Justified or Not: Nuclear Weapons Dropped on Japan in 1942

Years of debate have raged over whether the United States was morally correct to launch two atomic bombs on Japan at the last weeks of WWII in 1945. Some argue the action was utterly inhumane and disregarded more than 200,000 lives of the innocent Japanese civilians, backed up by theories mostly revolving around the Soviet influence, which was believed to be just enough for the Japanese surrendering without necessarily the usage of atomic weapons. For an example, among imaginary states where the non-atomic theories succeed, one scenario is where the Soviets got invited to sign the Potsdam declaration(in which the USA, Britain and Nationalist China demanded Japanese surrender by July 1945) and compelled the surrender — if only had not the Truman administration deliberately ruled out this possibility because he and some of his advisers were concerned about the Soviet entry, given the existing rivalry between the two only superpowers.

Although frankly a shame and utterly irresponsible to show support towards the usage of a catastrophic force that posed horrific sufferings to human beings, I must admit I have always thought the above standpoint remains unsophisticated, and endorsed the usage of atomic weapon against the Japanese militarism under the context in 1945. As a native Chinese descendant living under the atmosphere where history is taught throughout all stages for children, I had been exposed to the history more comprehensively in a quantitative and qualitative sense. And for this reason, I always think highly of the nuclear usage as I got to look more closely into the imperial Japanese militarism’s unspeakable abnormality, and grew confidence on the idea that there was only one way to halt the terror.

Second Sino-Japanese War

Like I mentioned, many of those who support the non-atomic theories build their ideas given the belief of a forced surrendering under Soviet intervention, but little do they know is that the imperial Japanese army could never accept surrendering, not in the minds of their war-enthusiastic officials. Antony Beevor, the number one best-selling historian in Britain, said this when asked whether the nuclear usage in 1945 was justified:

“Yes. Truman had little choice…The Imperial Japanese Army could never contemplate surrender, having forced all their men to fight to the death since the start of the war. All civilians were to be mobilized and forced to fight with bamboo spears and satchel charges to act as suicide bombers against Allied tanks. Japanese documents apparently indicate their army was prepared to accept up to 28 million civilian deaths.”

— Antony Beevor

President Harry S. Truman

The fact was that Japan had never surrendered in the preceding 2,600 years of history, as there was no example of a Japanese regiment surrendering during previous documented conflicts. So realistically surrendering should never be within expectation for the Japanese hardcore wardogs, regardless of the Soviet presence. And this is mostly due to a fundamental but often neglected difference between the Germany and Japanese Fascist army, in terms of their spiritual processing of losing a war — surrendering may seem practical and rational to the Germans when they found out they were being overpowered by the soviets, but the difference was that such rationality did not correlate with the Japanese intrinsic cultural/militarian ideology. Instead, they valued glory and were ready to fight to death, and this remained a underlying source of fear for the Alliance — ruthless and ever-lasting fascist spirits.

Man executed by Japanese solider.

So unsurprisingly, not only did Japan had barely any intention of surrendering when left hopeless after its fellow fascist ally Germany had surrendered, the country was actually planning a substantially more robust defense(against the potential upcoming joint annihilation posed by the Anti-Fascist Alliance) than the United States had anticipated. So arguably it was only nuclear shocks that would lead to Tokyo surrendering without substantial casualties from the Alliance side, and to put out the Japanese Imperial nefariousness for good.

After a series of evaluation on the practicability of nuclear usage, the first bomb “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the Japanese army were subsequently given three days to respond before the second bomb, the “Fat Man”, was dropped on Nagasaki. However, the Japanese imperial army infamously maintained silence as a response to the incident, as accordingly major military figures in the administration claimed that the US was not likely to have a second bomb, and that even if it did, public and moral constraints would prevent it from being used — the bombing of Nagasaki three days later obliterated these presumptions, killing 80,000 civilians and reshaped the city. Within a week of the second drop, the Imperial Japan announced its surrender on August 15.

