As World War II was drawing to a close, Germany had been defeated and the Empire of Japan all but completely defeated. Japan’s Pacific territories were under United States and Allied control; its army, navy, and air force had been destroyed; and its resources had been cut off. The United States was faced with how to deal with the population and government that remained intact on Japanese mainland. The Japanese had not surrendered despite extensive U.S. bombing of Japan’s major cities, which were now left defenseless against air assault.
Meanwhile, the United States had developed the world’s first atomic bomb and was contemplating whether or not to use it on a Japanese target in order to force Japan to finally surrender. In August of 1945, the United States decided to drop atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing as many as 120,000 people—the vast majority of whom were civilians. Twenty U.S. and Allied prisoners of war were also killed.
This decision—approved and put into action by President Truman—was proposed initially by a small group of advisers led by Secretary of War Henry Stimson along with a group of scientists who had worked on the bomb in the Manhattan Project. Truman and Stimson justified using the bomb for the following reasons:
To save lives of American soldiers who were in potential jeopardy as long as Japan was still officially at war with the United States
To let nations potentially dangerous to world peace in the future—like Stalin’s Soviet Union—know that the United States had this capability
To speed the surrender of Japan by letting them know that they could be completely destroyed if they continued to resist
However, a number of prominent U.S. scientists and military officers argued that using the bomb was unnecessary to achieve these ends and that they could be achieved by alternate means such as:
Demonstrating the power of the bomb on an uninhabited island and following up with an ultimatum to the Japanese government
Blockading Japan until it was forced to surrender
Coordinating an invasion of the Japanese mainland with the Soviet Union
Warning the civilian population of a Japanese city before dropping the bomb so that civilians would have time to evacuate
Truman and Stimson later responded that these measures would not have been feasible since the possibility of the bomb failing to detonate was very real and would have been a strategic disaster. A sustained blockade of sufficient magnitude and duration would have been very difficult or impossible to effect, especially because it required the cooperation of the Soviet Union, and a land invasion of Japan would have been more destructive than using the bomb. Nonetheless, considering the powerless condition of Japan, the number of civilian casualties, and the clear opportunity for alternate courses of action, many historians and philosophers now claim that the use of the atomic bomb on these cities was a war crime.
Consider this case study from the perspective of any of the thinkers and theories we have examined throughout the course. Was the use of atomic bombs in this situation a war crime?
Above and beyond any formal theories or legal/philosophical principles, do you think that this was immoral