Were the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a War Crime and a Crime Against Humanity?

75 Years Ago, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945

Was President Harry Truman “a murderer,” as the renowned British analytic philosopher Gertrude Elizabeth Anscombe once charged? Were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki indeed a war crime and a crime against humanity, as she and other academic luminaries have publicly claimed? A Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Oxford and Cambridge, who was one of the 20th century’s most gifted philosophers and recognizably the greatest woman philosopher in history, Dr. Anscombe openly called President Truman a “war criminal” for his decision to have the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki leveled by atomic bombs in August 1945 (Rachels & Rachels 127). According to another academic critic, the late American historian Howard Zinn, at least 140,000 Japanese civilians were “turned into powder and ash” in Hiroshima. Over 70,000 civilians were incinerated in Nagasaki, and another 130,000 residents of the two cities died of radiation sickness in the next five years (Zinn 23).

The two most often cited reasons for President Truman’s controversial decision were to shorten the war and to save the lives of “between 250,000 and 500,000” American soldiers who could have possibly died in battle had the U.S. military had to invade the home islands of Imperial Japan. Truman reportedly claimed that

“I could not bear this thought and it led to the decision to use the atomic bomb” (Dallek 26).

But Dr. Gertrude Anscombe, who along with her husband, Dr. Peter Geach, Professor of Philosophical Logic and Ethics, were the 20th century’s foremost philosophical champions of the doctrine that moral rules are absolute, did not buy this morally callous argument:

“Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people—or a million people, if a thousand is not enough—what would you do? For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder” (Rachels & Rachels 128-129).

In 1956, Professor Anscombe and other prominent faculty members of Oxford University openly protested the decision of university administrators to grant Truman an honorary degree in gratitude for America’s wartime help. She even wrote a pamphlet, explaining that the former U.S. President was “a murderer” and “a war criminal” (Rachels & Rachels 128).

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In the eyes of many contemporaries of Elizabeth Anscombe, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki violated famous philosophical-ethical norms such as the “Sanctity of Human Life,” the “Wrongfulness of Killing,” and also that “it is wrong to use people as means to other people’s ends.” Former President Herbert Hoover (image on the right) was another early critic, openly declaring that

“The use of the atom bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts me” (Alperovitz The Decision 635).

Even President Truman’s own Chief of Staff, the five-star Admiral William D. Leahy (the most senior U.S. military officer during the war) made no secret of his strong disapprobation of the atomic bombings:

“It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons…. My own feeling is that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages…. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children” (Claypool 86-87, emphasis added).

The apologists for President Truman, on the other hand, seem to be using the quasi-Utilitarian “Benefits Argument” to justify the barbaric use of a devastating weapon of mass destruction, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the two targeted Japanese cities even though (contrary to Truman’s many public pronouncements at that time) there had been no military troops, no heavy weaponry, or even any major war-related industries in either city. Because nearly the entire adult male population of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been drafted by the Japanese military, it was mostly women, children, and old men who fell victims to fiery death from the sky. The excuse that Truman himself repeatedly offered was:

“The dropping of the bombs stopped the war, saved millions of lives” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 10).

He even boasted that he had “slept like a baby” the night after signing the final order to use the atomic bombs against Japan (Rachels & Rachels 127). But what Truman was saying in self-justification was far from being the truth—let alone the whole truth.

Unleashing a nuclear Frankenstein

Albert Einstein with Leo Szilard

At the urging of a fellow nuclear physicist—the anti-Nazi Hungarian émigré Leo SzilardAlbert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, recommending that the U.S. government should start work on a powerful atomic device as a defensive deterrent to Nazi Germany’s possible acquisition and use of nuclear weaponry (Ham 103-104). But when the top-secret Manhattan Project finally got off the ground in early 1942, the U.S. military obviously had other, much more offensive plans regarding the future targets of America’s A-bombs. While at least 67 other Japanese cities, including the capital Tokyo, were reduced to rubble by daily conventional firebombing, including the use of napalm and other incendiaries, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been deliberately spared for the sole purpose of testing the destructiveness of the new atomic device (Claypool 11).

An even more important reason for employing the bomb was to scare Stalin, who had turned quickly from “Old Uncle Joe” at the time of the FDR presidency into “the Red Menace” in the eyes of Truman and his top advisers. President Truman had quickly abandoned FDR’s policy of cooperation with Moscow, replacing it with a new policy of hostile confrontation with Stalin, in which America’s newly-acquired monopoly over nuclear armaments would be exploited as an aggressive tool of Washington’s anti-Soviet diplomacy (Truman’s so-called “atomic diplomacy”). Fully two months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the same Leo Szilard had met privately with Truman’s Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, and had tried unsuccessfully to persuade him that the nuclear weapon should not be used to destroy helpless civilian targets such as Japan’s cities. According to Dr. Szilard,

“Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war…. Mr. Byrnes’s view [was] that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 1, 290).

