Written by: Stewart Lawrence

Near the end of World War II, the United States faced an ethical dilemma in its campaign to defeat Imperial Japan. The war already heavily favored Allied Forces, including the Soviet Union, which was advancing on Manchuria. However, there was little sign that the Japanese were ready to surrender. Even without hope of victory, the Imperial government was prepared to inflict maximum casualties on American and Soviet forces, with an entire fleet of kamikaze planes standing by to achieve this purpose.

President Truman had two broad options, drop the newly developed atomic bomb on Japan to terrify the country and its government into submission, or continue one or more versions of the existing military campaign with the eventual prospect of success, but at the cost of untold deaths and injuries to Allied and Japanese soldiers.

This paper argues a controversial position: Truman was right to drop the A-bomb Japan not only for military expediency but also on ethical grounds. Dropping the bomb held the prospect of terminating active hostilities virtually overnight, saving countless lives, and ending the agony of war. It would also allow the United States to claim the mantle of victory, depriving the Soviets of a claim to the fate of postwar Japan.

The bomb’s targeting of cities as opposed to military or other non-civilian areas was justified as it compelled the Japanese to confront the reality of its inability to protect its people from the ravages of war. Had Truman targeted military regions, it would not have had a sufficient psychological impact on the Japanese to bring about a decision to surrender. In this sense, while deliberately placing civilians in harm’s way, dropping the A-bomb was also strictly proportionate to the military goals and political ends.

In fact, by embracing this proportionality standard, Truman’s decision ultimately conformed to the ethical standards inscribed in the “laws of war.” Some 100,000 Japanese civilians lost their lives in the A-bomb attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, this gruesome outcome does not vitiate the soundness of the military and ethical considerations that went into Truman’s decision.

At first glance, defenders of the decision to drop the A-bomb would seem to confront an insurmountable ethical hurdle. The attacks against Japanese military forces but cities filled with civilians. While many non-combatants supported their government’s war against allied forces, they were unarmed and not participating in active hostilities as soldiers or even functioning as support personnel. In theory, knowingly targeting civilians for an attack on this scale would be difficult to justify.

Can a Deliberate Attack on Civilians Be Justified?

However, under the “laws of war” before World War II, civilians’ rights to protect from the attack were not yet well defined. Most of the principles discussed and codified up to that point dealt with restrictions on war-fighting methods and weapons and rules for treating wounded combatants and prisoners of war. It was not until after World War II — with the promulgation of the Four Geneva Conventions in 1949 – that protection for civilians qua civilians independent of military necessity was formally considered (Svoboda & Gilard 2015).

That said, there was a long period of customary international law that proscribed the massacres of civilian populations during wartime as a tactic to inspire fear, secure cooperation, or as a form of reprisal for their collaboration with enemy combatants. Moreover, the Hague’s so-called Law – first passed in 1907 — did prohibit the tactic of land- or naval-based bombardment of cities, towns, and villages.

During World War I, the Germans used zeppelins to bomb French and British cities. After the war, the prohibition on the bombardment of civilians included aerial means (Gómez 1998).

Critics of the decision to drop the A-bomb are fond of citing these provisions to suggest Truman’s actions might even be considered a “war crime” (Falk 2003). However, the Hague prohibitions were to prevent military attacks on civilians as a regular ongoing tactic of war. The tactic, if aimed strictly at civilians, could not be justified as a military necessity and would invariably constitute an “excess.”

One of the critical qualifying criteria was whether the target could be considered a “fortified” or “defended” one, and therefore a legitimate military target. The United States had already bombed Tokyo and areas with conventional munitions just as it had firebombed Berlin at the outset of hostilities. The civilian casualties from the Tokyo bombings – about 100,000 – were comparable to those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined (Atomic Archive 2015, p. 12).

The capital, fortified, and a command and control center; to some, it was a legitimate military target, because it could undermine the enemy’s will to resist.

These same military necessity arguments about civilian casualties came into play in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First, dropping the A-bomb was an extraordinary one-time decision. It’s aimed at bringing the war to an immediate conclusion and lessening the need for further hostilities, not exacerbating the conflict, causing further bloodshed and loss of civilian life, or increasing the risk of reprisals.

From this standpoint, the operation was an enormous success. Within hours of the second bombing, the Japanese completely reversed themselves and agreed to a full and unconditional surrender. With an overwhelming show of force, modest in its violence compared to the war-fighting impact experienced by the Japanese, the war was brought to a conclusive end virtually overnight.

