“More Lives Were Saved”: Annihilated Cities and Choosing the Lesser Evil

The American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (whose 72nd anniversaries were this past summer) have long been defended because they supposedly saved more lives than they destroyed. By using atomic bombs to force Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the United States (so the argument goes) avoided either an American invasion of Japan or a blockade that would have essentially starved Japan into submission. Either alternative option would have cost more Japanese and American lives than the 100,000-200,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; therefore, the bombings were the “lesser evil” in bringing the Second World War to an end.[1] However, this type of argument that justifies actions because of their consequences, an approach often called “consequentialism,” is flawed.

The consequentialist rationale used to defend the atomic bombings—indiscriminately killing civilians in wartime is justified if it ends the war and save more lives overall—could also be used to defend Japanese wartime behavior. The Japanese Imperial Army also killed indiscriminately during the Second World War. A notable example was their annihilation of the Chinese city of Nanking, which killed a comparable number of people as the atomic bombings, although by less technologically sophisticated means. To justify killing civilians because of such killing’s long-term benefits is to make the justice of Japan’s wartime killing of civilians open to debate. We should draw back from taking such a step.

Before exploring how the defense of the atomic bombings could be applied to the Japanese war effort, I should describe the relevant principle at stake. A venerable principle of wartime ethics, found in different cultures across time, is that certain classes of people should be immune from attack, even in war. While enemy military personnel are legitimate targets of attack, those not directly involved in fighting are not.

This second class of people who should be immune from attack generally includes children or those whom advanced age, illness, or disability have made ineligible for military service; people engaged in work such as producing food, clothing, or other necessities that are not inherently of a military nature; and enemy soldiers who have been captured (prisoners of war). The second class of people’s immunity from attack is a principle that has been incorporated into international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions.[2] In Just War Theory, this principle is known as the “Discrimination” principle.

Killing a large portion of a city’s population, military and civilian alike, with a weapon as indiscriminate as an atomic bomb is clearly a violation of the Discrimination principle. Defenders of this violation say that the bombings killed fewer people in absolute numbers than either an American invasion or blockade would have—and they are probably correct on this point. How does this consequentialist justification look, however, if we apply it to the other side of the Pacific War?   

The Japanese military’s behavior during the Second World War was marked by widespread violations of the Discrimination principle. The Japanese killed and tortured both civilians and prisoners of war who fell into their hands. As I mentioned, an infamous example of Japanese violence toward civilians was Japanese troops’ conduct in the Chinese city of Nanking, which the Japanese occupied in 1937 during the early phase of their war with China.

The Nanking massacre offers an apt parallel with Hiroshima or Nagasaki because it is another case in which military forces devastated an entire city, and the loss of life was comparable. Estimates of Chinese killed by the Japanese at Nanking vary but a conservative estimate is comparable to the combined estimate for Hiroshima and Nagasaki: perhaps around 200,000 killed.[3]

Nanking was, in 1937, the Chinese capital. Following the Chinese-Japanese war’s start in August 1937, the Japanese had considerable success in occupying eastern China and took Nanking in December. Japanese forces then went on a rampage through the city, torturing and killing tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants. Chinese women were raped on a massive scale during the rampage.

Historians debate why the rampage occurred, and some point to the brutalizing effects of warfare and military discipline on Japanese troops. Another reason, however, may be that the Japanese high command hoped the Nanking atrocities would intimidate China into surrendering or otherwise coming to terms. This was essentially the same rationale used to defend the atomic bombings: annihilate a city to shock the other side into surrendering and thereby end the war.

Other Japanese violations of the Discrimination principle could be justified in similar ways. As noted above, mistreatment of prisoners of war was common: roughly a third of all Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese died in Japanese custody, sometimes in agonizing, grisly ways.[4] During the war, a Japanese newspaper offered an apparent consequentialist justification for the mistreatment of prisoners: “To show [the prisoners] mercy is to prolong the war.”[5]

We might want simply to condemn the Japanese destruction of Nanking or brutalization of POWs and leave it at that. Yet if we accept the consequentialist justification for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must at least ask the question: did the Japanese’s actions at Nanking serve a useful purpose within the larger context of the war that could have saved more lives in the long run? What if by shocking and de-moralizing their enemies through the indiscriminate torture and killing of civilians and POWs the Japanese could have brought a speedy end to the war in Asia? Wouldn’t such actions therefore be justified?

Granted, someone might reject consequentialist justifications of Japan’s actions for purely consequentialist reasons: the violent nature of Japanese imperialism (the argument might go) meant that a Japanese victory in the Second World War would have led to more deaths than the victory of America and its allies did. If a speedy Japanese victory would not save more lives than continuing the war, then destroying Nanking or taking similar actions to achieve victory would not be justified.

Such an argument might be correct. However, given the extremely violent post-war history of Asia, we should be cautious in concluding that American victory saved more lives in the long run than a Japanese victory would have. More to the point, making such a consequentialist argument concedes too much, given the enormity of what happened at Nanking.

Assessing the likely alternative outcomes of Japanese victory versus American victory in the Second World War (which would be a massive undertaking, given the war’s scope in Asia and the array of variables involved) and finding American victory to be the preferable outcome should not be necessary before we can reach the conclusion that torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, as at Nanking, is wrong. To hold that we must enter into a debate over the larger war and its results in order to condemn Japanese behavior at Nanking runs contrary to our appropriate revulsion at such behavior and obscures the wartime Discrimination principle that must be upheld in such cases. Yet if we accept the consequentialist rationale for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we open the door to accepting such a rationale in other cases and making the most extreme atrocities thinkable and potentially justifiable.

Just as we would reject such arguments in the case of Nanking, we ought to reject it in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The moral principle of discriminating between combatants and noncombatants when using violence—and of condemning indiscriminate violence—should be upheld. We should not weaken the principle by making it dependent on questions of the likely outcomes of different scenarios or assessments of which option will save the most lives in the long run. 

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] The range of estimated deaths is given in Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999), 287.

[2] “Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva, 12 August 1949,” Articles 1–4, 13–18, 27, 32–34, 146–147, International Committee of the Red Cross, accessed August 23, 2017, http://bit.ly/2ufNjF3

[3] Michael Bess, Choices under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 50–51; Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 202–203.

[4] Frank, Downfall, 160.

[5] Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011), 12.

© 2017 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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