The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb



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One of the more pervasive notions espoused by Americans is that the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, though a regrettable cause of immense casualties and years of induced illnesses among survivors, was an inevitable military necessity. When pressed to justify the bombing, many assert that the only other route to victory would have been an invasion of the Japanese home islands, a difficult endeavor that some supporters of the bombing claim would have cost the lives of some 500,000 American soldiers (Alperovitz 7). In The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb, Gar Alperovitz attempts to refute the notion of inevitable military necessity. A defender of the decision to use the bomb might respond with the complaint that although ‘hindsight is 20/20’, those who actually made the decision were unaware of the unnecessary nature of a nuclear attack. Alperovitz also takes on this notion, showing that the most powerful policymakers in the United States government were in fact aware of the availability of alternatives. These historical assertions provoke the question of whether military necessity would in fact make the bombing morally permissible, and furthermore, the question of whether or not ignorance of the degree of necessity of dropping the bomb can serve as an exculpating condition. Prior to the exploration of each moral question, a brief summary of the relevant historical information will be presented.

Part A--Necessity—Relevant History


Following a string of American victories at Guadcanal, Midway, New Guinea, Marianas earlier in the war, the U.S. capture of Tinian, Guam, and Saipan (Taiwan) in the summer of 1944 facilitated the devastating bombing campaigns on Japan in late 1944, and the incendiary tragedy that befell Tokyo in March 1945. The fall of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 and the fall of the Tojo and Koiso governments to the moderate Suzuki government made even clearer that the Japan’s defeat would soon come. What is less commonly known is that the Japanese perceived their impending defeat. OSS (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA) and JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) reports indicate a sense of hopelessness among the Japanese populace. In the spring of 1945, the Japanese made numerous efforts to arrange surrender through backroom diplomatic channels in Sweden, through the Swedish Minister Bagge, through military attachés in Switzerland, and more prominently through their ambassador in Moscow, Naotake Sato. Intercepted internal Japanese government communications seen in War Department MAGIC reports (Alperovitz 23) and Japanese communications with diplomats and military attachés around the world indicate that the only thing impeding Japanese surrender was the Allied demand for unconditional surrender.
In Japan, demands for ‘unconditional surrender’ were taken as a threat that if the Allies were victorious, Emperor Hirohito would be dethroned and the deified imperial institution would be scrapped. Working on these assumptions, the Japanese were willing to “continue the war to the bitter end” (Alperovitz 418) if the safety and reign of the emperor were not ensured, even on August 13 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima. On the other hand, the ‘peace feelers’ sent out to the United States through Baage indicate that Japanese politicians understood that defeat was inevitable, and would surrender under the stipulation that “the Emperor must be maintained in his position after the capitulation” (Alperovitz 27). If these numerous communications and attempts at securing a slight modification in the surrender formula had not been intercepted by Allied Intelligence Services and circulated at the highest levels of government, one might still defend the bombing on the grounds that the ‘modification of surrender terms’ alternative was not viable because there was no way that the Allies could actually realize this alternative and use it as a vehicle for peace. However, the sad fact is that those in power in the United States were aware of this information because of the MAGIC interceptions. Members of the JIC noted that without imperial assurances, the Japanese would fight to the death. Moreover, top officials in the Truman Administration, such as Assistant Secretary of State John J. McCloy, called for modifying the Potsdam proclamation to Japan to clarify that the United States would allow “Japan …to exist as ..a viable nation…would permit …the retention of the Mikado[Emperor]” (Alperovitz 69).
Such recommendations were initially included in the draft of the Potsdam proclamation, approved by Secretary of War Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, as well as by McCloy, and later excised by President Truman, probably at the urging of his Secretary of State, James Byrnes. Those who object that the retention of the emperor violated American democratic traditions and was politically unfeasible must account for the fact that imperial assurances similar to those excised from the Potsdam communication were ultimately accepted as conditions of Japanese surrender. Moreover, the impending entry of Russia into the war offered another route to Japanese capitulation.
Intercepted Japanese communications (MAGIC) indicate that Japanese military leaders saw the possibility of war with Russia as catastrophic, and numerous efforts were made by Ambassador Sato in Moscow to clarify and refresh the Russo-Japanese relationship through Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov. These were rebuffed by clear indications of Russian Belligerency, such as the termination of the Russo-Japanese Neutrality Pact in April 1945 and the buildup of Soviet troops along the Japanese controlled Manchurian border. Like the modification of surrender terms option, this one was viable as a military strategy for the United States, as the January 1945 Yalta conference had already afforded secured a Soviet Promise to enter the Asian war 3 months from the end of the War in Europe, with Stalin clarifying an entry date of August 15th, 1945. That Truman continued to hold onto Soviet involvement as a secure alternative, just in case the July 16th tests of the atom bomb at Alamagordo failed, indicates that the ‘Russian Option’ was a viable alternative, one that could actually be realized because the top policy makers in the United States had abundant indications that such a strategy could end the war. Even if either strategy alone was insufficient to ensure Japanese capitulation, the ‘two-step’ plan advocated by the OSS (Alperovitz 123) and others, calling for Russian entry into the war followed by a clarification/modification of surrender terms, offered yet another alternative route to Japan’s surrender, aside from that of nuclear attack or an invasion of the home islands. Even if one posits that such alternatives were necessary but insufficient conditions for Japanese surrender, one has to acknowledge the alternative advocated by Chief of Staff Marshall and a plurality of those Manhattan Project Scientists working at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, a “military ‘demonstration’ [of the atom bomb] followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapons is employed [against a large, inhabited urban center].” (Alperovitz 189) Although Alperovitz is noncommittal as to the explanation for why the bomb was used in spite of the availability of more human alternatives, the evidence he presents insinuates a Cold War Power Play.
As the European War drew to a close, the Truman Administration became increasingly frustrated with what it perceived as Soviet violations of those parts of the Yalta agreement that guaranteed democratic self-government for the liberated nations of Eastern Europe. The Administration was particularly concerned with Soviet puppet governments installed in Poland, Hungary, and Romania. It seems that the only senior Administration official opposed to the modification of surrender terms, Secretary of State James Byrnes, was opposed to capitulating to the Soviets on this matter, and in fact saw the atomic bomb as way to “make Russia more manageable in Europe” (Alperovitz 147), according to physicist Leo Szilard and the memoirs of Harry Truman himself. Although Alperovitz presents no definitive evidence that a desire to control Soviet Expansion motivated Truman in his decision, it is telling that after the Alamogordo test on July 16, Truman, attending the Potsdam conference with Churchill and Stalin at the time, became markedly more insistent and unrelenting in his postwar demands of the Soviets.

