The Making of the Atomic Bomb

2010-09-13

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Writing

Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning 800-page account of the history of the atomic bomb is a comprehensive and highly important book. He covers the science, from the earliest theorizing about the structure of the atom through to the early stages of the development of thermonuclear weapons. He also covers the political and military history associated with the Manhattan Project, and touches upon attempts to develop nuclear weapons in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Rhodes also goes beyond straight history to examine the scientific and military ethics associated with the development and use of the bomb, while also raising questions about what the existence of nuclear weapons means for global politics in the long term. The book goes beyond being a detailed historical account, by also engaging in serious ethical questioning about the implications of this dreadful technology. The book is also quite philosophical in places, such as when contemplating the nature of science.

One overwhelming message from Rhodes’ book is the horror of modern war – from ingenious combination poison gas attacks during WWI through to strategic bombing of civilians in WWII and the ongoing threat of thermonuclear annihilation. While nuclear weapons have certainly increased both the actual and potential horror of war, Rhodes uses appalling examples to show how they are not at all necessary for people to treat one another atrociously. That in turn affects the ethical status of using atomic weapons: was doing so preferable to invading Japan with conventional forces? Were any other alternatives available? Regardless of how you answer such questions for yourself, Rhodes’ account of warfare is one that cannot fail to produce revulsion in whoever reads it. His extensive use of primary documents and quotations – particularly when describing the destruction wrought by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – is effective both at conveying the history and providing some understanding of how people were thinking at the time. Colourful anecdotes also give a human quality to the account, such as when Rhodes describes personality clashes between military officers, or the existence of a women’s dorm at Los Alamos that was “doing a flourishing business of requiting the basic needs of [the] young men, and at a price.”

In addition to providing the broad strokes of history, Rhodes provides fairly detailed accounts of the lives and personalities of the key scientists, military figures, and politicians. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about the book is how it draws together timelines that would normally be treated separately: scientific discoveries alongside social and geopolitical developments. Seeing them described in parallel gives the reader a strong sense of context, and hints at some of the linkages between scientific advancement and other aspects of history.

I have some minor quibbles with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It doesn’t always define terms at first usage, which could make some passages difficult to understand for those who don’t have a pre-existing familiarity with the subject matter. He also provides extremely little information on the spies within the American nuclear weapons program who provided so much critical information to the Soviet Union, greatly speeding the development of their nuclear and eventually thermonuclear weapons. He also only hints at how a permanent nuclear institution emerged in the United States. While many at Los Alamos scattered at the end of the war, there were those who realized as soon as the theoretical possibility of nuclear weapons arose that they would profoundly alter the security of states and the relationships between them.

Ultimately, Rhodes shares the conviction of the physicist Niels Bohr that nuclear weapons have fundamentally changed world politics. He argues that they have “destroy[ed] the nation-state paradoxically by rendering it defenseless” and calls upon states to accept the necessity of “dismantl[ing] the death machine”. Specifically, he argues that nuclear weapons make the settling of disputes between states by armed conflict impossible, creating the need for some form of world government. Rhodes stresses the risk of accidental or unauthorized war – a risk that can only grow in severity as more and more states acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Unfortunately, it is hard to share his conviction that such a transformation is really possible. For people of his generation, the fact that most of humanity could be wiped out in less than an hour in a major nuclear exchange is a novel and terrifying feature of life. For those who were both during and after the Cold War, it is a reality that most have been aware of since childhood. Still, there is every reason to continue to try to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Doing so includes working to prevent the proliferation of such weapons to new states, as well as working to reduce the danger of accidents and the sheer number of weapons deployed.

Rhodes continues the history of nuclear weapons with a successor volume on thermonuclear bombs: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. In the course of reading Rhodes’ book, I was also compelled to write posts on cancer and the neutron, anti-Semitism, the nature of human rights, Pearl Harbor, and the distinction between nuclear ‘devices’ and deployable weapons. Rhodes also has a third book on nuclear weapons – The Twilight of the Bombs – which I certainly aim to get around to reading eventually.

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan September 13, 2010 at 8:51 am

“was doing so preferable to invading Japan with conventional forces? ”

It’s quite morally dubious to even ask the question in this way. We tend to assume that “our” war goals are de facto legitimate, and Japan’s defacto illegitimate.

