Written for an undergraduate course on December 21, 1988

The America people are the only nation in the history of the world to purposely subject other human beings to atomic bombings. Everyone knows that fact, but too few Americans think of the atomic bombings of Japan by the United States in August of 1945 in such circumspect terms. Before the bombings, the debate was limited to  those top officials (and scientists) who knew the secret of "S-1" and "tube alloys." After the bombings were announced, most amongst the war weary American public accepted that these acts had  morally vanquished the evil Japanese who had forced America to war through their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor four long years before. But, times have changed. In hindsight, the Japanese no longer seem so evil and many more people better understand the horrors of an atomic bombing.

In the four long decades since that decision was made, much has been written both attacking and defending it. Given all that information, it should be within the scope of this paper to present an argument that the atomic bombings of Japan were wrong. The "wrongness" of the bombings can be approached from a variety of perspectives. They can be argued morally wrong for the same reasons earlier intensive conventional bombings were wrong. They can be argued morally wrong for reasons transcending those earlier attacks. They can be argued pragmatically wrong because some rejected options could have served the same purpose with less moral tainting. They can be argued pragmatically wrong because the Japanese were about to surrender, anyway. Finally, they can be argued politically wrong because of their negative implications for subsequent U.S. arms control, geopolitics, and moral credibility.

There are various clear moral evils inherent in the atomic bombings of Japan. On the human level, the death, pain, and suffering involved were horrendous. But, in most of the evils, Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not stand alone. In terms of destruction of lives and property, the atomic bombings are on equal terms with the intensive conventional bombings of such cities as Hamburg, Tokyo, and Dresden. On the subject of Dresden, political philosopher Michael Walzer, in an article defending the targeting of civilian targets, makes a statement easily applicable to Hiroshima: "That is why it is so easy to condemn the attack on Dresden in 1945, which killed so many thousands of people and may or may not have hastened the end of the war by a few days: there was no longer even a remote chance of a Nazi victory. Indeed, the worst of the destruction of German cities took place after the greatest danger was long past..."1 If these horrendous acts were considered outside the context of war, they would certainly be considered a great moral evil. It does not take great imagination to see that component of moral negativity within the context of World War II.  

The atomic bombings do have an added dimension of moral negativity in that they showed a much greater potential for growth of destructive power than any conventional bombing.  As Robert Jay Lifton judges, "...with Hiroshima (and her neglected historical sister, Nagasaki) something more is involved: a dimension of totality, a sense of ultimate annihilation --- of cities, nations, the world."2 (Note: This paper does neglect Nagasaki on the assumption that if Hiroshima can be proved wrong, Nagasaki's "wrongness" falls logically into place.) This quote is not just poetry; it introduces a hindsight argument that the nuclear "sword of Damocles" that these bombings foreshadowed give them negative moral implications of a higher order of magnitude than any conventional bombing. Furthermore, such an argument cannot be dismissed as merely a hindsight construction. Before Hiroshima, in November, 1944, the Jeffries Report had this to say about the future implications of "nucleonics":

Peace based on uncontrolled and perhaps clandestine development of certain phases of nucleonics in a number of sovereign nations will be only an armistice. It is bound to end, sooner or later, in a catastrophe, particularly because nuclear power, beyond any older means of warfare, holds out to the aggressor the temptation of being able to make a successful sudden stroke ...The most that an independent American [arsenal] can achieve is ... the hope that the fear of ... retaliation will paralyze the aggressor. The whole history of mankind teaches that this is a very uncertain hope, and that accumulated weapons of destruction "go off" sooner or later, even if this means a senseless mutual destruction.3

The moral difference inherent in the new destructiveness of nuclear weapons was certainly not a complete surprise.  

Such a new destructiveness, with the different levels of moral questions it raises, might find justification for some in an argument for the pragmatic necessity of the act. Just such an argument is made by Henry Stimson and his biographer, McGeorge Bundy, in their article, "The Atomic Bomb and the Surrender of Japan." Stimson avoids the abstract moral ramifications with a practical argument that "...if we should be the first to develop the weapon, we should have a great new instrument for shortening the war and minimizing destruction. At no time, from 1941 to 1945, did I ever hear it suggested by the President, or any other responsible member of the government, that atomic energy should not be used in the war."4 Exploring the process and validity of the determination that the atomic bombings shortened the war and minimized destruction, then, should give insight into the pragmatic necessity of those actions.