Part B--Necessity—Discussion of Relevant Moral Issues


To hone in on the moral implications of the Hiroshima bombing, the moral implications of different historical/factual implications will be explored. Thus, even though the preceding historical argument may indicate that the use of the atomic bomb was an unnecessary endeavor, to isolate the relevant moral principles and apply them in a useful manner, it is fruitful to examine how different degrees of necessity for the use of the bomb would move use of the bomb between the domains of moral permissibility and moral impermissibility.
Before accepting Alperovitz’s historical conclusions, let us delineate the different degrees of necessity that might accorded to the bombing by tacticians and students of history:

  1. The use of the bomb was absolutely necessary to end the war against the Japan.

  2. The use of the bomb was necessary to end the war against Japan, given the desire to do so and minimize the total number of casualties.

  3. The use of the bomb was necessary to end the war against Japan, given the desire to do so while minimizing the number of American casualties (soldiers vs. noncaombatans)

  4. The use of the bomb was simply unnecessary in ending the Great Asian War

    1. Although unnecessary in ending the war, the use of the bomb was a first step in the Cold War against (fix first step language) the Soviet Union, a necessary step in deterring the Soviets from extending their empire in a violent manner that would have led to even more deaths.

    2. The use of the bomb, though an effective deterrent against Soviet expansion, still led to a greater loss of life than some diplomatic alternative.

    3. The use of the bomb was necessary neither in ending the war with Japan or in deterring Soviet expansion in such a way as to minimize the total number of casualties of both conflicts.

