This one is going to be kind of odd. I mean, even odder than normal for me, and that (God knows!) is saying something…
It is going to be about …eventually…the Atomic Bomb, and mass killings in war.
First, background. I grew up around “the labs” in Albuquerque. It wasn’t Los Alamos. It was Sandia. And my father *wasn’t* involved with the original Manhattan Project that created the first nuclear weapons. He was too young for that. But he *was* involved in work on chemical explosives, and some of his work (I’m guessing) may have had applications in nuclear weapons later on.
Now, in that place, and in that time, everyone believed that the use of atomic weapons on Japan in 1945 was awful…but ultimately, if horrifically, a good thing. It meant that the war ended quickly, and there was no need for an invasion of Japan’s home island, which everyone knew would result in at least half a million American dead (probably many more) and millions upon millions of Japanese deaths, both civilian and military. (1)
So…awful as they were, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were better than the alternative.
Okay, then, I went off to graduate school (the first time, this would have been in the middle 1970s). There I discovered a very different interpretation had become dominant, and I believe it remains dominant to this day…at least in the academy. In this viewpoint, the use of the atomic weapons was wholly, and utterly unjustifiable, completely inhumane, and proof positive of the general corruption of Western Civilization.
In this interpretation of events, by 1945, everyone knew the War was mostly over, even the Japanese high command. It was only a question of time before Japan would be forced to surrender, and if only the Americans had waited a few more months…dropping a little more napalm now and then, just to keep the pressure up…then everything would have worked out rather easily. Eventually, Tokyo would have caved and there would have been no need for the use of the atomic weapons, two cities would have remained on the map, and …best of all…the whole world would have been spared the nightmare of potential nuclear holocaust for over a half a century.
In fact, we’re living with the same nightmare today.
And, let’s face it, there is strong evidence that this position is right. The Japanese government…or at least parts of it…really was thinking about surrender. Japan’s capacity to make war really was grinding down to nothing. The Japanese people really were demoralized and hungry.
So, maybe, the United States and the other Pacific powers could have simply waited it out. Maybe that really would have been better.
And more horror...
On the other hand, even at the time, way back in the lost years of the 1970s, I noticed that the people who supported this interpretation of events…and cast Americans as the bad guys in this particular melodrama…had not themselves been around at the time that the decision to drop the bomb and been made. Most of them had been, at most, children in 1945, or weren’t yet born.
They did not, in other words, share the same thoughts, realities, unrealities, conceptions, misconceptions, and general confusions which come with “The fog of war” (to quote, sort of, Carl von Clausewitz, who used the term Nebel des Krieges). They had the power of hindsight. They knew, or thought they knew, exactly what the Japanese government was going to do in 1945. They didn’t have to guess.
And, more, they were themselves unlikely to be drafted to go fight in an invasion that might cost 500,000 dead. Nor where they likely to see their fathers, sons, brothers, or others sent off to the same invasion.
So, there’s that…
Okay, so why am I writing about this today?
Well, I was cruising the web a while back and I discovered something I’d never known about — specifically, that in 1945 the United States had its own version (a copy, really) of the German V-1 flying bomb. On the off chance you haven’t heard of the V1 (and you almost certainly have) this was a sort of early cruise missile. It was basically just a bomb with wings and a tail, and bolted to the back of it was a kind of jet engine known as a “pulse jet.” The Germans basically just pointed it in the general direction of the target (say, London), fired it off, and hoped for the best.
It sounds crude, and it was crude, but it did a surprisingly good job. Several thousand people were killed by the damn things, and it forced the Allies to invest rather a lot in counter-measures, all at relatively low cost to the Germans themselves.
I knew that we had them after the Second World War. V-1s, and V-2s (the famous rocket) were scooped up and sent back to the States where we eagerly “reverse engineered” the hell out of them. In fact, I believe my own Dad, while he was in the Navy, may have worked on a remotely controlled jet-powered drone that was inspired by the V1.
But, it turns out that Allies knew about the V-1 as early as 1942, and by 1944 they had plans and even parts of one that been brought out of German Occupied Europe. So, the Americans decided to make their own V-1—specifically, the JB-2, for Jet Bomb 2. (2)
Yes, there was a JB-1, but that’s a story for another day. And you can see it on Wikipedia. (3)
By 1945, the Americans were ready to go into mass production of the JB-2. By that time, the war in Europe was over. But, the war in the Pacific was still going strong, and Japan was an obvious target.
So, the plan was to use the JB-2 as part of the invasion of the Home Islands. The idea was that before there was an actual amphibious assault, and before there were actually troops on the ground, Japan’s cities would be subjected to 180 days of bombing, using both manned aircraft and several thousand JB-2s, which would be launched from other aircraft or from ships.
Oh, and btw, if you’re interested in the effects of such bombing raids, the Tokyo Fire Storm…the Bombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945…resulted in at least 100,000 dead, and left 1 million people homeless. (4)
That’s a lot of dead people.
A lot of dead people...
Now, when I first read about the JB-2, I thought “oh, wow. Isn’t that interesting? I didn’t know about that.”
