I usually find Roger D. McGrath’s Sins of Omission to be the most interesting column in Chronicles, and “Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (July) was no exception.  However, I wonder why defenders of our use of the A-bomb seem always to present us with a false dilemma: Either we use the bomb or suffer hundreds of thousands of casualties in conquering the Japanese homeland.  Why invade Japan at all?  Her empire was gone, and she was no longer a threat to us.  She could not supply her remaining armies, and they would have withered.  Why not keep Japan blockaded and isolated indefinitely, or until such time as the Japanese sued for peace, while using their factories, airports, harbors, etc., as training targets for our bombers?  I’m not saying that this would have been better than dropping the A-bombs, only that there was another viable alternative to invasion.

—Charles Hayes
Tyler, TX

Throughout the 25 or so years that I have devoured every article in Chronicles, I have never been more saddened than I was in reading Roger McGrath’s “Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”  Terrorism is the term that we use to describe the bombing of 15 civilians in a shopping center or the tragic events of September 11, but it is classified as a justifiable military operation if carried out at 25,000 feet by B-29’s and the casualties are in the hundreds of thousands.

Dr. McGrath, whose previous articles I have greatly admired, bases his justification of our bombing of the two cities on the number of casualties that America would have incurred as a result of an invasion of Japan.  It is, no doubt, presumptuous on my part to debate history with an historian, but why would we have had to invade in the first place?  Japan, whether or not the entirety of her leadership was ready to recognize the fact, was defeated.  She was an island nation with no viable navy, no viable air force.  Where were the supplies and raw materials going to come from to sustain a continuing offensive war effort?  While it is certainly true that women and children would have fought to the death were their homeland invaded, Japan’s days of empire building were over.

If it is true as many have written—but I will yield to Dr. McGrath’s expertise in this matter—that many in Japan’s leadership were willing to surrender with terms but not unconditionally, would it have been worth a million casualties not to offer terms but to insist on unconditional surrender?

There are those, I am certain, who could make a viable case that an invasion was not necessary—an idea, as Dr. McGrath has stated, with which Admiral Nimitz would have concurred.  But my main objection is the oldest, simplest, and shortest teaching in moral theology (and, therefore, of the principles of just war): The end does not justify the means.  The debate, in my opinion, should center, not on the end (the prevention of a massive invasion) but on the morality of the means—namely, the terror bombing of civilian population centers.  Hitler was condemned by much of the world for his bombing campaign targeting British cities, and “Bomber” Harris came in for his share of criticism from his own people when England retaliated in kind against German cities.>

It is not just the bleeding hearts of the left who find it impossible to justify the firebombing of Tokyo, Dresden, Cologne, etc., not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As a father who has given three sons to the United States Marine Corps, I take a back seat to no one in willingness to defend America and to stand up for freedom.  Being willing to die for one’s country is not the only burden we must bear, however; willingness to kill imposes extremely serious obligations and considerations.  The war had better be just, and the means employed to bring about victory must likewise be just.  There will always be what is euphemistically termed “collateral damage,” but the intentional slaughtering of civilians to bring about victory in war is indefensible by any standards that are used to judge the conduct of belligerent nations.

—Bob Schroder
Hattiesburg, MS

Dr. McGrath Replies:

Charles Hayes and Bob Schroder are in good company: Nearly the entire editorial staff of Chronicles agrees partly or entirely with them.  In one way I do also.  In “Firebombing the Fatherland” (Sins of Omission, June 2005) I describe the American refusal to join our British allies in bombing German cities at night.  The commander of the 8th Air Force, Gen. Carl Spaatz, thought what the British were doing—indiscriminate saturation bombing to terrorize the civilian population—could be considered a war crime.  Spaatz insisted that American pilots would bomb only during daylight to ensure that military targets were pinpointed and civilian casualties minimized.  Nonetheless, our bombing also resulted in monstrous collateral damage.  British bombing by night and American bombing by day killed no fewer than 600,000—some argue as many as a million—German civilians, numbers that far exceed those Japanese killed by not only the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also the firebombing of Tokyo.