Before focusing on whether or not killing some 90,000 Japanese civilians (Find some source for this number) was morally permissible given different assumptions on the necessity of the use of the bomb in ending the war, it is important to identify useful moral standards regarding when it is morally permissible for one human being to kill another.


Several general principles provide guidance in this matter. The first is in the flavor of Judith (reference Thomson somewhere here) Jarvis Thompson’s principle of self-defense, but is different on several accounts. In cases involving two individuals, the most superficially apparent principle is that in the absence of other prejudicial conditions, every individual has a right not be killed, tortured, or maimed as a result of the malicious intentions of another individual, intentions for which the former individual is blameless. Given a pair of otherwise identical persons, it seems reasonable to assert (admittedly in an axiomatic fashion) that the first to abrogate such a right of the other individual, himself loses that right. One deduces then, of course, that Individual A is then morally permitted to kill Individual B. Of course this provides no satisfaction to someone attempting to produce commonsensical moral standards, because if A is already dead, the permissibility of killing B is a moot point for A. So this standard cannot just apply in an instantaneous matter. Rather, if B appears to be on a malicious trajectory that will lead to A’s death, it seems reasonable to say that A can use projections about the impending future to justify actions taken in self-defense. The difficulty in such a formulation is that the grey area between death and not harming someone at all. Is the individual defending him or herself obligated to do the minimum harm to the attacker, or is any action taken in self-defense morally justifiable? Moreover, this principle does not easily generalize to the case of where one group of people is attacked by another, and questions not only of extent of harm arise, but also of the number of people who are harmed in any exchange of violence. The principles outlined above provide no guidance in these matters, so some other set of axioms is needed.
The theory of utilitarianism outlined by Bentham argues that in general (check that I have Bentham right here—maybe reference a quote) an action is morally permissible if it advances the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This paper is not about the general set of morally permissible actions, so to avoid the ancillary complications of definitions of greater good and the alternatives of preference utilitarianism, here we will use a moral principle in the spirit of utilitarianism, but one that focuses on the issues at hand. The first formulation proposed is the following. It is permissible to kill some number of people if in doing so, the lives of a greater number of people are saved. Although this seems compelling intuitive on compelling grounds, it is fraught with a difficulty very similar to the general difficulty of utilitarianism, that in certain cases it seems to justify egregious violations of rights that seem intuitively inalienable. One need look no further than the often cited example of the judge condemning an innocent man to death to quell a lynch mob disturbing the peace and safety of a town. It seems that on the grounds that saving the greater number of lives is the morally correct option, that such a condemnation would be morally permissible. But this just seems counterintuitive and wrong. This doesn’t accord with our common sense notion of morality (something we try to somehow reproduce in moral theories), that there are things you simply cannot do in the interests of the majority. Although Hitler’s war on European Jewry was driven by irrational prejudices and vicious lies, even if he had made a an argument that somehow genocide would better the lives of a greater number of Germans (or people worldwide), we would still reject his program of extermination in horror. An account of when it is permissible to kill others must somehow include the notion of some inalienable rights to account for common sense morality’s aversion to certain actions even if they were to serve the needs of the majority.
To provide both a sense of proportionality in self-defense and to prevent needless suffering, it seems that an account of when it is permissible to kill another person should be along the lines of the following.

  1. All things being equal, every people has a right not to be physically harmed by other people (try to figure out how to collectivize this---do a group of people have a right to self defense)

  2. If one person is deliberately causing a series of events that will otentially cause another individual to lose some right, the aggressor himself loses that right (see if this is too broad)

  3. An act is morally permissible if, given the circumstances and the choice of acts available, it is the action which produces the minimum amount of human suffering. And 1) and 2 are satisfying

