Hiroshima at 67: The Line We Crossed

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 6th, 2012

Today is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sixty-seven isn’t a particularly exciting anniversary, being neither divisible by five or ten, but I get the feeling that it’s been talked about more this year than it was in the last few years. Maybe it’s all of the concderns regarding Iran and the Middle East? Maybe because it’s the first anniversary post-Fukushima? I’m not sure, but something’s in the air.

67 also happens to be the number of Japanese cities we firebombed before dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I wrote up a short, quick essay on the anniversary of Hiroshima for a group that didn’t pick it to be used (which is fine), but I thought I’d share it here.  I’ve added some illustrations, because you can do that with blogs.


We have been debating the morality, strategy, and history of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for sixty-seven years. From their first use, the bombs were the subject of intense adulation and exuberance, as well as deep anxiety and ambivalence. Almost immediately the bomb was viewed as something completely new, and after the Japanese declared their surrender days later, the bomb was given the credit for ending the war.

Paul Tibbets in the Enola Gay

Whether it deserved that credit, or whether the war could have been ended without it, has been the subject of debate for nearly that long. Over the decades various arguments about the reasons for using the bombs, and their possible justifications, have been aired, confronted, revised, and rebutted. But even the arguments in favor of the bombing acknowledge that the United States crossed a line when it used the first nuclear weapons on inhabited cities. (Those who argue against the use of the bomb necessarily invoke such an argument.) The justification for such a “special” weapon — to use the terminology of the day1 — was that it was necessary to “shock” the Japanese into rapid submission for a net saving of lives.

But was a line really crossed? The atomic bombs killed tens of thousands of civilians immediately in each city, with more casualties attributed to their lingering effects over time. Looked at in a vacuum, this certainly looks like a particularly egregious moral transgression.

Within the context of the time, however, the atomic bombs were merely a refinement of an existing “art”: the mass firebombing of cities. This “terror bombing,” as it was sometimes called, reached its highest form under the leadership of Curtis LeMay in the Pacific theatre, where B-29s in massive numbers flew repeated, low-altitude nighttime raids against sixty-seven Japanese cities. They dropped explosives, napalm, and thermite onto streets of wooden houses, creating massive, inextinguishable conflagrations that sucked the air out of shelters and burned people alive. The incendiary bombs were specially developed for the destruction of Japanese houses: the small bomblets were designed to break through the ceilings, stop on the first floor, and spray a cone of flaming, jellied gasoline into the interior. The thermite and magnesium were added so that the existing fires would burn too hot to be put out.

Over two long nights in March 1945, over 300 B-29s were sent to burn the megalopolis of Tokyo. Estimates vary as to the exact numbers, but in the neighborhood of 100,000 people were killed, with another million people injured, and another million made homeless. Success was measured in raw percentages of the total area destroyed.

1945: Tokyo at left, Hiroshima at right

In such a context, it is hard to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the attacks that crossed the line. The line was already crossed — we were already burning men, women, and children by the thousands. Hiroshima and Nagasaki added the effects of radiation (which were little understood at the time by those who ordered the use of the atomic bombs2), but the firebombings were not without their lingering, scarring effects on the survivors, either.

How did this happen? As was the case with the decision to develop, produce, and use the atomic bomb, it was a process of gradual accumulation. Small decisions seemed to lead to big “inevitable” consequences. Strategic bombing began as an attempt to find clever, scientifically-informed ways to shut down the enemy’s war-making capability, and it ended with a butchery that would have been recognizable to Genghis Khan.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki crossed a line only insomuch as they were more spectacular, ripped straight out of science fiction — the burning of civilians alive with atomic fire rather than gasoline.

Death by gasoline: Tokyo, March 10, 1945

The lesson is not that nuclear weapons do not demand a “special” consideration — indeed, by the time they were put onto long-range rockets, and had their explosive power increased to levels impossible to replicate with conventional means, they certainly deserved to be considered a new moral problem.

