At 8:15 AM on August 6th 1945, the United States detonated the world’s first nuclear weapon in a war scenario when they dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. Three days later they detonated the second and only other, “Fat Man”, on Nagasaki. Previous tests were performed at a desert military facility in New Mexico to perfect the bomb’s destructive capability until the day when it would be ready and needed for use in World War II. Many leading scientists and physicists of the day were involved in the production of the atomic bomb, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer who famously recited, “I am become death.” after creating the bomb. Despite their hard work to develop atomic weaponry, most of these men never wanted to see the day when their device of death would ever be used. They did. How this day came to be, and how justified the dropping of the bomb was, are questions that still divide opinions today.
In accordance with most religious views, Christian teachings (of which I’m more familiar with coming from a predominantly Catholic family and attending Catholic schools for 18 years) are used to help determine whether actions are just or not, and nonviolence and then just war are used in regard to war scenarios. When nonviolence fails to resolve the problem, Just War Theory – “legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice” – is followed.
Many people support the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan and feel that they were necessary and moral actions. The main argument for this position is that dropping the bombs caused Japan to surrender, thus bringing an end to the war. Most importantly of all, it ended the war without requiring American ground and naval troops to invade Japan. Had this been the action taken instead, then more American soldiers would have died; how many would die we will never know, but invasions of the native land of a country at war typically prove to more bloody and grueling than battles on neutral sites or occupied territories. We have seen examples of this when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, as well as when America and Britain fought against the Nazis in Germany. Perhaps because of this earlier experience from the European war, as well as the generally greater intensity of the Pacific war, America opted to use the atomic bombs instead of risking more lives in a battle that would certainly be harder and may not be a successful venture for months, years, or at all.
The atomic bomb drops were not the first attacks the United States had made on mainland Japan. From February of 1945 until the atomic bombs were used, the USA fire-bombed many Japanese cities in an earlier effort to force Japan to surrender. Fire-bombing is just what it sounds like and its effects have been described as horrific. One American military official compared the early fire-bombing raids to the atomic bombs saying, “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” (Selden 1990). According to this account, the practice of fire-bombing was less humane than the use of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, nuclear weapons proved to be a much more effective method of bringing about Japan’s surrender than fire-bombing which had been unsuccessful in doing this for six months. This fulfills the Just War Theory criteria of Probability of Success which states: arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success. The chance for success in achieving Japan’s surrender was much higher with the atomic bombs than it was with the fire-bombs, and most likely would have been higher than an American land invasion’s chances.
At the time of the war, Japan’s leaders had instilled a fear of Americans in their citizens through propaganda in an attempt to rally non-combative Japanese residents to their cause. In some cases, this irrational fear was used to make Japanese civilians more aggressive towards Americans to the point where they would attack any US troops who came through their town. If civilians act in such a way then it can be said that they are more like soldiers than innocent bystanders, thus attacks on them, or attacks that harm or kill them along with military targets are justified because they are behaving more like soldiers than civilians.
It may not be a strong argument supporting the dropping of the bombs, but the ignorance of the terrible effects of their radiation should be taken into account. Had President Truman known that the aftermath would be worse than the explosions then he would have reconsidered sending in the troops. Instead, he and his advisors made what they felt to be the best decision given the known circumstances. One of the main reasons for their decision is the final point of Just War Theory: Last Resort, which states: force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted. During the fire-bombing raids, the United States, as well as Britain and China, demanded that Japan surrender. The Japanese government refused several times and the US was left with no choice but to demonstrate the power of their arsenal because a diplomatic solution could not be worked out.
Finally, perhaps the US was afraid of the potential technological advancements of the Japanese. How could we be sure that we were the only one with nuclear weapons? The US started its research into nuclear weapons after Albert Einstein urged President Franklin Roosevelt to do so because the Nazis had begun nuclear research. Even if Japan did not develop these weapons, perhaps Germany did and had given some to Japan before surrendering in Europe. We know now that Japan did not yet have nuclear weapons, but the US leaders at the time probably felt that even just the slightest chance that Japan did justified the urgency to use the bombs when we did – a “bomb him today so he doesn’t bomb you tomorrow” precautionary measure.
Despite these reasons, not everyone agrees with the decision to use nuclear weapons to try to end the war with Japan. The most apparent evidence supporting the argument that dropping the bombs was immoral is the aftermath of the explosions, both immediately after and many years later. Hiroshima lost 90,000 – 160,000 people, while Nagasaki lost 60,000 – 80,000 of its people; about half of each cities victims died in the explosion, while the rest died slower, more painful deaths from radiation poisoning or burns. Because the US had not conducted thorough research on the post-detonation effects of the atomic bomb they were not aware that its deadliest aspect was the radiation it released upon its dropzone. Many people died because the US did not know its own weapons’ destructive power. Most of these people were civilians too, for neither city had a heavy military presence. This violates Just War Theory’s Noncombatant Immunity, which states: civilians may not be the object of direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians. Obviously, there was little or no care taken to reduce the risk to civilians, especially considering most of the risks were unknown. This also violates Proportionality, which says: in the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property. Again, the bombs were dropped on large cities with a much higher percentage of civilians than military personnel, and considering they destroy almost everything in sight it becomes clear that little to no effort was made to prevent civilians from being involved. Furthermore, because the bombs annihilated the cities the urging of “just enough force” apparently was ignored.