This doctrine (make sure to work it out a little better) seems to meet our commonsense notion of morality that have leanings both towards some notion of the greater good but at the same time make certain actions utterly impermissible regardless of whether. So how do the alternative historical interpretations of the question of necessity fare under this standard? Under this standard, 1) doesn’t fare as well as it might seem upon superficial examination. In spite of the absolute necessity of the bombing to ending the war, in this situation ending the war itself does itself yield a morally desirable outcome. This may seem counterintuitive, but imagine a situation in which two countries are in a longstanding dispute over some piece of territory (India and Pakistan come to mind). Imagine, moreover, that the only thing that might bring one country to surrender to another country, the other being an aggressor perhaps, is the use of some weapon that utterly annihilates one of the two countries. Although the use of this weapon is necessary to the ending of the conflict, a genocidal end to the conflict is far more revulsive than a continuing war of attrition. In other words, there is no inherent moral ‘trump card’ in ending in the war. Given the historical facts, this does not seem to be the case World War II, where the alternatives of imperial retention, and Russian involvement in the war both could have ended the war. There was certainly no absolute necessity in using the bomb to end the war. In either case, consideration of this alternative provides useful, if perhaps obvious, moral guidance in modern conflicts. Under this standard, if (2) were true, use of the bomb would be morally permissible. So if the colloquially accepted interpretation of Hiroshima (now enshrined in American folklore blah blah) were true, the use of the bomb would in fact be morally principle, for this is exactly what conventional wisdom in fact holds, namely, that use of the bomb produced a net savings of lives. However, this historical explanation seems to be false in light of the evidence, for at least one of the remaining alternatives, a modification of surrender terms so as to be amenable to the emperor, would have certainly produced a lesser net loss of lives.


One historical interpretation that might be more morally tenable is (3). Perhaps, even if the use of the bomb was not the alternative that maximized net loss of life, it was the alternative that minimized the loss of American lives. By the proposed doctrine of permissible killing outlined above, the right to not be harmed of the victim is more paramount than that of the aggressor. If (3) were in fact the historical truth, use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima would have been permissible. So, if the commonly accepted platitude that the only alternative was a potentially disastrous invasion of the Japanese home islands was true, use of the atomic bomb would be true, but once again, historical evidence does not seem to support the facts of such an account. It seems that the use of the atomic bomb did not really produce a significant savings of lives on the American side, while also not being an alternative that minimized net human suffering.
In fact it seems that some formulation (4) is the correct historical interpretation of the events of the summer 1945. However, this does not necessarily move the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima into the realm of the immoral. If neither 4a or 4b hold, then neither the notion of net savings in lives or the doctrine of self-defense hold. So considering only the events outlined in Alperovitz’s historical account of the bombing of Hiroshima and the comparative suffering induced by each alternative, the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was utterly immoral. However, a broader historical account that met certain conditions might nudge the use of the atomic bomb back into the zone of moral permissibility. Imagine for example, that while the use of the atomic bomb was not a military necessity, that the subsequent deterrence of the Soviet Union prevented the onslaught of authoritarian regimes across the world and hence in the long run, produced a net savings in human suffering. Under the doctrine as presented, the United States would then have a license to use the atomic bomb. Although the issue of knowledge of moral consequences of an action such as the use of the atomic bomb will be subsequently discussed, one question to ask is if there was any way anyone could reasonably predict that use of the atomic bomb, ostensibly justified by self-defense, would produce a net savings of lives in the world.
Part C---Knowledge—Who knew what?

Aside from the MAGIC reports, OSS files, and the advice of luminaries like McCloy, Forrestal, Grew, and Stimson, Truman also had access to the advice of top brass in all branches of the military, most of whom urged both the use of alternatives paths to victory and some of whom actually voiced opposition to the use of the atomic bomb. For example, Admiral King and his staff felt that “that an invasion was never going to be …necessary’’ (Alperovitz 327). General Spaatz, chairman of the Army Air Force, went as far as to ask for written orders to deploy the bomb at Hiroshima out of misgivings he had about the necessity of its use. Moreover, Senators repeatedly urged the President to alter the surrender terms (Alperovitz 228). It seems inconceivable that Truman was not aware of the information that deemed the use of the atomic bomb morally impermissible, namely, that it wasn’t necessary to end the war against Japan, or even necessary to do so at the minimum cost to American lives. That Truman entertained and then rebuffed McCloy’s attempts at a clarification of surrender terms to Japan indicate with even greater certainty that he knew of the available alternatives to the atomic bomb. Not only was Truman aware of information regarding the necessity of atom bomb use, but also of the consequences of atom bomb use.


