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War Crimes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki


This month marks the 63rd anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

U.S. officials have long justified the nuclear attacks on the rationale that the attacks shortened the war. If the bombs had not been dropped, the argument goes, tens of thousands of U.S. troops would have had to die in an invasion of Japan. Therefore, U.S. officials say, since the dropping of the bombs brought about a quick unconditional surrender from Japan, American lives were saved and, therefore, the bombings were justified.

There are some serious problems with that reasoning, however.

It has long been an established rule of war that it is a war crime for soldiers to intentionally target non-combatants. That’s why Lt. William Calley was charged with a war crime during the Vietnam War. At My Lai, he targeted women, children, and other non-combatants by shooting and killing them.

What if Calley could have shown that his actions contributed to the shortening of the Vietnam War? That would not have considered a legitimate defense at his war-crimes trial. He would nonetheless have been convicted of a war crime of targeting and killing non-combatants.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were filled with women, children, and other non-combatants. No one seriously contends that these two cities were military targets. They were civilian targets filled with hundreds of thousands of non-combatants.

Does the fact that the people were killed by bombs dropped from airplanes rather than by bullets from a gun make a difference, morally and legally speaking? I don’t see how. Given that it’s a war crime for an infantryman to target and kill non-combatants in war, it would seem that it’s just as much a war crime for a pilot to do so.

Suppose that during World War II one of Gen. George Patton’s subordinates had presented him with a ground-combat situation comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suppose Patton became convinced that by targeting and killing thousands of women, children, old and sick people, and other noncombatants, the war could be brought to a quicker conclusion, thereby saving the lives of thousands of Patton’s men.

What would Patton’s answer have been?

I have no doubt that Patton would have said something like the following to his men: “Soldiers die in war. In the battles we face ahead, a certain percentage of you soldiers will be killed. That’s the way of things sometimes. If you are among those killed, that will be regrettable, but that is what comes with being a soldier and that is what comes with war. We will not kill innocent people, including women and children, in order to save the lives of American soldiers. That would not only be wrong, it would be cowardice.”

Moreover, U.S. officials have long argued that dropping the bombs was the only way to bring the war to a quick conclusion. There are two fundamental flaws in their reasoning, however.

First, as historians have long pointed out, there is strong evidence that Japan was willing to surrender anyway, if the security of their emperor would be guaranteed.

Second, and more important, the underlying assumption of the U.S. position was that there was no alternative to their “unconditional surrender” demand. But that’s sheer nonsense. No one forced the United States to take the “unconditional surrender” position.

Another option — one that had long been used in war — would have been a negotiated peace, one that could have secured everything the U.S. wanted and still given the Japanese what they wanted, i.e., the continuation of the emperor. The U.S. could have weighed whether the negotiated terms were worth the loss of life that would result from an invasion of Japan. The “unconditional surrender” demand precluded the parties from sitting down and determining whether mutually acceptable peace terms could be arrived at.

The targeting of women, children, and other non-combatants in wartime is — and should continue to be — a war crime. William Calley’s actions, in which he killed 109 Vietnamese people, constituted a war crime. So did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 220,000 Japanese people.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.