Yes, One Thing after Another realizes that the title of this post is tantamount to clickbait. The White House has assured the press that President Obama’s upcoming visit to Hiroshima will not involve an apology to Japan. Rather, Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor, has argued that Obama “will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” What Rhodes means is that the president will share his thoughts on nuclear non-proliferation. As the Washington Post has pointed out, since he took office in 2009, Obama has evinced great interest in reducing world stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In some areas since then, he has met with success, in others, not so much.
Even if Obama does not choose to make an apology in Japan, his visit has inevitably initiated all sorts of conversations about the United States, Japan, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One discussion revolves around how the United States and Japan remember the bombing differently. An interesting contribution to this debate comes from Carol Gluck, a professor Japanese history at Columbia University, who has argued in Slate that “the Japanese ignore everything before Hiroshima and the Americans ignore everything after Nagasaki.” At the same time, Obama’s visit has reopened the hoary question of whether dropping the atomic bomb was justifiable. And it is to this issue that One Thing after Another proposes addressing itself.
Before we can assess anything, however, we must devise some sort of moral yardstick by which to measure the bombing of Hiroshima. Over time, the West developed what Michael Walzer has described in Just and Unjust Wars as the “war convention,” a “set of articulated norms, customs, professional codes, legal precepts, religious and philosophical principles, and reciprocal arrangements that shape our judgments of military conduct.” This convention is complex, and its application is tangled, so for the purposes of brevity, it makes sense to refer solely to its most important principles. First, “once war has begun, soldiers are subject to attack at any time (unless they are wounded or captured).” Second, “noncombatants cannot be attacked at any time.” Third, both of these elements of the convention are modified by the principle of double-effect that excuses the commission of an act which pursues a good end but whose side effect is some great harm. According to the principle of double-effect, such an act is permissible if it fulfills the following criteria (as defined by Walzer):
- The act is good in itself or at least indifferent, which means, for our purposes, that it is a legitimate act of war.
- The direct effect is morally acceptable—the destruction of military supplies, for example, or the killing of enemy soldiers.
- The intention of the actor is good, that is, he aims only at the acceptable effect; the evil effect is not one of his ends, nor is it a means to his ends.
- The good effect is sufficiently good to compensate for allowing the evil effect; it must be justifiable under [Henry] Sidgwick’s proportionality rule.
Sidgwick’s proportionality rule itself amounts to the following: 1) it is impermissible to inflict harm or destruction which does not tend materially to victory, and 2) the contribution of this harm and destruction to victory must outweigh the bad effect of this harm and destruction.
At this point, we could simply write that the United States egregiously violated the war convention by killing roughly 60,000 to 80,000 civilians (another 20,000 Japanese soldiers who garrisoned Hiroshima were also killed), and in some ways, we would be fully justified in doing so. But such a statement would refuse to recognize the context within which the act took place and drain the situation of its complexity. In 1941, the Japanese government had started an unnecessary war that it did not know how to avoid and, even worse, did not think it could win (which, according to Just War Theory, invalidates jus ad bellum, the right to go to war). In 1945, when confronted by the fact that the war was lost, the Japanese Cabinet refused to accept the obvious political consequences of its inevitable military defeat. For sure, the cabinet was divided, and there was a peace party within the government. Yet that peace party did not direct policy, and the government never indicated in an official, unequivocal way that it was interested in ending the war. In the meantime, both the United States and Japan had been brutalized by a series of vicious battles that had raged across the Pacific. A number of factors contributed to this brutalization, including racism on both sides, the inculcation of the modern Bushido code among the Japanese, and the nature of close-quarter combat.
Even by the spring of 1945, when it should have been clear to everyone that Japan had no chance of winning the war, the Japanese government placed its faith in two strategies. First, it sought to make the conflict as ghastly and costly as possible so as to bring the United States to the negotiating table. Second, it struggled to ensure that the Soviet Union would continue to adhere to the Neutrality Pact it had signed with Japan in 1941. Both were vain hopes, and it is clear that the Japanese government was engaged in unethical behavior by continuing what was clearly a futile conflict.
We cannot use Japanese wrongs, however, to justify American ones. Yet Japanese behavior placed the United States in a predicament that was difficult to resolve. The United States wanted to end the war as soon as possible. This desire stemmed in part from a desire to avoid extensive casualties which had mounted since the middle of 1944. The Normandy invasion, which led to constant contact with the Germans in Western Europe had contributed to a sudden tripling of American combat fatalities per month. Indeed, between June 1944 and April 1945, the number of American servicemen killed in action hovered in the 13,000-20,000 range per month (by way of comparison, a total of only 6,700 American troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined since 2001). The Battle of Iwo Jima (February-March 1945) alone cost the United States 26,000 casualties, including almost 7,000 combat dead. Okinawa, which lasted from April to June 1945, was even worse: 12,500 KIA and roughly 43,000 wounded. About two-thirds of total American combat deaths in World War II were suffered in the last year of the conflict alone. These figures, of course, do not include the Japanese servicemen who were killed for the sake of continuing a war to no purpose: 20,000 on Iwo Jima and some 100,000 on Okinawa. Nor do they account for the enormous number of civilian deaths that resulted from Japanese activities in China and Southeast Asia: 100,000 to 200,000 people per month.
