Updated: Nov 21
There is a maxim from Roman antiquity that, roughly translated, states ‘let the safety of the people be the supreme law’. Cicero used it most famously when defending his actions as consul, which included executing without trial five members of a conspiracy to take over the Roman state. He became as subject to the fickleness of man’s judgement as anyone in history - garlanded one minute and exiled the next. The bitter caprice of retrospection is known to all who know E. P. Thompson’s adage of the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. The circumstance of decision is a pressure chamber whose heat is too often underestimated by the future. To adjudicate on an action taken requires metamorphosing oneself into the time and place of the perpetrator, rather than treating them as Tiresias. They must place themselves in their shoes, burdened with all the doubts, uncertainties and predicaments in which the decision was taken.
Of course, this is obvious to sensible people, and we should be equally alert to those who vindicate their actions through ascribing to them unimpeachable motives. The dictatorial and tyrannical have always cloaked their oppression in attractive abstractions such as ‘liberation’ or ‘justice’ or ‘salvation’. Cicero’s appeal to popular security shrouded his illegality in terms of necessity, a rhetorical technique that has become common throughout history with varying degrees of truthfulness. Abraham Lincoln levied troops in 1861 without formal congressional approval under the mantra that ‘necessity knows no law’, and in this case he was right. His actions have been looked on favourably as reflecting a realisation of the exigencies of civil war and the need to subvert political bureaucracy to be equal to them. Whether necessity can justify his suspension of habeas corpus during the war is a trickier issue. The point is that just as one is critical of arrogant revisionism, so one should be suspicious of abstract justifications. Lincoln’s gravity echoed reality. Cicero perhaps protested too much. The devil is in the details.
Both of these considerations are of heightened importance when examining matters of nuclear proportions. The haughtiness of hindsight when reviewing the greatest quandaries must be minimised. Arguments from necessity, when attributed to the calamitous, must be reviewed with extreme scrutiny. The atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 7th and 9th of August 1945 fall into both these categories. It is worth accentuating that they represented the result of feverish ethical deliberation and meditation on military and national duty. This was not a lazy short-cut of a country renowned for hawkishness, nor, as some critics have slandered, a matter of racist disregard for the lives of non-Americans. Unlike a figure like Cicero, who tried to claim that the laws in wartime were silent, the men responsible for the Manhattan Project and its consequences saw the field of combat as a morally regulated realm. They knew the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 as well as the two Geneva Conventions of 1929, and had seen the repercussions of ignoring them.
To a committee thus enlightened the atom bomb presented the direst dilemmas. They had to weigh on the scales their instinctive principles and their moral concerns based on perception of need. Cillian Murphy’s tortured impressions and ghostly expressions in Oppenheimer did justice to the haunted conscience derived from grave choices. None who wish to defend the use of the atom bombs seek to understate how regrettable it was. When Henry L. Stimson, US Secretary of War under President Truman and overseer of the Project, vindicated the decision in Harper’s Magazine two years later, he was at pains to emphasise that the horrors of the bombs mirrored the horrors of modern warfare: ‘In this last great action of the Second World War we were given final proof that war is death. War in the twentieth century has grown steadily more barbarous, more destructive, more debased in all its aspects. Now, with the release of atomic energy, man’s ability to destroy himself is nearly complete’. These are the words of a man who does not ‘wish to gloss over’ the innately repellent choice of killing over a hundred thousand people. They come from fear of the consequences should their example become exemplary.
The traditional apologia is that the bomb was, in Stimson’s words, the ‘least abhorrent’ of the options available. The proposed invasion of Japan would have been so gruelling, they say, that the inevitable victory this would have ensured would have made Pyrrhus look sparing. This has merit, though estimates of casualties still ranged. Winston Churchill imagined the sacrifice of a million American and a quarter of a million British lives in the planned Operation Downfall. The celebrated US general Douglas Macarthur predicted 95,000 in the first 90 days of the invasion. The figure of 250,000 appears across the board, and is the official figure that the Joint War Plans Committee gave to President Truman on 18th June. We can dismiss the idea of a million casualties that Churchill predicted as he likely used the figure that was later added on by Truman’s cabinet for political expediency, so as not to contradict an earlier statement made by Stimson in perhaps a moment of catastrophising. Either way, losses would have been immense.
