Cruel Dilemma: Hiroshima & Nagasaki Forty Years Later

On August 6, 1945 the United States of America, at war with the Empire of Japan, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Captain Robert A. Lewis, the copilot of the Enola Gay, viewed the explosion over Hiroshima from the window of his aircraft and exclaimed simply, “My God!” The devastation was indeed immense. Almost 100,000 persons, including many women and children, perished. At Nagasaki 35,000 more died. Both cities were virtually leveled.

Viewed from the standpoint of cold statistics, the loss of life was not disproportionate to that caused by conventional bombing. Five months earlier, on March 9/10, a single B-29 raid on Tokyo had claimed 100,000 lives and destroyed over 200,000 buildings. But with the advent of atomic weapons the moral calculus of warfare entered a new, more complicated phase. The concentration of sheer destructive power in a single weapon was without parallel, and prior to its perfection, was barely conceivable. Even in 1945, men understood that forces at the very heart of nature had been tapped.

Although President Truman in his memoirs maintained that he never doubted that the bomb should be used or that he felt any guilt over his decision, he admitted privately to his sister that “It was a terrible decision.” The moral dilemma was a cruel one: whether to forego use of the bomb and embark on an immensely costly invasion, or to administer “one or two violent shocks” (as Churchill put it) against targets which included many innocent civilians, in the hope of finally ending the bloodshed.

What circumstances contributed to the dilemma? What courses of reasoning flowed into the decision? Were there alternatives to the bomb? Was its use morally justified? As we approach the fortieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki next month, it is fitting that we confront these questions afresh. Before addressing the moral issue, we must reacquaint ourselves with the historical record. For unless we have an appreciation of the particular matrix of contingencies that led American statesmen to act as they did, our own moral judgments of them, though correct, will nevertheless be facile. Unless we come to an understanding of these men as they understood themselves, we will have purchased our moral judgments on the cheap.



The overriding aim of American strategy in the spring and summer of 1945 was to compel the surrender of Japan, and thus to end the war, as quickly as possible. With the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Allies were poised to invade the Japanese home islands. Preparations for an invasion were well underway. It was expected to be a protracted, bloody campaign. Throughout the war in the Pacific, Japanese soldiers had typically refused to surrender when militarily defeated; they chose instead to fight to the last man, taking as many of the enemy with them as they could, or to die by their own hand. (On Okinawa thousands of Japanese lined up together and blew themselves up with hand grenades rather than submit to capture.) In the Japanese code of military conduct surrender was dishonorable.

Now, virtually the entire Japanese population was being prepared to defend its sacred soil. Ronald Specter, in his recent history of the war with Japan, notes:

Japanese staff officers maintained that “all able-bodied Japanese, regardless of sex, should be called upon to engage in battle…. Each citizen was to be prepared to sacrifice his life in suicide attacks on enemy armored forces.” Imperial General Headquarters hoped that children, the aged and the infirm would not be drawn into the battle—but there were “insurmountable obstacles” to their evacuation from probable combat areas. [The Eagle Against the Sun: The American War With Japan, The Free Press, 1985, p. 544.]

Two million Japanese soldiers were stationed in the home islands, and thousands of kamikaze suicide planes were held in readiness to repel the invaders.

Thus, an invasion of Japan promised consequences chilling to contemplate. President Truman was advised that an invasion might ultimately cost half a million American lives. Some projections put the number of casualties (dead, wounded and missing) as high as a million. The number of Japanese dead and wounded was expected to be even higher. The President expressed fear that an invasion would turn into “[another] Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” American casualties on that island—the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theatre—totaled almost 80,000. Moreover, Truman’s staff could not foresee a Japanese surrender before the late fall of 1946, at the earliest.

