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The United States bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Before the Japanese could surrender, they bombed Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The two bombs killed over 200,000 people, most of them civilians.

Some argue they were necessary to prevent further bloodshed. According to them, the Japanese wouldn't surrender otherwise. Thus, the bombings actually saved lives.

An alternative explanation is that the United States wanted to show they had nuclear bombs (to the Soviet Union). By then Germany and Italy had already surrendered, and the Japanese was pushed back to their islands. Possibly a simple naval blockade would have starved them off and forced their surrender.

Which one is the "correct" explanation? ie: were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary to end the war?

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closed as not constructive by Noldorin, RedBlueThing, Wladimir Palant, Sardathrion, Hauser Nov 10 '11 at 12:57

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Woah, this really is opening up a whole can of (old) worms. This is too much a very controversial and largely unresolved issue of ethics. If the question were changed to ask what were the reasons for and against, I would accept it more. As it stands, voting to close as subjective and argumentative. –  Noldorin Nov 10 '11 at 3:56
    
@Noldorin Yep. You are probably right. –  RedBlueThing Nov 10 '11 at 4:10
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The bombs were certainly not strictly necessary to defeat Japan - isolated and with most of its navy sunk, it would have fallen anyway, one way or another. The open questions were just about how long it would take, how many people would have to die, and who would profit the most in the end. –  Martin Sojka Nov 10 '11 at 10:22

2 Answers 2

As of the Nagasaki bombing, the Japanese had no intention of surrendering. They had asked the Soviet Union to serve as go-between with the Allies, and had never managed to come up with what they wanted to say. It is possible that the Soviet attack had something to do with the Japanese surrender, but I haven't seen good evidence of that. The Imperial rescript announcing the surrender mentioned the atomic bomb and no other specifics. What I've read of the top official discussions seems to indicate that the fact that the US had two atomic bombs suggested that the US could destroy Japan without an invasion.

Now, the Japanese occupied a lot of heavily populated areas, and they were not good occupiers. As far as I can tell something between 100,000 and 200,000 Chinese were dying each month from the occupation. This suggests that one or two months' delay in surrender would have killed as many Chinese civilians as Japanese civilians were killed by the bombing. The Japanese also occupied Malaya, Indochina, and most of Indonesia, and people were dying there. Unless the Japanese were surrendering in response to the Soviet attacks, I've never seen any suggestion that Japan would have surrendered before about November.

Therefore, there are very good reasons to think that not using the nukes would have killed more civilians than it saved.

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I think that, although the Russian advance into Manchuria did not in itself cause the end of the war, if given a little more time, it would have. Had Japan lost it's hold on the north east of China and Korea, it would have significantly have constrained their ability to fight in the long term. One can only speculate about the costs in life of the various options and hindsight is 20/20. –  Rincewind42 Nov 10 '11 at 7:07
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Do you have any sources for the Chinese casualty numbers? –  Wladimir Palant Nov 10 '11 at 8:30
    
@Rincewind42: Even after two nuclear bombs had been dropped, the Japanese military leadership remained split on the issue of surrender, half preferring to fight on until everyone was dead. Constraining their ability to fight would not stopped them from fighting. The attitude of the leadership was largely a case of victory or death, and they included the whole nation in that. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 4 '13 at 14:11

I think there are a couple of points in your question which I think need clarification and context:

  • "Before the Japanese could surrender" : There seems to be an implication here that Japan was about to surrender and didn't quite get the chance. The second bombing occurred three days after the first. The regime in Japan had made it very clear over a long and painful conflict in the Pacific that they were not willing to surrender at any price.
  • "The two bombs killed over 200,000 people" : In the preceding months over a half a million civilians had been killed by conventional firebombing of Japanese cities.
  • "a simple naval blockade" : There is nothing simple or practical about a naval blockade of Japan. The Japanese home islands encompass a huge area (~377 thousand square kilometers) with a massive capacity to feed itself. The Japanese nation could have survived indefinitely (albeit suffering terribly) and a land invasion would have been inevitable.

So assuming my premise that a land invasion would have been necessary to force a Japanese surrender I present the following argument that the bombings did indeed save lives.

Taking the best case estimates (the worst case estimates are much higher) of civilian deaths during the invasion of Okinawa, one tenth of the population (42,000 people), and applying this to the Japanese population in 1945 (71,998,104 people) results in a staggering seven million civilian deaths. If this number seems out of proportion or unrealistic then consider that between six and seventeen million Chinese civilians died during the war. The potential for conventional weapons to kill civilians on a massive scale had already been well proven by the time the United States elected to use nuclear weapons in Japan.

I believe the answer to your question is yes, the bombings were necessary to end the war. They gave the Japanese regime a powerful and politically viable reason to override the culturally ingrained "no surrender" ethos.

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Very nice argumentation! Thank you. –  Wladimir Palant Nov 10 '11 at 8:33
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@wladimir-palant No problem :) –  RedBlueThing Nov 10 '11 at 8:52
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Very good explanation on a topic that could easily have devolved into lots of "theories". Nice job –  MichaelF Nov 10 '11 at 13:00

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