Bryan Caplan  

Tell Me the Difference Between My Lai and Hiroshima

Jeff Sachs is Right--and Misle... The Constitutionality of Usele...
In the My Lai Massacre, a company of American ground troops killed between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in a village suspected of harboring Communist guerrillas (the VC).  After the massacre became public knowledge, Captain Ernest Medina denied giving orders to kill women and children.  But some platoon leaders testified (without plea bargains, as far as I can tell) that Medina had explicitly ordered them to kill every living thing in the village.

In Hiroshima, the American crew of the Enola Gay killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in a mid-size Japanese city with an atomic bomb.  According to the best estimate I could find, about 12,000 of the dead were Japanese soldiers.  The rest were unarmed civilians.  No one disputes that the Enola Gay's crew was following orders.

The My Lai Massacre is now almost universally considered a heinous war crime.  The Hiroshima bombing, in contrast, enjoys bipartisan admiration.  What moral distinctions might you draw between the two?

1. You could say that Hiroshima contained enemy soldiers, and My Lai didn't.  But as far as I can tell, no one disputes that My Lai harbored the VC.  And even if some villagers did harbor the VC, we would still regard mass killing of unarmed civilians a war crime.

2. You could say that Hiroshima's civilians shared collective guilt for Japan's crimes, but the My Lai civilians didn't share collective guilt for the VC's crimes.  But if villagers did indeed harbor the VC, why would their collective guilt be any less than that of the Japanese?

3. You could say that the ratio of soldiers to civilians killed was much higher in Hiroshima than My Lai.  Maybe; it's hard to say.  But the Hiroshima ratio was only 7-13%.  Would the presence of 347*7% = 24 VCs among My Lai's dead meant that American actions were not a war crime?

4. You could say that the Americans couldn't separately target soldiers in Hiroshima, but they could separately target soldiers in My Lai.  But that's false.  Americans had a wide variety of weapons and tactics to use against the Japanese; many would have targeted soldiers but spared civilians.  Furthermore, as American soldiers in Vietnam often complained, when you're fighting guerrillas it's extremely difficult to tell soldiers and civilians apart.  Even a kid can fire a gun or plant a mine.  The perpetrators of the My Lai Massacre could truthfully insist that killing a lot of civilians was the only way to make sure they killed their enemy soldiers.

5. You could say that the Japanese started the war, and the VC didn't.  But in what sense did the VC not start the Vietnam War?  It's not like the South Vietnamese government suddenly sneak attacked a peaceful guerrilla army wandering the countryside.

6. You could say that the American soldiers in Hiroshima were just following orders, while the American soldiers in My Lai weren't.  But the evidence strongly suggests that the soldiers in My Lai were following orders.  More importantly, if the soldiers in My Lai were following orders, we would consider their commander a war criminal.  By that logic, the commander of the Enola Gay would be a war criminal, too.

7. You could say that Hiroshima successfully ended the war and saved lives, and My Lai plainly failed to do so.  But My Lai was much smaller than Hiroshima.  If My Lai tactics were applied on a vast scale - say 300 villages to make the body count comparable to Hiroshima's - maybe they too could have ended the war and saved lives.*  In any case, by this logic, Hiroshima would have been a massive war crime if it failed to make the Japanese surrender.

I propose that the real reason for the distinction is simply this:

8. The soldiers in My Lai murdered people they could see face-to-face.  The crew of the Enola Gay dropped a bomb from a high distance and flew away.

Needless to say, if the true explanation is (8), either Hiroshima was a war crime, or My Lai wasn't.  Well, I suppose you could say that long-distance murder isn't really murder.

Any crucial moral distinctions between My Lai and Hiroshima I've missed?  If so, please tell me.

* After South Vietnam fell, Communists killed millions in Indochina.  Most were in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, but if North Vietnam had been defeated, Cambodia probably would have remained non-Communist.

HT: Question inspired by Michael Huemer, my favorite living philosopher.  Actually, after reading the draft of his latest book, Freedom and Authority, Huemer is my favorite philosopher of all time.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (63 to date)
David writes:

Of all your suggestions, I think number 7 is the most likely. Bombing Hiroshima ended the war, and whatever its objectives may have been, My Lai didn't. Additionally, I think they hold different places in the American psyche because of where America was at the time they happened. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are seen as seminal moments in American history - the end of WWII along with the greatest possible display of American might. They were the beginning of a "we did what we had to do to protect ourselves and the world" attitude towards foreign policy. My Lai was a part of the Vietnam war, with all of the moral ambiguity and conflicting emotions that the conflict engendered in America. Vietnam was no more a moral victory for America than it was a military one, so I think it makes sense we would feel far more ambiguous about the war and its events.

OneEyedMan writes:

Your counterargument to 4 is unpersuasive because it is impossible to asses this comparison of viable alternatives abstractly. Without knowing at a minimum the rough cost in American lives and materials of alternatives neither a minimum lives lost nor utilitarian arguments can be brought to bear.

Sonic Charmer writes:

While you're at it why not ask about the firebombing of Dresden in the same war.

Anyway, I would say (in addition to your 8, which is clearly part of the moral queasiness) an answer is something close to your 7, but not quite. A key question is one of means-ends.

