The Ethics of Dropping the Atomic Bomb

Coauthored with Michael Samples, presently a student at Riverside City College.

In a world full of hatred, death, destruction, deception, and double dealing, the United States at the end of World War II was almost universally regarded as the disinterested champion of justice, freedom, and democracy.1

This quote from distinguished World War II historian Stephen E. Ambrose conveys a powerful message about the use of moral and military might by the United States of America during the Second World War. At the time, America was seen as an exceptional nation that liberated millions of people and yet, unlike the Soviet Union, didn’t seek to take advantage of the vanquished nations. In fact, America spent billions of dollars to help rebuild both Western Europe and Japan.

August marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; however, some people still question whether these strikes against the Japanese were indeed morally justified. And yet upon reflection, sound military and moral reasoning does justify President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons against both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This monumental decision was effected in order to save potentially millions of human lives and put an end to the greatest catastrophe in human history. Leading scholar John Keegan described the Second World War as “the largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all its oceans. It killed fifty million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilisation.”2 (Other sources estimate the number of people killed in World War II ranges from 60 million to 70 million.)

The justification for such a tragic event rests with the reasonable assessment that at least hundreds of thousands more American soldiers would be killed and wounded if the Japanese mainland was invaded. The estimated death and casualty toll for the Japanese (including both soldiers and civilians) could reasonably have reached into the millions. So while the atomic bombings on the Japanese cities were horrific, the decision to bomb instead of invade likely saved millions of lives. Furthermore, ensuring Japan’s swift surrender to the United States has proved to be very beneficial to the Japanese people. America rebuilt Japan and that assistance led to Japan’s becoming a world economic power. Today, Japan competes with the Western world in terms of gross national product.

Nearing the end of the war, the United States dictated a peace plan to Japan that clearly defined the terms of their acceptable surrender. This plan was known as the Potsdam Declaration. However, Japanese leaders were reluctant to accept the terms of surrender because they were concerned about the real possibility that their emperor would be held morally accountable for the war and charged with war crimes. The Potsdam Declaration also stated that if Japan rejected the terms of surrender, the Japanese would face the imminent and complete destruction of their entire nation. The subsequent atomic bombings proved strategically successful. After suffering the loss of approximately 200,000 people, the Empire of Japan officially surrendered to the United States shortly after in September 1945.

Did America Have Another Viable Option?

If America had decided to forgo the atomic option, then the only other choice would have been to proceed with launching a full-scale invasion of the Japanese mainland. However, the amount of bloodshed that would have likely resulted from such an operation was staggering and, therefore, made such an option unviable. According to the Air Force Association, when President Truman consulted with US Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall on the possible casualties of a full-scale invasion, American casualty estimates ranged as high as 500,000. General Marshall also estimated that enemy casualties would be considerably higher based upon other campaigns against the Japanese. Moreover, the number of Japanese civilian casualties would have undoubtedly been high as well.

In making the decision, the leadership of the United States also weighed the tenacity of the Japanese fighting force. The horrific and gruesome fighting in the Pacific Theatre had shown the Japanese to be a formidable enemy. The Japanese military had already proven their ferocity in combat as well as their penchant for barbarism when it came to innocent civilians in places like China and the Philippines.

The Japanese militarists believed that it was dishonorable to surrender. Thus, they would literally fight to the very last man. These were the principles of a code of honor known as Bushidō (the Way of the Warrior). While Adolf Hitler’s special SS troops did share these brutal characteristics, the Japanese soldiers took fighting to a level that the average German soldier did not. Not only would Japanese soldiers take their own life before surrendering, but also they would attempt to take as many American lives as they could down with them.

Kamikaze (spirit wind) attacks were also a common type of terror attack in which Japanese airplane pilots would crash their planes into American aircraft carriers to inflict maximum fear and damage. Other tactics utilized by the Japanese military included running into a group of soldiers with the pin of a grenade pulled, and hiding in trees and bushes awaiting the enemy with a bayonet. Japan’s soldiers ignored the rules of warfare laid down in the Geneva and Hague Conventions. The difficult terrain and geography of the mainland also made for awful fighting conditions and worked to the advantage of the Japanese. The Japanese soldiers used guerilla warfare and were already accustomed to the wet, muddy jungles of the Pacific Islands.

