'Hell To Pay' Sheds New Light On A-Bomb Decision The atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 killed — by some estimates — more than 200,000 people. In Hell To Pay, military historian D.M. Giangreco argues that the alternative, a land invasion of Japan, would have been many times more deadly. Japanese estimates, Giangreco says, set the figure at 20 million.

'Hell To Pay' Sheds New Light On A-Bomb Decision

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The atomic bombs that ended World War II killed over a hundred, perhaps over 200,000 people. Over the past generation there's been a revisionist debate: Did the United States drop two atomic bombs to avoid a land invasion that might have killed a million Americans and millions of Japanese? Or did they drop the bomb to avoid the Soviet army coming in and sharing the spoils of conquering Japan, or for some other geopolitical goal? Were the prospects of a land invasion even more destructive than the opening of the nuclear age?

D.M. Giangreco, who is an editor for Military Review, has written a new book that takes advantage of declassified materials in both the United States and Japan to try to answer those questions. It's published by the Naval Institute Press and called "Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947."

Mr. Giangreco joins us from member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. D.M. GIANGRECO (Author, "Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947"): Oh, glad to be here.

SIMON: Help us understand what U.S. military planners had to look at, as they contemplated a land invasion of Japan in 1940, let's say 1943. Because as you suggest in this book, there were even some military units that were U.S. units that were held back from possible action in Berlin because it was understood they'd have to be sent to the Pacific.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Right. There was a very, very tight timetable. And everything had to work in terms of shipping, you know, the movement of troops because there was clearly not enough forces in the Pacific to be able to carry this off, and...

SIMON: And maybe we should explain, at least at that point in their planning, the participation of other Allied forces would've been limited, including Great Britain, France, Canada, for that matter the Soviet Union, because they had been fighting the war longer than the United States and they had just won, and had to get back to life.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Well, yes. That's exactly right. What they were essentially looking at for the invasion of Japan was what would functionally be a duplication of the casualty surge in Europe that was principally, you know, driven by combat in Europe, that that would be repeated in the Pacific. And that was not a pleasant prospect.

SIMON: Let me get to another aspect, if I could. In history it is often said that war planners had projected that a land invasion of Japan would've cost the lives of a million U.S. soldiers and many more Japanese. Where does that figure come from and does it seem right to you?

Mr. GIANGRECO: Well, you have to remember that these figures are basically put together by planning staffs' best guess from, you know, say, the terrain, the number of units that are going to be fielded; the number of enemy units that they're going to have to fight. And as early as middle part of 1944, when we started getting a pretty firm grasp of just how casualties were playing out, and they ultimately came to the conclusion that the casualties on the low end would be somewhere in the neighborhood, perhaps of, say, about a quarter-million and on the upper end, in through the million range.

SIMON: Someone who reads your book is struck time and time again how the Americans and the Japanese looked at the same experience and derived totally different conclusions. The invasion and battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima were ruinous in terms of casualties for the Japanese, even more than the Americans. The Americans extrapolated from that information well, the battles were bloody and costly but in the end it was worth it because the Japanese now understand that we are going to prevail.

The Japanese looked at those same numbers and said, well, the battles were bloody and costly but they were worth it because it gave us more time to prepare for the defense of our homeland and the Americans must know are prepared to suffer casualties at a rate that they are not.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Yes. These are the same people who after two atomic bombs and the Russian entry into the war were still saying, no, we can do this because we're still going be able to like force them to invade, because they surely can't have more atomic bombs.

SIMON: What about the argument, Mr. Giangreco, that in 1945 Japan was essentially defeated, even if they didn't know it?

Mr. GIANGRECO: Well, certainly there's a lot to that argument. But defeat and surrender are two very different things. Like if you use...

SIMON: The point of that being a nation might be defeated but until they surrender that perception is kind of useless.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Well, yes. I think that it's quite reasonable to argue that they would've been even harder to convince than the Germans. The Germans at least surrendered in fairly large numbers when they saw a hopeless situation, but the only time you ended up getting large numbers of Japanese to surrender was basically in Manchuria when the emperor said surrender now. And for the first time in the war you actually started getting, you know, large numbers of Japanese laying down their arms.

SIMON: In your appendix, toward the end of the book, you have a very moving letter written by James Michener.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Oh, yes.

SIMON: The novelist who we sometimes forget began his writing career, Tales of the South Pacific, which was made, of course, into a famous musical ultimately - James Michener was from a Quaker background. He was a man of peace. And he wrote a letter, October 20, of 1995, essentially saying there was no alternative to the end of World War II the way the U.S. ended. But he didnt let that letter be released until after his death, did he?

Mr. GIANGRECO: Well, no. It - much to the frustration of a couple of friends of his but for his own personal reasons, he really did not feel that he could let his views be public.

SIMON: He says in this letter, I know that if I went public with my views I would condemned and ridiculed. But recollecting his time in the South Pacific, he said, I stood there on the lip of the pulsating volcano and I know that I was terrified at what might happen and damn relieved when the invasion became unnecessary. I accept the military estimates that at least one million lives were saved and mine could have been one of them.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Yet theres a lot of Americans and Japanese who are alive today because we did not have to go in. Its astounding. While we were looking at some of our own casualty estimates, the Japanese military was doing much the same thing. And the figure of 20 million appears again and again.

SIMON: Twenty million Japanese who would have been killed.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Yes well, in some references it is to Japanese killed and others it is to casualties, but yes, the numbers are horrific but the casualness with which it was used and they felt it was worth it. Its just stunning to me when you go through some of this material.

SIMON: Mr. Giangreco, thanks so much.

Mr. GIANGRECO: Youre welcome.

SIMON: D. M. Giangreco, the author of Hell To Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan 1945-1947. He joined us from member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri.

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