Looking Back to Hiroshima: A Brief Thought, and an Invitation

On this date 67 years ago, The United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This (plus the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki that followed 3 days later) precipitated the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan and the close of World War II. Over the course of those 4 days 2 bombs killed over 200,000 Japanese noncombatants; thousands more died later of radiation sickness and other causes owing to dispossession and exposure.

Many will breathlessly say that these attacks were necessary to end the war. It may have been necessary to attain Japan’s unconditional surrender, which was established Anglo-American policy for Axis powers at that late stage of the conflict. It’s true that a staged invasion of the Japanese main island of Honshu would have killed more people–American combatants, Japanese combatants, and Japanese noncombatants in the long run. But whether that unconditional surrender justified indiscriminate mass killing is another matter. We know that President Truman was eager to demonstrate (not just to Japan’s fascist government, but to Stalin) what an atomic bomb could do–and that once he actually saw the destruction caused by the 2 bombs, he swore off using them again regardless of the Japanese response.

A limited Japanese surrender, including Japanese withdrawal from all its colonies and occupied territories, may have been a worthy alternative. I see the reasoning that “Japan should have been punished” for starting the Pacific War and the brutality of its occupation and treatment of prisoners of war, but mass killing is not “punishment,” it is just mass killing. Japan in the context of the Cold War would probably have had to align itself with the United States, or become isolationist. Leaving it in a state of dictatorship might seem deeply-dissatisfying, but Spain and South Korea among other nations emerged from their own dictatorships during the Cold War–without anyone having to take the measures our own government took at the end of World War II.

Lots of prejudiced assumptions about an alleged Japanese “hive-mind” factor-in to explanations of why this had to happen. These are bunk; when we invaded Okinawa more civilians killed themselves than took-up partisan activities; civilians were never given as much of an opportunity to support fascism as the Germans in the Wiemar period were, yet we hear strangely-few references to German popular fanaticism in the context of widespread support for the obviously-monstrous Hitler. This August 6, I ask people consider whether we could not have attained our strategic goals in defeating Japan without destroying 2 cities. I don’t ask this as a pacifist or an advocate of nuclear disarmament–I am neither–but out of a belief that for a government to seek to defend its people’s safety and its strategic interests with the least bloodshed possible is the cause of justice.  Those who insist there was no way to end the war without killing over 200,000 civilian bystanders are not guilty of planning or perpetrating such an act themselves, but they have obviated themselves of the call to think of how our conduct, even in times of war, can be made more-virtuous.  War–even a long war–is not a legitimate excuse to abandon ethics, it is the time when the most is at stake in ethical judgment.  When we ask ourselves, Can we achieve our ends in this war through means that shed less blood? we are asking if we have the means to contribute less waste and suffering to the World.

This is the most-fundamental way to ask: How can we be more-just?


3 thoughts on “Looking Back to Hiroshima: A Brief Thought, and an Invitation

  1. Kukri

    Japan still had tens of thousands of troops scattered across Asia and the Pacific, and if I recall correctly there was a strongly militaristic faction that took power of the government in the final weeks of WW2 and wasn’t interested in surrender. Considering the strong evidence that Japan was starting to arm all civilians for home defense, avd that an invasion of the smallest Japanese home island was expected to cost a million lives, I see little fault with Truman’s decision. Part of our problem is hindsight: we now know of the full consequences and dangers of nuclear weapons, having lived with them for over 60 years, especially during the Cold War. In 1945, the atomic bombs were radically new, and basically seen merely as very large bombs.

  2. Kukri

    Also to consider: we were in a total war mentality. I doubt we would’ve tolerated a negotiated peace. Secondly: if the Japanese were committed to home defense, and bombing them into submission was not going to be morally acceptable, would a naval blockade starving millions of Japanese been more productive and moral? I don’t think so.

  3. liberalironist Post author

    The paucity of other options–the combat preparedness of other Japanese units scattered about the Western Pacific, for instance, or the human toll if military planners had decided to bomb Japan’s transportation infrastructure or blockade the country–is a reason that could justify using such lethal force against a civilian population. Preventing greater bloodshed in the long-run is more-meaningful than our “do no harm” cognitive bias which would prompt us to treat blood shed by commission as a sin but even greater harm knowingly done through passive means as morally-irrelevant.

    What doesn’t count as a justification is a “total war mentality.” Once you allow a “war mentality” as a way of justifying actions in wartime, it’s little-different from submitting the symptoms of mental dereliction as a sufficient explanation for it. The Nazis were in a “total war mentality” when they committed to the “Final Solution” of genocide towards the Jewish people in early 1942, and Josef Stalin let the Kulak Famine happen in 1932-33 and then orchestrated the Great Terror in 1937-38 because of his belief in the possibility and urgency of Communism. Virtually no one will come to their defense on this account, nor should they. People shouldn’t be exonerated for their actions on the basis of how far gone they were at the time; we aren’t talking about a crime of passion but submission to frustration and a herd mentality. A “total war” mentality isn’t like the flu, you know; it can be resisted. My point was to say that even in wartime we should ask ourselves, “Will these means lead us to our ends with the least bloodshed?” A total war mentality is by definition simply the disinclination to accept that responsibility, and it rests with individuals–however many–not unaccountable societies of people.


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