The Necessity and Morality of the Atomic Bombs Reconsidered

On June 10th, 1942, the Ordnungspolizei, the Nazi Order Police, rolled into the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice. Two weeks earlier, the Nazi governor of the region, Reinhard Heydrich, had been attacked when resistance fighters threw a grenade into his car. Heydrich died a week later after refusing medical treatment from non-Germans.

The Nazi high command ordered reprisals, targeting Lidice in the incorrect belief that the village had harbored the attackers. The Order Police gathered all males over 14 years old and transported them to a farm at the edge of town. Beginning at 7:00 a.m., the Germans began executing their prisoners. At first, the men and boys were lined up and shot five at a time. But Police Chief Horst Bohme, considering the pace of the executions too slow, ordered them to be increased to 10 at a time. Rhythmic gunfire pierced the air for three hours until, finally, it ended. When it had, 173 lives had been snuffed out.

The village’s women and children, nearly 300 people in all, were then arrested by the Nazis. Four pregnant women were ordered to the same hospital in which Heydrich had died, where their pregnancies were forcibly aborted. While most of the women were sent to forced labor camps, most of the children were sent to concentration camps and orphanages, where 88 died. Of the 510 citizens of Lidice, only 170 survived the war.

A month after the massacre, American politician Wendell Wilkie called it “more terrible than anything that has happened since the Dark Ages.” The former presidential candidate said, “Let us here highly resolve that the memory of this little village of Bohemia…will fire us…with the iron resolution that the madness of tyrants must perish from the earth, so that the earth may return to the people to whom it belongs…”

Hiroshima & Nagasaki

A little more than three years after the Lidice Massacre, on the other side of the world, another civilian community faced the wrath of war. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb named Little Boy drifted out of an American B-29 bomber and plummeted towards the Japanese city of Hiroshima. At an altitude of about 1,900 feet, the bomb detonated with a blast equivalent to 15 kilotons of TNT.

Down below, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, was preparing to unload a cart full of items he had evacuated from his church. Tanimoto had pushed the cart from his church in the city out to the western suburb of Koi, where a wealthy businessman had agreed to keep the church’s bibles and hymnals safe from the American firebombings that had been striking Japanese cities with increasing regularity. Tanimoto had just reached the house when he saw a flash of light emanate from the city two miles away. Instinctively, he threw himself face down between two large rocks just before an immense shockwave sent debris flying all around him. When the commotion subsided, he raised his head to see that the businessman’s house had collapsed.

The pastor ran to a hill that overlooked the city, expecting to see a portion of it on fire. Instead, he saw that the entire city had been destroyed. “On the ground,” wrote historian J. Samuel Walker, “the bomb produced a ghastly scene of ruin, desolation and, human suffering. …Within a radius of a half mile or so, the force of the blast killed virtually everybody instantaneously.” Further away from the blast, Walker continued,

The survivors…were often horribly debilitated. Blinded by the flash, burned and blistered by the heat, cut beyond recognition by flying glass, those who could move stumped through the darkness caused by dust, smoke and debris. It was common to see people whose skin was hanging off their bodies… Charred corpses were everywhere…”

As Tanimoto surveyed the carnage, recounted American journalist John Hersey, he “thought of his wife and baby, his church, his home, his parishoners, all of them down in that awful murk” and he “began to run in fear – toward the city.”

As Tanimoto ran through the the streets of Hiroshima, he dodged the fires that had broken out. “As a Christian,” wrote Hersey, “he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt…” Serendipitously, Tanimoto ran – almost literally – into his wife who, with his infant daughter, had been buried in the rubble of the parsonage. She had been able to extricate herself and the baby just before fire consumed the building.

After finding his family, Tanimoto’s task turned to helping the mass of suffering humanity around him. The pastor spent the entire day helping victims to makeshift camps where they could be given water, but little medical care. The bomb had destroyed the city’s hospitals, and had killed or incapacitated nearly half of its doctors and over 90 percent of its nurses.

