A Day Which Will Live in Infamy

December 10, 2011

Dirty Hands, Military


This week we recognize the 70th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and we celebrate the lives of the 2,390 Americans who died that day.  The first bombs fell at 6:05 that morning, and less than 24 hours later Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war – a war that would end with the catastrophic explosions of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   This “nuclear diplomacy” ordered by President Harry S. Truman has become the subject of great debate over the past 66 years, and for good reason.   These two bombs killed an estimated 200,000 Japanese civilians, and devastated two of the island nation’s largest cities (Reference).   In this post I will investigate Truman’s decision making process using the Dirty Hands problem and the fear principle.

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We’ve all heard the saying “It’s all fair in love and war,” but have you ever thought about why?   Every act of war is by part immoral, and therefore, no act of war can leave you without a little dirt under your fingernails.  We simply hope that the immorality is outweighed by the greater good, and this brings us to the definition of dirty hands.  Martin Hollis elucidates this principle using the Glencoe massacre.  This massacre was carried out in 1692 against a rebellious tribe in Scotland called the MacDonalds.  The MacDonalds were hosting warriors from Argyllshire who received orders through the chain of command to kill the entire MacDonald tribe that was hosting them.    The reason for the massacre was to protect the remaining assets of the King by scaring them into submission.   The Unites States’ nuclear attack on Japan carries many similarities to the MacDonald massacre, and as a result, can be enlightened by the dirty hands problem: that any unjust or immoral act is justifiable if done for the greater good.  In this case, the bombing of Japan was necessary because it induced a treaty that would save countless American lives.

One historical fact that is often ignored is that Nagasaki was bombed 3 days after Hiroshima.  During this time period Japan began negotiating for a possible surrender.  This leads us to believe that the strategy and reasoning behind each bomb was different.  Hiroshima was more of a strategic choice.  The destruction of munitions factories there crippled the Japanese military.   When the Enola Gay released its payload over Hiroshima, President Truman said “We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”  Then recent battles such as the devastating Battle of Okinawa proved to Americans that the Japanese were tenaciously devoted to holding their ground.   More casualties were suffered on both sides of this battle than for any other battle in the Pacific theatre of WWII.  Therefore, by isolating the suffering to the Japanese half of this equation, President Truman confronted the dirty hands issue for the Allies and saved countless American lives.

Motivations for dropping the “Fat Man” over Nagasaki were, in my opinion, less of a tactical maneuver and more of a passionate vendetta.  Surveys taken after Pearl Harbor indicated that 33% of Americans would support the complete annihilation of Japan and its entire people (reference).  These genocidal attitudes were brought on by the psychological warfare employed by the Japanese.  Japan established early on that they were willing to throw conventional wartime conduct out the window.  They proved this by attacking Pearl Harbor before America was even in the war and further by using American POWs as bayonet practice, “Some 50 men practiced on Lloyd for a half an hour under the supervision officers who demonstrated the proper technique” (reference).    The fear that these actions instilled in Americans brought about a primal need to avoid “the danger of a violent death” as Hobbes puts it.   This fear could have driven many Americans to revert to the inexorable tactics of psychological warfare coined by the Japanese.  Decimating one of Japan’s most prized cities would certainly shake the nation’s collective psyche.  In my opinion, this war came down to acts of terrorism, and in order to “avoid violent death,” Americans had no choice but to retaliate with a great and final force.  Is the fear principle just cause for acting out in violence?

Nearly 80% of Americans today think that the bombing was justified (reference).  Would you guess the Japanese would think otherwise?  Was it possible for Truman to end this war without leaving his hands so dirty?

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11 Comments on “A Day Which Will Live in Infamy”

  1. djavolio8 Says:

    The United States had made only two atomic bombs as a result of the Manhattan Project. The idea that they would drop one on Hiroshima and then save the other one for a rainy day is one that I think no country would adopt.

    Secondly, there is a story behind the bombing of Nagasaki that unfortunately very few people have ever educated themselves on. Nagasaki was not the primary target for the second atomic bomb. The city of Kokura was to be bombed as it housed the largest munitions factory in the entire country of Japan at that time. For both “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” the city of Nagasaki was a secondary target. It just so happened that on the day Kokura was to be bombed thick clouds were cast over the city and the pilot had orders to not drop the bomb unless he had visual confirmation of the target. After making multiple passes over Kokura, he gave in and traveled to Nagasaki. Therefore, the idea that Truman ordered the bombing to satisfy a “passionate vendetta” is ridiculous.

    Where dirty hands can be applied, as you correctly point out, is that many Japanese lives were to be taken in an effort to preserve an equivalent amount of American lives. After island hopping throughout the Pacific, the Allied Forces had pushed the Japanese military solely onto the homeland of Japan. Imagine what the coast of California would look like, if we knew that at any moment, the empire of Japan would be storming the beaches. I believe our government would have been giving every able-bodied person a rifle and pointing them toward the beach. Japan, in addition to its military, was arming civilians and pointing them toward the coastline. If the Allied Forces were to invade Japan as they did in Normandy, France, the casualties had an estimated minimum of 500,000 lives.

