresden) necessary? I don't know.
What I do know is that it was made necessary when we demanded unconditional surrender from our enemy. And it was made acceptable to our own people by our government's propaganda which demonized the enemy and left us with the belief that, after all, he was less than human.