Atomic Anniversary

Thinking About the Unthinkable

on August 14, 2015

It was a terrible anniversary. Seventy years ago this past week, at zero eight fifteen hours, August 6th, 1945, the Enola Gay, a U.S. Army Air Force B-29, dropped an 8,900-pound bomb, dubbed “Little Boy”, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb, Fat Man, fell upon Nagasaki.

The effects on the ground were largely the same. Cobbling together various sources we understand that after falling for forty-four seconds Little Boy burst some 1,900 feet over the center of the city with a temperature said to eclipse a million degrees Celsius and igniting the air surrounding it, resulting in a fireball some 840 feet in diameter with an apparent brilliance ten times the brightness of the sun. The blast wave shattered windows over a distance of ten miles and was felt at over thirty-seven miles distance. With a destruction radius of one mile, the thermal pulse sent fires raging over four-and-a-half miles. People on the ground reported a brilliant flash, a strange smell, and a booming noise. The city toppled, buildings were ripped from their foundations, bridges twisted, some seventy percent of the city’s structures were shoved to pieces. Radiant heat travelling at the speed of light caused flash burns, charring skin to charcoal. Somewhere between 70,000-80,000 souls were consumed instantly. Tens of thousands more would die more slowly, days or weeks, or even years after succumbing to injuries or radiation sickness. About one-half-hour later after the initial blast, a black rain fell from the heavens. Comprised of dirt, ash, and radioactive particles that were sucked up into the air at the time of the explosion and fire, the rain contaminated areas initially untouched by the detonation. Hiroshima became “a place of desolation” with “blackened corpses everywhere.”

The description needn’t continue for us to register the morally obvious: It was without doubt a terrible act with terrible consequences. But was it wrong? On this blog I have previously argued that there is a crucial difference between moral evil and non-moral evil and that the accuracy of our ethical judgments turn on our accurately understanding the facts on the ground – on our grasping what the hell just happened. So what was it that occurred at Hiroshima? At Nagasaki? To read commentary over the last week is to leave one without a sense of any clear consensus. This is true, unsurprisingly, within the Christian community as well. I want here, in this moment between the anniversary of the bombings and the Japanese surrender, to respond to those who insist the unleashing of the atomic bombs over Japan was a clear-cut case of mass murder – the intentional slaughter of the innocent. To be sure, the pedigree of the stance that the atomic bombings were murder extends all the way back: In 1946, the Federal Council of Churches condemned the bombings as “irresponsible” and “morally indefensible”. Were they? Against such claims can a moral accounting be made?

I think it can. The concern I want to take up here is whether or not the killing of Japanese civilians was, indeed, indiscriminate and, if so, how and to what degree. To be sure, there were reasons that the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen over others. They were among five cities chosen as possible targets. Each city had significant military assets. Hiroshima, for instance, was the home of the 2nd Army Headquarters, tasked with the defense of all of southern Japan. Additionally, the city was an important marshaling and embarkation point, military storage center, and communications center and had significant factories supporting the war effort. This, then, is a complicating factor. In an age of total war and the industrialization of human conflict, which began in earnest when firearms ceased to be produced by master smiths but rather to be mass produced in factories, it became a truism that the most efficient way to stop an enemy and win a war was to destroy their capacity to make war in the first place. Munitions factories, in order to function, were necessarily located in urban centers to be near other factories fashioning precursor parts, transportation hubs facilitating efficient distribution, and workers and the support systems workers needed in order to live – homes, grocery stores, schools, and the like. The age of total war, including Japanese complicity in helping shape it, allowed the line between combatant and non-combatant to blur.

There were other reasons for the selection of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be sure, including the psychological value. Each city had been intentionally spared attack by the conventional bombing campaigns and each was densely packed with close-knit structures. The allies wanted untouched cities in order to demonstrate the lethality of a single atomic weapon in the hopes of horrifying the Japanese into surrender. So another selection criteria, if secondary, was the amplification of terror. This is morally troublesome. To kill indiscriminately is not simply to fail to avoid killing civilians. It is to positively intend to kill them, to target them deliberately. Is selecting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if only in part, as a means of terrifying the Japanese government into submission the same thing as deliberately intending to kill those civilians? It seems so, for without their deaths the show loses its glitz. But isn’t it more complicated than this?

