The "Greatest Generation" Veterans and the Bomb

(Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sixty years after the bomb fell on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki three days later, the number of "Greatest Generation" veterans is dwindling.

It is all the more important, then, to heed their perspective on an event–the first use of nuclear weapons–that has haunted the world’s imagination ever since. Why, in the minds of many U.S. veterans with firsthand memories of the war, was President Harry S Truman justified in ordering atomic bomb attacks?

I am reminded of how two veterans, now both gone, thought about America’s use of the bomb, and Truman’s choice to seek a quick and decisive blow to forestall a bloody invasion of Japan.

More than a decade ago, Dallas S. Townsend, who served as a communications officer in the Pacific and later had a distinguished career at CBS, told me about the cable traffic he handled from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and its sobering projections of American casualties in any invasion of Japan.

The figures, Townsend recalled, kept increasing as more was learned about Japanese defenses, and reached nearly half a million Americans–a number widely circulating in the U.S. War Department at the time.1

Pacific commanders had experienced the bloody cost of capturing Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and witnessed the Japanese soldiers’ refusal to surrender.2

Indeed, the Pacific invasion casualty estimates of the 1940s may have been too low. American war planners were under pressure to minimize them, as Pentagon officials feared a war-weary public’s reaction to such possible heavy losses, according to military historians D.M. Giangreco and Richard B. Frank.3

At the time, however, military planners worried that a guerrilla war in Japan might stretch on until 1949 or 1950. 4 according to historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who noted, "It was suicidal."5 A Japanese slogan that summer of 1945 boasted, "100 million die proudly." 6

Some historians now estimate that a prolonged invasion of Japan’s five home islands might have resulted in losses of one million American–and many millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians dead, injured and missing. 7

None of these estimates includes losses suffered by the Allies as they continued to fight the Japanese in China and elsewhere in Asia, nor the possible fate of the hundreds of thousands of American and Allied POWs during a prolonged conflict.8

Winston Churchill argued in his war memoirs that the Japanese found "in the apparition of this almost supernatural weapon an excuse which would save their honour and release them from being killed to the last fighting man." The British prime minister termed the bomb a "miracle of deliverance," averting "a vast, indefinite butchery."9 Even so, some in the Emperor’s war cabinet resisted surrender even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Another veteran’s perspective came from my father, Steve Flanders, a corporal in General George S. Patton’s Third Army, who took part in the Battle of the Bulge and the victorious Allied advance into Germany.

My father and his comrades knew that the invasion plan, dubbed Operation Downfall by the Pentagon, was to shift combat-hardened divisions from the European theater for an assault on Japan.10 He believed that Hiroshima and Nagasaki avoided a final, climactic battle–and saved him and his buddies.

Like many other veterans, my father considered Truman’s decision inherently ethical: It minimized the total loss of life, both American and Japanese. 11 (Estimates for the number of Japanese killed by the Hiroshima bomb were 140,000 in 1945 and some 200,000 by 2004; in Nagasaki, an estimated 70,000 were killed by the attack, with a cumulative 100,000 deaths.) 12

My father also believed that his sons and daughter owe their existence–like millions of other postwar baby boomers in America, Britain and Japan–to Truman’s use of the bomb. Many of my contemporaries have told me their fathers felt the same way.

None of the veterans I’ve known ever downplayed the troubling moral dimensions of using the bomb (concerns expressed afterward by American military leaders like Admiral William Leahy and Dwight D. Eisenhower). But they thought that, in any final calculus, it became a choice of lesser evils, substituting the atomic attacks for a prolonged, uncertain and grisly final campaign.

Were they right in their moral certainty? We may judge the events of August 1945 through a different lens today. Sensitive to the radioactive legacy of nuclear weapons, uneasy with a total-war doctrine that justified the strategic bombing of cities, and sobered by decades of living with the threat of nuclear Armageddon, we may have a more ambiguous answer to the question of the bombings’ morality.13

But it would be a mistake, however, to slight the narrative these veterans offer us. Their perspective should remain a vital part of our national memory.


1 Townsend may have seen worsening projections by MacArthur’s intelligence chief, Charles A. Willoughby, especially his July 29, 1945 message about Japanese troop concentrations on Kyushu (where the first U.S. attack was scheduled for November 1945). Willoughby forecast an attacker-to-defender ratio of one-to-one, which, he noted, “is not a recipe for victory.” In a June 1946 assessment Willoughby wrote that Operations Olympic (the invasion of Kyushu) and Coronet (Honshu, near Tokyo) would have cost 600,000 American casualties. See Richard Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, (New York: Random House, 1999), pages 211-212; page 341.

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson stated in 1947 that he had been informed an invasion of Japan would cost “over a million casualties, to American forces alone.” A July 1945 report (commissioned by Stimson’s staff) by scientist William B. Shockley estimated that defeating Japan would cost the U.S. between 1.7 and 4 million casualties (and 400,000 to 800,000 American fatalities) and 5 to 10 million Japanese deaths (Frank, pages 338-341). The casualty estimates have been a subject of significant controversy, with revisionist historians like Kai Bird arguing in the mid-1990s that possible American troop losses had been exaggerated to justify the use of the bomb so that Truman could impress the Soviets with American might. For a complete discussion of this controversy, see J. Samuel Walker’s “Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle Ground,” in Diplomatic History, Vol 29, No. 2 (April 2005), pages 311-334.

2 See George Feifer, Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992)

3 See Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, Chapter 9, and D.M. Giangreco’s “Casualty Projections for the U.S. Invasions of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications” in Journal of Military History, 61 (July 1997), pages 521-582.

4 See Feifer, Tennozan, page 572.

5 Hasegawa quoted in PBS documentary, “American Experience: Victory in the Pacific.” Transcript available at

6 See Feifer, Tennozoan, page 576.

7 See Walker’s “Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle Ground,” pages 317-319.

8 The probable execution of the 100,000 American POWs (70,000 in Japan) is covered in Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar’s Code-Name Downfall, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pages 284-285. See also Feifer, Tennozan, pages 573-574.

9 Quote from Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Triumph and Tragedy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), Chapter 19.

10For a discussion of the transfer of U.S. forces from the European theater to the Pacific, see Allen and Polmar, Code-Name Downfall, pages 304-305.

11 None of the non-nuclear options Truman considered offered a quick end to the war. Forgoing an invasion in favor of a blockade and further bombing, as some American naval leaders proposed, would have raised the civilian death toll. Two nights of American conventional bombing in March 1945 had killed some 100,000 civilians in Tokyo alone, and General Curtis LeMay was amassing thousands of B-29s to pound Japanese cities and coastal defenses. Food supplies had dwindled to the point where, as Japanese historian Daikichi Irokawa has noted, some ten million civilians faced possible death by mass starvation in the fall of 1945, and a catastrophe was averted after the surrender only by MacArthur’s decision to rush grain to Japan. (See Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, pages 350-356).

12 There has been a continuing debate about the estimated death toll from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks. I have used the highest estimates, which include subsequent deaths. See Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 180.

13 Most of the more recent criticism of the morality of the bombings has focused on the Allied decision to insist on an unconditional surrender by the Japanese. Ethicist Michael Walzer has argued that the nature of Japanese aggression was narrower than the Nazi menace and that Truman should have sought a resolution of the war short of unconditional surrender (through negotiation). See Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

Another viewpoint questions the morality of any strategic bombing of cities as military targets and consequently sees no moral difference in the use of conventional bombs (such as the incendiary devices used against Dresden and Tokyo) and atomic weapons, condemning both as attacks on innocent civilians.