The firebombing of Tokyo can be considered one of the most devastating bombing raids in history, but it has long been overshadowed by the atomic bombings that ultimately led to Japan’s surrender. The series of fire bombings left much of Tokyo in smoking ruins and left approximately 100-thousand people dead as well as a million injured and homeless. These bombings were deliberate actions taken by U.S Airforce to debilitate Japan’s fighting capabilities and resolve to fight.
The Commander of the U.S Airforce was well aware of the massive destruction these raids wrought and knew that they would cause the innumerable Japanese civilian casualties. Despite this knowledge, he willfully ordered the bombings over a period of approximately seven months. Furthermore, many of the targeted areas were not military installations but rather industrial and urban areas, places teeming with non-military personnel. Although civilian casualties are unavoidable in a war, any actions that deliberately and indiscriminately brings about a large number of civilian deaths is a war crime in the making. The fire bombings and the resulting conflagration had claimed more immediate deaths than the atomic bomb.
Genocide can be defined as a systemic and widespread extermination of the people from a particular racial or ethnical group and these conditions had been met in the fire bombings. Even as the U.S Airforce Commander, Curtis LeMay ordered these raids, he was conscious of the implications and heinous of these acts. He had even observed that if the U.S had lost the war, he would have been tried as a war criminal. From this perspective, it is evident that America was guilty of committing acts that can be classified under the same category as what the Nazi did to the Jews. Undoubtedly, the American leaders were torn between difficult decisions during the war, but the path they ultimately chose for America had led America to fail in its duties as the moral leader for the other nations during that turbulent time.
On a more dispassionate level, one could judge if the use of incendiary bombs was justified by weighing the harm caused against how much did the raids accomplished, relative to the raid’s primary objective. The raids’ primary purpose was to bombed Japan into submission so that a land invasion could be avoided, therefore keeping casualties to a minimum. However, the napalm bombs, though destructive, lacks the powerful impact that the atomic bombs had. The months of fire bombings failed to intimidate the Japanese into surrendering, thus the primary objective was not achieved, yet the destruction and death caused by these bombs was extensive. So in this sense, the use of incendiary bombs was not a proportional use of force, and therefore unjustified.
The use of atomic bombs, if weighed on same scale, would be more justified. Although the death, damage and injuries caused by the atomic bombs and the resulting radiation were substantial, they averted a land invasion of Japan. This prevented an inevitable escalation in both Allied and Japanese casualties. They also prevented the Soviets from joining the land invasion, and the subsequent occupation of mainland Japan. If such events came to pass, there’s a possibility that Japan could become another Berlin, mired in separation and tension during the Cold War.
However, the implications of the use of atomic bombs extended far beyond WWII. It provided the world with a new currency for military supremacy and heralded the age of nuclear weapons. The existence of nuclear weapons was one of the main reasons why the Cold War was so tense and potentially disastrous. One could argue that the destructive capabilities and consequences demonstrated in WWII was so horrifying that it made it less likely for anyone to use them again. One the other hand, the use of atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima had set a dangerous precedent. Under the suspicious atmosphere cultivated during the Cold War, the Soviets might think that, since the Americans had already used atomic bombs twice, there was no reason to believe that the Americans would not use it again. Similarly, Americans might think that since they had already used the bombs, it would seem improbable that the aggressive Soviets would not want to use it for their own ends. The precedent set during WWII might have caused an exponential spike to volatility of the Cold War.