Bombing Hiroshima, even if you disagree with it, was at least part of and logically connected to a plausible and feasible strategy for winning (and therefore ending) the war; My Lai not. Your reductio of 'why not 300 My Lai's then' doesn't counter this, unless you can come up with or argue for an equally-workable 300-My-Lais strategy that plausibly would have/could have won the Vietnam conflict. I don't think you can; just saying [if 300 My Lais] 'maybe they too could have ended the war and saved lives' isn't sufficient, because I don't think it could have, nor do you, and (I would think) no one else does either.

But it may be possible to come up with some *actual* strategy, that perhaps would have incidentally killed as many innocents as 300 My Lais, but which could have plausibly been successful. I suspect that if such a strategy were described to me, it wouldn't strike me as obviously a war-crime. But that is because, by hypothesis, it would be a *strategy*, and recognizable as such. The actual My Lai, wasn't, and that seems to be important.

Micke writes:

I agree that #7 is correct. While discussing what could possibly happen in the future is always shaky, it seems to me that expecting Hiroshima to end the war was likely. Expecting My Lai to end the war was extremely unlikely. And, by the way, expecting 300 My Lai to end the war was completely unlikely.

However, change Hiroshima to Nagasaki and your case is much better. I can't see that the war was likely to end after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but not after Hiroshima only. Am I missing something there?

Sonic Charmer writes:

They needed to demonstrate that they had made (and were willing/able to use) more than 1 of those things.

I agree that the case is shakier.

Asteroth writes:

I'm not sure if it's a viable argument but I feel the fact that WWII and Vietnam were very different kinds of war is important. For example: what about the firebombing of Dresden? Or all the bombing in London? Conventional war can more easily be framed as country on country conflict than guerrilla warfare, I think.

I also think there might be an argument to be made that civilians were deliberately targeted in my lai but were incidental to Hiroshima.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan and haven't heard it framed as anything but the least of a lot of bad options, but I have a hard time thinking of it as a war crime. I'm made even more uncomfortable by the fact I don't have answers I like to this article.

Fabio Rojas writes:

First, I don't think there's quite "bipartisan admiration" for bombing Hiroshima. In fact, I'd guess that it's the most debated US military action of WWII. Maybe bipartisan in the sense that no elected politician will speak against it, but that's about it.

Second, the most cogent defense of Hiroshima, in my view, is utilitarian and situational. Conditional on the fact that the US was in a war with Japan and wished to end it quickly, what was the best option?

From what many, but not all, historians indicate, the Japanese high command did not offer any credible signal that they were willing surrender in 1945, nor did they appear willing to negotiate an end with the Americans. Furthermore, the long string of defeats did not seem to prompt the Japanese to consider ending the conflict except by having the American invade the mainland at a phenomenal cost. Considering that every single episode of island hopping resulted in thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of lives on both sides, this is not trivial.

This logic can be debated (and has been debated endlessly) but, at the very least, it indicates that the decision to bomb Hiroshima was connected to a logic of immediately ending the war and saving both American and Japanese lives.

In contrast, My Lai was not attached to any strategy aimed at ending the Vietnam war and reducing casualties. Rather, it was the result of one person, or small group of people, acting in response to their own emotions. My guess is that it probably violated the Army's own rules.

The claim that killing a village of people would lead to a better state of affairs is hard to believe. At least with the atomic bomb, there was a plausible argument that demonstration of overwhelming military force would change the calculus of the enemy. A horrible choice, but at least I can conceive of it.

When I think about these issues, I agree that no one deserved the horrible, brutal death experienced in My Lai or Hiroshima. That's why war is to be thoroughly opposed. However, once you have the justice of war (which I don't) then it is plausible to make distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable violence. In that case, you have to ignore the rights of people (civilians) and subordinate them to larger objectives.

BTW, wiki has a list of Allied war crimes:

Sean writes:

With respect to Huemer's book:

I was poking around the webpage of David Boonin, one of Huemer's colleagues at Colorado and a brilliant ethicist in his own right (if you haven't read 'The Problem of Punishment,' 'A Defense of Abortion,' and 'Should Race Matter?' go out and do it right now), and found a link to a course website with two chapters from 'Freedom and Authority'.

Can't wait to see the rest.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think there is a good argument to be made that Hiroshima could be reasonably believed to end the war while most likely 300 My Lays wouldn't.

I would also like to add another possibility. Hiroshima was a presidential decision while My Lay was the decision of military officers. That could change how people perceive the two in 2 ways:

1) There is a myth that democratic leaders inherently make good decisions.

2) Decisions made by the political branches are really decisions made by the entire country and americans don't want to think of themselves as supporting war crimes. So Hiroshima is ok since we all decided it together while My Lay is not ok since it was decided by that one guy.

That said, I think the real answer is the one you gave. Nukes feel clean. You drop them, people aren't dead, they are just gone. On the other hand, when you shoot someone, it's dirty and icky.

Michael Huemer writes:

One could say that WWII was a just war, but the Vietnam War was unjust. However, I don't think this really makes a difference to whether the killing of civilians is a war crime.