Rather, the lesson is that nations do not arrive at these big decisions from a state of innocence. We gradually acclimate to the moral climate we produce from a multitude of smaller decisions. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the product of one fateful moral debate, but the accumulation of a thousand small choices. We should be mindful of this especially in this age of drone assassinations, cyber attacks, and indefinite detentions — we may find ourselves in the middle of a much bigger moral morass than we expected.

This isn’t the world’s most strikingly original take on things, I’d be the first to admit. I recently had the opportunity to read a fairly lousy “defense of the bombing” editorial published by a major American magazine (same old arguments mixed with a sense of superiority abetted by a dearth of information), and the author also made the argument that firebombing was the same as atomic bombing. But what I would add to the above, if I were revising it now, was the fact that just because they’re equivalent doesn’t make either of them moral. Which is to say, I don’t think saying, “we were already burning civilians alive!” actually gets you off the hook — it just points at how depraved the strategy actually was. “But we were already committing war crimes for months!” is not a good defense against being charged as a war criminal.

What’s important for me is to recognize that burning civilians alive in great numbers should be considered a terrible idea if you care about fighting a “just war.”

And no, I don’t buy the, “but their soldiers also did awful things.” So what? That justifies burning their mothers, children, and wives? I don’t think so. It justifies killing the soldiers, sure. But everyone else, too? That’s the road to war crimes.

I’m with Robert McNamara on this one, perhaps surprisingly: I’m not sure that firebombing 67 cities and then dropping two atomic bombs was proportional with our goals in World War II, especially if the main goals — a disarmed and occupied Japan — likely could have been accomplished far earlier, if the original idea of “unconditional surrender” had just been modified to what it ended up being in practice (conditional upon being able to keep the Emperor as the titular head of state).

If it were up to me, we’d mark March 10th — the bombing of Tokyo — as an anniversary of significance as well as August 6 and August 9.

  1. Michael Gordin, Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007). []
  2. Sean L. Malloy, “‘A Very Pleasant Way to Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb against Japan,” Diplomatic History 36, no. 3 (June 2012), 515-545. []

21 Responses to “Hiroshima at 67: The Line We Crossed”

  1. This is a nuanced and well argued position. It took me many years of vacillating and considering before I reached the same conclusion: Once you decide it’s okay to bomb civilians, the weapon used is much less important.

  2. “Maybe because it’s the first anniversary post-Fukushima?”

    Perhaps, but Fukushima started on March 11, 2011. So this second commemoration following the meltdowns.

  3. Paul Guinnessy says:

    I think you’re also missing that the same techniques were used in Europe, to great cost of the pilots as well as the civilians. The start of treating the civilians as a military objective in modern professional warfare (I’m excluding asymmetric warfare from this list) started with the Spanish civil war. Bombing whole cities to the ground really started with the Battle of Britain. So although its fair to consider the fire bombing of Tokyo etc.. as part of the desensitization leading to the dropping of the bomb, there was a lot of ground work done by the Axis and the Allies in the years beforehand by individuals such as Bomber Harris (partly because so many people had bought into a 1926 book that said the bomber would always get through. This led to the facility of believing that bombers could win a war for you without boots on the ground. Everytime we have a war the same story pops up, only to be shot down (pardon the pun) after events have taken there course.

    • I wasn’t meaning for this to seem comprehensive in its scope of the evolution of “total war” tactics. My point was simply that drawing the moral line at Hiroshima or Nagasaki seems arbitrary to me.

    • Mike Lehman says:

      I tend to agree that putting the line at Hiroshima is arbitrary, but it was also a boundary that was significant for a reason that wasn’t realized at the time — and many have yet to think seriously about.

      The bombing of Guernica was condemned as terrorism by just about everyone except for the Spanish fascists and their allies. In the case of the US, it was argued that Americans believed in strategic, precision bombing, which meant at the time that we bombed military targets and avoided civilian ones. That soon changed as WWII blew up and we went on to become directly involved. The moral line between terrorism and strategic bombing was largely erased in Europe, entirely with conventional weapons, by 1944.

