If the incineration of Hiroshima was justifiable as a means to end the war and save American lives -- a thesis that even most liberal Americans accept -- what was the justification for the destruction of Nagasaki three days later before Japan had a chance to grasp the message from the first nuclear attack?
First, it is not true that most American liberals (an inapt term for the topic at hand, but let it pass) accept that even the Hiroshima bombing was justified. Even so, it would be helpful to examine the context the two atom bombings took place in, especially from the Japanese perspective.
At the time of the bombing, Japan was ruled by a cabinet consisting of nine men, most of whom were members of the Army or Navy (there was no independent Japanese air force or marine corps). Emperor Hirohito's role in the workings and edicts of the cabinet was strictly prescribed by ancient tradition plus severe restraints emplaced on royal authority as Japan had westernized in the latter half of the 19th century. Hirohito attended cabinet meetings but did not speak. The emperor's real role was to approve the decisions taken by the cabinet, and the decisions of the cabinet had to be unanimous by law and tradition.
Militarists dominated the cabinet in 1945 although there were civilian members who wanted to sue for a negotiated peace. However, all cabinet members were concretely agreed that no peace could be acceptable that did not leave intact the office and symbols of the emperor. Unless that guarantee could be given by the Allies, even the peace-inclined cabinet members were agreed the war should continue. (However, there was never any agreement in the cabinet what other acceptable terms should be.)
It didn't take long for the cabinet to learn what type of weapon had destroyed Hiroshima on Aug. 6. Japanese physicists realized before Nagasaki's destruction that an atom bomb had been used and had informed the cabinet. Although the cabinet realized the bomb added a new dimension to the war, they did not change their basic perceptions on whether or how to continue the war simply because America possessed and used atomic bombs.
One reason was that the destruction of the two cities, while horrific, was by that stage of the war not unusual. As the Times article points out, mass destruction of cities had already become the norm in the war:
Before the nuclear genie was let loose, mass killings had already become a feature of the war for all sides.
On a single night, for example, nearly 200,000 citizens burned to death when U.S. bombers doused Tokyo with jellied petroleum in March 1945. Indeed, in the months before the nuclear bombings, half a million Japanese had already died and 14 million rendered homeless in U.S. firebombing raids on cities.
The Anglo-American firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 left some 39,000 Germans dead in an air campaign Churchill acknowledged amounted to "terror bombing." Hitler's massacres of Jews, and Japanese atrocities in China, reflected a similar disdain for civilian life.
By the time Hiroshima and Nagasaki were reduced to smoldering ruins, 50 million people in the world had already been killed in conflict since 1939.
The point about Japanese atrocities in China is well taken. When Japanese forces conquered Nanking, for example, they killed at least 200,000 civilians and probably as many as 300,000 over a six-week period (or so) beginning in mid-December 1937. The scale of the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not exceptional by that time of the war. The cabinet already realized that atom bomb or not, Japan's cities would be reduced to ash by American bombers. The atom bombs made the task easier but not more certain.
But the threat to the integrity of the emperor and his office was not simply from the Allies. Japan's security arm, the Kempei Tai, had a domestic enforcement arm very similar to that of the Nazi Gestapo. Kempei Tai intelligence had for months been assessing that there was a real and growing threat of revolution in Japan because of worsening subsistence of the people. American submarines and B-29s emplaced and enforced a ruthless blockade of Japanese ports, cutting off access by sea from Japanese holdings in mainland Asia. Bombers also devoted thousands of sorties to the destruction of rail and road egress from Japanese port cities to the country's interior.
These operations made Japan's populace suffer terribly from the interdiction of foodstuffs from Asia. The main effort was actually named "Operation Starvation" and was begun in April 1945. So severe were its effects that,
After the war, the commander of Japan's minesweeping operations noted that he thought this mining campaign could have directly led to the defeat of Japan on its own had it began earlier.
