Justifying War Crimes Against the Japanese

The American nuclear bombing is argued over. It’s said by some that incinerating the few hundred thousand civilians involved was necessary, wise, and just; it’s said by others that it was a colossal crime, perhaps a genocide, perhaps comparable to the more famous atrocities of the Axis powers.

Now I’m not an expert on history, and I don’t have the time to become one. But I’d like to hold an opinion here. But it’s very easy to either 1) get drawn into the endless going-over of various details, estimates and counter-estimates, and so forth, or 2) avoid that simply by adopting an overall interpretation of all these events which fits with your other views, at the cost of making assumptions or judgements that others can simply reject.

So I want to see if there’s a way to reach a confident and well-supported view without being an expert, both for me and for any readers. My goal is that after reading this post it will be extremely hard for anyone of good faith not to condemn the bombings.

(I will note in passing that there’s actually something rather queasy about treating these two bombs in isolation – hundreds of thousands of civilians were deliberately killed with conventional bombs in Japan and in other countries. So if in doubt, assume that whatever I say here applies to those as well – but I shall not try so strenuously to prove this)

So my intention is basically to lay out, tentatively, a few things which, to the best of my very patchy knowledge, aren’t subject to dispute – which don’t depend on any contentious inferences, but just on obvious facts.

1) The allied leaders insisted on unconditional surrender, which was perceived to carry the threat of deposing the Japanese emperor.

2) In actual fact, the emperor was not deposed during the allied occupation.

3) EDIT for clarification: Some of The Japanese leaders were making peace offers (whose sincerity can be doubted) before the dropping of the atom bombs, but were very concerned to safeguard the imperial throne (note I say that the Japanese leaders were – that says nothing about popular opinion in the country).

4) This was because they were very clearly not going to win, and could seek only to ensure the most favourable terms of their defeat.

5) The Japanese leaders’ attempts to negotiate peace to a great extent hinged on the USSR, who were not yet at war with them when the last ‘ultimatum’ was delivered by the allies. This ultimatum (the Potsdam declaration) was rejected.

6) On the same day when the 2nd atomic bomb was dropped, the USSR declared war on Japan and its troops attacked Japanese territories in northern China.

7) At the time when the last ultimatum (the Potsdam declaration) was issued, the allies were aware of the Soviet plan to declare war on Japan, and also of the creation of the atom bomb. But neither was explicitly mentioned to the Japanese.

Now if any of these facts is disputed, I’d be open to hearing that; but as far as I can see, they are all a matter of public record.

So given these facts, in particular 3. and 4., it seems to me that it cannot possibly be said that the dropping of the atom bombs was ‘necessary’ in order to get Japan to surrender. If the Japanese were seeking to surrender, then it must have been within the power of allied leaders to get such a surrender without further hostilities, and certainly without escalating beyond conventional weapons.

Indeed, it seems quite likely that such a surrender could have been secured by merely guaranteeing the security of the imperial dynasty. This would not be ideal from the perspective of revolutionary communists, but it would nevertheless be clearly preferable to genocide.

But even if there were other issues that would have needed to be agreed – for instance, if the Japanese leaders insisted on retaining control of certain of their territorial conquests (this doesn’t seem to be a well-supported possibility but what would I know?) – it seems at least undeniable that revealing the fact of the USSR’s imminent declaration of war/assault on China  would have had a good chance of securing such a surrender (if not of securing the desired unconditional surrender). If such a chance existed, then it should have been attempted.

So what all of this implies is that there were at least three methods that had a good chance of securing a bloodless surrender by the Japanese leaders: dropping the requirement that surrender be unconditional, revealing the Soviet intention to attack (possibly by the Soviets launching such an attack), or, of course, merely explaining in detail that an atomic bomb had been developed, or demonstrating this by explosions in unpopulated areas. A fourth option, of course, would be to more substantially give up on the desire to invade Japan, saving lives in conflict though at the cost of potentially leaving a militaristic and, arguably, fascist regime in place (but for how long, before the Japanese themselves did away with it?).

It is quite possible that some of these three methods might not have worked; it seems very implausible, though not impossible, that none of them would have worked. Nevertheless, the point remains that none were tried.

Hence the conclusion seems inescapable; in choosing the drop atomic bombs on civilian targets, the allied war leaders, in particular the Americans (though the actions of the Soviets and British are also to be heavily criticised), chose freely to prioritise the fulfilment of whatever strategic goals they had above the most elementary principles of justice in war and human decency.

Such actions, it seems to me, cannot be denied to be war crimes.

9 Responses to “Justifying War Crimes Against the Japanese”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    (3) is bullshit. You may not “be aware” of how and why it is disputed, but your severe lack or erudition is not at issue.

