Saved by the Atom Bomb

Hiroshima November 1945. Photo from

Tomorrow, 6th August, 72 years ago, on a clear sunny day, three US B29 bombers approached the Japanese industrial city Hiroshima. One flew high above the centre of the city, dropped a massive bomb and sped away with the others. A parachute opened above the bomb and when the bomb had descended to below 2000 feet it detonated causing a huge fireball that killed 100,000 people[I]. Japan refused to surrender. Three days later another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki killing an estimated 60,000 people. Four days later Japan, who had earlier vowed never to do so, surrendered. Much criticism over the years has been levelled at the US for dropping these atomic bombs. What is often ignored is the millions of lives that were actually saved.

This is not to diminish the seriousness of what happened; the devastating effect on the people of these two Japanese cities was horrific. Not only were the lives of so many civilians destroyed in an instant, but thousands endured suffering because of the burns and radiation. Their ordeals were heart-rending and terrible. Much has been written about them and their stories leave a very sobering impression with an implied, if not stated, portrayal of the US as evil for having dropped these two bombs.

There is, however, another side to the story—a side that was published nine years ago in The Australian newspaper. It was in an article by Australian author Peter Ryan[ii] titled “Saved by the atom bomb” and explains why the bombs were dropped. Ryan, a WW2 spy, shows that from the 1930s to 1945 Japan was a greedy, ruthless international aggressor. It had expanded into Korea and further into Manchuria, ruthlessly killing and raping. It then occupied Nanking in China for 9 years, looting, raping and murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians. Indeed, says Ryan, “Keen young Japanese army officers would request a posting to China expressly for the sport of killing Chinese”.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Photo

When, without declaring war, Japan bombed the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, its diplomats were holding sham peace talks in Washington. Back in South East Asia its forces moved down through the Philippines and Indonesia on a “rampage of rape and murder. This was not perpetrated by troops who had got out of control. It was imperial policy, ordained from the top.”

Ryan reports that: “Japanese units that landed in 1942 near Buna, on the north coast of Papua, rounded up the civilian missionaries, men and women alike, and murdered them all by bayonet or beheading. One of their victims was a little boy of six. Before killing him, they made him watch the beheading of his father.”

Bayonetted by Japanese soldiers. Photo

“The fate of 140,000 Allied prisoners of war (including many Australians)” says Ryan, “is a horror story apart. One-quarter of them died from starvation, disease, torture, medical experimentation without anaesthetic, and deliberate working to death.” [iii]

The Japanese reign of terror received setbacks when in mid-1942 the US navy sunk Japanese war ships in the Coral Sea and at Midway Island. A little later, the Australian Army soundly beat the Japanese at Milne Bay in Papua. “British field marshal William Slim wrote that the Diggers, of all the Allied forces, were first to puncture the myth of Japan’s military invincibility on land.”

Victims of Japanese soldiers. Phot

However, says Ryan, even in retreat “atrocity remained integral to Japan’s military method. When US general Douglas MacArthur’s forces landed in The Philippines on the long march northward, first to the outer islands, then to Japan, the Japanese tried to exterminate the civilian population of Manila. That was in 1945; even after all these years I am unable to read the account of what the Japanese did to the people of Manila—men, women, children and babies—without feeling sick.”

As 1945 progressed, and the Japanese were forced back, the Americans were suffering 7000 casualties a week. And the US’s planned invasion of Japan’s main islands was expected to cost up to one million American lives.

Back in Europe, after Germany surrendered, people discovered the horrors of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps and the gas ovens. The world was revolted by the Nazi atrocities. In order not let the world become aware of Japan’s war atrocities, Japanese soldiers received orders that “all PoWs be killed, to cover up evidence of their maltreatment, the moment the first Allied soldiers set foot in Japan proper”.

Meanwhile, in the extensive territories occupied by the Japanese, the locals died from “lack of medical services and starved because the Japanese had usurped all the gardening land to grow vegetables for their own subsistence”. Although it was clear by early 1945 that the Allies would eventually win it was also clear that, said Churchill, “a long and ghastly struggle still lay ahead, requiring the expenditure of much further blood and treasure”.

Back in the US the atom bomb had been developed and tested. The new president Harry Truman, who had served as a soldier in WW1, and his closest advisers decided to use the bomb at once. When the bomb fell on Hiroshima the Japanese did not respond, so a second bomb was dropped three days later on Nagasaki. A week later the Japanese surrendered unconditionally.

Thereby, says Ryan, “were saved the lives of perhaps one million Allied servicemen and certainly twice that number of Japanese soldiers and civilians; thus were rescued, just ahead of their intended murder, those of our PoWs who had survived Japan’s vile camps; thus medical aid and food could be rushed to suffering indigenous populations in those areas still occupied by Japan.” The bombs effectively ended WW2, and undoubtedly many prayers of gratitude ascended to God for this deliverance.

A stranger war

But although WW2 was now officially over, what Ryan refers to as an even stranger war has continued to this day. It’s a war of words; a war of “were we wrong?”. Many people on the side of the Allies, although pleased that the war was over, were not pleased it was over through the use of atomic bombs. However, as Ryan said: “Those opposed to the bomb enjoyed the advantage of eating their cake and having it, too: peace and full civil freedoms were restored to them, setting them at perfect liberty to disparage the means by which their relief had been delivered.”

Over the years since WW2 there have been many anti-bomb arguments doing the rounds, particularly by pacifists, socialists and some religious groups. They see the use of the bomb, in any circumstances, as “a monstrous sin and crime, a deal with the devil”. Oodles of books on the market and in libraries illustrate the horrors and heart rending accounts of the atom bomb’s effects. And the effects are truly, undeniably horrific. But a one-sided focus on the US’s use of atom bombs as an “unforgiveable crime against humanity” and somehow a reflection of US pride, provides a distorted picture and obscures the truth that it brought a speedy end to the war and thereby saved the lives of millions.[iv]

Germany has acknowledged guilt for the Holocaust and apologised. Japan, whose war crimes were more wicked and widespread than Germany’s, has neither acknowledged nor apologised. Says Ryan: “For 60 years its school history texts have presented only a weasly and whitewashed version of its conduct.” He refers to Dawes[v] who says: “the 100 volumes of Japan’s official war history mention no misbehaviour”.

Ryan concludes with a reference to the historian Sir Maxwell Hastings: “Hastings’ book gives clear expression to the voices of the men of the Allied armies, navies and air forces whose lives and wounds paid for the victory. Two of the finest American writers on the reality of war, William Manchester and Paul Fussell, had, as soldiers, felt the breath of hot lead passing. They reached, separately, the same fervent conclusion: ‘Thank God for the atom bomb’.”

Thank God even more for the gospel of Jesus Christ who reconciles us to Him. For the real solution is not in bigger and better weapons but in being submissive to Christ who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. It is only when Christ reigns in all the people, renewing them by His Word and Spirit, that “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Is. 2:4).

J Numan

[i] Estimates of those killed by the two atom bombs vary greatly. See, for example, Wikipedia.

[ii] Published in the Australian newspaper, 16 August 2008. Peter Ryan served five years in the wartime Australian Army and was awarded the Military Medal for his work in New Guinea.

[iii] This frightful chapter in human history is recorded with scholarly precision and hideous detail by Australian historian Gavan Daws in his book Prisoners of the Japanese.

[iv] Max Hastings’ recently published Nemesis: The Battle for Japan (Harpers) contains a full account of the events of August 1945 and of the problems facing the Allied leaders.

[v] Gavan Dawes, Prisoners of the Japanese.