Friday, August 06, 2010

Hiroshima: some facts

Were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary? According to a veteran quoted in the local paper, they saved a million lives. Many people believe that, but there is actually not much evidence that that statement is true. (Only a million—why not 5 or 10 million?) This issue arises every year on this day, so I'm going to put my two cents in. I base my belief that the bom bs were unnecessary primarily on the following 5 points from the physicist Freeman Dyson's essay on the wonderful website Edge.org (scroll down a little to see it).

1. Members of the Supreme Council, which customarily met with the Emperor to take important decisions, learned of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. Although Foreign Minister Togo asked for a meeting, no meeting was held for three days.

2. A surviving diary records a conversation of Navy Minister Yonai, who was a member of the Supreme Council, with his deputy on August 8. The Hiroshima bombing is mentioned only incidentally. More attention is given to the fact that the rice ration in Tokyo is to be reduced by ten percent.

3. On the morning of August 9, Soviet troops invaded Manchuria. Six hours after hearing this news, the Supreme Council was in session. News of the Nagasaki bombing, which happened the same morning, only reached the Council after the session started.

4. The August 9 session of the Supreme Council resulted in the decision to surrender.

5. The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs but emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. In 1895 Japan had defeated China, but accepted a humiliating peace when European powers led by Russia moved into Manchuria and the Russians occupied Port Arthur. By making peace, the emperor Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. Emperor Hirohito had this analogy in his mind when he ordered the surrender.

Dyson's essay is itself based on the work of one Ward Wilson, whose essay is entitled The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in the Light of Hiroshima. Wilson makes a devastating point in his essay: before Hiroshima the U.S. had bombed Japanese cities almost indiscriminately, killing hundreds of thousands. Why did these bombings not make Japan surrender?

And, of course (as always), a logical fallacy is at work here. As Wilson points out, the bomb was dropped on August 6, and on August 10 the Japanese signaled their intention to negotiate a surrender. It would have been easy to be fooled by the proximity of the two events. But this is a fallacy known as the post hoc propter ergo hoc (since B followed A, therefore A caused B).

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