“Just before dark,” wrote Hersey, “Mr. Tanimoto came across a twenty-year-old girl, Mrs. Kamai, the Tanimotos’ next door neighbor. She was crouching on the ground with the body of her infant daughter in her arms. The baby had apparently been dead all day.” Kamai described how the bomb had collapsed her house, burying her and her baby, who was strapped to her back. When she was able to crawl out of the house, she “had discovered that the baby was choking, its mouth full of dirt.” She had been able to clear the baby’s airway and “for a time the child had breathed normally…[but] then suddenly it had died.” That this could have been the fate of his own infant daughter was not lost on Tanimoto.

The young mother begged Tanimoto to help find her husband, who had been inducted into the Japanese Army the previous day. “I’ll try,” the pastor replied, lacking confidence that he would be able to locate the man or even that he was alive. “You’ve got to find him,” she pleaded. “He loved our baby so much. I want him to see her once more.” Kamai carried her dead daughter’s body for four days, too distraught to let go and still hopeful of finding her husband.

Three days after the blast, while Tanimoto was still helping the wounded of Hiroshima, this scene of carnage was repeated in the city of Nagasaki, home to the largest and most-established Christian community in Japan. Ten thousand of Tanimoto’s fellow believers were among the 80,000 people incinerated in the blast, which historian Bradley Birzer wrote “provided the Christian Church with one of the single largest groups of martyrs in the entire century.”

After the Hiroshima bombing, President Harry Truman announced that the Japanese “have been repaid many fold [for Pearl Harbor]. And the end is not yet. …We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city.” Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where 200,000 people lay dead or dying, proved the veracity of the president’s claim.

What could have justified such destruction? To many, the Japanese surrender five days after the Nagasaki bombing provides the answer. The Japanese, so the story goes, were all radical fanatics who would have never stopped fighting if not for the bombs. But despite the widespread acceptance of this justification, questions about the necessity and morality of the atomic bombs persist, and answering those questions requires a search for truth than goes deeper than the accepted narrative.

The Bombs and Japan’s Surrender

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the American victory was shocking to neither country. “By the end of June 1945,” wrote Walker, “it had been apparent for some time to both American and Japanese leaders that the outcome of the war would be certain defeat for Japan.” But in Japan, this did not immediately lead to the conclusion that surrender was the only option. The American demand for unconditional surrender, combined with the Japanese militarists’ refusal to acknowledge defeat, led to a battle within the Japanese government over whether the war should be continued in the hopes of wearing down Americans’ will to continue fighting, or if a negotiated peace should be sought. The responsibility for this decision fell to the six-member Supreme Council for the Direction of the War in collaboration with Emperor Hirohito. The council’s deliberations reflected the longstanding divisions between Japanese moderates and militarists, and Emperor Hirohito, exhibiting the ambivalence that had for years plagued Japanese foreign policy, found himself almost simultaneously agreeing with both the militarists’ call to fight to the death and the moderates’ suggestion to send out peace feelers.

Some within the Japanese government tried to push the country towards the latter path. Japanese requests for peace negotiations started in April 1945 when officials, through intermediaries in Switzerland, indicated that Japan would be willing to surrender if the Americans would agree to permit the emperor to remain as the nation’s spiritual and political figurehead. To critics of the atomic bombs, these peace feelers prove that the Japanese were ready to surrender before the bombs were dropped, but that is an oversimplification of reality. While some Japanese officials were clearly attempting to open negotiations, any requests for peace terms before July 1945 were unofficial and not authorized by the government in Tokyo. While it would be a mistake to understate the importance of these attempts, they do not prove that Japan’s government was actively trying to surrender.