President Harry Truman and his advisors, however, also wanted to force a Japanese surrender before the Soviets entered the Asian war (as stipulated at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945) and began laying claims to portions of the Far East. Before the Manhattan Project had developed the atomic bomb into an effective weapon, the Americans had seen Soviet entry in the Asian war as a useful way of bringing additional pressure on the Japanese to surrender. As the date of Soviet entry into the conflict grew closer and closer (unbeknownst to the Japanese), however, American leaders expressed grave concerns about how that entry would change the political situation in the Far East. Whatever one thinks about American policy toward Asia since 1945, it should not be hard to see that allowing the increase of Stalin’s influence in that region would have been pernicious.
But how could the United States achieve its objectives? Many of the options that presented themselves to American leaders were problematic and unethical. First, they could continue the blockade of Japan (which included the aerial minelaying campaign against Japan’s coastal waters). However, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed a blockade would not end the war until 1946 and that, in the meantime, the United States would continue to suffer significant casualties. Such fears were not misplaced; for example, while operating off the coast of Japan in March 1945, the aircraft carrier USS Franklin was struck by two Japanese bombs, igniting a huge fire on the hangar deck that killed 800 sailors and wounded almost 500. At the same time, the moral justification for blockade is difficult to make. Blockades subject entire national populations—civilians and servicemen alike—to shortages of necessities such as food. And it is almost always the case that in the distribution of scarce calories, the needs of servicemen are prioritized over those of civilians. In other words, blockades clearly harm noncombatants.
The United States could also have continued the strategic bombing of Japan by conventional means. General Curtis LeMay, who headed XXI Bomber Command, which bore the primary responsibility for bombing Japan in 1945, believed that such means were sufficient to end the war, but the Joint Chiefs were not so sanguine. They did not feel that conventional bombing alone could win the war, and they suspected that LeMay’s advocacy served to promote the creation of an independent air arm (at that point, the United States Army Air Force was a branch of the army). Moreover, it is difficult to argue that the American conduct of strategic bombing up that point had been particularly ethical. While engaged in an indiscriminate area bombing campaign against Japanese cities, XXI Bomber Command had employed incendiaries extensively. Japanese urban areas were ravaged by fire, and while industrial production declined, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were also killed. The firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 alone destroyed 16 square miles of the downtown area and killed around 100,000 civilians. LeMay’s understanding that “we were going to kill a lot of women and kids” but that it “had to be done” only indicates the extent to which years of life or death struggle had blunted all the belligerents’ moral sensibilities.
As a means of ending the war, Truman and his advisors also considered modifying their demand for Japan’s unconditional surrender. A number of American statesmen believed that if the Japanese received guarantees that their emperor could remain in power, they would be more inclined to end the war. Not only that, but the occupation and rebuilding Japan after the conflict would be facilitated by retaining the emperor. Unfortunately, a number of sound objections appeared to this change in course. Some worried that modifying unconditional surrender would offer hope to the die-hard portion of the Japanese Cabinet that believed the longer it held out, the more concessions it could wring from the United States. Others were concerned that jettisoning the policy of unconditional surrender would weaken the American public’s support for the war and undermine the morale of American troops who were preparing for the invasion of Japan’s home islands. Finally, some American leaders expressed concern that if Japan did not surrender unconditionally, the Japanese would not be forced to come face to face with the fact that they had lost the war—with noxious consequences for the future. These Americans drew an analogy with World War I: because Germany had suffered no defeats on its own territory and because it had agreed to terms, the German public had become susceptible to the Nazi and right-wing argument that its army had not really lost the war—rather, it had been “stabbed in the back” by the Social Democratic government that had negotiated a peace with the Allies. That myth, of course, had terrible consequences for Germany and the rest of Europe. In a number of ways, then, the American demand for unconditional surrender was based on the desire to forge a sound peace.
Finally, the United States contemplated an amphibious assault on Japan itself which the Joint Chiefs believed was the only surefire way to end the war. The first target would be Kyushu (Operation Olympic), the southernmost of Japan’s four home islands. If such an attack did not convince the Japanese to surrender, at least it would provide the Allies with a useful base from which to conduct further operations (such as Operation Coronet, which would have landed Allied troops on Honshu). An attack on Kyushu would have been the Allies’ largest Pacific operation to date; American planners calculated that they would need about three-quarters of a million men to overcome Kyushu’s garrison of 350,000 soldiers. The main reason the United States displayed some trepidation about this operation was because of the potential for large casualties. The story concerning the size of American casualty projections is complicated and vexed. Numerous staffs produced varying numbers at different times while accounting for a diversity of circumstances. Making such projections was extremely difficult, and Truman never got a clear, unambiguous number from the Joint Chiefs. Not only that, it appears that George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, and Ernest King, Commander-in-Chief of the US Fleet (and Chief of Naval Operations), kept the highest estimates from Truman (which reached 500,000 casualties)—partly because they believed such projections were exaggerated, and partly because they did not want Truman to get skittish about an amphibious assault on Japan. Even so, Truman saw projections that ran from 30,000 to 250,000 American casualties—large, but not enough to prevent him from ordering Olympic to move forward.