One could also say that in WWII, both sides intentionally targeted civilians, whereas I'm not sure if the VC intentionally targeted civilians. However, I don't think "the other side started it" really forms much of an excuse for killing non-combatants. For instance, if you identify someone who's been murdering innocent people, you can't murder his family and then say, "Well, he started it."

Carl C writes:

It was the fourth Geneva Convention that outlawed total war, and required the protection of civilians. The 4th Geneva Convention was signed in 1949, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So, the crew of the Enola Gay did NOT commit war crimes, because mass killing of civilians was not a crime. In fact, the rules against total war were enacted in response to the massive loss of life during World War II.

Fabio Rojas writes:


General question - does the justice of killing an innocent depend on whether you are a utilitarian? A utilitarian might say that he's minimizing overall casualties and that killing a few people who are innocent is just the cost of accomplishing the goal.

Steve S writes:

"I think there is a good argument to be made that Hiroshima could be reasonably believed to end the war while most likely 300 My Lays wouldn't."

I'm not so sure that's true. The argument that Hiroshima would end the war is that the Japanese would be so afraid of our new technology that we [seemingly] casually dropped on an entire city. Surrender was necessary to stop every major city from suffering the same fate.

But imagine 300 Vietnamese villages had been completely wiped out. 300. And Americans suffered a rare casualty. Wouldn't the Vietnamese be scared, after seeing how casually we wiped out 90K of their family members, that unless they surrendered we would continue at the same pace?

Maybe 1 large event has more oomph than 300 small ones, but I would almost be more alarmed if Americans could successfully penetrate and annihilate that many villages time and time again.

Alex J. writes:

@Michael Huemer:

One of the reasons that South Vietnamese peasants were unwilling to help the central government and the Americans was that we were unable to reliably protect them from murderous attacks by the VC. There were many cases of village chiefs being publicly executed in various horrific ways. Google "village chief vietnam pregnant wife" if you'd like.

"The My Lai Massacre is now almost universally considered a heinous war crime. The Hiroshima bombing, in contrast, enjoys bipartisan admiration."

As for the moral issues, I think the other commentators have done well enough. Practically, I would point out that the educators, historians and the media since the end of the Vietnam war have been largely peopled by people who were aligned with the Vietnamese communists and against the WWII Japanese.

Chris_Y writes:

You could say it's because the Hiroshima order was given by the well respected Harry Truman, while the My Lai order was given by a commander in the hated Vietnam "conflict"...

David E writes:

You could say that the Hiroshima bombing eliminated the need for an invasion and saved a million (Japanese) lives - and that this was the specific goal of the bombing. You could also say that (unfortunately) bombing cities was common in WWII. You could also say that the real blame should go on the Japanese leaders (other than the emperor), who were willing to sacrifice an unlimited number of their citizens lives to preserve the "honor" of the leaders.

A better question is why did a 2nd city have to be bombed in Japan?

Brian Moore writes:

"but if North Vietnam had been defeated, Cambodia probably would have remained non-Communist. "

Not a debate, but didn't Vietnam, after remaining communist, actually end up removing the Khmer Rouge?

Brian writes:

The real question is if total war is always unacceptable or if there are times it is the lesser of evils? I think the most important consideration has to do with how and if the civilians are supporting the government one is at war with.

How about this scenario, China launches nukes at our major population center and we expect a third of the population to die. Due we launch nukes at all their population centers and kill more people than our total population? Especially considering the civlians did not have a say about the war.

I would say no, you still attack and launch missiles at military targets but don't go for major population centers even if that is where most of the military is. There is no way it is moral right to kill more, mostly innocent, (don’t support the government you are at war with) civilians than your whole population. Even if it means we are taken over.

However, change the scenario to a democracy or a nation that clearly supports its government then no. They are aiding your enemy so they are a valid target. Does not mean you should attack for terror only, there should be a clear strategy and goal behind the attacks other than terror.
Japan and Germany where very much in this
category in WWII. Vast majorities of the population supported the governments just as we supported our government. It would have been valid for Japan and Germany to attack our civilians also. We where actually afraid of that happening.

I still think the outright leveling of cities via terror bombing was wrong. If you happen to hit residential areas while targeting industrial/commercial(office buildings not places where people shop)/agriculture areas then so be it. However, indiscriminately attacking residential areas, that should always be wrong.

So back to the village example, I think it has to do with technical ability to pick and choose, and what the orders from above were. One we were not fighting a total war, and our civilian population was not threatened if we lost. So there was no justification for total war with the type of conflict we were fighting. However, let us say it is the exact same scenario in WWII and it is Japanese. My answer would still be no, there was no industrial or commercial targets. One could say the farmers support food production for the Japanese (aka Viet Con) but that still would not be right. A soldier on the ground is able to only destroy structures and minimize civilians deaths because it is technically possible.
To me the breaking point where it might become alright to specify kill civilians on purposes is what happened in Iraq sometimes. There were cases were a person lived in a house right outside were a IED went off and killed soldiers. One knows the person knew there was an IED outside (never left his house and a 4 foot whole was dug to place the bomb) his house and did not warn anyone. To me in cases like that were the evidence is pretty strong they deserve to die. However, I think it should have been before some court so the solider who lost a comrade and not taking justice into their own hands.