Cynics will still say that figures published post eventum were propagandistic. This ignores not only the vast public support within the American public for the bombs to end a war so gruelling in blood and treasure (American casualties in the Pacific Theatre numbered over 350,000), but also the degree to which Truman’s administration sincerely believed in the danger of the prospective invasion. The U.S military had nearly 500,000 Purple Heart medals manufactured in anticipation of potential casualties in Operation Downfall, a foreshadowed number representing losses unmatched in all the wars fought by America since combined. Indeed, despite the fact that, by all accounts, Japan after Okinawa had all but lost the war, a maritime siege would have taken months to gain traction. Japan it is true had had their supply lines with China and other occupied territories severely damaged, their petroleum stocks annihilated and their major cities carpet bombed to the point of rendering military support scarcely maintainable. Their actions in China and south East Asia, along with the surrender of their European Axis allies, had left them politically isolated. Yet according to both American and Japanese official documents the Japanese army still totalled around 5 million men and 5 thousand suicide aircrafts. The muddy terrain, known to veterans of Okinawa, was highly hostile to US armoured tank manoeuvres and military mobilisation in general. As many as 5 million US military and naval personnel, the latter of which had already proven susceptible to deadly Japanese kamikaze attacks, had to be prepared for the takeover of the islands Kyushu and Honshu. The nature of warfare in spite of Japan’s hopelessness would have made achieving a final submission extremely arduous and protracted. Though defeat was impossible, winning a complete victory for America and her allies would have likely suffered extraordinary economic and human expenditure.
With this outlook one must imagine the minds of policy makers in Washington and at Los Alamos. You must imagine yourself with the power to end a period of suffering unequalled in US history, against an imperial dictatorship whose ambitions knew no bounds of territory or human lives both foreign or Japanese. Against a state who had started this sanguinary conflict in the first place. A state’s first purpose is to advance its own citizens’ security and welfare, with whom they are in a special relationship of care. Whatever criticisms can be launched against the decision from the removed position of our cosy desks must take into account this basic point. To prolong the war at such gross prospective costs would have been a dereliction of duty. As much as this cannot be launched as a total justification, it symbolises at least the beginnings of one, and at least a pardon. ‘The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions’. When Churchill wrote this in his eulogy to Neville Chamberlain, he was talking about a wholly different set of actions which characterised the career of his predecessor, the abortive policy of appeasement adopted toward Adolf Hitler which he could forgive as much as he opposed, for reasons similar to those made here. Chamberlain tried to save British lives by avoiding war at all costs. The Americans did so by ending one as soon as possible. It would be simplistic to be so dismissive of such motivations. Criminality is thus not a word that should enter the discussion. War can be a world of extremes, and it is naïve to try and make it otherwise.
Yet this outlook can become overly permissive. ‘The Romans make a desert and call it peace’. Tacitus has Calgacus, a Caledonian chieftain, articulate that even the notion of ‘peace’ can be morally ambiguous. A peace of ashes is vain. Just as it is simplistic to criminalise sincere attempts to end bloodshed, it is equally reductive to praise a resolution whose earliness was paid for at an exorbitant human price. Though in war there are inevitably grey areas of morality, there are ideas of ius in bello that ought always to apply as general rules. The idea of intentionally and knowingly killing civilians since Augustine has been considered a sin in the Christian world and a principal feature of wartime ethical theory in modern discourse. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule and the case of Imperial Japan is exemplary.
These cases are exceptional as in reality, the atom bombs saved more civilians than they killed. Although the US stressed the enormity of their own potential losses in Operation Downfall, the decision rested just as much upon the consideration of Japanese casualties in the ensuing invasion. The unyielding nature of Japanese military ideology was such that, despite their incapability to have any chance of victory by mid-1945, they had still not surrendered. More civilian lives had been lost in the bombing raids of the first half of 1945, which included 100,000 deaths in one night in Tokyo, than both the atom bombs combined. Yet unconditional surrender, which any other power by this point would have considered a necessity, was unthinkable to the war cabinet and indeed much of the Japanese population. Imperial Japan abided by an inveterate military code called ‘Bushido’, literally ‘the way of the warrior’, which represented the fighting spirit of the nation. The Japanese propaganda vehicle indoctrinated its people to believe that they had an edge over the American war effort as bushido inspired soldiers to die for the emperor, whereas Americans shied away from such self-sacrifice. After the Battle of Attu in 1943, the 2000 Japanese soldiers that died became integrated into a kind of national epic which characterised the true example of patriotism. Before the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the largest naval battle in history in which Japan suffered 12,000 casualties, hawks in the Japanese War Cabinet prevailed to engage the US fleet with the argument that their navy would ‘bloom as the flowers of death’. It was the impetus behind the suicide attacks of Okinawa that killed over 3,800 kamikaze pilots, and the pervasive significance to the Japanese populace of this concept is best articulated by Captain Motoharu Okamura, who commented that ‘there were so many volunteers for suicide missions’ that he referred to them as ‘a swarm of bees’, explaining: ‘bees die after they have stung.’ The average age of these pilots was as low as 19, and although reservations were certainly held in private, the key point is that Imperial Japan did not view the protection of human life as a sacral duty. That duty was best articulated in defiance at all costs. It was imposed unreservedly upon all under their sway.
