Should nuclear bombs have been droped on Japan?

The 50th anniversary of the end of World War II precipitated a wide variety of commentaries about the war itself, but most especially about the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the commentaries on the bombs, it was both common and appropriate to present statistics about Japanese casualties. To be sure, different commentators presented quite different statistics. Those who oppose the use of bombs tended to present high casualty figures, and those on opposite side low ones. Still, whichever side one listened to, those two bombs killed and maimed a horrific number of people. It is not unreasonable to suppose that more than 125,000 people were killed and perhaps another 125,000 severely injured.

It was also common and appropriate for many of these commentators to vividly portray, both in words and pictures, the human suffering caused by the bombs. What was always most moving were the hospital scenes of burned children who, one easily imagined, died miserable deaths a few months after the camera recorded their suffering.

However, it was not so common, but certainly still appropriate, for many of these commentators to vividly portray the casualties that would have borne on both sides had the bombs not been dropped. In part this omission is understandable. Portrayal of reality, statistics of events that happened, and pictures of those who are really dead and injured is always easier than the portrayal of what might have been. Nonetheless, in order to make a reasonably objective judgment about whether the United States should have dropped the bombs, it is necessary to go through the process of vividly imagining both what is was and was not like to drop them. It won't do to dwell just on the actual casualties and then conclude that dropping the bombs was immoral. Doing just that amounts to arriving at a conclusion by looking at only one side of an issue.

So what might it have been like not to drop the bombs? Very likely the war would have continued for some time even after the Soviet Union had gotten into the fray. The conventional bombing campaign of the mainland would have continued, perhaps for two or more months. The number of Japanese killed from these bombings alone would likely have equalled those killed by the two nuclear bombs. But then there is the invasion of Kyushu to consider. It was scheduled for early November 1945. In size and scope, that campaign was to be much larger than the costly fight for Okinawa. Okinawa cost the Japanese well over 100,000 lives, in effect their whole fighting force on the island. Counting navy and kamikaze deaths, the Japanese may have lost as many as 120,000 lives. On the U.S. side more than 12,000 soldiers and sailors died, and more than 40,000 were wounded. But the Kyushu invasion, called Coronet, would have involved a U.S. fighting force at least twice the size of the Okinawa force. The Japanese defenders on the mainland were likely five or six times more numerous compared to those on Okinawa. Further, civilians were being trained to fight. Not only that, the suicide attackers in the form of several thousand airplanes, hundreds of mini submarines and small boats were likely to be far more effective defending the homeland than Okinawa, simply because the American and other Allied ships would be right off shore rather than several hundred miles away.

No doubt the projection of a million U.S. casualties (both dead and wounded) by some who defend the use of the nuclear bombs represents an exaggeration. Still, U.S. casualties very likely would have reached more than 200,000 and, if things had not gone well, even 300,000. Japanese casualties no doubt would have been much higher both because of overwhelming U.S. and Allied fire power and the desperate way the Japanese were fighting.

But now, beyond these figures, one needs to imagine all those dead soldiers and civilians, and the lives they would have led had they not been cut short by a bomb or a bullet. One needs also to imagine the suffering of all their relatives and friends, and imagine, as well, the suffering of those who survived the battle minus appendages, sight and sanity. Only after one has imaginatively done this and then compared all that suffering to all the suffering caused by the dropping of the nuclear bombs is one in a position to begin making a rational judgment about whether nuclear bombs should have been dropped. More needs to be said to get beyond the beginning. Was an invasion of Japan necessary? Should the United States have dropped the bomb in order to show the Soviet Union who is boss in the post war world? Should the bombs have been dropped on military targets instead of on cities; or perhaps dropped over some body of water as a demonstration of power? Should the United States have launched the conventional bombing campaign on Japanese cities in the first place?

All these and other questions need to be answered before a final judgment can be rendered. But one thing is sure. Those who are mesmerized by the suffering the nuclear bombs caused, and who thus neglect to think seriously of what would have happened had the bombs not been dropped, have as yet not begun thinking seriously about the right and wrong of how World War II ended.

Nick Fotion is a professor of philosophy.