When Stimson states that he heard no responsible member of the government suggesting that atomic energy not be used in the war, he is being somewhat coy. Various proposals on whether/how atomic energy should be used in the war were considered in the policy making process. On June 28, 1945, Stimson recieved a memo in which Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard stated, "before the bomb is actually used against Japan that Japan should have some preliminary warning for say two or three days in advance of use. The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of of our people generally is [sic] responsible in the main for this feeling."5 

Though Stimson and Bundy do give a cursory description of this debate on  details of policy, Stimson's service as Secretary of War throughout the decision and execution phases of the Manhattan Project lends legitimacy to his claim of representing the winning policy argument of the U.S. government of the time. As Stimson describes, "...from May 1, 1943, until my resignation as Secretary of War on September 21, 1945, I was directly responsible to the President for the administration of the entire undertaking."6 Because of Stimson's unique position in the atomic bomb decision making process, his article provides a rare inside look at the policy making process, especially at the process that culminated in the Potsdam Proclamation approach.

At this late date, it is hard to say anything about the rationale for the atomic bombings that has not been previously written. In 1954, the historian Robert J. Butow wrote: "Had the Allies given the Prince [Konoye] a week of grace in which to obtain his Government's support for acceptance of the proposals, the war might have ended toward the latter part of July or the very beginning of the month of August, without the atomic bomb and without Soviet participation in the conflict"7 The "proposals" mentioned refer to the Potsdam Proclamation of July 26, 1945. Since the  pragmatic necessity argument is based on a particular assumption of the war aims of the United States in the Pacific after the end of the European war, a quick summary of the Proclamations terms is necessary in order to understand what the atomic bomb was (or was not) needed to achieve.

The Potsdam Proclamation, broadcast as an ultimatum to the Japanese, has thirteen points. Points (1) through (4) give Japan the opportunity to choose reason over militarism while reminding Japan that the combined military might of the United States, the British Empire, and China would wreak devastation on Japan worse than that in Germany. Points (5) through (8) set non-negotiable terms that Japan depose the leaders responsible for its militarism, accept a transitional occupation, and restrict its sovereignty to Honshu, Hokkaido Kyushu, Shikoku, and some minor islands. Points (9) through (12) promise Japan peace, productivity, freedom, survival, human rights, non-military industries, access to raw materials, trade relations, and an eventual end to occupation. Point (13) calls on Japan to surrender and foreshadows the atomic bombings by stating, "The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction."8

It is important to note that this proclamation contains mitigating factors lacking in the description usually employed to describe what the United States wanted from Japan: unconditional surrender. But, as with any label, unconditional surrender is an oversimplification that masks aims more subtle than the term might imply. Further, the proclamation hints at but does not contain U.S. positions that would have made it more enticing to Japan which Stimson outlined in a preparatory memo on July 2. In stating its intention to depose "the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan,"9 the proclamation does not mention a position on the Emperor. Stimson stated in his earlier memo, "if in saying this we should add that we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance."10

In addition, though the proclamation does promise Japan productive industry, access to raw materials, and participation in world trade, it does not use as favorable terms as did Stimson's prepatory memo. The previous language was broader, promising "a reasonable standard of living... [and] ...mutually advantageous trade relations."11 These differences seem picayune until juxtaposed with the causes of the war from Japan's perspective. In 1941, Japan's Prince Konoye was attempting to gain from the United States  these same terms offered in the Stimson memo and, less clearly, in the Potsdam Proclamation. Historian Arnold Offner notes that:

through [Foreign Minister] Nomura on August 6 [1941], he [Konoye] proposed that Japan would put no more troops in the Southwest Pacific and would withdraw those in Indochina after settlement of the China Incident. In return, the United States would... help Japan gain resources from there [the Southwest Pacific] and the East Indies. The United States would also resume trade...12

Obviously, in 1941 there were a great variety of bargaining positions that no longer applied by July, 1945. But, if the U.S. objective in 1945 was the earliest peace available on American terms, then it is curious that these Japanese objectives that America was willing to grant were not more greatly emphasized in the Potsdam Proclamation.