After Stimson informed Truman of the existence of the Manhattan Project in April 1945, he provided him with documentation that indicated that “we[the United States]…in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.” (Alperovitz 131) Moreover, after the successful test at Alamagordo in July 1945, official reports compiled by Manhattan Project Director Leslie Groves indicated that the atomic bomb generated “energy …in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT” (251), and an astonished officer indicated that “the sustained awesome roar…warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty” (Alperovitz 251). If Stimson’s primer to the bomb had left Truman with any doubts about its immense power and brutal consequences, such is a report is bound to have quelled them. The Manhattan Project Scientists, many of whom witnessed the test first hand, were certainly aware of the cataclysmic effects of a nuclear attack.
However, it seems that many of the scientists who developed the bomb were not fully aware that the desperation already faced by Japan, coupled with deft diplomacy, might facilitate an end to the war without the employment of their handywork. Although a few mavens like Leo Szilard were able to come to the conclusion that the use of the bomb was not necessary to win the war, it is probable that given the suppression of the MAGIC intercepts and OSS reports during for years after the war, that a large number of the scientists at Los Alamos and in Chicago shared Oppenheimer’s assessment that “invasion was inevitable because we [the scientists] had been told that.” (Alperovitz165). However, in the survey at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory already mentioned, 46% of the scientists advocated a military demonstration on Japanese soil, 26% advocated yet another demonstration on American soil, but with Japanese representatives present, and an immediate reiteration of the demand for Japanese surrender, and 19% of the scientists present pushed for even more restrained options (Alperovitz 189). In other words, even if the scientists were unaware of the diplomatic and military alternatives to the use of the bomb, the fact that the latter options were even choices on the survey indicates that the Chicago Scientists (and in all probability the Los Alamos Scientists) were aware of the existence of alternative uses of the atom bomb itself, uses that might also be effective in ending the war.

Part D---Knowledge—Moral Implications:

Let it be assumed, for the purposes of this part of our argument, that the use of the atomic bomb was both unnecessary and morally impermissible, on the historical and moral grounds outlined above. To say that some individual is morally blameworthy for that act still requires the additional information that the individual is morally responsible for that act. Then and only then can one can then meaningfully assign blame to individuals for the immoral act committed at Hiroshima. At first glance, it may seem that the only person responsible for the act is the ultimate decision maker at the top of the causal chain leading to the use of the bomb, that is, Harry Truman. However, one must confront this conclusion with the notion that at every moment until the bomb actually exploded, decisions were made. Consider, for example, the bombardier aboard the Enola Gay. If he and his compatriots aboard the aircraft simply refused to undertake the steps necessary to ensure that the bombing occur, the nuclear attack on Hiroshima would not have occurred. If mutiny occurred on a large scale in the military chain of command, the bombing would have simply been impossible. So, it is really inappropriate to speak of the decision to use the atomic bomb. An appropriate formulation concerns itself with the decisions to use the atomic bomb. This is not necessarily to say that everyone in the chain of command leading to the bombing of Hiroshima is morally responsible, but rather, to show that being exculpable for the use of the atomic bomb requires something other than simply being lower in the command chain than were the actual decision was made.


