Every year, on 15th August, the world stops and reflects. Not only are the deaths of tens of thousands of people mourned for, but the decision that caused them is debated – whether the US was ethically justified in dropping two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world was soldiering towards the end of a dark period of human history that had seen the worst ever conflict, with around 70 million people dying in total during WW2.
Historian Robert Newman concluded that each month that the war continued in 1945 would have caused deaths ‘upwards of 250,000 mostly Asian people.’ This led to a debate on how to end the war through Japanese surrender. It was framed as binary: invasion on Japanese soil or bomb them to submission. It’s believed invasion would ultimately cause far more deaths due to the ancient warrior traditions ingrained in Japanese culture, which consider military surrender to be extremely dishonourable. It was believed Japan would not surrender unless there was an overwhelming demonstration of destructive capability. Ending the war would also limit the expansion of the Japanese controlled Vietnamese famine of 1945, bringing an end to 1–2 million deaths, as well as liberating millions of civilian labourers and Allied prisoners of war.
These reasons provided a strong incentive for the US to end the war as quickly as possible. By choosing to use nuclear weapons, they adopted a stance that limited casualties in the war on both sides, and forced Japanese surrender. The death tolls in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a small price to pay than the greater loss of life anticipated under an invasion. Within a utilitarian framework, the bombings were essentially an act of humanity, justifying the decision.
Aristotle believed the virtuous option was between the two extremes of deficiency and excess. However, this virtuous option is ultimately dependent on the circumstances of the situation. In wartimes, morality is a luxury and some rules of ethical standpoints prove impractical. For Truman in this case, the extreme of excess would be the US deciding to annihilate Japan, completely destroying the country and its inhabitants. The extreme of deficiency would be a gruelling close-quarters warfare with Japanese soldiers, resulting in the loss of many American troops needlessly, as well as a far greater number of Japanese. That argument resonated with a war-weary America at the time and it would have been hard for Truman to justify to the American public why he prolonged the war when this weapon was available. It should be noted that neither city was just a civilian target. Hiroshima was Japan’s western military capital, home of munitions factories and Nagasaki was a key port. Truman was making the virtuous decision, choosing to protect the troops of both nations and end the vicious war. Robert Newman stated “There can be justified terror, as there can be just wars”, and ending the war this way was a necessary evil.
The simplified argument that use of nuclear weapons limited overall casualties – by shortening war against the surrender-dishonouring Japanese – is justified according to utilitarianism. However, this isn’t necessarily accurate. Despite this strong Japanese culture, there’s evidence to show that Japan were considering surrender before the bomb.
The Allies’ Potsdam Declaration (26th July) called for unconditional surrender of Japan. However, it was deliberately left vague – for future manipulation – by the allies, especially regarding the fate of Japan’s Emperor. The Japanese revered their Emperor as a god, and would defend him indefinitely. The Americans intended on letting him stay in power, but didn’t state this in the declaration. Had this been clarified, Japan were more likely to accept the surrender.
On 15th August, Russia invaded Japan, which led to surrender that same day. Some argue surrender wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the nuclear bombings the week before. However, there are multiple counter-arguments to this, like the US Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted after the war. It concluded that Japan would have surrendered before the planned US invasion in November. On 17th July, Truman wrote in his diary, “(Stalin’s) in Jap War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about”, meaning he believed Russia would force Japan into surrender. It’s irrelevant whether the surrender would have actually occurred from the invasion alone; from the sole perspective of care ethics, it was immoral of Truman to allow the nuclear bombing when he believed that Japan would surrender anyway. There is belief that surrender could have been reached without the use of nuclear weapons, or even invasion. Thus, either of these options could be considered unethical from a utilitarian perspective, causing unnecessary deaths.
If use of the bombs were to minimise casualties, they were unjust nonetheless. Kantian ethics states that moral ‘goodness’ isn’t determined by relation to a context or an end, meaning the use of the bomb was unjustified in ending the war. Furthermore, had the Axis powers used a nuclear bomb and still lost the war, it could’ve been considered a war crime. The inhumanity of the act – the vaporisation of women and children – would have demanded reparations similar to those imposed on Germany after the Holocaust. This can be considered ethically unjust, backed up by the UN’s (of which the US is a main member) Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, which prevents the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology to other countries. This is hypocritical of the US, as they’re permitted nuclear weapons under the treaty’s terms, but prevent other nations from adopting them. Regarding Kantian ethics, how can they justify the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, but stop other countries from doing the same?
There is no way of knowing the outcome of WW2 if the bomb hadn’t been dropped. It’s easy to look back in hindsight, in a time of relative peace, and question the actions of our predecessors, with the knowledge we now have of nuclear warfare. Would we think differently if the sides were reversed?
Group’s stance: Against