21 December 2008

Parenthetic Note on the Use of the Atomic Bomb

I recently wrote a post on the Manhattan Project in which I wrote:
I've been disappointed by the way the issue has been generally exploited by partisans to support opinions on other subjects—a football, so to speak, in an ongoing propaganda war. As an amateur student of history, I personally have learned that it's vain and self-deceiving to make judgments on these matters because one cannot (or will not) ever make a valid reconstruction of the understanding historical actors had of the events in which they acted...

The Manhattan Project emerged from under this avalanche of history as the prototypical project to use a massive drive to develop a "magic bullet," a technology that would end the War. Somehow, that technology has been divorced from any context. I guess people want to conjure up the amazing technical feat of not only achieving a nuclear bomb in only three years, but achieving the first nuclear bomb in only three years; and applying this to some unknown new technology, similar to the A-bomb in its revolutionary character, but reversing the moral polarity.
My post neglected to explain why I was disappointed; it was not by the fact that people try to make judgments on "these matters." It was how they go about it.

In American Hiroshima (Trafford Publishing, 2006; p.108ff), David J. Dionisi makes a fairly compelling argument that the US government was well aware of the inevitability of Japanese capitulation well before the use of the bomb. The customary evidence for this (it's been made many times before) is the 1946 US Strategic Bombing Survey, "Japan's struggle to end the war.":
The time lapse between military impotence and political acceptance of the inevitable might have been shorter had the political structure of Japan permitted a more rapid and decisive determination of national policies. Nevertheless, it seems clear that, even without the atomic bombing attacks, air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion.

Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.
(Emphasis added—JRM)

While this seems like the most plausible conclusion for historians, there are a few caveats I want to make here:
  1. In hindsight, historical events always seem inevitable. More precisely put, when undertaking a speculative counterfactual (e.g., what if the US had failed to develop an atomic bomb by 1 January 1946?), an analyst can invariably alter nearly all incidentals and still expect the same outcome. Certainly leaders of the defeated government would naturally want to ingratiate themselves with the SCAP authorities by affirming that there was little support for the regime among ordinary Japanese, or even intense opposition among professional commanders and managers. This would contribute to a sense by the committee that Japanese capitulation was "inevitable."
  2. The main reason cited for certainty of Japan's imminent surrender is "air power." But aside from massive conventional bombing (which failed to induce Vietnamese capitulation in the 1970's), what form would that air power take? Aerial campaigns against the major cities of Japan had led to gigantic death tolls (100,000 deaths in Tokyo alone), and even after the bombing of Nagasaki, stalwarts in the army planned a coup to seize the Imperial Palace rather than allow the Emperor to accept capitulation.
The point is that, revisionist historians have tried to make the case that not using the atomic bombs would have been virtually cost-free. This is not a plausible claim; the bombing survey, which claimed that neither atomic bomb use nor an attempted invasion would have been necessary to defeat Japan, does assume continued air power (meaning, continued use of conventional bombs against the civilian population). Precision bombing most emphatically did not exist, and the Japanese military machine did not rely on large, easily-identifiable plants such as those supplying the Third Reich armies.

Another point that needs to be made is that it would have taken preternatural political courage to refuse to use a weapon, now available, to hasten the end of such a war. I don't think this theme needs further development.

Now, I believe I have stripped away the various efforts to game the argument. Had the USA not used indiscriminate terror bombing—incendiaries and atomic bombs against civilians—then the war would have lasted longer and killed more Usonians. Use of incendiaries is not dramatically different from the use of atomic bombs; both were used in the Pacific War to kill many thousands of noncombatants.It would seem that neither was illegal in 1945, although I could be mistaken.1

The United States government made the decision in 1942 to launch a major, secretive program to create a nuclear bomb. It is here that the moral judgment was, in my view, made. After 1944, a suspension of the program was probably impossible; after 16 July 1945, non-use of the atomic bomb would have required unheard-of heroic moral courage. It was in 1942, in other words, that the temptation was embraced. During the following year, moreover, the Allies began greatly intensified bombing of Axis countries; Japan, in particular, was the target of massively lethal incendiary campaigns that targeted the entire population, not explicit military capabilities.

