Heather Selheimer Professor Hodges

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Heather Selheimer
Professor Hodges
Honors 110-002
December 2011

Was the Dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima Just?

Almost seventy years later, the event that caused the Second World War to come to an abrupt end is still heavily debated. August 6, 1945, started out like every other ordinary day in the city of Hiroshima in Japan. By 8:20am, five minutes after “the American B-29 Enola Gay released an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima,” the city lay in smoky ruins and cries from the victims are heard through the air (Maddox 1) “The explosion caused an enormous physical destruction, killed at least seventy thousand outright, and wounded many thousands more” (1). To a little boy in Japan this day took away his family and placed him on a dismal path, where if he survives, there is a high chance that he will suffer from diseases due to the radiation, but there are higher chances that he was killed instantaneously after the explosion. While a little boy in America anxiously awaits his father’s arrival at home, because his father has been away fighting the war in the Pacific. The dropping of the first atomic bomb has been debated from many perspectives, but the root of this debate stems from the question of whether or not dropping an atomic bomb was just.

Many of these debates can be grouped into two categories: those who fully supported Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb and those who decry the decision and believe that other alternatives should have been discussed and that the atomic bomb was not necessary. Those who decry the decision also argue that the decision failed to meet the discrimination and proportionality terms set forth in the Just War Theory, “[which] is based on the notion that a nation’s action in war is legitimate when it serves morally legitimate purposes,” specifically jus in bello (Amstutz 110). By examining the actions that the Truman administration partook in and breaking down the different perspectives surrounding the decision to drop the atomic bomb, there is evidence that dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima was in fact just and the Truman administration made a decision that was in the midst of a complicated and complex time period in history that would be faced with controversy no matter what decision they pursued.

Although there is evidence that supports both sides of the argument, I feel that the dropping of the first atomic bomb was just a just and reasonable decision, because when the Truman administration made the decision, the information that they had available to them and the reason to use the bomb adheres to the Just War Theory. Through examining only the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, I am able to focus on the first atomic weapon that was ever used, which allows me to include the uncertainty that came with using a new weapon in warfare. Even though there were two atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, the second being on Nagasaki on August 9, my analysis focuses only on the decision of the first atomic bomb. Through my analysis that the first atomic bomb was just and reasonable, I am hoping that it will be able to be used as a guide for understanding the usage of atomic weapons in the future and that the consequences of dropping the first atomic bomb will help us decide whether the usage of other atomic weapons is necessary.

After examining some background information regarding the war in the Pacific and exploring the events that led up to August 6, I will go more in-depth on the different perspectives surrounding the decision to drop the atomic bomb. The first perspective that I will explore is the militaristic viewpoints and the strategy that was associated with dropping the atomic bomb. Within the military perspective, there is a spectrum of viewpoints that support the decision versus decrying the decision. Some historian strongly support the idea that the atomic bomb was a necessary component of the military strategy to quickly end the war and others believe that other military strategies would have ended the war just as quick and with fewer casualties. At the same time, there was a political side of the decision that largely encompassed relations with the Soviet Union. This perspective ties in with a couple military strategies from some viewpoints, but others use a political race between the Soviet Union and the United States as one of the main reasons that the decision to drop the atomic bomb was unjust. The last main perspective is the ethical perspective that dropping the atomic bomb on a city that has thousands of innocent civilians was unjust and classifies the United States in the same category as Nazi Germany (Winnacker 26). However, it is within this perspective that historians have argued that the damage the bomb would cause was unknown and that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese would have done the same thing if they had an atomic bomb in their possession. After presenting all of my perspectives both for and against my claim, I will revisit my claim as I present my conclusion to my research.

