The Manhattan Project and Japan- 71 Years Later
BY: ANDREW SVEDA, CONTRIBUTOR
In the early days of August, the world once again turns its gaze towards Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities in Japan which were victims of the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States to finish the brutal Second World War. President Barack Obama, in his recent visit to Hiroshima, and Hollywood movies have constantly told the America public to denounce President Harry Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons on a crumbling Imperial Japan. The atomic bombs were a product of a coalition consisting of an elite group of scientists known as the Manhattan Project. However, the alternative resolution is seldom known by the same group that rejects the other as the most barbaric assault in modern history. And this original strategy, dubbed Operation Downfall, would have yielded the darkest and bloodiest invasion in all of history. So let’s venture through the smoke and past into the waning days of WWII.
With the death of Adolf Hitler and the surrender of Nazi Germany on April 30 and May 7, 1945, respectively, the Allies fixed their strategies and intelligence towards the defeat of Hirohito’s Japan. In that year, the United States advanced in the Pacific Theatre with the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In addition, U.S. B-29 superfortresses began to strike Japan itself. Despite success, the progress was slow, and the United States faced a long road to victory. Moreover, U.S. General George Marshall theorized that a free nation like the U.S. cannot persist through such a lengthy war, which prompted discussions on a direct invasion and fall of Japan after eight years of war in the Pacific. This strategy was none other than Operation Downfall that consisted of Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet, which would take place on November 1945 and March 1946. Operation Olympic, using Okinawa as a foundation, would invade a third of the southern island, Kyushu. This, along with the capture of the occupied Chinese coastline, consisted of the greatest navy fleet in history, boasting a whopping “forty-two aircraft carriers, twenty-four battleships, and four hundred destroyers and destroyer escorts”, providing a base for the attack on Honshu in Operation Coronet. This sub-operation alone, set to occur on “Y-Day”, would have significantly dwarfed the beaches of Normandy by nearly double the amount of divisions arriving at Honshu (25 compared to 13). Furthermore, this would have been the greatest amphibious strike in the history of man, and Coronet hoped to capture Tokyo in the spring-summer of 1946 to force the Japanese surrender. As plans continued, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was assigned to lead Operation Downfall while Truman approved of Olympic. Despite the President’s signature on the first section of the invasion, Truman and the Allies remained cautious of Coronet and Operation Downfall due impart to the enormous amount of casualties and deaths of Americans. Various reports originating from the United States Government predicted U.S. fatalities alone to be anywhere from 267,000–800,000 in Operation Downfall as the U.S. manufactured almost half a million Purple Hearts, with 120,000 still outstanding in 2003, after all of the years of awards in Korea, Vietnam, and Kuwait. On the other hand, former President, Herbert Hoover, and the Los Angeles Times both predicted the treacherous operation would steal 500,000-1,000,000 American lives. These deaths and even tremendously higher total casualties was not only due to the sheer magnitude of the strike, but also factored in Japan’s response.
Despite claims of Japan being on the brink of surrender in the summer of 1945, the last Axis power reciprocally planned its strategy. The idea of Japanese honor, seen through kamikaze attacks and the nation’s absence of defeat for about 2,000 years, proved that Japan would continue to defend itself until the very conclusion of the war. In the words of its government, “ ‘The sooner the Americans come, the better…One hundred million die proudly’ ”. This was a call to arms for its citizens and its defense strategy against the United States invasion, named Operation Ketsu-go. The action would serve as the Japanese’s final defense of their homeland against the Allies. In addition to utilizing virtually the entire strength of Japan’s military, composed of over a million soldiers, and over 10,000 planes, the faltering regime created a Patriotic Citizens Fighting Corps that recruited healthy males of 15-60 and females 17-40. These Japanese citizens were instructed to use any possible resources, including muskets and bamboo spears to kill as many Americans as possible, which illustrates the hostility of these legions of Japanese civilians towards U.S. troops. With this new strength of about 28,000,000, a monstrous air power, and kamikaze mechanisms ranging from 5,500 planes, explosives (such as mines or bombs), to 1,300 submarines and at least 2,000 other ships, Japan hoped to annihilate United States’ soldiers using every last man and woman. It is for this reason that the United States predicted 5,000,000-10,000,000 Japanese would perish in the final campaign of the war.
