Was it a War Crime to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, it set off a fierce debate. At least a hundred thousand civilians were killed and the cities had been leveled to the ground. A new era had begun where one bomb could destroy vast numbers of civilians. Many questions were raised, which are still debated to this day. Was it right to intentionally make war on civilians? Were the bombings justified because of thousands of American soldiers who would have likely been killed in the alternative – an invasion of Japan? Thousands of pages have been written on these issues, but we will add a few lines of our thoughts.
When considering the morality of dropping the atomic bombs, we need to consider the historical context in which this took place. These were not isolated acts. In fact, the Allies had been targeting civilians for years. Strategic bombing targeted not just factories and infrastructure necessary for the enemy’s war effort, but intentionally used weapons to try to demoralized the enemy public. Many hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these raids. Incendiary firebombs were dropped on Japan to intentionally light the wooden buildings on fire. The people suffered untold suffering as their cities burned, the fire raging hot enough to melt the asphalt in the streets. 75,000 – 200,000 people were killed in the firebombing of Tokyo, more than either atomic bomb. If we condemn the use of the atomic bomb, we must also condemn thousands of other bombings of civilians and the entire strategy of the Allied air force.
When the war began, the Allies did not plan to bomb civilians. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the combatants to “under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations in unfortified cities,”i and at first all sides agreed. This commitment soon fell apart. Both sides committed a series of escalating reprisals. Eventually all sides decided to intentionally target the civilian population, to try to break their will to fight. A British staff paper said,
The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger.ii
When the United States entered the war they, like the other powers had when the war began, planned to use only precision bombing. They wished to only hit military targets, and avoid damage to the civilians as much as possible. Although the military would continue to insist that that is what they were doing, that was not, in fact, the case. German anti-aircraft fire was very damaging, and it hindered Allied plans. Some bombing runs were conducted at night, which made attempts to hit the target guesswork at best, given the rudimentary navigation equipment. Even if conducted during the day, few bombs hit their target. One survey found that only 20% of bombs came within 1000 yards of their target. The reality was that if a “precision bombing” was ordered on a target anywhere near civilians, they had about the same chance of hitting the civilians as of hitting the target.
There were no international laws which clearly prohibited the aerial bombardment of civilians. The Hague Conventions took place in 1899 and 1907 – before aerial attacks were something to even consider. The Hague Rules of Air Warfare were written in 1927, but nations never agreed to abide by them. When the war was over, and the Axis leaders were being tried for war crimes in the Tokyo and Nuremburg Trials, they were not prosecuted for bombing civilians. The Allies could not do that without appearing as hypocrites before the world.
Leo Szilard was one of the scientists involved in creating the atom bomb at the Manhattan project, but he argued against its use against civilians:
Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?iii
Without a doubt, if by some miracle the Japanese had won the war after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans would have been charged and convicted with war crimes.
What About the Bible?
A major issue with the Allies decisions were that they were backed up by pragmatic reasoning. They weren’t making them off of a consistent moral standard, they were just trying to achieve victory in the way they saw as the easiest, only constrained by what they felt their conscience said was right and wrong. Thus wiping Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map could be justified by arguing that if they had instead landed on Japan, more Americans, and also Japanese, would have been killed. However, no one knows the future. Pragmatism ultimately does not work. It was pragmatic reasoning that led the British to try to appease Nazi Germany in the 1930s instead of standing up to their evil. The proper course is to do what is right, even if it doesn’t seem the best way to our reasoning. As the old saying goes, duty is ours, results are God’s.
Using the Bible as our moral standard, was dropping the atomic bomb right or wrong? In Deuteronomy 20, God gave Israel strict instructions on how to conduct warfare. He says:
When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: and when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.iv
Israel was instructed offer cities the option of surrender, and if they refused, only the men were to be killed. The women and children were to be spared. But there was little or no warning given to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombs indiscriminately killed men, women and children alike. Deuteronomy 20 goes on further:
When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege:v
The Israelites were not to cut down trees to so as not to destroy the productivity of the land. Atomic bombs dropped on cities do the exact opposite – they destroy everything in their path fruit trees, women and children. Under Biblical law, there is no question that they would be forbidden.
i. Appeal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations, September 1, 1939
ii. Despatch on war operations, 23rd February, 1942, to 8th May, 1945 by Arthur Travers Harris (1995) Cass Series: Studies in Air Power. 3. Psychology Press. p. 7.
iii. “President Truman Did Not Understand,” U.S. News & World Report, August 15, 1960, pages 68-71.
iv. Deuteronomy 20:10-14
v. Deuteronomy 20:19