One complicating factor, possibly, is mathematical. The most common rebuttal to the idea that the atomic bombings were immoral is that they, in fact, saved lives, even civilian lives. Stack up the dead from the atomic bombs on one side of the scale with the counterfactual estimates of the dead due, say, to an invasion of the homeland and the math points in favor of dropping the bombs. On the one hand, this is, rightly, condemned as consequentialism. But, on the other, not all regard to consequence is necessarily consequentialism; if for no other reason then that not all regard for consequence views consequence as the sole justifying factor. With the A-Bombs, it is not simply a matter of lives lost versus lives saved. It matters, surely, that it was Japanese militarism that chose to launch its grasping aggression across the Pacific in the first place. America, with her citizen soldiers, was roused to repel unjust attacks, to take back what was wrongly taken, and to punish evil. The cancellation of Operation Downfall, the invasion, quite obviously saved allied lives. Winston Churchill, in a speech to the British House of Commons just after the bombs fell, suggested that as many as a million American lives and a quarter million British lives were spared. While these numbers were echoed by many, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard – who held reservations about using the bomb and was therefore unlikely to exaggerate the costs of invasion – they are almost certainly high. Nevertheless, contemporary estimates tended to range around 250,000 allied casualties. Because the choices, the free choices, of a nation’s sovereign rain consequences equally upon those citizens who agree with those choices as well as those who disagree – as well, most tragically, on those those as yet too young to do either – does it not matter that on one side of the equation are the aggressors and, on the other, those who are simply responding to the aggressors in an effort to protect their own, and their neighbor’s, innocent ones? What, it is worth asking, were the militants of Japan thinking in starting their unprovoked belligerence knowing as they ought, especially in an age of total war, that their own little ones might be made to bear the costs? That question, too, needs to be posited. Choices matter.

But this brings us to the next obvious point: the allies would not be the only ones fighting. Surely it matters that Japanese lives, including innocent Japanese lives, in all likelihood, were saved by bringing a quick end to the war. This suggestion is heavily contested by those who insist the bombs did not need to be dropped at all for the Japanese to have surrendered. Some of these argue that it was Stalin, after all, and not the bombs that induced the Japanese surrender. But to my own, admittedly amateur, historian eyes I don’t see how this can be said with any confidence. This isn’t the place for a sustained argument but let it suffice to point out that while the Soviet invasion of Manchuria did, indeed, precede the Japanese surrender it obviously followed the Hiroshima bombing and was, in turn, followed by the attack on Nagasaki. Moreover, Emperor Hirohito, in his August 15th radio broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender to the nation noted the futility of continuing the fight. In doing so, he specifically cited the “new and most cruel weapon” employed against Japan and testified that continuing the fight in the face of such a weapon would signal only the “ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation.” He never specifically mentioned the Soviet entry into the Pacific War. So while Stalin could be seen as a significant component of Japanese surrender in connection with the bombs there is no sturdy rationale for insisting he was significant in isolation from the bombings.

In any case, this might well be an example of hindsight’s ability to blind. Truman and his advisors could only know what they knew. They could not know if the A-Bombs would or would not induce a surrender or whether a Soviet entry into the war would or would not do the same in isolation. Christian realism recognizes the difficulty of trying to resolve seemingly intractable moral conflicts in highly condensed time frames. Returning to the question of Japanese deaths, what Truman would have known was that an invasion of the Japanese home islands would be a catastrophe for the Japanese. Estimates of Japanese casualties were staggering, ranging from several hundred thousands to as many as ten million. Everything depended on how many Japanese would fight and, correspondingly, how long the invasion would last. There was good reason to believe that a good many Japanese would, in fact, fight. Intelligence suggested the conscription of civilians had been expanded to mobilize essentially every able-bodied citizen – as testified in newsreel footage of women and older children training with bamboo spears and by evidence of civilians being trained as suicide bombers. Recent history bore this out: the island-hopping campaign taught the allies quite a lot about the Japanese manner of fighting. For instance, of the 22,000 imperial troops on Iwo Jima only 200 were captured. The rest fought to the death even after the island had clearly been lost. No aspect of the war in the Pacific gave U.S. decision-makers any reason to believe that an invasion of Japan would be anything other than an inch-by-inch millhouse of blood and death.