Even if the bombing of Hiroshima was unnecessary, perhaps even immoral, some might object that ‘hindsight is always 20-20’, and that it is unfair to expect those involved in the decision to use bomb to have had access to the relevant information that might have made them understand that the bombing was in fact unnecessary and immoral, and thus, that it is unfair to blame them. The truth of this assertion is contingent on two factors. First of all, did or could have those who made the use of the atomic bomb possible lack the knowledge to conclude that it was unnecessary and immoral? Furthermore, if they lacked such knowledge, does this sort of lack of knowledge effectively exculpate these individuals?
As a first step in discovering the circumstances under which ignorance exculpates, it is useful to consider Tom Nagel’s ‘principle of control’, which asserts that no one is morally responsible for something over which they have no control. For the duration of this paper, it will be assumed that there are situations in which an individual has control over his actions and their consequences. The question of free will be presupposed to have an answer either in line with one of the many compatibilist theories or in line with a libertarian account of the will. Nagel complains that the principle of control, while intuitively compelling, contradicts everyday notions of morality. As an example, he offers the drunk driving down a road in an automobile. The driver’s response time is impaired because of his drunken state, a state resulting from decisions and actions under his control. However, because there is no one on the road, he does not harm anyone. In such a case, he is not held morally responsible because there is nothing to hold him responsible for. Now, consider on the other hand, the case where a small child jumps into the path of the oncoming car and is killed, and coincidentally does so in just such a way that the drunk driver’s reaction time is inadequate to prevent the child’s death, whereas the sober driver’s reaction time is sufficient to prevent the child’s death.
It is common sense that we hold the drunk driver morally responsible for the death of the child in such a situation, in spite of the fact that the driver had no control over the behavior of the child. Nagel holds that this is a deep-seeded contradiction in our moral standards, and disavows the notion that the principle of control ought to be amended, but perhaps the principle can be fixed. This abuses the idea of control, however. Though the drunk driver does not control the behavior of the child, he does make a decision to drink, and furthermore, he makes a decision to drive. He does have control of actions causally upstream from the actual event for which we hold him responsible, and it seems reasonable to assert that this is the sort of control one ought to have in mind when one formulates a principle of control. If a thug kills the child before the child steps into the road, the driver of the car is absolved of responsibility because he simply has no control over any step in the causal chain leading to the death of the child. This intuitively compelling, but still does not go far enough. Consider the following hypothetical situation:
Erik turns the light on in his room every time he enters it. An environmentally responsible man, he also makes sure to turn of his light switch every time he leaves the room room. Now imagine that in the soundproof room in his basement, a family of 12 is restrained in devices that will fatally electrocute one member of the family every time Erik turns the light switch off or on. Finally, assume that there is no way for Erik to find out about this.
Everyday, Erik’s actions are the causal antecedent of terrible suffering, and he is certainly in control of this causal antecedent. He can certainly choose to leave the light on all day and hence obviate the suffering of the prisoners in the basement. By the principle of control as formulated, he seems to be morally responsible, yet this seems utterly counter-intuitive. Why? It seems that if Erik did know about this, we would blame him for turning on the light, so the crucial element here seems to be his ignorance, his lack of knowledge of the consequences of his actions. So we have here a sense in which ignorance can serve as a morally exculpating factor. It seems that knowledge of the downstream consequences of an action over which an individual has control a necessary condition to hold that individual morally responsible for that action.
We can examine the decisions to use the atomic bomb over Hiroshima in the light of this necessary condition for moral responsibility. Were any of the crucial decision-makers behind the dropping of the bomb unaware of the downstream consequences of their actions? The historical record presented in Part C clearly indicates that Harry Truman was briefed on the general destructive capability of the bomb, and it was obvious that his decision to forego a Russian invasion, a modification of surrender terms, and a demonstration on a remote island, in favor of using a nuclear weapon, would result in massive and unnecessary casualties. ? Although the long lasting after-effects of nuclear weapons were only fully discovered by scientists years later, Truman certainly knew that the weapon would be unprecedented in its destructive capability, probably causing more casualties than any single weapon in the past history of the world. Although Truman may have been blamelessly ignorant of the details of the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, it is abundantly clear that he was aware of the essential nature of these consequences, the deaths of large numbers of civilians. So Truman, Byrnes, and any other senior administration officials whose consent made use of the atomic bomb possible do not have the excuse of ignorance of consequences. One can ask the same question about those whose scientific work made the nuclear attack on Hiroshima possible.