    (2) is trivial crap demonstrating an alarmingly poor appreciation of political science. Under MacArthur’s occupation the Japanese socio-economic system was torn up and rebuilt root and branch, Shintoism was abolished as a national religion and, whilst the emperor was eventually allowed to remain as a figurehead, his consitutional position was transformed, likewise his ideological position within Japanese culture. Had your chimerical peace treaty emerged, it would have made such an achievement impossible.

    The bombs were dropped because the yanks extrapolated from the casualties sustained in capturing Okinawa to a mainland campaign and decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t sustain 500,000+ casualties. Moreover, again extrapolating from Okinawa, the country they would have under occupation after 1-2 years of further warfare would be in near bronze age conditions causing further headaches. (Indeed, a land invasion would have meant 1,500,000+ Jap casualties, though I admit this played little role in Ameican decision making, nor should it have done.)

    Finally, I’ll add fact no (8)
    Explain to me why people in concentration camps should have to spend another second there so that the country that put them there with overwhelming popular support should get to grandstand at international negotiations. (Again, this is accepting your enormously dubious premise).

    Finally a brief question. Things turn out a little differently and WW2 is ended by two atom bombs on Cologne and Hamburg. Worth it? (N.B. There were German peace overtures from sections of the Nazi elite that look about as kosher as those from the Japanese – which is to say not at all unless you are a credulous idiot)

  2. Gabriel Says:

    To clarify the penultimate point. You seem to imply that going for a “wait and see” while trying other methods to get Japan to surrender was a consequence free decision. This is spectacularly wrong to such a degree that if I thought you had anything like a decent command of the relevant factual material I’d have to judge you as morally disordered to a very grave degree indeed.
    A convincing argument would need to honestly address these consequences and explain why they are outweighed by the consequences of securing an immediate and unconditional surrender by dropping the A bomb.

  3. Emperor Penguin Says:

    A great number of the most prominent US and Imperial generals and admirals of the day agree with you; MacArthur, Nimitz, Leahy, Eisenhower and Ismay all suggested nuking Japan was totally unnecessary as surrender was almost inevitably on the way. It was even thought refusing to accept the Emperor’s status would make it more difficult to dismember the last remaining vestiges of the Japanese Empire because without the Imperial say-so there was little prospect of convincing their garrisons to surrender.

    http://mises.org/journals/scholar/severance.pdf This could be rubbish and seemed to lack footnotes although I read it in toto a while ago and time may have made my impression unfavourable. It is nevertheless the place from whence I pruned the infomation on the opinions of Truman’s military advisors.

    So I think you are probably right about this one in the main. Not that I know very much about this either but I have never seen a very convincing reason why Truman did make the decision he did especially when there was very little support for it. So these other ‘sinister’ reasons that supposedly motivated him may not have been as important as dark hints sometimes indicate.

  4. Emperor Penguin Says:

    I suppose what is missing from your analysis, mine and my quoted article is any consideration of the seriousness of the Japanese proposals and their motivations. As was discovered at the end of WWI (with very far reaching effects) was that once peace negotiations begin in earnest it is difficult to stop them and that they acquire a life of their own, wriggling free from those who first agreed to open them. The Japanese cliques who led the country during the war would presumably want to get the best possible deal for themselves out of the affair and may have succeeded had truman been lured in by their offers. As Gabriel suggests we would probably not feel so virtuous in our desire to save lives if we were discussing a similiar scenario as regards Germany.

    Gabriel: it might be an idea to elaborate after calling people ‘credulous fools’ so they realise the extent of their credulity otherwise they start to suspect your bluffing.

    I’ll shut up now.

  5. Emperor Penguin Says:


    Credulity noted and understood. I should know better than to side with a communist.

  6. Gabriel Says:

    I said credulous ‘idiot’, and that is an accurate term for anyone who believes in the meme of Japanese willingness to surrender. Seeing as that was the only area where I was vague I assume you were referring to that and I refer you to the classic work on the subject “Japan’s Decision to Surrender” by R. Butow. After decades in which the dishonest hackery of a jumped up political scientist by the name of Alperovitz held sway, more or less everyone respectable now agrees with the anti/non-revisionist interpretation. (Except the mental cases at the institute where Mises’ good name is daily besmirched by association with the racist crank Lew Rockwell). Japanese overtures had no official status and all demanded that Japan retain its political system and substantial parts of its slave empire, roughly equivalent to receving an unsigened memo from Goering’s secretary proposing a deal which would allow Hitler to stay on as Fuhrer, keep Poland and northern France and leave the gas chambers in the retained territory still running.