In order to make a claim whether or not the bombing was just, we have to look at the facts and situations that led up to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6. When one is questioned about a decision that they made, they often recite the facts and situations that weighed in on their decision. Our nation’s leaders have to do the same thing when faced with a decision; President Truman had to make the decision with all other situations, facts, and options in front of him and try to make the decision that is best for the nation as a whole.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1945, “the conventional attacks launched by U.S. bombers against Japan in…were almost as large as the Hiroshima bombing; they often caused more damage” (Wilson 167). Fleets of bombers would release hundreds of fire bombs upon a city at a time and Japanese cities would burn to the ground because the buildings were all made of highly flammable material (167). The devastation that the fire-storm raids caused was evident “on March 9, [when] 334 B-29’s carried out their devastating fire-storm raid against Tokyo, killing perhaps 100,000 civilians and destroying 250,000 homes, leaving over a million people homeless…American planes would destroy a total of 66 Japanese cities, exacting a horrendous death toll” (Winters 74). At this point, the Japanese air force and navy had been reduced to almost nothing; the air force was made up purely of suicide missions by this point because of the devastation that it had encountered at the Battle of Philippine Sea. This battle along with the battle in the Leyte Gulf in the fall of 1944 was the decisive turning points for the United States in dominating the sea and air in the Pacific. After this point, the three more major battles were fought in the Pacific, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, which all ended in American favor, but the casualty rate, was extremely high for both sides and the United States were starting to grasp the determination of the Japanese to not suffer the same humiliation and defeat that Germany did. In the spring of 1945, the Japanese government “passed the ‘Voluntary Soldier Duty’ law, drafting into military service all males between the ages of 15 and 60, and able-bodied women between the ages of 17 and 40. These newly enrolled civilian fighting forces totaled approximately 32,000,000 citizens” (94). At the same time, by April 1945, Ketsu-Go was initiated by the Japanese government and set into action. Ketsu-Go committed nearly 2.9 million soldiers, 292,000 horses, and 27,500 motor vehicles in the defense of Japan (Frank 85). While at the same time “ordered soldiers to abandon the wounded, not to retreat, to be prepared to fight even with their bare hands, and not to hesitate to kill Japanese residents, women, elderly, and children, who might be used as a shield for the approaching enemy” (Hasegawa 96). Since Americans had yet to step foot on Japanese soil, the Japanese government was attempting to build up its army so that they would be ready for any invasion that was planned. By late May 1945, a mere two and a half months before the Hiroshima bombing, the United States had a plan for the invasion of Japan, called Downfall, was issued. Within this plan for invasion there was two parts: Olympic, which was the plan to invade Kyushu on November 1, 1945; and Coronet, which was the plan to invade Tokoyo the following spring (Kort 123).

Throughout the summer of 1945, the Manhattan Project, which had been ongoing during the war, was almost finished and ready for testing. It was not until the end of July that an atomic bomb was ready for testing. On July 16, 1945, the Trinity test in Alamogordo, New Mexico succeeded in detonating a plutonium bomb with an unprecedented force of at least 18,000 tons of TNT (123). The news was delivered to President Truman at the Potsdam Conference, where he gave Japan the ultimatum of surrendering or facing “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and . . . the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.” This news was a trump card that President Truman held close to his chest. Secretary of State designate James F. Byrnes, however, was much more proactive in his advice, noting to the President that the new weapon “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war” (Costello 582). Unknown to the Japanese that the United States had the ability to cause mass destruction with the atomic bomb Prime Minister Suzuki rejected the Potsdam Declaration and urged the military to fight on, hoping that American losses in Okinawa and the prospect of even more casualties in a land invasion of Japan would convince the Americans to consider a ceasefire and more lenient terms for surrender (Hastings 471). It was at this point that the Truman administration decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

For a year before dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the United States continually turned up the ante when the Japanese did not submit to the terms of ‘unconditional surrender’. The United States started off with a simply naval and air blockade which then turned to fire-raids and bombings of cities. When neither of these elicited a response from the Japanese, Truman made the decision to use the atomic bomb. However, many historians criticize Truman on this decision. Historian J. Samuel Walker in Prompt and Utter Destruction asserts that had we simply continued with a combination of a naval blockade and aerial bombings of Japan, the Soviet invasion, and the softening of the U.S. insistence on unconditional surrender may have goaded the Japanese to surrender without the U.S. having to invade or drop the atomic bomb (89-90). At the same time, other historian such as Skates and Wainstock take a much harsher tone in support of different military strategies. Skates believed that since Japan was already defeated by May 1945, considering that the Imperial Navy served no greater a force than a typical coast guard authority and American planes effectively controlled Japanese skies, a softening of the unconditional surrender demand would have ended the war sooner, thus averting the atomic bombing.(252) While Wainstock, in The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb, wrote that the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender with Germany and Japan “was a policy of revenge,” which negatively impacted American self-interest in the long run. Wainstock argues that had the U.S. pursued a negotiated peace with Japan, allowing for retention of the Emperor, for example, Japan would have surrendered in the spring or early summer of 1945, if not sooner (131). All three of these historians strongly argue that with the continuation of a naval blockade, air raids, and leniency of terms that the Japanese would have surrendered. At the same time, historian Francis Winters acknowledges that historians who disagree with the decision often argue that the usage of the atomic bomb could have been avoided if Truman decided to pursue a different path such as:

“ (1) a non-combat demonstration of the power of the bomb; (2) guaranteeing in advance of the bombings the continued legitimacy of an imperial role in Japanese society and governance; (3) pursuing “peace feelers” being explored between Japanese cabinet members and the Japanese ambassadors in Moscow, who was being urged by the Japanese war cabinet to arrange an Ill-defined meeting between Soviet entry into the war; or (4) continuing the ongoing strategy of “conventional” (that is, non-atomic) bombing of Japanese targets, including cities, and blockading all ports that might receive supplies urgently required to sustain civilian life.” (Winters 186)

However, he quotes Russell Brines, a press reporter who was imprisoned by the Japanese in Manila and later in Shanghai, on his observation of the Japanese mentality.

“‘We will fight,’ the Japanese say, ‘until we eat stones!’ The phrase is old; now revived and ground deeply into the Japanese consciousness by propagandists skilled in marshaling their sheeplike people…[It] means they will continue the war until every man (perhaps every woman and child) lies face downward on the battlefield. Thousands of Japanese, maybe hundreds of thousands, accept it literally. To ignore this suicide complex would be as dangerous as our pre-war oversight of Japanese determination and cunning which made Pearl Harbor possible…American fighting men back from the front have been trying to tell America this is a war of extermination.’ ” (193)

Winters focuses on the idea that even if we did give Japan more lenient terms or if we did not drop the atomic bomb and tried an alternative solution, the Japanese would have continued to fight until they won or they were all dead. Winters was not the only historian to express this idea that the Japanese would have continued to fight until they won. Karl T. Compton, a member of Interim Committee, in a December 1946 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, wrote that in an interrogation of a Japanese military officer a week after Japanese capitulation, the officer stated that: “‘We would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated,’ by which he meant that they would not have been disgraced by surrender.” Even ranked military officials such as General Marshall concurred that “air power alone was not sufficient enough to put the Japanese out of the war considering that air power by itself was unable to force Germany to surrender” (Bernstein and Matusow 8). Thus it was believed that the war may end “in one or two violent shocks,” which would give Japan “an excuse which would save their honor and release them from their obligation of being killed to the last fighting man” (Churchill 638-39).

It was also thought that once the Soviet Union entered the war, Japan would surrender because it looked to the Soviet Union to mediate terms between them and the United States. This enters the political perspective that historians debate when it comes to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Some historians believe that if the United States had waited for the Soviet Union to enter the war, then Japan would have surrendered instead of trying to fight a war on two fronts. While others believe that the Truman administration dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to “impress” the Soviet Union and gain precedent diplomacy in Asia. Had the United States waited for the Soviet Union to enter the war and allowed them to have a part in eliciting a surrender from Japan, the United States would not have been able to claim sole responsibility for ending the war in the Pacific and would have to share the terms of the treaty and divisions with the Soviet Union similar to what occurred in Europe. Historians have argued that dropping the atomic bomb became subsumed under the overarching goal of “impressing” the Russians by a demonstration of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, thereby making the Russian more “manageable” in Europe (Alperovitz 290). This idea is also prominent in Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s argument that the Soviet Union and the U.S. were in a “race” to determine who would have paramount influence in post-war Asia (135-36). Although from a political perspective it can be argued that the U.S. was in a race with the Soviet Union to gain influence in Asia, the U.S. had been in a technological race with the rest of the world to develop an atomic bomb.