The final weakness of the Potsdam Proclamation approach was the form of the message. Having broken Japanese codes, the American government was well aware of Japan's attempts at peace overtures through Russian channels in mid-July of 1945. One decoded Japanese diplomatic cable read: "Japan is defeated. We must face that fact and act accordingly."13 But, as Robert Jungk comments, "Truman, instead of exploiting these signinficant indications of Japanese weakness, issued a proclamation on July 26 at the Potsdam Conference, which was bound to make it difficult for the Japanese to capitulate without 'losing face' in the process."14 There is valid evidence, then, that the United States might have elicited a surrender from Japan with an even slightly more diplomatic approach.

In addition to the moral and pragmatic arguments against the  atomic bombings, there is a purely political argument against them. As previously quoted, the 1944 "Jeffries Report" predicted grave consequences from "uncontrolled" nucleonics. That report, however, counselled for a future in which nucleonics would be controlled. But, the way America's use of the atomic bomb was carried out drastically reduced prospects for such control. As Senator-elect Joseph Lieberman notes:

If the world's people viewed the United States as an inhumane power which could not be trusted, the scientists and others argued, then naturally there would be less desire on the part of other nations to enter into a system of atomic control ...[T]hese suggestions were turned back politely as General Groves's atomic machine moved heedlessly toward its ordained conclusion. Niels Bohr, Vannevar Bush, and James Conant appealed for an effort to bring Russia into the atomic picture before the bomb was used but were rebuffed...15

Such historical "might-have-beens" are inherently unprovable, but given the moral implications of the destruction and loss of life involved in the atomic bombings, the United States can be faulted for not initiating a greater peace effort. The standard argument that atomic bombings were preferable to a conventional invasion of Japan in terms of human and property loss belies the flawed assumption that no other options were tenable.  Certainly, a hindsight argument affords luxuries not available in the pressures of war. But, America's status as the only power to ever use a nuclear weapon in combat has had great implications in the last forty years for U.S. arms control, geopolitics, and moral credibility. Given these implications, the questions of even a hindsight argument need to be asked.


Michael Walzer, "World War II: Why Was This War Different?," War and Moral Responsibility, Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel, and Thomas Scanlon, eds., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 101.

2. Robert J. Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1967), p. 14. A good description of horrendous human death, pain, and suffering.

3. Ralph A. Bard, in Manhattan Engineer District Records, Harrison-Bundy files, folder no. 77, National Archives, Washington, D.C., in Sherwin, Martin, A World Destroyed, (New York: Random House, reprint, 1987), Appendix O [full text], pp. 307-308.

4. "Prospects on Nucleonics (the Jeffries Report)," quoted in Smith, Alice Kimball, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America, 1945-1947, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), Appendix A [nearly full text], pp. 551,553.

5. Henry Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, "The Atomic Bomb and the Surrender of Japan," in On Active Service in Peace and War  (1947), pp. 612-613.

6. Ibid., p. 613.

7. Robert J. Butow, Japan's Decision to Surrender, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1954), pp. 133-35, quoted in Jungk, Robert, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, James Cleugh, trans., (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), p. 208.

8. The Potsdam Proclamation, (July 26, 1945), quoted in Reischauer, Edwin O., The United States and Japan, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), Appendix I (full document), pp. 339-340.

9. Ibid.

10. Stimson and Bundy, op. cit., p. 623.

11. Ibid.

12. Arnold Offner, The Origins of the Second World War: American Foreign Policy and World Politics, 1917-1941, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975), p. 227.

13. Quoted in Jungk, Robert, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, James Cleugh, trans., (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), p. 207.

14. Ibid.

15. Joseph Lieberman, The Scorpion and the Tarantula: The Struggle to Control Atomic Weapons 1945-1949, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970), p. 405.