So it was not, simply, it seems to me, that the dropping of the bombs was the indiscriminate slaughter of noncombatants. Every step Truman could have taken seems likely to have led to the deaths of innocents. In light of the options, he chose the lesser evil – which is, really, to say he chose to obtain the greatest good he could given the options available.

But there’s more to be said. If those who advocate for the dropping of the bomb must make an accounting, so too must those who insist it ought not to have been dropped. Many, then and now, say it is a false choice to insist it was a matter of dropping the bombs or invading Japan. American airpower, they insist, in conjunction with the ongoing Naval blockade, could have induced Japanese surrender. General Macarthur argued this, insisting that with these factors alone the Japanese would surrender within six months. But what does that really mean? Under Japanese occupation, the Chinese alone suffered somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, the vast majority civilian, for each of the long months between July of 1937 and August, 1945. Ignoring the plight of other occupied Asian states, the Chinese toll alone in the “six months” leading to Japanese surrender would have been staggering. Moreover, to complement the American Naval Blockade of Japan, conventional bombing would have continued against Japanese cities, including a specific operation that would have bombed Japanese railroad lines, isolating the south from food supplies in the north. One Japanese historian estimates that if that came about upwards of 10 million Japanese would have starved to death.

Dropping and not dropping those bombs would have had consequences that needed to be weighed not against some ideal alone but also against one another. Against those, then, who say the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man were unmitigated evils I contend the analysis is more complicated. Choices between a little death or a lot or between combatant deaths or noncombatant deaths do not seem the choices that were available. In my judgment then, in light of the options at hand, given the context and knowledge of the moment, the bombing of Hiroshima was, on balance, the right thing to do – not just strategically but morally as well. But I’m being quite specific here: for those same reasons I am not at all confident that hitting Nagasaki was the right thing to do – at least, not when it was done. Coming hard on the heels of the Hiroshima attack, and especially in light of the Soviet’s entry into the war, a modest allotment of additional time could have been granted. But the sequence of events as they stand might well have been necessary combination. In any case, if I stand against those who believe Hiroshima was wrong I stand equally against those who are too quick to wave away the complexity and celebrate the horror of it all. While I might think the dropping of Little Boy was right, I am not saying we ought not to grieve. There is no place for glibness here. Under the auspices of the just war tradition grief is always in play: lament, reluctance, and a fervent desire that another way could have been found always attend the use of force.

But grief is not equivalent to guilt.

  1. Comment by Patrick98 on August 14, 2015 at 10:22 am

    This is an excellent and thoughtful essay. Thank you for writing it. I hope it is widely read.

  2. Comment by William B. Evans on August 14, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    While I generally agree with the folks at IRD, this is a profoundly disappointing article. There was, in fact, a consensus at the highest military levels that dropping these weapons on the Japanese was both (a) unnecessary from a military standpoint and (b) morally objectionable.

  3. Comment by MLiVecche on August 14, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Mr. Evans,

    Thank you for the response. The article to which you link serves only to underline my point. First, the majority of testimonies cited there, insisting the bombs were not necessary, are after the fact; retrospective considerations after time and new information allows, or suggests, greater clarity. But, as I remind us, we can only know what we know when we know it. One cannot cite a report written in July of 1946 that suggests the bombs were unnecessary and insist this thereby evinces the choice to drop them was immoral.

    Second, whatever consensus there was, before or after the fact, the majority of views in the article suggests a Japanese surrender by November, 1945, with some hedging as late as December. As I note, in 1945 the daily ticking away of time could be measured in civilian deaths being suffered across the Japanese occupied Pacific, most especially China. With the corpse-count mounting, one ought not to be so sanguine about the prospect of a few extra months. This is core of my argument: that the moral conflict in play was exacerbated by time compression so that not only was it a matter that every step led to terrible consequences but that the longer one took to choose where to step the starker the terrible consequences.

