The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction

To mark the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australian historian and author Paul Ham penned an article at The Atlantic that explores the debates and discussions among U.S. scientists, officials, and military officers regarding the fateful use of these new weapons of mass destruction.

It is both fascinating and chilling to see all the different ways in which the participants justified one position or another, and how this juxtaposes with their own private remarks or writings (for example, despite the cold calculus and pragmatism that characterized the decision-making process, at least some of those involved admitted privately to concerns about the moral and ethical consequences).

General Leslie Groves, the Army engineer in charge of the Manhattan Project, had been ruminating on targets since late 1944; at a preliminary meeting two weeks earlier, he had laid down his criteria. The target should: possess sentimental value to the Japanese so its destruction would “adversely affect” the will of the people to continue the war; have some military significance—munitions factories, troop concentrations, and so on; be mostly intact, to demonstrate the awesome destructive power of an atomic bomb; and be big enough for a weapon of the atomic bomb’s magnitude.

Groves asked the scientists and military personnel to debate the details: They analyzed weather conditions, timing, use of radar or visual sights, and priority cities. Hiroshima, they noted, was “the largest untouched target” and remained off Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s list of cities open to incendiary attack. “It should be given consideration,” they concluded. Tokyo, Yawata, and Yokohama were thought unsuitable—Tokyo was “all bombed and burned out,” with “only the palace grounds still standing.”

A fortnight later, at the formal May 10 target meeting, Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist on the project, ran through the agenda. It included “height of detonation,” “gadget [bomb] jettisoning and landing,” “status of targets,” “psychological factors in target selection,” “radiological effects,” and so on. Joyce C. Stearns, a scientist representing the Air Force, named the four shortlisted targets in order of preference: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura. They were all “large urban areas of more than three miles in diameter;” “capable of being effectively damaged by the blast;” and “likely to be unattacked by next August.” Someone raised the possibility of bombing the emperor’s palace in Tokyo—a spectacular idea, they agreed, but militarily impractical. In any case, Tokyo had been struck from the list because it was already “rubble,” the minutes noted.

Kyoto, a large industrial city with a population of 1 million, met most of the committee’s criteria. Thousands of Japanese people and industries had moved there to escape destruction elsewhere; furthermore, stated Stearns, Kyoto’s psychological advantage as a cultural and “intellectual center” made the residents “more likely to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.”

Hiroshima, a city of 318,000, held similar appeal. It was “an important army depot and port of embarkation,” said Stearns, situated in the middle of an urban area “of such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged.” Hiroshima, the biggest of the “unattacked” targets, was surrounded by hills that were “likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.” On top of this, the Ota River made it “not a good” incendiary target, raising the likelihood of its preservation for the atomic bomb.

The meeting barely touched on the two cities’ military attributes, if any. Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, had no significant military installations; however, its beautiful wooden shrines and temples recommended it, Groves had earlier said (he was not at the May 10 meeting), as both sentimental and highly combustible. Hiroshima’s port and main industrial and military districts were located outside the urban regions, to the southeast of the city.

The gentlemen unanimously agreed that the bomb should be dropped on a large urban center, the psychological impact of which should be “spectacular” to ensure “international recognition” of the new weapon.

Among other things debated and discussed were whether the Russians should be made privy to the bombings, if not nuclear technology in general; and whether the U.S. would lose its moral compass committing such an attack.

It is also worth noting that among the reasons only four cities were listed was the fact that everything else had been reduced to rubble by firebombing (which claimed many more lives than the atomic bombs). Kyoto escaped unscathed because a high ranking U.S. official noted the city’s premier importance to Japan’s psyche, and also because he and his wife had a fondness for it following a trip. Hence why it is so uniquely traditional in its culture and architecture.

The Target Committee regrouped at the Pentagon on May 28 (Oppenheimer sent a representative). The members concentrated on the aiming points within the targeted cities. The plane carrying the atomic bomb “should avoid trying to pinpoint” military or industrial installations because they were “small, spread on fringes of city and quite dispersed.” Instead, aircrews should “endeavor to place … [the] gadget in [the] center of selected city.” They were quite explicit about this: The plane should target the heart of a major city. One reason was that the aircraft had to release the bomb from a great height—some 30,000 feet—to escape the shock wave and avoid the radioactive cloud; that limited the target to large urban areas easily visible from the air.

