Dropping the Bomb

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

My attention has been returned to my recent dispute with Victor David Hanson by encountering Elizabeth Anscombe's essay "Mr. Truman's Degree." Anscombe was a student of the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and one of the foremost Catholic moral theorists of the last century. In that piece, she examined Harry Truman's decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, an examination that was prompted by the impending bestowal of an honorary degree on Truman by her university, Oxford. Hanson wrote a "response" to my original article, which I believe relied mostly on either misrepresenting or ignoring what I wrote. However, since reading Anscombe deepened my understanding of the moral issues involved, I decided it would be worthwhile to re-visit the topic.

Anscombe's essay is largely a skillful application of "just war" doctrine, a venerable part of the Western moral tradition, to the particular cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her case against Truman hinges on a principle that would seem to be almost universally embraced by the world's major ethical traditions, but which nevertheless is often suspended in evaluating actions sanctioned by a state: "For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions… When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one’s ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct. But I shall be asked for my definition of u2018the innocent.' I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end."

This is the fact upon which anyone wishing to honestly appraise Truman's decision must center their deliberations: the US government did not incidentally kill some civilians as a side-effect of trying to destroy a military target, a possibility that just war doctrine holds to be an unavoidable in battle and so permissible; instead it intentionally slaughtered hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, including children, invalids, and elderly people who had not played any part in Japan's war effort, innocents whom the American decision makers knew would be in the areas targeted for annihilation.

Anscombe is not naïve: she acknowledges that the conditions of modern warfare have expanded the pre-modern limits on legitimate targets so that they now include some citizens of enemy states who are not strictly military personnel. However, she decries the moral lassitude that responds to that increased ambiguity not by attempting to hone one's discernment of the relevant distinctions but by shrugging and allowing that every inhabitant of enemy territory is fair game. Genuine uncertainty about where to draw the line between combatants and non-combatants doesn't mean that it should be erased altogether. A worker in a munitions factory might reasonably be considered a combatant. A worker in a steel factory that supplies the munitions factory could be a borderline case. But the village baker, who is merely continuing to earn his livelihood as he did before the war, can only be regarded as a military target by those who simply seek license to undertake whatever brutalities they hope will advance their strategic aims. As Anscombe caustically remarks about such an indiscriminate reckoning of combatants: "I am not sure how children and the aged fitted into this story: probably they cheered the soldiers and munitions workers up."

Anscombe's voice of calm sanity, harmonizing with many others in an 800-year-old tradition, contrasts sharply to Hanson's frenzied and sophistical improvisations. He seems to have composed his response to my column not with the aim of addressing my arguments but with that of offering his readers an assortment of slogans and attitudes by which they could protect themselves from the ordeal of thinking about what I had written.

For example, Hanson says, "Callahan ignores the fact that the bomb ended, not perpetuated u2018eternal' war" — well, it ended the war between the US and Japan even as it signaled the beginning of the Cold War — "abruptly saving millions of casualties on both sides." As Anscombe notes, only true once the alternatives are narrowed to those incorporating unconditional surrender, a demand that just war theory considered as barbarous.

But Hanson insists, "Only unconditional surrender discredited the militarists and thus allowed democracy to emerge…" And just how does Hanson know this? Does he have private access to a shadow Earth where Japan surrendered conditionally, in fact, to a host of such alternate worlds providing test cases for the multitude of different peace treaties that were possible, so that he has seen that they all turn out worse than the one with which the rest of us are stuck?

Wiser than Hanson, Anscombe understands that "the insistence on unconditional surrender… was the root of all evil. The connection between such a demand and the need to use the most ferocious methods of warfare will be obvious. And in itself the proposal of an unlimited objective in war is stupid and barbarous."

We can grasp her point if we contemplate the full implications of "unconditional surrender." Under such terms, there is nothing to prevent the victor in the war from slaughtering any member of the vanquished enemy that it fancies being rid of. Faced with the prospect of placing oneself completely at the mercy of one's foe, one instead may regard fighting on to an honorable death as the more pleasant option.

It is important to note that launching negotiations on peace terms would in no way have committed the Allies to allowing the Japanese war government to retain power. In fact, it seems likely that the sole guarantee that the Japanese sought was that their Emperor could keep his throne. But the US insisted on an unconditional surrender, a demand whose refusal could only be met by the invasion of or a nuclear attack on mainland Japan. And yet when, after experiencing the horror of the A-bombs, Japan finally did surrender unconditionally, the Allies did not remove the Emperor after all, rendering the slaughter not only inhuman but also pointless.

Thus, while Hanson thinks he is illustrating the absurdity of my position when he says, "Callahan [believes] that we should have negotiated with the militarists of imperial Japan," in fact, doing so probably would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives while achieving precisely the same political outcome as did the bombs.

The frantic desperation with which Hanson tries to assure his readers that "historical wisdom" is on their side is made obvious when he writes: "And in the security of the present [Callahan] forgets that the allies much earlier had tried a negotiated, rather than unconditional surrender and subsequent occupation of the enemy homeland in 1918 – and got Hitler and another war later as thanks."

Oh, that's right, WWI had completely slipped my mind! But now that I've been reminded of that little episode, it occurs to me that every historian that I have read, other than Hanson, has concluded that the seeds of WWII were sown by the excessively harsh peace terms that the Allies imposed on Germany and Austria. What's more, the other two major partners in the WWII Axis, Italy and Japan, were on our side in WWI! Perhaps Hanson thinks it would be wise for America, after winning a war, to consider occupying, in addition to its enemies, at least a few of its more suspect allies, maybe even demanding their unconditional surrender!