The Truman Administration had, in fact, postponed the Potsdam meeting of the Big Three until July 17, 1945—one day after the successful Trinity test of the first A-bomb at the Alamogordo testing range in New Mexico—to give Truman extra diplomatic leverage in negotiating with Stalin (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 6). In Truman’s own words, the atom bomb “would keep the Russians straight” and “put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 54, 63).

At this point, the Truman Administration was no longer interested in having Moscow’s Red Army liberate Northern China (Manchuria) from Japanese military occupation (as FDR, Churchill, and Stalin had jointly agreed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945)—let alone invade or capture Imperial Japan itself. Quite to the contrary. Publicly deploring the “political-diplomatic rather than military motives” behind Truman’s decision to nuke Japan, Albert Einstein complained that “a great majority of scientists were opposed to the sudden employment of the atom bomb. I suspect that the affair was precipitated by a desire to end the war in the Pacific by any means before Russia’s participation” (Alperovitz The Decision 444). Winston Churchill privately told his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, at the Potsdam Conference that

“It is quite clear that the United States do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war against Japan” (Claypool 78).

Not even Tokyo’s last-minute desperate offer (made during and after the Potsdam Conference) to surrender if the Allies promised not to prosecute Japan’s god-like emperor or remove him from office—could prevent this deadly decision, even though Truman “had indicated a willingness to maintain the emperor on the throne” (Dallek 25).

Therefore, sparing the lives of American GIs was hardly one of Truman’s more convincing arguments. In early 1945, FDR and Army General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, had together decided to leave the capture of Berlin to Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov‘s battle-hardened troops in order to avoid heavy American casualties. After officially declaring war on Tokyo on August 8, 1945, and having destroyed the Japanese military forces in Manchuria, Stalin’s Red Army prepared to invade and occupy Japan’s home islands—which certainly would have saved the lives of thousands of U.S. servicemen about whom Truman seemed so vocally concerned. But following Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, Truman had come to share Winston Churchill’s famous revisionist assessment that “We have slain the wrong swine.”

It is not even clear whether Tokyo finally surrendered on August 14 due to the two U.S. nuclear attacks carried out on August 6 and August 9, respectively (after which there were practically no more Japanese cities left to destroy nor any more U.S. A-bombs to drop)—or because of the threat of Soviet invasion and occupation after Moscow had entered the war against the Empire of Japan. Just days before the Soviet declaration of war, the Japanese ambassador to Moscow had cabled Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo in Tokyo that Moscow’s entry into the war would spell a total disaster for Japan:

“If Russia…should suddenly decide to take advantage of our weakness and intervene against us with force of arms, we would be in a completely hopeless situation. It is clear as day that the Imperial Army in Manchukuo [Manchuria] would be completely unable to oppose the Red Army which has just won a great victory and is superior to us on all points” (Barnes).

To nuke or not to nuke

General Eisenhower was later quoted as stating his conviction that it had not been “necessary” militarily to use the bomb to force Japanese surrender:

“Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’…it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 14).

In private, Eisenhower repeated his objections to his direct boss, Truman’s Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson:

“I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my strong misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 14).

Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the U.S. Third Fleet (which conducted the bulk of naval operations against the Japanese in the Pacific during the entire war), agreed that there was “no military need” to employ the new weapon, which was used only because the Truman Administration had a “toy and they wanted to try it out…. The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment…. It was a mistake to ever drop it” (Alperovitz The Decision 445). Indeed, it was quite “certain” at the time that a totally devastated Japan, which was on the verge of internal collapse, would have surrendered within weeks, if not days, without the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or even without the Soviet declaration of war against Tokyo. As the official U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded at the end of the war, “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” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 10-11).

Major General Curtis E. Lemay, commander of the U.S. Twenty-first Bomber Command which had conducted the massive conventional bombing campaign against wartime Japan and dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stated publicly: “I felt there was no need to use them [atomic weapons]. We were doing the job with incendiaries. We were hurting Japan badly…. We went ahead and dropped the bombs because President Truman told me to do it…. All the atomic bomb did was, in all probability, save a few days” (Alperovitz The Decision 340).