Desperate to end the war and save untold American lives, President Truman’s most viable option was to consider making use of the two newly available atomic bombs that were the technologically advanced military products of the Manhattan Project. Two strategically placed bombings in the major industrial and military locations within Japan were considered sufficient to end the war quickly. Some people raise the issue that America should have warned the Japanese by allowing them to view the detonation of an atomic bomb and witness the potential destructive power of these new incredible weapons. But the American military only had two active atomic bombs ready for deployment. President Truman couldn’t afford to waste one of these vital weapons, and, as it turned out, it was only after the second bombing that Japan finally decided to surrender to the United States.

Therefore, America’s use of atomic weapons against the Empire of Japan to end the Second World War was a tragic necessity for all the reasons mentioned above.

Endnotes

  1. Stephen E. Ambrose, American Heritage New History of World War II (New York: Viking, 1997), 601.
  2. John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin, 1989), 5.

  One thought on “The Ethics of Dropping the Atomic Bomb

  1. Derek Mangrum
    September 2, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Sadly, this common understanding of WWII and its “inevitable end” seems to be a result of the victor writing the history books. I would highly recommend to anyone interested that they read the “Uncle Eric” series of books written by Richard Maybury. Specifically, read the book on WWII. The analysis and conclusions are both alarming and thought-provoking.

    • September 2, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      Derek:

      Thanks for reading the article and thanks for your comments. Some readers may want to pursue your recommended reading.

      Just a brief response:

      The idea that the victors write the history books reflects a common skeptical postmodern perspective. Ironically it is also what Hermann Göring said in his defense at the Nuremberg Trials.

      War is always tragic and too often evil–especially when it involves the use of atomic weapons. But sometimes war is absolutely necessary. And what was absolutely necessary in 1945 was for the Allies to definitively defeat the Axis powers.

      I recommend people read the military historians Ambrose and Keegan that were cited in the article.

      Respectfully.

      Ken Samples

      • Derek Mangrum
        September 2, 2015 at 10:17 pm

        Thank you for your response. As always, RTB produces thoughtful, and though-provoking material. Just one of the many reasons I love your ministry so much.
        I do believe that all history is told with a bent towards the views of the dominating cultures/societies of the time. So, maybe I am saying the Hermann had a point on this particular matter. Of course, this in no way justifies the horrors perpetrated by the rulers of Germany and its allies during this time. Just as being on the winning side shouldn’t justify the horrors enacted by ‘our’ side – over twice the deaths attributed to our ally in Russia, or the countless deaths that can undoubtedly be attributed to the British Empire during the many decades they went around conquering nearly the whole world. I mean, as oppressive, murderous regimes go (throughout history), Nazi Germany never reached near the heights of its predecessors or some contemporaries.
        I have read Ambrose and find his work excellent and thorough. Of course, all work has a bias, as it should.
        As always, it is best to get multiple viewpoints on a topic. Sometimes, the best reading is that which challenges your personal beliefs or views. How else can you deepen your understanding, develop your thinking, and interact with those who may hold differing positions?
        And, this is where I would again recommend Mr. Maybury’s books. Very good reads.
        Thank you for opening your posts to comments. I love talking about and thinking about these sorts of topics. I always try to do so with intellectual integrity and hope to never harm others or attack others. Ideas are fun to dialog.

      • September 2, 2015 at 11:34 pm

        Thanks again, Derek, for your thoughtful comments. And I appreciate your kind remarks about RTB.

        I agree that all people and all cultures have biases but I reject the extreme postmodern idea that a fair and objective analysis of history is impossible.

        The United States is far from a perfect country and history reveals its many national faults, hypocrisies, and injustices. But I do think its actions in rebuilding its World War II enemies instead of plundering and enslaving them is unprecedented in history.

        I also find it interesting that very few if any Allied leaders at the time questioned America’s moral decision to use atomic weapons against Imperial Japan. Yet today it seems few people are even willing to make a historical and moral case that America was justified in its actions.

        Again I appreciate you expressing your careful viewpoint. I’ve benefitted from our interaction. Discussing and debating challenging ideas and topics is deeply satisfying.