The use of the Atomic bomb against the Japanese people was the single most destructive terrorist event in the 20th century. Discussions which serve to legitimate it, or which even assume the possibility that it could have been legitimate, are on the same level as discussions which ask whether the 9/11 WTC attack was justified.

Tristan September 13, 2010 at 9:08 am

“Unfortunately, it is hard to share his conviction that such a transformation is really possible.”

“Still, there is every reason to continue to try to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons”

Perhaps the most radical thing one can do to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons, is to believe such a transformation is in fact possible. There are certainly many universal or at least very common human values which suggest such a transformation is possible – but the current dominance of greed, individual self-gain at all costs, is a real bulwark against de-proliferation.

Milan September 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

We tend to assume that “our” war goals are de facto legitimate, and Japan’s defacto illegitimate.

By this logic, ending the war in any was illegitimate, since everybody’s war aims ought to have been accomodated.

In all probability, the alternative to the dropping of the atomic bombs would have been expanded firebombing of Japanese cities by B-29s, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, and an American amphibious assault on the Japanese home islands. That could very well have been akin to Saipan many times over.

There are important factual questions that bear upon the question of the ethics of using the atomic bombs. What was the mindset of the political and military leadership in Japan? What were the real alternatives? For a rather nuanced picture, I would recommend reading at least the relevant chapters from Rhodes’ book.

Milan September 13, 2010 at 9:16 am

Perhaps the most radical thing one can do to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons, is to believe such a transformation is in fact possible.

Whether it is possible or not is a factual matter – albeit one where the facts turn to a considerable extent on human expectations and psychology. It may be ‘radical’ to assume that it is possible to abolish war through the combination of nuclear weapons and the world government some people think they make inevitable, but being radical and being correct are not the same thing.

In any case, I do plan to read Rhodes’ third book, in which he discusses “the prospects for a world without nuclear weapons”.

Milan September 13, 2010 at 9:24 am

Actually, one of the things this book illuminates is how frequently modern war involves choosing one atrocity rather than another. For instance, Rhodes describes the battle of Iwo Jima, in which 21,570 out of 22,785 Japanese soldiers died along with 6,821 Allied soldiers.

It was proposed that, rather than invade the island with conventional forces, it be shelled instead with poison gas. FDR refused to approve the plan.

Probably, it was better (though still horrific) for the invasion to be undertaken by conventional means, if only because of the precedent using gas would have established. That said, from the immediate perspective of the battle itself, fewer would have died as a result of the contemplated chemical assault.

. September 13, 2010 at 9:26 am

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

During the final stages of World War II in 1945, the United States conducted two atomic bombings against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Despite six months of intense strategic fire-bombing of 67 Japanese cities, the Japanese government ignored an ultimatum given by the Potsdam Declaration. By executive order of President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. dropped the nuclear weapon “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima on Monday, August 6, 1945, followed by the detonation of “Fat Man” over Nagasaki on August 9. These two events are the only active deployments of nuclear weapons in war. The target of Hiroshima was a city of considerable military importance, containing Japan’s Second Army Headquarters, as well as being a communications center and storage depot.

Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. The Hiroshima prefectural health department estimates that, of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness. In a more plausible estimate of the total immediate and short term cause of death, 15–20% died from radiation sickness, 20–30% from flash burns, and 50–60% from other injuries, compounded by illness. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians.

Six days after the detonation over Nagasaki, on August 15, Japan announced its surrender to the Allied Powers, signing the Instrument of Surrender on September 2, officially ending the Pacific War and therefore World War II. Germany had signed its Instrument of Surrender on May 7, ending the war in Europe. The bombings led, in part, to post-war Japan adopting Three Non-Nuclear Principles, forbidding the nation from nuclear armament. The role of the bombings in Japan’s surrender and the U.S.’s ethical justification for them, as well as their strategical importance, is still debated.

. September 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

Debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The debate over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki concerns the United States’ atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 August and 9 August 1945 at the close of the Second World War (1939–45). The role of the bombings in Japan’s surrender and the U.S.’s ethical justification for them remains the subject of scholarly and popular debate.

In 2005 in an overview of historiography about the matter, J. Samuel Walker wrote that “the controversy over the use of the bomb seems certain to continue.” Walker noted that “The fundamental issue that has divided scholars over a period of nearly four decades is whether the use of the bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the war in the Pacific on terms satisfactory to the United States.”

