How many people would have died if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Tokyo in early 1945, instead of firebombs? Before you accuse me of excessive obsession with morbidity (as one anonymous e-mailer recently did), let me explain to you how I came to ask myself this question, and what the consequences of the answer are.
Before the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the burning of Tokyo. Operation Meetinghouse, the early March 1945 raid on Tokyo that involved over 330 B-29s dropping incendiary bombs from low-altitude at night, killed roughly 100,000 people, and may have injured and made homeless an order of magnitude more. As with all statistics on the damage caused by strategic bombing during World War II, there are debatable points and methodologies, but most people accept that the bombing of Tokyo probably had at least as many deaths as the Hiroshima bombing raid, and probably more. It is sometimes listed as the most single deadly air raid of all time as a consequence.
So it is understandable that many people, including myself, point to Tokyo whenever people want to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can't see the atomic bombings in isolation. The practice of targeting civilian areas with massively destructive aerial bombing had already been done before. And to some, the atomic bombs were just a refinement of the art of area bombing — a more efficient means to accomplish the same ends.1
However, there are a few points that I fear get missed in that kind of equivalence. I certainly agree that the philosophy of bombing used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn't a new one. Indeed, the experience of firebombing gave a lot of guidance to the question of nuclear targeting. The goals were similar, though the people planning the atomic bombs emphasized the raw terror that they hoped such a spectacle would inspire.
But I depart from the standard comparison in two places. The first is the idea that since the atomic bombings 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 events, rare interventions to end the war, then it might (for some) be compelling to say that they were worth the price of crossing over some kind of line regarding the deliberate burning of civilians to death en masse. But if they were instead the continuation of a well-established policy of burning civilians to death en masse, then the moral question gets much broader. The question changes from, Was it morally justified to commit a civilian massacre two times?, to Was it morally justified to make civilian massacre a standard means of fighting the war?
I want to state explicitly that I don't think, and I don't want my phrasing to imply, that the answer to the above is necessarily an unequivocal "no." There are certainly many moral frameworks that can allow for massacres (e.g. ends-justify-the-means). But I prefer to not dress this sort of thing up in euphemisms, whether we think it justified or not. Massacre means to deliberately and indiscriminately kill people. That is what you get when you bomb densely-populated cities with weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and members of the military. Incendiary raids and atomic bombs certainly fall in this category, whether one thinks that the circumstances required them or not.
The second place I depart is a technical one. There are several important differences between the effects of firebombing and atomic bombing. They are not, even in the case of the bombing of Japan, strictly equivalent from the point of view of their effects or their outcomes.
The Tokyo firebombing raid was a relatively slow (compared to an atomic bomb), massively-distributed attack. The Tokyo raid involved hundreds of B-29 bombers arriving and attacking over the course of several hours. Such massive groups of B-29s could be heard and tracked from a considerable distance. They spread their bombs over a large area of the city, with the goal of creating a mass conflagration that would be impossible to control. They could be fought against with interceptors and anti-aircraft guns; air-raid alarms could be sounded; civilians could flee to shelter, or outside of the city itself. This is not to imply that any of these strategies were necessarily effective, and it does not necessarily make firebombing raids any more "humane." But it does change the outcome quite a bit, when compared to an atomic bomb attack.
The atomic bombing raids of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fast, near-instantaneous attacks. They involved a single B-29 weather plane in advance, and then two or three B-29s approaching the city, one with the bomb itself. This means that effective air-raid warning was minimal, because it was not possible to distinguish an atomic bomb attack from a reconnaissance or weather flight, all of which were common by that late stage in the war. (And obviously any hope of detecting an atomic bomb attack was impossible prior to Hiroshima.)
The primary acute effects of the atomic bombs were blast and thermal radiation. The former travels at the speed of sound, the latter significantly faster. (The rays are transmitted at more or less the speed of light, but the intensity and duration of the thermal pulse is a more complex phenomena and unfolds over the course of several seconds.) The blast knocks down buildings. The thermal radiation heats and burns. Both contribute to the starting of fires — the thermal radiation directly (for certain materials), the blast wave indirectly by knocking over flammable materials, stoves, candles, etc. After Hiroshima there was a significant firestorm, as with incendiary bombing, but there was not after Nagasaki. There was no effective preparation for such an attack — perhaps if they had the foresight of some later Civil Defense techniques, some lives could have been saved (different shelter types did affect the fatality rates significantly, even close in to the zero point), but obviously this was not quite in the cards during the war itself, when the atomic bomb was such a novelty. There was no time for shelters, no time to flee the city, no time even for real comprehension of what was happening — a bright light followed by a crushing blast, followed by fire. For those who survived the blast and fire, there were radiation effects, if they were with a few kilometers of the epicenter. This could range from acute radiation sickness and death with several weeks, to an increased cancer risk over the course of their lives.
Are the atomic bomb effects significantly different from firebombing to warrant putting them into different ethical or moral categories? One could argue the point either way. I tend to think that they are both pretty terrible forms of suffering, but they are not identical. In many ways the atomic bombing effects were significantly worse for the people living in the target cities — all of the suffering of firebombing accelerated, with a few new terrors added into the mix, and with less warning.