In mid-July, the government did officially authorize an attempt to negotiate peace when Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo instructed Japan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union to request Russian mediation in peace talks. Togo’s message, wrote Walker, stated that “the major impediment to peace was the American…insistence on unconditional surrender.” While the Russians rejected this request, American officials, who had broken the Japanese code, knew of the message. They also knew that the moderates and militarists disagreed on what acceptable peace terms would be. The moderates were more likely to accept the preservation of the emperor as their only condition, while the militarists wanted more and, in what Walker termed a show of just “how far out of touch with reality they were,” even held out hope that Russian would join the war on Japan’s side. American officials, acknowledging the disagreements within the Japanese government, took no action on the request for negotiations.

At the end of July, while at a meeting with Russian and British leaders in Potsdam, Germany, Truman received word of the successful test of an atomic bomb. Shortly after, the United States reaffirmed its demand for Japan’s unconditional surrender. But this Potsdam Declaration actually did contain some conditions, including that the Allies sought only the elimination of the militaristic elements within Japan, not the destruction of Japan itself. Conspicuously absent from the declaration, however, was any assurance of the status of the emperor, which Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had tried to include but Secretary of State James Byrnes had vetoed. Failure to submit to the declaration’s terms, the Allies warned, would result in “prompt and utter destruction.” Officially, the Japanese government rejected the Potsdam Declaration, but the moderates still hoped for peace negotiations.

Eleven days after the Potsdam Declaration, on August 6th, the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, causing Hirohito to state his desire to “end the war as soon as possible.” The Supreme Council scheduled a meeting for August 9 to discuss the terms Japan would ask for, but before the meeting began came word that Russian troops had invaded Japanese-held Manchuria, shattering for good any illusions that Russia would come to Japan’s aid or mediate peace with the United States. This news was followed by a report that a second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki. While the militarists still opposed accepting the Allied terms, these events caused Hirohito to state that it was time to “bear the unbearable” and surrender. The only condition that Japan requested was that the Potsdam terms did “not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.”

While most of President Truman’s advisers recommended acceptance of the Japanese offer, Byrnes demurred, instead drafting a reply which said that the authority of the emperor would be placed under the supreme commander of the Allied forces, General Douglas MacArthur. This reply, wrote Walker, “caused a new crisis in Tokyo” and threatened to throw even some moderates into the militarists’ camp. Only after Hirohito stated that he found the American terms acceptable did the Supreme Council break its stalemate and vote to accept them. On August 14, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

Japan’s Depleted Strength

While the atomic bombs were unquestionably important in bringing about Japan’s surrender, the question of their ultimate necessity in the surrender remains unsettled. Any discussion of this question must begin by taking account of Japan’s military situation in August 1945, by which time it was no longer the military juggernaut it had been in 1941. Not only had American soldiers and marines driven the Japanese out of the Philippines and off a succession of strategic islands in the Pacific but worse, wrote Walker,

[Japan’s] once-proud navy had ceased to exist as an effective fighting force. The air corps could no longer claim technological superiority over American planes and had lost a large percentage of its skilled pilots. The training of new recruits was discontinued in March 1945 because of a lack of aviation fuel. The decline of the air force left Japanese cities poorly defended against American bombing attacks.

These bombing attacks, wrote New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin, had “started slowly in June, 1944…had been increased materially in 1945, and by August, 1945, more than 16,000 tons of bombs had ravaged Japanese cities.” The bombings, which generated firestorms so hot that they boiled rivers and canals, killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians and left millions more homeless.

While the Japanese Army still had a large fighting force, Walker wrote that “much of it remained bogged down on the Asian mainland or isolated on islands that American forces bypassed.” Moreover, the Japanese Army in China, wrote Baldwin, was “largely composed of green conscripts and second-rate troops, with virtually no air support and [was] incapable of a prolonged campaign.” These troops, furthermore, could not used in the defense of Japan because American control of the seas prevented them from being transported from China.

