The economics of the atomic bomb

The atomic bombs were the product of an industrial effort which cost just under $2bn ($20 bn in 1996 dollars).  One billion dollars to destroy a city which would have been destroyed at minimal additional cost by one conventional raid represented an awful lot of ‘bucks per bang.’  Another way to look at it is that it cost $3bn to manufacture the 4,000 or so B-29s which were used exclusively in long-range operations against Japan, including as atomic bombers…Another index was that the total cost of the atomic bombs was the equivalent of making one-third more tanks or five times more heavy guns.

That is intriguing but it misses two points.  First, the cost of making subsequent atomic bombs is lower.  Second, atomic bombs have superior signaling power about the willingness to destroy.  That excerpt is from David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.


Those last two points are rather important.

It also signalled that the US was capable of substituting capital for labor. An invasion with thousands of planes and tanks would have cost hundreds of thousands of Americans to lose their lives. Many Japanese believed that the US would not follow through on an invasion of the mainland if it meant a high enough level of casualties. (And judging by postwar US military ventures, they weren't completely wrong...) The bomb -- with the implicit possibility of dropping lots of these on Japan -- was a clear, game-ending signal.

The numbers I have regarding the cost of an invasion:
Est US military casualties: 1,000,000
Est Japanese military casualties: 1,000,000
Est Japanese civilian casualties: 2,000,000

Note also the limited effect of conventional bombings in Germany. The pictures we see are the result of WEEKS of coordinated bombing runs.

Someone who would talk about the cost of the bomb without talking about the loss of human life that was averted has a rather alien preference set.

At that point in time, it was obvious that Japan had lost the war: Japan's military government was then fighting for regime survival.

In that context, the atomic bomb posed a personal, existential threat to the top level of the military government, in a way that conventional warfare did not.

There's also the cost of finding out that someone else developed the bomb first and you don't have it.

"atomic bombs have superior signaling power about the willingness to destroy"

Beautifully put.

In that day it seems like the government was more interested in saving lives and creating a fearful precedent. I shudder to think what todays parameters might be for using such weapons. Possibly it would only take the proof of profitability and plausible deniability.

This to me is a classic problem that our government has. Which is more important saving money or saving lives. Just like a deadly disease the government have to decide whether finding a cure for the disease is worth it money wise. They might say that it cost too much money because finding a cure is more expensive that a few people dying.

It seems to me that the United States is always in the middle to two big controversies: Economics and the Military. There is so many different opinions about these topics that it will never be settled. Some think that the United States should have not made the bomb and saved to money so that the economy would be better as a whole, but yet there would have been more man to man fighthing which would have caused more US casulaties. Lets think about about.... US spending more money, which would affect the US citizens by what...a raise in taxes, to make the bomb or the US losing thousands of troops to go there and fight?

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