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What If Japan Had Become a Korea? : Hiroshima: An overlooked element in the debate on the U.S. bombing is how it averted Stalin's taking of the north.

August 06, 1995|PETER D. ZIMMERMAN | Nuclear physicist Peter D. Zimmerman is a Washington-based consultant on arms control and national security issues

Japan was truly defeated before Hiroshima, but neither the government, nor the armed forces, nor even the Japanese people were ready to surrender, unconditionally or otherwise. The army retained combat-capable divisions, and the navy had thousands of kamikaze aircraft to resist an attack from the sea. The Japanese had been indoctrinated to accept suicide as a defense, as Okinawa proved in microcosm. Thus, the United States was faced with two ways to end the war: Carry out strategic bombardment or invade.

A third alternative, softening the surrender demand, was attempted: The Allies' declaration at Potsdam called not for the unconditional surrender of Japan, but of the armed forces of Japan, a subtle but visible signal that the emperor could remain. The Japanese militarists chose not to accept, and so the United States began the atomic bombing campaign to shock the Japanese into surrendering and bringing a rapid end to the war.

Revisionist historians today assert that Japan would have imploded long before an American invasion. Therefore, they lament, the atomic victims were nuclear guinea pigs, sacrificed to compare the effects of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki to those of the uranium bomb dropped at Hiroshima, or perhaps they were victims of an attempt to control Soviet behavior. Maybe they perished in an act of racist revenge. Nonsense.

Emperor Hirohito's security had been guaranteed at Potsdam; the plutonium bomb had been thoroughly tested in New Mexico; and many Manhattan Project veterans were European refugees who hated Germany. The airmen who delivered the atomic bomb had trained for both German and Japanese conditions, and plans for B-29 bases in Europe had been made.

Both the day before and the day after Hiroshima, the Japanese Cabinet was evenly decided on the question of peace or war. In the absence of a Cabinet choice for peace, the devastation of Japan continued with the bombing of Nagasaki.

The most important result of terminating the war in mid-August was not the potential saving of lives, Japanese or American; it was the emergence of today's Pacific Rim without the handicap of a Soviet occupation zone in Japan.

As promised, Stalin's army entered the war in the Far East three months after the German surrender. Since most Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea had been withdrawn to prepare for the U.S. invasion, the Red Army sliced quickly through the region. Korea was divided at the 38th Parallel. Sakhalin Island fell while the Japanese government dithered in the days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite the Soviet Union's paltry contribution to the Pacific victory, Stalin demanded a partition of the Japanese empire, dividing Japan, as Korea, at the 38th Parallel, and giving undamaged Sapporo to the Soviet Union and devastated Osaka to the United States. The northern cities Stalin coveted were rich with industrial booty and untouched, being beyond the practical range of U.S. bombers. His proposed American zone had been devastated.

President Truman rejected the Soviet demand out of hand.

Foiling Soviet expansion in the Far East was a legitimate American aim, its wisdom demonstrated for 44 years in Eastern Europe. But that goal required a major change in Tokyo's governmental processes if the war was to end before the Soviets could secure a presence in northern Japan.

The peace faction in the Japanese government was thoroughly subordinated to the military, even after Hiroshima. Only te thunderclap of Nagasaki allowed the emperor to violate the constitution and interfere in Cabinet deliberations. Although Hirohito is said to have wanted peace weeks earlier, traditional imperial conduct did not allow him to speak.

Had Japan resisted throughout the autumn, as seemed likely to those who had confronted its armed forces, Soviet troops would have invaded Hokkaido. Had Soviet troops been encamped on a home island while Americans waited offshore for the November invasion, Japan would have been dismembered.

Validating President Truman's decision to use nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki does not depend on balancing hypothetical American and Japanese casualties. Rather, it rests on comparing the benefits of ending the war in August to the liabilities of continued battling between the Japanese and Soviet armed forces.

There should be no American self-flagellation on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Prudence dictated those bombings in 1945; history has borne out the military and political benefits of playing out that sad, but less than tragic, conclusion to World War II. The swift termination of hostilities permitted Japan to be recast as a strong and united democracy, as desired a conclusion as the war in the Pacific could have had.

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