During the beginning of World War II, the Manhattan Project was originally created to produce an atomic bomb to be used on Germany. At the time, it was thought that the Germans were also attempting to manufacture an atomic bomb to use against us. However, it was not until after the Manhattan Project had started that we were given news that the Germans had given up on constructing an atomic bomb. By that time Germany had surrendered and the new target was turned to Japan. After “the United States had spent $2 billion building it, had dedicated the work of hundreds of their best scientists to it, and even before it was tested, had invested in it with a sense of looming power,” it was tested in the end of July 1945 (Wilson 167). The successful test of the atomic bomb was the spark of a debate that would never die out; was it ethical to use the atomic bomb? It was known that the Japanese was attempting to also build an atomic bomb and was being headed by Dr. Yoshio Nishina, and was argued that if they were able to bomb Pearl Harbor without any warning or reason, then they would have surely used such weapons had they possessed it (Roehrs and Renzi 246). Yet many historians have argued that we should have given a demonstration so that the Japanese would know what to expect. The Franck Report urged that the U.S. demonstrate the use of the bomb for all others to witness on an uninhibited location and then only after a warning is given should the U.S., under United Nations authority, use the atomic bomb against Japan (Frank 259-60). Although there is the argument that the U.S. could have given a demonstration, it was largely agreed upon by the administration and the scientific panel headed by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, which was advising the Interim Committee, who reviewed the Franck Report’s recommendations and, on June 16, 1945, “reported its members did not believe ‘a technical demonstration’ would have the necessary effect on Japan and that therefore ‘we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use’” (Kort 51-52). A demonstration was also not recommended because if the atomic bomb ended up not working during the demonstration, then Japan would not take the threat seriously. Not only did the scientific panel believe that a demonstration was not necessary, but they provided Truman with no reason why he should not use the bomb on Hiroshima since “the scientists expected there to be few problems from residual radioactivity. As the official Manhattan Project assessment of those effects, dated 12 August 1945 (after both bombing but before the end of the war), put it:

No lingering toxic effects are expected in the area over which the Bomb has been used. The bomb is detonated in combat at such a height above the ground as to give the maximum blast effect against structures and to disseminate the radioactive products as a cloud. On account of the height of the explosion, practically all of the radioactive products are carried upward as a column of hot air and dispersed harmlessly over a wide area.” (Gordin 53)

When President Truman made the decision, he knew that the initial blast would kill many of the civilians of Hiroshima, but he did not know the after effects that the atomic bomb would cause for decades to come.

There is one underlying argument that always comes up in a historians debate supporting the usage of the atomic bomb: the atomic bomb saved thousands of lives. For instance, in reply to a letter from a University of Chicago professor requesting information as to the circumstances under which the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb, President Truman ended his response by summarizing the arguments for the decision he made, noting that “dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives, and gave the free nations a chance to face the facts” (Merrill 526). Following the war, this was the prevailing viewpoint and the way that the Truman administration justified it to the American people. It was Admiral Leahy’s comment that casualties in an invasion of Kyushu and Tokyo would be on par with Okinawa, which elicited President Truman’s “horror at the possibility that an invasion would amount to another Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other” (Ferrell 5). This thought weighted heavily on Truman as he made the decision to use the atomic bomb “with the purpose of economizing to the maximum extent possible in the loss of American lives” (Bernstein and Matusow 5).

All of this leads back to the question of whether dropping the atomic bomb was just. After exploring all of the perspectives, we are able to determine whether the decision adheres to the rules set forth in the Just War Theory. In Just War, General Lord Guthrie and Sir Michael Quinlan state that the discrimination criterion:

. . . means that in our conduct of the war we must not deliberately attack the innocent. In this formulation ‘innocent’ means . . . ‘not involved in harming us, or helping to harm us’. . . . By ‘deliberate attack’ is meant attack in which the harm to the innocent is the direct aim of the attack, or essential to achieving its purpose. (14)

