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Bomb Shelter

The enduring morality of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the end of World War II.

12:00 AM, Aug 23, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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ON THE 60TH ANNIVERSARY of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can affirm the following with near certainty: Barring some horrific dissolution of the international order--and/or a direct nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland--America will never again target an enemy population with atomic weapons. Of course, that bears little or no pertinence to retrospective debates over the morality of nuking Japan to end World War II. Those debates typically pivot on whether or not Tokyo's unconditional surrender could have been negotiated absent the deployment of Fat Man and Little Boy (or absent a massive U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland). Most traditionalists say no. Most revisionists say yes--or, at the very least, probably.

The tides of evidence have been shifting over the past decade--and not in the revisionists' favor. As historian Richard B. Frank has pointed out in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, decoded (and now declassified) intercepts revealed a Japanese war cabinet that, when faced with the option of unconditional surrender, appeared ready, willing, and able to fight to the last man. Moreover--and this actually runs contra to the traditionalist view, "but with a twist"--U.S. military strategists were far from unanimous in their endorsement of "Operation Olympic," the full-scale invasion of the Japanese Home Islands slated for November 1945.

Says Frank, "With the Navy's withdrawal of support, the terrible casualties in Okinawa, and the appalling radio-intelligence picture of the Japanese buildup on Kyushu [Island], Olympic was not going forward as planned and authorized--period." It wasn't that Olympic had suddenly become "unnecessary." Rather, "It had become unthinkable." The death-toll projections--both for American troops and Japanese civilians--were simply too grisly.

Frank's conclusion: "It is hard to imagine anyone who could have been president at the time (a spectrum that includes FDR, Henry Wallace, William O. Douglas, Harry Truman, and Thomas Dewey) failing to authorize use of the atomic bombs in this circumstance."

As a practical matter, then, the pro-A-bomb argument has seen its stock appreciate. There is, however, at least one unresolved moral dilemma posed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki that transcends both Catholic and secular just-war theories.

To wit: How many Japanese civilians were worth killing to end the war swiftly and with minimal casualties among U.S. servicemen? It's estimated that between 110,000 and 200,000 people died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of them noncombatants. Would the bombing have been justified if 500,000 perished? What about 700,000? A million? Two million? Objectively speaking, there is no "right" or "wrong" answer. But the question is worth pondering, even if it doesn't deflate the traditionalist view that President Truman acted wisely in August 1945.

WHETHER OR NOT Hiroshima and Nagasaki were legitimate military targets--and there's a raft of evidence suggesting they were--U.S. policymakers clearly knew the bombing would produce tens of thousands of civilian fatalities. In that sense, and for argument's sake, let's concede that the bombing represented a deliberate massacre of Japanese civilians. How does that affect its morality, if at all?

A great deal, argues Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, himself an eloquent critic of Truman's decision to nuke Japan. "The conservative error," Ponnuru writes, "is to assume that the intentional killing of civilians is justified in order to avert a greater number of deaths." It would be a most unfortunate "change," he adds, "if we were to intentionally target civilians whenever we thought that doing so would hold our military casualties down (or even hold the total number of civilian and military casualties down)."

Ponnuru thus pokes at the Achilles' heel of the pro-A-bomb camp. But in doing so he also places an unfeasible moral burden on World War II-era U.S. strategists and unduly depreciates the grim realities of the Pacific theater.

It's true, there is a threshold point--even in a "total war" such as that with Imperial Japan--at which deliberately killing enemy civilians to curtail U.S. military casualties becomes morally problematic. But how does one calculate that threshold point? It's a brutally tricky enterprise. Does the life of one enemy civilian equal the life of one American GI? That's a totally impractical--and, in its own way, highly unjust--formula for a U.S. president to employ. At the same time, any other formula is hopelessly arbitrary. Lose one GI for every 20 enemy civilians? For every 50 civilians? For every 100? For every 1,000? There's no objective standard.