As you – probably – know if you’re a frequent visitor to this space, I have been a World War II buff since I was a young boy (of six!) living in Bogota, Colombia.
Because the war was massively global in scale – far more so than the First World War, in fact – and shaped the world we live in nearly 80 years after its end, it has many areas of interest that are worth exploring, especially at a time when there are those individuals and even governments that are doing their best to undo the postwar order that has thus far prevented a Third World War.
As is the case, I’m sure, with many World War II buffs (especially those, who like me, were born less than 20 years after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the militaristic Imperial Japanese Empire), I tend to focus a great deal on the purely military aspects of the war, especially on the experiences of the men and women who were at the “tip of the spear” on the far-flung battle fronts of Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific Theater.
If I had to make a Top Ten list of my favorite topics related to World War II, it would look something like this:
- The campaigns to liberate Western Europe from Hitler’s Greater German Reich, from Operation Torch (the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942) to the Western Allies’ arrival at the Elbe River (April 1945)
- The air war (primarily over Europe, but also including the Asia-Pacific theaters) from 1939 to 1945, including the Battle of Britain and the Anglo-American effort to achieve air supremacy in Europe
- The naval war from 1939 to 1945, including the Battle of the Atlantic, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, the Guadalcanal campaign, the submarine campaign against Japan, and the climactic naval battles in the Western Pacific in 1944
- Airborne operations, including the night drops in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and Operation Market-Garden (September 17-26, 1944)
- The War in the East (the German-Soviet War of 1941-1945)
- The Holocaust
- Adolf Hitler and the Nazis
- The role of Resistance movements in Western Europe
- The dynamics of the “alliance of convenience” between the U.S., the British Empire, and the Soviet Union
- Domestic politics on the home front, especially in the democracies
There are, of course, secondary areas of interest, and one of my favorite topics not listed above is the controversy over President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan in August of 1945 in hopes of compelling the militaristic regime in Tokyo to surrender before the U.S. and her allies invaded Japan on or around November 1, 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s planned X-Day for Operation Olympic, a massive amphibious operation on the Island of Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese Home Islands.
Olympic was the brainchild of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer in the Pacific and a sometimes reluctant co-coordinator of the American war effort against Japan with Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Intended to force the Japanese to deal with American landings at multiple locations on Kyushu, Olympic would have seen an initial assault by nine U.S. divisions of the Sixth Army, including three Marine divisions, at Kushikino, Ariake Bay, and Miyazaki. Larger in scope and more complex than Operation Neptune – the amphibious phase of the Normandy invasion the year before – Olympic would have been a huge undertaking indeed, but it was a “limited operation” to seize “only” half of Kyushu to create a massive assembly area for the even larger Operation Coronet – the landings on Honshu near Tokyo – which was intended to be the war-ending battle in the war against Japan.
The two operations – which thankfully did not have to be carried out – comprised the monumental scheme code named Operation Downfall, and they would have necessitated the use of not only most of the Army that was already in the Asia-Pacific theater of operations, but the redeployment of the U.S. First Army and the Eighth Air Force, which began transferring its headquarters from England to Okinawa in the summer of 1945.
I have, of course, known that President Truman decided to use the A-bomb to compel the Japanese to surrender before Downfall was necessary since I was a kid; every book that delves into the later stages of the Pacific War mentions the “planned invasion of Japan” and the high casualties – on both sides – predicted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their planning staff. The “one million casualties on the U.S. side alone” estimate, as well as the “30 million casualties on the Japanese side” are the most often cited – and often questioned – factors cited when Truman’s momentous decision to “go nuclear” is discussed.
Currently, I own three books about Downfall: one is Alfred Coppel’s 1983 The Burning Mountain: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan, a well-written fictional look at Operation Coronet from the perspectives of various participants on both sides. It was based on both the plans for Downfall and the Japanese “Ketsu-Go” plans to defend Japan from an Allied landing on the Kanto Plain near Tokyo.
The other two books are non-fiction books by respected historians: Code-Name Downfall: The Top-Secret Plan to Invade Japan – and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb, a 1995 book by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen; and Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, a more detailed and scholarly work by Pacific War historian Richard B. Frank.