As the foregoing should make clear, none of the options on the table for bringing the war to a close was without its problems. America placed its hopes of ending the war as soon as possible on Olympic, but continued with the blockade and bombings for the sake of supporting the assault on the Japanese home islands. The insistence on unconditional surrender, however, would continue. What is interesting about the atomic bomb is that Truman and his advisors never really discussed this option in the same way that they discussed the others. They always assumed that if the United States could produce a workable bomb, that bomb would be used because it would end the war quickly with a minimum of American casualties. It was for this reason that Truman never actually gave an order for the atomic bomb to be used. The American military bureaucracy simply completed its development of the weapon and deployed it on Tinian (near Saipan) in preparation for the Enola Gay’s famous mission.
At this point, we should note that the atomic bombs’ role in bringing the war to a close is an open question among some scholars. The first operational atomic bomb was eventually dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Soviets invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria on August 8. On August 9, the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Disentangling the significance of these events is extremely difficult. For sure, the atomic bombs were awe-inspiringly destructive. But at the same time, Soviet entry into the war convinced the Japanese Cabinet that attempts to play the Soviets off against the United States or use the Soviet Union as an interlocutor in negotiations with the Americans were now futile. In judging the morality of the bombs’ use, we will have to assume the bombs were efficacious while recognizing that there is some debate on the matter.
So how do we assess the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima?
Japan needlessly prolonged a war it could not win. The Japanese government’s unwillingness to surrender put the United States in a difficult position. All of the Americans’ options for ending the war were either costly or inefficacious. Most presented significant ethical challenges and would have led to enormous loss of life. Truman found himself confronted by a series of insoluble questions. We can give him credit for wanting to bring the war to a quick conclusion. Although he thought mainly in terms of American lives and interests, ending the war in early August 1945 was a blessing for millions upon millions of people. Had the United States not dropped the bomb, the war probably would have dragged on for some time, and even more people would have died. As Michael Bess points out in Choices under Fire, because of the atomic bombs, the Soviet Union ended hostilities against Japan after little more than a week of fighting, Operation Olympic never went forward, the blockade of Japan ended, and conventional bombing was halted. Each of these would have proven quite costly in terms of human life had they continued. In the brief fighting that took place in Manchuria, the Soviets inflicted 84,000 combat deaths on the Japanese army while suffering 12,000 of their own. The Soviets also captured over 2,500,000 Japanese nationals living in China of whom 350,000 died in captivity. Had the Soviets kept driving southward, not only would the number of KIAs increased dramatically on both sides, the number of Chinese civilian deaths, which averaged around 200,000 per month, would have risen. Bess calculates that if the war had continued until September 15, 1945, another 850,000 people would have died as a result of fighting between Soviet and Japanese forces in China. Had Operation Olympic gone ahead, Bess, following Richard Frank in Downfall, figures that about 30,000 American servicemen would have been killed along with some 200,000 Japanese troops and almost 400,000 civilians—a total of 630,000 people. Finally, had the bombing and the blockade dragged on into early 1946, the Japanese would have begun to experience death by famine (this famine was only averted under American occupation by massive emergency imports of food). Bess figures such deaths would have reached the 1,000,000 mark. If we engage in a utilitarian calculation of lives lost against lives saved, Bess finds that the 340,000 or so civilian fatalities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the highest estimate available for such deaths) sit in the balance against much more than that—somewhere between 850,000 and 1,800,000.
The counterargument to these points would sound something like this. The United States dropped two atomic bombs that probably killed somewhere around 200,000 civilians. This act was morally wrong. Where Truman and his advisors failed was in never actually stopping to think about the moral implications of either using or not using the bombs. Their violation of the war convention cannot be justified by the fact that it ended the war; that would use the ends to justify the means which is morally problematic. In any event, Truman did not necessarily intend all the good ends that resulted from the atomic bombs. Truman was not thinking about saving Japanese, Soviet, or Chinese lives when the bombing of Hiroshima took place; he was worried about Americans. In this situation, one must measure Truman’s intentions, not the inadvertent consequences of his actions. In other words, the United States was directly responsible for the 200,000 Japanese civilians that they killed but only indirectly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of other people who were saved. From this perspective, Truman presents us with a strange inversion of double-effect. The act of bombing Hiroshima was wrong and illegitimate. Its direct effect was morally unacceptable. Moreover, Truman aimed at the evil effect which was the means to his end. Yet it was the side effect of his actions that “compensated” for the evil effect.
So what is the answer? Bess convincingly argues that there is no answer. The war confronted Truman with a choiceless choice. For sure, Truman and his advisors did not perform their due ethical diligence, but just about every decision he could have made would have been morally suspect and led to huge losses of life. He could only bring the war to a rapid conclusion—which was a mercy for millions of people—by committing what amounted to an atrocity. Bess puts it this way:
When a moral choice entails using weapons of such cruelty, when it confronts us with loss of life on this scale, when all the options are so patently unspeakable, our moral faculty understandably cracks and groans under the pressure.
If it doesn’t, there is something wrong.