As discussed in Part C, a cadre of brilliant physicists, chemists, and engineers joined the Manhattan Project with the ostensible goal of preventing Germany from developing and using the bomb first. Whether or not the use of the bomb against Germany would have been a morally permissible goal is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, the important question to ask is, were the scientists ignorant of their continued work on the bomb after Germany’s defeat, and if so, does this absolve them of moral responsibility for the use of the bomb? Of all people involved, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Von Neumann, Urey and Bethe, and their younger collaborators would certainly be most aware of the destructive potential of the bomb, and they certainly don’t seem to be exculpable on this account. That said, one might posit that although they were aware of the physical consequences of the use of the atomic bomb, the scientists would exculpable because they did not know the weapon would be used against Japan. However, the very possibility of the survey taken at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory (Part A), coupled with the fact that even physicist Leo Szilard, seen by General Groves as a troublemaker and a security risk (Rhodes XXX), knew of the bomb’s intended use against Japan (Part A, Alperovitz 147), indicate that the Manhattan scientists knew of the proposed use of their ultimate weapon against Japan. So the scientists are not exculpable on this account either. Although Alperovitz’s account of the events says little of what those who actually delivered the bomb, the crew of the B-29 Enola Gay, were told, it is conceivable, though by no means certain, that they were told little more than what was necessary to successfully and safely deliver the bomb without an understanding of the effects of a nuclear weapon.
Even if the crew of the Enola Gay was unaware of the extent of destruction that would result from the use of the atomic bomb, they were still bombardiers accustomed to regularly undertaking missions that they knew would result in the death of large numbers of human beings. Moreover, fleets of B-29s like the Enola Gay had already engaged in devastating bombing raids on Japanese cities, notably Tokyo, that had killed between 84,000 and 120,000 Japanese (Alperovitz 18), on the same order of magnitude as the atomic bomb itself. So even if the crew were unaware of the specific nature of the atomic bomb, they were aware that they were causing immense human suffering, suffering that seems to be morally reprehensible given the availability of alternatives that would end the war with negligible further Japanese and American casualties. So this sort of ignorance does not exculpate the crew. Ignorance of consequences, though a legitimate exculpating factor in principle, simply does not apply in any of these cases. Were those responsible for the nuclear attack on Hiroshima ignorant in some other, exculpating way?
To answer this question, one needs another means of exculpation via ignorance. The new notion of exculpation is best explained through a fictional example. Imagine that Sal is locked in a room with a Sam, who is carrying a sword, and that Sam is trying to kill Sal, who has done nothing to provoke Sam. As far as Sal knows, the only way to stop Sam is to kill him, and he does so. Unbeknownst to Sal, yet by no fault of Sal’s, Sam has been pre-programmed to react to some magic word by becoming catatonic and hence innocuous. Now, take it as a given that is morally wrong to kill someone, even in self-defense, if there is another way to carry out effective self-defense. Thus, in a larger sense, Sal killing Sam in self-defense is immoral, because he has the alternative of using the magic word. However, since Sal is blamelessly ignorant of the range of options available to him, we are inclined to excuse him. In other words, Sal is ignorant, not of the consequences of his action, but of the information that deems killing Sam to be an immoral action, in this case, the availability of alternatives. Generalizing this result yields the notion that blameless ignorance of the information that deems an action to be moral or immoral is an exculpating factor. Thus, moral responsibility requires control of some causal antecedent for the event deemed moral/immoral, knowledge of the consequences of the action, and knowledge of the facts that deem that action moral/immoral.
One can apply this account to those who made crucial decisions leading to the use of the atom bomb, above all, President Truman. Truman was well aware that a modification of surrender terms to assure the Japanese of the continuation, at least nominally, of the imperial institution, and to ensure the continued reign of Emperor Hirohito, would have almost certainly led the Japanese to surrender, as indicated by his access to MAGIC intercepts, OSS reports, and the advice of powerful Cabinet officials like Grew, Forrestal, Stimson, and McCloy. As demonstrated in the historical summary, the same sources would almost certainly have led to Truman to realize the added force that a Russian declaration of war would have had. Thus, the historical record seems to indicate that Truman was certainly aware of the availability of less brutal alternatives, and was thus aware of the information that deemed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to be immoral. Thus even under conditions that require both causal control and a very particular sort of knowledge, Truman remains morally responsible for what appears to have been a morally reprehensible act, and is thus eminently blameworthy for his decision to use the atomic bomb. Under similar standards, the scientists of the Manhattan Project fare better.