After the failure of the German offensive at Bastogne in December 1944, the Fatherland was clearly defeated.  Yet the firebombing of Dresden occurred during mid-February 1945.  Other than Dresden’s rail yards, which American precision bombing could and easily did destroy, there were no legitimate military targets in the city that was known as the Florence on the Elbe.  The loss of civilians in Dresden probably exceeded 100,000.  Estimates vary from a claim by a few British apologists of 35,000 to a high of a half-million.  Assessment of total losses is problematic because Dresden was packed with nonresidents, as streams of German civilians, fleeing the Russian advance from the east, poured into the city.  Kurt Vonnegut, an American POW in Dresden, said that tens of thousands of these people were simply incinerated in the holocaust, leaving behind no record of their existence.  Vonnegut also says that 135,000 corpses were found in basements and underground shelters.  He should know.  He and other American POWs were among those tasked with hauling the bodies to huge funeral pyres for cremation to prevent the spread of disease.

Despite the horrific example of Dres-den, there is not an industry in academe arguing that the U.S. strategic-bombing campaign should have been suspended by the end of 1944 and that we should have waited for an exhausted Germany to surrender.  If this were the case, I would find defense of our strategic bombing during World War II more difficult.  Those who question the morality of it all, proportionality, and what constitutes a just war certainly present a stronger case when such principles are applied uniformly and consistently.  I know that the editors at Chronicles apply these principles to the European theater of the war as well as to the Pacific theater.  It is clear that Mr. Schroder does also and I suspect that is true for Mr. Hayes as well, unlike agenda-driven leftists who are morally outraged only by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That said, have I presented a false dilemma—either bomb or invade?  Could we have blockaded Japan and simply waited for the Japanese to surrender?  There are many problems with such a course of action, and space allows me to address only a few.

By the summer of 1945 the Japanese still held some 100,000 Allied prisoners—more than 40,000 had already been executed, tortured to death, or died of starvation or disease.  Hundreds of the prisoners were dying daily, and the death rate was accelerating.  Most prisoners weighed little over 100 pounds.  Richard O’Kane, our top submarine commander, was 88 lbs. when he was liberated from a prison camp in August 1945.  O’Kane and most of those like him were only a month or two away from death when Japan surrendered.  Another year of imprisonment, torture, and slave labor would have meant death for even the healthiest of the prisoners.

A naval blockade of Japan would also have meant the death of thousands of sailors.  Surface ships would have been the target of the kamikaze.  During the battle for Okinawa, kamikazes sunk 36 U.S. ships and damaged 368.  Five-thousand American sailors died in the suicide attacks, and another 5,000 were wounded.  Despite having to fly hundreds of miles from the home islands, principally from Kyushu, and having to penetrate U.S. combat air patrols and massive anti-aircraft fire from U.S. naval vessels, 15 percent of the kamikazes got through to hit a ship.

How many Japanese would have had to die from starvation or disease before Japan capitulated?  Certainly tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or even millions.  Throughout the Pacific the Japanese preferred death to surrender.  For people who slit their own bellies and detonated grenades while holding them against their bodies, deprivation and hunger meant little.  Says Tsurumi Shunsuke in An Intellectual History of Wartime Japan, “[Suicide] was seen by the Japanese on the main islands as a proper model for their own behavior should the U.S.A. prove victorious and land in Japan.  The Government declared that loyal subjects of the Emperor must prepare themselves for glorious self-destruction for the sake of preserving the national structure.  The tenet was that even when all the Japanese, including the Emperor himself, had perished this structure would remain. . . . Very few people in Japan doubted this line of reasoning, and virtually no one, not even social scientists or members of the various religious sects, ventured to criticize it.”

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as horrific as it was, caused the Japanese government to capitulate and saved tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Japanese.