The US was not even involved in WWII until December 7th 1941 when the Japanese navy attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. After this unprovoked attack, the US launched a counterattack bombing raid over Tokyo, but it could not offset the emotional sting from the surprise attack in Hawaii. The detonation of a pair of atomic bombs could deliver such a blow, though, and would demoralize Japan even more than they demoralized us. However, the circumstances are not the same: Pearl Harbor was a military base and few to no civilians were harmed or even involved in that attack. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were mostly occupied by civilians, and exacting revenge violates Right Intention which states: even in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice, so that acts of vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units or governments, are forbidden.
By dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, the US certainly ensured that Japan suffered more, bringing up issues with Comparative Justice: to override the presumption against the use of force the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other, and again Proportionality: the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved. Did almost immediately ending the war outweigh all of the expected negative effects of the bombs? Perhaps not considering the bombs would not have been necessary at all if a diplomatic solution could have been reached. Japan had refused previous demands of surrender, but who is to say further insisting would have been a failure? It might have seemed unlikely at the time because of the strong will of the Japanese Empire which proudly declared it would never surrender when the war began; nevertheless, the tide of the war was rapidly shifting in favor of the Allies who had recently defeated Germany and ended the European war. Perhaps if Japan realized it could not repel the inevitable Allied attack and would lose the Pacific war, then maybe its leaders would adhere to Just War Theory’s Probability of Success and surrender. Allied diplomats may have been able to show Japan that continuing the war was a futile cause and convince the country to surrender. Nonetheless, the time they needed to attempt to achieve this goal was cut short by the atomic bombs.
Personally I feel that the dropping of the atomic bombs was necessary to bring about the swiftest end to World War II, but that targeting the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immoral and unnecessary, at least as the initial targets. The United States had been fighting Japan and other nations since entering the war in late 1941, and some of the other Allied nations had been fighting in the war years before us. By 1945 everyone was ready for the war to be over, and it looked like it would be after the defeat of the Nazis who initiated the whole conflict. However, Japan still remained resilient and refused to give up, even as the US and fellow Allies advanced more rapidly towards the mainland of Japan. After years of the fiercest fighting US troops had yet encountered, Japan’s stubbornness to accept inevitable defeat called for some more efficient method of ending the war. The gradual advance of troops was succeeding, but at heavy costs for the Allies, especially the US. It does not seem unreasonable then that the US would decide to employ nuclear weapons. While there was still much unknown about the bombs’ destructive power, especially it radioactive aftermath, one thing was very clear: the atomic bomb was unlike any other weapon ever used before as it would almost completely destroy its target in an instant. It was a quick fix. From the American standpoint it made sense because Japan could be coaxed into surrender without needing to send wave after wave of American soldiers into battle, knowing that many of them would be killed and not knowing when they would finally succeed, or if they would at all. These factors combined with the worries of what Japan might do if allowed more time to act (keep in mind we did not know if they had similar weapons or not) made American action immediately necessary. We had a tool which would almost certainly force the Japanese to surrender without having to lose another America life. From an American standpoint it is a no-brainer. The atomic bomb was the best card we could play at that point in the war.
Nevertheless, I feel that dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not moral or necessary because they were non-military targets and had large populations of civilians. The film White Flash Black Rain shows that many of the survivors (and victims) of the explosions were children who were left orphaned and alone by the blasts. Furthermore, those few who did survive were disfigured and usually suffered ill effects from the radiation. The US did not know about these harmful effects, of course, but they did know about the civilian populations of the cities. What I believe the US should have done is drop the first bomb away from any civilized town, such as in the mountains or ocean (I know this still would have caused bad radioactive effects, but the degree to which humans would be harmed would have been less, and no one would have died in the explosion itself) so that Japan could have seen the awesome power of the weapon without suffering any civilian deaths. After this bomb, President Truman could have said the next target is a military base unless Japan immediately surrenders. If they still refused, the US could bomb one of the military bases and continued this trend (so as to keep within Just War criteria) until Japan surrendered. This would fulfill Last Resort by giving Japan the last opportunity to end the war and by only acting when there would be no other choice
Fandel, Jennifer. The Atomic Bomb: What in the World? The Creative Company, 2007.
Selden, Kyoko. The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. M.E. Sharpe, 1990.
Sullivan, Edward T. The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb. Holiday House, 2007.