The 60th anniversary of atom bombs being dropped on two Japanese cities - Hiroshima (Aug. 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (Aug. 9, 1945) - brought forth the expected hand-wringing remorse from a minority of Americans who regard that military decision as unnecessary and immoral.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the historical importance of the bombings. They concluded the most significant conflict in history and ushered in the nuclear age. However, the moral significance, either for good or evil, has been exaggerated.
A uranium-235 bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 and a plutonium-239 bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese cabinet voted to submit to unconditional surrender.
According to the Avalon Project, a research project from the Yale Law School, the best estimates for deaths from the two bombings were 66,000 at Hiroshima and 39,000 at Nagasaki. Most of these deaths were immediate, but some died later from radiation exposure, primarily within the first four months.
The Hiroshima Peace website gives a much higher estimate of 140,000 total deaths in that city alone, but this figure is widely regarded as inflated.
The damaging radiation from the two blasts was concentrated within a small region and the number of deaths resulting from radiation exposure beyond the first year appears to be small, a few hundred according to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation.
Comparing the total number of people killed in the atomic bomb explosions with the 45 million total deaths, both soldiers and civilians, caused by World War II, does not, in itself, diminish the tragic nature of the atomic bomb deaths.
What has to be considered is the cost of any alternative to atomic bombs. An invasion was being planned that could have resulted in over 100,000 American and Allied deaths.
Some argue that neither an invasion nor atomic bombing was necessary, that we could have won through a prolonged blockade combined with continued conventional bombing by B-29 bombers.
The B-29 was not the precision instrument of today's military arsenal. Blanket bombing of a large area was needed to ensure destruction of a target. Late in the war, B-29s were used to drop incendiary bombs to destroy large metropolitan areas. The objective was to damage the enemy's ability to resist and, more importantly, destroy the enemy's will to resist.
Hundreds of B-29s would drop incendiary bombs containing highly combustible material such as magnesium and phosphorous. Most of the loss of life and destruction of property did not result directly from the blasts, but from the firestorms that were created.
Most of the cities targeted were Japanese, since the war in Germany ended in May, although the German city of Dresden was destroyed by repeated incendiary bombing that began on Feb. 13, 1945.
The most destructive of such incendiary assaults, according to Wikipedia, an on-line encyclopedia, was a fire bombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10 which destroyed about 16 square miles of the city and killed over 100,000 people.
The power of destruction on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was available and had been used before the atomic bomb, but this fact has not been fully impressed upon the world consciousness.
There is no moral difference between massive loss of life caused by thousands of bombs or caused by one bomb. Some historians regard the atomic bombings and the fire bombings all as war crimes, since the acts knowingly caused civilian deaths.
Purposely killing civilians has been a tactic of war since Biblical times but it has long been the ideal of "civilized warfare" (the quotation marks acknowledge that this is an oxymoron) to kill only soldiers. The mental distinction we place between the level of tragedy inherent in the death of a soldier and the death of a civilian is an artificial distinction, although one that has been been deemed necessary by western civilization.
Targeting only enemy soldiers for surgically precise extermination has simply not been an option in any kind of warfare since European armies lined up on roads and shot at each other in the 18th Century. The Soviet Union suffered 29 million deaths during WWII, 17 million of them civilians.
Japan's surrender in WWII required unanimous agreement by the cabinet. There were fanatics in the cabinet, as well as in the military, who did not believe surrender was on option. They referred the honorable path of fighting to the death of every person over the dishonorable path of surrender.
The cabinet didn't approve surrender until the Japanese emperor requested that the cabinet approve the surrender, an unprecedented interference in policy by the emperor. This happened five days after the bombing of Nagasaki.
It is not known whether or not the emperor was influenced by the nature of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Possibly they just added to the cumulative effect of the bombings, no more or less significant than the conventional fire bombings.
Japan started the war and although the individual Japanese who died, including children, are not all personally responsible for the war, their deaths are not the fault of America. Our nation acted in the only responsible manner open to it, to place the lives of its own citizens above those of a nation that had waged war against us.
There are also some people who regard the development of the atomic bomb as an immoral act by the United States that condemned the world to unprecedented danger.
They are like the people who think that if Edison did not invent the light bulb, we would all be watching television by candlelight.
Just as electric light would have eventually been developed without the existence of Edison, the splitting of the atom would have occurred without our country's Manhattan Project during WWII. The Germans were working on it, although they had not gotten far toward that goal.
The Soviet Union would have certainly worked toward that objective even in the absence of America's breakthrough. The Soviet Union launched a satellite into space before the United States did, so were therefore capable of launching a missile that could cross into another continent before we could.
We can only speculate what the result would have been of the Soviet Union being first with both nuclear technology and missile technology. The result would probably not be much different than what has happened but we don't know.
One thing is certain, once the theory of atomic fission became well known, there was no way to undo that knowledge.