To be sure, other military options were considered. Some strategists recommended a naval blockade combined with a continuation of massive aerial bombardment. By the summer of 1945, the U. S. Navy controlled the sea lanes on which Japan depended for oil and other war-making materiel. The Japanese navy was virtually destroyed. Yet the short-term effectiveness of a blockade was questionable; the Japanese military might not be able to project power, but it was still a formidable force on its home ground. Also, a blockade would be indiscriminate: women, children and the elderly would feel its effects just as surely, and probably before, those in the armed forces. Food for the civilian population was becoming increasingly scarce, and famine already loomed on the horizon. Further, massive bombing of German cities had failed to bring capitulation. Lowering enemy morale by terror bombing proved far less effective than anticipated; in the end, the military occupation of Germany was required to end the war in Europe. Nor would continuation of conventional bombing have likely resulted in fewer casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

An additional factor in the calculus was the growing American weariness with the war, both at home and abroad. Specter writes:

American servicemen in the Pacific experienced a sense of hopelessness and despair at the prospect of apparently endless combat duty…. General Marshall warned that “war weariness in the United States may demand the return home of those who have fought long and well in the European war regardless of the effect of such a return on the prosecution of the Japanese war.”

Secretary of War Henry Stimson in particular was disturbed by the severity of the battle fatigue and emotional strain he witnessed in troops. This strengthened his determination to avoid an invasion.

All of these considerations combined to foster a sense of urgency among American leaders to find some means to force Japan quickly to surrender. The successful detonation of an atomic explosive in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 suddenly brought this goal within reach.

Ending the war with Japan was not the initial reason for producing the bomb. Research into the feasibility of harnessing a chain reaction to a usable weapon had been motivated by the fear that Hitler’s scientists were themselves steadily advancing toward the manufacture of atomic weapons. Indeed, emigre scientists who had fled Germany in the 1930s, and who had first-hand knowledge of the Nazi regime, persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to undertake the Manhattan Project. By 1945 large weekly shipments of heavy water and uranium were pouring into Germany. Not until the capture of secret documents late in 1944 did American intelligence discover that German scientists were in fact several years behind their U. S. counterparts. Until then, the prospect of the Third Reich armed with atomic weapons seemed quite realistic. When Germany surrendered in May of 1945 that danger no longer existed. Attention then turned to Japan.

To his credit, Truman asked his advisers to explore alternatives to use of the new weapon. Consideration was given to a “demonstration shot” in an uninhabited area. This option was rejected for several reasons, the principal one being the possibility of technical failure. {American leaders were also afraid the Japanese would bring prisoners of war into the test area; and it was unclear whether Japanese officials of sufficient rank would bother to witness a demonstration.) For some time Japanese leaders had hoped for a major American setback which would cause their foes to “lose face,” and thus improve Japan’s chances of retaining some of its conquests. U. S. officials feared that in the event of failure, Japanese morale would soar, and that consequently commitment to last-ditch resistance would harden. After considerable debate, the scientists advising Truman unanimously declared: “We can promise no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we can see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

Having decided to use the bomb, Truman asked for a list of targets, chosen, “in the manner prescribed by the laws of war,” for their military importance. What emerged from this directive were targets with a dual character: not merely military installations, but installations in urban areas of key importance to Japan’s capacity to make war. U. S. officials believed it necessary to target a military center surrounded by lightly constructed buildings which would be destroyed by the blast, in order to demonstrate clearly the weapon’s devastating strength. The aim was to administer a shock sufficient to convince Japanese leaders—particularly the still intransigent warlords—to admit to themselves that they were defeated. Stimson believed that the bomb would be a decisive psychological instrument to this end:

…I felt that we must use the Emperor as our instrument to command and compel his people to cease fighting and subject themselves to our authority through him, and that to accomplish this we must give him and his controlling advisers a compelling reason to accede to our demands. This reason furthermore must be of such a nature that his people could understand his decision.

Certain cities were ruled out as possible targets. In his private journal, Truman wrote that “even if the Japs are savages, ruthless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto, a historic cultural and religious center] or the new [Tokyo].” Four Japanese cities were eventually selected, in order of military importance: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. Hiroshima was the headquarters of the Japanese Second Army, which defended southern Japan (and would be quickly engaged in an invasion) and was a key military storage depot. Nagasaki was a major seaport and industrial center and was still contributing significantly to the war effort.