This naval superiority created problems on Japan’s home front as well. “A tight blockade,” wrote Walker, “…cut off Japan from its sources of vital supplies, including staples such as foodstuffs and oil.” This was particularly devastating for Japan because, even before the war, its limited natural resources created a reliance on imports. “Because of this,” wrote historian Anthony Kubek, “the center of her economic existence was Japan’s merchant navy, without which she could not survive.”

War production also floundered due to the bombings and blockade. By July 1945, wrote Baldwin, “the production of military supplies in Japan [was] 50 percent” of peak levels, and the production of aircraft, automobiles, weapons and ammunition were all at insufficient levels. Due to the blockade, Walker wrote that Japan

faced the grim prospect of diminishing stockpiles of goods that were essential not only to the war effort but to the very life of the nation. Civilian morale was shaken by the bombing of cities, the dwindling supplies, and the other heavy costs that the war assessed on the Japanese home front. Even the army was suffering from decreasing morale.

The Japanese government was well aware of the impossibility of its situation. In April 1945, Hisatsune Sakomuzi presented a report to Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki that predicted that the blockade and bombings would destroy the economy, leading to food shortages and mass starvation. Sakomizu, wrote Walker, “held out no hope that the situation would improve or that Japan could carry on the fight long into the future.” He warned “that the Japanese people were growing weary of the conflict and dissatisfied with their leaders” and that “criticism of the government was increasingly evident.” Sakomizu’s report reiterated warnings that military leaders had been giving since 1944.

American Options to End the War

These were the factors that led Japanese officials to seek peace negotiations in the spring and summer of 1945. But why did the United States not respond to these requests? One reason was that American officials could not agree on whether or not to modify the unconditional surrender terms. Some officials – including respected diplomat Joseph Grew, Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy and Secretary of War Stimson – predicted that holding onto unconditional surrender would embolden the Japanese will to resist, and advised revising the terms to at least allow the emperor to remain in power. Others, chiefly Secretary of State Byrnes, opposed this suggestion. Byrnes fretted over the political consequences of altering unconditional surrender, simultaneously fearing that doing so would be unpopular with the American public and that it would weaken Americans’ will to keep fighting.

Another factor in the American response was the American failure to, in Baldwin’s words, “appreciate fully the hopeless [strategic] position of Japan…” American officials, said Baldwin, “‘confused Japanese capabilities with Japanese intentions…[and] believed the Japanese would resist to the last man, no matter how hopelessly beaten.” These beliefs caused some American officials, notably Byrnes and Truman, to overstate Japan’s ability to continue the war, unaware that their estimations, in Baldwin’s words, “were completely erroneous.”

Some American leaders disagreed with these erroneous assessments. In June 1945, Stimson told Truman that the Japanese were “susceptible to reason” and that Japan was “not a nation composed wholly of mad fanatics of an entirely different mentality than ours.” Former president Herbert Hoover advised Truman to tell the Japanese that, “We have no intention or desire to destroy the position of the Emperor,” while declaring, “We will not relax other demands.” Hoover’s suggestions, General Douglas MacArthur later wrote, were “wise and statemsanlike” and, had they been followed, “would have obviated the slaughter at Hiroshima and Nagasaki…” MacArthur had himself told his superiors in the fall of 1944 that Japan “had neither the imagination or the foresighted ability to continue total war.” He reported that “defeat now stares her in the face,” accurately predicting the difficulties of transportation, supply and production that Japan would face as a result of American gains. These arguments failed to sway Truman and Byrnes.

The commitment to unconditional surrender and the belief that Japan could continue the war indefinitely collided with the administration’s concerns that the American public might be growing war weary. Specifically, Truman worried about the casualties that would result from an invasion of the Japanese islands that was scheduled for November 1945. Truman’s advisers had predicted that American deaths from the two-phased invasion would range from 31,000 to 46,000, but Truman would later claim that he had been given much higher casualty projections, leading to one of the most rancorous historiographic debates about the war. Despite arguments that have persisted for nearly a century, there is no evidence, wrote Walker, “that [Truman] received information from high-ranking military officials that an invasion of Japan would cost as many as 500,000 to 1 million American casualties or deaths, as he and some of his advisers claimed after the war.”

