Hiroshima With or Without Remorse?

NEW YORK – The announcement that US President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan later this month will include a stop in Hiroshima is welcome news. Of course, Obama will not apologize for America’s 1945 nuclear attack, which annihilated the city and instantly killed about 90,000 people (with many more dying later from the effects of radiation). Nonetheless, the visit will inevitably spur reflection and debate about what happened there and why.

The main argument in favor of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and a second bomb on Nagasaki three days later, has always been that it would hasten an end to World War II. The attacks actually saved many more Japanese and American lives, the argument goes, than they claimed. Implicitly, this argument recognizes that Hiroshima was not a military target. The main tactical purpose of the attack was to kill large numbers of civilians, thereby demonstrating to the Japanese the high cost of continuing the war.

One might ask why the awesome power of the atomic bomb was not demonstrated to the Japanese with an attack on, say, a military site away from a city. That option was considered at the time, but American officials decided that the effect on Japanese policymakers would not be as great.

In fact, US officials had another reason for choosing to target Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instead of remote sites: they wanted a firsthand look at the impact of an atomic bomb on a city. They didn’t choose, say, Tokyo, because it had previously been firebombed, the devastation from which could not easily be differentiated from the effects of the atomic bomb. Kyoto was also considered, but a top American official, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, had visited that city during his honeymoon and objected to the destruction of the city’s cultural treasures. So Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was.