Second, in the narrower sense, Hiroshima was almost certainly a fortified or defended area. A major Japanese encampment that might have figured in Japan’s defense against advancing allied forces was based there. The case for Nagasaki is much weaker in this regard. In fact, in neither case did the United States formally target military structures. Thus, the argument that these were not attacks on civilian populations is a strain.

However, these attacks did obey something resembling fundamental respect for the Law of proportionality. These were relatively small cities, not Tokyo or other densely populated areas. While massive and instantaneous from the standpoint of a single strike, the casualties were modest from the perspective of the war-fighting as a whole. The total civilian toll from the bombings did not exceed 100,000, though radiation poisoning did, over time, take its toll on thousands more.

It is tempting for critics to read back into the decision to drop the A-bomb the much stronger rules of international “humanitarian” Law that the world adopted in subsequent decades and that today are considered essential for regulating the conduct of war. However, despite the Hague prohibitions, in the 1940s, the dominant rule governing warfare was still one of “military necessity” (Alexander 2015).

The first part of that rule was that belligerents were justified in applying any amount and type of force necessary to defeat their opponents. The second and corollary part of that rule were that unnecessary forms of violence – violence not strictly essential for the defeat of a belligerent – were prohibited (Oppenheim 1921). In both of these respects, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were consistent with the war laws.

The third corollary of military necessity doctrine is the principle of “proportionality” (Kilcup 2016). While there is no strict standard for the level of force allowed in war, it is critical that combatants only apply the degree of energy needed to achieve specific military objectives – and nothing more. In targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a single bomb attack, the United States obeyed this stricture.

Truman could have dropped an A-bomb on Tokyo, with more far-reaching human consequences. He could also have bombed several cities simultaneously. Instead, Truman chose a single relatively small city, Hiroshima (population: 350,000), to send a signal to the Japanese leadership that it was time to surrender. Not hearing a reply within the stipulated deadline of 72 hours, the administration dropped a second A-bomb, again on another relatively small city, Nagasaki (pop. 263,000).

The intent was to make it clear that the United States demanded surrender and would presumably escalate if the Japanese refused.

Some critics acknowledge that the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan was not a reckless or indiscriminate act. However, they offer several other arguments against the decision. First, dropping the bombs was unnecessary because Japan was on the verge of surrender anyway, they argue, Second, even assuming a prolonged war, critics say Truman had other military options for prosecuting the war that would not have involved deadly nuclear weapons.

These critics also argue that the strategic rationale for deploying the A-bomb had less to do with the military realities in Japan than with the emerging balance of power with the Soviet Union. Based on these arguments, critics say that the overarching rationale for the A-bomb attacks was not a military necessity. It was military overkill, and therefore, a profound ethical failure, too.

The Myth of Imminent Japanese Surrender
When the Truman administration weighed the decision to drop the A-bomb, Japan was already devastated by severe battlefield losses. As one scholar notes: “By the end of June 1945, Japan had undoubtedly lost the war. Its navy, to some, was over. A naval blockade…The conquest of Okinawa was strangling its lifeline to food, and raw materials by American forces had opened up the home islands to invasion.

Aware of their declining ability to wage war successfully, and with tentative support from Emperor Hirohito, Japanese cabinet members sent Prince Konoye on an exploratory diplomatic mission to the USSR, in the hopes of persuading Moscow to mediate a negotiated peace between Japan and the Western allies” (Dueck, 1996).

Critics argue that there was a profound miscommunication between Japanese and American authorities on this question. American generals like MacArthur were well aware of the need to preserve the Emperor to ensure Japanese cooperation in a postwar American occupation (Dueck, 1996, p. 18). The State Department was divided on this question and withheld its support for the idea.

Critics imply that better communication between the two sides and a unified American position might have led to a negotiated peace, once the American situation was complete.

The actual evidence from the war suggests otherwise. Japan may have known that its military position was collapsing, but there’s little evidence that it was seriously planning to commit to a peaceful settlement. Dueck (1996), a critic of the A-bomb decision, admits: “It is far from certain the Japanese would have surrendered before Hiroshima if only they had been offered a guarantee of the emperor’s position” (p. 18).

