The Ethics of Dropping the Atomic Bomb

The Ethics of Dropping the Atomic Bomb

Coauthored with Michael Samples, presently a student at Riverside City College.

In a world full of hatred, death, destruction, deception, and double dealing, the United States at the end of World War II was almost universally regarded as the disinterested champion of justice, freedom, and democracy.1

This quote from distinguished World War II historian Stephen E. Ambrose conveys a powerful message about the use of moral and military might by the United States of America during the Second World War. At the time, America was seen as an exceptional nation that liberated millions of people and yet, unlike the Soviet Union, didn’t seek to take advantage of the vanquished nations. In fact, America spent billions of dollars to help rebuild both Western Europe and Japan.

August marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; however, some people still question whether these strikes against the Japanese were indeed morally justified. And yet upon reflection, sound military and moral reasoning does justify President Harry Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons against both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This monumental decision was effected in order to save potentially millions of human lives and put an end to the greatest catastrophe in human history. Leading scholar John Keegan described the Second World War as “the largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all its oceans. It killed fifty million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilisation.”2 (Other sources estimate the number of people killed in World War II ranges from 60 million to 70 million.)

The justification for such a tragic event rests with the reasonable assessment that at least hundreds of thousands more American soldiers would be killed and wounded if the Japanese mainland was invaded. The estimated death and casualty toll for the Japanese (including both soldiers and civilians) could reasonably have reached into the millions. So while the atomic bombings on the Japanese cities were horrific, the decision to bomb instead of invade likely saved millions of lives. Furthermore, ensuring Japan’s swift surrender to the United States has proved to be very beneficial to the Japanese people. America rebuilt Japan and that assistance lead to Japan’s becoming a world economic power. Today, Japan competes with the Western world in terms of gross national product.

Nearing the end of the war, the United States dictated a peace plan to Japan that clearly defined the terms of their acceptable surrender. This plan was known as the Potsdam Declaration. However, Japanese leaders were reluctant to accept the terms of surrender because they were concerned about the real possibility that their emperor would be held morally accountable for the war and charged with war crimes. The Potsdam Declaration also stated that if Japan rejected the terms of surrender, the Japanese would face the imminent and complete destruction of their entire nation. The subsequent atomic bombings proved strategically successful. After suffering the loss of approximately 200,000 people, the Empire of Japan officially surrendered to the United States shortly after in September 1945.

Did America Have Another Viable Option?

If America had decided to forgo the atomic option, then the only other choice would have been to proceed with launching a full-scale invasion of the Japanese mainland. However, the amount of bloodshed that would have likely resulted from such an operation was staggering and, therefore, made such an option unviable. According to the Air Force Association, when President Truman consulted with US Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall on the possible casualties of a full-scale invasion, American casualty estimates ranged as high as 500,000. General Marshall also estimated that enemy casualties would be considerably higher based upon other campaigns against the Japanese. Moreover, the number of Japanese civilian casualties would have undoubtedly been high as well.

In making the decision, the leadership of the United States also weighed the tenacity of the Japanese fighting force. The horrific and gruesome fighting in the Pacific Theatre had shown the Japanese to be a formidable enemy. The Japanese military had already proven their ferocity in combat as well as their penchant for barbarism when it came to innocent civilians in places like China and the Philippines.

The Japanese militarists believed that it was dishonorable to surrender. Thus, they would literally fight to the very last man. These were the principles of a code of honor known as Bushidō (the Way of the Warrior). While Adolf Hitler’s special SS troops did share these brutal characteristics, the Japanese soldiers took fighting to a level that the average German soldier did not. Not only would Japanese soldiers take their own life before surrendering, but also they would attempt to take as many American lives as they could down with them.

Kamikaze (spirit wind) attacks were also a common type of terror attack in which Japanese airplane pilots would crash their planes into American aircraft carriers to inflict maximum fear and damage. Other tactics utilized by the Japanese military included running into a group of soldiers with the pin of a grenade pulled, and hiding in trees and bushes awaiting the enemy with a bayonet. Japan’s soldiers ignored the rules of warfare laid down in the Geneva and Hague Conventions. The difficult terrain and geography of the mainland also made for awful fighting conditions and worked to the advantage of the Japanese. The Japanese soldiers used guerilla warfare and were already accustomed to the wet, muddy jungles of the Pacific Islands.

Desperate to end the war and save untold American lives, President Truman’s most viable option was to consider making use of the two newly available atomic bombs that were the technologically advanced military products of the Manhattan Project. Two strategically placed bombings in the major industrial and military locations within Japan were considered sufficient to the end the war quickly. Some people raise the issue that America should have warned the Japanese by allowing them to view the detonation of an atomic bomb and witness the potential destructive power of these new incredible weapons. But the American military only had two active atomic bombs ready for deployment. President Truman couldn’t afford to waste one of these vital weapons, and, as it turned out, it was only after the second bombing that Japan finally decided to surrender to the United States.

Therefore, America’s use of atomic weapons against the Empire of Japan to end the Second World War was a tragic necessity for all the reasons mentioned above.

  1. Stephen E. Ambrose, American Heritage New History of World War II (New York: Viking, 1997), 601.
  2. John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin, 1989), 5.