COMMENTARY: Atomic weapons helped end Pacific conflict in World War II

After the fighting ended in Europe, America and the Allies turned their collective attention to the Pacific theater of action in World War II. This article examines the conclusion of the conflict there and the ramifications of the war for contemporary U.S. military and national security policy.

Much has been made of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to immediately deploy atomic weapons against Japan once tested. Truman had not been informed of progress in developing atomic weapons until he assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

By then, in April 1945, the war in Europe was winding down, but the conflict in the Pacific showed no sign of abetting. First, Japan was continuing to fight the Allies as they conducted the island-hopping operations. Second, the low-altitude bombing of Japanese cities on the mainland did not alter their will despite extensive civilian casualties. Finally, Japanese fliers increased kamikaze raids, killing American naval personnel and badly damaging ships.

Even as the Soviet declaration of war against Japan and retaking of Manchuria contributed to Japan’s decision to surrender in World War II, the back-to-back atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 definitely hastened Japan’s capitulation. The immediate impact of the bombings killed 100,000 Japanese and wounded the same number, though thousands more died from the effects of radiation in succeeding decades. However, those deaths had to be weighed against the likelihood of up to 1 million Allied casualties if they were forced to invade the main part of Japan.

Although the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor catapulted the U.S. into World War II and 40 percent of total American casualties occurred in the Pacific theater, Allied military leaders there enjoyed less notoriety than in Europe. One reason for that trend is that the organizational structure there was complex due to the complementary roles played by the Army and Navy. General Douglas MacArthur — who accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945 — and Admiral Chester Nimitz, among others, stood out for their leadership and success in prosecuting the war.

Certain patterns of similarity between postwar Europe and Japan can be discerned. For instance, the United States spent years and billions in remaking Japan, not unlike how the Marshall Plan was implemented to rebuild Europe.

Further, Allied nations held Japan responsible for war crimes in the same manner as Germany. Though less understood than the Nuremberg Trials in Germany, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials lasted two years and resulted in the execution of seven Japanese defendants. Finally, American service personnel have been permanently stationed in parts of Europe and Japan since World War II.

Far from peripheral, the impact of the Second World War is still being felt worldwide. On the positive side, World War II gave impetus to the establishment of the United Nations, and with it more attention to the genocidal behavior of rogue nations. On the negative side, the Americans and Soviets went from being friends to fiends, starting a Cold War and spending trillions on fission and fusion weapons.

Granted, there has been no shortage of strongmen and wars since, but World War II’s lessons about quickly responding to aggression, maintaining a united coalition with allies, gaining a consensus of support from the home front, and persevering despite serious setbacks have furnished a road map for victory in subsequent conflicts.

Those lessons must be followed still to avoid the specter of World War III, after which there will be no need to add any more Roman numerals because the haunting question intoned in the post-nuclear movie “The Day After” — “Is anyone out there, anyone at all?” — will go unanswered.

Editor’s note: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. In 2015, Dr. Hoff was elected as an honorary member of the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati, becoming the sixth person receiving that designation. This is the second of two articles covering the conclusion of World War II.

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