The latter two books were written not just to flesh out the general reader’s awareness of Operation Downfall, but also to refute the argument by many anti-nuclear activists and naïve individuals who claim that Japan was on the verge of surrender in the summer of 1945 – a view encouraged by Soviet propagandists during the Cold War and a cliché beloved by many Western leftists – and that the use of atomic bombs was both immoral and unnecessary.
I plan to review Code-Name Downfall and Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire in the not-too-distant future, so I won’t delve too much on the topic today. I will say, though, that I share the views of Messrs. Allen, Polmar, and Frank – as well as those of the World War II vets who said that Truman’s decision to use the Bomb saved millions of lives, including their own – and not those who claim Japan was about to give up, but the U.S. wanted to use nukes to show the Soviets that America was not to be trifled with in the early days of what we now call the Cold War.
I promise I’ll explain my reasoning when I review the non-fiction books – I’ve already mentioned (but not reviewed) The Burning Mountain on WordPress – later.
For now, I will just say I’m glad that November 1 is not the 77th anniversary of X-Day, the start of an invasion that, thankfully, never took place.
4 thoughts on “On History & World War II: Commemorating the 77th ‘Non-Anniversary’ of ‘X-Day’”
I remember reading one of Turtledove’s books where he illustrated how the Japanese would have fought had there been a land invasion. It changed my opinion of our use of the atomic bombs. My uncle was on a ship headed towards Japan when they were dropped and my father (also in the Navy) was stationed in San Francisco. Howard Creech read me the riot act for saying that, but I still think it needed to be done to demonstrate what these weapons did, if nothing else. There would have been more of an inclination to use them during the Cold War if the destructive power hadn’t been demonstrated. And it saved American lives. Since Japan attacked us and we weren’t the aggressors, I don’t have a problem with the decision like so many revisionists do.
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The A-bomb also saved millions of Japanese lives, which is also something that revisionists tend to overlook. According to both of the non-fiction books about Downfall, the Japanese were mobilizing everyone, including housewives and school-age kids, to fight against the invading Americans. If we had not made the atomic bomb, or if Truman had been talked out of using it by Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, the bloodbath that would have resulted if we had landed on Kyushu 77 years ago and on Honshu in 1946 would have been ghastly, for both sides.
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I have been (and will probably always be) ambivalent about the use of the atomic bomb because of horrible aftereffects in addition to the number of people killed. On the other hand, a land invasion of Japan would have been a nightmare too gruesome to contemplate. Would there have been group suicides like the ones on Okinawa? I lived for a year in the Marshall Island, on an Island about 3 and a half miles long and a half mile wide. It took the Allies days to wrest it from the Japanese. (It was important because the Japanese built an airport on it.) Imagine doing that over and over again thousands of times. IMseldomHO, there is no happy outcome.
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There’s no reason, judging from the Japanese reaction to the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, to doubt that if for some reason no nuclear weapons were available or Truman had decided to just go ahead with Downfall because Admiral Leahy (the one member of the Joint Chiefs who opposed the use of atomic weapons) talked him out of dropping the Bomb, the invasion would have been far bloodier and more devastating for both sides. The death toll to the Japanese could have been measured by the millions, killing or maiming far more than even the radiological effects of the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. Keep in mind that Japan was a heavily militarized society in 1945, and that just as on Saipan and Okinawa, Japanese civilians would have fought (voluntarily or not) against the Americans and died in droves.
Also, the war in the Pacific was far more savage than anything the Allies saw in Western Europe. Even the Germans, ruled by Adolf Hitler, honored ceasefires and did not massacre prisoners of war off-hand as a matter of policy. The Japanese had a code – Bushido – that had been twisted by the modern militarists into a darker, less honorable version. They did not think surrender was an acceptable option; not only did they rarely surrender in large numbers, but Japanese soldiers thought enemy combatants who surrendered were no longer soldiers and therefore should be shown no respect or treated humanely. There was also, on both sides, a heavy racist element not seen by the Anglo-American troops who fought against the Germans.
As ghastly as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were, their use, along with Russia’s entry into the Pacific War on August 9, 1945, hastened the war’s end, thus saving millions of lives that otherwise would have been lost.
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