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

  2. van
    September 5, 2015 at 10:12 am

    This is a justification of mas murder of innocents. This is not allowed under any circumstances- that is my belief. Not to save your life, not to save your family, not to save the particular regime in place in your country, not to attain unconditional surrender, NO period, one can’t appeal to mass murder of innocents no matter what. What to do instead. Russia was about to declare war on Japan too and Japan really wanted to find some way to surrender. So then declare to the world that this war is over. and
    send ships with food into Tokyo harbor, one by one. Maybe they would sink them, for a while. but sooner or later God will provide a way. Mass Murder is not an option, even if the calculus of lives says lives would be saved. It does not matter. They started it. Does not matter. They would have done it to us. Does not matter. They were very bad in war. Does not matter. Now the US has a stain which history can never remove, being the first to use Atomic weapons on a defenseless city to force a country to surrender. What is bin Ladin not justified then- because we would not surrender. -We are now not asking for forgiveness, and remain thus not forgiven, and someday a foe will calculate the cost, and may God have mercy on our country,

    • September 5, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      Van or Lawrence:

      Thanks for your comments. It is obvious that we strongly disagree on this important ethical and historical event. Here are my comments in return:

      1. There is a difference between killing and murder. Killing is the taking of a life. Murder the taking of a life without a just cause.

      2. Japan was at war with America and in fact started the war by bombing Pearl Harbor. Thus America’s bombing of Japan was not an act of mass murder but rather an act of war (killing with a just cause). World War II was a just war on America’s part and in fact a defensive war. Therefore America’s armed forces killed the enemy but they did not murder them.

      3. The Allies defeat of the Axis powers ended the genuine mass murder of millions of innocent civilians on the part of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

      4. As horrific as the atomic bombings of Japan were, the only other historic alternative was invasion of the Japanese Island which would have led to many times more deaths of Americans and Japanese.

      5. Your insistence that Japan was looking for a way to surrender doesn’t square with Japan’s refusal to accept America’s Potsdam Declaration which specifically offered a way of surrender. It also does not square with the fact that in previous Pacific battles the Japanese fought virtually to the last man. So I respectfully differ with your reading of history.

      6. Your claim that America could end World War II by just verbally declaring the war to be over is unrealistic.

      7. You seem to be “implying” that America’s use of Atomic weapons in the attempt to end the war was as bad as, if not worse than, Japan’s aggressive mass murder in various countries in the Pacific throughout World War II. But maybe I’ve misunderstood you on that point.

      8. Christian thinkers and leaders through the centuries have taken different positions on the issue of war. In fact, some Christian ethicists believe that the use of nuclear weapons may be justified in certain circumstances. See, for example, The Life and Death Debate by J.P. Moreland and Norman Geisler.

      9. Your comparison between America’s actions in World War II with the terrorist actions of Bin Laden strike me as logically flawed.

      War is always tragic and too often evil (especially when it involves the use of atomic weapons which can and do kill noncombatants). But sometimes war is absolutely necessary. And what was absolutely necessary in 1945 was for the Allies to definitively defeat the Axis powers. And for better and/or worse, atomic weapons led to that necessary end.

      Respectfully.

      Ken Samples

      • Derek Mangrum
        September 5, 2015 at 1:18 pm

        Ken, respectfully, you do need to study deeper the history of WWII and the time leading up to these actions. Some responses to your points:

        1. While there is a difference between killing and murder (in definition), the result is the same, one person forcibly ending the life of another. I’m not sure Jesus was in favor of this, regardless of definition or justification.

        2. Japan certainly did not start the war in the Pacific. We (the U.S.) had been engaged in a non-war war with them for some time; cutting off supply lines, hindering their trade/supply routes/aiding their enemies. Their ability to maintain resourced was so severely hampered that, by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, it was their only option. There is ample proof that the American government wanted in the war so badly, but they needed a first strike on us so we could be seen as defenders and as ones being ‘drawn in’ to the war. That is why they put so much pressure on Japan’s supply lines and sailing/air routes. Japan is a small island with little/no natural resources (oil, steel, etc.) so they had to get it from elsewhere. When those options were squeezed, they had no choice but to attack, just as the American government wanted.

        3. What about the mass murder of our ‘allies’ Russia. More than three times the deaths can be attributed to the Russian regime than that of the Germans. Could an argument be made that we could have saved lives had we fought of the side of the Germans?

        4. Again, this is a fallacy perpetrated by ‘our side’. Japan had almost no resources left to conduct meaningful war. If you look at their production numbers near the end, they weren’t even on the same planet as the Allies. The Kamikaze is just one example of the desperation they were in at the time. The Allies could have EASILY starved Japan out by simply continuing to sever supply lines. An invasion certainly was not needed.

