The Psychological Impact of the Atomic Bomb

August 6th was the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Many people posted about it. Many people pointed out that it was a heinous act because an estimated 39,000 to 80,000 people, most of whom were civilians, were killed.

Meanwhile the firebombing campaign against Tokyo, which resulted in the death of approximately 100,000 civilians, is seldom mentioned.

My point here isn’t to judge people for mentioning one without mentioning the other. It’s to illustrate that the psychological impact of the atomic bomb was so great that we still feel compelled to discuss the matter today even when we don’t have the same compulsion towards other acts that lead to even great losses of life.

One thought on “The Psychological Impact of the Atomic Bomb”

  1. Everyone talks of the horrors on the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Absent is any understanding of the situation at the time.

    Japan was plainly losing the war but surrender was not an option under the Japanese Bushido code. Japan was determined to fight to the bloody end.

    Japan had started this war, invaded and occupied Korea, occupied Taiwan, invaded mainland China. Japanese forces were in Southeast Asia and were spreading through the Pacific Ocean. Oh yes, and there was some little contretemps in Hawaii. It was simply not possible for the Allies could declare the war won, pack up and go home; they would be soon be back in the Pacific at war with Japan again. Japan had to surrender or be invaded.

    Allied war planners were working on two options.
    One option was to exhaust Japanese war fighting capabilities then blockade the island until the Japanese surrendered. This was deemed unacceptable for a number of reasons.
    1. There were significant Japanese forces on the mainland.

    2. The best estimates were that it would take at least a decade for this option to work. This would mean at least 10 years with a full battle fleet patrolling all around the island.

    3. While meager, Japan had sufficient resources to continue the war. Tens of millions of Japanese would die due to starvation and deprivation. While Japan was not exactly popular with the world, this was deemed a bit too much.

    The second option was an invasion and forcible occupation. The recent invasion of Saipan provided much information for Allied war planners.

    1. The invasion fleet would be massive; larger than the Normandy invasion fleet.

    2. Casualties on both sides were expected to be heavy. Allied planners predicted a million Allied casualties. The War Department struck so many Purple Heart medals in preparation for the planned invasion that when the war ended so abruptly the supply lasted well into the Vietnam War.

    3. Japanese casualties were expected in the 20 to 30 million range due to either using civilians in combat or suicide rather than surrender.

    At this point, Curtis LeMay’s B-29s were ranging up and down the Japanese mainland. Fire bombing raids were killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese at a time but the Japanese understood that these raids required hundreds of airplanes. Japanese planners knew that the Allies could only stage so many raids in a day and the damage, while substantial, was apparently considered sustainable.

    The use of the atomic bombs changed the balance. One airplane could drop one bomb and destroy an entire city. What broke the Japanese resolve and brought them to negotiations was the bluff that hundreds of B-29s would return carrying atomic bombs. Japan would become a seared wasteland.

    In hindsight, we know that the United States had only two bombs and producing more bombs would take months and years. The planned invasion would be underway by then. But the bluff worked and brought the war to an unexpected end.

    So, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific but, by bringing the war to an end, saved tens of millions of lives; both Allied and Japanese. I feel it was the better choice of a Devil’s bargain.

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