Such, then, were the essential considerations leading to the U. S. decision to use the bomb. Looking back from our vantage point—and with the benefit of many discussions, books and symposia on the just war tradition and its relation to nuclear weapons—how are we to judge the decision?

Just war teaching requires that lethal force, if it is to be used in a morally acceptable way, must conform to principles of discrimination and proportionality. These principles require, respectively, that non-combatants not be directly, intentionally attacked, and that the good achieved be proportioned to the damage inflicted.

It is extremely difficult to see how the first of these criteria was met at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Truman’s directive notwithstanding, no attempt was made to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants in the two cities. The targets were the cities themselves. As William V. O’Brien, dean of American Catholic just war theorists, points out: “The proportions were such that the destruction of the cities emerges as the primary purpose of the attacks while the incidental destruction of military targets appears to fall into the category of collateral damage, thus reversing the usual and preferred ratio” [The Conduct of Just and Limited War, Praeger, 1981, p. 85]. There is no way around it: the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were grevious violations of the jus in bello principle of discrimination. Applying this moral test, we must judge the attacks to be morally blameworthy.

What about the principle of proportionality? After a careful analysis, Professor O’Brien concludes “that the atomic attacks were proportionate insofar as they accomplished a strategic task with less loss of life and damage to the Japanese society than would have occurred in a conventional campaign.” Thus, a persuasive case can be made that the good achieved—the prompt surrender of Japan and the avoidance, on both sides, of thousands (perhaps millions) of casualties and of the destruction of many cities in the event of an invasion—was proportionate to the evil inflicted on two final targets, the destruction of which brought about the prompt end of the war.

Moral analysis thus yields a two-fold and conflicting assessment: the attacks violated the criterion of discrimination, but passed the test of proportionality. Yet there are grounds for insisting that the criterion of discrimination takes precedence over that of proportionality (since it is never right intentionally and directly to kill innocent persons) and that therefore a favorable assessment of proportionality cannot extenuate our condemnation of the bomb’s use. William O’Brien contends that the principle of discrimination does not have such a clear-cut priority over other just war considerations. In the Catholic tradition, he avers, “When weapons systems or forms of warfare are condemned, deplored, or reluctantly condoned, the rationales are so generalized that the judgments appear to be based on a mixed application of the principles of proportion and discrimination” (emphasis added). O’Brien adds that the “just-war principle of discrimination is not an absolute limitation on belligerent conduct. There is no evidence that such a principle was ever seriously advanced by the church. . . .” [ibid., p. 45].

Perhaps. Yet O’Brien’s contention is not convincing. In the first place, the Second Vatican Council held that “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” This suggests that the principle of discrimination does have a privileged status in the ensemble of just war principles. Only if an act of war first passes the test of discrimination does proportionality carry probative weight. If the act is indiscriminate, proportionality is not sufficient to balance the scales. This was, surely, the case at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Secondly, an important Catholic moral principle holds that one is never justified in doing evil in order that good may result. The question, of course, is whether evil was done in August 1945. The foregoing application of the discrimination test yields an affirmative answer. The two principles converge when we think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reinforce our sense that these were indeed terrible deeds.

But there is also the imperative to choose the lesser evil. The question that insistently forces itself upon us—as it did on those faced with the decision—is, were there alternatives to the bomb that would occasion lesser evil? Clearly, as we have seen, American leaders thought not. They believed that none of the available options were untainted. Henry Stimson put this view in forceful terms:

In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use [the bomb] and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.

Stimson and his colleagues felt that they had chosen the route that promised the best balance of good to evil in the context in which they had to act. Much depends, then, on the contours of this context. Two factors stand out as especially crucial.

