Rejecting Mass Murder: Looking Back on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The United States devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on, respectively, August 6th and 9th, 1945, in what were—to date—the only occasions in history that atomic bombs were used in wartime. The atomic bombings killed tens of thousands of people instantly, with many more dying of injuries in the following hours, days, and weeks. By the end of 1945, an estimated 210,000 people had perished as a result of the bombings. Because the use of atomic bombs against these two cities contributed to the surrender of Japan and the end of the Second World War, many have argued that the bombings saved lives that would otherwise have been lost in continued warfare and thus that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. For adherents to a consistent ethic of life, however, these uses of atomic bombs were not justified—they amounted simply to mass murder.

Those who advocate a consistent ethic of life vary in their precise attitudes toward war. Some are pacifists who regard all killing in war as inherently wrong. For these pacifists, destroying a city with an atomic bomb must be rejected in the same way that any killing must be.

Other consistent ethic of life advocates are not absolutist in their opposition to war but adhere to Just War Theory or other ethical philosophies that allow that killing in war could be justified, at least under certain circumstances. For these non-pacifists, the reasons for rejecting the use of atomic bombs against cities are less straightforward than they are for pacifists. Even viewed from such non-absolutist consistent ethic of life perspectives, however, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is difficult to justify, for two reasons.

First, violent means to achieve an end cannot be justified if nonviolent means can achieve the same end. Just War Theory acknowledges this basic principle by requiring that war must be a last resort in order to be justified. In 1945, the end pursued by the United States and other Allied powers—the surrender of their wartime enemy, Japan—could have been achieved by diplomatic means without resorting to the threatened or actual use of atomic bombs against the Japanese.

A major obstacle in bringing the war with Japan to an end through negotiation was the Allied insistence, expressed in the Cairo Declaration of 1943 and Potsdam Declaration of 1945, that Japan surrender unconditionally. Such insistence left the Japanese uncertain about what the fate would be of the Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese head of state who held divine status in the eyes of many Japanese. The Allied Potsdam Declaration, which promised that “stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals” even left open the possibility that Hirohito might be executed or imprisoned by the victorious Allied powers.

Such a possibility was unacceptable to the Japanese government. Indeed, so unacceptable were threats to the emperor and his position that even after atomic bombs had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese government was willing to come to surrender terms, wholly unconditional surrender was out of the question. To the very end, Japan’s rulers insisted that Hirohito remain sovereign, and the war only came to an end when it did because the United States was willing to relent and allow Hirohito to stay, at least provisionally. Had the Allies relented on this point sooner, the war might have been brought to a successful conclusion without atomic bombs ever being used.

Even if such diplomatic means of ending the war had not been available, however, the atomic bombings would still not have been justified, for a second and ultimately far more important reason.

A fundamental principle of Just War Theory—and one that even those who do not wholly endorse Just War Theory can appreciate—is that military forces should discriminate between enemy military personnel and enemy civilians when using violence. Enemy citizens who by their status as members of the armed forces are authorized and prepared to use lethal violence in wartime may be reciprocally regarded as legitimate targets of such violence; enemy citizens who are not in the armed forces and are not authorized to play such a violent role are not legitimate targets.

Granted (to echo a point made by Just War Theory ethicist Michael Walzer), the line that divides military personnel and civilians can be difficult to draw. Some enemy citizens may belong to military reserves or militias that act as auxiliaries to regular military forces; other citizens work in industries that produce weapons and thereby contribute, at least indirectly, to violence. Nevertheless (again echoing Walzer), some enemy citizens will always fall into categories that place them clearly outside the military realm: children (both inside and outside the womb), the elderly, and the sick and disabled. Further, I would argue that other classes of people who might serve in military capacities but perform clearly nonviolent functions—doctors and nurses, clergy—also fall into the protected category of civilians.

To target these clearly inoffensive, non-military people is unjust. Such people were targeted in the devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and did perish as a result. Using a weapon of such overwhelming destructive power as an atomic bomb against an entire city inevitably involves targeting people who should be protected from violence, even in wartime.

In addition to the pacifist and Just War Theory reasons given above, consistent ethic of life advocates have one more important reason for rejecting the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and any similar slaughter of civilians. The essential argument made by defenders of the bombings—killing huge numbers of people, including children, ultimately achieved a worthwhile goal—can be invoked to justify other forms of violence, including abortion. Don’t worthwhile goals (so the argument would go) such as gender equality, curbing overpopulation, reducing poverty and crime, or preventing child abuse justify the deaths of countless unborn children? Consistent ethic of life advocates know better than to accept such toxic rationales, whether in the realm of abortion or warfare.

A version of this piece previously appeared on the blog of Consistent Life (


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