Japan’s government was far from unified. Some elements of the civilian government were interested in extending feelers to the Allied Forces. Still, the military insisted on the need to fight on, in part to consolidate territorial gains achieved during the war. Had real talks developed, both sides would have fought, and Japan would have used the diplomatic arena as a stalling tactic? The two sides would likely have fallen into a classic “talk-fight” scenario (Pribbenow 2012) that might have prolonged the war, adding to the death toll and making stepped-up military action necessary to overcome entrenched Japanese resistance.

The real choice facing the United States was not military action versus diplomacy. It was the devastating but potentially decisive nuclear option versus the need for a full-scale land invasion to bring the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender. Whether it was worth the gamble to choose the latter option when such a powerful weapon was at hand to achieve the same goal – and for Allied Forces, at least, at a significantly reduced cost.

Was There a “Second” Military Option?
There may never be a truly accurate assessment of the likely costs of a land invasion of Japan in 1945. Dueck suggests that no such formal assessment was complete. Once the nuclear option appeared viable, Truman administration policy-makers eagerly grabbed it, without calling for defense planners to assess alternative courses of action.

The historical research conducted by Giangreco paints a different picture. (1997). The author delved into a treasure trove of military contingency planning documents either ignored by previous historians or directly not available to them. These planning documents clarify that the newly created U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff forecast a half a million to 720,000 battlefield casualties, including dead and wounded, to U.S. forces seeking to retake Japan through an armed invasion.

These forecasts were lower than the original estimates of between 1.7 and 2 million American troops. Planners took into account that the American forces had grown more adept at countering Japanese defense tactics during earlier bloody campaigns in Formosa and Okinawa. Simultaneously, planners were also well aware that unlike the siege of Berlin, in which Soviet forces carried the bulk of the fighting burden, U.S. forces would be retaking Japan virtually alone.

The military campaign was to last until the end of 1946, or nearly two years.

Paul Nitze, who directed the strategic bombing survey of Japan after the war, noted that “these fellows were going to fight to the last man…. the estimate of 500,000 casualties is a gross underestimate” (833). Even European theater commander General Eisenhower, though mostly unfamiliar with the Pacific war theater, expressed grave concern about the expected casualty levels.

However, in high-level war planning conversations with Secretary of State Stimson, he decided not to press the matter (833).

Historians have tended to share the view that the Japanese were deeply entrenched:

The Japanese code of bushido—’the way of the warrior’—was deeply ingrained. The concept of Yamato-damashii equipped each soldier with a
strict system: never be captured, never break down, and never surrender.
Surrender was dishonorable. Each soldier was trained to fight to the death and was okay to die before suffering dishonor. Defeated Japanese leaders preferred to take their own lives in the painful samurai ritual of seppuku (called hara-kiri in the West). Warriors who surrendered were not deemed worthy of regard or respect (Corrall, 1994)

The United States had already tasted the strength of Japanese resistance in two earlier land battles to capture Iwo Jima and Okinawa. These islands are essential strategic stepping-stones en route to an American land and sea battle to win the Japanese mainland. Iwo Jima was mostly uninhabited, but 30,000 civilians lived in Okinawa. In the fierce three-month struggle in early 1945, U.S. forces suffered roughly 85,000 total casualties than over 100,000 for the Japanese.

Between a tenth and a third of the civilians died as a result of the clashes. The United States also lost 360 airplanes. Also, 90 percent of the buildings on the island are extinct (Astor 1996).

The Battle for Okinawa turned out to be World War II’s bloodiest battle in the Pacific. It was also a sobering wake-up call for American forces. The campaign was fresh in their minds as planners turned to plan for a full-scale invasion of Japan. One esteemed historian argues that Okinawa largely precipitated Truman’s decision to bomb Tokyo cities and drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the possibility arose (Hanson 2004).

The Japanese had ordered civilians in Okinawa to commit suicide rather than get captured. They were preparing an entire campaign of kamikaze air missions in the event of a full-scale American invasion. They had also become practiced in tunnel warfare, which promised to create an unusually bloody battlefield and facilitated a stiff Japanese resistance.

The Japanese army and navy had more than 10,000 aircraft ready for use in July – and many more planned for October — that might have reached the U.S. naval fleets. Hundreds of small suicide boats were in use as well. In Okinawa, the Japanese had deployed just 2,000 kamikazes with a hit ratio of 1 in 9. Because of more favorable terrain on the mainland, U.S. forces expected a 1 in 6 or better ratio during a mainland invasion. One military study estimated that between one-third and one-half of the U.S. invasion fleet might be destroyed before landing (Frank 1999, p. 181-182).

