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It Makes One Recoil


This was for US-Japan relations. The assignment was to respond to two articles: one about how dropping the a-bomb on Japan was justified and one about how it wasn’t.

Fussell’s Thank God for the Atomic Bomb rests on a number of premises, some of which are explicit and some of which are implicit. These are as follows: utilitarianism, or something like it, is a valid basis for determining whether a decision was correct. That is, the rightness of a decision depends more on its results than abstract duties. The probable result of not dropping the bomb would have been far worse than what came of dropping it. People directly affected by an issue should be given special consideration because for them, the decision is real, not just an abstraction. The American soldiers who were likely to die in an invasion thus have more authority on the subject of the bomb than those who were safely unborn at the time or on the mainland. On the more concrete level, the atomic bomb was the least-worst way to make Japan surrender and it did, in fact, cause Japan to surrender. I can understand his general approach here and I made a presentation for a history competition when I was in seventh grade based on similar arguments. The director of my school’s extended learning program questioned whether the mass killing of several hundred thousand people could really be called good, rather than regrettable at best. Over the years, my position has changed as I thought these matters through. I came to realize that even if we grant Fussell’s framework for how to determine a correct decision (moral philosophy is outside the scope of this paper) many parts of his argument do not hold up.

Most of Fussell’s weaknesses come down to what he proclaims as a strength: his personal involvement in the subject. He was one of the American soldiers he frequently mentions likely would have been killed in an invasion of Japan. (Fussell, 218) While this gives him certain insights, though not into the politics of World-War-II Japan, and explains why he “thanks God for the atomic bomb,” it also gives him a rather narrow perspective. This most obviously affects his argument that opponents of the nuclear attack lack credibility because they were never in danger and are only looking at the question theoretically. There are several ways to turn his premises against his conclusion.

If Fussell can argue that it’s easy to argue that it’s easy to argue dropping the atomic bomb was wrong when you and your family aren’t going to die in an invasion of Japan, (Fussell, 212) then surely a Japanese person can argue that it’s easy to say the bomb should have been dropped when it wasn’t dropped on you. If the American soldiers get special standing in this debate because they theoretically could have died, what about the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of whom actually did die? He does address this to some degree, acknowledging the horrors of the bombing, but his comparison to the other horrors of the war doesn’t really support his argument. (Fussell, 220) It merely shows that neither of the scenarios he lays out could be considered good.

Fussell’s reasoning also does not apply to the rest of the Japanese population. He discusses the brutality of the war on both sides at some length to make the point of how gruesome the alternative he posits, ground invasion of Japan, would have been. However, this means the Japanese soldiers (and, as he points out, civilians) who would have died in an Allied invasion were also saved by Japan’s surrender. In fact, even more Japanese would have died than Allies as the Allies were surely going to win in an invasion scenario as well, albeit at a much heavier price. Therefore, if his reasoning holds up, Japanese, or at least those in the areas that would have been invaded, should be even more supportive of the atomic bomb than he is. This is clearly not the case. Clearly, there are other factors at work which he never addresses and this whole line of reasoning falls apart when scrutinized.

A lot of the problem here is that Fussell is making what is known as a “weak-man argument.” This is a variation on a straw-man argument where one selects an opponent’s weakest arguments and rebuts them, but ignores many significant opposing views in the process. By stereotyping people opposed to the bomb as essentially ivory-tower upper-class liberals who think Truman and his cohorts were evil, he not only ignores Japanese people, but people like my teacher who thought Truman acted in good faith, but did not make the least-worst decision. (Fussell, 220-221) This also contains shades of ad hominem tactics as it portrays his opponents as judgmental, impractical and unserious. This focus on people’s motives and character steers discussion away from the facts.

Fussell glosses over a lot of theoretical objections. He argues the residents of Hiroshima had fair warning the city was going to be obliterated, but few left, but doesn’t address why this might be. (Fussell, 219) Propaganda was common and people exposed to the leafleting had little reason to believe them. Hasegawa explains warnings were common with conventional bombs, which while quite destructive, certainly did not obliterate a city. (Hasegawa, 121) Besides, this still leaves Nagasaki bombed without warning and all of this is begging the question over whether giving advance warning is actually relevant. If the atomic bomb were not justified, would warning people first change this at all?

