Friday, August 6, 2010

Hiroshima: August 6, 1945

Today is the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. The uranium for the Bomb was processed in Oak Ridge, my boyhood home. Although the decision to drop the bomb was controversial, once it is viewed in the wider context of World War II, it does not appear to be extraordinarily reprehensible., as some have claimed. First, the total deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably not greater than the total number of deaths which occurred during the Japanese Rape of Nanking. I am not pointing to the Nanking Massacre to justify the Hiroshima Bomb use, put to indicate a context in which Hiroshima should be judged. There is little doubt that an extraordinary war crime took place in Nanking during November and December of 1937. This crime involved the deliberate rampage of tens of thousands of Japanese troops during which hundreds of thousands of captured soldures and Chinese civilians in the City of Nanking were murdered, and at least 20,000 women were raped.

Evaluations of the Hiroshima bombing should be weighed against evasions of the Nanking Massacre. Whatever we think of Hiroshima, we should not paint it as a morally more reprehensible event than Nanking.

War makes for very bad choices. The decision by one nation to kill the citizens or representatives of another country would be totally reprehensible in most circumstances other than war. War itself is a cause of moral discomfort even among people who conclude that at least some wars can be morally justified. It is not my purpose here to discuss the justification of war, but to point to the fact that war is at best a moral gray area, and virtually any act of war is morally unjustified by an absolute standard of right and wrong, yet war is a moral reality, and our theory of morality must accept this fact.

An act of war, no matter how horrible, may be justified, if all of the alternatives are worse. The Nanking massacre was clearly a war crime, because the Japanese had better alternatives. The moral issue for Hiroshima and Nagasaki then is the issue of better alternatives.

The justfication argument was that the Hiroshima bombing, no matter how terrible and deadly it was, saved both Japanese and American lives. The argument against was that the Japanese would have surrended anyway, even if the bombing had not taked place. However, at the time when the Hiroshima Bomb was dropped, the Japanese were attempting to negotiate surrender turms with the United States. The United States had rejected Japanese surrender terms, and the Japanese appearred to be unwilling accept American surrender conditions. American conditiions rested on the beliefe that Japanese political institutions were a fundamental cause of the war, and long term peace between the two countries was only possible if Japanese political institutions were reformed. The Japanese unwillingness to surrender was based on an unwillingness by the Japanese power elite to accept the American mandated reformulation of their political institutions.

From the Viewpoint of the American Government, the Bombing was justified as a means of bringing home to the Japanese political elite that the nation faced distruction if it refused American Surrender terms. Three events influanced the choice by Emporor Hirohito to mandate that his government surrender, and to address the Japanese people on the necessity of surrender. They were the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and the Russian entry into the war, which occured on August 9, 1945, the same day as the Nagasaki Bombing. From this perspective, the use of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appears to have been justified.

(I intend to follow up this post with a discussion of how the Atomic Bomb has influanced perceptions of energy choices.)


LarryD said...

A number of German cities were likewise reduced to rubble, by entirely conventional bombs. With commensurate casualties. The difference between, say Dresden and Nagasaki was one of shock value.

At that, it was just barely enough. The Japanese war council deadlocked, which finally gave the Mikado a voice and a vote.

Joffan said...

You might like to read this:

BBC History - The End of the War Against Japan

"Also thanks to the work of Japanese historians, we now know much more about Japanese plans in the summer of 1945. Japan had no intention of surrendering. It had husbanded over 8,000 aircraft, many of them Kamikazes, hundreds of explosive-packed suicide boats, and over two million well equipped regular soldiers, backed by a huge citizen’s militia. When the Americans landed, the Japanese intended to hit them with everything they had, to impose on them casualties that might break their will."

SteveK9 said...


Saying it appears to be justified is your personal opinion and nothing more.

I am no expert, but I have read that the primary Japanese request in the surrender terms was that the Emperor remain as the titular head of government, to which we actually acceded and that documents of the meetings to decide to surrender were almost entirely focused on the declaration of War on Japan by the Soviet Union.

So, my conclusion is that it was not justified. If you ever do some traveling outside the US, you will find that it is almost universally considered a stain on America's history.

And, bringing up abominable behavior (of which human History is filled) by the Japanese is not justification. Also, since the 'Rape of Nanking' has such a catchy title it should be clear to everyone that it is very well known, and not obscure at all.

Charles Barton said...

SteveK9, Although the Japanese Cabinat had not agreed on surrender terms. The Japanese Government had repeatedly made clear that it could not accept unconditional surrender. HistorianRichard B. Frank stated about Suzuki, Japan's last war time Prime minister, "Although Suzuki might indeed have seen peace as a distant goal, he had no design to achieve it within any immediate time span or on terms acceptable to the Allies. His own comments at the conference of senior statesmen gave no hint that he favored any early cessation of the war ... Suzuki's selections for the most critical cabinet posts were, with one exception, not advocates of peace either." There appear to have been two predominate points of view in the Suzuki government, a pro-surrender minority, and a hold out majority, who favored a final battle, which would cost the United States so much that agree to more favorable to Japan peace terms. The War Journal of the Imperial Headquarters expressed the hold out viewpoint:
"We can no longer direct the war with any hope of success. The only course left is for Japan's one hundred million people to sacrifice their lives by charging the enemy to make them lose the will to fight."

Even after the Hirohito intervention, the some in the holdout party still opposed surrender, and attempted a last minute coup.

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