On this day 67 years ago, a B-29 (dubbed the Enola Gay by its crew) dropped an atomic bomb (codenamed Little Boy) on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. No one who has read John Hersey's unstinting account of that day (Hiroshima) can be blind to the horror of atomic war.
However, some perspective is required.
Some 70,000 people died in the city when the Hiroshima atomic bomb was detonated -- but 100,000 died in the entirely "conventional" firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945. Of course, only one plane was involved in the devastation of Hiroshima; there were over 300 B-29s taking part in the Tokyo raid. (Another difference in the two events was the aftermath. Fallout and radiation claimed another 30,000 victims in Hiroshima by the end of 1945, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and 200,000 or more may have died within five years of the blast due to radiation exposure.)
In the Pacific, World War II was a succession of island battles, as American forces edged ever nearer to the Japanese "home islands."
In February 1945, 70,000 Americans faced 22,000 Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima. The Japanese would not surrender; they did not expect to survive. They didn't. And they killed 6,000 Americans along the way, wounding another 20,000 more.
The Battle of Okinawa followed. From April 1 until roughly June 21, American and other allied forces vied for control of the large island and its smaller neighbors. Of the 117,000 Japanese defenders, nearly 110,000 (94%) died. American land forces numbered 182,000 at the start of the battle (including Marines and Navy personnel under Army command). Some 12,500 were killed; there were 62,000 casualties in all -- one in three! Because of kamikaze attacks, Navy losses at sea were also steep, with 4,907 killed and 4,874 wounded. Estimates vary as to the civilian death toll -- anywhere from a tenth to a third of the population was killed in the battle -- as many as 150,000 killed.
Okinawa was to be the jumping off point for the Allied invasion of Japan proper. The hundreds of thousands of American troops in Europe were nervously awaiting transfer to the Pacific theater in the Summer of 1945.
Japanese strategy was simple: Fight to the death for each inch of ground -- and thereby make the war so terrible, so costly, so bloody, that the Allies would give up and sue for peace. Once the guns were silenced, Japan could hold on to its conquests (or even win back some of what it had already lost) at the negotiation table; the Japanese believed the West would be that reluctant to start shooting again.
From Harry Truman's standpoint, the atomic bombs were a last-chance gamble to prevent the invasion. The weapons employed were unbelievably terrible, but the worst thing about them, from the Japanese standpoint, was that the bombs were visited upon Japan by single airplanes, leaving no chance for the dug-in defenders to inflict massive American casualties. The Japanese did not know whether what happened on this day in 1945 in Hiroshima (and a week later in Nagasaki) might happen in all of their cities, one by one, or two by two. They did not know that America used up its entire nuclear stockpile in the two attacks -- and because they did not know, but because they feared what might happen, the Japanese surrendered.
Did you know that, ramping up for a possible Japanese invasion, the United States began mass producing Purple Heart medals? Military planners made their order based on their expectations for a conventional invasion, imbibing the hard lessons learned on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The invasion never happened -- thanks to the atomic bombs. The argument is understandably difficult to accept for any survivor or anyone descended from a survivor of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but it is reasonable to believe that many, many, many people lived -- Japanese as well as Americans -- who would surely have died but for the atomic bombings.
And America is still using the Purple Hearts stockpiled in anticipation of the invasion of Japan. We didn't use up the supply in Korea. Or Vietnam. Or Panama, Grenada, the Gulf Wars, Iraq or Afghanistan.
The medals that our young men and women earn by their suffering today were made for the grandfathers of today's troops. Because we thought they'd be needed.
What happened today in Hiroshima 67 years ago is awful and horrible and anyone with a conscience prays that it never, ever happens again.
But we also need to remember that it was a choice between bad alternatives. Between bad and, arguably, much, much worse.