Letters to the editor

Firebombs Over Tokyo

Re Jonathan Rauch's "Firebombs Over Tokyo" (The Agenda, July/August Atlantic): On a convoluted path toward his goal of elevating the March 1945 U.S. firebomb raid on Tokyo to the historical prominence he feels it deserves, Rauch briefly and incompletely addresses the debate over whether the American use of atomic weapons was justified by projected U.S. casualties in an invasion of Japan's home islands, and concludes that it was not. Without question, the oft quoted projection of half a million or more casualties is inaccurate, but Rauch largely misses a crucial point. By early 1945 the American public's willingness to support operations that might produce any significant casualties was increasingly strained by the grinding, costly nature of the Pacific offensive and by the end of the war in Europe. By summer of that year additional significant losses in a war that Japan clearly could not win, but insisted on continuing, undoubtedly seemed insupportable to many Americans. The Truman Administration's decision to use the atomic bomb must be considered in this context.

While conceding that the bombing of Hiroshima hastened Japan's surrender, "and thus saved many American lives," Rauch maintains that American policymakers nonetheless "rushed" to bomb Nagasaki without a compelling reason to do so. These assertions are all debatable. To cite only one of several sources refuting the suggestion that U.S. policymakers authorized the bombing of Nagasaki with unseemly haste, I would direct readers to Richard B. Frank's Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (1999). Despite the destruction of Hiroshima, Frank finds, Japanese military authorities asserted that the United States had no additional atomic weapons and urged that the war be continued. Emperor Hirohito may well have quietly voiced skepticism about continuing the struggle, but his government delayed acting for a fatal forty-eight hours after the Hiroshima bombing.

Rauch's contention that U.S. efforts to avert civilian casualties in more recent air-war campaigns might be attributable to guilt over the Tokyo raid will be embraced by only the most credulous. Success in preventing civilian deaths in bombing campaigns is more likely the consequence of war in the television age (in which mass civilian casualties are, at the very least, a public-relations problem), and of the availability of "smart" bombs, than of any lingering guilt about an "obscure" event in 1945. I have to wonder how much national guilt could have been generated by an event that, as Rauch complains, has gone largely unremarked since its occurrence.

Blaine T. Browne
Lighthouse Point, Fla.

Concern that Curtis LeMay's Army Air Corps committed war crimes in the firebombing of Tokyo has to be balanced by awareness of the despicable activities of the Imperial Japanese Army in China: the biological warfare waged by Unit 731; the enslavement of "comfort women" from all areas conquered by the Japanese during the war; and, finally, the "Rape of Nanking," when 350,000 defenseless men, women, and children were raped, tortured, and murdered from December of 1937 to February of 1938.

Japan has never accepted responsibility for the barbaric actions of its soldiers during the Sino-Japanese War. I'll be happy to contribute to the erection of the museum envisaged by Jonathan Rauch once the Japanese government accepts responsibility and apologizes—sixty years after the fact—for the behavior of its military forces.

Michael J. Franzblau
San Rafael, Calif.

Jonathan Rauch incorrectly states that Hiroshima had only modest military value. It was a major port of embarkation and had shipyards; it was the headquarters of Japan's Second General Army; and 40,000 soldiers were stationed there.

The United States hoped that Japan would surrender after seeing the devastation caused by a single atomic bomb. If not, a second bomb was to be dropped three days later, on Kokura. (Nagasaki was the alternate target if Kokura was cloud-covered.)

An interim committee of eight men, including the presidents of Harvard and MIT, recommended that the bomb be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used against war plants surrounded by workers' homes, to make an impression on as many persons as possible; and that it be dropped without warning. President Truman agreed with the committee's recommendations because Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, when asked, had informed him that an invasion of Kyushu, Japan, would cost about 29,000 American lives and perhaps 100,000 wounded. Truman believed that dropping the bombs would shorten the war and save lives.

Warren Himmelberger
Littleton, Mass.

Jonathan Rauch repeats estimates that American casualties from an invasion of Japan, had one been necessary, would have been in the range of 20,000 to 50,000. American casualties in Okinawa exceeded 40,000; it should be obvious that casualties in the Japanese main islands would have vastly exceeded that number. U.S. commanders rightly believed that maximum military pressure needed to be applied to Japan to end the war as quickly as possible. The Tokyo raids were part of that effort.

A. Tappen Soper
Lyme, Conn.

If the United States owed any debt to the dead of Tokyo, it was long since repaid through the reconstruction of Japan in the postwar years.

Devin Croft
Littleton, Colo.

Joint Strike Fighter

In "Uncle Sam Buys an Airplane" (June Atlantic), James Fallows relates a fascinating story (full disclosure: my brother-in-law works for Boeing), but leaves largely unanswered still nagging questions concerning the Joint Strike Fighter: Why does the United States need a new $200 billion airplane? For what critical tactical missions will the JSF be indispensable? What will be the nature of future conflicts, and against which states (who may have been clever enough to equip themselves with JSFs in advance)?

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