Any question about whether a course of action was justified raises the question “as opposed to what?” Fussell’s argument is heavily based on the idea that Japan surrendered because of the atomic bomb and the only plausible alternative was an allied ground invasion, which would have been much worse. Even if we assume the first point, as he seems to have done, were these really the only options? I’ll assume we are only talking about 1945 as questioning the U.S.’s earlier behavior brings up a lot of issues not directly related to the atomic bomb. He quotes Alsop to make this “bloodbath or bomb” argument on the basis that War Minister Anami was opposed to surrender under any circumstances. He dismisses Javorsky’s view not because Javorsky’s evidence or reasoning are faulty, indeed, he barely indicates what Javorsky’s reasoning even is, but because he’s a college professor and a theoretician and thus less qualified than Alsop, who was there on the ground. (Fussell, 215-216) However, this has the same problems as Fussell’s experience. Fussell is arguing against a worldview and a caricature, not specific claims. While this episode explains Alsop’s feelings on the matter and perhaps gives him some expertise on the conditions in Japanese prisoner of war camps, it isn’t clear how this relates to the issue at hand, which is what Japan would have done if it were not bombed. It is not as if Alsop spent his time in captivity with Anami. Anami’s opinion is only relevant if he were in a position to actually declare surrender or was representative of the people who were and the atomic bomb caused him to change his mind. Neither is true. Anami was only one of six people on the war council. Not only is Fussell attributing more influence to Anami than he actually had, Anami still did not give up after the bombs were dropped and was involved in an unsuccessful coup to prevent Japan from surrendering even then. One could just as easily cite Togo, who had wanted to surrender earlier. (Hasegawa, 113) This part of the argument essentially depends on a lot of extrapolation from one man who doesn’t even fit the hypothesis himself. Indeed, if the Japanese were really hardened to fight to the last man, why would a few hundred thousand civilian deaths, which would have happened in a few months anyway, make a difference? In fact, Hasegawa argues Japanese leadership was not so much concerned with preserving civilians as the office of the emperor. (Hasegawa, 116) Had the U.S. stuck with the original proposal of the Potsdam Proclamation and guaranteed Japan could retain their monarchy in some form, Japan would have been able to save face and perhaps much more willing to surrender. (Hasegawa, 117) This concession would have been essentially symbolic and cost the Allies nothing tangible. Instead, Fussell treats surrender as a singular idea, with no nuance as to the different forms it could have taken.

Perhaps the biggest failing of Fussell’s hypothetical situation is that he imagines the war to only be between the U.S., Britain and Japan and bases all his scenarios on what the Allies could have done to make Japan surrender. He completely ignores the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union attacked Manchuria three days after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. The U.S. knew about the impending attack and Russia stepped up their timetable due to the bombings. (Hasegawa, 110) The assumptions the invasion was planned other no longer held. Bomb or no bomb, it wouldn’t have happened the way Fussell posits.

With the Soviet Union in the Eastern War, Japan was fighting on three fronts: the Soviets, the U.S. and British forces, and the Chinese, who had never really been pacified (and who are also essentially ignored by Fussell). Japan had no real hope of winning before and this only made their situation worse. Japan was now not only in danger of losing their new colonies, but parts of Japan as well. The choice was no longer between surrendering or holding out in hopes of better terms, but surrendering to the U.S. and Britain right away, or waiting and having to cede large amounts of territory to the Soviets as well. The end of the Western War made it clear that Japan was better off surrendering to the U.S. This of course presumes the Japanese would react rationally, but so would any surrender scenario. Fussell accepts the Japanese would surrender in a clearly hopeless situation, but does not weigh the bomb against this also bleak alternative which would have killed far fewer people. In fact, we do not have to presume this, because we have record of what the War Council discussed before making the decision to surrender, and it was the Soviets, not the atomic bomb. (Hasegawa, 116) Thus, the Soviet invasion, which would have happened within a few days regardless of atomic bombs, was the real impetus for Japan’s surrender.

Finally, despite Fussell’s bluster about “canting,” we can’t know for sure what would have happened and it’s a rare scenario where his confidence would be justified. I would argue that advancing it is definitely justifiable to kill about two hundred thousand people based on suppositions about the alternatives is itself a rather undiluted form of canting, especially when one uses one’s own self interest as a criterion, and bases the argument on a few unsupported assumptions and a few poorly supported ones while failing to address realistic alternatives. In short, while it is impossible to show conclusively whether Truman made the right decision in dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I believe the evidence points to know. If there is a good alternative argument, Fussell didn’t make it, rather he mostly strung together a series of logical fallacies while barely even addressing the evidence.


From → history, politics

  1. I had the EXACT SAME ASSIGNMENT LAST YEAR! I was limited to two pages (Double-Spaced) and my Professor blames all of history on oil. He was able to relate EVERYTHING to oil (even if oil was never present at the time). WWII is no exception. -____-

    • I would hate to have to do this in two pages. It was hard enough to do in six.

      • You’d be surprised at how much I want to write more.

        I was also surprised at how much oil played a part in WWII. Long story short, my there was a bunch of accessible oil reserves located near where WWII ended. US entered the war because they realized that if the German Army gained access to those oil deposits they could have potentially won WWII.

        But I emphasize that this is coming from a professor that believes that oil was a driving force for everything. If there was no oil at the time, they were certainly “thinking” about oil.

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