Why Do We Lament A-Bombs But Not Firebombs?

by | Aug 8, 2015


All war is a crime. There is no such thing as a “good war.” As the great Benjamin Franklin said, “there is no good war; and no bad peace.”

We are now in the midst of the annual debate over the atomic bombing of Japan by the United States. Seventy years ago this week, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing or injuring some 140,000 people. A few days later, a second atomic weapon was dropped on Nagasaki, causing 80,000 casualties. Most of the dead in both cities were civilians.

Passionate debate has raged ever since between those who condemn the nuclear bombing of almost defenceless Japan as a war crime, and those who insist the attacks spared the US and its allies having to invade fight-to-the-death Japan.

I don’t know the answer to this question.

In 1945, my late father, Henry Margolis, was serving in the Pacific with US Fifth Marine Amphibious Division. The Fifth was slated to lead the amphibious invasion of Japan. After witnessing the fanatical Japanese defense of Okinawa, it appeared that invading Japan’s mainland would be a very bloody affair. My father could have died on Japan’s beaches.

But what was left of Japan by August, 1945? By spring, 1944, almost all of its maritime commerce, and all of its oil and other strategic material, had been cut off by American submarine packs and intensive coastal mining. In effect, the US did to Japan what Germany had never been able to do to that other island realm, Britain.

Japan’s air force was grounded by lack of fuel (as was Germany’s), its fleet could not leave port because of oil scarcity, the nation’s factories were shut down due to lack of raw materials, and Japan’s people faced starvation.

In March, 1945, the US Army Air Force bomber command under Gen. Curtis LeMay began carpet bombing Japan’s cities from bases in the Mariana Islands. American war planners sought to destroy Japan’s industries and will to resist. It’s from this period that LeMay’s famous quote came: ‘We’ll bomb’em back to the Stone Age.”

In the ensuing nine months of massive bombing, the US Army Air Force destroyed 40 percent of Japan’s cities and large towns. On 9/10 March, 1945, in a mass raid code-named “Meetinghouse,” 346 US B-29 heavy bombers showered Tokyo with bombs and incendiary devices made from jellied gasoline.

Most of Tokyo and other Japanese cities were made up of wooden structures. Intensive firestorms engulfed Tokyo, sucking up all the air and burning it. This same fire spreading technique had been perfected in bombing German cities such as Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart.

Terrified civilians ran through the burning chaos. Many jumped in the Tokyo River to avoid being burned alive, or to quench their bodies, burning from jellied gasoline. In this one hideous night, an estimated 100,000 Japanese civilians were burned to death in Tokyo alone. This is believed to have been the single most destructive air raid in history.

Soon after, the rest of Japan’s cities and towns came under massive fire-bombing attacks. Special attention was paid to Kobe, Nagoya and Osaka: 8.1 square miles of Osaka were turned into smoking heaps of rubble.

In all, the US strategic bombing campaign against Japan (including the nuclear attacks) in which 656,000 tons of bombs were dropped (killed an estimated 800,000 to one million civilians). Forty percent of Japan’s cities and towns were left in ruins. A third of Japanese were left homeless.

Germany had been hit with 1.3 million tons of bombs.

As if Japan’s woes could not get worse, on 9 August, 1944 1.7 million Soviet troops invaded Japanese-held Manchuria and Korea, slicing through the depleted Japanese Kwantung Army. Washington feared the Red Army might land in Japan before the US did.

So was President Harry Truman justified in ordering A-bombs dropped on prostrate Japan? With the wisdom of hindsight, one can probably conclude that he was not. General Dwight Eisenhower, one of America’s finest soldiers, was totally opposed to using the A-bomb. Ike was overruled by Truman.

Why two bombs and not just one? Why not offshore? Or far in Japan’s north?

War turned sane, decent men into monsters and criminals. What if Japan had a nuclear weapon? It certainly would have used it against US forces.

My father landed and fought on Iwo Jima. He survived. But he never spoke ill of the Japanese, and went on to become a great admirer of Japan. My own view: using the bomb, as the wicked Tallyrand said, “was worse than a crime; a mistake.”

Reprinted with author’s permission from his webpage.


  • Eric Margolis

    Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune the Los Angeles Times, Times of London, the Gulf Times, the Khaleej Times, Nation – Pakistan, Hurriyet, – Turkey, Sun Times Malaysia and other news sites in Asia.

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