Hiroshima and Nagasaki: war crimes?
Should President Harry S Truman be regarded today as a war criminal for ordering the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty years ago? If history indicts him for the two events, I would argue that as to Count Two, the bombing of Nagasaki, he was clearly guilty and would have deserved the death sentence. The horror of the initial bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, has in the public mind all but obscured the follow-up bombing of Nagasaki three days later.
I wrote in 1971 that the Nagasaki bombing “had no military justification and was not needed, after Hiroshima, to ‘demonstrate’ the efficacy of the new weapon.” [The Concept of Custom in International Law 117 (1971)] Although a vast amount of research and writing about the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan has come out since I wrote those words, I’ve seen nothing that would challenge my conclusion. Of course if readers of this blog know differently, I hope they would give us all the benefit of their comments.
Not only have I not seen any legal argument that tries to justify the Nagasaki bombing, but there is also a dearth of historical explanation why it occurred at all. I have my own theory. By 1945 the United States had produced three nuclear weapons: two uranium and one plutonium bomb. The first uranium bomb was secretly dispatched to the Pacific theatre before the second one was tested on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo Range 230 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Three weeks later the remaining uraniuim bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. My theory, terrible as it sounds, is that (a) we dropped the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki to see if it would work—if it hadn’t exploded, nothing would have been said; (b) by dropping a second bomb so quickly after the first one we would show the Japanese that we would be merciless until they surrendered unconditionally; and (c) the second bomb would lead the world to think that we had many others where that one came from.
As to the legality of the bombing of Hiroshima, there are endless arguments, justifications, excuses, condemnations, and plain misstatements. The most prominent justification is the argument of military necessity: dropping the bomb shortened the war and saved many lives. The best contrary argument, in my opinion, is that the peace terms informally (but very seriously) offered by Japan in June 1945 did not materially differ from the peace terms we actually accepted from Japan in August right after we dropped the bombs.