It is impossible to make a morally and politically serious assessment of President Truman’s decision to use the atomic weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki without reviewing in some detail the course of the Pacific War from mid-1944 on.
Some sense of the desperate character of that conflict may be gleaned from Goodbye, Darkness, William Manchester’s powerful memoir of his days as a Marine infantryman in the Pacific theater. The battle for the island of Saipan, for example, involved three ghastly weeks of fighting, from June 15 to July 9, 1944; its military culmination was a suicidal banzai charge that Manchester describes in these grim terms:
At 4:45 the next morning they emerged from the bush, fueled with sake, some merely armed with cudgels, some with bayonets wired to the ends of sticks, all of them determined to wreak havoc before they fell. It was the most spectacular banzai of the war. . . . [The Japanese poured through a gap in the U.S. lines] and fell upon the Tenth Marines, artillerymen behind the lines. Marine officers couldn’t believe it. Infantrymen are supposed to protect artillerymen, or at the very least give them time for maneuver. But here swarming, screaming Japanese, racing four abreast, were descending on the dumbfounded gunners. The artillerymen responded by cutting their fuses to four-tenths of a second: muzzle bursts. . . . Fusillade followed fusillade. The Japs still came on and on. Sometimes they had to climb over heaps of their comrades’ corpses to keep their momentum. They did it, while hurrying Marine machine gunners arrived on the scene and flung aside Nip bodies to give themselves fields of fire. At dawn, when the last assault wave peaked and fell back, the artillerymen were wading through the slime and detritus of entrails, gore, splintered bones, mangled flesh, and brains. An exact count of the Japanese dead was impossible. The figure agreed upon was 4,311 Japanese bodies.
But an ever greater horror was yet to come on Saipan. Again, Manchester:
… since Saipan had become a part of Hirohito’s domain in 1919, over eighteen thousand Japanese civilians had settled there. Tojo’s propaganda officers had been lecturing them since Pearl Harbor, describing the Americans as sadistic, redheaded, hairy monsters who committed unspeakable atrocities before putting all Nipponese, including women and infants, to the sword. As the battle turned against Saito’s troops, these civilians, panicking, had fled northward to Marpi Point. After the great banzai obliterated their army, depriving them of their protectors, they decided that they, too, must die. Most of them gathered on two heights now called Banzai Cliff, an eighty-foot bluff overlooking the water, and, just inland from there. Suicide Cliff, which soars one thousand feet above clumps of jagged rocks.
… Saito [the Japanese commander] had left a last message to his civilian countrymen, too: “As it says in the Senjinkum [Ethics], ‘I will never suffer the disgrace of being taken alive,’ and I will offer up the courage of my soul and calmly rejoice in living by the eternal principle.” In a final, cruel twist of the knife he reminded mothers of the oyaku-shinju (the parents-children death pact). Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons— all had to die. Therefore children were encouraged to form circles and toss live grenades from hand to hand until they exploded. Their parents dashed babies’ brains out on limestone slabs and then, clutching the tiny corpses, shouted “Tenno! Haiki! Banzai!” (Long live the Emperor!) as they jumped off the brinks of the cliffs and soared downward. Below Banzai Cliff U.S. destroyers trying to rescue those who had survived the plunge found they could not steer among so many bodies; human flesh was jamming their screws. .. . But Suicide Cliff was worse. A brief strip of jerky newsreel footage, preserved in an island museum, shows a distraught mother, her baby in her arms, darting back and forth along the edge of the precipice, trying to make up her mind. Finally she leaps, she and her child joining the ghastly carnage below. There were no survivors at the base of Suicide Cliff.
The battle for Saipan and its horrific postlude, plus the steady flow of intelligence information from the MAGIC decrypts of Japan’s diplomatic code, convinced American civilian and military leaders that the Japanese military leadership, supported by significant elements of the civilian leadership, had decided on a strategy of massive attrition in defense of Japan’s war gains. It was not that the Japanese thought they could still win the war outright; rather, the new strategy seemed to be to engage in a suicidal defense of the islands guarding the way to Japan, causing such a torrent of Allied blood that the Americans and British would eventually agree to a negotiated settlement permitting Japan to keep some of what it had seized from 1931 on. “Suicidal” is no exaggeration, for the means included fighting-to-the-death on land and using kamikaze aircraft against Allied naval vessels supporting Nimitz’s and Mac-Arthur’s island-hopping campaigns.
These deliberately sanguinary tactics help explain the carnage that ensued in February 1945 on Iwo Jima, an island only 5 miles by 2.5 miles in size. There, out of a Japanese garrison of 20,000, only 200 were captured alive, at the cost of 6,000 American deaths and 25,000 wounded Marines. Then there was the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945, the last stepping-stone before the Japanese home islands: 100,000 Japanese soldiers died there, as did 150,000 Okinawan civilians, while the U.S. Marines and Army suffered 75,000 casualties before the island was secured in mid-June.
These were the levels of lethality from which U.S. planners extrapolated casualty estimates for an invasion of Japan. The Pentagon ordered so many Purple Hearts in anticipation of Operation Olympic (the invasion of Kyushu, set for November 1945) and Operation Coronet (the invasion of Honshu on the plains leading to Tokyo, in March 1946) that the supply outlasted both the Korean War and Vietnam. Harry Truman is recorded as being gravely concerned that Olympic and Coronet would result in “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.”
MAGIC intercepts also indicated that there was little inclination to surrender, unconditionally or otherwise, on the part of the Japanese leadership. Indeed, the Japanese military was planning offensive action in late 1944 and early 1945. Some of it was imaginative, even bizarre: balloons were sent aloft loaded with incendiaries that, after being carried across the Pacific by the prevailing winds, were to set fire to the forests of Canada and the United States. The balloon-borne bombs didn’t do much damage, but American officials were concerned about the use of balloons to deliver biological weapons (which the Japanese were known to have tested) against North American targets. After the war, it came to light that the Japanese had even planned a suicide mission against the Douglas and Lockheed aircraft plants in Los Angeles: a specially trained combat team was to land near Santa Barbara and shoot its way into the factories before being killed.
None of this suggested an adversary who, having recognized the impossibility of his situation, was preparing to quit. On the contrary, it suggested an adversary who still clung to the hope that, by drowning a sufficient number of Americans in a tidal wave of their own blood, he could force a negotiated settlement that preserved not only the Japanese governmental system but at least some of Japan’s post-1931 conquests. The numbers of Japanese, military and civilian, killed in the pursuit of that goal seemed of decidedly secondary interest.
MAGIC intercepts as late as July 1945 also indicated that Japanese officials still clung to the belief that they could entice the Soviet Union into playing honest broker vis-à-vis the Allies in the pursuit of a negotiated settlement; some, fantastically, seemed to think that they could, after the war in Europe, bring the Soviets into the Pacific War on Japan’s side.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.