The A-bomb: Does necessity equal morality?

The A-bomb: Does necessity equal morality?

Part 2 of 2

Martin J. Raffel
Martin J. Raffel

In my previous column (“Up close, and sometimes personal, with U.S. decision to drop bomb on Hiroshima,” April 18) I described a visit my wife and I made to Hiroshima and sites associated with the dropping of the atomic bomb there toward the end of World War II. I’ve long grappled with the question of whether this act by the United States was necessary and moral, to say nothing about dropping a second A-bomb on Nagasaki three days later.

Wanting to explore this issue through a distinctively Jewish lens, I turned to Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. He observed that the right of self-defense is firmly entrenched in Jewish law and tradition. Exodus 22:1-2 states that if someone is out to kill you, you may kill him first. This relates to the concept of the rodef, an individual trying to kill you, whose murder Jewish law permits. Of course, many of us will recall that this was the justification given by Yigal Amir for assassinating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. In Amir’s twisted mind, Rabin had become a rodef because he signed the Oslo Accords, which endangered — again, in Amir’s mind — the survival of the Jewish state. 

Could the entire nation of Japan — civilians and soldiers during World War II — be considered a rodef, and, thus, legitimate targets?  Katz worried this may be stretching the boundaries of the law. I pressed him for his opinion on the morality of Hiroshima, but he said “74 years later, I have the luxury of ambivalence.”

Instead, Katz referred me to Rabbi Daniel Bronstein, a professor at Hunter College, who studied the role of the U.S. rabbinate in military chaplaincy during World War II for his doctorate. He approaches this issue from an historiographical perspective. While he is deeply saddened by the terrible loss of life, he is not indecisive about the bombings. “Without the A-bombs, the war undoubtedly would have extended much longer, resulting in great loss to life and limb, to the Allies, to the Japanese, and to Asians under Japanese rule,” he said.   

Bronstein also cited the extreme viciousness of the fighting in the Pacific and the Allies’ use of incendiary bombs that produced mass casualties in Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The Operation Meetinghouse raid on Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945, killed some 100,000 people. “It doesn’t make sense to condemn the A-bombs,” he stated, “unless you also are prepared to condemn those bombings as well.”

I mentioned to Bronstein the example of Hamas, which seeks to justify the murder of Israeli civilians because they are members of the enemy “Zionist” nation. My argument being, once you legitimize the targeting of civilians, where does it end? He responded that we need to distinguish between terror and a total war on a global scale, suggesting that the internationally recognized rules of war regarding civilians did not apply to World War II. 

I understand his point. On Sept. 1, 1939, before the U.S. had entered the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an appeal to the governments of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Britain that their armed forces “shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations.” But what may have started out as a conflict involving armies evolved into a struggle among entire nations.

But even accepting Bronstein’s analysis and observations, the bombing of Hiroshima still leaves me uncomfortable. For one thing, who determines how expansive a war must be before the normal rules about protecting civilians are suspended? This just seems to take us down a very slippery slope.

There seems to be a prevalent view in Japan that use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan’s leadership had realized well before the bombing that defeat was close at hand. In a 2015 documentary film, “Rouen to Hiroshima: The Battle of the Skies,” Yuki Tanaka, a professor of history at Hiroshima University, said, “Truman’s argument about using the A-bomb to save over 1 million lives, which was accepted as a reality, in fact is purely a myth. The U.S. had developed the A-bomb as a weapon of dissuasion and a strategic option, and they had to justify using it. If it would have been accepted that this constituted a war crime, they wouldn’t have been allowed to keep it in order to intimidate the Soviets.” 

Another question I’ve pondered: Was there a racist rationale for dropping the A-bomb on Japan rather than Germany? Shamefully, between 110,000 and 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were interned during World War II. A similar injustice was not imposed on the German-American population. From what I was told, many Japanese believe there was racism at work here, though Bronstein noted that the allies also used incendiary bombs against German cities, such as Dresden. Yet, an atomic weapon was only used against Japan. 

There’s been a dramatic shift in American attitudes on this issue. Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll taken in 1945 right after the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki found that 85 percent of Americans approved of using those weapons. Fast forward to 2015, and a survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 56 percent of Americans believe it was justified. Of course, the generation gap is significant: Seven out of 10 Americans 65 years or older say the use of A-bombs was justified, but just 47 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds agree.

I don’t feel qualified to say whether the use of the A-bomb was necessary to bring about a speedy end to the war. But was it morally justified? Since publication of my previous column, I’ve heard from some colleagues who feel certain that not only was it necessary, it was moral, as well. For me, it’s not so black and white.

In principle, I believe that the intentional targeting of civilians, whether with A-bombs or conventional weapons, should be considered both immoral and illegal. Yet, not having lived through the unique circumstances of World War II, I still can’t bring myself to offer a definitive yes or no.

What I do know, however, is that whatever differences of opinion may exist on the questions of necessity and morality, the U.S. and Japan have not allowed the war, or the way it ended, to prevent them from forging an important economic and strategic partnership in the 21st century.

So, bottom line, has my visit to Hiroshima and subsequent consideration of this issue offered me clarity?  Not really. But it has inspired me to learn much more about the Japanese dimension of World War II.

There is a Bell of Peace in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. On it is the inscription: “We dedicate this bell as a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration; let all nuclear arms and wars be gone; and the nations live in true peace…”

To this, at least, I can say with conviction: Amen! 

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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