    Additionally, it is wrongly revisionist to suggest there was anything like a consensus away from the bomb at the highest military levels at the time the decision needed to be made. Senior military officials were involved in the decision to drop the bomb at every level from developing and planning to target selection and mission control. The article further demonstrates the same dishonesty in downplaying the military significance of the targeted cities. I have been at pains to demonstrate the complexity. The article ignores the complexity completely.

    There are arguments against what I have posited, I readily admit. The article you reference, however, simply does not supply them.


  4. Comment by William B. Evans on August 14, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Mr. LiVecche:

    The article to which I linked does reference comments made by senior military leadership at the time. The fact that they were not publicly reported immediately is simply a matter of how history and the military works. Both theater commanders (and apparently many others in the military) were, by their own statements, opposed to the action. Of course, when political decisions are made at the highest civilian levels, the military figures salute and do what they are told. I see no “dishonesty” (your provocative term) in the article regarding the military value of the two targets, and it is certainly a stretch to maintain that incinerating Nagasaki was essential to the Allied war effort (as your glossing over that matter would seem to tacitly admit). At least we seem to agree that the bombing of Nagasaki was questionable and cause for grief, though I would go much further than that.

    In fact, your article is little more than special pleading and appeals to ignorance. Such an approach trivializes a moral decision-making process that, in this case, went terribly and tragically wrong. I consider myself a Christian realist, but in my judgment it is impossible to arrive at a justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki via classical just war theory.

    Though I did not mention it in my earlier comment, the fact of the matter is that the bombing of Nagasaki wiped out much of the Christian presence in Japan in an instant. Of all organizations in Washington, I would think that IRD would be more concerned and forceful on what is, in fact, a rather clear-cut moral issue.

    Bill Evans

  5. Comment by mnemos on August 16, 2015 at 2:15 am

    “…and it is certainly a stretch to maintain that incinerating Nagasaki was essential to the Allied war effort (as your glossing over that matter would seem to tacitly admit).” betrays a bias in reading. The comment at the end of the article is a very clear statement that the bombing of Nagasaki is a very different and more complicated moral question than the bombing of Hiroshima, not simply a gloss.

    If your comments weren’t so relevant and interesting, it would not be worth mentioning.

  6. Comment by Patrick98 on August 14, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Hmm, consensus means that everyone agrees. Obviously Commander in Chief (and World War One veteran) President Harry Truman didn’t agree that it was unnecessary. Obviously the other members of the military involved in the dropping of the bombs didn’t agree it was unnecessary. And, my friend Clarence, who was a marine during World War Two and on a troop ship heading to Japan when the bomb was dropped told me he was grateful for it because it ended the war.

    This may be one of those topics where we can state our opinions, but the two sides are so entrenched that very little mind-changing will occur. Just another aspect of the culture we now live in.

  7. Comment by Frank Spiege on August 15, 2015 at 8:48 am

    I appreciate your careful interplay of moral reasoning and historical detail. My response, which will attempt to draw on catholic just war theory, will be massively simplistic to allow for brevity. Sorry in advance.

    It seems clear to me that the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like the prior sustained and catastrophic firebombing campaign against German and Japanese cities, was clearly meant as a terrorizing tactic indiscriminantly targeting innocent non-combatants along with military targets. Justifying terrorizing tactics by using strategies and weapons inflicting mass destruction, that target civilian/non-combatants, seems to capture the heart of a genuinely consequentialist reasoning that sets aside the moral proscription against directly intending the death of innocent lives as a just and needful means of achieving proportionally good ends.

    Though you argue for the will-to-kill among many civilians, directly intending the death of those who are harmless (as opposed to the enemy soldiers who are involved in objectively unjust, violent behavior) is, at least in traditional Christian just war theory, wrong. It seems that underlying this argument is what I’d consider a faulty premise, i.e. if we are convinced that every problem one encounters in this world must have some acceptable solution, and that if one cannot solve a problem without doing evil, then one somehow becomes entitled to do it.

