Were the atomic bombs necessary for ending the conflict with Japan during World War II?
Undoubtedly, most U.S. citizens since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, have firmly believed that they were justified.
Moreover, most people in the U.S. seem to think that the bombs were not only necessary but that they also were “good” because of the lives saved.
A friend of mine sent me this note after I published an earlier column on this topic. “A member of one of my churches had a father on the troop ships on the way to Japan for the invasion when the bombs were dropped. They were called back when news came Japan had surrendered. That was one family glad to see the bombs fall.”
Similarly, another friend said, “I dislike war but we live in a world where anything goes it seems. So as I think of the loss of life that those bombings of the Japanese at home experienced, they saved far more lives than were lost. It had to be a hard decision but [President Truman] made it and ended a terrible war.”
These views are in agreement with what ethicist Joseph Fletcher propounds in his book, “Situation Ethics.” He writes about the “agapeic calculus,” which seeks “the greatest amount of neighbor welfare for the largest number of neighbors possible.”
While it is only a “test case” with no solution explicitly given, Fletcher ends his book with a brief summary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – with the suggestion, I think, that the agapeic calculus means that the dropping of the atomic bombs should be considered right or “good.”
While not referring to Fletcher, historian Michael Bess agrees with what I call the majority opinion in his excellent book, “Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II.”
In a chapter titled “The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb,” Bess asserts that “it is a fair conclusion that the bomb’s use probably saved an enormous number of lives – far more Japanese than Allied.”
One of many places where an opposing view can be found is in the television miniseries, “The Untold History of the United States,” and the accompanying book by that title written by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.
The fourth chapter of Stone and Kuznick’s book is titled “The Bomb: The Tragedy of a Small Man.”
They are probably much too critical of Truman, but they may be right in their clear implication that the bombs were most likely not necessary – especially if better decisions had been made earlier.
For example, in all probability, the bombs would not have been necessary if Truman had taken Herbert Hoover’s advice.
In Chapter 76 of “Freedom Betrayed,” the 2011 book that contains Hoover’s writings about World War II and afterward, Hoover tells how in May 1945 he advised Truman to drop the demand for unconditional surrender and to assure Japan that the emperor could remain as the spiritual head of the nation.
If Truman had taken Hoover’s suggestion soon thereafter, Japan would most likely have surrendered much before Aug. 6, 1945.
The historical events of 1945 cannot be changed, of course. But we humans should be able to learn from history.
One essential thing that we need to learn the most is that there is always a better alternative than war – and certainly there is always a better alternative than using nuclear weapons.
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, The View from this Seat, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.