The Japanese believed that the nuclear destruction wreaked in Hiroshima was a one-time event that could not be duplicated, so they persisted in their refusal to surrender. So three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki with similar results. This time the Japanese leaders went the other direction and thought the Americans’ ability to produce nuclear weapons was greater than it actually was. In reality, the supply of atomic bombs was very low and they could not be produced quickly. Believing otherwise, the Japanese emperor took to the airwaves and announced Japan’s surrender. His message was so convoluted that most of his Japanese hearers did not understand him to say they had surrendered—and in fact many even thought he was announcing they had won the war!
World War II—the war that showed how capably modern technology could slaughter human beings by the thousands—was now over.
Many credited the atomic bomb with ending the war, though 70 years later the debate continues about the ethics of that decision. The question remains: Was dropping the bomb on Japan the right choice?
I won’t dodge answering that question, but first I want to make sure we have a proper historical perspective. It’s so easy to impose our own opinions on people in the past without considering the very real dilemmas they faced. We don’t even have to do it consciously—it comes naturally.
This was brought to my attention a few days ago when I was talking about Hiroshima with a good friend of mine. He said, “It’s amazing how forgiving the Japanese people have been.” But to bring forgiveness into the equation of August 1945 is perhaps imposing our own contemporary view on events that took place in a time of war 70 years ago. (By the way, this guy is smarter than me and could run knowledge-of-history circles around me, so I’m not at all knocking him.) To speak of forgiveness here assumes that the actions of the Enola Gay are universally understood to have been in the wrong. However, that is not the case. The atomic bombings in Japan were not acts of terror—they were acts of war. I’m not sure that the Japanese think of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as wrongs that need to be forgiven any more than Americans think of the attack on Pearl Harbor or the slaughter of the crew of the Indianapolis as something that needs to be forgiven. War is a terrible thing, and its very essence is people doing terrible things to each other. Forgiveness is certainly a part of reconciliation, but I think it would be a mistake to isolate the bombings in Japan as something that somehow occurred beyond the scope of the atrocities of war.
Today we are so distant from the daily realities of living in a time of war. When food and other supplies are being rationed, families broken apart, and violent deaths occurring daily by the hundreds and thousands, people grow desperate to find a way to put an end to it. American leaders in 1945 saw only two ways to do that: invade Japan at the cost of a million American lives plus a multitude of Japanese lives, or drop the bomb. They chose the latter and the war ended without the necessity of an invasion. We can question this decision throughout all the coming generations, but we need to exercise caution in condemning those who found themselves stuck in a dilemma in which we will (hopefully) never find ourselves.
Having said that, no one will ever convince me that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good thing. The other day I was watching my six-year-old daughter playing with her dolls. The thought struck me: How many six-year-old girls were playing with their dolls in Hiroshima that morning when their bodies suddenly burst into flames? If the answer was one, it would be too many. But 75% of the Japanese people killed in Hiroshima were civilians; of those 60,000 deaths, how many thousands and thousands were children? Babies? Of course the adult lives, and the soldiers’ lives, matter too; but thinking of it in terms of the children forces us to face the horrible reality of what those bombs did.
But it ended the war, prevented the invasion, and in the end saved thousands of lives, right?
In college I took a Moral Philosophy class. We spent the whole semester trying to figure out how we could know what is right and what is wrong. We were not allowed to bring God into it, and that’s when I discovered for the first time that without a Creator, there really can be no such thing as objective ethics. Anyway, one Godless theory for trying to discern right from wrong is utilitarianism. This view argues that the right thing to do is whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and it is behind the argument for dropping the bomb. This idea sounds good for a split second, but you don’t have to think about it very long before you realize that it’s rife with problems. For one thing, with no other basis to go by, how do we even decide what is good? Another problem is that it lacks moral responsibility—there is no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. For example, if 10 men raped one woman and all 11 of them were taken to the edge of a cliff and told that either the rapists or the woman had to be shoved over the edge, the utilitarian view plainly holds that the 10 rapists are more to be considered than the one victim. By the way, for whatever it’s worth, utilitarian ethics is still prevalent in our society today.
And yet let’s humor the utilitarian ethicists and apply that approach to Hiroshima. Which would produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people: dropping the bomb or launching an invasion?
Our problem solving will be greatly helped when we learn to acknowledge that oftentimes there is a third way. Remember the computerized tests you took in high school where you had to color in the little bubble with a No. 2 pencil, and “C” was “None of the above”? Well, is it possible that when faced with nuclear warfare or a massive invasion with conventional warfare, if we’re seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people, perhaps the answer is “C”—none of the above? Could it be that we are so committed to forcefully eliminating the problems before us that we fail to consider other, better options? When faced with the choice of dropping an atomic bomb on thousands of people or putting a million military lives on the line, maybe the best conclusion is that neither is the best course of action.
So what could they have done differently? That’s the problem with war and also the lesson that we can learn from it. The horror of war is that our national leaders got to a place where they believed their only two choices were terribly violent, lethal options. But maybe we should not have even gotten to the place where we had to make the choice between an atomic bomb and an invasion.
One time I was speaking to a group of students at a SADD meeting. (This used to be Students Against Drunk Driving but now stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions.) I asked them: What should you do if you’re alone in a car at night with a guy or girl and they want to do things you know you shouldn’t do? I was surprised that only one girl, after an awkward 10-second silence, raised her hand to answer. She said, “I wouldn’t be alone in a car at night with a guy in the first place.” Bingo. Seventy years ago we found ourselves in a dilemma where we were faced with making a choice between two hellish options. What if we had made better decisions before that point so that we never found ourselves there?
We study history so we can learn from the past. But learning from the past doesn’t just mean that dropping atomic bombs on cities full of people is bad. It means digging deeper to find out how our leaders got to the place where they thought nuclear warfare and full-scale invasion were our only viable options. How do we keep from getting to that place again? Perhaps the answer to that question is the real lesson of Hiroshima.
Next time: the strange fates of the leaders behind the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Indianapolis.