Still, nearly 50,000 deaths was not an insignificant number and when combined with declining public enthusiasm for the war, these projections led Truman to look for a way to end the war as quickly and with as few American casualties as possible. For Truman, the atomic bomb was something of a godsend, a way to end the war without dragging it out. His choice to use of the bombs, then, was not so much an effort to win the war, which was all but a foregone conclusion, as it was to force Japan’s immediate, unconditional surrender.

Would Japan Have Surrendered Without the Bombs?

When Truman’s defenders say that the atomic bombs were necessary, what they really mean is that they were necessary to bring about victory on specific terms at a specific time. But this does not mean that the bombs were necessary to bring about peace with Japan outside of these arbitrary restrictions.

It is quite likely that, even without the atomic bombs, Japan would have surrendered before the invasion began in November. The difficulties that Japan faced in August 1945, which Walker observed, “had already fostered enough [public] discontent to worry the emperor and his advisers” would have been intensified in the ensuing months. Not only was the blockade strangling the Japanese economy and the B-29 raids destroying Japanese cities, but the United States was preparing mass bombings of Japanese railroads on which, wrote Walker, “The distribution of food…was heavily dependent…” The longer the war continued, the more “the Japanese population faced the grim prospect of mass starvation.”

Due to this, Walker believed that “Even without the atomic attacks, it seems likely that the emperor at some point would have acted in the same way that he did in the aftermath of Hiroshima…” He continued,

It appears probable that the emperor would have moved to end the war before an American invasion. The fact that the invasion was a dreadful prospect for American leaders and soldiers should not obscure the fact that the costs in lives and destruction would have been even greater for the Japanese. In the light of the hardships that Japan was suffering, growing popular criticism of the government, and the intervention of the emperor once he clearly opted for peace, it seems reasonable to conclude that a combination of the B-29 raids with conventional bombs, the blockade, the Soviet invasion, and perhaps a moderation of the unconditional surrender policy would have ended the war without an invasion and without the use of atomic bombs.

Japanese militarists would likely have opposed surrender, even under these circumstances, but Walker wrote that Hirohito and his most trusted advisers “were much more concerned about a loss of popular support that could threaten the national polity” and would likely have authorized surrender before November. Walker was joined in this belief by historian Barton Bernstein, a recognized expert on the topic, who concluded that “it is likely, but far from definite, that a combination of non-nuclear options could have ended the war in the summer without the atomic bombings.”

After the war, several high-profile American officials and military officers – including Generals MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower – came to the same conclusion. Eisenhower said that “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing,” adding that he “hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” Major General Curtis LeMay said that “The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war,” claiming that it “would have been over in two weeks” without them. Admiral Chester Nimitz concurred, flatly stating that “The Atomic bomb did not win the war with Japan,” rather it “merely hastened a process already reaching an inevitable conclusion…” Chief of Staff Leahy agreed, writing that “this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war with Japan. The Japanese were already defeated…because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.” General Albert Wedemeyer wrote that an invasion of Japan “was not necessary”and that the United States “could have maintained a tight blockade around the islands ad infinitum.”

Journalists in both countries supported these conclusions. Harry F. Kern, the managing editor of Newsweek who had conducted an investigation of the bombs, wrote in a letter to Hanson Baldwin that

it is fair to say that the principal effect of the atom bomb on the Japanese surrender was to provide [Prime Minister] Suzuki with the immediate excuse for setting in motion the chain of events which resulted in the surrender. …I don’t think we can say that it acted as anything more than a catalyst in advancing the plans of Suzuki and his supporters.

