8 August 2015


All war is a crime.  There is no such thing as a “good war.”  As the great Benjamin Franklin said, “there is no good war; and no bad peace.”

We are now in the midst of the annual debate over the atomic bombing of Japan by the United States.  Seventy years ago this week, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing or injuring some 140,000 people. A few days later, a second atomic weapon was dropped on Nagasaki,  causing 80,000 casualties.   Most of the dead in both cities were civilians.

Passionate debate has raged ever since between those who condemn the nuclear bombing of almost defenceless Japan as a war crime, and those who insist the attacks spared the US and its allies having to invade fight-to-the-death Japan.

I don’t know the answer to this question. 

In 1945,  my late father, Henry Margolis, was serving in the Pacific with US Fifth Marine Amphibious Division.   The Fifth was slated to lead the amphibious  invasion of Japan. After witnessing the fanatical Japanese defense of Okinawa, it appeared that invading Japan’s mainland would be a very bloody affair.  My father could have died on Japan’s beaches.

But what was left of Japan by August, 1945?  By spring, 1944, almost all of its maritime commerce, and all of its oil and other strategic material, had been cut off by American submarine packs and intensive coastal mining.   In effect, the US did to Japan what Germany had never been able to do to that other island realm, Britain.  

Japan’s air force was grounded by lack of fuel (as was Germany’s), its fleet could not leave port because of oil scarcity,  the nation’s factories were shut down due to lack of raw materials, and Japan’s people faced starvation.

In March, 1945, the US Army Air Force bomber command under Gen. Curtis LeMay began carpet bombing Japan’s cities from bases in the Mariana Islands.  American war planners sought to destroy Japan’s industries and will to resist.   It’s from this period that LeMay’s famous quote came: ‘We’ll bomb’em back to the Stone Age.”

In the ensuing nine months of massive bombing, the US Army Air Force destroyed 40% of Japan’s cities and large towns.  On 9/10 March, 1945, in a mass raid code-named “Meetinghouse,” 346 US B-29 heavy bombers showered Tokyo with bombs and incendiary devices made from jellied gasoline.  

Most of Tokyo and other Japanese cities were made up of wooden structures.  Intensive firestorms engulfed Tokyo, sucking up all the air and burning it.  This same fire spreading technique had been perfected in bombing German cities such as Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart. 

Terrified civilians ran through the burning chaos.  Many jumped in the Tokyo River to avoid being burned alive, or to quench their bodies, burning from jellied gasoline.  In this one hideous night, an estimated 100,000 Japanese civilians were burned to death in Tokyo alone.  This is believed to have been the single most destructive air raid in history.

Soon after, the rest  of Japan’s cities and towns came under massive fire-bombing attacks.  Special attention was paid to Kobe, Nagoya and Osaka:  8.1 square miles of Osaka were turned into smoking heaps of rubble.

In all, the US strategic bombing campaign against Japan (including the nuclear attacks) in which 656,000 tons of bombs were dropped (killed an estimated 800,000 to one million civilians).    Forty percent of Japan’s cities and towns were left in ruins.   A third of Japanese were left homeless.

Germany had been hit with 1.3 million tons of bombs.

As if Japan’s woes could not get worse, on 9 August, 1944   1.7 million Soviet troops invaded Japanese-held Manchuria and Korea, slicing through the depleted Japanese Kwantung Army.  Washington feared the Red Army might land in Japan before the US did.  

So was President Harry Truman justified in ordering A-bombs dropped on prostrate Japan?  With the wisdom of hindsight, one can probably conclude that he was not.  General Dwight Eisenhower, one of America’s finest soldiers, was totally opposed to using the A-bomb.  Ike was overruled by Truman.

Why two bombs and not just one?  Why not offshore?  Or far in Japan’s north? 

War turned sane, decent men into monsters and criminals.   What if Japan had a nuclear weapon?  It certainly would have used it against US forces. 

My father landed and fought on Iwo Jima.  He survived.  But he never spoke ill of  the Japanese, and went on to become a great admirer of Japan.  My own view: using the bomb, as the wicked Tallyrand said, “was worse than a crime;  a mistake.”



copyright  Eric S. Margolis 2015







This post is in: History, Japan, USA


  1. Michael Lesbowicz says:

    Nuclear bombings are never justified.
    A nuclear bomb does not know the difference between military targets and civilians. Nuclear bombing is therefor indiscriminate murder from the air.
    The real reasons the U.S. dropped the two nuclear bombs was mainly to test the new technology and also as a show of force to the Soviets.
    As we all know, history is written by the winners of wars, not the losers. In politics there are few rules, other than might makes right,
    and the powerful make the rules. Had the allies lost the war, they would have been on trial for war crimes, instead of the Nazis.
    Americans will continue to justify the nuclear bombings because as well know, dropping nuclear bombs is only kosher if you are the U.S. and only if you drop it on non-whites, and nobody wants to live with the guilt of nuclear holocaust on their conscious. Using American logic, if the Germans had developed the nuclear bomb first, they would have been justified in dropping one each on D.C., NYC and London. The question is: can American hypocrites
    handle a taste of their own justice and double standards?

  2. I utterly love the movies by Ghibli studios and never tire of seeing them. But there is one I can never bring myself so see again. “The Graves of Fireflies” All about the aftermath of such a firebombing and the effects it has on two little kids, a fifteen year old boy and his little sister and their daily struggles just to fight a losing battle to stay alive. I am not putting up a spoiler since the opening line is “September 9th 1945, That was the day I died.”

    Anyone who sees this and still thinks war is a good thing is a psychopath. Nothing else needs to be said.

  3. Steve_M. says:

    Excellent article! As Eric notes near the end, the US was terrified of the possibility of the Russians landing in northern Japan, which would have had consequences perhaps more tragic than the use of the atomic bomb. However, I am inclined to believe that it was not necessary to drop more than one atomic bomb and even the one that was dropped should have been used against a military target, not on Hiroshima. A lot of “what ifs” and it is interesting to speculate what the alternatives might have been had the US not used the A-bomb at all.

    On the other hand, while the Japanese people suffered horribly in the closing months of World War II, let’s also not forget the terrible suffering that the Japanese inflicted on the Chinese people and other peoples of the countries that they had invaded. Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right, but there’s also the saying that what goes around comes around.

    Luckily for the US and its allies, most Japanese people overcame their bitterness about what happened to them near the end of World War II (the fire bombings and the use of the atomic bombs) and instead went on to build a very strong and forward-looking society. One has to admire the Japanese for their resilience in face of the adversities they have faced.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.