The problem was that the Allies, at the core of their strategic planning, adopted a scheme to win the War by enormous random massacres. Among the non-ruling populations of Axis countries—particularly Japan—this was to undermine the moral legitimacy of the Allies and their postwar order. While the Japanese Militarist regime had committed crimes against humanity, peace, and the laws of war, the Allies committed crimes against the peace on three continents, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the laws of war.2 The Nuremberg Trial Proceedings defined war crimes to include "wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity," which probably led directly to Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. But the question of "military necessity" was an extremely dangerous loophole. The Allies, in particular, had designed their entire strategy—their calculus of "military necessity"—around the concept of remote bombing. Wanton destruction was intrinsically a military necessity. Its logical culmination was the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The purpose itself of destroying entire cities to win wars is categorically immoral; the Allied powers agreed to this when they undertook the first wave of trials for crimes against the laws of war. They adopted the premise that this immorality ought to have been obvious to Axis military personnel, even though international law had not yet been promulgated to say so. There was never any risk of Japanese destruction of Usonian cities, so the Usonians could not plead that they were avenging, or protecting their own cities; and even if they were, the terms of the Convention were not to be waived even if the enemy broke them. Even if the bombing were needed to induce total Japanese surrender, it was a war crime.

The effect of the bombing was a disaster of human liberty and the moral standing of democracy. Its worst spiritual impact was on the Usonians themselves, who now accepted leaders who blithely proposed to use the atomic bomb in most conflicts to which it was a party. The atomic bomb appears to have strongly influenced the ideology of the Cold War belligerents not only toward the possibilities and dangers posed by warfare, but towards the very ideologies themselves. For example, Usonian ideology morphed from an authentically conservative doctrine of caution, continuity, and particularism, to something new and strange. Before, there was at least some serious regard for Mills-style liberalism, which was already understood to impose absolute limits on the portability of any new progressive social development. According to Tocqueville, the Usonian outlook was particularist in so far as Usonians regarded their historical legacy (short though it was) as rare, extraordinary, and endowing themselves with unique virtues, virtues that enabled democracy.

Now "democracy" was used as a symbol for something else; it referred not to any system of political rights-cum-electoral rule, but to the Usonian-led team. Hereafter, few would find it odd that Finland or India, with their authentically democratic institutions, were not in the "democratic" camp, but military juntas in Pakistan, Thailand, Greece, and Venezuela were. "Democracy" was now understood as instrumental to the survival and expansion of capitalism, because it was taken for granted that capitalism was uniquely suited to democracy, not because actual democracies favored capitalism. Added to this was the doctrine that unlimited force could be brought to bear to preserve capitalist political orders in any country of the world, regardless of their local unpopularity and their illegitimacy.

The role of the atomic/nuclear bomb in this ideological shift was its extraordinary harnessing of natural forces. Now, political triumph had nothing to do with legitimacy and free will; it was entirely an industrial problem, solved by superior application of Taylorism and enlightened management techniques. Even though the atomic bomb would not be used again in warfare, Usonian leaders openly and soberly contemplated its use in every military action they took. The failure of bombing to actually influence social outcomes was always assumed to be the result of failure to bomb adequately. So, for example, Laos was bombed more profusely than Japan and Germany (put together) during WW2, and of course has a far smaller population, area, and economy than those two countries. Yet the legend persists and amounts to conventional wisdom, that Laos fell to Communism because the United States military held back. Always at the back of the demagogues' minds was the failure to use nuclear bombs in each theater; this was always taken as evidence that the US had "fought with one hand tied behind its back."

By assuming that it could mold the political order of each nation on earth with sufficient resolve, the "democratic" ideals of the Usonian political establishment dispensed with any appeal whatever to free will or freedom. The only freedom that mattered, clearly, was free enterprise. The Manhattan Project was launched with a view to molding human will like a recalcitrant mountain top. What is astonishing is how its close cousin, the modern "conventional" bomb, failed utterly in its purpose. Instead of molding the Vietnamese, Lao, or Afghans, the atomic bomb molded Usonians. Our view of other communities became solipsistic; they could be made to actually be what our leaders wanted, if only we had sufficient resolve—where "resolve" was defined as indifference to suffering.

