I talked to a liberal recently about the atomic bombing of Japan at the end of World War II. To this man, it was an undeniable fact that dropping the bombs was morally and ethically wrong. Destroying the two cities and killing hundreds of thousands of “innocent civilians”, was, in his mind, one of the great crimes of the last century. He said it was “self evident to anything thinking person” that it was a crime of the highest magnitude.
I enjoy examining such “obviously self-evident” truths to determine for myself, without bias, the facts surrounding the circumstances and come to my own conclusions.
On the surface, it seems “obvious” that the killing of almost 200,000 people in a couple of instants is wrong. However, sometimes the ethics of a decision are not so obvious once you examine the facts at look at the situation of the decision makers.
At that time, a long and extremely costly war had been fought with Germany, Japan and Italy (plus a few other countries like Romania) on one side, and France, Russia, the United States and Britain (and a number of other countries) on the other. As many as 50 to 60 million people were killed in that war up until that time, and the war with Japan was getting uglier by the moment.
The United States was nearing the end game of the war with Japan, and that consisted of an invasion of the Japanese home islands. This was going to be the largest ever amphibious invasion by far (much larger than Normandy) and the estimates of casualties were phenomenally high. The United States and Britain expected to have hundreds of thousands of dead, and we estimated the Japanese might have as many as 5 to 10 million dead, depending upon how hard they fought. And if Iwo Jima and Okinawa were any measure, the Japanese were going to fight hard indeed.
But weren’t the Japanese about to surrender anyway? Weren’t they putting out feelers about surrendering? And didn’t the insistence upon unconditional surrender make it all last much longer than necessary?
Again, to judge the decision to drop the bombs, you have to consider the mindset of the people at the time. The Japanese, to that point, fought almost to the last man. Any prisoners taken were more by accident or circumstance than by surrender. The battle for Okinawa was incredibly bloody, and Iwo Jimo (just before) was just as bad.
The Japanese might or might not have been considering surrender, but given the way things had been going in the Pacific war to date, it was impossible to count on that possibility.
I cannot make a moral or ethical choice for you. I can say that if I were in charge at the time, in 1945, it would have been an agonizing decision.
Read the articles below yourself, plus dig up other factual references yourself, and come to your own conclusion.
There are voices which assert that the bomb should never have been used at all. I cannot associate myself with such ideas. […] I am surprised that very worthy people—but people who in most cases had no intention of proceeding to the Japanese front themselves—should adopt the position that rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives.
—Winston Churchill, leader of the Opposition, in a speech to the British House of Commons, August 1945