The wrong lesson from Hiroshima

It's not weakness to regard dropping atom bombs on two Japanese cities as immoral
Michael Cook | May 13 2016 | comment  



There is a disturbing moral weakness infecting American youth, according to an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. It’s not binge drinking, or feeling the Bern, or watching cat videos on YouTube. It’s negativity about bombing Hiroshima.

Last year, according to a Pew Research poll, only 47 percent of 18 to 29-year-old thought the US was justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This, says the author, Michael Mazza, of the American Enterprise Institute, is “especially disturbing”.

Just to place Mr Mazza’s disquiet about the corruption of youth in context, let’s recall what happened.

An atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and killed 135,000 people, immediately and in the months afterward. About 20,000 of these may have been soldiers (including a dozen American POWs), but the rest were civilians. A bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later killed between 60,000 and 70,000, nearly all civilians. (Because of the chaotic conditions, the figures are not exact.)

My father survived Okinawa, the last major battle of the war. It was ferocious. Civilians were forced to fight and most died; 90 percent of Japanese troops were killed. My father never said much about the horror of that campaign, but no doubt he approved of the bomb. If the Japanese mainland had been invaded, his luck might have run out. President Harry S Truman believed that the bomb saved half a million American lives. Many more, if you include me and my fellow baby boomers.

So there’s a prima facie argument for the bomb and it’s hardly surprising that immediately after World War II ended, 85 percent of Americans believed that using it was justified.

But now that we have had 71 years to reflect upon the devastation of nuclear warfare and the US and Japan are not only at peace but close allies, isn’t time to admit that Truman’s decision was wrong?

It’s important to ask the right question. This is not: “did it defeat the enemy?” but “was it just?” In Mr Mazza’s framework, the end (saving the lives of 500,000 American soldiers) obviously justified the means (murdering 200,000 Japanese civilians).

The soundest refutation of this line of thinking I have ever read comes from the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001). In 1956 her university, Oxford, proposed to give former President Truman an honorary doctorate. Although Anscombe was no pacifist, she was incensed and wrote a pamphlet* in a futile appeal to the Oxford dons to change their mind. As she points out, all of the arguments which Oxford used to exculpate Mr Truman were also used at Nuremberg Trials to defend Nazi war criminals: he did not make the bomb himself; he was given advice that it was the right thing to do; it was just a signature on a piece of paper; it was just one unfortunate incident in stellar career, etc.

Anscombe is scathing. Under the circumstances, she acknowledges, dropping the bomb seemed the lesser of two evils. But what were the circumstances? It was the Allies’ “fixation on unconditional surrender” in spite of indications that the Japanese were interested in opening negotiations. “We can now reformulate the principle of doing evil that good may come,” she said: “every fool can be as much of a knave as suits him.” 

Mr Mazza writes: “The correct lesson is that it is sometimes necessary to employ great violence to root out great evil.” This maxim is rhetorical rah-rah to cloak Truman’s ruthlessness: the decision to flatten these two cities necessarily included a decision to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. Not because they were essential to the war, not because they were a potential militia, not even as collateral damage, but just as an object lesson to deter to further resistance. Astonishingly, Mr Mazza doesn't even mention this aspect of Hiroshima. It must be that the evil of the action is so overwhelming that it blinded him. Anscombe is far more clear-headed. She writes:

“For me to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensberry Rules: its force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned.

“When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one's ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct. But I shall be asked for my definition of ‘the innocent’. I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.”

Once the utilitarian principle is accepted, any atrocity can be justified, any tin-pot general exonerated.

President Obama is to visit Hiroshima at the end of May, the first incumbent American president to do so. Mr Mazza hopes that he will not make the moral sickness of the younger generation worse and weaken their resolve to “to use the instruments at their disposal to ensure a peaceful world”.

Let’s all hope that. Better still, let’s hope that they will never, ever, use the instruments at their disposal to murder innocent women and children.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

* G.E.M. Anscombe, “Mr. Truman's Degree,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. 3, Ethics, Religion and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 62–71.



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