Moral Expediency and the Atomic Bomb

The Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the Atomic Bomb was one of the most creative moments in world history. American scientists accomplished what only a few years before was considered unthinkable–exploiting the power of the atom in a release of tremendous, deadly energy. Other countries–Germany, Japan, Soviet Union–had programs to develop such a weapon during World War II, but the United States alone succeeded. Using an international team of scientists and engineers and the wartime resources of the U.S. government, in less that three years, from 1942 to 1945, the U.S. developed two atomic weapons that were used to end World War II against Japan in August 1945.

The story of the atomic bomb begins with the work of early 20th century physicists and chemists exploring the structure of matter. The discoveries and theories of scientists Marie Curie, Ernst Rutherford, Neils Bohr, and Albert Einstein provided the foundation for the explosive relationship between energy and matter. In 1932, Englishman James Chadwick discovered a neutral force surrounding the atom, the neutron (+-), which led, in 1934, Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard to theorize on the possibility of a chain reaction of the fission of uranium that could produce a massive amount of energy. In 1938, German scientists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner demonstrated the fission of uranium in a laboratory in Germany. At this time, Germany was beginning its move toward the domination of Europe. The Nazis appointed world-famous physicist Werner Heisenberg to head of the Nazi nuclear program. Meanwhile Szilard, in America visiting Albert Einstein (who had fled Germany in 1933) at Princeton University, convinced Einstein to draft a letter to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility of a nuclear weapon. The scientists discussed scientific developments over the recent years leading to fission of a uranium atom, but emphasized that it seemed improbable that a workable bomb could be developed.

When Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, there were already government teams investigating the science of fission, but nothing had officially begun. This changed when in 1942 President Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Henry Stimson to organize an official U.S. effort to build an atomic weapon. Code named Manhattan Project, Stimson appointed General Leslie Groves head of the military aspects of the Manhattan Project. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer of the University of California was appointed the head of the scientific aspects of the project. Three laboratory facilities were quickly constructed, the most important at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the engineering of the Bomb took place. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a laboratory manufactured the fissionable isotope Uranium 235. At Hannford, Washington, a laboratory manufactured plutonium. The University of Chicago was also involved in experimenting with the chain reaction of uranium. Oppenheimer recruited a host of world famous scientists to work on the Manhattan Project. Many of these scientists, such as Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and Enrico Fermi, were immigrants from Nazi or Fascist occupied countries in Europe.
President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Stimson meanwhile worked out a plan for using the bomb should it be successfully developed. Roosevelt believed that the U.S. alone was sufficiently responsible to hold the keys to atomic power, hence he wanted the U.S. to hold a monopoly on the Atomic Bomb. The U.S. could use the power of the threat of the Bomb to diffuse situations around the world, promoting world peace. Although he shared information about the Manhattan Project with Winston Churchill, he refused to inform Joseph Stalin, who nevertheless knew something was up and had spies in the United States who informed the Soviet Premier of the U.S. atomic project.

By the beginning of 1945, the Manhattan Project was nearing a successful conclusion at the same time that American and Soviet armies were surrounding Germany and Japan was surrounded by the U.S. Navy. The American army captured the German atomic program and discovered the Nazis were nowhere near accomplishing their objective. The German threat of having the Bomb ended, and Germany nearing defeat, American scientists and policy-makers asked, what should be the plan for using the Bomb? Some scientists, such as Leo Szilard, had grown to oppose military implementation of the Bomb. Others believed it was a means to bring the war quickly to a close and to save lives.

Such was the opinion of Secretary of War Stimson, who although he realized the dangers of proliferation of atomic power, anticipating rogue states using the weapon for terrorist purposes, he nevertheless believed that the needs of the moment—to end the war and save lives—was paramount over future concerns. When he informed President Truman (upon the death of Roosevelt) of the Manhattan Project and his (and Roosevelt’s) plans for implementation and monopolization, Truman concurred.

Truman wrote in his diary in July 25, 1945:
“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. . . . Anyway we “think” we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling–to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more. This weapon is to be used against Japan. . . . I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”
(Quoted in Robert H. Ferrell, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper and Row, 1980) pp. 55-56. Truman’s writings are in the public domain.)

Scientists, policy-advisers, and military experts had advised Truman during the late spring and summer months of 1945. In the end, Truman chose to use it. Three bombs were made by the summer of 1945. One, a plutonium bomb, was tested July 1945 in the New Mexico desert. A second, uranium bomb, was used on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A third, plutonium bomb, was used against the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.

