BOOK REVIEW: Atomic Salvation: How the A-Bomb attacks saved the lives of 32 million people

March 10, 2021

Reviewed by Robert Ellis – RUSI VIC

Dr Lewis has discussed two major issues in this, his 15th book of military and other history. He addresses the justification of the decision by America’s President Truman and his senior political and military advisors to use the atomic bomb to obtain unconditional surrender of the Japanese in 1945. It is easy in hindsight, to discuss whether the decision to drop the bomb was or was not correct, given the situation that existed in the Allied war against Japan and the alternatives available at the time.

These were for the Americans and their Allies: a massive amphibious operation on one of the Japanese Home Islands, Kyushu, to be followed by an even larger landing against the main island of Honshu; continue the massive fire-bombing raids on Japanese cities and towns that had already destroyed a large part of Tokyo and many other cities causing the deaths of more than 100 000 civilians; a naval blockade of Japan; or, without warning, the use of atomic bombs. The third possibility was to establish a close naval blockade around Japan, and simply starve the population into submission – at a cost of not less than three and as many as five million lives.

The author justifies the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing as Japan’s ‘Atomic Salvation’. He argues that, although the bombs took more than 200 000 lives, the alternatives may have led to as many as 20 million lives – American and its Allies, as well as Japanese civilian lives. He provides statistical table to justify these estimates, which are convincing in their detail, and are reliant on credible sources of both wartime and post-war analysis.

American Military Intelligence had estimated that for an amphibious landing against a prepared opponent, numerical odds of 4:1 in the invader’s favour would be needed. Lewis cites credible estimates that show Japan had over 2.2 million troops in Japan, with a further 1.1 million personnel of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and approximately 4 million partly-trained and ill-equipped Militia. There were also as many as 28 million armed civilians of the National Volunteer Combat Force, who, although untrained and ill-equipped, would have still followed the Japanese code of fighting to the death. There were a further 1.3 million formed troops in China, Malaysia and South East Asia, and many of these would have (as some did) fought on even after they had been ordered to lay down their arms by their own commanders and the Emperor himself. Furthermore, the topography of Japan, with its mountains and rugged coastlines, mitigated against amphibious landings.

The author shows, with extensive analysis, that there was little chance that the Americans, even with strong Allied support, would have had enough manpower to make the operation successful. There would have been massive casualties, which would have been politically unacceptable in all the Allied countries involved.

Dr Lewis justifies the atomic bombing, not as a catastrophe for the Japanese people, but as a measure of salvation – hence the book’s title. Using the bomb meant the salvation of millions of Japanese and Allied lives. While 200 000 lives were taken by ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, the alternatives would have led to at least two million deaths or more – including 300 000 Allied POWs who would have been executed by their Japanese captors, had an amphibious landing been attempted.

The book is well worth reading, for the logical structure of the narrative, the sequencing of Lewis’s arguments, the detailed chronology, some clear and informative statistical tables, and the transcripts from many personal interviews.

The author, who served in the RAN for over 20 years, makes his case clearly and concisely, and has given an easily-read description of the many pollical, military and ethical issues, which are still contentious 76 years after the event.

The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing the book for review.

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