        5. The only reason Japan refused surrender was because of the insane condition of unconditional surrender. Think about what unconditional surrender means. It was a nearly unprecedented surrender requirement and without merit.

        One last comment. In an earlier reply, Ken mentioned that “I also find it interesting that very few if any Allied leaders at the time questioned America’s moral decision to use atomic weapons against Imperial Japan. Yet today it seems few people are even willing to make a historical and moral case that America was justified in its actions.” Unless I read this incorrectly, it seems to make my point for me.

        The military leaders at the time seek, and find, the most devastating military action possible to conduct war. That makes perfect sense. But now, with time, hindsight, and perspective, there is a growing case to be made that ‘the bomb’ may not have been necessary. My point exactly.

      • September 5, 2015 at 5:14 pm

        Derek:

        Greetings once again.

        This will have to be my last response to you since I’ve got a heavy workload and also some important personal issues that require my time. I’m sure you will agree that I have been fair and generous with my time in interacting with you.

        Here is my point-by-point response to your third post:

        1. To your comment that I “need to study deeper the history of WWII”

        Yes, I agree. I know enough about World War II to know that the subject is vast and I have only read and studied a limited amount. I think the historian Stephen Ambrose called World War II the largest event in the history of humankind.

        But having admitted my limitations please appreciate that I have put some study time in. My bachelor’s degree involved studying history and I took a number of academic courses that addressed or touched on World War II. My father was an American combat soldier serving in the European Theater during the war so I have been reading and studying about the Second World War since I was a youth. My personal library contains approximately 200 books on the subject of World War II. And while I haven’t read them all from beginning to end I have read deeply from many or most of them.

        So I consider myself an informed student of the war but certainly not an expert.

        2. Regarding your first point about killing and murder:

        Your statement that with killing and murder the result is the same (“one person forcibly ending the life of another”) misses the point of my response to Van. There is a huge difference between killing and murder. The difference is called moral justification. Killing is sometimes justified by circumstance such as defending innocent human life. Private citizens, police, and soldiers can kill with the justification of protecting human life. Thus there is a critical difference between killing and murder recognized by most of the world’s legal codes.

        Now regarding your point that “I’m not sure Jesus was in favor of this” (i.e., killing can be morally justified), I think you’ve placed yourself in a difficult and minority position here as a Christian for the following reasons:

        * The preferred reading of the Old Testament Hebrew prohibition is: You shall not murder. Not: You shall not kill.
        * Jesus Christ said he affirmed the Old Testament Law and therefore we can reasonably conclude that he agreed with the difference between killing and murder as made in the Old and New Testaments.
        * Pacifism (no morally justified killing) is a minority position in historic Christianity and some even view pacifism as immoral because a person refuses to kill to protect the innocent.

        Thus the consensus position of historic Christianity is just war theory not pacifism. That doesn’t make pacifism wrong but it does have some strong criticisms to overcome and I don’t think one can easily defend the position that Jesus was himself a pacifist.

        3. Regarding your point that Japan didn’t start the war in the Pacific: Nothing America did in the Pacific justified Japan’s attack upon Pearl Harbor. Moreover as history clearly showed the militant leaders of Imperial Japan were clearly motivated by the desire to control and enslave their Pacific neighbors. Thus accordingly the military forces of Imperial Japan enslaved and murdered millions of civilians and noncombatants. Yet the sources you are apparently reading and/or passing along make it sound like Japan was forced into World War II. The idea that America wanted a war with Japan is at best speculative and at worst conspiracy oriented.

        4. Regarding the Soviets and their mass murders: War makes for strange bedfellows. At the time that America accepted the Soviets as allies, Hitler was clearly the greater danger. Only later did Churchill and Truman began to recognize the growing Soviet threat. But as terrible and immoral as it was, most of the Soviet murders were to their own people in Communist purges prior to World War II. Germany killed approximately 20 million Soviets along with 11 million in the Holocaust via world conquest.

        But seemingly you’ve made my point about the Soviet atrocities. The world contains evil and good men must be ready to fight and kill to protect the innocent. America fought fascist totalitarianism in World War II and then battled the Communist totalitarianism in the Cold War. With all of America’s faults, the U.S. was morally superior in its actions in World War II in comparison to Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. And that is still true even if dropping the atomic bomb was a deep moral error.