Japanese journalist Masuo Kato agreed, writing,

The thunderous arrival of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima was only a coup de grâce for an empire already struggling in particularly agonizing death throes. The world’s newest and most devastating of weapons had floated out of the summer sky to destroy a city at a stroke, but its arrival had a small effect on the outcome of the war between Japan and the United Nations.

The United States, said some observers, should have recognized Japan’s perilous situation and engaged in peace negotiations. Lord Maurice Hankey, a member of the British War Cabinet, criticized the American decision to “not pause to seek some more normal means of obtaining the terms they needed…[or] wait to learn the effect of the Russian declaration of war [on August 9].” Anthony Kubek found it, “tragic that we never asked the Japanese whether they would surrender on certain conditions,” believing that doing so “would have prevented a great deal of destruction and agony.”

The bombs’ defenders have tried to explain away these opinions, but Walker wrote that “the independent testimonies of so many top officials about the likelihood of the war ending without an invasion or the bomb should not be lightly dismissed.” While “Their judgments were not conclusive,” he continued, “they provided substantial confirmatory evidence that victory over Japan could have been achieved without either the bombs or an invasion.”

While nobody can say with certainty what would have happened if the atomic bombs had not been used, evidence points with high confidence to the conclusion that the bombs were not necessary to bring about the ultimate Japanese surrender.

Criticizing the Bombs on Conservative Terms

Over the years, the debate over the necessity of the atomic bombs’ has become a proxy for deeper questions about the morality of their use, as both critics and defenders have attempted to use historical facts to build a moral case for their positions. To the bombs’ defenders, their military necessity merges with the righteousness of the American cause to form a moral justification for annihilating Japanese civilians. This at least partly explains why apologists will admit no evidence that points away from the bombs’ necessity. If the bombs weren’t necessary, they lose their moral justification and become one of the most infamous mass murders in history. Critics, too, have tried to use history to make their case, which explains their tendency to overstate the importance of the Japanese peace feelers as an indication of official Japanese policy.

What both groups often fail to realize is that the bombs’ morality is a distinct question from their military necessity. Historical facts might be able to tell us whether the bombs aided in victory or even if they saved lives, but what history cannot decide is if the act of intentionally killing civilians during warfare is an inherently immoral act. Such determinations are dependent upon a larger view of morality itself, and unless that view is purely utilitarian, it is conceivable that even if the bombs were militarily necessary, they were still immoral.

It should first be noted that while the primary reason the bombs were dropped was Truman’s desire to end the war quickly, there were other considerations that factored into his decision and that have seeped into the postwar defenses of the bombs. Chief among these justifications is that the bombs were payback for Japanese aggression. Truman himself articulated this position when, responding to criticism from an American minister, he wrote, “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war… When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”

This argument is fundamentally an attempt to indict all Japanese people for the actions of the Japanese government and military. Felix Morley, a conservative journalist and academic, criticized this mentality, writing, “Pearl Harbor was an indefensible and infamous act of aggression. But Hiroshima was an equally atrocious act of revenge… It was pure accident if a single person slain at Hiroshima had personal responsibility for the Pearl Harbor outrage.” In appealing to this justification, Morley said, the bombs’ defenders were trying “to reconcile the mass murder of ‘enemy children’ with lip service to the doctrine that God created all men in his image.”

Morley and his fellow conservatives understood the distinction between historical justifications and moral condemnations for the bombs, so it was no surprise that conservatives – who were accustomed to thinking in moral terms – became the bombs’ harshest critics. To conservatives, not only was killing non-combatants immoral, but intentionally targeting them constituted a break from tradition. Richard Weaver, an influential postwar conservative, wrote that traditionally, “even the institution of war…had to make appropriate discriminations. There were those who were…liable to its dangers and losses and those who were exempt; there were things which men engaged in fighting a war might do and things they were forbidden to do.” These limitations, Weaver said, were shattered during World War II and the atomic bomb had delivered the knockout blow.

