Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb on Japan

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Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb on Japan

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Published: July 29, 1995

Fifty years later, the question will not be put to rest. What went into the decision to drop the atomic bomb?

The debate is about morality as well as history, but often the history is written as though it settled the morality. Opinions collide, for example, over how many American lives President Harry S. Truman and other high officials thought might be lost if the Allies had invaded Japan. Estimates from American military sources from before August 1945 range from 16,000 to 46,000 deaths, with four times as many wounded.

Writing after the bomb was dropped (on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9), Truman said he had feared 500,000 deaths and Secretary of War Henry Stimson said he had envisioned more than one million casualties.

The unstated moral premise in much of this historical fencing is this: the right decision would have been what brought victory with the least loss of life.

But not everyone agrees that this principle was the essential one. Survey the literature, or simply listen to a dinner conversation where Hiroshima and Nagasaki are considered more compelling topics than Hugh Grant, and at least five basic moral arguments are heard:

ALL WAR IS WRONG. For the pacifist, it does not matter whether killing is done by a bomb, a bayonet or a bow, or whether the victim is a pediatrician or a pilot. The atomic bomb simply made clear on a horrific scale the evil of all war.

NUCLEAR ARMS ARE DIFFERENT. They represent a quantum leap in destructiveness. From the beginning, some scientists and statesmen sensed that to develop and then to use such weapons was to sign a pact with the devil. Nothing should be done to diminish the taboo surrounding these weapons or the dread they inspire, not even suggesting that they fall within our normal rules of morality.

CIVILIANS ARE DIFFERENT. It is immoral to attack, directly and indiscriminately, civilian populations of men, women and children, the young and the old, the healthy and the disabled. This is the principle that condemns terrorism, that declares passengers on a subway or families in a restaurant not fair targets, no matter the justice of the cause. In World War II, first the Germans, then the Allies had already crossed this line. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were massive, single-bomb versions of the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo and scores of smaller Japanese cities. The atomic bomb represented not so much the evil of all war as the evil of total war.

DO THE LEAST HARM POSSIBLE. Death, casualties and destruction should be no more than necessary and somehow proportionate to the objective. The distinction between civilian and combatant is not essential in this argument: A life is a life. Less clear is how enemy lives are weighed against one's own, but presumably they are part of the calculation. If dropping the atomic bombs was likely to save lives, not dropping them would have been the immoral deed. This is the principle that fuels the debate between those who defend the bombing and those who maintain it was unnecessary or disproportionate.

WAR IS HELL. No nation should go to war except as a last resort, but once in war, morality gives way to efficiency. Minimize one's own losses, whatever it takes. Condemnation of what happens in the heat of battle -- indeed, any notion that the reality of war can be squeezed into moral boundaries -- is home-front hypocrisy, an effort to prettify the horror with armchair ethics.

After 50 years, does it matter which of these arguments we embrace? Are we doing anything more than still trying to convict or acquit Truman?

Yet the debate matters because nations and civilizations, like individuals, do not live by abstract principles. Moral principles arise from experience; they are tested and revised in the face of new experience, and they must be embodied in experience and the collective memories that result.

Children may learn to be good by heeding the Ten Commandments or the Five Precepts of Buddhism. But long before that, they learn goodness by modeling themselves on parents, teachers, saints and heroes.

Nations, likewise, live by formative events far more than by formal principles. Americans imbibe their fierce attachment to self-determination and redress of rights with their accounts of the Revolution. The principles of nationhood and equality are embodied in the Civil War; appeasement, in Munich; radical evil, in the Holocaust; Western resolve, in the Berlin airlift; adroit crisis diplomacy, in the Cuban missile crisis, and tragic overreaching in Vietnam. These events are landmarks on the mental and moral geography of the United States and of the West in general.

And Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

In 1945, in the midst of the great national sigh of relief that the war was over, only a few public voices denounced the atomic bombings. Polls showed that not only did the vast majority of Americans approve of the bombings, but also that those who questioned them or thought the bomb should have been dropped first on an unpopulated area as a demonstration were outnumbered by those who wished that more atomic bombs could have been dropped on Japan before it had a chance to surrender.

Many of those protesting voices were religious: the liberal Protestant weekly The Christian Century, theologians like Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, leading Roman Catholic journals like Commonweal and The Catholic World and, somewhat later, America. They spoke in terms of sin, shame, guilt and contrition.

But widespread moral misgivings did not really begin until August 1946, when The New Yorker published John Hersey's understated but excruciatingly detailed account of the human devastation at Hiroshima.

Those misgivings, even a half century later, have never jelled into a consensus, as proved by the inability of the National Air and Space Museum to mount an exhibition that raised serious questions about the bombing. Will the United States ever integrate the bombs of August into its moral self-understanding? Or will they continue to haunt and torment us like ghosts?


  1. What arguments are made for using an atomic bomb?

  2. What arguments are made against using an atomic bomb?

  3. What are your thoughts on when, if ever, the United States would consider using nuclear weapons?

  4. Why is this debate still important and relevant?

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