Nuclear Friday: Playing Truman

In the last week we have passed the 71st anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to use the atomic bomb was not very controversial at the time, but became hotly debated even by the early 1950s. The controversy has only grown since then. The Big Board is not going to take an official position on this issue. Instead, I’m going to classify arguments for and against the use of nuclear weapons in Japan into three different types.

1.The Classic Argument from Necessity and its Critiques:

I think most readers are familiar with the Argument from Necessity, which I will call “AN” for short.

Here’s a summary:

The Allied leaders signed an agreement at the Yalta Conference that an invasion and occupation of Japan would begin within one year of the defeat of Germany. Stalin signed a secret pledge to violate the Soviet Union’s neutrality pact with Japan. After the defeat of Germany, Stalin, Truman, and Attlee issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. The declaration also included a list of expectations describing what unconditional surrender would look like. It also stated that Japan would be occupied and that some of its military leadership might be subject to war crimes trials. The declaration also promised invasion at the soonest practical date if Japan did not surrender.

After some discussion in the US about not actually following through on the promises of Yalta and Potsdam and simply relying on blockade and conventional bombing to starve Japan into surrender, the US and Britain drew up plans for Operation Downfall, the invasion and occupation of Japan.

Casualty figures just for Operation Olympic, the first phase of Downfal,  were staggering. The invasion was to be staged from Okinawa. Getting from Okinawa to Kyushu, the southernmost of the large Japanese Home islands was going to be a lot harder than crossing  from England to Normandy. Many amphibious assault ships would be lost before they even got to Kyushu. Casualties would be measured in the hundreds of thousands. General Curtis LeMay, an opponent of Downfall, estimated the number of Allied deaths at 500,000. The most pessimistic official estimates went as high as 800,000.

Those numbers are simply unacceptable when the alternative of the atomic bomb became available. Furthermore, official estimates of Japanese civilian casualties for Downfall ranged from five to eight million dead. The atomic bombings killed fewer than a tenth of the lower range of that estimate. The bombs, for all their horror, really do seem to have been the more humane option, as strange as that is to say.

But the real clincher of AN is that the bombs seem to have worked. Emperor Hirohito himself in his radio address to the Japanese public cited the use of what he called “Cruel Bombs”, referring to nuclear weapons, as a primary reason for Japan’s upcoming  surrender.

OK, so it sounds like I am endorsing the Argument from Necessity. No, I have simply summarized it in its strongest form. AN does have a weakness. It’s a pretty obvious weakness, and if you have read anything serious about this issue, you have already come across it. You may have already thought of it on your own.

AN presents “Nukes or Downfall” as a strict dichotomy. Its weakness is that even if the atomic bombs seem to have worked, something else might have worked too. 

Arguments that explore these other options usually fall into cases for Blockade, Diplomacy, or Demonstration. They also may rely on two or three of these at the same time. I’ve already  mentioned that LeMay argued that blockade and continued conventional bombing would defeat Japan. Please don’t think for a minute LeMay was a softie. He was delighted to use the atomic bombs against Japan once he got them, and LeMay would go on to become the first commander of Strategic Air Command. Eisenhower himself stated in his memoirs long after the fact that he favored blockade and diplomacy. This may be a case of trying to enhance his own reputation. Eisenhower had no official input on the decision and is not known to have made any statement on the atomic bombs near the time of their use.

Some scientists at Los Alamos, as their enthusiasm for the bomb turned into horror, proposed that the bombs be used for demonstration strikes near Japan. One proposal was to make an announced detonation far out in Tokyo Bay. The notion was if they saw the fireball and cloud, and felt the outer edges of the blast, the Japanese leadership would understand the war was lost. These proposals were given almost no military consideration. But what if?

While I have studied the case against the Argument from Necessity off and on for decades, I have since come to not care about anti-AN reasoning. As much as I might want there to be alternatives to AN, I have since realized that there is no way I can become informed enough to make a strong case against AN. And that’s why The Board takes no official position on the Argument from necessity.

2.Emotional Appeals:

These aren’t really arguments, but they come up a lot. They sort of have something going for them sometimes, but they mostly get in the way of a good understanding of the issues.

“They had it comin’!”

Sure, I kinda get it. I’m in the middle of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand right now. The Ofuna Interrogation Center was just terrible. But the proper response to places like Ofuna is a War Crimes trial.  You don’t nuke people just because you’re mad at them.

“The decision was made in a atmosphere of racist disregard for Asian lives!” 

Um, maybe? I’ve read Dower’s War Without Mercy and am familiar with his concept of “racialized warfare”.  I think he’s right, but even he doesn’t think race had much influence on the use of atomic bombs. And do you really think we wouldn’t have bombed the Germans because they are white folks? Nuking Germany was the founding mission of the Manhattan Project.

“Nuclear weapons are horrifying things that should never be used.” 

I agree almost completely. But you know what else is horrifying? White phosphorous, thermite, napalm, the Dehousing Paper, unrestricted submarine warfare, firestorms over Hamburg that sucked the air out of bomb shelters, and burning down a city full of refugees. And keep in mind LeMay and his B-29s were starting make every Japanese city into Hamburg around the the time the war was ending in Europe. LeMay was a big fan of RAF Bomber Command, and perfected the art form they had created.

I think this emotional objection is voiced because we grew up with the Nuclear Taboo and  were shaped by the nuclear warfare imagery of the mid-50’s to mid-80’s. People in 1945 didn’t see things that way. The Bomb to them was just a more efficient way to do things they were already doing.

That leaves us in a depressing spot. The case against AN is too difficult, and emotional appeals fail us. Who can give us hope?

3. Anscombe versus Truman:

In 1956, Oxford University awarded an honorary Doctorate to Harry Truman. One tough as nails woman tried to stop it.


Oxford Tutor Elizabeth Anscombe started a failed movement among the faculty and students to prevent this. And she was classy. She didn’t try to no-platform Truman, and she never exactly called him a war criminal. She just didn’t want him to get the degree. Here’s link to the 1958 reprint of Mister Truman’s Degree, her 1957 pamphlet explaining her efforts. It’s hard reading sometimes because it includes lots of Oxford politics, but well worth it. She never intended for the pamphlet to amount to much, but it “went viral” as far as the technology of her time would allow and is considered a classic paper in 20th century ethics.

Anscombe does make a limited anti-AF argument in Mister Truman’s Degree, but her main argument is that targeting civilians as destroying a means of production or targeting civilians as a means of creating shock and loss of morale is always wrong. She understands that her own government did this many times and cites one case.

But while she wanted to deny Truman his degree, she’s not a pacifist. She argues that pacifism in part made possible the utilitarian slaughter of WWII.

If you want to make a serious case against the use of atomic bombs in Japan, read Anscombe. I’m not sure I’m quite with her, but I have to say she’s the one who really began the strong case against the bombings in Japan. No other argument really works.









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