Hiroshima and Nagaski: Two Opinions


Jeff Tenuth is Historian at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites in Indianapolis. He was a contributor to HNN's 2001 special "Truman on Trial"

In the sixty-five years since the twin atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been hundred of articles and books written on the consequences of their development and use.  Many scholars consider the development and use of nuclear weapons as among the most important events of the twentieth century.  This view is justifiable because those of us born during the Cold War remember how dangerous the world seemed at times.  Considering that there were more than fifty thousand nuclear weapons in the world by the mid-1980s, one mistake by the United States or the Soviet Union could have ended civilization or possibly the human race.  At Hiroshima and Nagasaki we saw the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons:  nearly a quarter million dead immediately, two cities destroyed within seconds and lingering radiation that killed thousands more over the weeks, months, and years following.  The idea that the same could happen again, but on a much larger scale, helped convince world leaders that they could and should reduce their stockpiles while still adequately defending themselves.  As a result, there are less than half as many nuclear weapons today as there were just a quarter century ago.

But if we focus our discussion on the use of two nuclear weapons against Japan in August 1945, there is much more debate and much less clarity.  At least two sets of opinions have emerged from this decades-old debate.  The first set of opinions concentrates on whether we should have used nuclear weapons against Japan, given that Japan was already on the brink of defeat.  Stated differently, the use of nuclear weapons was unnecessary and therefore immoral.  But in a sense, this is an irrelevant position because nuclear weapons were, in fact, used.  The second set of opinions is that it was necessary to use nuclear weapons because their use ended the war quickly without an invasion that would have cost millions of lives and may not have succeeded.  And in fact the war did end within weeks of their use. 

Those who adhere to the first opinion believe that Japan was already defeated or soon would be; especially with the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific.  This same viewpoint further suggests that a blockade would have been sufficient to force the Japanese surrender.  Therefore, it was immoral to use such weapons against a defeated nation.  But again, this is a moral judgment made out of context.  No matter who suggests what, we simply don’t know what the Japanese would have done had we invaded the Home Islands.  There were no clear indications that they would surrender without their terms being met, even with the hoped-for influence of Soviet mediation on their behalf (which never occurred).  Furthermore, within the Japanese government, there were several factions fighting to influence the Emperor, whether for peace or continued war.  To judge what the Japanese might have done is to make a judgment out of context and out of time.  There is no data to support the position that the Japanese would have done one thing or another.

The second opinion is that it was necessary to drop the atomic bombs in order to end the war as quickly as possible and avoid an invasion that would have cost millions of lives, destroy an entire nation, and extend the war for another year at least.  There was little doubt within the Truman administration that an invasion of Japan would be difficult to mount and sustain.  But in the end there was also little doubt that the Allies would eventually win, despite the millions of Japanese soldiers and thousands of aircraft and ships that awaited them.  Also, there was considerable concern within the Truman administration that the American public had no stomach for another year of war.  The war had raged for nearly four years and cost the Allies hundreds of thousands of dead, injured, and missing.  The prospect of another year of slaughter and destruction would not sit well with the American public, or so it was assumed.

Given these factors, Truman had little difficulty in making his decision.  The point here is that within the context of the time and conditions of war, it is easier to understand why the bombs were dropped.  It’s reasonable to assume that there were discussions on the moral aspects of using such destructive weapons, but weighed against the alternative of continued war, President Truman decided to use the weapons available to him.  His decision, within the context of his time, was not a moral decision; it was a strategic and political decision.  It’s easy for us to look back and make a moral judgment about a past event; all we have to do is voice our opinion.  But is this being too subjective for historians?  For us, sixty-five years later, to turn his wartime decision into a moral judgment, does President Truman and the entire Allied effort an injustice by imposing our opinions on past events.

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John Connally - 8/29/2010

To you, Arnold, America is just one war crime after another. You need a healthier outlet for all your anger for America. Try tetherball.

