The American strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific theatre (April – August 1945) killed at least ten times as many Japanese civilians as British civilians were killed in the Blitz (September 1940 – May 1941).
Estimates vary from 300,000 to 900,000 fatalities all told, with the vast majority of these occurring within the above six month period, a quite staggering amount when compared to the ‘paltry’ 44,000 British deaths from 1940-41.
I have touched on this issue before. Japan was overwhelmingly underprepared for a modernised war. Until the final year of the conflict, it had been saved from certain destruction by geography alone. But by Spring 1945 American troops had secured bases in the Marina Islands that were close enough to Japan to reach it with their new long-range heavy bomber, the B-29 Super-Fortress.
Using firestorm techniques they had perfected when flying alongside the British at Dresden, Hamburg and other places during the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, the American bombers destroyed 40% of the built-up area of 66 cities. Japanese houses were largely made of wood, bamboo and paper, and as such there was nothing that the emergency services could do to combat the effects of the incendiary bombs. In addition, the country possessed little to nothing of an airforce itself, and its air defences on the ground were woefully inadequate. The result was catastrophic.
Indeed, so ruthless was the campaign and so impotent the Japanese counter methods, that the Americans quickly began to run out of things to bomb. After hitting the cities of strategic value – Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe – they therefore turned their attention towards the smaller, more vulnerable cities. Aside from the already noted fatalities, 5-8 million people had been made homeless by the end of the war.
The awesome destructive nature of America’s aerial supremacy over Japan combined with its naval blockade of the island made Japanese defeat merely a matter of time. But, whilst the Japanese squabbled over terms of surrender, America had grown tired of waiting. On 6th of August, a lone bomber approached Hiroshima, one of three as of yet untouched cities that the head of American Bomber Command, General Curtis LeMay, had been told to reserve for ‘special treatment’. After initial panic, no other planes were spotted and the air-raid sirens gave the all clear.
As a single bomb fell through the sky on that warm summer’s day, Hiroshima’s inhabitants might have been rubbing pickled onions on their heads, a symbolisation of bombing that was supposed to have rendered immunity. Or else they might have been giving thanks for their good fortune to (American) President Truman’s mother, who was rumoured to be Japanese and living in seclusion in their fine city, and whom they believed to be the very reason why the violence had not reached them.
5 minutes later, 50% of Hiroshima and 40,000 of its inhabitants had been annihilated. Windows shattered 5 miles away from the blast; the city had been reduced to a desolate wasteland, as far as the eye could see. In Tokyo, frantic efforts were made to finalise terms of surrender, but it came too late to avoid a repeat of the nightmare in Nagasaki 3 days later. Finally, the Japanese surrendered on August 15th.
My aim here is not to dispute the morality of the American usage of the atomic bomb, (for that matter neither is it to condemn the Japanese for their appalling treatment of downed American pilots). Rather, I hope to have made plain to you what was evident at the time to each and every member of American High Command, namely that Japan had been defeated long before the decision to drop the nuclear bomb was made. By Summer 1945 it was clear that there would no longer be any need for a land invasion. America’s bombing campaign had destroyed what little was left of their enemy’s capacity to wage war. Japan was a crippled country; it might have limped on a further few weeks, but left alone it would have fallen. There was no need to push it over so severely.