First, the situation was already morally compromised by several instances of indiscriminate use of force, including German terror bombing of London, Allied retaliation on Dresden and Hamburg and Japanese devastation of Manila. Cities having been accepted as legitimate military targets, the distinction between civilian areas and military targets was already blurred. As Michael Walzer points out, the rationale for using the bomb did not have the form, “if we don’t do x (bomb cities), they will do y (win the war, establish tyrannical rule, slaughter their opponents)”, but the form “if we don’t do x [use the bomb], we will do y [invade Japan, continue the conventional bombing of cities].” The lack of restraint in conventional bombing thus established a precedent which made the atomic attacks seem to be more humane than they might otherwise have appeared. To some extent, then, Americans were responsible for shaping the context of the decision. As John Courtney Murray has pointed out, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Second, the demand for “unconditional surrender,” and the ambiguities surrounding its meaning, contributed considerably to Japanese resistance to American diplomatic efforts to secure surrender. First announced (without elaboration) by President Roosevelt early in 1943, the demand for unconditional surrender was formally issued by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference in mid-July, 1945. For the Japanese, the sticking point concerned whether this meant abolition of the Emperor and the imperial system of government. Given this interpretation of unconditional surrender, the Japanese were resolutely determined to fight on to the bitter, bloody end. As they saw it, they would be defending their very existence as a people.

Privately, American statesmen were moving toward an interpretation of unconditional surrender that, had it been clearly communicated to the Japanese, might have perhaps allayed their fears. The Potsdam Declaration spoke only of “the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces.” (Three million Japanese soldiers were still in the field on the Asian mainland and in the Pacific.) The Allies’ aims were to ensure that Japan relinquish all conquered territory, to dismantle its capacity to wage war and to abolish every vestige of militarism. Some in the U. S. government argued that unconditional surrender required removal of the Emperor; others went so far as to recommend trying the Emperor as a war criminal. Wiser voices urged President Truman to declare explicitly that unconditional surrender was compatible with the continued existence of the Emperor. Truman agreed with the more flexible and temperate policy, but he worried that the American people, and the Congress, would strongly oppose an unambiguous declaration to this effect. So he hedged. Instead of an explicit statement that the Emperor could remain on the throne, the Potsdam Declaration called merely for the establishment, “in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people,” of “a peacefully inclined and responsible government.” No mention was made of the Emperor’s status after surrender. Though this formulation was intended to reassure the Japanese, its correct interpretation required them to read between the lines. This they failed to do.

Two weeks prior to the issuance of the Potsdam statement, American officials missed what appears to have been a major opportunity to end the war through diplomatic channels. On July 13, prior to the Potsdam Conference, U. S. intelligence intercepted a cable from the Japanese Foreign Minister to his Ambassador in Moscow. The message expressed “His Majesty’s strong desire to secure termination of the war” and noted that “unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace.” The cable also stipulated—in what was interpreted by the Americans as bellicose language—that so long as the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender, Japan would most certainly continue to fight.

The contents of this cable were made available to Truman shortly before the meeting at Potsdam. Neither he nor his aides treated this information as an opportunity to be exploited. Instead, they focused on the Foreign Minister’s avowal to continue the war rather than accept unconditional terms. They did not sufficiently appreciate the weight of the Minister’s willingness to accept capitulation just short of unconditional surrender, nor did they ask themselves whether the Japanese attached the same meaning to the crucial term as did the Allies. Whether due to the press of time, the uncertainty of ascertaining with exactness Japan’s intentions, or just plain bad judgment, it seems evident that the U.S. missed an important chance to end the war in midsummer of 1945, before the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In any case, the Potsdam Declaration resulted in the continuation of the impasse among Japan’s rulers, who were deeply divided between the still-belligerent military and the more conciliatory civilian ministers. (It was this political Gordian knot which the Americans hoped to cut by using the bomb; and, indeed, the unprecedented personal intervention of the Emperor was eventually required—on August 9, the day the second bomb was dropped in Nagasaki—to tip the scales in favor of the end-the-war party.) The “doves” urged acceptance of the Allied terms (providing assurances about the Emperor were proffered). The “hawks” pushed for a contemptuous rejection. A compromise “wait-and-see,” or “no comment,” policy was finally settled upon. The Japanese still hoped for diplomatic assistance from the Soviet Union, and hoped by their response to buy more time. Unfortunately, Japanese newspapers and radio stations, which were monitored by the U.S., reported the government’s response in terms much stronger than intended, as “ignoring” and “taking no notice of” the Allied offer. Mislead about Japan’s intentions, the Americans thought it had brusquely rejected their terms. Potsdam had warned Japan that in this event it faced “complete and utter destruction”—though no explicit reference to atomic bombs was made. The U. S. now saw no alternative but to carry out its threat.

