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  • Writer's pictureAaron Mead

Was the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Justified?

I was a Cold War baby. As a ten-year-old, I recall my teachers talking about the nuclear arms race, the prospect of nuclear war, and the fact the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union could each wipe out every person on the planet many times over.

My elementary school once held a peace fair: we made peace-themed crafts, sold them to parents, and donated the money to organizations working for nuclear disarmament. In Grade 6, our homework assignment was to watch “The Day After,” a 1983 TV movie that played out the scenario of global nuclear war and the “nuclear winter” that might follow—residual radiation gnawing away at our miserable post-war half-lives.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Road to Surrender

Still today, our most vivid understanding of nuclear war derives from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Together, the bombs killed between 130,000 and 225,000 Japanese, half of whom died instantly, and the other half of whom died slowly of after-effects, including exposure to nuclear radiation. Since the bombs, historians and ethicists have debated whether dropping them was the right thing to do.

In his recent book, Road to Surrender, Evan Thomas argues the traditional (American) view that dropping the bombs was the best way to end the war and thus was justified. Through a fascinating portrait of Japanese military deliberations, Thomas shows that, even with the bombs, peace-seekers within the 1945 Japanese government—especially Foreign Minister Togo and Emperor Hirohito—barely effected surrender.

Thomas further claims the American military logic of the day was correct: the only alternative to A-bombs was a full-scale invasion of Japan, which would have killed many more than the bombs ever did.

There’s a lot I liked about Thomas’s book. His insight into Japanese military culture was fascinating, as was his account of the ways the Russians took advantage of waning Japanese power toward the end of the war, invading formerly Japanese-controlled territories like Manchuria in a bid for post-war influence. Thomas tells a good tale. However, his argument in favor of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki seems inadequate to me.

Nuclear War and the Folly of Consequentialism

His claim that the bombing minimized loss of life, and was therefore the right thing to do, relies on a moral theory philosophers call consequentialism. Its basic idea is that, when deciding what to do, one should tally up the consequences of the alternatives and pick the one that maximizes good consequences or minimizes bad ones. (My Ph.D. advisor sometimes referred to consequentialism as “ethics by spreadsheet.”)

Despite wide acceptance, consequentialism has famous problems. Suppose terrorists kidnap me and a group of other innocent people. The terrorist leader says he’ll let me and the others go if I kill just one of my group members using a hammer. If I refuse, he’ll kill us all. He hands me the hammer. What should I do?

In this situation, the obvious way to minimize death is to kill the one and save the many. But doing so would be wrong. The right thing, in this situation, is to resist the cruel logic of consequentialism and accept the tragedy that all in my group will be killed (or find another way out!).

(Importantly, what I should do in this situation is separate from what I’d actually do. Even if I’d buckle under the pressure and take up the hammer, that doesn’t change what I should do: I do things I shouldn’t all the time.)

A basic problem with consequentialism, highlighted by this example, is that, according to the theory, no action is off the table. As long as an action produces the best consequences, it’s the right thing to do. But, in fact, some actions (like killing an innocent with a hammer) should be off the table: you just don’t do things like that.

Even in the context of war, westerners have typically thought some actions are out of bounds. In 1925, most countries signed the Geneva Protocol, a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. For those who signed and adhere to the Protocol, chemical and biological weapons are simply off the table.

So, Evans’s argument that dropping the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki minimized loss of life does not, by itself, carry much weight, particularly because, given the horrific destructive power of nuclear weapons, their use seems an awfully good candidate for something we should never do—no matter the good consequences.

Why Was Unconditional Surrender the Goal?

I also wonder: why was America's goal unconditional Japanese surrender? By the time we decided to drop the bombs, we’d already driven Japanese soldiers from most of the territories they’d occupied in the Pacific and bombed the snot out of targets in Japan with conventional weapons. At that point, the Japanese no longer threatened American soil or that of our allies. They were on the ropes. Why not think that outcome was sufficient? Why exact total surrender?

The official answer would likely be that if the Japanese didn’t surrender unconditionally, they could have regrouped, rebuilt their military, licked their wounds, and come straight back at us. As it happened, the unconditional surrender of Japan allowed America to remake the post-war Japanese government and military according to its preferences, i.e., near-total disarmament and the establishment of a democratically elected government. Advocates of surrender might say their approach was the only way to eliminate the Japanese threat altogether.

While I see the logic, here, I still think it’s insufficient. We’ve lived with, and continue to live with, threats of war around the globe. Think of countries like North Korea, Iran, Russia, and even China, each of which pose ongoing threats of war, and nuclear war at that. How do we handle such threats? What we don’t do is invade or bomb our way to unconditional surrender.

Rather, we use other means to reduce and protect against these threats: diplomacy, spying, negotiation, covert operations, military preparation, etc. These strategies are a constant feature of our international affairs; we never eliminate the risk of war altogether. As I write this, I’m at a cabin in the mountains near a U.S. Air Force base, and from time to time a jet thunders overhead, reminding me of America’s unwavering commitment to war readiness (for better or for worse).

I don’t see why we couldn’t have taken this alternative approach with Japan in 1945, having already (mostly) driven them onto their own soil and enfeebled their military via conventional means. Walking away, it seems to me, was the real way to minimize death; invasion or nuclear-bomb-dropping were not the only options.

Was the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Justified?

Was dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? Obviously, I have my doubts, and Thomas’s argument in Road to Surrender did nothing to quench them.

But don’t confuse my doubts with the view that those who ordered the bombs should have known better. We rarely have perfect knowledge of our actions and their consequences, let alone those of revolutionary weapons like nuclear bombs, which, in 1945, had never before been used. Much of what we now know about the horrors of nuclear warfare resulted from dropping the bombs on Japan. Similarly, the Geneva Protocol didn’t outlaw chemical weapons until after we witnessed their horrors in World War I.

But now that we do know the effects of nuclear weapons first-hand, I’m inclined to think we should never use them again, no matter what they could achieve.

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