Jeff McMahan and the Hiroshima Decision

Jeff McMahan is a noted philosopher in the study of the ethics of war. Last year Oxford University Press published his important book, Killing in War. In this book, McMahan makes a strong argument against a doctrine that has been held for centuries by Just War theorists, that there is a moral equality of combatants on both sides of a war.

On pages 129-131, McMahan delves into a matter of history, that of the decision by President Truman to use the atomic bomb on Japanese cities. He ponders why Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, could be hailed as a hero.

McMahan argues that Tibbets:

seems never to have been disturbed by the arguments of historians and philosophers that combine to demonstrate that the bombing was in fact unnecessary to end the war.

In order to back up his claim, McMahan makes a number of bullet points (viewable via Google Books). I shall deal with each of them in turn.

McMahan’s first point:

the explosion of an atomic bomb on an uninhabited Japanese island could have served to show the Japanese leadership what they might face if the war continued.

McMahan ignores the view of Robert Newman (Truman and the Hiroshima Cult [Michigan State University Press, 1995] pp.85-6):

no one knew the bomb would work, and a dud would be disastrous. There was no warrant at all for believing that General Anami Korechika and his military colleagues would give up their determination to fight to the bitter end however spectacular the demonstration. Since the military firmly controlled what happened in the Japanese press, the people would not be informed no matter what demonstration was staged….

If the time and place of a demonstration over a sparsely populated area of Japan were announced the remnants of Japan’s air force could still interfere with the planes. American prisoners of war could be brought to the spot. Should the demonstration take place anyway, the generals could again deny the weapons were lethal. And there was still the dud possibility.

It can also be pointed out that the Japanese leadership were warned. The Potsdam Declaration was issued on July 26, 1945, eleven days before the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. This stated quite clearly and categorically that if Japan did not proclaim “the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces” the alternative for Japan was “prompt and utter destruction” (Emphasis added).

There is also the key matter that the Japanese leadership were made aware of what they could face. There was an actual demonstration of the awesome power of the new weapon with the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. The Japanese still did not surrender. It was not until after the Soviet Union entered the war and the dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki that surrender was agreed. With the hindsight knowledge that the Japanese leadership did not surrender after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, one wonders why McMahan thinks that dropping a bomb on an uninhabited island could have achieved that aim.

McMahan’s second point:

the decisive factor in forcing Japan’s unconditional surrender was the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war on the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

This is not the view of Richard Frank who, after some detailed analysis, concludes (Downfall: The End of The Imperial Japanese Empire [Penguin Books, 1999] p.347):

the Soviet intervention was a significant but not decisive reason for Japan’s surrender. It was, at best, a reinforcing but not fundamental reason for the intervention by the Emperor. It shared with the atomic bombs a role in securing the compliance of the Imperial Army and Navy, but the atomic bombs played the more critical role because it undermined the fundamental premise that that United States would have to invade Japan to secure a decision.

Nor is it the view of Sadao Asada (“The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Decision to Surrender: A Reconsideration,” Pacific Historical Review, [November 1998], pp. 503-5). Asada notes the historical debate as to whether the atomic bombs or the Soviet entry into the war had the greater effect on Japan’s decision to surrender. He makes the valid point that because “the Soviet entry came on the heels of the Hiroshima bomb, it is hard to separate the impacts of the two events.” Despite this, his detailed analysis leads him to conclude that the atomic bomb was more important and that the Soviet entry into the war was “confirmation and coup de grace.”

To add one further historian, after examining the post war interrogation interviews of Japanese officials, Robert Newman concludes , (“Hiroshima and the trashing of Henry Stimson,” in Robert Maddox (ed.), Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism [University of Missouri Press, 2007] p.164):

we find not one well placed Japanese official claiming that a Soviet attack alone would have prompted capitulation. Some officials believed that the atomic bomb and the Soviet presence had caused Japan to surrender, but many others credited the bomb solely.

McMahan’s third point:

the achievement of an unconditional surrender can never be a justification for the continuation of war, since there are always conditions that a vanquished adversary, no matter how evil, can be justified in demanding.

Robert Newman notes (Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, p.66) that in President Truman’s press statement of May 8, 1945, where he explained his use of the term “unconditional surrender,” Truman “did not demand surrender of Japan, but only of the military and naval forces.” The Potsdam declaration also demanded “the unconditional surrender of all the Japanese armed forces.” It contained the clause, “Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.” Newman notes (Ibid., p.69) “Japan’s experienced diplomats immediately saw that if there were terms, this was not really an unconditional surrender” (Emphasis in original). To this we can also add Truman’s own view that was published in his Memoirs (cited by Newman Ibid, p.78):

I also think it is a mistake to insist on unconditional surrender for moral or educational purposes … If there were any reason for unconditional surrender, it is only the practical matter of taking over a defeated country and making its control easier.

McMahan’s fourth point:

the US knew from intercepted cables that the Japanese were seeking to persuade the Russians to intercede to help them secure a conditional surrender that would have allowed them to keep the Emperor.

Contrary to McMahan’s claim that implies had the Japanese been allowed to keep their Emperor, they would have surrendered, on July 22 1945, intercepted cables between Japanese Ambassador Sato and Foreign Minister Togo showed that when the Ambassador suggested to Togo that this modification may be able to be secured, it was rejected by Togo. Richard Frank comments (Downfall, p. 239), “Given this, there is no rational prospect that such an offer would have won support from any of the other five members of the [Japanese] Supreme Council for the Direction of the War.”

Robert Maddox (Hiroshima in History, p.2) comments on the messages between Tokyo and the Japanese ambassadors in Moscow “requesting that the emperor be permitted to send a personal envoy to negotiate with the Soviets ‘in an attempt to restore peace with all possible speed.’” He states:

Revisionists have professed to see this initiative as evidence of Japan’s willingness to surrender. Even the most cursory reading of the messages reveals nothing of the kind. It was, instead, an attempt … to cut a deal that would have permitted Japan to retain its political system and prewar empire intact in return for various territorial and other concessions to the Soviets.

Sadao Asada (“The Shock of the Atomic Bomb,” p.502) also rejects McMahan’s view:

What the deciphered Japanese dispatches reveal … were indecision and contradiction in Tokyo; the Japanese government could never agree on surrender terms.

McMahan’s final point:

with the entry of the Soviet Union into the war and perhaps the detonation of an atomic bomb on an uninhabited island, the US could almost certainly have secured a conditional surrender without either the annihilation of cities or a land invasion.

This is obviously a counterfactual. What is fact is that even after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, after the Soviet Union had entered the war and after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, as Sadao Asada (“The Shock of the Atomic Bomb,” p. 493) explains, there were still those in the Japanese Supreme War Council who were insisting upon “three additional conditions” over and above retention of the Emperor before any surrender. These conditions were “(1) that there be no military occupation of the home- land by the Allies; (2) that the armed forces be allowed to disarm and demobilize themselves voluntarily; and (3) that war criminals be prosecuted by the Japanese government.”

To be fair to McMahan, towards the very end of his book (pp. 228-9, viewable via Google Books,) he presents an alternative scenario that concludes:

It is not implausible to suppose that, in these conditions, it would have been permissible to bomb Hiroshima—not because, or simply because, the bombing would have been the lesser evil, but because many of the civilians bore some responsibility for the fact that it was now unavoidable that a large number of people would die, and this made them liable to intentional attack, given that the only other options would have involved the unjust killing of a comparable number of people who bore no responsibility at all.

Despite this, it is a shame that McMahan did not get his facts right in his earlier discussion.