On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m., U.S. forces destroyed the city of Hiroshima, Japan with the first atomic bomb used in warfare directly killing an estimated 80,000 people. Injury and radiation increased that total to 90,000 to 140,000. Three days later, a second A-bomb was used to destroy Nagasaki directly killing another 60,000 to 80,000 men, women and children.
Six days later, Japan surrendered.
On July 25, 1945, President Harry Truman wrote in his diary, “This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”
Sadly, such was not the end result.
However, questions remained: how did Truman come to his decision? Were any ethical considerations brought into his decision making?
In his 1997 book, Prompt & Utter Destruction, J. Samuel Walker, historian for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, writes that “Five fundamental considerations, all of which grew out of circumstances that existed in the summer of 1945, moved Truman to use the bombs immediately, without a great deal of thought and without consulting with his advisers about the advantages and potential disadvantages of the new weapons.
1/ “Ending the war at the earliest possible moment… the primary objective of the United States had always been to win the war decisively at the lowest cost in American casualties, and the bomb was the best means to accomplish those goals.
“The inflated numbers of American lives supposedly saved by the bomb, numbers cited by Truman and others after the war, should not obscure the fact that the president would have elected to use the bomb even if the numbers of U.S. casualties prevented had been relatively low.
2/ “Justifying the costs of the Manhattan Project… Truman’s concerns were broader [than the considerable cost of the research and development of the bomb]. If he had not used the bomb once it became available, he could never had explained his reasoning in a way that satisfied the American people, particularly those who lost loved ones in the last few days or weeks of the war… If Truman had backed off from using a weapon that had cost the U.S. dearly to build, with the result that more American troops died, public confidence in his capacity to govern would have been, at best, severely undermined.
3/ “Impressing the Soviets… using the bomb might provide diplomatic benefits by making the Soviet Union more amenable to American wishes.” There was, in fact, “a growing list of contested issues” with the Soviets. “But Truman did not drop the bomb primarily to intimidate or impress the Soviets.” It was considered by many to be a “bonus” in dealing with the Soviets.
4/ “Lack of incentives not to use the bomb. Truman used the bomb because he had no compelling reason to avoid using it… Militarily, it could speed the end of the war. Diplomatically, it could make the Soviets more likely to accept American positions. Politically, ending the war quickly would be enormously popular, while delaying the achievement of victory by not using the bomb could be disastrous.
“Moral scruples about using the bomb were not a major deterrent in its use. American policymakers took the same view that General [Curtis] LeMay advanced later in his memoirs: ‘From a practical standpoint of the soldiers out in the field it doesn’t make any difference how you slay an enemy. Everybody worries about their own losses.’
5/ “Dealing with ‘a beast.’ Hatred of the Japanese, a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor, and racist attitudes were a part of the mix of motives that led to the atomic attacks. When Samuel McCrea Cavert, general secretary of the Federal Council of Churches, raised objections to the atomic bombings, Truman responded on August 11, 1945: ‘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.’
“Truman did not authorize the bombs solely or primarily for those reasons, and there is no reason to think that he would have refrained from using atomic weapons against Germany if they had been available before the European war ended. But the prevalent loathing of Japan, both among policymakers and the American people, helped override any hesitation or ambivalence that Truman and his advisers might have felt about the use of atomic bombs.
“The fundamental question that has triggered debate about Truman’s decision,” Walker points out, “Was the bomb necessary? In view of the evidence now available, the answer is yes… and no.
“Yes, the bomb was necessary to end the war at the earliest possible moment. And yes, the bomb was necessary to save the lives of American troops, perhaps numbering in the several thousands.
“But no, the bomb was probably not necessary to end the war within a fairly short time without invasion of Japan. And no, the bomb was not necessary to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of American troops.”
While ethical decisions are rarely made in an ethically pure vacuum of decision-making, it’s important to remember that when it comes to decisions in our personal and professional lives, ethics is not about the way things are, it’s about the way things ought to be.
Living up to that standard may be difficult at times, but it will ultimately determine the purpose and course of our lives.