Conservative icon Russell Kirk agreed that the bombs were based in an non-traditional mindset. Bradley Birzer wrote that, to Kirk, “the atomic bomb was the consequence of progressivism,” which he believed “would always lead to dehumanization.” Weaver added collectivism to the list of unconservative philosophies to blame for the use of the bombs, writing

The coalescence of the people of a country into one mass, begun under the influence of certain scientific concepts and furthered under the influence of certain sociological and economic dogmas, destroyed the outlook which had given sanction to these discriminations. Those who insisted that certain groups…had a right to be spared the sufferings of war now had nothing to appeal to.

Weaver believed that “the closer society is moved toward a monolithic mass, the harder it becomes to plead for any kind of exception. [Citizens] are all now fused into one element, which is treated as a unit for the purposes of war – by the country as well as by the enemy.”

For conservatives, dropping the atomic bombs wasn’t merely an immoral act, it was a sign that civilization was decaying to the point of abandoning its foundational principles. Kirk believed the atomic bombs were evidence that “We are the barbarians within our own empire.” Weaver wrote that “Of the many things which cause us to feel that spirit indispensable to civilization has been weakened, none should arouse deeper alarm than total war,” which justified attacks against non-combatants. World War II had brought the triumph of total war over tradition, he said, continuing

Our nation was treated to the spectacle of young boys fresh out of Kansas and Texas turning nonmilitary Dresden into a holocaust…pulverizing ancient shrines like Monte Cassino and Nuremberg, and bringing atomic annihilation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are items of the evidence that the war of unlimited objectives has swallowed up all discrimination…[and] humanity…

Weaver despaired, “Such things are so inimical to the foundations on which civilization is built that they cast into doubt the very possibility of recovery.” A nation that intentionally attacked civilians, he wrote, was abandoning the “restraints which civilization slowly and painfully creates through patient example and exhortation. These creations are fragile under the best conditions. It is difficult to bring them into being, easy to shatter them, and they are not readily put back together again.”

Weaver deplored the dehumanization that emanated from total war and that justified the bombing of civilians. Tradition, he said, taught that going to war with an enemy did “not mean that you place him outside the pale of humanity… Even in warfare…you conduct yourself in such a way that civilization can go on. The real, the absolute prohibition, is against shattering the mold of civilization, which includes both you and your foe.” To Weaver, the horror of the atomic bombs wasn’t confined to the destruction on the ground. “It is more than disturbing,” he wrote, “to think that the restraints which had been formed through religion and humanitarian liberalism proved too weak to stay the tide…”

In rejecting the foundations of Western Civilization, conservatives said that the United States had earned a place of dishonor alongside the most infamous barbarians in history. Kirk wrote that “We Americans happened to be first in the race for the acquisition of the tools of mass slaughter, and we used those tools as the Roman used his sword and his catapult against Carthage.” Hanson Baldwin wrote that “By using the bomb, we have become identified…as inheritors of the mantle of Genghis Khan and all those of past history who have justified the use of utter ruthlessness in war.” Admiral Leahy believed that “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.”

Conservatives believed that such parallels should be alarming to Americans. Herbert Hoover, in a moment of unjustified optimism, predicted that the atomic bombs “will forever weigh heavily on the American conscience.” But Kirk saw no evidence that Hoover was right, writing to a friend that Americans, rather than soberly considering the bombs’ implications, instead “go on listening to ‘the Hit Parade,’ striking, drinking fornicating, cheating, hating.”

Baldwin attempted to explain his countrymen’s lack of concern, writing, that “Americans, in their own eyes, are a naively idealistic people, with none of the crass ruthlessness so often exhibited by other nations.” But, with the example of the atomic bombs, he continued, “…in the eyes of others our record is very far from clean, nor can objective history palliate it.” He believed that, “the atomic bomb has cost us dearly…we are no longer the world’s moral leader…”

Other conservatives concurred. “After all our humanitarian bragging,” wrote Kirk, “…we behaved precisely as we accused our enemies of behaving. I am afraid that we must confess, now, that Americans have no peculiar exemption from Sin…and that pure power, in our hands, is as dreadful as pure power in the hands of any other nation.” A generation later, Birzer asked, “Is what we did to Japanese innocents in August 1945 that different from what the National Socialists did…?” and answered, “I would argue it was not. It all comes down to state-sanctioned murder of the innocent.”

