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Harry Cassin
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The ethics of the A-bomb

Seventy-three years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

The blast destroyed 90 percent of Hiroshima and killed at least 80,000 people. Around 60,000 more died from radiation sickness before the end of the year.

If America hadn’t ended the war with Japan by bombing Hiroshima, and a few days later Nagasaki, U.S. forces would have invaded the Japanese mainland.

General MacArthur’s staff expected 50,000 American casualties in the first days of the invasion, and many more during the long fight for the mainland.

Japanese casualties could have reached the millions.

“There was every reason to think that the Japanese would defend their homeland with even greater fanaticism than when they fought to the death on Iwo Jima and Okinawa,” Karl T. Compton, an American physicist and the president of MIT, wrote in the Atlantic in 1946.

Was it right to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Ethicists and others still debate it.

*     *     *

I have a small connection to the bombing of Hiroshima and it has shaped my own approach to ethics.

In August 1945, the man who eight years later would become my father, was then a 20-year-old acting chief in the U.S. Navy, serving in the Pacific.

With me, he almost never talked about the war or the action he had seen. But several times he mentioned the day orders came to pack his seabag and prepare for the invasion of the Japanese mainland. He always ended by saying, “I didn’t think I’d make it back. But then we dropped the bombs.”

So in my head and heart, I’ve always been . . . grateful  . . . for the A-bombs. They saved my father and made my life possible.

Of course the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atrocious. Read John Hersey’s disturbing book, Hiroshima, as I have done a dozen times.

But while my heart has always ached for the victims, I’m still glad to be alive. And I’ve always known that the atomic bombs America dropped on Japan are partly to thank.

What’s that got to do with anything now? My small connection to the bombing of Hiroshima helped me see that the rightness or wrongness of an event is sometimes a matter of context and personal history. And if that’s true for me, it’s also true for others.

I don’t always remember that lesson. But when I do, I have more room for other people’s “ethics.” And that’s been a big help to me.


Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog.

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1 Comment

  1. While I applaud Mr. Cassin’s article that opens for consideration the “ethics of the A-bomb,” I am not so sure that he has adequately articulated the underlying principles for doing so. I also had a father who served in the Navy in the pacific during the war, and I also heard in my younger years the old utilitarian saw about how the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately saved U.S. lives by causing a Japanese surrender (and thereby avoiding an invasion). However, from my own personal readings, I believe the story—and ethical analysis—is more complex than what is portrayed in the blog.

    In “American Prometheus,” a Pulitzer prize winning biography of Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, there is evidence that Japan was already in surrender discussions in the Spring of 1945, long before the atom bomb was tested in New Mexico or dropped on Japan. There are diary entries from Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral Leahy, and discussions Truman had with the Assist. Secretary of War, John McCloy that at a minimum raise questions about whether the use of the atom bomb was necessary to achieve a Japanese surrender. Likewise, when Eisenhower was informed at the Potsdam conference in July, he told Secretary of War Stimson that he thought an atomic bombing was unnecessary because the “Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Also, Truman was negotiating with Stalin for a commitment to join the war against Japan—a commitment that Stalin made good on a day before Nagasaki.

    Even if there were some doubt of Japanese surrender, one has to examine the alternatives that were open to the decision-makers. For example, did the U.S. seriously consider demonstrating or explaining to the Japanese the successful test of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1946 at the Trinity site? If the Japanese had known the power of our weapon, would that have accelerated a surrender? There are many more questions about the alternatives to the use of the bomb to kill indiscriminately citizens and soldiers at scale, particularly if a Japanese surrender was imminent. And, if the use of the bomb was not necessary to effect a Japanese surrender, what non-political purpose was served?

    So, my view is that our ethical analysis on the use of the bomb has to be much more nuanced than “lives were saved” in the end. Please do not misunderstand my point of view. We were (and still are) grateful for the end of the war and the return of our fathers, whose service still to this day stands as a model for the sons and daughters of what has been called the “greatest generation.” Yet, gratitude and admiration should not stand in the way of an ethical analysis that asks difficult questions about the historical facts and circumstances into consideration. Thank you for reminding us of this anniversary and opening up the discussion.

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