Another critical factor in the land war planning and casualty cost estimates was wartime intelligence suggesting that the Japanese were reinforcing their position at Ryushu, which would have significantly complicated the success of an American invasion (Bernstein, 1999). Critics of the A-bomb decision seem to ignore this evidence, which contradicts the idea that the Japanese in any real and immediate sense was preparing for a negotiated settlement (Frank, 1999).

American fears of the cost of a ground invasion appear to have increased dramatically between June and August 1945, which coincided with the period of the Ryushu buildup Maddux, 1995). Bernstein even questions whether American planners would have gone forward with an invasion given the likely fierce resistance and the enormous casualties and workforce costs involved.

How much of Japanese territory would U.S. forces have had to conquer to induce the Imperial government to surrender? The U.S. invasion plan consisted of two successive operations, code-named Olympic, targeted at Kyushu near Okinawa, and Coronet aimed at Honshu, close to Tokyo. Some planners assumed that American forces might only need to hold Honshu’s coastal areas with the threat of a march on Tokyo.

In contrast, others forecast a campaign deeper into Japanese territory, including a campaign to eliminate Japanese redoubts in the mountains. In the latter, some estimates ran as high as 2-4 million casualties (Bernstein, 1999).

Another aspect of the casualty argument was the likely losses to Japanese forces—both military and civilian. This aspect seems only rarely factor into the debate over the wisdom of dropping the bomb – both the military necessity argument, and the ethical standard for doing so. A very large number of Japanese combatant and non-combatant casualties were to arrive as a result of an American land invasion, with estimates ranging from several hundreds of thousands to as high as ten million.

Key American war planners estimated a 22:1 ratio of Japanese to American deaths. From this, at least 200,000 Japanese deaths would take place for a short invasion of two weeks, but nearly three million were the fighting if the fighting to be prolonged (Skates 2000). Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy embraced the higher figure of 5 million, citing a study conducted by William Shockley and Quincy Wright, but still considered it “conservative” (Newman, p, 11).

One of the arguments used by critics is that these estimates, especially of American casualties, were inflated to justify the use of the bomb. However, when these estimates began to reach the pubic, no one, not even President Truman, knew that the weapon would be available for detonation, so it hardly stands to reason that these estimates were for this purpose. In the late 1950s, when Truman remarked that the bomb averted “millions of casualties,” his claim sometimes would be lambasted by A-bomb critics.

However, the latest research indicates that military planners did envision casualties at that high level, especially in the event of an island-wide military campaign.

Simply put, there is no good reason to believe that U.S. military planners would inflate the likely casualties from an American land invasion of Japan. An alternate argument might be that top military planners did not want to escalate the war with Japan, were expecting imminent surrender anyway and were hoping high casualty estimates would convince Truman to rely on diplomacy. Logically, that sounds plausible, but the historical evidence is scant here, too.

Most U.S. planners appeared to share Nitze’s view, who had no illusions about the willingness of the Japanese to die to defend not just their homeland, but an entire way of life. At the time of their war planning, Japanese intransigence was palpable, and the tentative peace feelers expressed by some on the Japanese side were faint at best.

What is a fact is that the estimate that American casualties could surpass the million mark was set in the summer of 1944 and never changed in the spring of 1945, various planners and senior officers quibbled the estimate or facets of it relating to specific operations. Still, the statistical possibility of a million casualties, combined with the experience of combat attrition of line infantry units in both Europe and the Pacific, had already prompted the Army and War Department workforce policy for 1945.

Japan had lost its navy, and its cities destroyed by U.S. airpower, but this was mostly irrelevant to their ability to inflict casualties on American forces to force the U.S. into a negotiated peace (p. 557)

Geo-Strategic Considerations

The Truman administration did have cause to consider more than just military necessity as defined on the battlefield with Japan. By 1945 it was clear that the post-World War II era would have two powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. Stalin’s army had withstood a two-year siege of Stalingrad by the German Wehrmacht, which ended up crippling the Nazi regime.

It had also rolled through Manchuria and prepared to advance on Japan, just as American Forces were (Glantz 1983). In American geopolitical thinking, the Soviets were in danger of dominating the Euro-Asian’ heartland,” giving them control over much of the globe (Fettweis 2000). At two previous world summits, with Churchill present, Stalin appeared to be gaining ground.