Thus, a nation cannot deliberately attack and harm non-combatants during war, non-combatant casualty is only okay if it is the by-product of an attack and not intended. Also, the discrimination criterion requires that the non-combatant casualty be as minimal as possible. The second part of jus in bello, is the proportionality criterion, which states that the soldier has to assess whether his actions are worth the price of incurring non-combatant casualties (14). When deciding if the decision was just we have to take into account all of the perspectives that historians have argued and decide if Truman’s decision followed the proportionality and discrimination criterion. When focusing on the proportionality criterion, it is safe to say that Truman had no intention of trying to kill as many Japanese as possible; he simply wanted to “shock” the Japanese so that they would concede to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. When comparing the number of casualties that were incurred from the fire-bombings and the number of people that would have died if an invasion was attempted, it is logical to say that the number of casualties from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is proportionate. Although the after effects were horrendous and unleashed horrors that were unknown, when Truman had to make this complicated decision and weighed the casualty numbers, it fulfilled all of the requirements need to satisfy the proportionality criteria of the Just War Theory. At the same time, it also meets the requirements set by the discrimination criteria that non-combatants should be an unwelcome by-product and unintended part of action. Hiroshima was “the highest density of servicemen to civilians among Japan’s large urban areas,” housed the headquarters of Japan’s Fifth Division, and had many factories that provided war goods for the military (Frank 263). Among the civilians in Hiroshima, many of them were workers who worked in the factories that made war goods, and in war time, these civilians are acceptable targets and not included in the non-combatant category. Thus, the decision that President Truman made encompasses all of the requirements to be considered just by the Just War Theory.

Those who decry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb, focus on the after effects that occurred from the radiation and the devastation that the atomic bomb brought with it. However, when Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bomb, no one knew that the horrors of the world would be unleashed upon Japan, and decades later the country would still be recovering from the radiation was released. Truman took the weight of the world upon his shoulders when he was given the decision to utilize the atomic bomb upon Japan or not, and it was not without great deliberation that he decided to use the atomic bomb. Through the usage of the first atomic bomb, Truman set the tone for atomic diplomacy for years to come.

Works Cited

Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam : the Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power. Boulder, CO: Pluto, 1994. Print.

Amstutz, Mark R. International Ethics: Concepts, Theories, and Cases in Global Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Print.

Bernstein, Barton J., and Allen J. Matusow. The Truman Administration; a Documentary History,. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Print.

Churchill, Winston. Triumph and Tragedy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1953. Print.

Compton, Karl T. 1946. If the atomic bomb had not been used. Atlantic Monthly, December. Reprinted in Robert H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the bomb: A documentary history (Worland, WY: High Plains Publishing Company, Inc., 1996).

Costello, John. The Pacific War. New York: Rawson, Wade, 1981. Print.

Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman and the Bomb: a Documentary History. Worland, WY: High Plains Pub., 1996. Print.

Frank, Richard B. Downfall: the End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Gordin, Michael D. Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

Guthrie, Charles, and Michael Quinlan. Just War: the Just War Tradition : Ethics in Modern Warfare. New York: Walker &, 2007. Print.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2005. Print.

Hastings, Max, and Max Hastings. Retribution: the Battle for Japan, 1944-45. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Kort, Michael. The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. Print.

Maddox, Robert James. Weapons for Victory: the Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1995. Print.

Merrill, Dennis. Documentary History of the Truman Presidency. [Bethesda, MD]: University Publications of America, 1995. Print.

Roehrs, Mark D., and William A. Renzi. World War II in the Pacific. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004. Print.

Skates, John Ray. The Invasion of Japan: Alternative to the Bomb. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1994. Print.

Wainstock, Dennis. The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996. Print.

Walker, J. Samuel. Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1997. Print.

Wilson, Ward. "The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima. "International Security 31.4 (2007): 162-79. JSTOR. Web. 28 Sept. 2011.

Winnacker, Rudolph A. "The Debate About Hiroshima." Military Affairs 11.1 (1947): 25-30. JSTOR. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.

Winters, Francis X. Remembering Hiroshima: Was It Just ? Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

Works Consulted

Byrnes, James F. All in One Lifetime. New York: Harper, 1958. Print.

Feis, Herbert. The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966. Print.

Levine, Alan J. The Pacific War: Japan versus the Allies. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995. Print.

Malloy, Sean L. Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. Print.

McCullough, David G. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.

Miles, Rufus E. "Hiroshima: The Strange Myth of Half a Million American Lives Saved. "International Security 10.2 (1985): 121-40. JSTOR. Web. 5 Oct. 2011.

Morton, Louis. “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” Foreign Affairs 35.2 (1957): 334-53. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

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