It would be nice to be able to speak of the atomic shadow on Usonian thought as something receding: a past historical anomaly, now reverting to a more sane view of other humans. Surely, it would seem, exposure to flesh-and-blood Arabs or Southeast Asians would arouse our natural empathy and affection for them. I don't really see signs of this, however; I think we're still in the process of collectively forgetting how we once viewed the world as only partly susceptible to technological control. In our efforts to come to grips with the calamities wrought by excessive fossil fuel consumption, urban sprawl, and digital waste, we still see the problem as one requiring more ecological redemption to fix.

  1. Area bombing ("pattern bombing") where a number of clearly separated military objectives are treated as a single military objective, and where there is a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects, is a violation of Protocol I, Art. 51, Sec. 5a. However, this specific protocol did not exist until August 1949. Obviously, the "counterinsurgency" tactics used in the Second Indochina War (1955-1975) were profusely contrary to PI.51.

    Most rules governing conduct of combat operations (e.g., prohibition of chemical weapons) are to be found in the Hague Conventions of 1899 & 1907. The use of incendiaries was banned in the Incendiary Weapons Convention of 1980.

    It is problematic to me that the use of area bombing became illegal shortly after World War II. It certainly ought to be illegal, and the government of the United States has violated Protocol I copiously since it was passed (under the pretext that it was assisting in the suppression of an "insurgency," rather than conducting an actual war). One could grumble that the Allies (a) passed the 1949 Geneva Convention after they themselves had committed the most egregious violations of it and (b) nonetheless prepared to commit still greater violations of it. The Japanese and the Third Reich waged war savagely, but they lacked the means to wage air campaigns comparable to those of the Allies, and did not make significant preparations to do so. Obviously, the NATO and Warsaw Pact accumulated stockpiles of nuclear weapons that would have made a complete mockery of Protocol I.

    The Allies could not have failed to know that they were encoding principles, not safeguards: had the Nazis made adequate preparations for air warfare, no protocol would have spared the Allies from marauding fleets of German superbombers; and the Allies knew they were mostly safe from Axis bombing after 1943 (after which Allied bombing of Japan and Germany was stepped up immensely). The Usonians and the British, in other words, were not really retaliating for Shanghai and Coventry; the Usonians were retaliating for an attack on a military target, while the British had actually initiated use of bombing campaigns against Germany, rather than vice versa.

    Moreover, the fact remains that morals change gradually. Clearly, if area bobming was outlawed in 1949, then the Allied powers must have known that it was wrong before that time. Unlike conventions passed prior to the War, the 1949 Geneva Convention were binding on signatories regardless of compliance by the enemy. This implies that the Allies believed that terror bombings were so immoral that, even if they were effective, any civilized belligerent could not possibly engage in them. In six years, the Allies and neutral powers had gone from massive use of area bombing, to outlawing something that had been both their primary weapon in the previous conflict, and their intended primary weapon in the next.
  2. See Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1, "Charter of the International Military Tribunal" (Avalon Project, Yale Law School); the distinct categories "Crimes against Peace," "War Crimes," and "Crimes against Humanity" are defined in Article 6. The Axis Powers committed crimes against peace by invading countries in Europe and East Asia; the Allies had earlier waged aggressive wars against nations of South Asia, Africa, and Latin America (creation of French, British, and Belgian empires; US interventions in Latin America). The Axis Powers had committed crimes against the laws of war by murdering 12 million civilians in scores of countries, sacking all of Europe, and seizing hostages. The Allies had treated prisoners quite badly, such as forcing many thousands to clear mines, or being lackadaisical about providing for them. See Wikipedia, "Disarmed Enemy Forces"; see also modern literature on French, British, Usonian, and Netherlander treatment of combatants in wars of national liberation prior to WW2 (e.g, Sven Lindqvist and Joan Tate, Exterminate All the Brutes, New Press, 1997). Finally, while the Nazi Holocaust and enslavement of foreigners practically defined the crime against humanity, Allied powers such as the United States had a system of apartheid for African Usonians, sequestered Native Usonians on reservations, and allowed employers to maintain armed gangs to terrorize employees; the British Empire inflicted devastatingly awful conditions on African and South Asian subject peoples; and the Soviet Union, I presume, needs no introduction as an egregious violator of human rights.

Sources & Additional Reading

Avalon Project Listing of International Conventions on the Laws of War

Marilyn B. Young, excerpt, Bombing civilians from the Twentieth to the Twenty-First centuries , New Press (2009)

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