The Skeptical Alchemist posted this video, which has some significance for me since I was in Hiroshima less than 2 weeks ago.

Say what you want about the need to end the war, the expected casualties during an invasion, or whatever other rationalizations you like. But consider this question, by Leó Szilárd:

“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?”

15 thoughts on “Hiroshima.

  1. The problem with Szilard’s analogy is that if Germany had bombed Rochester and Buffalo and then *lost* the war, then it would be obvious that the bombing was simply done out of malice — as in fact the Nazis maliciously ramped up the Holocaust after it was clear they were losing.

    Whatever one can say against the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings – whether it would have saved more civilian lives to invade instead — it would be difficult to argue that they were simply futile malicious acts.

  2. The bombs were launched in full knowledge of the result – the death of thousands of innocent civilians. Nowadays that would not be defined as an act of war – but as something way more vile.

    The video is also injected with heavy propaganda, suggesting that Japan’s “ruling party” was responsible for the death of thousands of people because they did not surrender. That’s spinning it, to say the least.

    Notice how the crew who participated in the launch of the Nagasaki bomb said that Nagasaki was a “secondary target”. It makes me wonder what their primary target was – and how many more lives would have been taken if they had succeeded in bombing it.

  3. The point is to separate the ends from the means and think about how the act would be judged if it had gone in the opposite direction. The reason Einstein and Szilard urged Roosevelt to develop atomic bombs is that they considered there to be a real threat that the Germans would develop them. In the case of this thought experiment, one can easily imagine the German leadership expecting their use to cause the Americans to surrender, it ending up not having this effect, and then them going on to lose the war. His point is that a war crime is a war crime, whether it leads to victory or not.


    Yes, the video has a slant to it. It’s interesting to see the peace museum in Hiroshima for a different perspective.

  4. I do not think you can separate the ends from the means, too many things have influence on our perceptions and judgments of the actions taken for victory, trying to say dropping nukes on civilian populations is a war-crime outside of context is a fallacy we can enjoy today, 60+ years later. And that context is critical. No American was killed by Japanese or German atomic bombs, but still many leaders of both nations were tried, and executed for war-crimes. Winning and loosing the war is what matters, not whether you killed 75k people with a nuke, or 120k with a firestorm of incendiaries, or 40k in the carpet bombing of London. Whether they died in days or years, or all at once, dead is dead, and the context must be included, civilians in WW2 were valid targets at the time, on both sides, the rest is just statistics, or in this case, semantics.

    PS, this is not a rant, just my view of the thought experiment, keep in mind, 83% of the deaths in WW2 were allied, not axis.

  5. Ok, then imagine that German use of atomic weapons *did* win the war — justified?

    In the case of this particular use of weapons of mass destruction the context is important, I agree, because the situation was complex. For example, many of the scientists involved objected to dropping the bombs without warning. In any case, the bombs may have been necessary for *unconditional* surrender at that moment, but in the end the terms were much better than what was offered and rejected before the bombings.

  6. Dave S. said …

    In terms of WWII, winning justified the acts used to win. The ends justified the means. Had the Germans dropped those bombs and lost, surely whoever was responsible would hang high. Others hung for far less, like General Yamishita for instance, who was hanged for the actions of men he was only theoretically in charge of in the Phillipines but in fact had no control of at all because he had no contact.

    If you look at the things that were considered war crimes, the principle was that if we (the winners) didn’t do it and they (the losers) did, and it was bad, they were tried for it. That’s the reason The Blitz was not a war crime, because the Allies did as much and more to Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, etc. That’s also the reason Grand Admiral Donitz got off lightly … his crime of unrestricted submarine warfare was ameliorated by the fact that Chester Nimitz admitted he did the same thing in the Pacific theatre.

  7. I’m not sure I’d say “winning justified the acts used to win”, but rather “the winners used winning to justify their acts”. The point of Szilard’s analogy is to get us to think about the act itself and how we would consider it if we were the victims but could still judge the perpetrators.

  8. I’ve heard countless arguments why the bombs needed to be dropped and plenty why they shouldn’t have been I’m not really sure where I stand on it because the facts of 50+ years ago are so hard to verify. However this analogy seems a bit wrong to me, one could make another analogy on a smaller scale say something like a group of people attack a family and one of the family shoots and kills several of the attackers including some who were not directly involved in the attack but just happen to be with the aggressors. If you take the shooting out of context of the original attack then you change the whole scenario.

    I’m not sure this analogy fits but it does seem similar to me.

  9. steppen wolf: “The bombs were launched in full knowledge of the result – the death of thousands of innocent civilians.

    If that was the sole purpose of the bombing you’d have a case. But I don’t think things were so simple at time and they still aren’t today. It would be nice if one only needed to kill the leaders in a war. Unfortunately, they’re tough to hit and they draw their power to wage war from the ‘innocent’ civilians of the countries from which they arise. And I do think the Japanese leaders were culpable for part of the decision.

    I have close relatives who lived in Japan during WWI and others who were arrested and spent the war in an Arkansas interment camp. The feelings about the generation that lived through those times seems to be ‘shit happens’, or, with a particular Japanese twist, “shikata ga nai”. I don’t hear talk about ‘war crimes’ from that generation.

    I read one scifi story about an alien species in which the leaders could commit their people to war. Afterwards the leaders killed themselves to answer for the horrors they unleashed. Not a bad idea.

    I agree with thordr, one can’t argue about whether the means justify the ends without considering the context. I’m of Japanese descent and I’ve visited the Hiroshima memorial & seen the strings of origami cranes hung in the park.

  10. All the allies needed to do to defeat the Japanese–in the absence of the atomic bombs–was to kill a lot more Japanese civilians with conventional weapons, and take a lot longer doing it.

    Szilard was a scientist but not a practical person. His loyalties were divided politically, and his ability to think larger war strategies through were apparently quite limited.

    Think the thing through. Japan was finished but wasn’t willing to admit it. Only the display of overwhelming force–with the promise of plenty more where that came from–led to the capitulation of the Japanese high command.

  11. That, or give them reasonable terms of surrender (which they got anyway after but not before).

  12. The Potsdam and the preceding Cairo Declarations were not at all unreasonable, IMHO. Did the final Instrument of Surrender vary significantly? Here’s a section from the Surrender document: “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. About the only difference was the possibility that the position of Emperor would continue.

    melangic epiphany is correct, an alternative to the atomic bombs would be something like more firebombing of Japanese cities. Unfortunately, that tactic was already underway in over 50 other Japanese cities and would have killed more civilians than had been lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The allies could also have slowly starved the Japanese through a naval blockade. Wonderful alternatives to what was perceived as Japanese intransigence to obvious defeat.

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