The discussion involves the morality behind Truman's decision to drop the bomb. We were engaged in a war with Japan (not started by us, by the way) when thousands of Pacific Islanders, Chinese, East Asians, Japanese, Australians, Micronesians, and Americans were dying daily. Possessing the means to end the war, but not using it seems pretty immoral to me.

However, I'm sure you convinced yourself long ago that Japan was just about to surrender before the bombs were dropped. I'm sure you believe that Truman knew that, but he couldn't resist the chance to fry some Japs.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/28/2010

It is only "a load" to the adherents of the premise 'America is above all and
we can do no wrong/evil."
But although it did not make us worse than any other major world power, we have committed war crimes and regrettably not just when bombing Japan...

james joseph butler - 8/28/2010

I generally favor change. Which of course I think of as improvement.

Of course you're right about the value of policing war it's just that I look at Pres. Obama and I wonder how it is that someone raised in such a liberal, multicultural, milieu, could so closely resemble W regarding war. It's as if entrance into the "Commander" role requires a deal with the devil, the Congressional Military Industrial Complex, and the next election. I'm dumbfounded until I remember I didn't vote for him.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were linearly logical given the previous casualities and the casualities in 1945. The Japanese had never surrendered prior to August 1945. I wish to goddess you were right about taming war but nothing's changed.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/27/2010

Cultures change. Not quickly, or easily, or uniformly, or neatly, or linearly. But they do change. Sometimes those changes are, on the balance, positive.

Port's my apertif of choice, lately. There's a winery near here... nevermind.

james joseph butler - 8/27/2010

Jonathan do you actually think knowledge trumps hate and the male ego? Your "over-destructive tactics of the past" is a footnote of the future. "In the year 2525 if man is still alive, if woman can survive".

What are you drinking? What on earth makes you think people have gotten smarter or wiser? Fukuyama was not the first to think; now is the future. The future is always dated.

John Connally - 8/27/2010

In other words, evil Truman ignored all his other "moral" options to choose the unnecessary and "immoral" option of frying a bunch of civilians. What a load!

Let's talk morality for a moment, since "context does not preclude moral judgment." Let's say our country has been involved in a world war for around four years. Let's say that everyone stateside has a relative, friend, or neighbor serving in the armed forces. Let's say that hundreds (and some days thousands) of our soldiers die each day the conflict continues. Now let's say the President has a weapon that can end the war, but chooses not to use it on moral grounds. Would the family and friends of the tens to hundreds of thousands (depending on what deflated or inflated invasion casualties figure you believe) dead American soldiers praise the President’s morality?

Joseph Mutik - 8/27/2010

I am sure that the USA would have used the bomb against Germany. USSR made its intentions very clear during the Warsaw uprising, when they let the Poles, fighting against the Germans, die without any help from the soviet army. The message was loud and clear, no independent countries in the soviet sphere of influence. The other question is if FDR would have done it? I believe that the answer to the last question is yes. I am also sure that Winston Churchill would have been very happy to avoid the entry of the soviet army into Germany and other European countries.
Talking about moral questions, another question is another question is how moral would have been to send 50000 to 100000 American and British soldiers to death in a conventional naval military landing in Japan. In Okinawa less than 10000 Japanese soldiers, out of 110000, surrendered, The rule of thumb for an European army is to surrender when about one third of a defensive unit is lost.
As I wrote in a previous message, the people asking "moral questions" in our days are in a 99% proportion people who don't have military training and don't see combat and use their time for developing argumentation skills. I am an Israeli American and I believe that the draft is the fairest way the citizens of a country can share the military burden.

John M Shaw - 8/26/2010

Mr. Tenuth seems to want to reduce legitimate and differing schools of Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombing interpretation into a formula whereby “context” precludes moral judgment. He dismisses moral judgments against the atomic bombings as “irrelevant” because they happened. That is like saying do not bother condemning slavery because it existed. But while even excellent historians like David Hackett Fischer could not clearly delineate between “functional” and “dysfunctional” moral judgments by historians, Mr Tenuth’s “context” is no safe refuge.

