When we think of World War Two, we are often greeted with imagery of patriotism, immense struggle for the greater good, and the triumph of democracy over those who would oppress and conquer. We see Marines raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima, Patton standing stoically on the slopes of Italy’s mountains, or the salted faces of the first infantry division about to storm the beaches of Normandy. With these notorious images, however, comes controversy and dissent. Among one of the most debated issue to this day is the use of the atomic bombs on the Empire of Japan. Henry L. Stimpson, the Secretary of War during WWII, provides immense insight into the development of the great bomb and its strategic use in an article for Harper’s Magazine Published in 1947.
“The face of war is the face of death; death is an inevitable part of every order that a wartime leader gives.” Acceptance. There is perhaps no better word to summarize Stimpson’s view on the events encompassing the development and eventual use of the atomic bomb. Throughout the article he brings the reader from the first conceptualization of an atomic weapon to its implementation in the Pacific Theater. He remains, on the whole, emotionally objective regarding the ordeal. Stimpson presents his view analytically and empirically making it difficult to contest his backing of the decision to drop the bomb.
There are many critics who would suggest that the atomic bomb was a superfluous use of force. Their argument centers around the idea that by using the atomic bomb, the United States ushered in the era of atomic warfare and opened the door to a new threat the world over. While this may be the case, decision makers do not have the benefit of hindsight. They need to execute in the way they deem most effective. In the case of Stimpson and the United States government, this meant using the bomb.
Two great nations were approaching a fight to a finish which would begin on November 1, 1945. Our enemy, Japan, commanded forces os somewhat over 5,000,000 armed men. Men of these armies had already inflicted upon us, upon the breakthrough of the outer perimeter of their defenses, over 300,000 battle casualties. Enemy armies still unbeaten had the strength to cost us a million more… My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise.
These are the direct words of Stimpson from the Harper’s Magazine article. It is not the view of a political scientist or historian, a war fanatic or pacifist, a general or a private. No, it is straight from the mind of the then Secretary of War. In no way does this discredit the reality of how immense the loss of life on behalf the atomic bombs was, however, it does offer clarity as to the why behind the decision of the United States.
So what? What makes this any different from the hundreds of discussions that have covered this issue over the past seven decades. Its all about perspective. Stimpson most likely would have wanted to present a view of the situation that properly justified his actions, and he does so in a convincing way. There are two sides to every argument, and his makes more sense logically and consequentially.
Yes, by using the bomb, the United States opened the stage for an international arms race that would set the precedent for the Cold War. However, the bombs ended the immediate conflict, WWII. Yes, the U.S. could have invaded Japan, but, as Truman so accurately stated, “It would be an Okinawa from one end of the island to the other.” The survival rate for the United States Marine Corps at the peak of fighting on Okinawa was 1 in 5. Yes, it can be argued that the U.S. only wanted to use the bomb to justify its over 2 billion dollar budget, but had the bomb not been used countless more money and resources would have been poured into a costly land invasion.
Again it is all about perspective. The view that the bomb saved lives while deliberately ending the war is coming straight from the then Secretary of War. Very few other people would have had as accurate a perception and understanding of the implications both political and militaristic that the bomb would have. As such, the decision was an informed one that would ultimately usher in peace and allow for the U.S. to rebuild the nation of Japan.
Stimpson, Henry L. “The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb.” Harper’s Magazine, February 1947