      John Dower famously made the argument that the war in the Pacific was a racialized one. It was an important observation and argument, with substantive evidence to support his thesis. On the other hand, it tends to break down when applied to strategic bombing there, which came about largely after the same tactics were used in Europe. Consider this: If we were perfectly willing to kill large numbers of people of the same ethnic and racial group as the majority of Americans, there was likely little compunction left against the use of such force against civilians who don’t look like white people. One can get all hypothetical and argue that maybe we wouldn’t have dropped it on Berlin or another German city, but I have to take Paul Tibbets’s word at face value that he was more than ready to do that, but they didn’t get the bomb in time to do so.

      Arguably, there was a component of race still involved regarding use of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it smacks of something even uglier than something as straightforward as the problematic bombardment of civilian areas — the use of experimental weapons against civilians. That was the line we crossed with nuclear weapons. It’s also the place where fallout comes in.

      The Air Force wanted fission and, later, fusion weapons for one thing — their efficiency in putting maximum explosive tonnage on target with the least amount of resources used to get it there. This was a major factor in their resistance to believing that fallout was of any significance other than as an intelligence source, because that would acknowledge the reality that nuclear fallout put millions at risk far from the target in ways that came uncomfortably close to the effects of chemical and biological weapons. Most nations, including the US, draw a firm line now about the moral hazard that exists in even possessing, let alone using chemical or biological weapons. 67 years later, we’re still coming to terms with the uncomfortable legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

      • I’m super skeptical at the “we wouldn’t have used it on Germany” argument. We firebombed Dresden and Hamburg, after all. I think if Germany had been on an island there would have been absolutely no question (if we’d had it on time). The tactical situations were fairly different, after all.

        Which isn’t an attempt to diminish the racial aspects of the Pacific campaign. Or the fact that “most Americans” might have been more comfortable slaughtering Japanese than Germans. But we still massacred a lot of Germans. The fact that the Germans in question were the Nazis made that no doubt all the easier.

        I’m not trying to say that race didn’t play any kind of role — it clearly did — but I don’t think it was as simple a role as “we bombed them for racist reasons” or “we wouldn’t have bombed the Germans because they were white.”

        What’s fascinating about the fallout question regarding Hiroshima and Nagasaki is how little it was understood — or even explored — at the time. Malloy’s article that I cite is about that; I have more to say on that fairly soon…

      • A couple of things.

        First, Rotterdam, anyone? I know the attack was more tactical than strategic, but it certainly qualifies as the first large-scale, city-smashing bombing effort. Interestingly enough, Antwerp is considered the first strategic bombing target in WWI, but, by modern standards, I don’t think eight bombs qualifies.

        Second, I was quite stunned by the fallout map and its implications in terms of civilian casualties. Bomb Washington, D.C, and pretty much cook Albany? Wow. So I spent some time clipping out all those Pacific Islands and making a transparent GIF of the map. Anyone have US maps to scale? If so, please let me know.

        In the meantime, here’s a link to the GIF. Please let me know if it works:

      • Spruce says:

        The reason why strategic bombing came later in Pacific was very pragmatic: distances. It’s very easy to forget how wast the distances in Pacific are compared to Europe. Prior to entry of B-29s, Allies did not have bombers that could reach Japan from bases they had. And with most of the area being fought over being very sparse infrastructure, there were few targets outside Home Island worth startegic bombing. It’s not so much that the Allies chose not to bomb Japan prior to when the bombings started, but that they were unable to do so earlier.

