The Corner

National Security & Defense

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

A boy looks at a photograph showing Hiroshima city after the 1945 atomic bombing, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Japan August 6, 2007. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

In response to Understanding Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 73 Years Later

Last week, Dan McLaughlin presented some of the historical context surrounding Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. As always, I appreciated Dan’s clear and thoughtful writing. It is always wise to try to understand the context in which people make difficult choices, and such understanding can help prevent undue censoriousness even when we think their choices are wrong. But I retain my belief that the decision to use atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki was gravely wrong indeed.

The central argument that Dan makes could be summarized as follows: (1) There is no telling whether, if the allies had not extracted an unconditional surrender from it, Japan would have started another catastrophic war, much as Germany started World War II in Europe a generation after surrendering conditionally at Versailles; (2) therefore it was necessary to extract an unconditional surrender; (3) of the means available to do so, dropping atomic bombs could be expected to have the lowest cost in life or otherwise produce the best outcome; (4) therefore, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified.

What I know I reject is the transition from (1) to (2), which bears the main justificatory burden of the argument. I reject it because of the uncertainty inherent in (1). There is, indeed, no telling what Japan would have done if we had accepted a conditional surrender. The historical analysis can be as sophisticated as one wishes, but its application remains vague: There is some undefined probability that such-and-such a terrible thing will happen if we don’t do such-and-such a terrible thing first, so we’d better go ahead and do it. That strikes me as entirely too flimsy a basis on which to start massacring noncombatants.

Would Japan have started another war if we had accepted its conditional surrender? Who knows? Did Germany start World War II because the Allies failed to grind it into abject submission at the end of World War I? Who knows? Was the problem that the Treaty of Versailles was excessively punitive, creating the resentments that fueled Hitler’s rise, or rather that its terms were not enforced once Hitler started to violate them? Historians have made both cases, and there is no decisive way of saying who is right. It’s even possible that everyone could be: that grinding Germany into the ground at the end of World War I would have prevented World War II; that, barring such an outcome, a less punitive treaty would have prevented the rise of Hitler; but that, given Hitler, enforcing the treaty’s terms could still have prevented World War II and attendant Nazi atrocities. Who knows?

I am categorically unimpressed by arguments about counterfactual history, because we simply have no way of knowing whether they are true.* This does not mean one cannot learn from history, but its guidance will be indeterminate, a matter of hunches and gut and guesswork. And it is all too easy, once one starts making unprovable counterfactual claims about the past, to concoct a speculative just-so story about the future that excuses whatever one wants to excuse.** No one with a nuclear arsenal should grant himself such license.

Nothing I have said implies any broad moral equivalence about World War II. The overall contrast between the Allies and the Axis is sharp, and is nothing less than one of good versus evil; only the Allies had a legitimate casus belli; and I do not believe the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compare in evil to, say, the Nanking Massacre or the Holocaust. (I do think a case can be made that they were worse than prior conventional bombings of civilian populations, even if they took fewer lives, since they followed expressions of Japanese interest in conditional surrender.) Regardless, I think it should be considered an inviolable principle that one does not incinerate cities on speculative grounds.

For similar reasons, I cannot join in lamentations that the United States doesn’t know how to win wars anymore, if “winning wars” means demanding unconditional surrender and waging total war to get it. That the ambiguous conclusions of our conflicts since World War II have created situations falling well short of the ideal is obvious enough, but I see no reason to assume that the alternatives would have been preferable. The world would certainly be better today, for example, if the Korean War had ended in total victory for Western forces, the Kim dictatorship had not survived, and the cost of achieving those results had not been appalling. But what entitles us to assume the first two things without the third? Is it not easy to imagine that, had MacArthur prevailed on Truman to expand the Korean War into an all-out conflict with the Communist powers, it could have escalated into a nuclear exchange? And even if such an exchange had been limited, could it not nonetheless have normalized the use of nuclear weapons in such a way that we eventually reaped the whirlwind? Who knows? The only comparisons one can make with any confidence are between episodes and periods of history as it has actually taken place. If we are to do that, I think the second half of 20th century, despite its horrors, will look rather good compared with the charnel ground of the first.

