Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Question for Everyone

Nagasaki.  I'm pretty aware of the arguments on all sides about the choice to use the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and don't want to rehash those here, but: is there any legitimate justification for the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945?  Or, to put it in a more straightforward way: regardless of the justifications for other civilian-targeted and civilian-indifferent bombing in WWII, shouldn't we think Harry Truman a war criminal for bombing Nagasaki?


  1. Short answer: Yes.
    Long answer: Intended to provide an extra nudge for the Japanese; we were more or less aware of the internal deliberations following the Hiroshima/Russian DoW, and wanted to further convince the "surrender" faction of the seriousness of our purpose. Even if you buy the general logic behind that argument (and I think that there are some deep gaps), the Japanese probably still deserved a bit more time to come to terms with that decision.

  2. I think so. A type of war criminal anyway.

  3. I've thought about that question a lot, and I even once e-mailed J. Samuel Walker (whose book Prompt and Utter Destruction is a well-regarded scholarly discussion of the issues surrounding the use of atomic warfare against Japan) to ask about this very question (he also summarized the scholarly debate for an article in Diplomatic History about 5 or so years ago).

    Basically Walker's book made no distinction between Nagasaki and Hiroshima and did not remotely broach the question you do. I asked him about that and he said he just didn't think it was much of an issue. I'm pretty sure Truman authorized dropping bombs on two cities in the same order (i.e. he did not give a second order for Nagasaki after Hiroshima), and there was nothing particularly controversial about that choice at the time. I was actually surprised by Walker's semi-indifference to the question (basically, a "that's just how it happened" answer), but I don't think that's indicative of all historian's views by any means. Personally I think the bombing of Nagasaki was morally indefensible, and I think it is appropriate to think of Truman as a war criminal for it (and indeed for other things such as the fire bombing of Tokyo, but as you said let's not go there).

    In thinking about this issue though it helps to really get in the heads of Americans, both citizens and civilian and military leaders, circa August 1945. Regardless of all the other issues surrounding the decision to use the bomb, the fact is that once it was available as an option it would have been politically impossible not to use it. The Democratic party would have collapsed had that happened (i.e. once it came out that Truman didn't use a weapon that would kill Japanese and save Americans).

    Given that reality, it's pretty easy to understand how the question of "shouldn't we only do one bomb and see what happens" would not have even occurred to Truman et. al, or at least not been a central subject for debate. Postwar polls showed a significant number of Americans wished that more bombs would have been used against Japan--the desire for revenge was intense, unfortunately. Given that and a belief among the top brass (which may or may not have been correct) that the Japanese leadership would need more than one demonstration of the power of atomic weaponry before surrendering, their choice was hardly surprising.

    But I still think it's morally indefensible and a war crime, it's just that the political reality of the time pretty much guaranteed the outcome we ended up with, which makes it a bit trickier to end up with a simple black-and-white judgment of what happened. Obviously this line of argument about Nagasaki makes the point that politically popular decisions in relatively democratic countries can be profoundly inhumane and immoral--it's tricky to say how much we should blame Harry Truman for that, how much we should blame the American people, how much we should blame nationalism and racism, or how much we should blame human beings collectively in terms of how we behave in times of war.

  4. I don't think, given the limited understanding of the effects of nuclear weapons at the time, that either nuclear bombing is more of a war crime than our conventional bombings.

  5. If all of the following things are true (and I believe they are, but would be open to argument/evidence that they are not) Nagasaki was justified:

    * Truman reasonably believed that, even after Hiroshima, Japan would refuse to surrender if a second nuclear demonstration was not performed

    * Truman reasonably believed that any other means of bringing the war to an end, or even of simply containing Japan, would result in civilian casualties and devastation orders of magnitude worse than a second bomb (in addition to vast Allied casualties)

    * Truman reasonably believed that a second bomb WOULD induce Japan to surrender

    * The above three points were the primary motivation for Truman's decision.

    If point 4 fails, then Truman is a cold calculating SOB, but not a war criminal. Point 3 is almost trivially true. If points 1 or 2 are false, he was a war criminal.

