On the Morality of the Atomic Bombing of Japan

The 70th anniversary of the use of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, has prompted a round of discussion about the morality of the bomb, with discussions of varying quality. While with every year there seem to be more nd louder voices of condemnation, I personally find the arguments against the use of the bomb rather… lacking.

Thank God for the Atomic Bomb, an essay by Paul Fussel I consider essential to understanding not just the facts and figures, but the emotional impact the atomic bomb had. Read the whole thing, but a fine pull quote;

When the atom bombs were dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, be necessary, when we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.

In the Wall Street Journal Brett Stephens adds his own version of Thank God for the Atomic Bomb;

In all the cant that will pour forth this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bombs—that the U.S. owes the victims of the bombings an apology; that nuclear weapons ought to be abolished; that Hiroshima is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man; that Japan could have been defeated in a slightly nicer way—I doubt much will be made of Fussell’s fundamental point: Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t just terrible war-ending events. They were also lifesaving. The bomb turned the empire of the sun into a nation of peace activists.

When people question, “how can you be thankful for such a terrible thing?” Point out the following;

During the closing phase of the Pacific War, average monthly deaths, military and civilian, in Japanese held-territories in China, southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, from disease, starvation, atrocities, or combat, was about 400,000 men, women, and children.

400,000 men, women and children dead per month at the hands of the Japanese: in other words, more then 10,000 dead per day.

Put aside all the American GIs that would not be killed in the invasion. Put aside all the Allied POWs that were not killed by the Japanese, who held their lives hostage against an invasion of the home islands. Put aside all those hundreds of thousands and you still have the Atomic bomb saving more than 10,000 lives for every day it shortened the war.

It’s a funny thing, in the discussions about how the US owes the Japanese an apology, I rarely hear about the hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Korean, Filipinos and others that were being killed by the Japanese even as they were “about to surrender”. Not a lot of talk about the tens of thousands of women, abducted for service in rape camps. Not allot of talk about attempted coupe that occurred when the Emperor finally gave the surrender order.

To put all those numbers in perspective, 400,000 dead per month is roughly equivalent to 13,000 dead per day, 556 dead per hour, just under 10 dead per minute.

Let that sink in for a moment: even as the bombs were being dropped on Japan, the Japanese were killing one Chinese soldier, one Filipino woman, one Korean child every 6 or so seconds.

It is an incontestable fact that bringing the war to an even just slightly earlier by dropping the bombs saved lives. Not just American lives that would have been lost in the invasion. Not just Japanese lives that would have been spent resisting the invasion. But civilians by the hundreds of thousands in Japanese occupied territories.

Funny how rarely that gets mentioned…

As for myself, I find my thoughts best reflected by the statement of Britain’s Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, regarding the fire bombing of Dresden, Germany;

I … assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe. Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

2 thoughts on “On the Morality of the Atomic Bombing of Japan

  1. Let’s give Gen. Eisenhower a voice: August 6, 1945, 70th Anniversary Hiroshima
    July 21, 1945: Secretary of War met several top U.S. generals in Germany. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would years later in Newsweek write: “Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.

    “It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude.”

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    • An interesting quote. As an aside, do you have a reference for that quote? I was looking on the web to find the Newsweek article that contains it, but was only able to find the partial quotation you use (down to the ellipsis). Not a big deal, just trying to find it.

      That aside, and not to be flip, but I don’t really see that General Eisenhower’s views really contradict my points: in fact, in a rather distressing way he seems to support my argument.

      General Eisenhower has two basic points: first, that Japan was defeated. Second, that the bomb was unnecessary to save American lives.

      Was Japan defeated? It rather depends on what the meaning of ‘defeated’ is. If defeated means they were not in a position to mount offensive military actions against US forces and positions, then yes they were defeated. On the other hand, if defeated means that they were unable to continue their military actions against the civilian and military personnel of occupied Asia, then no. As I point out, even at the end of the war the Japanese forces were killing Chinese, Korean, Filipino and other Asian military and civilians at an industrial level of roughly 100,000 per week (average 400,000 dead per month). Which leads to the second point of General Eisenhower’s,

      No further American casualties: putting aside the truth of this evaluation (with which I have great reservations), how can we call such a decision moral, that countenances 100,000 casualties of our Allies? Remember, both the Government in Exile of Korea and the Republic of China were official allies of the United States.

      Again, this puts aside considerations of the atrocities and privations suffered by Allied POWs held by the Japanese and so forth, as well as the anticipated casualties from continued hostilities.

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