Questions remain: for example, did the atomic bomb force the surrender of Japan, and if so, how? Although Japan was ostensibly a monarchy, the emperor had little authority, rather possessed a massive historical, symbolic presence. A war council had come to power after World War I, and this war council ran the country during the decades of Japan’s rise to power. In 1945, the war council, made up of six leaders, were evenly split as whether to surrender or to keep fighting to the death. They rejected the Potsdam Declaration of July 25, 1945, demanding surrender, as “unworthy of public notice.” Even after Hiroshima was bombed, and the Japanese realized it was an atomic weapon, that one bomb destroyed an entire city, the council was still split three to three. The destruction of Hiroshima, however, impelled Emperor Hirohito to act. In an unprecedented move, Hirohito informed the council that it was his will that Japan surrender. This broke the deadlock. About the same time that the U.S. dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, the Japanese had determined to surrender. The A-Bomb had, apparently, swayed but one man.

A larger question, in light of the ensuing seventy years of Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and the potential of terrorists to use a nuclear weapon, is: was it moral, just, and right for the United States to use, and introduce to the world stage, such a Weapon of Mass Destruction? Critics and commentators have been divided on this question. Some have argued that the Bomb prevented, at least up to now, World War III. Others argued that the Bomb was a blatant show of force by the United States to gain the upper hand against the Soviet Union. Others have said that it heralded the rise of unrestrained human technology that is ultimately, uncontrollable.

It is obvious that Stimson and Truman embraced the moral theory of the end justifies the means. Indeed, has this not been the moral stance of the United States (as well as most other countries) during the 20th and 21st centuries? Although the West, including the United States, has generally embraced Just War Theory to justify military action, usually the moral standards for war are very simple: if the end seems just, then it is justified to use whatever evil means are necessary to accomplish it.

The end justifies the means, or to put it more simply, moral expediency, is the natural moral response to the human experience of time. When we are subject to the tyranny of the never-ending present, always balancing our memory of what has happened in the past with what we anticipate might happen in the future, we make decisions on what makes us feel best at this moment. Never mind how it once made us feel. Never mind how it might make us feel. Rather, how do we feel about it, now? When the pursuit of existence is feeling good, now, then there is no way behavior and the underlying motives can be otherwise than what is expedient, now.

Philosophy and religion tell us that by belief and religious/spiritual practice we can rise above moral expediency, to do what is right and good: not just now, in the moment, but in all moments, past/present/future, transcending time. Contemplating such virtue can make people feel good, though at the moment of action they resort to what their instincts, formed in time, tell them to do: what is expedient for survival, to live, to feel good.

Ultimately, then, what Truman and Stimson did was what anyone would have done: use the Bomb according to moral expediency, to save lives, to end the war, to feel good, in the moment, disregarding what religion and philosophy has taught, disregarding what the future results of their actions might bring, disregarding what Jesus or Buddha might have done. Such are the consequences of human time and its consequences, such as war, violence, murder, death, destruction. As long as we can avoid for now, put the inevitable (our own demise) further into the distant future—it is as much as we can do. To profess the ability to do something more is, after all, quite impossible.

Or is it?

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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11 Responses to Moral Expediency and the Atomic Bomb

  1. Lou Coatney says:

    “Moral expediency” could be construed to be an fundamentally fallacious oxymoron. Expediency is amoral – the intent to effect a (preferably quick) favorable solution regardless of other (including moral) considerations.

    However, the (correct) belief that by inflicting horrific suffering and death on some we could in 1945 save the lives of many more – the question of comparatively moral results – I suppose makes it a valid term in the context of this essay.

    There was no question then about the morality of using the Bomb. Lawson’s contention that have the Duty to better judge it now – granting that Truman and Stimson believed with justification that they were acting morally – is defensible.

    As mutually dangerous as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is, it *has* successfully deterred a World War 3 so far, even with the West now having transformed into an aggressor axis thanks to our neocons.

    However, the increasing instantaneity of intercontinental nuclear weapons means MAD is reaching the point of that actually happening … that one side now *must* push the button before the other does.

    And to bring this back to moral political decisionmaking – even by individual citizens/voters in 2016 – we must end our neocon madness, stop threatening Russia, and begin carefully integrating or at least co-existing politically/militarily with the East.

