Sixty-five years ago today the Nuclear Age began with the first successful test of an atomic weapon at the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert. Earlier this week I wrote about the test and how it set the standard for much of what followed in the decades to come: radiation dangers, official secrecy and cover-ups, a nearly endless nuclear arms race, and the triumph of the national security state.
Now let’s look at how it led to the actual use of the new weapon against Japan three weeks later.
One of the persistent – and certainly the most influential – arguments in the media for dropping the bomb over two highly-populated Japanese cities is that it saved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of American lives that would have been lost in the “inevitable” U.S. invasion of Japan. Those numbers were grossly inflated from the start, many historians have shown, but any invasion would have been bloody enough. The significance of the Trinity success – which was by no means a slam dunk beforehand — was that It rendered any invasion extremely unlikely.
Why? There is no way any American president, and certainly not Harry Truman, would have gone ahead with an invasion – scheduled for several long months after the Trinity test – knowing that he had an A-bomb in his pocket. This helps account for why his surly mood at the Potsdam summit was transformed overnight by the news of the Trinity success.
The question, on the day after Trinity, was not, use bomb or invade (which defenders of the bomb still emphasize), but rather — how to use the bomb.
Truman’s choices were: 1) inform Japan’s leadership that the U.S. now had such a device (the Japanese knew what that meant, having tried and failed in its own atomic program), 2) set up a dramatic demonstration shot, 3) drop a bomb or bombs over a loosely-populated part of Japan or a military base, or 4) target large cities.
Those who continue to raise the specter of massive U.S. casualties — often citing a family member who might have perished — should be required to argue that options 1, 2 and 3 (above) would not have produced a Japanese surrender in the months leading up to the scheduled invasion and that Truman, when more A-bombs became available in the fall of 1945, would have then chosen to invade rather than drop the new weapons on the Japanese.
Again one has to say: No American president, and certainly not Truman, would have ordered thousands of Americans to their deaths rather than use more of the weapons. Consider, for example, our current use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan in place of large land forces.
So the issue was not bomb or invade but bomb or negotiate (or bomb and negotiate).
Now, many defenders of the bombing will say that the beauty of using the bomb against Japanese cities is this: It made the Japanese agree to unconditional surrender. This, of course, is nonsense. In fact, we accepted the very strong condition of letting them keep their emperor, which was always assumed to be the main sticking point in a surrender before Hiroshima.