Captain William “Deak” Parsons, associate director of Los Alamos’s Ordnance Division, gave another reason to drop the bomb on a city center: “The human and material destruction would be obvious.” An intact urban area would show off the bomb to great effect. Whether the bomb hit soldiers, ordnance, and munitions factories, while desirable from a publicity point of view, was incidental to this line of thinking—and did not influence the final decision. “No one on the Target Committee ever recommended any other kind of target,” McGeorge Bundy, a Washington insider who later became John F. Kennedy’s national security advisor, later wrote, “and while every city proposed had quite traditional military objectives inside it, the true object of attack was the city itself.”

The Target Committee dismissed talk of giving a prior warning or demonstration of the bomb to Japan. Parsons had persistently rejected suggestions of a noncombat demonstration: “The reaction of observers to a desert shot would be one of intense disappointment,” he had warned in September 1944. Even the crater would be “unimpressive,” he said. Groves shared his contempt for “tender souls” who advocated a noncombat demonstration. When the meeting ended, the committee had no doubt about where the first atomic bomb would fall: on the heads of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

During June, the Target Committee narrowed the choice. On the 15th, a memo elaborated on Kyoto’s attributes. It was a “typical Jap city” with a “very high proportion of wood in the heavily built-up residential districts.” There were few fire-resistant structures. It contained universities, colleges, and “areas of culture,” as well as factories and war plants, which were in fact small and scattered, and in 1945 of negligible use. Nevertheless, the committee placed Kyoto higher on the updated “reserved” list of targets (that is, those preserved from LeMay’s firebombing). Kokura, too, made the reserved list. That city possessed one of Japan’s biggest arsenals, replete with military vehicles, ordnance, heavy naval guns, and, reportedly, poison gas. It was the most obvious military target.

The fate of out hundreds of thousands of people depended upon the secret whims and machinations of a handful of officials halfway around the world. As Ham goes on to show, it was the confluence of several factors — such as good weather on the scheduled bombing bay — that ended up tipping the balance in favor of the two cities that are now immortalized with the distinction of being the only two in history (so far) to be hit with nuclear weapons.

The whole process is well encapsulated by the following excerpt:

With the exception of Stimson on Kyoto—which was essentially an aesthetic objection—not one of the committee men raised the ethical, moral, or religious case against the use of an atomic bomb without warning on an undefended city. The businesslike tone, the strict adherence to form, the cool pragmatism, did not admit humanitarian arguments, however vibrantly they lived in the minds and diaries of several of the men present.

These were difficult and fateful decisions, to say the least, and one could argue that such a cold and dispassionate approach reflected a conscious attempt to be emotionally distant from the gravity of this decision.

Indeed, many would argue that, given the circumstances, and the knowledge available at the time, the atomic bombings were the right call; a lesser evil compared to a bloodier and more destructive land invasion (which would have claimed more lives on both sides). The world was weary of more conflict and death, and the bombs presented a quicker and comparatively less deadly fix compared to dragging things out through conventional warfare. Any objections are grounded in hindsight.

But others contend that Japan was already on its way out, and keeping it contained by conventional forces for a few weeks longer would have driven them to surrender. Deep-seated racism was a factor as well, with many Americans viewing the Japanese as subhuman even before the war. Such sentiments would explain the seemingly cavalier nature with which officials planned the bombings.

Moreover, the prevailing revisionist argument holds that the bombings were more about intimidating the Soviets and solidifying nascent U.S. hegemony, rather than any sincere tactical concerns (which at best were secondary). These objections are predicated on the cynical realpolitik that seemed to motivate the decision-makers, and to be sure, Ham’s Atlantic piece does seem to confirm, at least in part, that this narrative has some truth to it.

Given what I have read on the subject, both here and elsewhere, I am of the opinion that both camps are correct. Ultimately, the atomic bombings seemed motivated by a range of factors that took into account both immediate tactical needs (ending the war quickly) and grand strategic concerns (demonstrating U.S. dominance). As to which was the bigger factor, I think it is too close to call, given the constant back and forth between the decision-makers and their various complex, contradictory, and often changing positions.

Deciding which civilian cities to blow up with a weapon never before used in war is certainly not a decision that could be made lightly — at least no more so than the “regular” firebombings that were deadlier and in some ways more terrifying. Ham does a great job of documenting the disturbingly banal manner in which this momentous historical event was carried out; of course, at the time few involved really understood what was to come, regardless of their predictions and discussions.

What are your thoughts?


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