By the time of the atom bombings, actual starvation had not begun in Japan, but the population was experiencing the same privation as if from severe famine. Adults in some parts of the country were consuming fewer than 1,000 calories per day; on July 30, 1945,
Food shortages lead the government to call on the civilian population of Japan to collect 2.5 million bushels of acorns to be converted into eating material. The average Japanese is presently surviving on a daily intake of about 1680 calories, or 78 percent of what is considered the minimum necessary to survive.
. The Kempei Tai was well aware that more than a few revolutions in world history had begun from lack of food and was concerned that the emperor might become personally at risk when children and infants started dying and adults became desperate. The cabinet was regularly briefed by the Kepei Tai on this concern.
What the atom bombings did more than anything was provide the Japanese cabinet - and not all of them - with the excuse to surrender rather than the direct reason. Although American and Japanese historians continue to debate the issue, my readings lead me to conclude that the bombings were seized on by Hirohito and like-minded cabinet members as the handle to end the war to avoid revolution. According to Mitsumasa Yonai, Japan's civilian navy minister,
“It may be inappropriate to put it in this way, but the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war are, in a sense, God’s gifts,” Yonai said nearly a week after an American B-29 dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. ...
“Now we can end the war without making it clear that we have to end the war because of the domestic situation,” said Yonai, who was among the six-member inner Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki.
“I have long been advocating the conclusion [of the war], not because I am afraid of the enemy’s attacks or because of the atomic bombs or the Soviet participation in the war,” he said. “The most important reason is my concern over the domestic situation.”
This statement was uttered before Hirohito directed the cabinet to end the war on Aug. 14. Hirohito took the unprecedented and then-shocking step of personally speaking to the cabinet, rather than sending written communications, and directing the cabinet to end the war. Hirohito made recordings to be broadcast to the nation on Aug. 15. During the evening of Aug. 14, some militarist generals attempted a coup to seize the recordings and take the emperor into what they termed protective custody, convinced that he had fallen under sway of traitors in the government.
(Hirohito's reputation was remade after the war as the savior of his nation but there is little reason to believe he was neutral between the peace advocates and war advocates. Hirohito was a staunch militarist, who along with other militarists in the government,
... waited, instead, until the foreign enemies gave them a face-saving excuse to surrender in order to prevent the kokutai from being destroyed by antimilitary, antiwar pressure from within Japan. ... It didn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands died as long as the monarchy remained intact.
Hirohito was just as concerned about revolution as anyone, maybe more so since his neck was literally on the line in the question.)
It may still be reasonably debated whether the Nagasaki bombing was too hasty. But it isn't clear that without a second atomic bombing fairly soon that the Japanese would have capitulated as readily as they did. In fact, one reason the American authorities hit Nagasaki only three days after Hiroshima was to deceive Japan that there was no shortage of atomic bombs. In fact, the two dropped were the only two that existed. Additional atom bombs would not be ready until September, but then would be produced rapidly enough to support the Air Force's regular use of them through most of the fall.
In 20-20 hindsight it can be reasonably argued that Japan would have surrendered without the bombings, but many crucial facts we know now were opaque to both sides at the time. There is no doubt that many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of solders and civilians across the Pacific and Asian areas would have died from the war had it continued; discussion of prospective American and Japanese casualties from an invasion of Japan don't consider that hundreds of thousands of other nationalities were perishing every month at Japanese hands in lands still under Japanese control.
However the war would have ended absent the second bombing, or absent it coming so soon, I don't see how it could have ended as quickly or cleanly as it did and it probably would not have ended so absolutely or bloodlessly. The bombings left intact the organs of the Japanese government, which alone were able to order the far-flung Japanese forces to lay down their arms. Had either invasion or domestic uprising or their combination fractured the unity of the central government, America might have been forced to fight each Japanese unit across the Pacific and Asia to neutralize them and there may have been Japanese guerrilla wars for years in Japan and elsewhere by Japanese soldiers. We'll never know, of course.
See also my post of Aug. 9, 2005, "The Bomb."