And the nuclear significance in this case manifestly lies in how the ruinous nuke force fundamentally changed Japan’s collective psyche, switching from one of a diabolical war-criminal, who thought poorly of human virtues and collectively murdered over ten million people during WWII, to one of a pacifist, making pacifism a constitutional policy in which any war potential is banned, as demonstrated by the Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution:

(1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

“Little Boy”

Though, in spite of the introspection made by the Japanese government, the damage was dealt regardless. In fact, there has been a great amnesia in the west regarding the war crimes Japan conducted across Asia-Pacific countries during WWII, contrasted with a more substantial exposure on the sufferings of the victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And a result from this is that when people think of nuclear weapon usage in 1945, they tend to overlook the real majority(in a quantity sense) that were most significantly influenced by the Japanese in-time surrendering, namely, the Chinese people. In fact, it took almost an entire year for Japan to withdraw its three million citizens(including two million civilians and one million soldiers) from the Chinese mainland after they declared surrendering, as China was the major target for the Japanese army during WWII combating almost half of its six million soldiers sent to over twenty countries. Reportedly, there was no subsequent killing or any other criminal act from the the Japanese side once its proclamation of unconditional surrender was announced in September 1945, and this theoretically saved over two million Chinese people, mostly north-easterners living in the war zones. Despite the reality that the Japanese army was by no chance winning the war having been war-declared against by numerous countries simultaneously at the time(including the two super powers), and that it is only a matter of time before China and any other warring countries got rid of their common intruder, the usage of nuclear weapons no doubt greatly accelerated the process.

Although it may seem absurd to say so, the nuclear usage was actually preferable in a statistical and logical sense even for the Japanese people’s own sake. As noted, president Truman’s alternative to using nuclear weapons was a campaign of blockade and bombardment conducted by B-29 bombers, which was estimated to kill about thirty million Japanese civilians, as opposed to the approximate 200,000 casualty combined for the two bombs. In addition, Japan was already in the state of collapsing in 1945 with on-going bombings and allied naval blockade dropped on its cities and devastating the economy(up to a point where the Japanese army could only use submarines to smuggle in gasoline to sustain warring activities), and if it were not the usage of nuclear power that managed to pull the Japanese generals out of their fascist fantasy and end the people’s misery sooner, it was estimated that the food situation in Japan would have deteriorated drastically in 1946 and subsequently lead to a series of irreversible economic crisis, resulting from a severe shortage of labor if wars continued to take place. Not hard to say it was only by having them surrender early that they could maintain a barely-but-still functional administrative system without getting hit by a major land invasion or famine, and having more innocent Japanese civilians killed.

Japanese officials signing paperwork of surrendering in September 2, 1945

And it was not just the Imperial Japanese militarism, but the whole WWII series that had been on-going for the past six years, and more generally the entire convention of having large-scale cold-machine combats ever since the beginning of post-modern era, were all brought to an abrupt end — all because of the shocks created by nuclear weapons that left every country leader in awe. And the philosophy, behind such invaluable deterring effects in terms of creating and sustaining global order, could be well-resonated with Langdon Winner’s view on some of the exceptional properties of certain artifacts in his article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”:

“Issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions of efficiency and productivity, not merely for their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority.”

— Langdon Winner

With more than 200,000 nuclear warheads having been made throughout the last two centuries, only two were ever dropped on human purposely — as the catastrophic scene captured by the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 gave the world the most vivid intuition on the consequences of nuclear usage. Though once again utterly morally inappropriate, such intuition may have been the key to nuclear deterrence(which entails threatening an potential intruder with nuclear retaliation to discourage them from assaulting, hence maintaining temporary serenity), as the illustration was way too horrific to be made an example of — the following comes from a Nagasaki victim, who lived 3.4 kilometers away from the hypocenter:

“…I was buried alive under the house, I’ve been told. When my uncle finally found me and pulled my tiny three year old body out from under the debris, I was unconscious. My face was misshapen. He was certain that I was dead.