So no it is never justified even in cases were total war is needed to target unarmed civilians and just kill them when it is technologically possible to avoid them. Just because you think they are supporting the enemy does not make it right to individual target them.

Ryan Langrill writes:

Kahneman is, again, insightful on this. We do not care about other people, we care about their *stories* for the most part. My Lai brings terrible images to mind and lets us imagine a situation where we certainly would not have acted this way! Hiroshima lacks that narrative. We can evaluate it intellectually next to My Lai, but emotional judgments usually don't come about due to careful deliberation about the situation.

Ted Levy writes:

The main problem with Michael Huemer's books: not available in Kindle or iTunes versions.

Wikipedia has a debate section over the necessity/morality of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings

An excerpt, responding to several above who say dropping the bomb helped end the war quickly:

"The 1946 United States Strategic Bombing Survey, written by Paul Nitze, concluded that the atomic bombs had been unnecessary to the winning of the war. After reviewing numerous documents, and interviewing hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, Nitze reported:
'Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.'"

Ted Levy writes:

The main problem with Michael Huemer's books: not available in Kindle or iTunes versions.

Wikipedia has a debate section over the necessity/morality of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings

An excerpt, responding to several above who say dropping the bomb helped end the war quickly:

"The 1946 United States Strategic Bombing Survey, written by Paul Nitze, concluded that the atomic bombs had been unnecessary to the winning of the war. After reviewing numerous documents, and interviewing hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, Nitze reported:
'Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.'"

tom writes:

So people have identified at least 2 big differences:

1. means/ends: Hiroshima was rationally expected to advance the whole US war effort. Further, it may have been expected to advance the war effort more efficiently (in terms of reduced American deaths AND Japanese deaths) than any other action available to the US.

2. authorization: Hiroshima was fully authorized inside the US government.

I think number 2 relates to an issue no one has raised directly: was one action legal and the other not? I'd guess Hiroshima had a good claim to be legal under whatever laws/treaties applied then.

Chris Brennan writes:

Intent matters.

Truman intended for the atomic bombing of Japan to end the war quickly and permanently through complete Japanese surrender. He saw his own intent as morally correct and announced to the world what he had ordered done. And in reality, he achieved what he intended.

Truman did not intend the atomic bombings to be nothing more than retributive punishment for the Japanese civilians.

Truman likely would have ordered 300 Mai Lais if that was the only feasible way to assure the surrender of Japan and avoid the expected deaths of hundreds of thousands US soldiers in an invasion. Of course, in reality, that sort of horrible alternative was never possible.

The soldiers at Mai Lai on the other hand intended to punish the civilians for harboring the Viet Cong . The soldiers did not see their own intent as morally correct and tried to cover up their actions rather than defending them.

The soldiers intent by killing, raping and torturing was to inflict suffering as retributive punishment. These soldiers, in their fury, acted with the complete disregard for any larger military strategy.

The US would have used atomic weapons in Viet Nam were they seen as a tool that would in fact achieve the geopolitical goals of the US. However, those strategic goals went far beyond the mere military defeat of North Viet Nam.

All that being said, I'm becoming more and more convinced that wars do not ever achieve net positive outcomes even for the victors.

But the question of "What tactics are moral in war if you are in one?" is a different question from "Should you ever go to war?".

JayT writes:

I think that number seven is pretty obviously the real reason. When you do something like that that ends a war, people don't see it as being as bad as killing civilians unnecessarily.

As for whether or not the atomic bombings would have been considered war crimes had it not ended the war, I think there is a good chance that they would have been. Curtis LeMay famously said that he would have been tried as a war criminal (do to the bombing raids he ordered) had the US lost the war.

Pandaemoni writes:

We were not at war with South Vietnam, so any innocent civilians killed at My Lai were citizens of an allied nation.

That said, I think the real distinction was more basic. It's one think to order the deaths of civilians after careful deliberation high up in the chain of command in order to avoid the need for a bloody and painful invasion. It is another thing for troops on the ground to kill civilians because they are pissed in violation of the rules of engagement the more deliberative elements within the military had established.

If Hiroshima had been bombed simply to exact retribution, and especially if it were done without consulting the higher-ups in the chain of command well in advance, I have no doubt that would have been viewed more universally as a war crime too. Same for the fire bombings of Tokyo (which killed more people than the Hiroshima bomb) or the bombing of Dresden.

steve writes:

These are just potential excuses one can select from. The real difference is obvious. The orders for Hiroshima clearly came from the top the orders in My Lai didn't.

It doesn't at all justify Hiroshima. Rather it explains why no one of influence in government will or will be allowed to call it a war crime.

I bet even Ron Paul would stammer over an answer while he is running for election.

MikeDC writes:

I think you know little of warfare and its history.

My Lai and often Hiroshima are condemned as war crimes by people who know nothing about military concepts. The difference is something close to #6, but not quite.

Crime is when someone breaks a law. Going back to feudalistic days, "the laws of war" never compelled combatants to treat each other and their populations with mercy. It's freaking war. Only who had the right to wage it. War is what sovereigns wage upon other sovereigns or subjects who openly defied them.

The crew of the Enola Gay were operating at the command of a sovereign against another.

