Since the subject has come up, I am going to do a series of posts on the American decision to use the atomic bomb. This is one of the most criticized actions in history, and the basic criticism is hard to object to: Blasting a hundred thousand people to death is a very bad thing. But those who make this obvious point sometimes do not know the answer to this question: Compared to what?
I. The Committee Makes Its Recommendation
The highly secret "Interim Committee on S-1" met for the first time on May 9, 1945. The chairman was Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The other eight members were Stimson's special assistant, George Harrison; Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, President Truman's personal representative; Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard; Assistant Secretary of State William Clayton; James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard; Karl T. Compton, president of MIT; and Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institute. On May 31 they were joined by physicists Enrico Fermi, Arthur H. Compton, Ernest O. Lawrence, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and General George Marshall.
After extensive debate, that day the committee unanimously decided that "the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible". Byrnes reported the results directly to Truman, who "with reluctance had to agree, that he could think of no alternative," according to Byrnes. The bomb was going to be used. When and where were still to be decided.
Remember, at this time the battle of Okinawa was in full swing. It was probably the most brutal battle American soldiers have ever fought in. The Japanese dug into caves and pillboxes and fought to the death despite overwhelming American material superiority. The Americans lost 12,000 killed and 36,000 wounded. (Fighter pilot George Bush was shot down but bailed out into the water and survived.) Thirty American ships were sunk. The Japanese lost at least 110,000 dead soldiers, and as many as 150,000 Okinawan civilians were killed in the fighting. Nobody wanted to see another Okinawa.
Source: Truman, David McCullough.
II. Bombing Civilians
...Attitudes about the bombing of civilian targets had changed drastically in Washington, as in the nation, the longer the war went on. When the Japanese bombed Shanghai in 1937, it had been viewed as an atrocity of the most appalling kind. When the war in Europe erupted in 1939, Roosevelt had begged both sides to refrain from the "inhuman barbarism" of bombing civilians. His "arsenal of democracy" speech in December 1940 had had particular power and urgency because German bombers were pounding London. But the tide of war had turned...That winter, in February 1945, during three raids on Dresden, Germany--two British raids, one American--incendiary bombs set off a firestorm that could be seen for 200 miles. In all an estimated 135,000 people had died.
...In one such horrendous fire raid on Tokyo the night of March 9-10, more than 100,000 perished. Bomber crews in the last waves of the attack could smell burning flesh. With Japan vowing anew to fight to the end, the raids continued. On May 14, five hundred B-29s hit Nagoya, Japan's third largest industrial city, in what the New York Times called the greatest concentration of fire bombs in the history of aerial warfare. On May 23, five square miles of Tokyo were obliterated. As weeks passed, other coastal cities were hit--Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe.
(Source: Truman, McCullough, pages 393-393.)
The Axis powers started the practice of bombing civilians, and Japan was defeated by that very practice. The Axis converted Allied civilians into military targets. It is not appropriate to criticize the Allies for doing the same to the citizens of the Axis nations. John Keegan believes that the "moral corruption" of the Nazis and the Japanese militarists spread to the Allies; that is, the Nazis and the Japanese were willing to sacrifice everything for victory. The Allies couldn't beat them unless they were equally ruthless.
Just a note: During the Iraq War many critics of the Coalition accused Coalition forces of intentionally killing civilians. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. American and British forces did their best to avoid killing civilians whenever possible. If we'd wanted to, we could have completely obliterated Baghdad without using nuclear weapons. Nothing of the sort happened. Now, in World War II, nobody would have given a damn whether an American (or British, not to mention Russian, German, or Japanese) military action was going to kill enemy civilians. I imagine the general reaction would have been something like "The more, the merrier." Fortunately, this is not World War II anymore, and we don't have to live by World War II standards anymore, thanks to the people who won it.