Task: Each student is to write an essay that answers the question

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The Debate: Dropping of the Atomic Bomb

Writing Prompt

Task: Each student is to write an essay that answers the question: Taking into consideration both the immediate effects as well as the long-lasting effects of the Atomic Bomb, was President Truman and the United States justified in using this nuclear weapon to force Japanese surrender? Below you will find an article that is very objective, giving justification for and against the use of the atomic bomb. Your essay should be anywhere from 1-2 pages typed, including an intro paragraph and a conclusion paragraph. Be sure to use multiple examples from this text and others to justify your reasoning. It is important to cite your evidence.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki

By Paul S. Boyer

On August 6, 1945, a U.S. bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, a second atomic bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki. Estimates of the number killed in both cities range as high as 210,000. Thousands more later succumbed to radiation disease. These two acts, authorized by President Harry S. Truman, raised profound ethical and legal issues.

The possibility of an atomic bomb had been revealed by Albert Einstein in a 1939 communication to President Franklin Roosevelt. Under the code name Manhattan Project, three bombs were built, and a test bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico on June 16, 1945. Some Manhattan Project scientists urged a demonstration of the new weapon before its military use, but President Truman, advised by a high-level committee, ordered its use against Japan as soon as possible.

Truman's decision came at the end of a war of escalating brutality. The Japanese occupation of Nanking, China, in 1937, had been marked by extreme cruelty. Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; the wanton killing of U.S. prisoners by Japanese soldiers in the notorious 1942 "Bataan Death March"; and the ferocious Japanese resistance on Iwo Jima and Okinawa were all part of the context of the president's action. So, too, was the racist wartime propaganda, purveyed in editorials, songs, movies, and political cartoons, that had portrayed all Japanese as apes, vermin, and rats—subhuman creatures to whom the usual standards of ethical behavior did not apply.

Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century, new technologies—tanks, poison gas, aerial bombing, and rockets—had vastly increased war's destructive potential, including the mass killing of civilians. In World War II, German V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks on English cities had taken a heavy civilian toll. As the war became increasingly ferocious in 1944 and 1945, British and U.S. bombing raids on major German cities created firestorms that killed hundreds of thousands from blast, fire, and asphyxiation. The devastating February 1945 attack on the beautiful city of Dresden—a city of little military significance—epitomized the massive death and destruction caused by these raids. These were attacks deliberately calculated to produce indiscriminate devastation, to "break the morale" of the target population. In Japan, sixty-four cities endured massive air raids prior to Hiroshima, with casualties estimated at 300,000 killed and some 340,000 severely injured. A March 1945 raid on Tokyo killed an estimated 100,000. The deliberate targeting of civilians, and even the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands in a single raid, in short, antedated the atomic bomb. The only thing new about the events of August 6–9, 1945 was the technology employed.

As Americans assessed the moral implications of the mass killing of civilians in World War II, culminating at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the so-called "Just War" doctrine offered some benchmarks. From St. Augustine onward, theologians and ethicists had sought to place moral limits on war. The "Just War" doctrine holds, for example, that the means employed in war must not produce greater evil than the evil one seeks to eliminate. This doctrine also insisted that noncombatants, as well as wounded soldiers and prisoners, must be treated humanely. Pope John Paul II declared in 1995: "[T]he direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral." By definition, this precludes deliberate attacks on civilian populations. As the Roman Catholic catechism sums up the doctrine: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities . . . is a crime against God and man." Other religious and ethical traditions express similar principles, declaring that even for a nation waging a legitimate war, the moral law remains in force. Having justice on one's side does not mean that victory by any means possible is ethically defensible.

Well before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these principles had been swept aside as the concept of "total war" had become the Allies' guiding principle. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the magnitude and the instantaneous nature of the destruction, raised the question of ethical legitimacy in the starkest possible way. The "Just War" doctrine also holds, for example, that every possible means of a nonviolent resolution must be exhausted before the resort to war. By extension, this means that once a war is underway, each new step in the escalation of violence should be undertaken only after all possibility of ending the conflict has been explored. Much of the debate over Hiroshima and Nagasaki has focused on precisely this point: Did the American government exhaust all possible means for ending the war before destroying these two cities and snuffing out tens of thousands of human lives?

Many historians have concluded that the answer is no. Japan was a defeated nation in August 1945, its war-making capacity shattered. The Japanese government was divided, with influential figures seeking an exit from a hopeless war. The Japanese government had asked the Soviet Union to act as an intermediary in the surrender negotiations—a fact known to Washington since U.S. cryptologists had broken the Japanese diplomatic code. Many Japanese saw the survival of the Emperor as a key issue—a point the Americans conceded after the war, despite their demand for unconditional surrender. Further, the invasion of Japan, should the war have continued, was not scheduled until November 1, 1945—three months in the future.

Confronting these facts, many have questioned the morality of dropping two atomic bombs before all possibility of ending the war by negotiation had been explored. Of course, no one knows for certain that Japan's surrender could have been achieved through negotiations. The point is that this option was never tried. The fact that Japan surrendered five days after the Nagasaki bombing, often cited by defenders of Truman's action, is irrelevant to the question of whether the war could have been ended by other means. From an ethical perspective, this is the crucial issue.

Truman always insisted that his sole consideration in ordering the use of the atomic bomb was to save American lives, but other factors may have been in play. At the February 1945 Yalta conference, and again at the Potsdam conference in June, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had promised to enter the Pacific War within three months of Germany's surrender. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and Moscow declared war on Japan on August 8. Some evidence suggests that Truman's decision was influenced by his desire to force Japan's surrender before Russia became a significant factor in the outcome. These speculations have a bearing on how one assesses the ethics of the Hiroshima bombing. The Nagasaki bombing raises further questions: Once Hiroshima had been destroyed, did the United States wait a sufficient time for the Japanese government to assimilate this terrible new reality before destroying a second city?

All these questions have shaped the discourse over how the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be viewed. Was it a legitimate act of war, or does it fall into the category of a crime against humanity? This debate arose in the earliest moments of the Atomic Age. President Truman, predictably, insisted that the bomb was justified, since it prevented the U.S. casualties that an invasion of Japan would have entailed. Many Americans, then and since, have agreed. But the alternative view has also found its supporters. Immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, for example, the future secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, then an official of the Federal Council of Churches, telegraphed Truman urging him, on moral grounds, not to drop a second atomic bomb. In The Challenge of Peace (1983), the American Roman Catholic bishops, addressing the larger ethical issues posed by the nuclear arms race, came close to condemning the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings as morally indefensible. In 1995 and again in 2003, proposals by the Smithsonian Institution to display the Enola Gay triggered further discussion of this question, which continues to trouble the nation's conscience, raising ethical issues of the gravest sort.

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