Downfall

 

by Richard B. Frank  (Random House, 1999)

 

(This column was first published in the November 8, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb, the equivalent of 12,500 tons of TNT, was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later a second, the equivalent of 22,000 tons of TNT, was dropped on Nagasaki. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed by the two bombs, a large proportion of them civilians. (For comparison, the 2000 census for records the Buffalo population as 292,648.)

 

Now when we are concerned about dozens of Afghani civilians killed by the dunces among our "smart" bombs, those and other World War II casualty figures are difficult to place in context. And over the years revisionist historians have argued that dropping those bombs was unnecessary.

 

I do not join them and I am pleased to have Richard B. Frank's detailed analysis in Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire support my belief that dropping those bombs was the right thing to do at the time.

 

My personal view is selfish and some autobiography is in order here.

 

I joined the navy on my 17th birthday and was in officer training at the time those bombs were dropped. My brother was already in the Pacific, an LST commanding officer. His best friend, an air force B-29 navigator was killed over Okinawa just days before those bombs were dropped. After my commission I would almost certainly have taken part in at least the later stages of the invasion of Japan.

 

Although I was fully prepared to meet my obligations, I was, quite frankly, frightened to death of that prospect. I considered then and continue to consider those atomic bombs lifesavers rather than killers.

 

If I felt that way as a sailor, you can imagine how the soldiers and marines felt, especially those who had already confronted the Japanese military on those meatgrinding island invasions -- Guadalcanal, Attu, Tarawa, Makin, Roi-Namur, Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, the Philippines -- across the Pacific.

 

And Frank makes clear the fact that my fear was even more justified than I thought at the time.

 

Plans had already been drawn up to invade the Japanese home islands of Kyushu (Operation Olympic) on November 1, 1945 and Honshu (Operation Coronet) on March 1, 1946. We know now that, despite their declining capability, the Japanese were ready and waiting for us.

 

He tells us, "Officers at Imperial Headquarters coupled a reassuring assessment of the current strategic picture with an acute appreciation of future U.S. intentions. Americans lacked the patience for a protracted blockade and bombardment; they therefore surely would seek to end the war quickly by an invasion of the Homeland. If the initial assault could be repulsed, or if its cost could be made prohibitive, Japan could yet extricate herself from the war with honor. It was with this goal in mind that the Emperor sanctioned a new strategic directive...that candidly declared the Homeland itself would be the arena for the 'final decisive battle' of the war....

 

" The aggregate strength of the Homeland armies would...total 2,903,000 men, 292,000 horses, and 27,500 motor vehicles....

 

"Staff officers in Tokyo completed a sprawling master defense plan for the impending struggle for the Homeland and contiguous areas, crowned as Ketsu-Go ('Decisive' Operation). This plan envisioned that American invaders would be confronted and crushed....

 

"The Japanese realized the folly of immediate beach defense in the face of massive American prelanding bombardments, but they also grasped that their adversary never could be dislodged if permitted to consolidate their positions after a landing. Therefore, Ketsu-Go aimed to destroy the beachhead, the perimeter established by the invader a few days after the landing, anchored on the coast, but stretching only a few miles inland.

 

"The second distinctive feature of Ketsu-Go was the comprehensive devotion to tokko (special attack or suicide) tactics, not only the now-routine air and sea efforts but also ashore. The incorporation of the civilian population into the defense scheme represented the third singular feature of Ketsu-Go. Under the National Resistance Program, commanders would summon all able-bodied civilians, regardless of gender, to combat. Should the Americans overrun any portion of the Homeland, swarms of guerrillas would beset them."

 

Military experts at the time believed that invading forces needed to outnumber defenders significantly at the point of attack and they did not realize the huge build-up of defensive forces prepared to meet them. They didn't understand that they would be attacking with roughly equal forces.

 

And they would face a terrifying foe: "The entire public, in effect, became subject to call-up under the Volunteer Enlistment Law, which applied to all men ages 15 to 60 and all women ages 17 to 40.... What this sea of civilians lacked besides training were arms and even uniforms. A mobilized high-school girl, Yukiko Kasai, found herself issued an awl and told: 'Even killing just one American soldier will do. You must prepare to use the awls for self-defense. You must aim at the enemy's abdomen.' Many civilians found themselves drilling with sharpened staves or spears. Japan lacked the cloth to put those civilians into uniforms -- one senior general spoke of his hope to provide them with patches on their civilian clothes. This lack of distinguishing identification would undoubtedly have made it impossible at normal combat range for a soldier or Marine to identify which civilians represented the Japanese armed forces and which did not, a sure prescription for vast numbers of deaths. At least one Fifth Air Force intelligence officer took the Japanese at their publicly broadcast word of total mobilization and declared in a July 21 report, 'The entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target...THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.'"

 

The implications applied to both sides: "The significance of these designs cannot be exaggerated. This mobilization was intended to create a huge pool of men and women to perform direct combat support and, ultimately, combat jobs. This would literally add tens of millions to the strength of the ground combat units, albeit of little formal combat power for lack of training and equipment. It would also guarantee huge civilian casualties and make the disturbing American nightmare of a 'fanatically hostile population' into a reality. By mustering millions of erstwhile civilians into the area swept by bombs, artillery, and small-arms fire, Japan's military masters willfully consigned hundreds of thousands of their countrymen to death. Moreover, by deliberately eliminating any distinction between combatants and noncombatants, they would compel Americans to treat all Japanese as combatants or fail to do so at their peril. It was a recipe for extinction."

