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The Controversy and Justification Around The Use of Nuclear Weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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An Avoidable Catastrophe

In the discussion of the United States’ dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one controversial issue has been the justification for using the nuclear weapon. On the one hand, Spence Tucker argues that the atomic bomb was the only way to finally end World War II because Japan was willing to fight to the death, and the bombs would deter Soviet aggression as well. On the other hand, Gar Alperovitz contends that the United States had intelligence that suggested the war would end soon, and that the atomic bombs were concerned with showing off U.S. power to the USSR. By extension, my own personal view correlates with that of Gar Alperovitz: I do not believe that the use of the atomic bomb was justified. Instead, I am convinced that the United States had mixed political intentions in the handling of the atomic bomb, and that President Harry Truman had other alternatives that could have been explored before hastily deciding on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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In his article, “Dropping the Bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Dropping the Bomb was Unjustified,” Gar Alperovitz asserts that indeed the atomic bombs were unjustified. Specifically, he argues that the United States had intelligence suggesting that the war would be ending soon, since Japan was already surrendering. Alperovitz also believes that the usage of the bombs was connected to the Soviet Union: America wanted to show off power to the USSR because the United States did not want to share conquests in the Pacific. Therefore, Gar Alperovitz does not believe that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified because Japan was close to surrendering, and the motivation behind the bomb also concerned the Soviet Union, an assertion that I agree with.

On the contrary, Spence C. Tucker, who asserts that the usage of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, specifically advocates for the bombs because they would force Japan’s unconditional surrender and were “the only way to end the war quickly.” He also states that Japan was showing no signs of giving up as civilians were being trained because Japanese culture honored and idealized fighting to the death. Nonetheless, I do not agree wholeheartedly with Tucker, but instead strongly agree with Gar Alperovitz that the usage of the atomic bomb on Japan was unjustified. I hold this to be true because Japan was showing signs of surrender. According to Gar Alperovitz, Japan was in the throes of surrendering because the nation was “essentially defeated,” not only because “its navy [was] at the bottom of the ocean” and “its air force [was] limited by fuel, equipment, and other shortages,” but also because Japan was “facing defeat on all fronts.” Because the country of Japan was already planning on surrendering, and thus ending the war, I see no point in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I believe that the justification that the bombs would decidedly and quickly end World War II have no grounds: According Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, by way of Alperovitz, Japan had “already sued for peace,” causing the American bombs “[to play] no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” I think that if a nation is surrendering, it is as decisive as a defeat can be; the atomic bombs would not further conclude the war. Although I concede that the dropping of the atomic bombs may have stimulated the war to end even more quickly, if Japan was already surrendering, would speeding the process be worth 70,000 instantaneous Japanese human deaths at each Hiroshima (where only one third was military personnel) and Nagasaki? (“Key Question”).

Another reason why the atomic bombs were not justified was because the intention to drop the bombs not only concerned Japan’s reaction, but the Soviet Union’s reactions as well. According to Alperovitz, in deciding to drop the bombs, “impressing the Soviets” seemed most certainly “to have been a factor.” Both Spence Tucker and Gar Alperovitz agree that the United States wanted the atomic bombs to be a display of power to discourage the Soviet Union from future aggression. If the United States used the atomic bomb to force Japanese surrender, then America would be solely responsible for their surrender; according to Spence Tucker, then, “the United States would not have to share occupation of Japan with the Soviet Union.” It is clear, then, that the Soviet Union played a role in the motivation of the dropping of the atomic bombs: the United States wanted to assert its prowess to allow the U.S.S.R. could visualize America’s might so that the Soviet Union would be discouraged and would then have no stake in the Pacific. Both Tucker and Alperovitz agree that the Soviet Union influenced the decision of the bomb; but, Tucker attempts to use the U.S.S.R. as justification for the atomic bomb. He also defends the atomic bomb as a “psychological weapon, rather than a purely military tool.” Regardless, this is the flaw, I believe, in the justification: although the atomic bomb may have been intended for a mental or emotional effect, there was still a destructive physical effect. If Japan was the country losing civilian lives due to the atomic bombs, Japan’s actions and reactions should be the only concern in the intention of using the bombs.

Moreover, I still firmly believe that the United States had various options, which could have been explored but were not, before decisively dropping the bombs. It seems to me that in the American desire to quickly end the war before the Soviets had a claim to the Pacific, the United States made a rushed decision in the usage of the bombs and thus missed a few alternatives that could have been attempted. Though I do concede that the United States had attempted to resolve World War II by other means before dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, if they were trying various tactics, why not try another before concluding on using atomic bombs that would sacrifice hundreds of thousands of lives? The “Background Essay” suggested an interesting alternative: why not demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb to the United Nations as well as Japan, and then send the bomb with an ultimatum to Japan? If Japan then refused and “if the war didn’t end as expected,” I agree with Alperovitz that “the bomb could still be used.” Then, this could have been a proper justification: Japan was made aware of the atomic bomb, yet still refused (if they refused; we have evidence they were already surrendering) to surrender.

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My conclusion, then, is that the atomic bombing by the United States was not justified because Japan was already surrendering, rendering the bombs unnecessary, and the Soviet Union influenced the decision to use the bomb, when the decision should have only concerned Japan. However, this ongoing discussion does not only concern the past. Debates over nuclear weaponry and bombings are controversial issues still affecting the United States and other countries with similar technology, once again begging the question: where can the line for the usage of nuclear technology be drawn?

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