Had the U. S. not been so insistent on unconditional surrender, or had it been clearer and more explicit that unconditional surrender did not mean removal of the Emperor, use of the bomb might have been avoided. No doubt, hindsight makes the tangled web of misperceptions, mistaken judgments and missed opportunities stand out more clearly to us, forty years later, than to those caught in the swiftly moving stream of historical events. Unquestionably, however, the policy of unconditional surrender as stated now seems imprudent, and tragic in its results.

One more perspective on unconditional surrender deserves mention. While some moralists, notably John Courtney Murray, maintain that adherence to this policy compromised the just war principle of right intention, an evaluation of the latter must include recognition of America’s treatment of Japan after the war. Even as plans to use the bomb were in progress, Stimson formulated for Truman America’s post-war objectives, which included enabling Japan to become a peaceful member of the community of nations and the re-establishment of a healthy economy, sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living. The implementation of these aims was carried out by Douglas MacArthur, who committed U. S. policy to observance of the principles of democratic freedoms, equality and human rights for which America had fought the war. One of his first acts was to import food for the war-ravaged population. Witnessing the behavior of the conquerors, a Japanese diplomat posed the question, “whether it would have been possible for us, had we been victorious, to embrace the vanquished with a similar magnanimity. Clearly it would have been different.”



In an instructive essay on the decision to use the bomb, Rev. William Wallace, O.P. has observed that “when ethics and prudence are employed… it is important to realize that there can be no absolute truth or mathematical certitude about a future action that is to be placed…. Many a ‘Saturday-afternoon-quarterback’ has made a prudential decision that lost a football game, on which account he is much maligned by the ‘Monday-morning-quarterback.’ ” [See “The Atom Bomb: A Moral Dilemma,” in From a Realist Point of View, University Press of America, 1979.] Forty years after the bomb, in the calm of one’s study—and with no analogous responsibility for many thousands of lives—it is easy to assume the role of “Monday-morning-quarterback” and judge the actions of American leaders to have been morally flawed. Surely, we cannot help believing, a way to avoid using the bomb, at least against cities, could have been found with a bit more diligence and forebearance. Even so, a thorough examination of the historical record leaves one with the conviction that Truman, Stimson et al., though morally culpable, probably did the best that could be expected of them in the crucible of pressures and obligations they faced.

Their “lesser evil” reasoning cannot be lightly set aside, even if in the final analysis it must be. Winston Churchill—the preeminent example of the magnanimous statesmen in our time—proclaimed the atomic bomb “a miracle of deliverance.” Years after those terrible days of August 6 and 9, an American veteran echoed Churchill:

I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant leading a rifle platoon; although still officially in one piece, I had already been wounded in the leg and back severely enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my legs buckled whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, my condition was held to be satisfactory for whatever lay ahead. When the bomb dropped and the news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades, we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.

The same could be said for many Japanese soldiers scattered throughout East Asia. Yet many in two Japanese cities would not grow to manhood. Such was the cruel dilemma that summer forty years ago.

If dropping the two bombs constituted an evil act—and as I have argued, a quite convincing case can be made that it was—it was done by men who were not themselves evil, in the service of a cause that was not evil. This may not be enough to exonerate or excuse what they did. But it may be enough to pardon them.

  • Terry Hall

    In 1983, Terry Hall became the managing editor of Catholicism in Crisis.

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