 

And what would be the total carnage? "One of Stimson's aides, Edward L. Bowles, commissioned a scientist, W. B. Shockley, to estimate the blood price of conquering Japan. Shockley reported that defeating Japan would cost the Japanese five to ten million deaths and the United States between 1.7 and 4 million casualties, including 400,000 to 800,000 fatalities. Shockley's report appeared in July, just as Ultra [the equipment that broke Japanese codes] began destroying the assumptions underlying all the prior projections. Ultra demonstrated that the Japanese defenses of Kyushu exceeded the original estimates by more than three times in combat divisions and two to four times in aircraft. As MacArthur's intelligence officer Charles Willoughby phrased it, these numbers showed that the Americans would be going in at odds of one to one, which assured very high casualties. Faced with these revelations, however, senior officers did not request new casualty projections. Instead, the end of the war found the top American military leaders grappling with the questions of whether Olympic was still feasible at an acceptable cost. It was against this backdrop that the actual orders to use atomic weapons were issued."

 

There are additional reasons for concern: "By 1945, the war had already turned up ample evidence that the Japanese would kill any prisoners if there was threat of liberation. In October 1942, a Japanese garrison in the Gilbert Islands had lopped off the heads of twenty-two prisoners after an Allied bombing raid. The same thing occurred at Ballale (ninety bayoneted) and Wake (ninety-six machine-gunned). At Palawan in the Philippines, a local commander feared an invasion. He had 150 American prisoners herded into air-raid shelters, poured gasoline over them, ignited it, and then machine-gunned those who tried to escape being burned to death. Nearly to a man, Allied POWs believed the Japanese would kill them if the Homeland was invaded."

 

And others would die as well: "For China alone, depending upon what number one chooses for overall Chinese casualties, in each of the ninety-seven months between July 1937 and August 1945, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 persons perished, the vast majority of them noncombatants. For the other Asians alone, the average probably ranged in the tens of thousands per month, but the actual numbers were almost certainly greater in 1945, notably due to the mass death in a famine in Vietnam. Newman concluded that each month that the war continued in 1945 would have produced the deaths of 'upwards of 250,000 people, mostly Asian but some Westerners.' What is clear beyond dispute is that the minimum plausible range for deaths of Asian noncombatants each month in 1945 was over 100,000 and more probably reached or even exceeded 250,000. Any moral assessment of how the Pacific war did or could have ended must consider the fate of these Asian noncombatants and the POWs."

 

The revisionists, including people I otherwise respect like Gore Vidal, claim that the Japanese, or at least the Emperor, were ready to surrender. Frank makes clear that neither was the case:

 

"The fundamental political reality is that it was Japanese, not American, leaders who controlled when and how the Pacific war would end. Those insisting that Japan's surrender could have been procured without recourse to atomic bombs cannot point to any credible supporting evidence from the eight men who effectively controlled Japan's destiny: the six members of the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Kido, and the Emperor. Not only has no relevant document been recovered from the wartime period, but none of them, even as they faced potential death sentences in war-crimes trials, testified that Japan would have surrendered earlier upon an offer of modified terms, coupled to Soviet intervention or some other combination of events, excluding the use of atomic bombs. Nor does [the Emperor's diary] contain any indication that a different Allied policy might have brought about an earlier surrender....

 

"The contemporary evidence and the Emperor's own voice...demolish the postwar myth that the Emperor was eager for surrender throughout 1945 and thus could have been mobilized to end the war by American diplomacy. The Emperor was in fact a vigorous advocate of Ketsu-Go until the final defeat loomed on Okinawa. His instinctive choice even then of an alternate strategy was to launch a new offensive in China. Only after this proposal was rejected by the Imperial Army did he look to diplomacy as a way to extricate Japan from its predicament. And still his aim was Soviet mediation to avoid anything like unconditional surrender. There is no evidence he ever contemplated terms less favorable for Japan than the ones Kido drafted in early June, which resembled the Treaty of Versailles. Neither Kido's contemporary diary nor the Emperor's own recollections support the belief that the Emperor instructed Prince Konoe to stop the war immediately upon any terms. Tellingly, Suzuki's disastrous...rejection of the Potsdam Declaration passed without criticism from the Emperor. Nor did his alter ego Kido object initially to the proposal of the Suzuki cabinet on August 9 to submit an offer of surrender congenial to Army Minister Anami and the other military leaders that would have been wholly unacceptable to the Allies. Since Kido was the man most intimately aware of the Emperor's mind-set, this episode is further compelling evidence of the Emperor's actual thinking.

 

"Why did the Emperor finally intervene? He consistently gave three reasons. When he first announced his decision in the early morning hours of August 10, he said that he had 'given serious thought to the situation prevailing at home and abroad.' The allusion to Japan's internal situation is significant. There is a great deal of direct and indirect evidence demonstrating that fear (perhaps exaggerated) of a domestic upheaval provided Konoe, Yonai, and ultimately Kido and the Emperor with a powerful impetus to end the war. This collapse of domestic morale arose from the general trajectory of the war but became much more marked in the summer of 1945 due to blockade and the bombing. The Emperor also explicitly cited two military considerations: inadequate preparation to resist the invasion and the vast destructiveness of the atomic bomb and the air attacks. He did not refer to Soviet intervention."

 

Yes, those two atomic bombs did terrible violence to two Japanese cities and killed a great many people. I am convinced, however, that they saved even more lives, quite possibly my own.

 

Frank's analysis is detailed but he takes us into the minds and hearts of those who had to make the decision to drop this bomb. This was an extreme test of a new president, Harry Truman, who, as vice president until Roosevelt died, had not even known about this weapon. I am convinced that he made the right choice. And Frank's fine book should (but almost certainly won't) settle the matter.

 

I will think about this book on Sunday when we should celebrate not only our veterans and also those who didn't return.-- Gerry Rising