  4. […] — especially when they describe the pre-irradiation of firefighters as “attractive.” But this is the logic of total war, when you’ve given up on the idea of a morality of war fighting and decide that the ends — […]

  5. Mike from Ottawa says:

    The idea that merely offering to allow the Emperor to remain as a figurehead would have swayed the Japanese does not stand up to the actual information available on the Japanese surrender. Decrypted Japanese diplomatic signals make clear that right up until the decision to surrender (when 3 of 6 members of the war cabinet were prepared to continue the war AFTER two atomic bombings and the Soviet entry into the war) the Japanese were not even contemplating such terms. They were intent, even the ‘peace’ party, on retaining not only the Emperor but the system of government that had produced the militarisitic Japan, on remaining unoccupied and on vacating their overseas conquests on their own timetable (leaving European colonies only as they gained independence). There were strong elements of the Japanese military who felt it would be better for the Japanese to perish rather than to submit and the Japanese military was dominant in the war cabinet (and indeed in Japan). Evan after it was known to the military that the Emperor himself had decided on surrender, there was a coup attempt that nearly succeeded in preventing the Emperor’s message announcing the decision to surrender from being broadcast (they destroyed one copy but another was smuggled out and broadcast).

    With the Japanese attempting to get the Soviets to mediate with the Allies on their behalf, this was laid out in diplomatic signals the Americans were reading at the time. The Japanese envoy in Moscow was putting forward the idea that retention of the Japanese form of government (not just the Emperor but the system that put the military in charge) as sufficient and this was being rejected by the foreign ministry in its signals giving his instructions and giving no sign such conditions would be sufficient. That was still the case late in July when the decision was being made.

    Try Richard Frank’s ‘Downfall’, rather than an editorial, for a thorough debunking of the idea that all that was required was an offer to let the Emperor retain his title. You’ll find no dearth of information there.

    • As with all counter-factuals, one cannot know what could have been, because there was only what was. It is easy in retrospect to proclaim that a given measure would have produced no results, but is on no surer footing that claiming the contrary. The “modified surrender” counterfactual has been battled around by historians for decades; I don’t see any obvious resolution to it.

  6. Nuclear Tan says:

    I recently read “The Myths of August” by Stewart Udall and he touches on the origins of “total war” and terror bombing and how they paved the way for atomic attacks Germany’s decision to ignore the rules of war was a ready made excuse for the English bombing of civilian targets in Germany. According to Udall the US entered the war in Europe with a precision strategic bombing ethic that rarely violated what Gen. George Marshall called the “historic American policy of avoiding terror bombing”. It wasn’t until near the end of the war that the USAAF began participating in European terror bombing campaigns like Dresden. In the Pacific theater ethical bombing was abandoned in 1944 Udall points to racism and revenge as a possible cause citing the fact Japanese Americans were interred during the war while German and Italian Americans were not. The sneak attack at Pearl Harbor and the heartless methods of war employed by the Japanese also worked to harden US attitudes towards Japan. Firebombing a large number of Japanese civilian targets would certainly make it easier to justify later atomic attacks, after all isn’t this the justification we use today “fire is fire”. How would the world view the US if we just dropped two A-bombs out of the blue without a fiery prelude that dwarfed their effect? Another thing to consider is The USAAF did as much destruction in 180 days of firebombing Japan as Bomber Harris had accomplished in three years in Europe. Was that done to put future atomic blasts in the proper perspective? The difference I see between a conventional firebombing and an A-bombing is the ease of execution the worst Tokyo firestorm required a 300+ aircraft raid Hiroshima and Nagasaki only required one.

    Udall named three top military commanders who were totally against using the bomb on civilians these men were convinced Japan was already beaten and they were in a position to know. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told Secretary of War Stimson Japan was defeated and this feeling was shared by Gen. Douglas McArthur both of these men knew the Japanese were cut off from the raw materials needed to conduct war. Admiral William Leahy felt the use of atomic weapons against Japanese civilians would violate every Christian ethic and all known laws of war. Eisenhower also pointed out that shocking the world with atomic strikes might spark a future arms race but these concerns were brushed aside by civilian decision makers.