A corollary of this national philosophy was the contempt for surrender. Since the height of cowardice was compromise as a negation of Bushido martyrdom, weakness of any kind before the enemy was the greatest disgrace. This standard was enforced upon every person in Japan. At Okinawa, civilians were recruited as soldiers as young as 10. Babies who cried before enemy forces were slaughtered. Colonel Borch, in his book Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946–1949, plausibly attributes the unparalleled brutality of Japanese treatment of POWs in South East Asia to this sentiment: ‘those who had surrendered to the Japanese—regardless of how courageously or honourably they had fought—merited nothing but contempt; they had forfeited all honour and literally deserved nothing’. Indeed, throughout the war, ritual suicide was preferred and routinely employed. At the Battle of Iwo Jima in Feb-March 1945, only 216 Japanese men were taken prisoner, as many killed themselves before being captured. In July 1944 at Saipan, 4000 soldiers knowingly charged to their deaths following the last orders of their commander Yoshisugu Saito who had called for this all-out surprise attack in the honour of the emperor before committing ritual suicide. American troops even report watching women jumping off cliffs with their children rather than submitting to seizure. Even by mid 1945, when Japan was effectively finished as a war making nation, the official imperial message was ‘The sooner the Americans come, the better. One hundred million die proudly’. Not surrendering was more important than survival, not to facilitate any possible victory, but as a matter of Japanese culture. No civilisation since Sparta has had such a disregard for the inherent value of its own human life.
The idea therefore that Japan would have surrendered if continually bombarded by ‘conventional’ military techniques- invasion, aerial bombing, siege- is a fantasy. There is a famous story of a Japanese intelligence officer called Hiroo Onoda who, after the war had ended, spent 29 years hiding in the Philippines until his former commander travelled there to formally relieve him of his duty in 1974. He and his men regarded all news informing them of the reality that Japan had surrendered as false. He had been given a dagger in 1944 by his mother to kill himself if captured, and simply could not believe that a nation in which this psychology was so ingrained could have actually reneged on their commitments. Given this attitude, the Americans understandably considered Operation Downfall to be a plan of total and utter destruction, not for themselves, but for the Japanese people. Stimson believed it would ‘cast the die of last-ditch resistance’. He argued to President Truman that the Japanese knew no limits: ‘Once started in actual invasion, we shall in my opinion have to go through with an even more bitter finish fight than in Germany. We shall incur the losses incident to such a war and we shall have to leave the Japanese islands even more thoroughly destroyed than was the case with Germany’. The War Cabinet estimated that four months of fighting would cost the Japanese three million lives. It is easy to see why they thought the Japanese would be willing to make such sacrifices. Conventional warfare had not dampened their resolve throughout the utter destruction of 67 cities in 1945. There was truly no dividing line between civilian and soldier. This was total war, in which children fought, women and elderly worked in infrastructure and factories dedicated to sustaining the war effort, and lived and died by the same military code as formal military personnel. This was a war which would not end, in their eyes, before the total destruction of the state of Japan.
Even amidst this, it is possible to argue that the atom bombs needn’t have actually been dropped to force a surrender. There were some for instance in the US scientific panel that advised Truman to send a recording to Japan of an atom bomb being dropped, as a scare tactic to warn them of what was coming should they continue fighting. Others may criticise the fact that at Potsdam, the atomic threat was never specifically mentioned. Rather the promise of ‘prompt and utter destruction’ was preferred as a veiled allusion to it. Some may say that the unconditional surrender extracted on August 10th 1945 was unnecessary, and the compromised surrender was worth the human preservation. All flounder. As late as the 6th June 1945, ‘The Fundamental Policy to Be Followed Henceforth in the Conduct of the War’, which stated that the Japanese people would fight to extinction rather than surrender, was adopted by the Big Six. The ‘surrender’ which they were thus willing to provide was no surrender at all, but rather an armistice to rebuild and revive and, as America understandably feared, relaunch its war effort. The Nazi example, of using the Versailles treaty as the stimulus to a long-term imperial strategy, may well have been in mind. It was right for the US to seek an arrangement that may transform the imperial tyranny, which had committed so many atrocities during its reign throughout China and South East Asia, and which had turned its country into a graveyard, into the constitutional democracy it became. A state that could relate peacefully to the rest of the world rather than perpetually strive for nationalistic ends.