The fateful decision to drop the two atomic bombs code-named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on Japan may have been made a little bit more morally acceptable for Truman by the daily carpet bombing of German and Japanese cities throughout the war, including the firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, which had nearly wiped out their civilian populations. The declared goal of these relentless city-busting air raids was to destroy the morale and the will to fight of the German and Japanese people and thus shorten the war. But many years after the war Dr. Howard Zinn (himself a B-17 co-pilot and bombardier who had flown dozens of bombing missions against Nazi Germany) sadly mused: “No one seemed conscious of the irony—that one of the reasons for the general indignation against the fascist powers was their history of indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations” (Zinn 37). But, in fact, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Admiral William Leahy, and Army General Douglas MacArthur were no less disturbed by what they saw as the barbarity of the “terror” air campaign, with Stimson privately fearing that the U.S. would “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities” (Ham 63).

Clearly, Japan was defeated and was preparing to surrender before the bomb was used, whose main—if not the only—purpose was to intimidate the Soviet Union. But there had been several viable alternatives, some of which were discussed prior to the atomic bombings. The Under Secretary of the Navy, Ralph Bard, had become convinced that “the Japanese war was really won” and was so disturbed by the prospect of using atom bombs against defenseless civilians that he secured a meeting with President Truman, at which he unsuccessfully pressed his case “for warning the Japanese of the nature of the new weapon” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 19). Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, who replaced Bard after the latter’s angry resignation, also believed that “the war was very nearly over. The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate.” That is why Admiral Strauss insisted that the atom bomb should be demonstrated in a way that would not kill large numbers of civilians, proposing that “…a satisfactory place for such a demonstration would be a large forest of cryptomeria trees not far from Tokyo” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 19). General George C. Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, was equally opposed to the bomb being used on civilian areas, arguing instead that

“…these weapons might be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that…we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which people would be warned to leave —telling the Japanese that we intend to destroy such centers…. Every effort should be made to keep our record of warning clear…. We must offset by such warning methods the opprobrium which might follow from an ill-considered employment of such force” (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 20).

General Marshall also insisted that instead of surprising the Russians with the first use of the atom bomb, Moscow should be invited to send observers to the Alamogordo nuclear test. Many of the scientists working for the Manhattan Project likewise urged that a demonstration be arranged first, including a possible nuclear explosion at sea in close proximity to Japan’s coast, so that the bomb’s destructive power would be made clear to the Japanese before it was used against them. But, like the U.S. military’s dissenting views, the nuclear scientists’ opposition was never considered seriously by the Truman Administration (Alperovitz Atomic Diplomacy 20-21).


As a result of Truman’s immoral decision to use nuclear explosives against the “Japs” (a derogatory name for the Japanese commonly used in public in wartime America, including by President Truman himself), well over 200,000 civilians were instantly cremated and many thousands died later of radiation sickness. J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project and “father” of the U.S. atom bomb, declared that Truman’s decision was “a grievous error,” because now “we have blood on our hands” (Claypool 17). Howard Zinn agreed with Dr. Oppenheimer’s judgment, remarking that “much of the argument defending the atomic bombings has been based on a mood of retaliation, as if the children of Hiroshima had bombed Pearl Harbor…. Did American children deserve to die because of the U.S. massacre of Vietnamese children at My Lai?” (Zinn 59).

The controversial General Curtis Lemay, who had opposed the two atomic blasts, later confided to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who had worked for Lemay during the war, helping select Japanese targets for the American firebombing raids): “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals” (Schanberg). Given the unjustifiable and unnecessary use of such an inhumane and indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction as the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Professor Elizabeth Anscombe called President Truman a murderer and a war criminal. Until the day she died, Dr. Anscombe believed that Truman should have been put on trial for having committed some of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity during WWII.


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Rossen Vassilev Jr. is a journalism senior at the Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.


Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hisroshima and Potsdam. The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power. London and Boulder, CO: Pluto Press. 1994. Print.

—-. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. New York: Vintage Books. 1996. Print.

Barnes, Michael. “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb: Arguments Against.” Web. 14 Apr. 2019.
Claypool, Jane. Hisroshima and Nagasaki. New York and London: Franklin Watts, 1984. Print.

Dallek, Robert. Harry S. Truman. New York: Times Books, 2008. Print.

Ham, Paul. Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2011. Print.

Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy (8th edition). McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. Print.

Schanberg, Sydney. “Soul on Ice.” The American Prospect, October 27, 2003. Web. 14 Apr. 2019.

Zinn, Howard. The Bomb. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2010. Print.

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