Supporters of the bombings generally assert that they caused the Japanese surrender, preventing massive casualties on both sides in the planned invasion of Japan: Kyūshū was to be invaded in October 1945 and Honshū five months later. Those who oppose the bombings argue that it was simply an extension of the already fierce conventional bombing campaign and, therefore, militarily unnecessary, inherently immoral, a war crime, or a form of state terrorism.

Tristan September 13, 2010 at 8:33 pm

“We tend to assume that “our” war goals are de facto legitimate, and Japan’s defacto illegitimate.

By this logic, ending the war in any was illegitimate, since everybody’s war aims ought to have been accomodated.”

Can you see what’s wrong with your interpretation of my logic?

Tristan September 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

So, I suppose you are in a position to give detailed descriptions of the terms the Japanese were willing to surrender to? And, why those terms were worth either an atomic bomb or firebombing (which is also terrorism) to avoid?

Tristan September 13, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Why was America at war with Japan at all? Had Japan attacked any territory legitimately held by the US? Was the US takeover of Hawaii legal?

And, even if you think it was, was there no other way to respond to that attack (which you have claimed might have been legitimate on Japans part, in your attempt to remain consistent on the moral legitimacy of pre-emptive war) than to declare war in response? Could there not have been a peaceful settlement? Could a peaceful settlement not have been turned to at any time? Was there no way to oppose Japanese agression and expansion in the sphere other than to go to war? Why was Japanese agression and expansion invalid where American agression and expansion in the Pacific region during the period which is normally (idiotically) called American “isolationism”, legitimate?

Tristan September 13, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Maybe Japan should have firebombed San Francisco and Seattle in the 19th century to control US agression and genocide against native american territory.

Milan September 13, 2010 at 11:09 pm

It doesn’t seem appropriate to consider the ethics of what should have been done in 1945 as though the United States had a time machine with which to go back to any previous point in history and radically alter how they responded to events.

If the Japanese had a time machine in 1945, they would probably have gone back to cancel the Pearl Harbor attack.

The real ethical question is – given the situation in 1945 and what was known at the time – was the use of the atomic bombs justified? If so, why? If not, why not? I don’t think anyone can provide an unambiguous answer to the question, but a thoughtful answer probably has to go beyond hurling an accusation of ‘terrorism’.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 12:37 am

Well, was it an instance of terrorism? Was it an attack on a civilian population with a coercive goal?

Is it the kind of thing we can ever consider justified?

If so, then every time the PLO, Hamas, the IRA, etc commits a bombing, you need to prove why they had some alternative means of achieving their goal. Because, it appears, the validity of strategic goals is beyond question in your view.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 1:07 am

So you’re saying all PLO, Hamas, and IRA actions can be condemned in the same quick and easy way you used initially for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, because they are also ‘terrorism’?

Really, that word doesn’t seem to advance this discussion.

WWII involved countless “attack[s] on… civilian population[s] with… coercive goal[s]”. Were they all equally illegitimate? If there is some special reason why the atomic bombings were immoral, what is it?

Is it relevant that the alternative would probably have been a conventional invasion of Japan?

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 1:41 am

“So you’re saying all PLO, Hamas, and IRA actions can be condemned in the same quick and easy way you used initially for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, because they are also ‘terrorism’?”

Yes. Of course they can, and should, be condemned. They are attacks on innocent civilians. As for attacks that target only property, that sometimes might be acceptable if it has a chance of being effective (usually counter productive anyway).

States and groups might be argued to have a right to use force to protect themselves only if no non-violent means of protection is available. If there is a non-violent option, the terrorist option is plainly unacceptable.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 1:45 am

“Is it relevant that the alternative would probably have been a conventional invasion of Japan?”

No – not anymore than a similar alternative between two scenarios could be discussed regarding Nazi Germany’s invasion of France. We don’t sit around arguing how Germany could have invaded France in a slightly more humane way – and we shouldn’t sit around discussing whether our unquestioned goals of south pacific dominance could have been achieved in another brutal but possibly slightly more or less atrocious manner.

I think only justifiable case of nuclear weapons use is to prevent the immediate launch of an offensively targeted nuclear weapon. And in that case, it would only be justifiable if a conventional weapons attack were not feasible.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 1:49 am

Why when discussing this kind of event, do you take on the motivations and values of one of the parties? Is it because you personally identify with that party?