    Yes dirty hands applies, and yes the decision to drop atomic bombs has changed the world forever, but I believe we’d all like to think that our government would do whatever it has to do in order to preserve 500,000 – 1,000,000 American lives. This is why you see such a high approval rate of the bombings.

  2. chadmach Says:

    I would probably guess that most Japanese do not think that the bombing and destroying of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were justified, since it is their home country. Japan had several cities become destroyed by the war via fire bombs well before the United States had dropped the nuclear bombs, but obviously this was not enough to force the Japan into a situation in which they could no longer fight the United States. The nuclear bombs, however, provided that extra push to force Japan out of the war. Had the United States not dropped the nuclear bombs and instead just kept fighting the war via the ground and fire bombing, the war, as estimated many times, would have cost thousands of lives; both on the American and Japanese sides.

    I would agree that Truman did have some dirty hands as a result of deciding to drop the bomb on Japan. But what president/government would not do the same things to protect their citizens? To see such high approval ratings shows that when it comes down to it, people (specifically Americans in this case) know that had Truman’s hands not gotten a little dirty, things could have taken a turn for the worst. I find the “all is fair in love and war” quote to be very true. It may be cruel and wrong to bomb cities, killing thousands of civilians, but if it was necessary to crush the support and morale of the war then it is fair. Now, we may not agree with this if we were on the receiving end of the bombings and I think that goes to show how controversial that quote really is.

  3. blevz Says:

    An interesting parallel story is that of Iwo Jima. The US was faced with the difficult task of island jumping its way towards Japan so as to bring its air force in close enough proximity to bomb the actual Island of Japan. The small island was heavily defended and despite eventually securing it, the US suffered heavy losses. A piece of history that oftentimes goes unspoken is that the US had floated the option of using chemical weapons on the island before the invasion in order to weaken the defenses. It was eventually decided not to use the weapons not because it was immoral or against international law, but because reciprocation was feared. Had the US decided to utilize these agents, hundreds of horrific deaths, not known since WWI, would’ve been on the hands of politicians and thus the citizenry as a whole. It seems interesting that politicians found it easier to use nuclear weapons than chemical weapons in similar situations regarding US lives.

  4. mikerwagner Says:

    They say hindsight is always 20/20 and for politics and warfare, this has been a determining factor for many presidential terms, and for evaluating the quality of the presidency. President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been arguably one of the most controversial decisions in American history if not the most. Decisions need to made in real time and in the moment when dealing with warfare and international politics.

    Whn evaluating the Drity Hands problem pertaining to the decision of Harry Truman, the evaluation almost always comes down to counting lives. Did the United States save millions by taking millions? What would have happened if the bombs hadn’t been dropped, and what would have happened if Japan attack the united States again?

    We can look back now and say that dropping the bombs established the United States as the powerhouse of all nations in the world.. Everyone feared the USA and what they were capable of and WWII propelled USA economy into the best years its ever had. But who is to say that USa could not have achieved this high profile without the bombs? In order to evaluate the dirty hands decision we must ask if it was in the best interest of the nation that Truman led. The USA population is the only interest that needs to be considered because Truman acted from the position of president, not as an individual.

    For that reason, the fear factor was a just reason for dropping the bombs on Nagasaki. However from a personal moral decision, its hard to justify the loss of so many lives. Thus the dirty hands problem. The president acted against moral fiber for a believed betterment of his country.

  5. bmazus Says:

    Well in response to your closing statements I feel as though many individuals have very strong opinions on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I certainly do. The term “justified” needs to be taken in context, we cannot just think about what the aftermath was.
    At the time the United States almost felt like they needed to do something that would end that war definitively. Obviously they did. What needs to recognized was that Truman had no idea what he was getting himself into when he dropped those bombs. Nobody knew how many people would die, how awful the aftermath would be, and what the cultural backlash would have been for his actions. While in retrospect it looks like a completely inhumane and merciless action I believe it was justified. For years the world had been at war the only ones really left fighting the Americans were the Japanese. Our war with them in the Pacific had been a very ugly and bloody one. The Americans were tired of war and wanted to put an end to it. I feel like from Truman’s perspective at the time dropping the bombs was just the Americans next big move, and it turned out that it was so big that it ended the war.

  6. kelseymlee Says:

    Honestly, Truman’s decision to drop the two bombs on Japan were probably extreme to say the least, but I don’t think he really had any other choice. Without dropping the bombs, he risked a longer duration of war, resulting in more American casualties, and more American lives being put at risk. He had to do something extreme to show Japan that America was serious and would not tolerate Japan as a serious threat.

    If I were a citizen of Japan, I probably would not feel as if the dropping of the bombs were justified, as I would probably know of plenty of innocent people effected or killed by the bombs. It would be hard for me to grasp the concept of why the U.S. felt the need to take such drastic measures, because in the end, many of the people who were killed were not the same people calling the shots and threatening the U.S.