And even if, as is impossible, we could tell alternative histories with surety and know that Japan would have started another war if we had not extracted its unconditional surrender, it still would not be obvious to me that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder,” G. E. M. Anscombe wrote in “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” her 1957 pamphlet protesting Oxford University’s bestowal of an honor on the former president; and to commit murder, as distinct from engaging in just combat, is, she believed, always and everywhere wrong. Her conviction applies generally against the targeting of noncombatants, whatever the reason for it. This view has deep roots in Western thought. May no one dismiss it as some kind of ahistorical peacenik nonsense. To do so would be ahistorical.

In his 1972 paper “War and Massacre,” influenced by Anscombe’s protest-pamphlet, Thomas Nagel proposed that we have “two disparate categories of moral reason” that may come into conflict and are, in case of conflict, incommensurable. He called them the “utilitarian” and the “absolutist.” “Utilitarianism,” he wrote, “gives primacy to a concern with what will happen. Absolutism gives primacy to a concern with what one is doing. The conflict between them arises because the alternatives we face are rarely just choices between total outcomes: they are also choices between alternative pathways or measures to be taken. When one of the choices is to do terrible things to another person, the problem is altered fundamentally; it is no longer merely a question of which outcome would be worse.” Nagel entertained the possibility that utilitarian considerations might, in some cases, compel us to set aside absolutist constraints such as the prohibition against murder. But he denied that those constraints would thereby lose their force and that the terrible things one did would be justified by the terrible outcomes one had avoided. Rather, such cases would be “moral blind alleys” in which there was no right course of action: If one incinerates a city to avert some even greater catastrophe, the appropriate attitude is sackcloth and ashes.

I recommend “Mr. Truman’s Degree” and “War and Massacre” to anyone who wishes to reflect on the ethical questions at issue. A third paper may also be of interest: Alan Gewirth’s “Are There Any Absolute Rights?” (1981). Imagining that terrorists have seized a nuclear arsenal and threatened to destroy a city unless a certain political activist tortures his mother to death, Gewirth defends the absoluteness of the mother’s right not to be tortured to death even in this extreme scenario. He also contrasts “abstract absolutism,” in which one weighs the alternatives without regard for limitations on our predictive power, with “concrete absolutism,” which would take into consideration, for example, our inability to be sure that the terrorists would keep their word or decline to issue further demands if their first were met.

Notes & Asides

*If human beings are metaphysically free, the problem is not even that we cannot know some fact about what would have happened if we had made different choices. Rather, there just is no fact of the matter about what would have happened, since the alternative outcome would have depended on the ensuing choices of others (whether Japan would have started another war if we had accepted its conditional surrender), and those choices, like our own, would not have been due to any kind of causal necessity. Such a case differs from one in which, for example, I heat water at sea level to 99 degrees Celsius and you ask me what will happen if we raise the temperature to 101. Here we assume that there is a fact of the matter (provided we have not succumbed to some sort of Humean skepticism about induction); and we assume so even if we have never learned the boiling point of water.

**I am strengthened in my aversion to speculative just-so stories by my error as an undergraduate student-newspaper columnist in supporting the Iraq War. When I imagined the possibility of rogue states’ enabling terrorist entities to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the need for preemptive war seemed obvious. Yet that speculative scenario turned out to have little factual basis (notwithstanding Saddam Hussein’s past support for terrorists and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction), and the war produced a human catastrophe beyond my imagining. My failure of imagination was perhaps due to a misapplication of history — my childhood memories of the fall of Communism had led me to suppose that the occupation and democratization of Iraq would be a simple matter, all toppled Saddam statues. It may be that the Middle East will yet embrace liberal democracy and that the Iraq War will have played a role in bringing about that result, but if so, the credit cannot be ours, given our false predictions and errors of judgment. There is great wisdom in the tenet of just-war theory according to which preemptive war is permissible only in response to a truly imminent threat.

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