Thankfully, I survived. But since that day, mysterious scabs began to form all over my body. I lost hearing in my left ear, probably due to the air blast. More than a decade after the bombing, my mother began to notice glass shards growing out of her skin — debris from the day of the bombing, presumably. My younger sister suffers from chronic muscle cramps to this day, on top of kidney issues that has her on dialysis three times a week. ‘What did I do to the Americans?’ she would often say, ‘Why did they do this to me?’”

— Yasujiro Tanaka

“You are only given One life, So cherish this moment Cherish this day, Be kind to others, Be kind to yourself” — Yasujiro Tanaka

And this was only one of the many insights made conscious to those country leaders who previously had little knowledge on the extent of the damage made by simply one nuclear warhead, but also a crucial one. The underlying aspect of nuclear harm is that it is long-lasting — survivors are still suffering from cancer and other debilitating illnesses as a result from the radiation. This means an all-out nuclear attack(or even a nuclear exchange as now nine nations have acquired the technology to build nuclear weapons)has the potential of completely sabotaging a country, caused by major labor declination and extreme environmental conditions as a result of the enduring nuclear weapons’ side-effects, and needless to mention the first-hand damage — and this constitutes as a risk that no country leader could afford to take whilst a peaceful state that no one would dare to break.

A painting created by a survivor in Nagasaki.

Hence, if to be dealt with ultra-cautiousness, Nuclear Weapon is likely to remain a key factor in sustaining world peace for quite some time. Because its immense capability to balance out a mismatch of national and military strength between countries, in addition to the fact that the nuclear technology is now spread widely across the world, has ruled out any form or possibility of political extremism that contradicts with the main-stream global order. Denuclearization shall remain a fantasy to those idealists who condemned the two nuclear usages on Japan, not knowing that these two drops have been the underlying source of global serenity every since the end of WWII in 1942 — and such role is only going to last for the upcoming decades.

“On Sunday, September 2, more than 250 Allied warships lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. The flags of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China fluttered above the deck of the Missouri. Just after 9 a.m. Tokyo time, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed on behalf of the Japanese government. General Yoshijiro Umezu then signed for the Japanese armed forces, and his aides wept as he made his signature.

Supreme Commander MacArthur next signed, declaring, “It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.” Nine more signatures were made, by the United States, China, Britain, the USSR, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand, respectively. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz signed for the United States. As the 20-minute ceremony ended, the sun burst through low-hanging clouds. The most devastating war in human history was over.”

Carl Mydans

  1. Vershinin, Alexander. Russia Beyond, “Why did the Soviet Union develop its own atomic bomb?”https://www.rbth.com/arts/history/2017/03/23/why-did-the-soviet-union-develop-its-own-atomic-bomb_725898
  2. Goncharov, German A. (1996). “American and Soviet H-bomb development programmes: historical background” ISSN 1063–7869. Retrieved 16 May 2013.
  3. Was the US justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War?” https://www.historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/atomic-bomb-hiroshima-nagasaki-justified-us-debate-bombs-death-toll-japan-how-many-died-nuclear/
  4. “The constitution of Japan” https://japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html
  5. King, Lain. “THE FUTURE OF DETERRENCE: KEEPING NUCLEAR WEAPONS HOLSTERED WAS THE EASY PART”https://mwi.usma.edu/future-deterrence-keeping-nuclear-weapons-holstered-easy-part/
  6. Wohlstetter, A. (1976). Spreading the bomb without quite breaking the rules. Foreign Policy, 25, 88–94.
  7. Haruka Sakaguchi and Lily Rothman. “AFTER THE BOMB”.https://time.com/after-the-bomb/
  8. Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus, Vol. 109, №1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter,
    1980), pp. 121–136

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Welcome to the course blog for SI 410: Ethics and Information Technology. Here, we’ll explore ethical IT as it relates to the news media, movies, music, or the general information environment.

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