    Truman had to overcome any fears he may have had about dropping the bombs in order to protect the American people. I’m sure he knew that the bombs would kill thousands upon thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, but he had to be strong enough to look past that. The fact that he was strong enough to make such a tough call, and then live with the consequences of that decision on his conscience for the rest of his life is, in my opinion, extremely admirable. It takes strength and courage as a political leader to be willing to dirty your own hands for the benefit of your people.

  7. habavol Says:

    Personally I think the bombings were necessary. Remember the video we watched in class about the fire bombings. Those happened so frequently and killed and destroyed so much, yet Japan wouldn’t surrender. We had a choice to either drop the atom bombs or send troops in. Sending troops in would result in thousands upon thousands of US deaths, while dropping the bombs would minimize deaths of US citizens. Japan was not going to surrender until they realized we were completely serious, and the only way to do that was to go all in. After the first bomb, they failed to surrender, so we had to make our point, in order to protect the US. After they knew they weren’t going to win, they were forced to surrender. I think if we hadn’t dropped the bombs, there would be far to much American blood shed, and it would just be horrific.

  8. lukeythekid Says:

    At a point in the war during which the decision was between a full-scale invasion that would cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of American lives, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary evil. it may have been a case of dirty hands, but the possibility of the other outcome make it completely necessary. It is important to remember that crushing the Japanese spirit was not exactly an easy task – it is not as though the two atomic bombs were the first bombs dropped on Japan. The US had been bombing the crap out of them for a long time, and only the thought of more atomic bombs caused the Japanese to surrender. The US needed to solidify that fear and also prove (falsely) to the Japanese that they had plenty more where that came from. Dirt hands though it may be, the emotional component is not to be discounted – they played a dirty trick, lying about possible peace while planning a vicious surprise blow. As the Middle East is learning today, you can’t get away with killing thousands of Americans without an overwhelming retaliation.
    Besides, when you make the mistake of killing Josh Hartnett you’re just asking for that kind of merciless retribution.

  9. Brian Hall Says:

    I found that statistic of the number of people willing to annihilate Japan to be shocking and utterly disturbing. I had no idea that people in America had ever felt that genocide would be an acceptable means of dealing with political problems. This is especially appalling considering the nature of the war being concurrently fought in Europe. The more I think about it, though, the more I start to wonder why more people didn’t answer in the affirmative to that question. I have the privilige of not living in a time of war in which the very stability of everything held to be valuable was at stake and, given my age and sex, I would have had to fight in that war. I might think differently given the circumstances.

    I found your examination of the motives behind each bomb to be cogent and interesting. I never divided the two as truly seperate incidents in my mind; I’ve always heard of the discussion of “the bomb dropped on Japan”, or “the bombs dropped on Japan”, not an individual consideration of each bomb. Since we can only speculate what would have happened otherwise, it is difficult to know how difficult it would have been to invade Japan. I would hazard a guess that at least as many people killed by the bombs would have died had the alternative route been taken, and many of them Americans. The Nagasaki bomb is troubling, however, as it is conceivable that Japan was already shitting itself over what happened at Hiroshima. Critics would say that we needed to demonstrate that we had the potential to level the entire country, and eliminate any potential suspicion that we only had one bomb and were bluffing about our true capacity for destruction. Given the outrageous power of the bomb however, it is conceivable that anyone in their right mind would think twice about crossing the U.S. after this incident, regardless of the presence of more bombs in our inventory or not. Personally, I don’t think we should have dropped the Nagasaki bomb.

  10. JoshH Says:

    The United States’ decision to drop the bomb on Nagasaki was far from, as you put it, “a passionate vendetta.” While there is truly no “one reason” behind the United States’ decision, a major factor was to assert American dominance in the world. At the end of World War 2, essentially two countries remained powerful: The United States and the Soviet Union. The United States had just acquired a new weapon more powerful than anything anyone had previously seen, and as a display of force, the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fear of a war between the United States and the Soviet Union pervaded throughout the world, and this new weapon held major implications for the balance of power in the post-war era.

  11. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    Obviously fear of something is not an adequate reason for completely annihilating it, especially if the fear is unjustified. The Japanese army definitely used some questionable tactics throughout the war, but so did the U.S. We bombed the crap out of many more places than just Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    Secondly I do think that the nuclear bombings of Japan were necessary for ending the war. As this blog stated the Japanese showed how willing they were to surrender at Okinawa. Truman’s only choices were to invade the Japanese homeland or force it to surrender using the atomic bombs.
    If we had invaded Japan, it unquestionably would have been much more detrimental to the U.S. in terms of lives lost. It is also very possible that an invasion of the main Japanese island would have cost the Japanese even more in terms of lives and general suffering. Ultimately it is impossible to know, but I think that Truman did make a necessary decision.

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