Despite original plans, a major test occurred in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 that would change the end of World War II and all subsequent wars. Oppenheimer and other scientific experts of the Manhattan Project witnessed the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon and the birth of a new epoch in the history of man. With a new and powerful bomb, General Marshall and other top officials reviewed Operation Downfall and considered even dropping seven of these nuclear weapons on Japan’s beaches. In a final warning to Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese Empire, the United States, China, and the United Kingdom instructed the government to agree to the Allies’ unwavering “unconditional surrender” or to face the darkness and fire of “prompt and utter destruction”. However, Japan ignored this great warning and threat for a surrender. Japan never planned on defeat, and did not intend be defeated.
Thus, General Marshall and military elite reconsidered Operation Downfall now that the atomic bomb was at their disposal. It was only after the rejection of the Declaration (August 3rd) that Truman permitted the use of this warhead. Marshall suggested that the bombs should assist in Operation Downfall, unable to foresee the effects of radioactivity. In spite of the original invasion plans, in which U.S. soldiers would outnumber the Japanese by a factor of three, a massive defense build-up of Kyushu in early August sparked concern in the General as the ratio became equal. Operation Olympic, let alone the entire Operation Downfall seemed increasingly treacherous. In response and hope for a swift conclusion to the Second World War, the United States decided to exercise the use of its to atomic bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, on the city of Hiroshima, which bared significant military presence, as well as the naval city of Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, respectively. And despite the exceedingly more deadly alternative, multitudes of Americans still believe this move was unjustified.
These scholars criticize the United States and the atomic bombs on several fronts. Many point to the theory that depicts Japan on the brink of surrender prior to the Hiroshima attack, contrary to evidence of Japan’s Operation Ketsu-go. Skeptics also mention the idea that a more traditional method of air assaults, such as firebombing, could have easily replaced the Manhattan Project’s weapon. In response to this, it is important to remember other firebombings in the Pacific Theatre, which most famously includes the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945. With bombs together totaling about 2,000 tons, the capital city was utterly decimated, left about 100,000 Japanese dead, and resulted in 2,000,000 either wounded or displaced. In the words of TIME journalist Kirk Spitzer, “ ‘the bombing raid…[was] with those [fatalities] caused by the atomic bombings’ ”. But even more significantly, these horrendous bombings failed to spark a Japanese surrender, which is exactly what the United States hoped to accomplish in this assault. Thus, a firebombing campaign across the main islands would have been significantly more deadly than the atomic bombs, and, considering the Tokyo bombings, there is a possibility that Japan would still not have surrendered. However, even if the firebombings had prompted a Japanese surrender, additional civilian lives would have been lost.
Moreover, many believe that Hiroshima was justified, but Nagasaki was most certainly not. Despite this seemingly reasonable claim, the theory can be nullified when examining Imperial Japan during the beginning days of August.
With the events of Hiroshima in the minds of the Empire’s Supreme War Direction Council, Japan again still voted in negation of the Allies’ Potsdam Declaration and “unconditional surrender”. It was only after the second atomic bomb was utilized on Nagasaki and the Soviet Offensive in Manchuria that this council, with the assistance of Emperor Hirohito and a furious debate, that the nation finally, but reluctantly, agreed to a surrender. Therefore, since the Japanese government voted and staunchly held to its plan of a last stand until the final man and woman after Hiroshima, “Fat Man” was a critical tool to the formal Japanese surrender and end of World War II on the USS Missouri. Furthermore, since Hiroshima did not prompt a surrender like Nagasaki, it would have been impractical to use one of only two bombs in the Pacific Ocean, as others have suggested. This would have allowed for only one prepared atomic bomb to be ready and the same result of the Japanese Council would have occurred, rejecting surrender and defeat. Therefore, due to Japanese resistance in accepting defeat, both atomic bombs were necessary to bring such a deadly war to a final halt.
Although I have logically argued in favor of the United States’ decision to use the two atomic bombs, I am not claiming it was a perfect solution to end the night of war. That being said, there is no such thing as a “perfect war.” As long as there is war on Earth, there will be suffering and death. Painfully, a decision in conflict must be based upon the preservation of lives, and the atomic bombs thus provided the better alternative to Operation Downfall or firebombing. It killed 155,000–279,020 Japanese lives, but an astronomically larger value would have been recorded with either of the two alternatives previously mentioned. Therefore, it was the best option available to save the lives of both Japanese and Americans, caught in the cross-hairs of such a deadly war.