Is it because you think you have to “take sides” – that the moral questions can only be resolved by taking the stance of one of the great powers? Because that is absurd, and radically anti-democratic – free people in a democracy are more than able to take a position which does not align with any executive, and build political movements which demand that absurd positions taken by the executive be abandoned.

It seems like a kind of intellectualization of “Quiet, there’s shooting”.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 8:33 am

In and of themselves, the bombings were terrible and immoral things: the weapons did not discriminate in any way between legitimate military targets and civilians. Huge numbers of innocent people, children, and injured people were killed. The bombs also had longer-term effects, first in terms of radiation sickness and later due to the presence of longer-lived isotopes.

Arguably, the use of the bombs was also not proportionate to the aim of ending the war. That is a tricky historical question, since we cannot know for sure what else would have been sufficient to push the Emperor and military leadership to accept the need to surrender. Clearly, conventional firebombing wasn’t enough, given that Japan had faced that already and continued to fight.

Without a doubt, the bombings were a horrible part of a horrible war. That being said, I don’t think we can entirely reject the argument that the atomic bombing outcome was preferable – taken all in all – to a conventional invasion of Japan.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 11:26 am

That isn’t a response to my points at all. You are continuing to assume that the absolute, unconditional surrender of Japan was “necessary”. The absolute surrender of Japan was no more necessary than the absolute Surrender of Russia, or France, or Czechoslovakia – or Germany for that matter. The Nazis were not nice people – but if a conditional surrender could have saved a significant number of lives, even German lives – even German soldier’s lives – then the pursuit of absolute surrender is probably not justifiable.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 11:29 am

“Clearly, conventional firebombing wasn’t enough, given that Japan had faced that already and continued to fight.”

Since when was the conventional firebombing justifiable? This was also extreme terrorism – attacking cities, civilian populations, instead of military targets. Taking place at a time – I might add, when Canada and the United States had suspended the citizenship of Japanese immigrants. The whole thing reeks of genocide.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 11:30 am

The issue of ‘unconditional’ surrender is one that Rhodes discusses a fair bit. In particular, there is the issue of retaining or not retaining the Emperor.

That said, whether or not the surrender was ‘unconditional’, the war still needed to end somehow. There is no chance whatsoever that the United States would have just stopped attacking Japan in 1945. Japan sank the USS Indianapolis seven days before the Hiroshima uranium bomb was dropped. I suppose you can argue that the US should have just walked away and left Japan as it was at that point, and that any other choice was unethical, but taking that stance puts you outside the debate on which realistic option was most appropriate.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 11:32 am

Incidentally, Japan is in a much better state now than it probably would have been if the United States had not occupied the country and replaced their system of government. State building may have failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it definitely succeeded in Germany and Japan – both of which are now democratic and pose no danger to their neighbours.

. September 14, 2010 at 11:44 am

Potsdam Declaration

Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender
Issued, at Potsdam, July 26, 1945

1. We-the President of the United States, the President of the National Government of the Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, representing the hundreds of millions of our countrymen, have conferred and agree that Japan shall be given an opportunity to end this war.

2. The prodigious land, sea and air forces of the United States, the British Empire and of China, many times reinforced by their armies and air fleets from the west, are poised to strike the final blows upon Japan. This military power is sustained and inspired by the determination of all the Allied Nations to prosecute the war against Japan until she ceases to resist.

3. The result of the futile and senseless German resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Japan. The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.

4. The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.

5. Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.

6. There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest, for we insist that a new order of peace, security and justice will be impossible until irresponsible militarism is driven from the world.

7. Until such a new order is established and until there is convincing proof that Japan’s war-making power is destroyed, points in Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies shall be occupied to secure the achievement of the basic objectives we are here setting forth.

8. The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.

9. The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives.

10. We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners. The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established.

11. Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy and permit the exaction of just reparations in kind, but not those which would enable her to re-arm for war. To this end, access to, as distinguished from control of, raw materials shall be permitted. Eventual Japanese participation in world trade relations shall be permitted.

12. The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government.

13. We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 11:47 am

It is notable that the demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ was applied only to ‘all Japanese armed forces’ and not to the entire government or populace of Japan.