The notion too that different warnings, either by displaying an atomic detonation or threatening it directly, may have brought about desired ends is also mythical. We know that Japan had conducted their own independent atomic bomb programmes to no avail, and thus the difficulty of making one was well understood. After the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, the Japanese military even doubted whether a bomb of atomic energy had actually been detonated, refusing to concede that the US had overcome the tremendous obstacles that had confounded their own efforts. On 7th August the Imperial Staff released a message saying that Hiroshima had been struck merely by a ‘new type of bomb’, and there were competing theories as to the nature of the explosion, the most prevalent being that it had been caused by a magnesium or liquid oxygen weapon. A mere statement about an atomic threat, or even depiction of one actualised, would have been dismissed as propaganda. Additionally, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, the Chief of the Naval General Staff, argued that even if the US had actually dropped an atom bomb, they could not have any more. This was a direct dismissal of the idea that Truman’s warning on the 6th August of a ‘rain of ruin from the air’ meant more atom bombs, but rather more conventional aerial raids. It was a proposal to keep going.
From this we can conclude that what mattered to the Japanese was not the loss of life per se, but rather the novelty of the weapon that caused it. What was required to force unconditional surrender from a state inured to all normal forms of warfare was something unknown that could cause real psychological shock. The shock had to be so great that their wartime code could no longer hold up. Indeed, even after the Nagasaki bomb, it is arguable that the Japanese hawks may well have still won the day if not for the Soviet invasion occurring contemporaneously. Even this twin calamity did not mollify the senior leadership of the Japanese army, who, with the support of the Minister of War, started to prepare the imposition of martial law on the nation to prevent anyone from attempting to make peace. It was only the intervention of Emperor Hirohito that stopped this from happening. It is clear that only both eventualities working in tandem- the dropping of both atom bombs and the Soviet invasion- could force the emperor’s hand. The bombs were an indispensable component.
All things considered; the morality of the atom bombs represents a kind of real-life trolley problem. One either decides to continually kill hundreds of thousands of one’s own people, and multiples more of the enemy, over many long months of brutal struggle, or roughly a hundred thousand in one go. Politically, one can choose to break down a state to a point of effective self-abnegation, or try and enforce positive reform. Between these two propositions there can be only one answer. Yet a further consideration has to be made. An atomic detonation does not exist in a vacuum. As recognised by Oppenheimer and the US establishment, it launches a world into a new era of apocalyptic possibilities. Even if it saved many more lives than it killed in one era, it forever imperils so many more. Yet as ghastly as this reality is, it was inescapable at the time of the Manhattan Project. The Nazis had commenced a mercifully abortive nuclear project at the beginning of the war. If it had been successful, and there was no equivalent deterrent elsewhere, the world would have been staring down the barrel of a regime whose genocidal and imperial ambitions knew no bounds. Retrospectively, spies at Los Alamos of a Soviet regime that was obviously only a wartime ally vindicates the completion of the Project. Given the circumstances, it would be crude to reproach the creation of doomsday device.
If necessity is the mother of invention, an invention can also be the mother of necessity. The only conceivable benefit of atomic creation is that it has necessitated a new form of global cooperation. The price of war has never been higher. Yet the potential for mutually assured destruction is the only thing that can successfully bridge the fanatical ideological divisions which have always motivated the worst inter-state decisions. The Cold War never became hot because of, and only because of, that looming threat. Major powers are forced to see war as even more of a last resort than before. The idea of a reciprocal nuclear volley is unthinkable. So, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings can be defended. Thus a final ancient adage: 'Fiat justitia, ruat caelum'- 'let justice happen, and let the sky fall'. In this case, all too literally. The bombs were necessary evils. Yet as Stimson prophesized, the real work is to never realise that necessity again: ‘The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war. They also made it wholly clear that we must never have another war. This is the lesson man and leaders everywhere must learn, and I believe that when they learn it, they will find a way to lasting peace. There is no other choice.’