        5. Your claim that America didn’t need to consider an invasion of Japan does not correspond with what most World War II historians think. The Allies viewed Japan as a dangerous foe right to the end as evidenced in the brutal Pacific battles that preceded the dropping of the atomic bomb. Moreover the issue is not what people know now about Japan’s ability to make war but what the Allies knew and believed then. Judging the Allies 70 years after the fact is to commit the fallacy of Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

        6. In regard to your claim that the Allies’ demand of unconditional surrender of Japan is/was “insane”: I think you have greatly failed to sufficiently understand the abject evil committed by the Empire of Japan during World War II. All of Japan’s Pacific neighbors who were brutalized by the regime agreed that an unconditional surrender demand was warranted.

        7. I think the reason that few people today defend America’s decision to use atomic weapons is explained by a lack of knowledge of the past and by the unfortunate affects of moral relativism. As I stated in an earlier post, I see postmodern skepticism as one of the major contributors to this moral fog. But I’m also willing to admit that a person could be justified in viewing this issue differently than I do.

        In closing, I must respectfully say that I think a number of the points you’ve made are based more upon speculative (even conspiracy) thinking rather than upon reliable historical analysis. So I’ll agree to read more broadly and I hope you will agree to do the same.

        Best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

  3. van
    September 5, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Killing of innocents is forbidden period. No excuses. Once you say such a thing is conditionally allowed, you have crossed the road and opened the ethical door to vast evil. Being at war or not is a legalistic detail of no consequence in my eyes and I believe in the eyes of God. Calculus estimating the lives to be saved is also of no consequence. If we were magnanimous in victory as occupation forces, – does not matter. There is a detail though separating unintended collateral damage from murder ( yes murder) of innocents to make a point,if not done unintentionally, but on purpose, particularly in the case of Nagasaki – to kill civilians in a defenseless city- well refusing at some point to take part is such evil was the personal duty of every serviceman if they understood what what was being done. I could argue about what Admiral Leahy or Douglas McArthur or Ike said about it and other legalistic angles but it is all beside the point if the aim was to murder helpless civilians to force an unconditional surrender on an enemy. If you can’t see the evil in that, then surely you are a candidate for applying situational ethics in other areas where innocents are murdered. . better decide.

    • September 5, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      Thank you for your comments, Van. I respect your moral convictions but as a fellow Christian I don’t agree will all of your conclusions. My father fought in the Second World War and so our family also has some deep convictions about the events that transpired 70 years ago.

      I think my earlier post sufficiently responds to your concerns.

      Respectfully,

      Ken Samples

  4. van
    September 5, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    My heroes are the service men who refuse orders or stand in opposition to murderous operations. such as
    Warrant Officer One (WO1) Hugh Thompson, Jr., who stopped MeLai.
    In the fire bombing or Tokyo, the b29’s went in low, 5000 feet, in x shaped formations, and dropped firebombs, and sometimes the smoke of the firestorm rose so high some following formations were buffeted by the air rising, and flew through drifting smoke, and the crews inside the b29 could smell the burning flesh. of the carnage below. If a flight officer in these air crews flew more than one such mission, he would stand judged before God, and you would have him attempt a defense about Potsdam or some detail of the rape of Nanjing? Every man stands alone at that time, and it was their duty to say no I won’t do this. . In england, Men who couldn’t take it any more were deemed to be LMF (“lacking moral fibre”). How is that for irony.

  5. Derek Mangrum
    September 5, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Final reply, simply to say Thank You, Kenneth, for your thoughtful engagement on this topic. We have the luxury of sitting here now, calmly evaluating this terrible event in human history. My prayer is that examining a war such as this will only ever be a mental exercise for us and our children. There are many different takes and points of view. As with those before you, my grandfather fought in the war. He was a sailor in the Pacific.I know he was proud of his service and his part in the effort to defeat the Japanese and end the war. That generation exemplified bravery and I believe the soldiers deserve all the recognition and honor they are due. In the end, I believe the world is better off with the Allies having won the victory.

    I will continue to read on this topic, and others. It is a difficult subject. Again, one I hope we only have to ever think about in hindsight.

    Blessing to you and to the RTB ministry.

    Thank you again for your patient and considered dialog.

    Respectfully and In Christ, Derek

    • Derek Mangrum
      September 5, 2015 at 6:31 pm

      Lastly, I would also like to apologize for my suggestion that you further your study on the topic. That was uncalled for and improper. -Derek

      • September 5, 2015 at 6:38 pm

        Thank you, Derek.

        No apology necessary. I benefit from the dialogue.

        Best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

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