Thank God for the Atomic Bomb

Earl Tilford

Guest Columnist

On the evening of Aug. 16, 1945, my father, my eight-months-pregnant mother and my grandfather went to the Municipal Pier in St. Petersburg, Fla., to dance in celebration of the news that Japan had agreed to surrender.

My father, a Merchant Marine officer, after surviving four years of running Nazi submarine gauntlets in the Atlantic, had orders to report to San Diego by mid-September to take command of a transport vessel bound for the November invasion of Japan. Mom and Dad were celebrating his survival. My grandfather was celebrating the pending return of his son from the Seventh Infantry Division, one of the divisions slated to invade Japan. And celebrate they did.

So much so, that my mother went into labor. By the time I arrived during the wee hours of Aug. 17, Dad and Grandpa were far enough into the Jack Daniels to name me ?Victory Japan Tilford.? The delivering physician, noting their condition, held off making it official until Mom came around in the recovery room. She named me after my drunken father.

Dad later became a Christian, graduated from seminary and served as a Presbyterian minister, finishing his career as a missionary in the Cayman Islands. Thank God for the atomic bomb, otherwise I might never have known my dad.

Likewise, my wife might not have been born. Her father was a B-29 crewman whose chances of surviving many more missions over Japan would have been slim. As it was, he lived to fly every bomber in the Strategic Air Command inventory through the B-52 before retiring in 1966. He also fathered my wife and four sons, three of whom grew up to serve as pilots in the Navy and Air Force. Thank God for the atomic bomb, otherwise my wife might never have been born and I would not have become a part of her wonderful family.

The ?butcher?s bill? for the first half of the 20th century was horrendous.

Historical streams from the Renaissance through the scientific, political and industrial revolutions converged to foster two global conflicts that claimed as many as 90 to 100 million lives before the bomb put an end to the slaughter shortly after Aug. 9, 1945. The Second World War killed at least three times as many people as the Great War, accounting for between 21 and 23 million military personnel and more than twice that number in civilian lives.

The Axis states of Germany, Japan and Italy suffered more than 3 million civilian deaths, while the Allied civilian dead numbered over 35 million ? more than 10 times the German, Japanese and Italian civilian death toll. Some Russian and Chinese demographers put their numbers of war dead at between 40 and 50 million. The worst single killer of civilians was the German concentration and slave labor camp systems, where 12 million innocents perished as a matter of state policy.

Allied strategic bombing of Germany, Italy, occupied France and Japan accounted for between 1.5 and 2 million civilian lives. Add the approximately 1.5 million Germans who were victims of Red Army retribution in 1945 and the figure for Axis civilian deaths amounts to about half the number of Jews exterminated during the Holocaust.

Because neither the Japanese nor Chinese kept accurate records, it is not known to within 10 million how many Chinese and Koreans perished at the hands of the Japanese military and its slave labor camps. We do know, however, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the slaughter.

The butcher?s bill for the 20th century was exorbitant through 1945. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the number of deaths caused by warfare dropped precipitously. Had it not been for a nuclear standoff, it is probable the Soviet Union and the West would have fought a war at least as bloody as the two world wars. As it was, the Cold War, America?s longest war, cost 100,000 American lives in Korea and Southeast Asia and on a score of other fronts.

Credit the bomb ? coupled with the assurance each side would have used it ? with preventing that final apocalyptic war.

Had the invasion of Japan gone forward, it is possible U.S. casualties might have reached 500,000, effectively doubling the American death toll for World War II. The Soviet Union certainly would have participated and then insisted on a zone of occupation during post-war reconstruction. In that case, Japan might be divided like North and South Korea. Retribution against the Japanese people also might have been far greater.

There were proposals to turn Japan into an agricultural society. One post-war plan called for the sterilization of all Japanese males.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it seemed Japan had suffered enough. But for the bomb it might have been much worse.

Dr. Earl H. Tilford is a professor of history at Grove City College and he is a fellow with The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He enjoyed an extensive military career and after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, served as an associate professor of history at Troy State University in Montgomery and professor of military history at the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In 1993 he became director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa., where he worked on a project that looked at possible future terrorist threats. He has authored three books on the Vietnam War and co-edited a book on Operation Desert Storm. He has lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad on the Vietnam War and, more recently, the future of armed conflict. Contact him at [email protected].