  6. I agree that you shouldn't think of the atomic bombings of Japan as uniquely horrible. Part of the purpose of the air bombing campaign against Japan was to kill as many Japanese civillians as possible, and the firebombing raids against the combustible wood and paper Japanese cities killed many more Japanese citizens than both atomic attacks. While the Truman administration did have some concern for limiting the destruction in Japan (Truman's secretary of war famously vetoed a proposed attack against Kyoto because of his appreciation of its beauty) it's true that the welfare of Japan wasn't that important in the minds of the American policymakers fighting the war. This is understandable, if morally wrong. It's look back and argue that the Soviet entry into the war in Asia was enough to guarantee a Japanse surrender, but from Truman's perspective this was much less certain. Most Americans believed with good reason that Japan could never be forced to surrender with anything less than complete national destruction, and this belief certainly influenced Truman's decision making process. In retrospect the bombing of Nagasaki probably wasn't absolutely necessary to end the war and was by that measure morally wrong. But the decision is understandable from the perspective of the culture and wartime experiences of the Americans that decided to drop the bomb, if not absolutely justified.

  7. Anyone waging 'total war' is implicated in war crimes, but it is very hard for us to see this as people only three days into the atomic age saw it.

    The general experience, in World War II and before, has been that 'wonder weapons' don't work as well on the battlefield as do on the drawing board or even the proving ground. And the Los Alamos test, Trinity, was only three weeks earlier (July 16).

    So I wonder how fully Truman grasped, even (just) after Hiroshima, that the atomic bomb was not just 'a bigger bomb,' but three orders of magnitude more destructive. For all he knew for sure, Hiroshima was a horrific 'lucky' fluke unlikely to be repeated.

    In a sense it took Nagasaki to teach him, and all the rest of us, just how destructive nuclear weapons really are.

  8. From Downfall, by Richard B. Frank:

    Initial news of the atomic bomb failed to cow most leaders of the Japanese armed forces. Somw simply denied the existence of an atomic weapon. But the Chief of the Naval General Staff, Admiral Toyoda, was already formulating a second line of defense. He argued that the United Stated could not possess more than a limited amount of radioactive material, which could produce only a few bombs. Further, he believed that world opinion would intervene to bar the United States from perpetrating another such "inhuman atrocity." Toyoda's stance illustrated the irony that while Japan's own atomic program did not yield a bomb, it did breed knowledge wielded to minimikze the significance of the American weapons. Toyoda's assessment is also critical evidence of how easily Japanese military leaders could have inoculated themselves against being swayed by a mere demonstration of a single atomic device.

  9. Unbelievably good discussion. I myself can add nothing but the following Dave Barry line:

    "It was Truman who made the difficult decision to drop the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the rationale being that only such a devastating, horrendous display of destructive power would convince Japan that it had to surrender. Truman also made the decision to drop the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the rationale being that, hey, we had another bomb"

  10. I think some people would argue that the atomic bombs saved more Japanese lives than they cost. Forget the American lives saved for a second. If there was a ground invasion, the Japanese would have fought to the bitter end. The casualties would have been on the order of millions. Truman had to convince the emperor that failing to surrender would have meant the complete destruction of Japan. Even then, there was an attempted coup to prevent the surrender from occurring.

  11. I agree with the point already made that it is a mistake to distinguish the Nagasaki bomb (or Hiroshima bomb, for that matter) from other acts of WWII, including the firebombing of Japanese cities. But I would add that this discussion points to the weakness of the concept of 'war crime.' Plenty of folks were tried for war crimes in the wake of WWII--they were all on the losing side of the war, I believe. Bomber Harris never sat in the dock. To the extent that victors are never tried for war crimes, then NO, THE NAGASAKI BOMB WAS NOT A WAR CRIME, BY DEFINITION.

  12. regardless of the justifications for other civilian-targeted and civilian-indifferent bombing in WWII, shouldn't we think Harry Truman a war criminal for bombing Nagasaki?

    Only if we regard Churchill as one for the deaths of around 600,000 civilians due to RAF bombs. But then, of course, around 500,000 Russian civilians died from Luftwaffe bombs, as did some 60,000 British citizens. And many of the Japanese civilian casualties of American strategic bombing were killed before Truman came to power.

    We may believe that Nagasaki was redundant. I don't see how Truman could have come to that conclusion with sufficient certainty to justify not using a weapon which, in the end, simply concentrated the lethality of thousands of bombers with conventional weapons into one bomber with one weapon.


Who links to my website?