That's no crime. Because war is an anarchic state of armed combat. There are plenty of reasons to be merciful to one's enemy, but obeying the law isn't one of them.

My Lai, on the other hand, was a military cardinal sin. A failure of discipline. Even if Medina's men were following orders, Medina was not. And an army that does not obey the command of its sovereign is a threat to everyone, a band of armed criminals.

And again, law comes from the sovereign. And criminal activity is breaking these laws. Medina and his men were criminals with respect to the US Government, not some abstract entity.

It's not the act of killing enemy non-combatants that's criminal based on an agreement between combatants, but the unauthorized killing of non-combatants, against the orders of superiors.

Now, to a libertarian pacifist, this is maybe a meaningless distinction, but it's a pretty big deal to the military, to the government, and the generally large number of folks who confer on it some support and legitimately.

Hasdrubal writes:

I think your number 8 is sort of right but for the wrong reasons:

Hiroshima was an act guided by the US government against the Japanese government. The effects killed thousands of innocent civilians, but it was an impersonal "continuation of politics by other means." The decision was made logically without personal animus against those civilians. My Lai, on the other hand, was a personal, emotional choice made out of anger (not necessarily against the victims) to attack civilians, conducted against standing policy. It was a crime of passion rather than a horrific result of cool political logic.

We want the conduct of wars to be constrained by cool logic from a distance to the visceral horror. These decisions won't always be good decisions, but they will be much more likely to be good than allowing people who are currently facing existential threats and have watched friends and subordinates die make immediate decisions on what level of force to use.

Secondly, attacking purely civilian targets was, I believe, legal under the laws of war at the time. This wasn't the case in Vietnam.

Collin writes:

9) It saved more American lives by ending the war even if it did not save more lives overall. The world was broke and in rubble at this point.

10) It kept Stalin at bay who was ready to assist the US in defeating Japan by invading China.

Your point five is not completely fair. The Japan was an agressive nation that invaded numerous countries, bombed Pearl Harbor and signed Treaties with Hitler. Vietnam was a civil war which did not have a direct threat to the US.

Alex writes:

You don't often pass up the opportunity for a good Ayn Rand quote:

[I]t makes no difference to a man whether he is killed by a nuclear bomb or a dynamite bomb or an old-fashioned club. Nor does the number of other victims or the scale of the destruction make any difference to him.

JKB writes:

Hiroshima wasn't a war crime because it was a sovereign act ordered by the commander in chief of the United States. Like it or not, but at the very top, in relations between nations, the law is the law of the gun.

Post-WWII, efforts have been made to impose an international order but that only lasts as long as those able to militarily challenge it, the US these days, but the USSR till its fall, choose to comply. Other countries can scream and yell but they can't impose the rules nor are they likely to stop economic activity.

Also, had the Axis powers won the war, there is little doubt that Truman down to the tailgunner on the Enola Gay would have been executed as war criminals for the act.

On the other hand, Mai Lai was a unilateral violation of the sovereign imposed rules of engagement. The investigation and trial was conducted by the US and they were convicted of violating the UCMJ.

Now, what if the president had ordered the massacre? Would it have been a war crime? Well, yes, according to international agreements the US has entered into. But what if the US, meaning President and Congress, repudiated those treaties? The international community might still consider it a war crime but what could they do if those responsible stayed in the US or the US was willing to use military force against any country that tried to detain or try them?

See what I mean about ultimately, it is the law of the gun?

Andy Hallman writes:

I notice many of the people talking about WWII make no distinction between ending the war and forcing Japan to surrender unconditionally. The doves in the Japanese government wanted the war to end months before the atomic bombs were dropped but they would not agree to an unconditional surrender since they assumed this would mean deposing the emperor.

In its official communications to Japan, the U.S. made plain that it would only end the war if Japan surrendered unconditionally. Secretary of War Henry Stimson pleaded with Truman to alter the surrender demands so as to allow a constitutional monarchy with the emperor in power. Stimson's suggestion was not included in the Potsdam Proclamation sent to the Japanese July 26, 1945.

The U.S. did not exhaust all alternatives to ending the war short of the atomic bombs. In fact, Truman was not interested in finding alternatives. How the dropping of the bombs can be justified is therefore a mystery.

If you want to learn more about the atomic bombings and the politics, Japanese and American, leading up it, I'd recommend the following links:

Various writes:

Good try, but I think you're off base on this one Bryan. The answer is 7. There is very strong evidence that, even in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese just barely surrendered, and only after the intervention of the Emperor. Operation Olympic, the first of four invasions of the Japanese home islands, was expected to result in approximately 50,000 American deaths and about 250,000 Japanese deaths. Total casualties were estimated at 4x those numbers. Those are reasonable estimates given the then recent experience with Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Casualties were expected to increase as the islands were invaded in the order of their size. Fortunately, the Japanese did not know that the U.S. had expended the only 2 atomic bombs in its then current arsenal. It is heartbreaking to say, but it appears that both the U.S. and Japanese people were actually lucky that that conflict concluded the way it did. Most alternative scenarios were worse.

Just an anecdotal comment, but my father was one of over 1 million new combat soldiers prepping for the homeland invasion, which was expected to last to the end of 1946.

Jahn writes:

Just maybe you need to have been in a group regularly shot at to appreciate the barbarism inherent in soldiering at ground level. The US soldiers at My Lai actually observed the results of their own acts, and though perhaps not on this occasion, generally put themselves at great risk, something I want to see considered as likely influential in their attitude towards people outside their own group.

Those who at the same time grilled Vietnamese peasants from the air were pretty sure of enjoying a safe journey, pleasant sights from high up, a nice dinner, and a good night’s sleep afterwards. And today’s drone operators neither observes what they inflict of pain, nor risk themselves being torn apart at all – to them war is a nerdy computer game. They will never need to urinate on dead Taleban to laugh off their fear of death.

Werner Von Braun certainly should be among the greater Nazi war criminals, if being considered so should depend on the civilian casualties you produce, but he was given a warm welcome in the US, as I suppose other highly qualified Nazi engineers of death were in the West, and in the East. So, even though considering myself a non-socialist, I’ll ask the question if there isn’t a bit of class discrimination in the general moral preaching of intellectuals.

William Barghest writes:

I think the arguments morally justifying a scaled up coordinated Mai Lai massacre are much stronger than for the Hiroshima bombing. By the summer of 1945 the Japanese navy and air force has already been destroyed. Thus, Japan no longer had the capacity for offensive war. Why was it necessary, to the tune of sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives, to occupy Japan after having already neutralized it?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Several distinctions have been given, but not the most important one, in my view.

The war with Japan was a total war. Americans were not going there to bring peace and democracy; they were going there to bring the Japanese to their knees, first and foremost.

The war in Vietnam was supposedly waged for the benefit of the Vietnamese; to try and save them from themselves. That is of course a much more difficult, if not impossible thing to do.

'We have to kill them, or else theyll die' sounds much less coherent than 'We have to kill them'.

Sonic has it.

William Barghest writes:

"That said, I think the real answer is the one you gave. Nukes feel clean. You drop them, people aren't dead, they are just gone. On the other hand, when you shoot someone, it's dirty and icky."

There is a persistent myth that people were killed instantly or even evaporated by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think the truth of the matter is that even close to ground zero people were only knocked unconscious temporarily by the blast while the flash burned their skin off leaving most victims writhing in pain until either being asphyxiated by the subsequent fires or dying of shock in a matter of hours.

Greg writes:

"The Hiroshima bombing, in contrast, enjoys bipartisan admiration."

I have a hard time believing that anyone admires the slaughter of 90,000+ people. When we learn about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings in history class, most of the time is spent watching videos and looking at pictures of awesome devastation, and describing the horrors of the event. I seriously doubt anyone in the US has an image of the bombings as some kind of glorious military victory.

Kevin writes:

I agree with Sonic Charmer above. The point of Hiroshima was to establish as credible the threat that such massive destruction could be brought to bear against the Japanese. Slaughtering the inhabitants of a village does no such thing, nor was it intended to do any such thing.

Ken B writes:

The concentration on Hiroshima neglecting Nagasaki is common, and wrong. It took 2 bombs to end the war, the intial decision was to use them both if need be, not to use one in a demonstration, and they should be considered together.

Truman and his advisors believed several things about using the bombs, including:
1 it would save lives they were responsible for, ie American soldiers and civilians
2 it would save lives period, including japanese lives and the lives of japanese subjects in places like China
3 it would likely end the war, which is what would cause 1 and 2.

(They also wanted to keep the Russians out.) I think they were right on all counts but that isn't relevant to Caplan's question. Their intent and the expected consequences of the act do matter.

I will now turn it around: what act of war is different? Any act of war can kill civilians. The consequnces of no act of war are completely predictable. Under 7 you dismiss scale and effectiveness. Your argument proves too much; it proves that the Warsaw uprising was a crime.

Whiskey Lima writes:

It was the destruction of the bomb, not the body count. A My-Lai style operation producing as many if not more civilian deaths as Hiroshima would not have ended the war. Demonstrating a willingness to reduce a city to radioactive dust for the entire world to see is, albeit horrific, what ended the war. Moreover, it likely contributed to 20+ years of cold war failing to become a hot war.

DavidAW writes:

Three online pieces on the questions:

GEM Anscombe's "Mr. Truman's Decree"

and her "War and Murder"

Thomas Nagel's "War and Massacre"

Ken B writes:
I agree with Sonic Charmer above. The point of Hiroshima was to establish as credible the threat that such massive destruction could be brought to bear against the Japanese.
-- Kevin

And indeed that is precisely what DID end the war, and that just barely. There was a significant fraction of the cabinet and military wanting to continue anyway. A series of My-Lais, like to pick a wild and crazy example, a series of sinkings of merchant vessels by submarines, a series of invasions of islands, would not have had the same effect.

Beckett writes:

Wonderful post. Explores both the nature of consequentialism (means to an end: the gain from the My Lai massacre was less than the loss, vs. the the cost/gain of Hiroshima), as well as touching on the theory of justice (which theory?).

[N.B. Comment restored after accidental deletion. Comment originally submitted Jan. 19, 2012.--Econlib Ed.]

tom S writes:

I have walked all the ground around My Lai on foot patrols and combat assaults in 1968. This is one of the best conversations with My Lai as a subject I have ever see. Thank you. If you want a central place to find information about My Lai please look here:

David Youngberg writes:

Hiroshima happened before we started talking about "war crimes" or "crimes against" humanity, giving it time to be enshrined as a heroic act by the good guys.

See also: Plagues of Egypt, Old Testament. God is a war criminal.

Leonard writes:

Second MikeDC @ 5:55. An act ordered by a sovereign in war is outside of the scope of ordinary law. Insubordinate killing in war is a crime within the scope of military law.

Ken B writes:

"Hiroshima happened before we started talking about "war crimes" or "crimes against" humanity, giving it time to be enshrined as a heroic act by the good guys."

This is factually incorrect. The allies originated the commission on war crimes that lead to the Nuremburg trials in 1942.

More to the point doesn't anyone note the irony of discussing in the same thread both the question "why is libertarianism a fringe movement" and an argument I can epitomize as "of course we think Hiroshima was a war crime like My lai; trying to win wars and save the lives of your soldiers just doesn't cut libertarian muster."

Jim Glass writes:

You could say that Hiroshima successfully ended the war and saved lives, and My Lai plainly failed to do so.

Yes, you could. And you'd be right. As it was explicitly calculated to do.

And in ending the war the atom bombs saved not only American lives, but on net truly *massive* numbers of Japanese lives, civilian and military, that would have been lost in an invasion of the home islands.

I don't see this net saving of lives in your calculation.

But My Lai was much smaller than Hiroshima. If My Lai tactics were applied on a vast scale - say 300 villages to make the body count comparable to Hiroshima's - maybe they too could have ended the war and saved lives.*

If you are saying that repeating My Lai on a massive scale would have ended the war in weeks, and saved huge numbers of VietNamese lives on net that quickly (I'll skip the human welfare benefits of keeping the communist regimes from taking over the land) then indeed we should have considered it.

But I don't know of anyone who's ever made that case.

That makes My Lai a simple low-level massacre of civilians with no war-shortening benefit -- rather the opposite -- expressly against policy, as it well should be, so the perpetrators could be court martialed. Seems very different than Hiroshima in about every way, big and small.

I've also never really understood why such objections are so much more often raised about Hiroshima than about the fire-bombing of Tokyo, when the latter killed many more people in a much more massive and brazen effort on the part of many more callous Americans, without the calculated war-ending benefit.

But, well ... the bottom line is the Japanese acted in a very non-libertarian manner in invading China (the rape of Nanking et al) and attacking the Phillippines and Pearl Harbor in furtherance of that effort of conquest.

When one acts in such a non-libertarian way one can only expect a non-libertarian response as an entirely practical matter, it may even be appropriate and best.

I don't recall any public or private American intention before 1941 to bomb Hiroshima or Tokyo. It looks like the Japanese govt of the day seriously under-appreciated the benefits of pacifist libertarianism. Their bad.

Mark Bahner writes:

Another consideration is, "Would 90+% of soldiers do what the soldiers did at My Lai, versus would 90+% of soldiers do what the crew of the Enola Gay did?"

I think the answer to the first is "no" and the answer to the second is "yes."

I think it's also very important to keep in mind that the crew of the Enola Gay probably had no concept of what the atomic bomb was going to do. Obviously, they knew it was very powerful. But they weren't at the Trinity site to view the first bomb. So even if they were told, "This is equivalent to 10,000 tons of TNT"...who in the world could know what that meant, without seeing it once.

In fact, wonderful Wikipedia tells me that, of the 12 men aboard the Enola Gay, only 3 even knew the purpose of the mission:

Grandpa Jimmy writes:

In August 1945 my Dad had just finished several months of hard fighting in the jungles of the Philippines. He had seen the exhausted remnants of the Japanese Army make suicide charges against his positions. He saw some people he knew get killed. He knew about the carnage on Okinawa and on the other islands that the Japs defended. His unit was getting ready to be one of the first to invade the mainland of Japan. He was not looking forward to that! My Mom was a nurse in a field hospital in the Philippines. She knew many more American boys were going to die or be maimed in the upcoming battle. My parents were so happy when the bomb was dropped and the war ended.
My view is that nations make wars. Armies are just tools used in war. The guy in the factory manufacturing planes and bullets is making war. His wife who makes him dinner is assisting in the war effort. The mother raising a son to serve in the military is assisting in the war effort. How about the farmer raising food to feed the soldiers and workers? Are they any more innocent than the kid who got drafted in his late teens and is wearing a uniform?
Think of it this way: if you could stop the operation of a place like Auschwitz by dropping an atomic bomb on a city, would you do it? I think all of us would say YES.

himaginary writes:

"According to the best estimate I could find, about 12,000 of the dead were Japanese soldiers. The rest were unarmed civilians."

And your own soldiers:

Erich Schwarz writes:

Hiroshima and Nagasaki arguably prevented Operation Downfall, the planned amphibious invasion of Japan by conventional weaponry and soldiers.

For a retail view of what that meant to the U.S. soldiers who would have actually had to carry out Downfall, see Paul Fussell's "Thank God For the Atom Bomb".

For a wholesale view of Operation Downfall, see Wikipedia. Notable quote: "Nearly 500,000 Purple Heart medals were manufactured in anticipation of the casualties resulting from the invasion of Japan."

Matt writes:

Without regard to anything else, make no mistake- #8 is the difference. Bombing is seen (correctly or not) as an acceptable act of war. Shooting civilians is not.

Worth noting, however, that #7 can go past conjecture. When the U.S. was at war in the Philippines, the tactics at My Lai were far more common, and IIRC, considered standing orders. For better or worse, we didn't lose that one.

Militarily, at least.

And a quick note on combining #7 and #4, while the U.S. had plenty of options other than nuking two Japanese cities, would any of them ended the war? The Japanese fought with a tenacity that frightened the U.S. military. The proposed invasion had a brutal estimated casualty count- over a million dead and wounded.

Gepap writes:

MikeDC above gave by far the simplest and best answer. Murder is unlawful killing, not just killing. Hiroshima's effects are only slightly different from the mass bomber raids that were being conducted regularly above both Germany and Japan. In fact, Hiroshima killed less people than the March firebombing of central Tokyo. That policy of mass killing became acceptable during the war, and when it was over it was judged to be lawful, at least at the time. It was then banned for the future.

The actions at Mai Lai broke the standing rules at the time, and thus, were a crime. The law changes. Most courts today would find execution for horse theft to be a violaiton of the 8th amendment, but it was the common punishement in many jurisdictions only a century and a half ago.

Michael writes:

Counterfactual (and I'm sure someone else has imagined this before):

Drop the bomb out at sea where the Japanese can see it. Might have a similar effect without melting hundreds of thousands of people.

Arnold Halperin writes:

I'd suggest reading The Night Of The New Moon by
Laurens Van Der Post. Although Van Der Post was not in Japan in August 1945, he has a personal story related to the atomic bombings of Japan. Much food for thought.

dmitchell writes:

I don't believe in a special class of crimes called war crimes, just ordinary (moral) crimes. When you are engaged in a conflict, killing bystanders is a crime. Deliberate mass murder of bystanders is unforgivable. Everyone involved belongs in prison.

Scott writes:

The context of the two wars must be considered.
World War I and II being something new and unique to mankind. The goal of both sides was clearly communicated to each other; completely destroy the other's ability to wage war and advance their agenda.
Vietnam was arguably an optional war. "A proxy war against the communists. A police action." Regardless, a war where the allies were trying to free civilians from oppression. By murdering the civilians, regardless of their role, you change the purpose of the war. While countless Afgan civilians died while the allies hunted the Taliban, we didn't murder all the civilians that supported the Taliban. That would have transferred one form of oppression to another.

Face to face or dropping a bomb or using a knife or sending in a drone has no influence in the discussion. It's the context behind the war that matters.

I'm in no way supporting either action or denouncing either action, I'm simply adding the argument of war context and it's consideration. Clearly, both wars were a lesson to all mankind.

Paul Benson writes:

As several others have said, I think "intention" is the key concept that discriminates, on a deep, gut, human level, between a monstrous act, and an awful, difficult, strategic one.

Making the decision to kill many many many people, in order to save millions more, and bring an end to a state of war, when you are the person elected to make such decisions, is an act that we can defend. Few who were not directly threatened with having to fight that war would exult in it, but we can see a moral calculus at work; and, given that the awful act did indeed appear to end the war, we can even approve of the decision that was made as a difficult but effective one.

The actors at My Lai carried no such intentions. They carried the opposite intentions. They (or rather, their commanding officer) acted cruelly, sadistically, for no defensible or authorized purpose other than his own need for revenge and catharsis. Now, those soldiers were not so different from you and me either. Any human forced to walk the path they had been forced to walk might react the same way. Medina was clearly giving in to recognizable human impulses. But allowing your dark side to govern you, allowing your anger to seduce you into needless, unauthorized, untargetted murder, is a failure, and a crime; it is now established as a crime even during war.

The role of intention is key. It is why we prosecute murder in three degrees, as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The person is dead regardless. But the intention of the killer matters.

In Eastern and New Age Western spirituality, intention is a VERY big deal, a matter of great internal, external, even cosmic significance. Its role in our moral intuition is central.

Adam writes:

I'm wondering if there should be another item on this list for consideration:

WWII is remembered as a good war. Vietnam as a bad war.

Obviously some of the means/ends issues coming up in the comments are related to this, but I think the idea in it's simple form might have something to do with the answer, no?

Mai Lai as war crime fits our collective memory of the Vietnam war as misguided and tragic. Hiroshima as war crime doesn't fit our memory of WWII as just and heroic.

jack beaufait writes:

Responding to this comment from Ted Levy:
Wikipedia has a debate section over the necessity/morality of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings

An excerpt, responding to several above who say dropping the bomb helped end the war quickly:

"The 1946 United States Strategic Bombing Survey, written by Paul Nitze, concluded that the atomic bombs had been unnecessary to the winning of the war. After reviewing numerous documents, and interviewing hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders after Japan surrendered, Nitze reported:
'Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.'"

Consider the following. > Ketsu-Go the defence of Japan > Extraordinary defence plan .These are descriptions of 'Operation Downfall'

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