But the equivalence argument also misses some important differences in how deadly the atomic bombs were. The firebombing of Tokyo did, indeed, kill the most people of any air raid in history — from 80,000 to over 100,000 dead in a single raid. But the city of Tokyo had some 5 million people living in it. In the areas targeted, there were 1.5 million people living. So that means that it killed no more than 2% of the total population of the city, and no more than 7% of the people who lived in the targeted areas. The bombing of Hiroshima killed between 90,000 and 160,000 people in a city of 345,000 or so. So that is a fatality rate of 26-46%, depending on whose fatality estimates you go with. The bombing of Nagasaki killed between 39,000 to 80,000 people in a city of 260,000 people or so. So that is a fatality rate of 15-30%.
So to put it another way, the Hiroshima bombing was around 5 times more deadly than the Tokyo raid per capita, and the Nagasaki bombing was maybe 4 times more deadly. The total number dead is similar in all three cases, but the total number of people possible to kill in Tokyo was much higher than the number of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This isn't the whole story, though. There is a subtle technical difference mixed in here. Firebombing on par with the Tokyo raid spread a moderate chance of death over a large area. The atomic bombs dropped in World War II spread a very high chance of death over a relatively small area. So depending on the target in question, the difference in fatalities might or might not matter. The Hiroshima bomb was perfectly capable of killing something like half of the city — but it was a pretty small city, compared to Tokyo. Tokyo has areas of incredibly high density, but also large areas of relatively moderate to low density.
So why does this matter? From an ethical standpoint, I'm not sure it does. The targeting of civilians for mass destruction seems to be the core ethical issue, whether you do this by means of fire, neutrons, or toxic gas. But I do think we end up underestimating the effects of the atomic bombs if we see them as exactly equivalent to firebombs. There is an error in seeing the atomic bombs as just an expeditious form of firebombing — it both overstates the deadliness of firebombing while understating the deadliness of atomic bombs.
All of this is what led me to the question I opened with: What if, in some hypothetical alternative universe, instead of launching a firebombing raid in early March 1945, the US was able to drop the Little Boy atomic bomb onto Tokyo? What would the casualties have been for that raid?
Obviously an exact answer is not possible. But we do have population density maps of Tokyo, and we do have records on the relationship between distance from "ground zero" and percentage of population killed. There are lots of uncertainties, here, regarding the types of buildings, the differences in geography, and other things that are hard to estimate. But let's do a rough estimation.
If we transpose the effects of Hiroshima — a 15 kiloton bomb detonated around 1,968 feet above the ground — to the population densities of Tokyo, what is the result? I don't want to clog up the blog post with a detailed explanation of the methodology I've used, so I'm putting it at the end with the footnotes. The basic gist of it was this: I took a population density map of Tokyo from 1940, divided the different density areas into different layers in Photoshop, then selected radii based on bomb effects and did pixel counting. I used all of this to come up with rough minimum-maximum estimates of how many people lived in areas at different regions from the bomb blast, and then multiplied those population counts against known average fatality/casualty rate data taken from Hiroshima.
I looked at two ground zeros, to further emphasize the intense locality of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb attack (compared to a firebombing raid). If targeted on the moderately-dense Honjo area (which is more or less the center of the firebombing attack), one could roughly expect there to be between 213,000 and 344,000 fatalities, and between 442,000 and 686,000 injuries. This is the ground zero shown in the above image. If you move it north-west by only 1 km, though, to the more densely populated Asakusa area, the numbers change to 267,000 to 381,000 dead and 459,000 to 753,000 injured.
So if the Hiroshima bomb had been dropped on Tokyo, it probably would have destroyed less area than the March 1945 Tokyo firebombings — something like 5 square miles, compared to the 15 square miles destroyed by firebombing. However it would have killed between two and four times as many people who died in the firebombings, and injured possibly fewer or the same amount of people.
These numbers seem roughly plausible to me, even given all of the uncertainties involved, and they align with the rough guess one would make from the relative area destruction and casualty rates cited earlier. It is of note that the shifting of an atomic bomb's aiming point can increase total casualties by several tens of thousands of people in a city the density of Tokyo; firebombing is probably not quite as dependent on any given aiming point, given how much lower the accuracy was.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo firebombing was much more fatal than most of the other firebombing raids. As the first low-altitude, massed night B-29 incendiary raid, against Japan's highest-density city, it was especially fatal. Later raids killed, on average, orders of magnitudes less, both for the reasons given at the beginning (e.g. fleeing when you hear hundreds of B-29s in the distance), and because of much lower population densities. Had Hiroshima been firebombed, the fatalities would have certainly been much lower than the atomic bombings, because the Tokyo case is in fact an anomalously high one.
Atomic bombings may be ethically no better or worse than firebombing raids like Tokyo, but to regard them as simply an expedient form of firebombing misses a key point about their relative deadliness: If you have to pick, and you get to pick, one should choose to be firebombed, not atomic bombed — unless you know exactly where the bombs are going to go off.