    Meanwhile, the icecaps are melting, and the seismic consequences of Earth’s rotation wobbling may be a volcanic liquification of the Earth’s crust retrograding the atmosphere/biosphere back to what it was before Life was possible. We have (already) run out of TIME, and *must* stop our Neanderthal neocon West vs. East confrontational antics.

  2. Um…like many, your description of the Showa emperor Hirohito’s role in the end of the conflict is wrong-headed. What happened was that the Showa did not want Japan to surrender, but rather he withdrew his support for the conflict: two different things. Surrender was not his goal, the survival of the throne was. The only condition the war council put on their acceptance of the Potsdam declaration was the maintenance of the Emperor, which was accepted.

    When the Showa decided to issue his imperial rescript announcing his withdrawal, there were a few Japanese officers who tried to prevent the broadcast or even kill him to prevent the recording–one reason why it was recorded, not broadcast live. Because the Japanese leadership had used him and his acquiescence as a justification for every aggression since 1931, his public denunciation undermined their position, which was why they tried to prevent the broadcast.

    As to whether the nuclear bombing caused the capitulation…that’s much more complicated. It was the Showa’s withdrawal that triggered the surrender, but what triggered that? He himself wrote that it was when the war council spoke of the inevitability of American and Soviet invasion between Hiroshima and Nagasaki that he realized there was a real possibility that he could be captured and exhibited shamefully. Worse, he realized that the Army’s plans to turn the Home Islands into one great big Okinawa would make Halsey’s boast to make Japanese “a language spoken only in hell,” a reality. It was his duty, he felt, to ensure not only his royal line but also his Shito faith. If there were no Japanese left it would die out. The atomic bombings were merely the straws that broke the Emperor’s back–heavy, but straws nonetheless.

    Ultimately, the Showa didn’t “surrender” Japan, or for the Japanese government, he lacked the power. Instead, he stopped supporting the samurai-inspired Army and Navy that had prosecuted the wars, and because he did the Army and Navy had little choice but to stop fighting. Left to themselves they would have died to the last man, regardless of what new weapons were used.

    • Lou Coatney says:

      This is not true: “The only condition the war council put on their acceptance of the Potsdam declaration was the maintenance of the Emperor, which was accepted.”

      In their response to a Japanese request for clarification, Truman and Byrnes simply re-iterated the Potsdam Declaration that Japan’s form of government would be up to the Japanese people. We made no guarantees the Emperor would be retained and in fact the militarists tried to use that as justification to continue the war.

      Hirohito *took* the power to surrender, when he recorded his first-ever address to his people – his surrender address – to be broadcast over the radio.

      From my memory of what I read about this, the coup officers invaded the radio manager’s office demanding he turn over the recording. He said he didn’t have it … logically, it would have been hidden somewhere else safe … and they left. It was right there in his desk!

      • Um…no, not really. Once the Showa (please show some respect and call him by his correct after-death reginal title and not the name he had in life) withdrew –what you claim to have been “surrender,” a word he never uttered in the Rescript or at any other time — the samurai leadership had no choice but to stop fighting. For decades they had used the emperor’s peace of mind for an excuse to keep fighting. He didn’t have to take any more power than he already had.

  3. Eileen Burke says:

    My father used to talk about this sometimes. He was a keen amateur scholar of World War II, and a veteran–one of the million whose lives the atom bomb might have saved. His pragmatic daughter ( me, a history teacher ) never understood, and still doesn’t understand, the need to mora!ly justify bombing an enemy during a war. I don’t see how it is a religious question–Christianity is founded on the belief that good can come from evil-the unjust trial and execution of one man supposedly being a force for good in the world-a holy mystery. Why do two bombs need moral justification anyway? What justifies all of the other bombs? Other than hindsight making these two bombs very bad, what’s the difference?