But, then, over the last few days, I been thinking about the mission that had been planned for the weapon — i.e., that it was to be part of 180 days of unrestrained bombing of civilians.
And there was another issue. To wit, the Americans thought that an invasion of Japan would be incredibly dangerous. That meant they were tempted to use other weapons…any weapons…which seemed to promise a quick end to the war. Like…chemical weapons. And, yes, there were serious discussions about whether to use things like mustard gas…which is a horrible substance…on Japanese cities, where civilians (including children) would be helpless to protect themselves against it. (5)
So, envision for a minute a JB-2 with its 2000 pound warhead (that’s about 910 kg), but instead of explosives, it’s full of poison gas.
Interesting thought, isn’t it?
Oh, and something else, just as an aside. At about the same time we were finishing up the JB-2, and the atomic bomb, the Japanese had their own super-secret weapon in development. Specifically, they were working on a biological warfare attack on Americans on the West Coast. It was known as Operation Cherry Blossoms By Night (6). (I have written about this before, by the way, in another blog posting.)
The thing reads like something lifted from a bad spy thrillers, but (chillingly) it was real. Cherry Blossoms was quite real. The plan was for five long range submarines to carry floatplanes to the Pacific coast of the U.S. The planes would then fly over San Diego, and perhaps other cities as well, and drop payloads of fleas infected with plague. This would, the Japanese commanders hoped, inflect millions of Americans and kill thousands of them.
Would it have worked? Well, that’s hard to say. Biowar is an iffy business at best. You can never be too sure whether a pathogen will end up in the right place, or spread in the right direction. Still, if anyone could have pulled it off in the middle ‘40s, the Japanese were the ones to do it. They had the expertise. They’d used biological warfare against the Chinese military and civilians during the war. And, further, they had in their employ one of the world’s foremost experts on subject of bio-war, to wit, one Shirō Ishii, a man who looked and acted like a Bond villain. (7).
Ishii was the individual who headed up Unit 731, a covert biological weapons unit within the Japanese military. Its crimes, and Ishii’s, were pretty horrific — including things like testing diseases on human prisoners, or even dissecting them alive and without anesthesia. Ishii would have undoubtedly have been hanged for crimes against humanity after the war…except, you guessed it, he and his people contacted the American occupiers and traded immunity in return for their information about biological warfare. You see, they had done a lot of particularly gruesome experiments on Russians. Japan hadn’t been at war with Russia at the time, but there was always a chance Japan might be in the future…so…anytime a Russian got arrested in China…
And the Americans, of course, thought they might end up at war with the Soviet Union at some point in the future, and a little background on how things like plague or anthrax effected Russian troops might come in handy…and so…
A deal was easy to arrange.
Operation Cherry Blossoms
Anyway, it was Ishii who headed up Operation Cherry Blossoms. Everything was ready to roll. The subs were set. The planes were prepared. And the fleas, with their plague, were packaged up. The whole thing was set to go for September 22, 1945.
Except on August 6, Hiroshima went up in flames. Three days later, Nagasaki was bombed. On August 14, the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender.
In other words, if the war had gone on for another month…
Suppose for a minute that it had. Suppose, that is, the war had stretched on a few more weeks, and that Operation Cherry Blossoms At Night had actually gone down. What would have happened, even assuming that it was a relative failure — as had been, for example, the Japanese attempt to bomb the West Coast with balloon bombs in 1944-5, which killed a few unfortunate souls, but otherwise did nothing…(8)
Well, Americans would have found out about the attack, successful or not. And that would have resulted in cries for revenge…
Now, remember that American V1? The JB-2? Envision it with a payload of 2000 pounds of anthrax spores.
So let me, finally, get to SurceSurcSurSouSYes, in my humble and flawed opinion, to use the Snuclear weapons on Japan was wrong. But, if it was wrong, it was inevitable. In the middle of a war, in which you are not entirely certain what the other side is doing and thinking, and you believe (however wrongly) that they are going to fight on to the last man, and you are not certain what weapons they have or what they are going to do in future…
And someone hands you a device which looks like it will end the war in an afternoon…
Believe me, you are going to use it.
That’s the way people’s heads work.
Oh, and further, if it…again, IMHO…was wrong to use the weapons…
Given what we know…given Operation Cherry Blossoms By Night…and given what we know about the American aerial war…with the relentless bombing of cities and civilian targets…
And given what we suspect might have happened if there had been a invasion…
I say this with extreme reluctance.
But, I wonder…
If most of the other options might have been far worse.
I guess what it comes down to, though, is not that the United States was “right” or “wrong” to use the weapons…
I guess what I’m really saying is that history is a complicated business. It is full of what-ifs and what-might-have-beens and do-you-supposes. If war is foggy, then history is a hundred times worse.
And making moral judgements in such uncertain conditions…while we must make them…is not for the faint of heart.
Maybe as we look back on the past, maybe we ought to be careful with sweeping indictments.
They may be deserved.
But on the other hand…
Maybe innocence and guilt are dreadfully slippery things.
And we shouldn’t be too certain that we have them firmly in hand.
Until next time…
Onward and upward.
Copyright©2021 Michael Jay Tucker