Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and a Bit of Perspective

In assessing whether the atomic attacks on civilian targets - entire cities - at Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be justified, we would be remiss if we failed to consider the consequences of those attacks, consequences which were surely anticipated. We would be equally remiss to consider any justification for the attacks in a vacuum, without examining how any justifications advanced would apply in other cases.

Before the attack, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had populations of 255,000 and 195,000, respectively. In Hiroshima, 66,000 people were killed (25.8% of the population) and 69,000 (27%) injured. In Nagasaki, 39,000 (20%) were killed and 25,000 (12.8%) injured. 95% of the casualties were civilians. Many more would suffer the long-term effects of massive radiation exposure. By way of comparison, the attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor killed 2408 people and wounded 3596. The civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor were 68 dead and 35 wounded (1.6% of total casualties). These figures, which certainly must be considered in determining whether the attacks were justified, regardless of how one ultimately resolves the issue, are conspicuously absent from the other writeups in this node.

It is argued that the attacks on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 provide justification for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki As this is the easiest argument to dispose of, I will consider it first. Consider the following assertion:
If you get into an argument with somebody at a bar because you spilled his beer and refused to buy him another one, you are in the wrong, and he has every right to tell everyone in the bar what a prick you are. If he breaks into your house with a knife, later that night, he's now in the wrong, and you are within your rights to shoot him.
This argument might be valid if there were a certain degree of rough proportionality between the attack providing justification and the response. Here, however, there is no proportionality. 32 times as many people were killed in the atomic attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as were at Pearl Harbor; moreover, this does not include the long-term effects of the attacks. The disproportionality becomes even more obvious when we note that 98.4% of the casualties at Pearl Harbor were military, as opposed to 5% at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Beyond the obvious disproportionality, this argument is inapposite in another respect. "If he breaks into your house with a knife" assumes a degree of necessity that is not present in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, under the law, even self-defence must must be proportionate to the danger presented by the assailant and not exceed the amount of force reasonably necessary to ward off the danger.

We must also consider what else this theory would justify. The basic proposition is that an attack on a military facility justifies an attack on civilian targets with predicted casualties of many times the number of casualties caused by the original attack. Certainly, we must allow others the same generous moral standard we allow ourselves. Recently, in an unprovoked attack, in direct violation of international law, "with the expressed [sic] intent of taking over [their], country," the United States and the United Kingdom killed up to 10,000 Iraqi civilians (not including deaths due to the indirect, but predictable, consequences of the choice of targets) and did immeasurable damage to facilities protected under the Geneva Conventions. By the standard that is advanced in defence of the atomic attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Iraq, would be justified in dropping atomic bombs on the United States and the UK and killing up to 320,000 civilians. Similarly, much of Latin America would be entitled to lay waste to New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., and Vietnam would be entitled to kill fully 36% of the U.S. population. Or, to put it in the terms of the analogy cited above, if A breaks into B's house with a knife, B is entitled not only to kill A, but to kill 31 of A's relatives, friends, and neighbours, giving those in their immediate vicinity cancer. This logic will serve only as a rather gruesome solution to the world's overpopulation problem.

It has also been suggested that Japanese atrocities during World War II justified the use of weapons of mass destruction against Japanese civilians. First, it is important to note that this rationalisation is entirely retrospective. No one was thinking in those terms at the time. Moreover, it is worth noting that Japanese atrocities against people in Asia rarely merit a mention as "atrocities" in the US, where the only atrocities generally referred to as such are the attack on Pearl Harbor and the treatment of Allied P.O.W.'s (which, in terms of atrocity, was approximately the same level as U.S. treatment of Japanese P.O.W.'s). However, assuming that the atrocities of the Japanese military against Chinese and other civilians could justify the use of weapons of mass destruction by the U.S. against Japanese civilians, we are left with the same issue as with the Pearl Harbor argument. Indeed, at least the Pearl Harbor argument has the merit of being relatively limited, as only the directly aggrieved party may kill the other country's civilians. With this argument, on the other hand, all limitations disappear. If country A's soldiers commit atrocities against country B's civilians, country C (any country in the world) may commit atrocities against country A's civilians. An equally gruesome solution to the overpopulation problem, even if it would likely play out much faster than the one described above.

The notion that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary in order to end the war quickly and prevent "500,000 American deaths" involves a certain degree of speculation. Thus, I will limit myself to what is known of the U.S. decisionmaking process at the time. The 500,000 figure is several times the number of deaths anticipated by the Department of War at the time. Even assuming arguendo that this figure were correct, the necessity of an invasion in order to end the war was by no means the way it was seen in Washington at the time. Japan had made repeated diplomatic overtures, seeking to end the hostilities, up until the time of the atomic attacks. According to General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces under Truman, "It always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse." Similarly, then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower noted
"I had been conscious of depression and so I voiced to [Secretary Of War Stimson] 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 this very moment, seeking a way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face.' "
Eisenhower noted on another occasion that "Japan was at the moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of 'face'… It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing."

Similar views were echoed throughout the U.S. high command. In 1946, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey noted that
"Certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."
Nor were they alone. Harry Truman's 18 July 1945 diary entry read: "P.M. [ Churchill] & I ate alone. Discussed Manhattan (it is a success). Decided to tell Stalin about it. Stalin had told P.M. of telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace."

Thus, in the view of those in charge of the war, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was looking for a way out. Indeed, the only thing preventing a Japanese surrender was a matter of semantics: Japan wanted to surrender unconditionally without using the words "unconditional surrender." While the question of what would have happened is by its nature speculative and cannot be answered conclusively, those who made the decision to drop the bombs did so in the belief that the bomb would be of "no material assistance in our war against Japan." (Admiral William D. Leahy). What the man who broke into your house with a knife would have done had you not shot him is certainly not easily answered, but if you knew he didn't pose a threat at the time you shot him, you can't later claim self-defence, and you certainly can't claim to be justified in going out and killing 31 of his friends and neighbours at random.