While Mr Tenuth thinks it is unhistorical to question Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs, or unfair to criticize with hindsight, eight months after the end of World War II a "what-if" study of the invasion of Japan scenario was commissioned by the U.S. military. These “after the fact” experts concluded that Japan, soon to be confronted by a two-front assault with the long promised entry of the Soviets, would have surrendered, precluding either a conventional military invasion or use of atomic bombs. It puzzles me why this kind of evidence is scorned by Mr. Tenuth. Perhaps he has a different “context” in mind.

The original Truman rationale held that there were no alternatives to the atomic bombing option. But over sixty Japanese cities had already been bombed. The assertion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets was completely unfounded. How does this “context” preclude moral judgment? If Truman was only thinking strategically, and if these two cities were such vital military targets, why were they not included among the sixty Japanese cities that had already been attacked with conventional weapons?. Both cities had little military or strategic value. The possibility that they were “virgin” test sites to assess the destructive impact of the new atomic weaponry should raise many troubling moral questions.

If Mr. Tenuth wants evidence for “a moral judgment made out of context,” how about his use of the unsubstantiated claim that Truman and the U.S. military feared not using the atomic bombs would have “cost millions of [American] lives”? Now, who is making “a moral judgment made out of context”? It seems that a nagging uncertainly over the morality of the use of atomic weapons, and as a counterpoint to the actual and predicted numbers of Japanese civilian casualties, led Truman to radically inflate the casualty estimates of U.S. servicemen if we had not dropped the bombs and resorted to invading Japan instead. The figures of 500,000 to 1,000,000 have almost achieved unassailable status, and are repeated by many like Mr. Tenuth to this day.

The research of historians like Barton Bernstein have revealed U.S. military and intelligence estimates during 1945 within a range of 60,000 casualties in a worst-case invasion scenario. Now, it is obvious that even that number would be unacceptable to any American president. The U.S. had lost 40,000 men invading Okinawa. So, why did Truman (and others in his administration) deliberately inflate casualty estimates? Bernstein concluded that the inflation of casualty estimates was a postwar creation within a new Cold War context to justify the possible future use of atomic weapons against the Soviet Union.

While Truman was initially elated with the prospects of the Soviets entering into the war with Japan (e.g., "finis Japs"), he and his advisers had second thoughts about the prospect of Soviet involvement in any postwar settlement with Japan. The unanswerable question is whether the atom bombs were intended to keep the Russians out of Japan, finish off Japan, or both? Thus, according to Gar Alperovitz, the decisions surrounding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had as much to do with the beginning of the Cold War than the end of World War II. Yes, these were strategic and political decisions, but they do not preclude moral judgment. The same arguments made by Mr. Tenuth were being made in 1945 and after. Criticisms, second guessing, or moral qualms about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen as dangerous because they might create an alarming form of "sentimentalism." The implication was that if the American people were made fully aware of the terrible consequences of the atomic bombs, they might hesitate to support their future use against the Soviet Union or other Cold War enemies.

All U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan suggested that nuclear threats had played the decisive role in ending the Korean War and resolving other superpower crises. The result was an official narrative which actively sought to legitimize its actions and constrain any dissent. Few if any doubts were raised prior to the Vietnam War, because as Barton Bernstein noted, there was no inclination to question or probe.

But after the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War, many Americans began to question America's mission in the world, including the validity of national security interest claims and the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. The most significant contribution of Gar Aperovitz's extensive research and "revisionist" thesis was to show that beginning with the Potsdam conference, the postwar historical consciousness of America was deliberately manipulated by the perceived imperatives of United States Cold War policy. This broader perspective has resulted in vastly different interpretations of the atomic bomb experience that goes beyond the simple fact that the United States dropped two atomic bombs and won the war.