In response to my noting, "Japan was willing to discuss its terms of surrender, and was not demanding that of the US,” Hanson replies: "Tell all that to the Chinese in Nanking or those who fought on Okinawa. In such a world of relativism it makes no difference who starts wars, much less whether they are fought by fascists or democracies."

That is a bizarre non sequitur. How in the world do the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Nanking, however awful they were, contradict the fact that, in the summer of 1945, Japan was ready to sue for peace? How are they relevant to the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians? It's not as though slaughtering a sufficient number of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would undo the evil perpetrated in Nanking. Certainly very few of the people who were incinerated by the A-bombs had taken part in those earlier crimes. Apparently, in Hanson's moral universe, if today I am roughed up by Italian Mafioso, then tomorrow I am entitled to wipe the island of Sicily off of the map.

Far from advocating moral relativism, I contend that some types of acts are wrong no matter who performs them, and no matter what (perhaps very real) grievances the perpetrator cites as excuses for ignoring basic moral principles. The fact that my enemy has behaved egregiously may justify suspending my respect for his rights, but it cannot coherently be thought to affect the rights of neutral parties. Although today's so-called "conservatives" fling the charge of "moral relativism" at critics of their agenda almost as if by reflex, it is actually their own pundits, such as Dr. Hanson, to whom it best applies. They repeatedly argue that the actions of the US government and its allies should be judged, not by any universal moral standards, but only relative to the moral depths of the West's foes. If the Allies killed five million innocent people in WWII, that's no cause for concern, because the Axis killed fifteen million. (I've simply made up these figures to illustrate the kind of calculus being employed — it would not affect my case if the real numbers were instead, say, one million and forty million.) However, even young children usually comprehend that they cannot get away with stealing one cookie just because Johnny stole two. Murdering innocent people is wrong even if you're not the worst thug in the hood, and to claim otherwise is precisely the kind of evasion of responsibility that characterizes moral relativism.

Hanson tries to illustrate my "relativism" by putting in my mouth the claim: "Dropping a bomb on the headquarters of the Japanese 2nd Army to force a military cabal to surrender during a war they started that was taking 250,000 Asian lives a month is the same as blowing up an office building full of civilians at a time of peace."

I can't imagine what it would mean to say these acts are "the same." But they do have an important commonality. (In passing, I note that it is rather cute of Hanson to describe the destruction of Hiroshima as "dropping a bomb on the headquarters of the Japanese 2nd Army," as if the people who planned it had believed that only a few military buildings would be destroyed, and were startled when they saw that the rest of the city, its women, its children, its invalids, its elderly, just happened to be obliterated along with those headquarters.)

And the intrusion of the 250,000 lives into the comparison is disingenuous. If a peace treaty permitted the Japanese military to continue roaming around Asia wantonly killing, then it certainly would have been an unattractive option. But, of course, that possibility was not on the table: the Japanese were offering to lay down their arms, and certainly would have had to withdraw their forces from all conquered territories as part of any conceivable settlement. Hanson's invocation of the quarter-of-a-million killed monthly (was that really still the rate in the summer of 1945, or is he citing the average figure over the whole war?) would only be relevant if Japan was proposing to surrender so long as it was free to keep attacking neighboring countries! How horribly the Japanese forces acted prior to the surrender offer — and no doubt they were often demonic, as my in-laws who had to flee from them through the jungles of the Philippines can testify – is entirely beside the point. All such atrocities would have ceased with the acceptance of peace terms.

The notion of granting any concessions to the men who directed such an evil venture as the Japanese assault on China may stick in one's craw. But when doing so promises to both end the aggression and to save the lives of several hundred thousand people, one should just bear the unpleasant taste and do what is decent and right.

In point of fact, per Hanson's own principles, a terrorist like Osama bin Laden must be categorized as mistaken rather than evil. Since, for him, deliberately killing non-combatants in a war is not immoral for side A if side B started the conflict, it follows that if bin Laden's belief that the US and its allies have been engaged in a systematic effort to subjugate the Moslem world were correct, then he has been justified in acting against civilians from the West. Hanson has no grounds for morally condemning al Qaeda; he is entitled to chastise the terrorists only for having made a geopolitical misjudgment. I want to emphasize that I am not trying to support that view — indeed, my own understanding of the moral principles applicable to such situations leads me to declare that bin Laden and his cohorts are evil even if their interpretation of the West's recent interactions with Islam is entirely correct. I consider al Qaeda to be evil because it deliberately targets and kills non-combatants as a means of achieving its political ends, a judgment entirely independent of any view as to how reasonable or outrageous are those ends.

As a final point, I want to note that none of my arguments should be read as implying that moral decisions are always a simple choice of black or white. Often in life, and particularly during times of crisis such as war, one may confront "lifeboat cases," moral quandaries in which every conceivable option seems to entail violating some moral principle. But in August, 1945, Harry Truman was not facing that sort of dilemma. Japan was beaten, and the only issue in doubt was on what terms it would surrender. Neither the US nor even Japan's Asian neighbors had any more cause to fear Nippon's expansionism. Taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians was an act of mass murder, pure and simple.


G.E.M. Anscombe, “Mr. Truman's Degree,” in idem, Collected Philosophical Papers, vol. 3, Ethics, Religion and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 62–71.

October 20, 2005

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives