I have not yet seen Oppenheimer but from what I gather about the film, it does not dwell on the massive death and suffering that the U.S. government inflicted on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the nuclear bombs dropped on those two cities.
What the film has done is revive the popular justification for the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is the following: That the nuclear attacks on those two cities obviated the need to invade Japan and, therefore, supposedly ended up saving many more lives than those killed in the nuclear attacks.
In other words, the justification has long been a sort of cost-benefit analysis. Let’s assume that 300,000 people would die in an invasion, including U.S. troops. The estimated number of people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was around 100,000. Therefore, the argument goes, on balance the nuclear attacks on those two cities was beneficial because it brought an early end to the war and, therefore, spared, say, 200,000 more deaths that would have occurred in an invasion.
There has long been a good response to this cost-benefit justification, however. That response was that an invasion of Japan would never have been necessary. That’s because Japan was ready to surrender. All that Japanese officials needed was a guarantee that U.S. officials would not execute their emperor.
Moreover, it is a virtual certainty that faced with the distinct possibility of a Soviet invasion and long-term occupation of their country, Japan would have quickly surrendered to the United States even without the emperor guarantee, in order to avoid having to live under decades of brutal communist rule, as Eastern Europeans and East Germans were forced to do.
But there is, I believe, a much more powerful argument for why the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should go down as the most shameful war crime in our nation’s history.
In war, soldiers die. That’s the just the nature of war. To sacrifice women, children, seniors, and other non-combatants as a way to save the lives of soldiers is not only a war crime, it’s also a very shameful act.
Some of you may have seen the movie Patton. The movie provides an excellent depiction of U.S. General George Patton, who was a military genius and tremendous leader who led Allied forces to victory over Nazi Germany.
Imagine some subordinate officer coming to Patton in the middle of a major battle. He tells Patton that there is a village ahead that is an obstacle to moving directly forward to strike at the enemy force. The village consists entirely of women and children. Circumventing the village will result in thousands of U.S. soldiers being killed. However, if U.S. forces bomb the village and kill everyone in it, thereby enabling U.S. forces to proceed directly forward, this will result in only hundreds of U.S. soldiers being killed.
What are the chances that Patton would have ordered his forces to bomb the village and kill all those women and children? None! There is no possibility of that at all. Patton understood that soldiers die in war. He would never have sacrificed innocent women and children in order to save the lives of his soldiers. He would have circumvented the village and incurred the casualties.
Killing those tens of thousands of women, children, seniors, and other non-combatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is no different in principle. If U.S. soldiers would have had to die in an invasion of Japan, then so be it. Purchasing the lives of soldiers by killing innocent people is not only a war crime, it is also an act of great shame.
Finally, it should be noted that those who continue to justify the dropping of those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by arguing that the bombs saved lives by bringing an early conclusion to the war will lack the moral standing to complain if another nation cites the same justification for dropping nuclear bombs on enemy cities. The possibility that Russia could cite the same justification in its war on Ukraine comes to mind. What will the justifiers of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki say then?