Stooping to the level of totalitarian tyrants, Weaver said, undermined the moral victory that the war was alleged to have achieved, writing that total war “destroys the very things for which one is supposed to be sacrificing. The ‘total’ belligerent finds at the end that he has the formal triumph, but that he has lost not only the lives necessary to win it but also the objectives for which it was waged. In other words he has lost the thing that the lives were being expended to preserve.”

From Lidice to Hiroshima

For the bombs’ defenders, these criticisms raise thorny questions. What made the American obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki substantively different than the Nazis’ massacre in Lidice? Why was one grotesquely immoral and the other justified by military necessity? Were American reprisals more moral than Nazi reprisals? Were Japanese civilians less dead than their Czechoslovakian counterparts? If dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations in fact held more commonality with the tactics of Nazis than with the Western tradition, of what value was the final victory?

Certainly, there are rebuttals to these admittedly loaded questions. The Nazis were invaders, the Americans weren’t. The Nazis were seeking only revenge, the Americans were trying to end the war. And these counterpoints are fine as far as they go. But it cannot be denied, even if some still try, that the United States knowingly and intentionally killed hundreds of thousands of civilians with the atomic bombs. If that is justifiable, what other methods of ending the war might have been permissible? If American soldiers had been able to seize Hiroshima, would it have been moral to drag Japanese civilians into the city center, line them up and shoot them, just as the Nazis did in Lidice? If ending the war had required that level of ruthlessness – American GI’s looking Japanese men, women, children and little babies in the eyes as they executed them, ten at a time, 20,000 times – would that have been justified in moral terms? Would resorting to the Red Army’s tactic of mass rape have been justified if it resulted in Japan’s surrender?

Some, undoubtedly, would say yes to all these questions. These acts may be heinous, they might reason, but if they contributed to the greater good of ending the war, they would have been justified. But it is impossible to come to this conclusion and hold to a transcendent, objective standard of morality, on which not only traditional conservatism but Western Civilization was built. Redefining what is right and wrong based on the exigencies of the moment is the very definition of moral relativism, which closely approaches the exact opposite of traditional perspectives on morality.

This is not to understate the complexity of the period or the difficult decisions that American officials faced in the summer of 1945. But justifying the intentional destruction of innocent life, even if carried out by the comparably impersonal atomic bomb, cannot be harmonized with any non-subjective moral philosophy. Arguments about how many lives the bombs saved might appeal to utilitarian sensibilities, but they fall short on moral grounds.

Perhaps, wrote Kirk, “…our primary concern ought not to be for our own lives, but for justice and mercy under God.” This view is sadly out of step,  not only with the “victory at any price” mentality that has dominated discussions of the atomic bombs, but especially with adherents to the conservative movement which Kirk himself built. Perhaps no other fact illustrates the deleterious cultural effect of the atomic bombs than that Americans who on other topics hold to rigid standards of morality are their staunchest defenders.

Had the United States not used the atomic bombs on Japan, victory would have been delayed by weeks or months, but it undoubtedly would have come. But for Kirk, the victory won by the atomic bombs was morally and culturally vacant. It would have been better, he believed, to lose the war than the moral foundations of civilization. Resorting to barbarism not only betrayed the principles that the United States was supposed to be fighting for, it invited divine judgment. It was for this reason that Kirk ominously concluded that “There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God.”

Note: This article is part of a series on World War II. Click here for the complete series and here for a selected bibliography

(Cover photo courtesy of The Telegraph)