. September 14, 2010 at 11:52 am

Japanese Instrument of Surrender

We, acting by command of and on behalf of the Emperor of Japan, the Japanese Government and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, hereby accept the provisions in the declaration issued by the heads of the Governments of the United States, China, and Great Britain 26 July 1945 at Potsdam, and subsequently to by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which four powers are hereafter referred to as the Allied Powers.

We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese Armed Forces and all Armed Forces under Japanese control wherever situated.

We hereby command all Japanese forces wherever situated and the Japanese people to cease hostilities forthwith, to preserve and save from damage all ships, aircraft, and military and civil property, and to comply with all requirements which may be imposed by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or by agencies of the Japanese Government at his direction.

We hereby command the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters to issue at once orders to the commanders of all Japanese forces and all forces under Japanese control wherever situated to surrender unconditionally themselves and all forces under their control.

We hereby command all civil, military, and naval officials to obey and enforce all proclamations, orders, and directives deemed by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to be proper to effectuate this surrender and issued by him or under his authority; and we direct all such officials to remain at their posts and to continue to perform their non-combatant duties unless specifically relieved by him or under his authority.

We hereby undertake for the Emperor, the Japanese Government, and their successors to carry out the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration in good faith, and to issue whatever orders and take whatever action may be required by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or by any other designated representative of the Allied Powers for the purpose of giving effect to that declaration.

We hereby command the Japanese Imperial Government and the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters at once to liberate all Allied Prisoners of War and civilian internees now under Japanese control and to provide for their protection, care, maintenance, and immediate transportation to places as directed.

The authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the State shall be subject to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate these terms of surrender.

Signed at TOKYO BAY, JAPAN at 09.04 on the SECOND day of SEPTEMBER, 1945

Mamoru Shigemitsu
By Command and in behalf of the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese Government

Yoshijirō Umezu
By Command and in behalf of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters

Accepted at TOKYO BAY, JAPAN at 0908 on the SECOND day of SEPTEMBER, 1945, for the United States, Republic of China, United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and in the interests of the other United Nations at war with Japan.

Douglas MacArthur
Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers

C.W. Nimitz
United States Representative

Hsu Yung-Ch’ang
Republic of China Representative

Bruce Fraser
United Kingdom Representative

Kuzma Derevyanko
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Representative

Thomas Blamey
Commonwealth of Australia Representative

L. Moore Cosgrave
Dominion of Canada Representative

Jacques Leclerc
Provisional Government of the French Republic Representative

C.E.L. Helfrich
Kingdom of the Netherlands Representative

Leonard M. Isitt
Dominion of New Zealand Representative

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 12:24 pm

” There is no chance whatsoever that the United States would have just stopped attacking Japan in 1945.”

One could make similar claims about Germany’s occupation of Europe. To remain within the sphere of “the debate” is to accept the presuppositions of the debate – and that seems not acceptable in this case.

Or, we could as easily say, “there is no chance whatsoever that Canada would have just stopped committing genocide against first nations in the 1920s” and dismiss Peter Bryce’s 1922 report (then retired chief medical officer of Indian Affairs) as “outside the debate” (full text: http://www.archive.org/stream/storyofnationalc00brycuoft/storyofnationalc00brycuoft_djvu.txt).

But this is just absurd – basic human values are never “outside the debate”. The existence of power structures which exclude them is an affront to our humanity, and should be overcome.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 12:28 pm

“3. The result of the futile and senseless German resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Japan. The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.”

This is just an outright threat of genocide. Which is obvious if we read it this way:

“The result of the futile and senseless British resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Canada. The might that now converges on Canada is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting British, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole British people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Canadian armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Canadian homeland.”

Milan September 14, 2010 at 12:28 pm

What do you think would have happened if the United States had just stopped attacking Japan in 1945?

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Well, I doubt Japan was still fighting with the belief that it would eventually defeat the United States and invade New York City. I presume some peace in which they would retain control over the south east Asian co-prosperity sphere would have been acceptable to the Japanese authorities.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 12:46 pm

If we think the use of an atomic bomb might be more or less justified, as if it could ever ben justified, we might ask in which case might the use of an Atomic bomb be more justified – by an agressor trying to finish off his opponent, or by an army – nearly defeated, trying for a latch ditch effort to achieve an honourable peace, i.e. a non absolute term of surrender?

