Truman’s Trade-Off: Taking Two Hundred Thousand Lives, to Spare More Than Two Million
“Japan was finished as a warmaking nation, in spite of its four million men still under arms. But . . . Japan was not going to quit. Despite the fact that she was militarily finished, Japan’s leaders were going to fight right on. To not lose ‘face’ was more important than hundreds and hundreds of thousands of lives. And the people concurred, in silence, without protest. To continue was no longer a question of Japanese military thinking, it was an aspect of Japanese culture and psychology.” —James Jones, Commanding Officer of the Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet, Amphib Recon Company
Obama’s Anti-American Speech
Giving a Memorial Day speech in Hiroshima recently, President Obama ignored the sacrifice of American lives that made it possible for modern-day Japanese to live in a world much freer than that of their militaristic forebears. The president, who had promised not to apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima, did indeed condemn America as being guilty of a great wrong, which amounted to the same thing. “Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill,” remarked President Obama, making Americans out to be warmongering religious zealots. The president continued, accusing Americans of bombing the Japanese out of racism, rather than out of a desire to shorten the war and save lives on both sides; quoth President Obama: “Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.”
America was at peace, on December 7th, 1941, when the Empire of Japan perpetrated a sneak-attack against America at Pearl Harbor. The US entered the war in self-defense. After years of fighting, America found herself faced with a more-than-daunting invasion of Japan, an undertaking which could have proven to be the bloodiest in military history. The death toll would likely have soared into the millions. But there was an option available that promised to save the lives of many soldiers and civilians alike.
Some Serious Math
As a result of dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, the death toll in Hiroshima was between 90,000 and 146,000 people; and, in Nagasaki, the dead numbered between 39,000 and 80,000. Thus, the combined total of those who were killed numbered somewhere between 129,000 and 226,000. So, even if the high count of 226,000 were correct, this would represent only a fraction of the number of lives that would have been lost during a full-scale invasion of Japan. This is not mere speculation, but a conclusion based on reality. So, let us examine the facts President Truman had to consider, with regard to the use of atomic weapons.
A Cold-Sober Decision
Faced with the grim decision he had to make—whether or not to employ the use of nuclear weaponry—President Truman was told that a ground invasion of Japan would likely mean the deaths of over one million American service members, not to mention millions of civilian deaths that would likely ensue. This could easily have added up to more than ten times the death toll which resulted from the dropping of atomic bombs on the military-industrial targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also on Truman’s mind was likely the fact that 400,000 Asian non-combatants were dying monthly, as the incessant fighting against Japan continued.
The Saipan Mentality Was Also of Concern
Truman was also well aware of what had occurred at the Battle of Saipan. Emperor Hirohito had found the threat of defection by Japanese civilians at Saipan so potentially embarrassing for Japan that the emperor issued an imperial order that the civilians of Saipan be encouraged to commit suicide, rather than surrender. This would be preferable, Hirohito reasoned, to the Americans possibly being able to use fair treatment of the conquered citizens of Saipan as a propaganda weapon.
In addition to being told that Americans would execute the men, rape the women, and devour the children, the citizens of Saipan were also assured that whoever complied with the suicide order would receive an afterlife status on par with soldiers who died in battle. Hirohito, as a direct descendant of the Sun God, was divinely empowered to guarantee such other-worldly outcomes. As a result, 1,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide, jumping from places that would later be named Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff.
John Henry Barrow II later recounted what he saw through his binoculars aboard a sub-chaser off Saipan: “Being that close to shore we could see those Japanese civilian ladies throw their children off the nearby cliffs and then jump themselves. The Japanese Army told these women if the American Marines caught them they would eat their children. It was pretty horrible watching them jump through binoculars.”
Ketsugo: the Plan for Defending the Homeland
On January 20th, 1945, Emperor Hirohito approved a program of Ketsugo—or self-defense—for Japan. But what this meant, as a national policy in wartime Japan, was training civilians to fight the American invaders as part of a Civilian Volunteer Corps. All males from 15-60 and all females from 17-40 were to be given training. The plan also incorporated young boys and girls, to fight with bamboo spears and other improvised weaponry. Members of the Corps were to be trained in the use of hand-grenades, swords, knives, sickles, axes, fire-hooks, and spears. These civilians, led by army regulars, would be used as nighttime infiltration patrols employing light weaponry and demolition devices. There was no Japanese plan for evacuating civilians or for declaring open cities.
Psychological preparation was included in the civilian training. There would be no surrender. And those who believed they might not be able to carry out their duties were encouraged to commit hara-kiri (a form of suicide where the person disembowels himself). This is what the citizens of Okinawa did, rather than surrender to the Americans. The Japanese government had taught their citizenry, throughout the islands of Japan, that it was customary for Americans, upon taking a town, to perform summary executions of the men and to rape the women. In April of 1945, the Japanese military began to implement Ketsugo among the populace. The Japanese were actually being prepared, as President Truman had feared, to make the fight for the Japanese homeland “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
The situation was grim, with the Japanese preparing for the coming American invasion. Japanese military leaders believed they would prevail in the coming conflict. In their view, “[a]lthough a few strategic islands had been lost . . . most of their conquests, including the Chinese heartland, were firmly in their hands, and the bulk of their army was undefeated. . . . Allied troops, they boasted, would face the fiercest resistance in history. Over ten thousand kamikaze planes were readied. . . . Behind the beaches, enormous connecting underground caves had been stocked with caches of food and thousands of tons of ammunition. Manning the nation’s ground defenses were 2,350,000 regular soldiers, 250,000 garrison troops, and 32,000,000 civilian militiamen, a total of 34,600,000, more than the combined armies of the United States, Great Britain, and Nazi Germany.”
It must be remembered that the Japanese were not new to fighting American amphibious assaults. Also, in late 1944, the Japanese even sent a team of officers to debrief the Germans on how the Allies had assaulted the beach at Normandy. After studying all available intelligence, the Japanese developed a thorough plan for putting up an effective defense of the homeland in three zones: beach positions, foreground zones, and main resistance zones. Many hardened underground installations had been constructed and carefully camouflaged. Dummy positions had been built, in order to deceive invasion forces. And special kamikaze attacks were to be unleashed at unprecedented levels. Suicide forces of foot soldiers had saved Japan from the Mongols in the 13th century, and Japanese leaders believed that they could do so once again.
Given the evidence, no serious person can doubt that President Truman’s decision to sacrifice two hundred thousand lives—instead of what could have amounted to over two million—was actually the least immoral option available to him. Memorial Day should be a time when America celebrates its brave defenders and their heroism, not a time to apologize for America’s use of a nuclear device that put an earlier end to a war of untold destruction. Indeed, it was the dropping of atomic weapons that gave the peace faction in Japan’s government the ability to prevail upon Emperor Hirohito to surrender to the United States.
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