In regards to the decision-making process surrounding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the continuing efforts of historical scholarship has shed new light on and directly addressed critical strategic, political and moral questions. A non-partisan (i.e., leftists like Alperovitz and Kai Bird, are in agreement with moderates like Bernstein and Martin Sherwin, and conservatives like J. Samuel Walker and John Ray Skates) consensus has been forged. Walker has concluded that while historians continue to disagree on some issues, the critical questions have been answered. The consensus among most historians is that the atomic bombs were not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan. It is clear that alternatives to the use of the atomic bombs existed, and that Truman and his advisers knew it, but decided otherwise. The decision to use atomic bombs against Japan was such a momentous event in bringing about the end of World War II and in shaping the postwar world that it will continue to be studied, evaluated, and debated for another sixty-five years.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/25/2010

War does have rules, even total wars, and there are ethics that go beyond the written rules (thus, the creation of "crimes against humanity" at Nuremberg). The Geneva protocols, and other governing international agreements, set rules for war. They may be violated, in small or large ways, by many combatants, but they nonetheless there is a discourse both within the US and internationally which explicitly defines limits on allowable conduct even when violence is involved.

I'm not going to defend the aerial bombardment of urban areas, nor argue that the atomic bombs were morally or ethically all that different from the firebombings. I will, however, note that the rules of war revised by the participants in that war afterwards pretty explicitly forbid precisely those kinds of actions. So whether or not the body politic learns lasting lessons from these discussions, we do have a framework within which governments have recognized both the need for limits and the desire not to repeat the over-destructive tactics of the past.

james joseph butler - 8/25/2010

We can discuss all day but we can't return to 1945. When McNamara said he could've been a war criminal that his recognition of time and circumstance. When you've fire bombed Tokyo you've moved beyond the "ethics and morals of war". War has no rules. (At least few America cares to sign up for, witness our lack of interest in either landmine or cluster bomb agreements.)

I'm curious, what "immensely fruitful" insights has mankind learned about war in the last half century? The Europeans have learned something since 1914 but what has America learned? Wars fought with joysticks are better than wars with amputees and PTSD.

Lewis Bernstein - 8/24/2010

No, one was not enough. The Imperial army was willing to fight to the death and murder any civilian politician who would suggest surrender. The first bomb, the entry of the USSR into the war against Japan, and the 2nd bomb convinced the peace faction that had formed to influence the emperor that surrender was the only way out.
The last days of the Pacific War have been well documented in many secondary works.

Bruno Pastre Maximo - 8/23/2010

After read this article and many others about the bombs I just ask, why needed 2 bombs? One wasn't enough??

Joseph Mutik - 8/23/2010

I didn't see much of a discussion about an obvious scenario that could have happened if USSR would have helped USA in a conventional conquest of Japan in 1945. We all know what happened in Korea and Vietnam. The soviets conquered the island of Sakhalin and included it in the Russian territory.
The atomic bomb argument is a complex one combining moral and practical arguments. What's interesting about the USA today is that the arguments about the morality of wars and war actions are made (in a 99% proportion) by people who didn't serve in the army didn't participate in any war, the people in the academia and media making these arguments enjoy the security provided by the people who serve in the army and don't "waste" their time for military training but they use the time for studying and developing the "moral arguments" skills.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/22/2010

I like the way Mr. Tenuth frames this, so that it seems like the rational thing to study the past without ever coming to any conclusions about it. Except his, of course. By strategically deploying uncertainty, he forecloses on an avenue of investigation which has, in fact, been immensely fruitful over the last half-century. He also ignores his own experience: the Truman decision has been a touchstone of ethical, political and tactical discussions since it happened, critical discourses for a society grappling with the implications of this technology. How can we rationally discuss the ethics and morals of war without reflecting on our most relevant experiences? And once we come to conclusions about the new rules of war, rules that largely preclude a repeat performance, the prima facie conclusion is that the previous act was immoral; naturally, that conclusion doesn't preclude further study, but it raises different questions.