    As for your bizarre query, Truman thought dropping the bomb would bring the war to a swift end, save American lives, free Americans from Japanese concentration camps and ease the occupation process, all of which it did. In our advanced degenerate times the lives of the enemy are held to be of equivalent, if not superior value, to those of one’s own side, but not then.

    The comparison with WW1 is poorly made. Vile as post-Bismarckian Germany was, it was still in part an aristocratic ancien regime and so within the bounds of civilized negotation. A peace could and should have been negotiated. Japan, like Germany and the Bolshevik states was something quite different and, being part of the post-1918 era of untrammelled mass politics brought on by the fool Wilson embodied a degree of evil not matched in Christendom since Ivan the Terrible and unprecedented in some parts of the world. It did so, moreover, with the consistent support of the overwhelming majority of the Japanese population. No negotiated peace was possible or even desirable. Japan’s people got what they deserved, namely total defeat, humilitation and the forced re-construction of their polity along civilized lines.

    To be clear, it is not only the case that if dropping the bomb on Germany would have been justified, dropping it on Japan would have been too, but even if not.

    P.S. your evidence about U.S. generals is faulty and wouldn’t prove what you think it does even if it wasn’t.

    P.P.S. The article by Severance is laughable. For example he quotes Truman as saying ‘“Stimson seemed at least as much concerned with the role of the atomic bomb in the shaping of history as in its capacity to shorten this war” and then argues that this shows that “It was done not out of military necessity but as a power play against the U.S.S.R.”

  7. Gabriel Says:

    As an aside, it is ineresting to speculate what would have happened if the A bomb had been finished before the invasion of Okinawa and saved 50,000 Allied and even more Japanese lives by being used. No doubt the likes of mises.org would say “given the state of the Japanese army, a land invasion could have been completed in weeks with minimal casualties” …. and credulous fools would doubtless believe them.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “(3) is bullshit”

    Well, certainly not all of the Japanese leaders wanted peace. But a substantial number did. Their plans for this did centre on the Russians. Peace offers had been made – you may not think they were sincere or acceptable, and you may be right. But even the hawks didn’t intend to keep going until they had conquered the USA, and it was increasingly obvious that they were militarily defeated. And I believe there was also fear among some of them – not among all, perhaps not accurate – that the Japanese population was so rebellious as to necessitate peace, and that there was as much risk of revolution as of occupation.

    You may well be right that it would not have been possible for the Americans to change Japanese society as much if they had not secured so complete a surrender. And I’m sure you’re right that a land invasion of Japan would have been even more costly.

    But my concern is that even by the lax norms of modern war, someone who says ‘we must massacre these civilians, and destroy all of their homes, and their children, because otherwise our strategic leverage over our enemy will be less’ is a war criminal, and someone who says ‘we must massacre these civilians, and destroy all of their homes, and their children, because the only other method of defeating them as decisively as we want will involve massacring more civilians and destroying more homes and children’ is also a war criminal.

    EDIT: nevermind, judging from “Japan’s people got what they deserved” and “in these advanced degenerate times, the lives of the enemy are considered to matter as much as the lives of one’s own side”, you’re clearly not interested in anything as namby-pamby as this.

    “Explain to me why people in concentration camps should have to spend another second there”
    Well, either you want a consequentialist reason – in which case it would be straightforwardly ‘because that’s the least destructive option’ – or you want a non-consequentialist reason – in which case the point is rather moot, since then the suffering of one group of people can’t be used to justify killing an unrelated bunch of children and anti-fascists (even if we say, as you seem to, that Japanese citizens who didn’t resist the government deserved death).

    “Things turn out a little differently and WW2 is ended by two atom bombs on Cologne and Hamburg. Worth it?”
    It would depend on the details, but I’m not unwilling to condemn the aerial massacre of German civilians, if that’s what you’re driving at.

    “You seem to imply that going for a “wait and see” while trying other methods to get Japan to surrender was a consequence free decision.”
    Well first off, the ‘waiting’ involved in seeing if a surrender could be gained from the simultaneous Russian attack, or by dropping the bombs on uninhabited areas, would have been, what, a couple of days? Or less. Same with reducing the terms demanded. Those might have ended the war more rapidly. So I’m actually not implying that at all.

    “bullshit…trivial crap…an alarmingly poor appreciation of political science…severe lack or erudition…morally disordered to a very grave degree indeed…a credulous idiot”
    I don’t imagine you’ll like my next post either…

  9. ekswitaj Says:

    If you follow the link Gabriel provided RE POW camps, you’ll notice that one of these was located in Hiroshima. Among the many memorials in the Hiroshima Peace Park, there is one to the Korean POWs who were killed in the blast. I suspect they might have liked to live.

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