  4. James hargraves says:

    This is an interesting topic; I have discussed the Morality issue with my 11th grade World History students. I ask them, “Was it morally right for the U.S. to drop the first Atomic Bomb, but the second 3 day later?” Many of my students, do not believe it was about being moral, or an issue of right or wrong, but idea that the decision was based on other issues, such as, revenge, racial dislike, and the show of strength and dominance.
    The thought of revenge comes from the initial attack on Pearl Harbor, in which the U.S. military implemented a similar attack on Japan, in hopes of demoralizing them, which it did not, promoted the use of the weapon.
    Students also reviewed the racial implications of the decision to use that Atomic bomb. With The internment of Japanese Americans and anyone resembling a person of Japanese descent caused a climate of racial hatred and distrust. But by not interning those of Italian and German heritage, the American people did not develop the same hatred.
    My students also looked at the possibility of the decision to use the bomb, and the character of President Truman. Truman was not informed about the development of the bomb when he was Vice President, but later informed after he took the office of President and then only because General Marshall insisted that he be brief on it. It had been perceived; by the military hierarchy that Truman was not capable of making tough decisions. This could also have motivated the decision to use the weapon, due to Truman trying to prove that he is capable making the tough decisions.
    Then students analyzed the U.S. government’s actual intent, World domination/ superiority. As it was alluded to in a previous reply, that The Atomic bomb was used to show Global strength, the students also devised to a similar conclusion. They express that, the U.S. wanted to put the World on notice, that we have this power and we will control its use. It was mainly directed toward the Soviet Union, to put them in their place, and who is the World’s Super Power.
    I have to agree with my students analyze of the question of Morality in the use of the Atomic bomb. I do believe it was morally wrong. Yes, the bomb can be perceived as a lifesaving instrument, but when the first bomb was dropped wasn’t it a civilian target? Then, the second one also a civilian target? Where is the morality in killing noncombatants? Yes I can agree using it on military targets, in order to send a message to a military dominate regime, to end hostilities.
    Then you have to look at the naivety of the U.S. government and military. To believe that other highly industrialized nation would not perceive the development and the use of the Atomic bomb as any but a threat is idiotic. How could the U.S. ensure this weapon would provide a sense of peace and stability, just by its mere existence and threaten use? And when has weapon usage ever been questioned whether it is morally right or wrong to use it? (Oh yeah, chemical weapons, because it supposed to be cruel to prolong death) This question, in my opinion cannot be answered on the basis of morality, since most major countries, do not consider morality of their actions on weapon usage when it comes to winning a war or World supremacy.

  5. James hargraves says:

    Response to morality (Full response)
    This is an interesting topic; I have discussed the Morality issue with my 11th grade World History students. I ask them, “Was it morally right for the U.S. to drop the first Atomic Bomb, but the second 3 day later?” Many of my students, do not believe it was about being moral, or an issue of right or wrong, but idea that the decision was based on other issues, such as, revenge, racial dislike, and the show of strength and dominance.
    The thought of revenge comes from the initial attack on Pearl Harbor, in which the U.S. military implemented a similar attack on Japan, in hopes of demoralizing them, which it did not, promoted the use of the weapon.
    Students also reviewed the racial implications of the decision to use that Atomic bomb. With The internment of Japanese Americans and anyone resembling a person of Japanese descent caused a climate of racial hatred and distrust. But by not interning those of Italian and German heritage, the American people did not develop the same hatred.
    My students also looked at the possibility of the decision to use the bomb, and the character of President Truman. Truman was not informed about the development of the bomb when he was Vice President, but later informed after he took the office of President and then only because General Marshall insisted that he be brief on it. It had been perceived; by the military hierarchy that Truman was not capable of making tough decisions. This could also have motivated the decision to use the weapon, due to Truman trying to prove that he is capable making the tough decisions.
    Then students analyzed the U.S. government’s actual intent, World domination/ superiority. As it was alluded to in a previous reply, that The Atomic bomb was used to show Global strength, the students also devised to a similar conclusion. They express that, the U.S. wanted to put the World on notice, that we have this power and we will control its use. It was mainly directed toward the Soviet Union, to put them in their place, and who is the World’s Super Power.
    I have to agree with my students analyze of the question of Morality in the use of the Atomic bomb. I do believe it was morally wrong. Yes, the bomb can be perceived as a lifesaving instrument, but when the first bomb was dropped wasn’t it a civilian target? Then, the second one also a civilian target? Where is the morality in killing noncombatants? Yes I can agree using it on military targets, in order to send a message to a military dominate regime, to end hostilities.
    Then you have to look at the naivety of the U.S. government and military. To believe that other highly industrialized nation would not perceive the development and the use of the Atomic bomb as any but a threat is idiotic. How could the U.S. ensure this weapon would provide a sense of peace and stability, just by its mere existence and threaten use? And when has weapon usage ever been questioned whether it is morally right or wrong to use it? (Oh yeah, chemical weapons, because it supposed to be cruel to prolong death) This question, in my opinion cannot be answered on the basis of morality, since most major countries, do not consider morality of their actions on weapon usage when it comes to winning a war or World supremacy.

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