Many planners believed it was essential to send a signal of U.S. power and resolve in the inevitable global competition to follow the conclusion of World War II.

Some critics, including most notoriously Alperovitz (1965), and later Kolko (1990), have gone so far as to suggest that the dawning of the US-Soviet Cold War was the primary or even exclusive impetus for dropping the A-bomb on Japan. In other words, it was purely “atomic diplomacy” and the need to avoid a massive land invasion and the casualties entailed was simply a convenient pretext. Alperovitz and others also point to Soviet military advance through Manchuria and the likelihood that the Stalin would claim an integral role in Japan’s defeat as part of the rationale and timing for the dropping of the A-bomb.

Within days of the two bombings, the Soviets did launch their major ground invasion, but it came too late – the Japanese soon surrendered. Truman had earlier warned Stalin obliquely at Potsdam that the U.S. now possessed a “terrifying bomb.”

Could the threat of a Soviet invasion have precipitated the Japanese surrender? American historians have discounted this view, but it has become popular with some of their Japanese counterparts. For example, Hasegawa (2005), who reviewed the military intelligence reports of the Japanese military during 1945, found compelling evidence that the Imperial government felt more threatened by the Soviet’s march through Manchuria than by American operations alone.

Hasegawa argues that the Japanese had been counting on Stalin to help mediate the conflict in Asia at the Potsdam conference, and saw Soviet preparations for a full-scale invasion of Japan as the end of their hopes. It is noteworthy that the Soviets did launch the attack on August 10, after Hiroshima, but before Nagasaki. In other words, the Japanese were no longer expecting to fight the United States alone when they announced their surrender.

Hagesawa points to statements from Japanese military commanders that they did not expect the United States to drop more bombs, both because of a lack of radioactive materials and world opinion (Hagesawa, 2007). He concludes that the Soviet invasion, not Nagasaki, was the final straw that broke Japanese resistance to surrender.

Whether one subscribes to one or more Cold War revisionist views of the bomb as a form of “atomic diplomacy,” the argument provides another compelling reason to believe that American strategists were not merely engaging in reckless and unethical overkill dropping the A-bomb. The United States had a keen interest in creating a stable post-World War II framework for global peace and security.

The United States did have powerful leverage deriving from its dramatic display of military power with the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan. Arguably, that leverage ensured that the United States could practice a “containment” strategy that was reasonably effective and did not require American intervention or a possible face-to-face military confrontation with Stalin’s regime that could include the dropping of yet another atomic bomb.


The dropping of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the beginning of the US-Soviet Cold War and the dawning of the nuclear age. As devastating and horrific as its human consequences seemed to some, the act was not a “war crime,” much less a “crime against humanity.” Japan had effectively lost the war but had far too much military pride to accept surrender.

Dropping the A-bomb and demonstrating America’s overwhelming military and technological superiority was the “shock and awe” that Japan’s military leaders needed to confront the reality of the facts on the ground.

The United States could have forsworn the use of the A-bomb and launched a massive land invasion. However, it would have resulted in untold casualties to soldiers on both sides and Japanese civilians. By any reasonable estimate, those casualties would have far exceeded – possibly by a factor of ten – the injuries suffered primarily by Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In theory, the Truman administration could have chosen other targets.

Still, strictly military ones would not have driven home the war’s costs to the Japanese the way the bombings of two and relatively undefended small cities did. On the other hand, the administration did forswear the idea of bombing Tokyo or other larger cities that would have resulted in a truly massive loss of civilian life and also complicated postwar reconstruction.

The decision to program two bombings within 72 hours arguably may not have provided the Japanese with sufficient time to weigh the consequences of the first bombing. At the same time, it drove home, unmistakably the idea that America would continue to escalate until Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender. The succession of bombings over three days worked almost entirely in driving home this message.

Within hours of the second bombing at Nagasaki, the terrified Japanese, not knowing what might be next, did agree to an unconditional surrender. As a result, a prolonged land war with profoundly bloody consequences for soldiers and civilians alike seem to be in the past, and the United States emerged victorious to confront the rising ambition of the Soviet Union. In the end, battlefield concerns, humanitarian law considerations, and the demands of the emerging Cold War all converged to produce a bold and terrifying decision that changed the world forever.


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