    On pg 49 in “the Angry Genie: One Mans Walk Through The Nuclear Age” By Karl. Z Morgan (father of Health Physics) he contends Hiroshima was a diplomatic master card in future relations with the Soviet Union and Nagasaki was just a comparative field test of two different weapon designs. The botched bombing of Nagasaki made comparison impossible so another bombing was planned but Truman put a stop to a third bombing against Tokyo on August 10 because the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too terrible to contemplate.

    Personally I find the idea that the two atom strikes were part “live” test and part demonstration to the Russians in Manchuria is fairly plausible. It is obvious the US looked the other way at the end of the war to acquire Nazi scientist and the gruesome results of Japan’s Unit 731 in Manchuria I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to think they’d see Japan as a valid test subject for atomic strikes. The US had a list of Japanese cities that were spared attack in order to have pristine targets and the ABCC studied the results to set future radiation safety standards. I’d like to see the target list that was spared in Germany. If we had been ready in time I don’t think we would have had moral qualms against A-bombing Germany I just don’t think they presented the same pure targeting opportunity we found in Japan.

    As for a lack of understanding about fallout I think we knew more than we officially let on the men who designed the bombs knew full well only a small fraction of the fuel would be consumed and that fraction would create a whole host of daughter products. According to “Day of Trinity” by Lansing Lamont The path of fallout was closely traced after the Trinity test and by three o-clock in the afternoon, the readings on the radiation counters monitored by Alvin Graves and his wife, Elizabeth, observers assigned to the little town of Carrizozo some 40 miles just slightly north of east from the test site, started to climb rapidly. By 4:20 P.M., eleven hours after the explosion, the counters shot off scale and Alvin Graves called Dr. Stafford Warren, the chief medical officer in charge of radiation monitoring. As Lamont put it, the fate of the little town hung in the balance while the scientists and Army officers decided whether or not to evacuate it. Ultimately, they held off, and within an hour the fallout readings had dropped. Lamont reported that these were difficult hours for Dr. Warren and the officer in charge of the entire project, General Leslie R. Groves. “The medical dangers were most immediate of all,” Lamont wrote, “but, in addition, both men knew that the Army was not too eager to pursue too diligently the possibilities of widespread fallout.”

  7. Susan Roy says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot, Alex. That the atomic bomb was not the schism in history that we now know it to be; at the time, it was just a more efficient way of doing what we were already doing, risking only a handful of American lives (one plane, small crew, one bomb) instead of vast numbers of American fliers, crew members, etc. etc. This is reflected in the newspapers you gathered, the way they treated the news of the “atomizer,” a phrase I hadn’t yet heard. Again, thanks for sharing a great piece.

  8. […] distinguish them from “traditional” incendiary raids — i.e., the firebombing that had already been going on for quite some time before the Second World War went nuclear. (I personally don’t think they do, from an ethical […]

  9. […] Hiroshima at 67: The Line We Crossed (8/6/2012) – 3,800 pageviews […]

  10. For a beautiful and well-argued book on the topic, I highly recommend philosopher A.C. Grayling’s “Among the Dead Cities”

    His conclusions are similar to yours. But then, I think anyone cannot argue otherwise unless they want to adopt a position that’s basically nihilism.

  11. […] indeed destroyed, famously so. Whether they warned of destruction by firebombing or atomic bombing strikes me as somewhat of a distinction without a difference. Either way, it’s destruction of entire […]

  12. […] were not original in targeting civilians, then they do not present a moral or ethical question. As I’ve written about before, I think the question of morality gets more problematic. If the atomic bombings were one-off […]

  13. Kalimac says:

    I’ve just found your blog, and was particularly impressed by this post, and by an accompanying one (which I couldn’t quickly find again) comparing the actual destructiveness of the A-bomb with that of fire-bombing. I have long been at a loss as to what was immoral about dropping the A-bomb that wasn’t also immoral about the fire-bombing, because “the radiation” doesn’t really qualify as an answer, and the best I’ve been able to come up with is the ability to do as much damage with one plane as had previously taken a fleet. That’s an increase in degree of horror, but not of kind.