As outlined above, the Manhattan Project scientists seem to have been unaware of the possibility of a modification in surrender terms or the impact a Russian invasion may have had. Under these circumstances, it seems that at least some of the group may be exculpable on the grounds that they were unaware of the information that deemed the use of the atomic bomb to be morally impermissible. But even if the use of an atomic device itself were itself necessary to end the war, it seems abundantly clear that a large number of scientists advocated using the bomb in a demonstration to force surrender before using it on civilians (Part C). In other words, there was in fact a viable alternative to the bombing of a populated city that the scientists were aware of. This may in fact move the scientists back into the domain of moral responsibility for the bomb. However, by April 1945, the earliest date at which it seems reasonable to assert that the Manhattan Project scientists made anything akin to a decision to continue working on the project and thus use the atomic bomb against Japan, most of the crucial work on the atomic bomb had already been done. In other words, the decisions that led to the scientists doing things that facilitated the construction of both ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ were made long before scientists or indeed the relevant politicians, were aware of the information that deemed the use of the bomb against Japan to be morally impermissible, namely the availability of far more humane alternative routes to the defeat of Japan. In this sense, the Manhattan scientists seem to be exculpable on the grounds of ignorance of relevant moral information, as do the terminal points on the causal chain leading to Hiroshima, the crew of the Enola Gay.
Members of the military responsible for the logistical steps leading to the delivery of the bomb seem more exculpable using this account of moral responsibility. Although Alperovitz’s history does not discuss in detail the information available to people lower on the logistical chain than top military officials, such as the pilots of the Enola Gay, it seems reasonable to suppose that they did not have access to OSS or MAGIC reports, and certainly were not privy to the minutes of Cabinet meetings or decisions on the evolving content of the Potsdam Declaration. Although the nation’s news media was rife with speculation that Japan’s defeat was impending and inevitable, it doesn’t seem that those lower on the military command chain were privy to the truly important diplomatic information. In other words, it is likely that people like the crew of the Enola Gay was not really aware that the use of the bomb was unnecessary, and as a result, was not aware of the information that deemed the use of the bomb to be morally impermissible. So under the standard proposed, people at this level in the causal chain leading to the nuclear attack are exculpated, and in fact, in a more uncontroversial fashion than they would be under an excuse of a different flavor.
One of the bulwarks of military effectiveness is the maintenance of firm and unwavering discipline in a command structure. In light of this fact, someone might claim that even if there were more human alternative paths to ending the war available to policymakers and scientists, these alternatives were not available to lower ranking officers. The argument essentially posits that because of their training, disobeying an order to bomb a target was essentially inconceivable, and as a result, even if an officer were to be aware of the factors deeming the bombing of Hiroshima to be morally wrong, disobeying orders would simply not be a viable alternative to perpetrating the bombing. This is the quintessential excuse, ‘I was just following orders.’ To those inclined to let the bombers off the hook, the appeal of such an account is that it exculpates those at the bottom of such a causal chain even if they did have access to the knowledge that deemed their act morally impermissible and will thus continue to hold even if historians discover that they knew more than currently believed. However, this argument has counterintuitive implications when applied to other cases. Consider, for example, a German Army officer responsible for managing the construction of rail lines in conquered Soviet territory in 1942.
Assume furthermore that the officer is aware that all the Soviet Jews rounded up and forced onto these trains will meet a tragic end at a Nazi death camp. Under the latter account, where following orders in a military context excuses even with knowledge of morally crucial information, the officer is exculpated, which seems to me to be totally counter-intuitive. However, this is a controversial matter; the crucial point is to realize that if one is committed to excusing the Enola Gay crew on account of obedience, even in the hypothetical situation where they did have access to the information that deemed the act morally impermissible, one is also committed to excusing these Nazi offers. If this conclusion is at all revulsive to the reader who still believes that the pilots of the Enola Gay were not morally responsible for the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, the reader is committed to accepting an account of responsibility contingent on knowledge of morally pertinent information. The reader might also want to do the exact opposite, and hold the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay morally blameworthy for the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. If the crew was in fact ignorant of the relevant moral information, blaming the crew of the Enola Gay commits the reader to taking a different stand on the question of Sam and Sal than that proposed above, blaming Sam for defending himself in spite of the fact that as far as he knew or could reasonably be expected to know, Sal’s attack was a threat to his life stoppable only by killing Sal.
Works Cited:

Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. Vintage Books: New York, 1995.



Rhodes, Richard.






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