Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers
Part Two: Very Bad Versus Worse Choices?
1) The Japanese Empire, while doomed in Spring 1945, was more than capable of killing thousands of innocents every day the war dragged on. Depending on the nature of particular sources, and how data are compiled and interpreted, Japanese forces may have killed over 20 million Chinese, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and British Imperial and US troops. Note, the vast majority of these fatalities were civilians. For all the horrific losses of Japan in the war (e.g., 2.5-3 million civilians and soldiers), Japan probably killed more people per its own losses than any other nation in the war (including Nazi Germany [ca. 7 million German civilians and soldiers lost versus killing ca. 30 million Russians, Western Allies, Jews, Eastern Europeans, etc.]). The tragedy of World War II was in essence the story of uniformed German and Japanese soldiers killing unarmed civilians—some 70-80 percent of all the World War II dead. The Axis slaughter was unrivaled in world history, but one precipitated by the surprise attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, and the bombing of US and British bases in the Pacific (December 7-8, 1941). There was zero chance that either the United Kingdom or the United States, in either 1939 or 1941, would have launched preemptive attacks on Germany or Japan, despite the general sense that the latter might well attack them.
2) The 2-billion-dollar B-29 program was in shambles before March 1945. The experimental behemoth plane offered no evidence that it might ever shorten the war. It devoured gas and its huge fuel needs required supply by sea rather than by air. In that regard India and China bases (Operation Matterhorn) did not work for a variety of reasons, from security to general logistics.
3) The B-29 engines heated up as they climbed fully loaded to 25,000-30,000 feet—a problem never solved completely. The plane was so sophisticated for its time that thousands of parts were needed to keep the bomber fine-tuned, and the hours in the air required unsustainable commensurate hours of maintenance. The fierce jet stream over Japan made B-29 precision bombing impossible, as well as did new models of effective Japanese fighters. The theoretical idea that long-range bombers (e.g. 1,350 miles each way from the Mariana bases to Japan, over water and often in darkness) could take out the Japanese industrial base from high altitudes, dropping high-explosive bombs and thereby avoid an invasion of the mainland was, in truth, crackpot.
4) We forget that the deadliest year of the war was 1945, as the German and Japanese militaries proved most ruthless and lethal while on their final and doomed defense. In the case of the US, it suffered its most fatalities in April 1945 during both the European and Pacific Wars. The deadly experience on Iwo Jima and later Okinawa (the latter nightmare commenced just a few weeks after the March 9th raid) traumatized American military planners. They feared that both disasters (and they were certainly that in terms of US casualties) were mere prequels to an invasion of the Japanese mainland, where maybe 20 million Japanese soldiers, irregulars, and civilians were ready to outdo Okinawa to the nth degree (over 50,000 US dead, wounded, and missing). Estimates of 1 million American casualties lost in the envisioned invasions of the mainland are often ridiculed, but they may have been conservative.
5). Fifty percent of Japanese industry had begun to decentralize and disperse some of its production into semi-residential sections of greater Tokyo. The idea was to limit exposure to anticipated bombing, making it problematic that these cottage industries were entirely non-military targets.
6) Leaflets were soon dropped warning civilians that fire raids were unstoppable and advised vacating the cities for their own safety. Still, it was hard to assume that any civilians could safely flee to the mountains and rural areas, even if allowed by their government, or could survive outdoors for months on end.
7) Under LeMay’s radical new strategy institutionalized on and after March 9, the B-29s flying low (4,000-7,000 feet) at night, each with ten tons of napalm, found that the wind was suddenly an ally not the old enemy. Catching the jet stream vastly increased the overloaded bomber’s speed. It allowed them to rush in often below the most lethal trajectories of flak guns. And it meant that bombing accuracy no longer mattered, given the winds would fan the incendiary bomb load, not render useless sophisticated B-29 conventional bomb sighting.
8) Both the fire raids and the latter two atomic bombs (and we forget that the former was a force multiplier of the latter) forced the Japanese surrender, precluded an invasion of the mainland, and stopped the daily killing of civilians by the Japanese military. (One could make the argument that the two atomic bombs were unnecessary given the fire raids, but, in fact, they limited the destruction of another 2-3 months of incendiary attacks that would have killed tens of thousands more to avoid an invasion.)
9) An added note: The war in Europe, remember, ended on May 9, 1945. Thousands of idle British heavy Lancaster bombers and American B-24s and B-17s were now available for transfer to envisioned new bases under construction on Okinawa that was a mere third of the distance to Japan than were the B-29s on the Marianas. The idea of, say, 10,000 B-29s, B-17s, B-24s, and Lancasters flying from both the Marianas and Okinawa is a frightening thought.
In other words, even had the two atomic bombs failed, the fire raids, along with mining of harbors and the blockades, might well have brought Japan to its knees without an invasion—but again at a far greater cost had the war not ended on September 2, 1945.
10) In March 1945, had the question been asked of Southeast Asians, Chinese, or those in the Pacific—in other words, those innocents who were killed at an average rate of about 10,000 per day by the Japanese war machine—whether they wished the US to bomb the nerve center of the so-called Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, they would have said certainly yes, given the lack of daily alternatives in ending a veritable civilian killing machine.