    A colleague of mine argues an important point — that the Christian ethic not to answer evil with evil, but rather with good, is wise and realistic advice for salvaging human good possible in our fallen world. If we use the evil of our adversaries as an excuse for our own murderous intent, we continue to expand and aggravate evil, mutilating ourselves first of all. The refusal to match others in evil is the only way for fallen humankind, individuals and societies alike, to stop compounding human misery and begin emerging into the light of decent human life.

    I always find Genesis 18:16-33 a fascinating meditation in this regard.

    In any event, thank you for attempting serious moral reasoning.

  8. Comment by alwayspuzzled on August 15, 2015 at 11:58 am

    When I was young, in the years after the war, there were still isolated Japanese soldiers hiding on the Pacific islands and refusing to surrender. It is difficult to believe that anyone, no matter how “expert” they might be, has (or had) a clue how long the Japanese would be willing to hold out, how much destruction they would be willing to endure, and how many casualties they would be willing to accept, if subjected only to the slow grinding of conventional bombing and an invasion.
    It is important to remember that the Allies would accept only an unconditional surrender, not a negotiated surrender.

  9. Comment by Mike D'Virgilio on August 15, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    One professor I highly esteem from Hillsdale College said on Facebook, that it is always wrong to target civilians. Period. It amazes me that someone so intelligent can be so simplistic. All critics have is speculation and conjecture. The fact is that the bombs took lives to save innumerably more lives in the morally muddled context of a world war. Not only that, but it showed the world the almost unimaginable horror of atomic weapons, and they have not been used since.

  10. Comment by cken on August 15, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Guilt is a useless emotion to be avoided. It is largely caused by a conflict in morality embellished by religion to control the masses. Guilt is neither atonement nor reparation as such it has no use in your life. You can only recognize a wrong you have done and correct it. Learn not to have guilt feelings. Guilt is limiting it hobbles you ability to function at your best and be your best.

  11. Comment by Patrick98 on August 16, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Because the manufacture of weapons has become industrialized, because the collection of intelligence has become electronic surveillance, because many nations now have elected governments, because insurgents are combatants, when war and conflict occurs almost all of a nation is drawn in to it. While I strongly agree with just war theory it is more difficult to zero in on a “combatant only” target without also going after the infrastructure that supports those combatants.

    And this is not all that new. Previous armies burned crops and salted fields, tore up railroad lines, etc. so that they could not be used to support their enemies.

    This is the sad reality of the fallen world we live in. War is Satanic, and many are destroyed. That is why I pray for the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus, to come quickly.

  12. Comment by Robert C Whitten - NASA (Ret) on August 21, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    One of the alternative was disruption of the transportation system by bombs and, in the Inland Sea, mines. such disruption would have led to mass starvation with millions of people lost. I should add that my research advisor for my PhD at Duke University was given the task of computing the critical mass for the Hiroshima bomb.

  13. Comment by jack4444 on August 21, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    I suggest we leave the right or wrong, of what we did in WW2 in Japan, to our final judgement by God who will judge us all. if you lived through WW2 as I did and lost friends and family and witnessed the Japanese atrocities like the Bataan Death March,the nuclear remedy was and is considered an act common sense. It saved millions of lives and was calculated to do just that by President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

  14. Comment by Joe Sherrill on August 22, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    As one who served in the Navy during WWII, and was in the Philippines at the time the A Bomb was dropped, was glad that maybe this would not only end the war but save many lives as we were preparing to go to Japan. The Japanese had no guilt while murdering countless civilians in China and the Philippine Islands they occupied. People who allow their government to lead them into war for the gain they may make at the expense of others deserve any fall out that results from their leaders decision. We won WWII because we went to war and destroyed the enemies ability to survives unless they surrendered. Unfortunately war is hell on earth.

  15. Comment by anne bryant on August 26, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Thank you for this in-depth and well-articulated analysis. I have had the privilege of living on Kyushu for a year and visiting the city of Nagasaki. Even decades later, the horror and devastation wrought upon that city are unimaginable to most Americans. 911, Pearl Harbor, Oklahoma City…don’t even come close.

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