Book Review: Atomic Salvation: How the A-Bomb Attacks Saved the Lives of 32 Million People


by Tom Lewis

Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020. Pp. vi, 352. Illus., tables, chron., appends, notes, biblio., index. $32.99. ISBN: 036934863X

The Decision to Drop the Bomb

This book, aimed at the 75th anniversary of the Atomic Bombings and the end of World War II in the Pacific, is really out of its time and place. Author Tom Lewis (The Empire Strikes South) wants to reframe the bombings, picturing them in a positive light. His whole message is really in the title – the bombs “saved” millions of people. There was a time for this argument, in the middle 1990s when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in the United States sought to put on display the Enola Gay B-29 aircraft that had dropped the A-Bomb on Hiroshima. Then historians, veterans, politicians, and anti-nuclear activists fought over the terrain of both the act of displaying that airplane and the propriety of using the bomb. Lewis missed that debate. Today, he would have done better to stay out of it.

American leaders and commanders of the time portrayed dropping the Bomb as the alternative to the invasion of Japan for ending the war. Thus the usual approach to retracing this history has been to look at projections of casualties from an invasion and compare them to actual ones from the atomic bombings and then pronounce a conclusion. The casualty projections are constructed from rough estimates made by leaders and staffs at the time, often with a look at the allied invasion planning and the Japanese defense preparations. A raft of books, including some of the best ones on the period, are constructed this way. Think of historians Thomas B. Allen, Norman Polmar, Richard B. Frank, Ray Skates, D. M. Giangreco, Waldo Heinrichs and Marc Gallicchio.

Other accounts focus on the internal politics of Japan's surrender. Here you find commentators such as Robert J.C. Butow, John Toland, Denis Warner, and the experts of Japan's Pacific War Research Society.

All, or most, of these figures you will find in the endnotes to Atomic Salvation. In fact that's pretty much all you will find there. Aside from a few references to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, the Kido diaries, and Tom Lewis's observations from his visits to Japan, this book is constructed almost entirely from secondary sources. Of course it is possible to construct a good account from secondary sources, it's the other difficulties with this book that make it problematical.

Wargame aficionados and anyone familiar with model building will recognize the inherent complexities of deriving credible results from processes that are incompletely understood or beset with dependent variables for which there is no, incomplete, or poor data. The frequent response is to cobble together a “guesstimate.” In this book guesstimate is piled atop guesstimate to reach the number 32 million, which seems a remarkable feat of calculation until you begin to look at how these things were put together.

The author guesstimates not only the expected casualties from an invasion of Japan and the land campaign to capture it, but Japanese losses in mainland China, Manchuria, and Southeast Asia during the period of that campaign, the Pacific islands, numbers of prisoners to be executed, Japanese civilians killed in bombing raids that might have taken place, civilians perished in the course of the military campaigns, deaths from starvation, deaths among militias or co-opted civilians, even non-battle deaths from routine military activities (aircraft lost on non-combat or transfer missions, deaths in equipment malfunctions, fatalities on maneuvers, etc.). The individual guesstimates are questionable. To take just a few examples, Lewis assumes that every one of the Allied PWs in Japanese hands would be murdered when the invasion happened. Or the guesstimate for collateral civilian casualties—an automatic 10% of everyone who had not starved or been incorporated in the armed forces or militias. That was more than 5.2 million (with 14 million more starved).

Consider the construction for Japanese combat deaths. Loss rates for Japanese armed forces across the entire war are simply averaged and projected at 94, 95, or 99%. This is regardless of intensity of combat, equipment, supplies, morale, or anything else. The analysis does not even restrict itself to Pacific war data but reaches out to grab loss rates from Europe to compile an average weekly loss of Allied soldiers for Europe-the Pacific-non-battle causes. Lewis then projects that forward simply by the calendar. Germany was not fighting after May 1945, and fighting on Okinawa ended in June. Since the first of the Japan landings (Kyushu) was not scheduled until November, that's a long time to run up the casualty guesstimate while actual fighting was minimal or nonexistent.

Before leaving this subject it should be noted that these various guesstimates are mixed and matched, shaken and rematched, presented repeatedly through the book, as if repetition conveys authority. Do not expect good writing either.

The treatment of calendars here also has to be questioned. One strategy most shortchanged in treatments of Japan at the end of the war is the potential for a blockade strategy. The Strategic Bombing Survey, an authoritative source, estimates that Japan would have run out of just about everything by November 1945. That just happens to coincide with Allied invasion timing. This book never engages the question of the invasion itself as a possible catalyst for Japan's surrender.

Among other weaknesses here is the very simplistic reasoning and treatment of the history. It's true that the Japanese military wanted to fight on, and mounted an abortive coup d’état to prevent Emperor Hirohito's surrender edict from taking effect. But Lewis's recitation of these events accords the Japanese military more residual political power than it actually possessed. The military's real options were to kill the Emperor or carry out his orders. If they killed the Emperor, would Japanese citizens have stood with them to fight the Allies? No discussion of that here.

The Bomb itself and the moral question are elided here. Tom Lewis argues that the B-29 firebombing raids, especially that on Tokyo, killed more civilians than the A-Bombs, with the campaign as a whole killing many more. He quotes approvingly Charles Sweeney, pilot of the Enola Gay, to the effect that questioning their actions was a latter-day, ideologically driven “attempt to erode the truth of the war” (p. 297). That is a significant criticism, but also a distortion. Using the firebombing to excuse the atomic bombing is to use one war crime to pardon another. Nor was this something after the fact. Pentagon chief Henry Stimson, the atomic scientists, and some others questioned the targeting at the time. And the moral question is deeper too—as a result of codebreaking the U.S. knew that Japan was seeking avenues to end the war. Our diplomats were also aware that if Washington accepted a formula which left the Japanese emperor's power intact—and that could have been negotiated—Japan would have surrendered. The true question was about the Allies' “unconditional surrender” formula. And the real, operational, thing here was whether to introduce a new, violent instrumentality, one that would change military affairs forever, with widespread civilian, medical, and health consequences, plus decades and centuries-long—unknown consequences. All that to enforce unconditional surrender? That is a moral question.


Out Reviewer: Dr. Prados, a specialist in World War II, the Vietnam War, and current international relations, is a Senior Fellow with the National Security Archive, where he leads its Intelligence Documentation Project and its Vietnam Project. He is the author of numerous books, including Combined Fleet Decoded, Normandy Crucible, and Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, and designed a number of notable war games, most notably Third Reich.



Note: Atomic Salvation is also available in several; e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: John Prados   

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