Would a Nazi nuclear attack on London have been justified? Certainly, if it had ended the war, it might have prevented many allied atrocities and saved many German soldier’s lives.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 12:49 pm

What would have happened of Germany had simple stopped attacking Europe, Africa and Russia in early 1942? This question is preposterous – and yet – it’s quite clearly “what they should have done”.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Leaving Japanese militarism and imperialism in place would have been an extremely bad choice, including for the Japanese. Indeed, the consequences of doing so would almost certainly have been worse than the consequences of using the atomic bombs. There are some ideologies which we cannot tolerate, and which it can be just to go to war to extinguish.

That being said, it is possible that Japan’s ideology and system of government could have been changed by less repellant means, such as a conventional invasion or the use of an atomic bomb as a demonstration, or in a strike against a more purely military target. Of course, it is possible a conventional invasion would have caused more death, destruction, and suffering and possible that a demonstration of an atomic bomb would have failed to produce a surrender.

Also, in the (impossible) scenario where the United States armed forces decided to pack up and ignore Japan as of the summer of 1945, it seems highly likely that it would ultimately have been invaded by the Soviet Union instead. It’s a difficult thing to speculate about, given how utterly impossible a scenario US abandonment of the war is, but it is even possible that the war between Russia and Japan could have extended until Russia got atomic weapons in 1949.

It also seems notable that the Potsdam Declaration contained explicit promises that the people of Japan would be relatively well treated in the event of surrender: “The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives”, “We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation”, etc.

Japan did not offer such terms to places it defeated. Similarly, the fact that Germany intentionally and aggressively initiated the war in Europe puts it in a different moral category, when it comes to questions like when it should ideally have stopped fighting.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

What is so atrocious about Japanese militarism? Is it more atrocious than American or Canadian militarism? Did the US or Canada offer terms like “We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation” to first nations people as settlers spread west across North America?

“Germany intentionally and aggressively initiated the war in Europe”

If Japan’s pre emptive strike on Pearl Harbor was justified, does that not put America in the same moral category as Germany?

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 2:11 pm

From the post you linked:

“The recognition that everybody is human, and that this carries with it some sort of universal moral standing, seems far preferable to the idea that some people are sub-human, and thus not worthy of any moral consideration.”

Are you actually claiming that the fact Japanese militarism did not carry with it universal moral standing was a reason the war had to go on?

Do you think the USSR carried such an idea of universal moral standing? Or America? Why were Japans crimes of a different kind than Russian extermination of the Kulaks, or of dissidents, or American extermination of first nations?

Milan September 14, 2010 at 2:24 pm

What is so atrocious about Japanese militarism? Is it more atrocious than American or Canadian militarism?

You are once again making two logical errors you have made recently: the ‘there are other worse things so how can this be bad?’ error, and the ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live in fairyland?’ error.

The fact that some bad things have happened doesn’t absolve us of the obligation to consider the relevant moral characteristics of each situation anew. At the same time, the limits to what is possible are morally relevant. We need to make moral choices in the real world, not some ideal one.

Time machine ethics are also deeply artificial.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 2:29 pm

If Japan’s pre emptive strike on Pearl Harbor was justified, does that not put America in the same moral category as Germany?

I never claimed that it was justified, merely that a case could be made for that position.

Certainly, Japan’s aggression towards China and other neighbouring states was unjusifiable, and sufficient cause for the overthrow and replacement of the Japanese government.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm

“What is so atrocious about Japanese militarism? Is it more atrocious than American or Canadian militarism?”

You have to give an answer to the first question, because you already used it as a reason.

The 2nd question is a clarification question – it’s meant to help you answer the 1st question, or at least assure that the question is answered in a way that is clear and relevant to the context (the 1940s).

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 2:45 pm

“Certainly, Japan’s aggression towards China and other neighbouring states was unjusifiable, and sufficient cause for the overthrow and replacement of the Japanese government.”

Alright, so you also concede that US agression in the region, including the takeover of Hawaii, is unjustifiable – and sufficient cause for the overthrow of the US government?

Milan September 14, 2010 at 2:47 pm

This is time machine ethics, all over again. You are acting as though the question is: “Should President Truman have dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, or zipped back to 1898 to stop the U.S. annexation of Hawaii?”

Hypocrisy may not bear much relation to what happened before what, but making ethical choices requires a lot more than just not being hypocritical. Furthermore, it is quite possible that the most ethical option available in a given situation is also a hypocritical one, given the past conduct of the individual making the choice or the state they represent.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm

So, the problem is the 47 year gap?

