Blogs > Cliopatria > The Fallacy of the Mechanistic Cause: A Thought For the Historian's Day

Aug 6, 2005 8:07 pm

The Fallacy of the Mechanistic Cause: A Thought For the Historian's Day

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, The Myths of Hiroshima.

"As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa has shown definitively in his new book,"Racing the Enemy" — and many other historians have long argued — it was the Soviet Union's entry into the Pacific war on Aug. 8, two days after the Hiroshima bombing, that provided the final"shock" that led to Japan's capitulation ...

The hard truth is that the atomic bombings were unnecessary."

David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought.

"The Fallacy of the Mechanistic Cause ... There is, I think, an unhappy tendency for historians to break down the components of a causal complex and to analyze them seperately, and even to assess seperately their causal 'influence', independent of other elements with which they interact ... imagine that an effect E was caused by A, B, C and D. If all the four casual components were necessary to that effect, then the removal of any of them would not diminish E by one-fourth. Its absence would make E impossible. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine that A, B, C, and D, though not individually necessary to E, nevertheless interacted in a geometrical ratio. If there were only A, then E would be of magnitude 1. If there were only A and B, then the effect would be not 2 but 2 squared, or an E of magnitude 4. A, B and C would produce an E of 9, and all four causal components, an E of 16. This is an involved way of saying that a causal complex is something other than the sum of its parts."

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Hiroshima bomb didn't end war, according to Soviet archives.

"Of course [the A-Bomb] had an impact, but it was not that decisive ... what it did was to inject urgency into Japanese diplomatic efforts to end the war."

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Alan Allport - 8/7/2005

My point was that Bird and Sherwin are making the technical error of confusing 'non-necessity' in a causal sense with 'irrelevence to the timing and character of the outcome'.

It's also interesting to note that Tsuyoshi Hasegawa appears to differ somewhat in his interpretation of his findings. My own feeling is that even if the bombs did nothing more than 'inject urgency' into Japanese efforts, as he suggests, then they were probably worth using. Barton Bernstein (no admirer of Truman) has suggested that the Japanese faced with a Soviet DoW alone would have been prompted to surrender by November 1, 1945. That's over two months of additional war; at least 800,000 more war deaths in Asia according to Newman's calculations, and untold numbers more in Japan itself from conventional bombardment and starvation. And that would be the desirable outcome?

I would add that the Japanese offer to surrender came a day after the bombing of Nagasaki, and so again it seems to me impossible to isolate the significance of that event from the sequence of events that had immediately preceded it. Did the 'triple-whammy' of bomb-DoW-bomb in quick succession have a shock effect that was much greater than the sum of the individual parts (as with Fischer's A,B,C,D example)?

Ralph E. Luker - 8/7/2005

Alan, Am I correct in thinking that you mean by this that we know what would happen in 1945 if:
A. An atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August;
B. The Soviet Union declares war on Japan and invades Manchuria on 8 August; and
C. An atomic bomb is dropped on Nagisaki on 9 August, then
D. The Japanese cabinet would make an offer to surrender on 10 August and Allied terms of capitulation would be accepted on 14 August.
I take it that you are using Fischer's keen sense of historical logic to challenge Bird and Sherwin's logical fallacy. If their prior argument about the Soviet Union's declaration of war being decisive, however, it does seem to me to leave the bombing of Nagisaki as unnecessarily brutal and inhumane.

Greg James Robinson - 8/7/2005

This is a fine point. Of course, we do not and cannot know whether, had no atomic bomb been dropped, the Soviet invasion would have caused Japan to surrender. The combination fo these was surely very potent--the whole is more than the sum of its parts.