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Oliver Kamm: Hiroshima and ethics

This is the third post dealing with objections to my Guardian column a fortnight ago on Hiroshima Day. I had intended it to be the last in the series, but there will in fact be one more after this.

In my article, I argued that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible but not a crime. The previousposts dealt with criticisms published in, respectively, The Guardian and in other publications. I faulted my critics particularly on their treatment of history. This post deals with ethical objections, as will the next. My principal target will be the critique advanced by my friend Norman Geras, who in turn invokes the reasoning of Michael Walzer. Before I get there, however, I wish to comment on an earlier and influential moral indictment of President Truman's A-bomb decision from a different type of critic, the Catholic philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe. Miss Anscombe’s objection was cited but not expounded, in connection with my article, by a writer for the New Criterion magazine – hence my addressing the argument here.

Elizabeth Anscombe’s critique dates from 1956, when as an Oxford don she opposed the granting of an honorary degree to Truman. The degree went through, but Miss Anscombe’s pamphlet condemning the decision achieved modest fame. It’s reproduced in Volume 3 of her Collected Philosophical Papers: Ethics, Religion and Politics, 1981, pp. 62-71. (The same volume includes a later essay on “War and Murder”, expounding a more directly religious argument.) It is also online here.

Miss Anscombe’s central moral objection is that Truman committed mass murder, for it is always murder to kill the innocent:

For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensbury Rules: its force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned. When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one’s ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct. But I shall be asked for my definition of “the innocent.” I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end. And a very large number of them, all at once, without warning, without the interstices of escape or the chance to take shelter, which existed even in the “area bombing” of the German cities.

This is an absolutist case, but it has been applauded more recently by a secular and consequentialist thinker, Jonathan Glover in Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, 1999. (All references are to his chapter on Hiroshima, pp. 89-111.) Glover is bemused that the dons voted through Truman’s honorary degree without confronting Miss Anscombe’s powerful argument, and declares: “Their silence and utter imperturbability now seem extraordinary.” Glover concludes:

Some of Miss Anscombe’s reasons for her view are implausible outside her religious framework of belief. But we have seen that there are other reasons for agreeing that those who used the bomb did not have enough justification for doing so. Miss Anscombe’s vote was right, and those who silently voted her down were wrong.

(I refer to these"other reasons" below. They are weak.)

The dons were indeed wrong to vote down Miss Anscombe without attending to her argument. They ought to have pointed out its flaws, which are severe. While couched as an absolute prohibition on the killing of innocents, her argument advances contingent historical claims that are patently false (noted by Robert P. Newman in his invaluable Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, 1995, pp. 123-7). Thus she asserts that the US President ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “when the Japanese enemy was known by him to have made two attempts toward a negotiated peace”. She also maintains that the Allies were wrong to promulgate the aim of Japan’s unconditional surrender in the Potsdam Declaration, for “the Allies’ demands were mostly of so vague and sweeping a nature as to be rather a declaration of what unconditional surrender would be like than to constitute conditions”.

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, no such efforts towards a negotiated peace were made by Japanese leaders. The most that can be said is that certain elites envisaged a bargain in which Japan would retain its autocracy and Empire. This was far from an offer of surrender, and it did not in any event come from the government of Japan. We know this from decoded Japanese diplomatic cables that have since been declassified, but even the published material available to Miss Anscombe in 1956 contradicted her claims (e.g., Robert Butow’s 1954 volume, which remains indispensable, Japan’s Decision to Surrender). Moreover, the terms of the Potsdam Declaration were not vague at all. They were explicit on what was required and also what was promised in return (you can read it here; note in particular points 9-12). I shall return to the question of Japan’s unconditional surrender – a just and necessary requirement - when I address Norman’s argument.

If Miss Anscombe’s sense of history is poor, her ethical objections are implausible. The intentional killing of the innocent is presumptively but not in all cases wrong. Jonathan Glover, who shares Miss Anscombe’s conclusion though not her reasoning, provides an instructive historical counterexample: a wartime ferry from Norway bearing passengers but also quantities of heavy water essential for the construction of a German atomic bomb.

If the heavy water had reached Germany, a Nazi atomic bomb would not have been certain, but would have been more likely. Letting Hitler have an atomic bomb would risk huge numbers of deaths and perhaps a Nazi victory. With so much at stake, it seems worth paying a substantial price to keep the chance of such a bomb as low as possible. No one wanted the deaths of the twenty-six people [out of 53 onboard] who were killed when the ferry was blown up. But it would be hard to argue that it would have been better to have risked the heavy water reaching Germany.

It would, and you can surely extend the argument. Michael Walzer believes obliteration bombing of German cities would have been justified in 1940 and 1941, though not later, on grounds of what he calls supreme emergency (“Emergency Ethics”, in Arguing About War, 2004, p. 46). I will invoke that concept when I criticise the Walzer/Geras case on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Forcing Japanese surrender was a case of supreme emergency – not for the US and Great Britain, but for the captive peoples of the Japanese Empire, who were dying in their hundreds of thousands each month that the war continued. The disagreement between Norman and me will necessarily involve judging historical claims. I take strong issue with Walzer’s assertion (Just and Unjust Wars, 1977, pp. 267) that: “The Japanese case is sufficiently different from the German so that unconditional surrender should never have been asked.” (Norman echoes Walzer's criticism in his implied rejection of “the assumption that America could accept nothing less than Japan's unconditional surrender”.)

I close this post, however, by noting that Jonathan Glover’s consequentialist case is peculiarly vulnerable to the type of objection that historians would put. The reason is that he explicitly argues with an appeal to historical counterfactual, which he presents as his independent reason for believing Miss Anscombe’s moral stand was right: “Perhaps there was no certain way of ending the war without the use of the bomb, but it is not hard to see the outlines of an approach worth trying.” The approach Glover outlines is a standard scenario of inviting Japanese representatives to a scientific demonstration in the US of the bomb’s destructive power, coupled with an abandonment of the demand for unconditional surrender.

Glover is an outstanding thinker about ethics. (I was once a student of his, and found him an exhilarating teacher and incidentally a very nice man.) Yet here is surely an object lesson in how not to reason about the application of ethics to statecraft. Glover makes not a single reference to, or gives any indication of familiarity with, the literature on Japanese wartime decision-making. On the contrary, one of his sources, cited to demonstrate a supposed insouciance on the part of US officials concerning the A-bomb, is the principal populariser of the “atomic diplomacy” thesis, Gar Alperovitz – a man whose claims were debunked even by other revisionist historians 40 years ago, and who has been shown systematically to distort his source material by the creative use of ellipses.

As to Glover's counterfactual, bear in mind that even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed, the Japanese Imperial Council failed to reach agreement on whether to surrender, and Japan’s top military commanders refused to countenance the possibility of defeat. A demonstration of the A-bomb outside Japan would have had no effect whatever on the prospects for Japanese surrender, bar this one: had the bomb failed to detonate, as was perfectly possible, the boost to Japanese morale would have been catastrophic. The war would have gone on and on, perhaps till no cities remained in Japan, certainly with mass starvation owing to economic blockade - and with horrific consequences also for Allied troops, for prisoners of war, and for those enslaved by Japanese oppression in Asia.

Related Links

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  • Read entire article at Oliver Kamm (blog)