So, if Japan’s domination had continued for 47 years, it would then be “time machine ethics” to call for the overthrow of their government because of the agression and crimes committed?

Do you actually think US agression in the Pacific region somehow ended with the ’98 annexation of Hawaii? What about Samoa, the Philippines, and Guam?

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 2:54 pm

” “Should President Truman have dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, or zipped back to 1898 to stop the U.S. annexation of Hawaii?””

The discussion has shifted – we are debating whether Japan’s agression or “unacceptable ideology” is reason enough that they had to be forced to totally surrender – even if the cost of total surrender was to be born by the civilians, not the authorities who had ordered the agression.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

This is the ‘there are other worse (or equally bad) things so how can this be bad?’ error. Fine, condemn U.S. imperialism if you like. But that doesn’t make Japanese imperialism acceptable, or mean that people in the past who had an opportunity to stop it should not have done so.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm

even if the cost of total surrender was to be born by the civilians, not the authorities who had ordered the agression

For ordinary Japanese civilians, surrender was not a cost but a benefit. It stopped the bombing, it stopped the blockade, it meant they wouldn’t be conscripted anymore. It led to reconstruction and a better system of government. Hardly anyone in Japan today would be better off if the U.S. occupation had not taken place.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 3:00 pm

What about Japanese imperialism gave America the right to demand unconditional surrender? What “specific character” makes it so awful?

I could accuse you of demanding US enemies to live in a “fairyland” where rights are respected, democracy thrives, no imperialism, etc… – whereas America is allowed to live in the “real” world, where democracy, rights, and non-agression are regularly suspended for “pragmatic” considerations.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 3:04 pm

What about Japanese imperialism gave America the right to demand unconditional surrender?

As far as the surrender goes, there are conditions that don’t really matter when it comes to Japan being a danger to those nearby (letting the Emperor remain a figurehead) and there are conditions that were essential to the successful postwar reconstruction and political transition.

It is worth noting again that the unconditional surrender demanded was of the Japanese armed forces.

Dropping the atomic bomb to secure purely symbolic requirements would have been totally unjustified, I agree. But the matter at hand was whether or not Japan would continue to fight – specifically, whether they would pursue the same vigorous defence of the home islands as they did at Saipan and Iwo Jima. Preventing that bloody invasion is a cause of sufficient importance to potentially justify the use of nuclear weapons.

Milan September 14, 2010 at 3:05 pm

I am saying the dropping of the bombs was necessarily jusitifed, but rather that your arguments for why it was unjustified are not convincing. Arguments based on proportionality and non-discrimination between targets are more (but not entirely) convincing.

Tristan September 14, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Why couldn’t the bomb be dropped on a military target? Why did they have to target civilians?

Milan September 14, 2010 at 4:29 pm

That is definitely one of the most objectionable things about the choice. If you have a historical explanation, Rhodes’ covers the deliberations of The Interim Committee and the other major figures involved in detail.

Repeated personal intervention from Henry Stimson kept Kyoto off the target list, because he thought it was too culturally important.

Tristan September 19, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Anyway, I find this entire discussion objectionable. The fact that we think targeting civilians with a nuclear weapon is ever justifiable, and not only justifiable but something about which it is appropriate to have a public conversation, is a sign of significant moral degeneration.

Would it ever be appropriate to have a conversation about how in a certain war time context rape and the murder of innocent children is justified? No – and not even if you thought you could justify it. Even if one was right, such a discussion is disgusting and a sign of moral degeneration.

You think “there are some ideologies we cannot tolerate”. Well, I think there are some moral possibilities that we cannot tolerate.

. April 1, 2012 at 4:11 pm

When a neutron hits one of the non-fissile uranium nuclei— the vast majority—it can turn it into a new element: plutonium. Plutonium nuclei are fissile, and getting a bit of plutonium out of uranium that has been sitting in a reactor is far easier than separating uranium isotopes. Reactors could thus serve as plutonium factories, and the early ones were used exclusively for that purpose. By the mid-1950s some reactors in Britain and France were generating electricity as well; they needed to be cooled anyway, and using the gas that cooled them to drive steam turbines was good public relations. But their main purpose was still to provide fuel for bombs.

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