Looking Back 50 Years at the Atomic Bomb

A conversation around a Japanese dinner table reveals a surprising viewpoint on the dropping of the bomb and the events of World War II

THE controversy over the ``Last Act'' exhibit at the Smithsonian reminds me of a conversation I had around the dinner table in Tokyo some years ago.

My Japanese mother-in-law (who was born and raised in Hiroshima but had lived most of her adult life in Tokyo) shocked me by saying the United States decision to use the atomic bomb in World War II was absolutely correct. She said the bomb undoubtedly saved many lives - both Japanese and American. She then expounded on this theme in a way that, to me, was almost breathtaking.

The following is a paraphrase of what she said:

``The Russians had launched a massive offensive in Eastern Siberia and Manchuria around the time of the second bomb. There was little resistance from our Kwantung Army, and Russian tanks raced through the countryside. In another month, they would have been poised to strike at Hokkaido - even perhaps the main island (Honshu).

``Even though the war ended less than one week after the Russian attack, they exerted great pressure on the Allies (especially the US) to turn over all of Hokkaido at the very least. Thanks to the strength, vision, and determination of General MacArthur and President Truman, the Allies didn't do this.

Just imagine: If the war lasted even another month, the Russians would have had 60 to 70 divisions in Hokkaido, and it would have been impossible to get them out. Today Japan would be divided like Korea - north and south. Our postwar history would have been tragically different. I'm firmly convinced that the bomb was a blessing in disguise.

``Some people have said, `Why not just demonstrate the awesome power of this weapon by dropping it on some unpopulated Pacific island? Why drop it on a densely populated city?' But there was no time for that. Stalin would not have waited to see what the Japanese reaction would be. Yes, I lost relatives in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but how much more would Japan have lost if the Russians had become really entrenched here.''

A professor of history recently said there would have been only 46,000 casualties if the Japanese mainland had been invaded, rather than the 1 million-plus estimated by the military. I would like to counter that figure with an anecdote. My mother-in-law's oldest son, Yogo, once told me that at the age of 15, in early 1945, he was training in Chiba, one of the areas in which the US Army and Marines were scheduled to land in their invasion of the mainland in March 1946.

Yogo said he would have taken at least five Americans with him to his death if they had invaded the homeland, even if he had to do it ``with a wooden spear.'' He said the boys he knew made similar (or more exaggerated) vows. The fanatical officers were prepared to commit the entire country to mass suicide, even after the bomb had wreaked its havoc. Imagine their will to resist if the bomb hadn't been dropped?

In June 1945, there were already about 1.4 million US troops in the Philippines, with another 1 million more expected by December. General MacArthur anticipated 1 million casualties on the US side alone. The first phase of the assault was scheduled for the island of Kyushu, due to begin on Nov. 1. In July, the Japanese government made a formal appeal to Russia (with whom their nonaggression pact of April 1941 was still in force) to help bring an end to the hostilities. The Russians said nothing to their US allies, and shortly after, on Aug. 8 (the day before the Nagasaki bomb), launched an all-out attack into Manchuria with 750,000 troops and began their race toward the Korean Peninsula.

Six days later, the war was over. Nevertheless, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov had the audacity to propose to US Ambassador Averill Harriman that MacArthur should accept a Russian marshall as a full partner in presiding over the surrender and subsequent occupation of Japan.

Mr. Harriman had one word for such a notion: ``Unthinkable!'' Nevertheless, in Washington, some politicians entertained the idea. President Truman unconditionally rejected it. But how much harder that decision would have been, with the Russians overrunning Korea, had the war lasted another three to six months, as it likely would have without the bomb?

The question has been raised before: ``What role did the perceived Soviet menace play in the US decision to employ this apocalyptic weapon, not once but twice in the space of three days?'' The answer is always the same: ``None whatsoever.'' Politicians have often been a disingenuous lot, but perhaps the view of an old lady from Hiroshima is more believable.

The Smithsonian revisionists need to do their homework.

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