The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (3. Jus in bello)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

3. Jus in bello: The conduct of the war

Ted Grimsrud —12/30/10

Jus in bello criteria

In moral reflection on warfare in the western tradition, generally analysis is broken into two general categories. Political philosopher Michael Walzer describes these categories as follows: “War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt. The first kind of judgment is adjectival in character: we say that a particular war is just or unjust. The second is adverbial: we say that the war is being fought justly or unjustly. Medieval writers made the difference a matter of prepositions, distinguishing jus ad bellum, the justice of war, from jus in bello, justice in war….Jus ad bellum requires us to make judgments about aggression and self-defense; jus in bello about the observance or violation of the customary and positive rules of engagement.”[1]

In chapter two, I looked at the rationale for the U. S. entering the War, the jus ad bellum. I concluded that the basic criteria of “just cause” may arguably be seen as having been met. In the European War, the violence of Nazi Germany provided several bases for warfare being the appropriate response: “an injustice demanding reparation,” “offense committed against innocent third parties,” and “moral guilt demanding punishment,” among others.[2] In the Asian War, Japan provided the key basis for the response of war, “an aggression demanding reparation.”

I did suggest that the American mythology of World War II, established at the very beginning of the U.S. formal entry in the War with Franklin Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech, masks numerous complicating factors that made the “just cause” bases for America joining the War a bit more complicated than the mythology of the “good war” would admit.

The mythology asserts (not inaccurately) that the U. S. had more legitimate causes for going to war in World War II than probably any other war. However, this assertion may actually be making more a statement about the lack of justifiability in going to war in the other cases than the clear justness of entering this particular war. That being said, though, I am willing to accept that as far as the just war tradition goes, even though America’s entry into World War II does not match up perfectly with the traditional criteria—the most obvious tension lies with the crucial criterion of “war must be a last resort”—we do not do violence to just war thought to accept that United States entry into World War II was “just.”

In terms of the outworking of the “good war” mythology, this initial affirmation that going into this war was justifiable seems to end the process of discernment in terms of just war thought (or moral discernment in general). Of course, in the mythology, “justifiable” is a weak term. The Nazis are seen to be the embodiment of evil in the modern world. It of course was “justifiable” to go to war to end their tyranny and save the world from their aggression and remorseless racism. More than “justifiable,” going to war with them was a moral imperative; it was a necessity. The mythology sees the Japanese almost as negatively due to their aggression at Pearl Harbor and the general viciousness with which they attacked China and other countries. At the same time, our antipathy toward the Japanese was (and is) also shaped by racism to a degree not present in the responses to the Germans.[3]

Michael Bess’s useful book, Choices Under Fire,[4] in an admirable fashion rejects the notion that the “justness” of American involvement in World War II (a notion he in the end fully affirms) should lead to an end of moral evaluation of American tactics in the War. Some his critiques disagree. According to historian Eric Bergerud, the key adjective to describe America’s participation in World War II is “necessary.” It was necessary for us to go to war in order effectively to resist the evils of Nazism and Japanese militarism. This “necessity” provides all the moral justification needed; to nitpick at the details of how we actually conducted ourselves in this war threatens to negate the morally exemplary character of American involvement.

Bergerud concludes his sharp critique of Bess’s work this way: “I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would claim to discover moral ambiguity in World War II….The general public in the West does not seem to suffer any major ethical quandary concerning the war. The gut-wrenching argument that Bess sees inside the West concerning the conduct of World War II exists, in my view, between a small number of people in academics against the vast bulk of the population who may regret the violence of the war but do not question for a minute its necessity. Machiavelli, criticized by Bess, was quite right when describing a necessary war as a just war. If World War II was not necessary, no war has been.”[5]

These comments point to several key points in relation to my intensions with the present book. That actions that result in the violent deaths of millions of people (at least half of whom were noncombatants[6]) could be anything but at best “morally ambiguous” seems an obvious truism if the term “morality” is to have meaning at all (and I add the reminder again that the main appeal to Americans to go to war was fundamentally a moral appeal). Bess’s analysis seems like the minimum a morally responsible person could undertake in response to this mass paroxysm of death-dealing violence was call World War II. Of course, the danger in Bess’s enterprise arises when we realize, as Bergerud seems at least implicitly to, that once we honestly raise more questions we have to be open to the possibility that the actions we are considering were in fact immoral.[7]

With this rejection of the validity of a moral discernment in relation to Allied conduct in the War, Bergerud helpfully illustrates the hold that the myth of redemptive violence has on the American consciousness. In light of this myth, it would of course not be surprising that “the general public in the West does not suffer any major ethical quandary concerning the war.” This lack of “suffering ethical quandaries” even though we directly destroyed so much human life (and other parts of creation) is not evidence that hence this obviously was a “necessary and therefore just war” nearly so much as evidence of a powerful moral blind spot.

This moral blind spot, I will argue in Part Two of this present book, has and continues to result in a devastating legacy of American violence throughout the world over the past 65 years. Bergerud’s comments help us see how this could have happened. If we have no ethical qualms about what we did in World War II, and refuse even to consider the possibility of careful reflection on the way we conducted ourselves in that war, how could we not but be vulnerable to military excursion after military excursion, largely unquestioned both in terms of jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria in the years since?

The consideration of conduct in war is, certainly, a difficult endeavor. One of the basic issues points to the heart of the entire question about the relationship between morality and war. On the one hand, as I suggest throughout this book, moral rationales are necessary for mobilizing support for and participation in war—certainly for democracies but also for most other states. We go to war for moral reasons; we justify the wars we have fought in the past for moral reasons.

However, on the other hand, our Western moral tradition has established clear criteria for what is understood to be just conduct in war—some elements of which have become part of international law and the laws of most countries. Underlying these criteria (what I’m referring to as the jus in bello, “justice in war,” right conduct) are moral principles that would require combatant nations to hold back, to limit in some sense their tactics to stay within the parameters of the moral just war criteria.

This is the issue: How much is a nation that has made the commitment to pay the price of warfare going to weaken their chances of winning the war in order to operate within the jus in bello criteria?

Another way of stating this issue is to ask how much evidence do we have that the war leaders in our most democratic and supposedly “Christian” nations (i.e., the United States and Great Britain) self-consciously considered moral concerns as they formulated and put into practice their strategies for fighting World War II (or other recent wars, for that matter)? It does appear, from accounts of how these two nations developed their theories and practices for military bombing and, specifically, the American run up to the use of nuclear weapons on Japan, that moral considerations played virtually no role.[8]

The Americans did voice moral concerns over the British use of area bombing in the war with Germany, and after the Americans joined the war, the United States Air Force focused more overtly on precision bombing of military targets—to great affect. The years of British focus on civilian targets showed little success in slowing down the German war effort. When the Americans joined the effort and focused on disrupting the access of the Germans to their oil supplies, clear damaging of German war capability final occurred.[9] However, the actual decisions to focus on precision bombing in Germany were clearly tactical and not moral. And when it seemed tactically more useful to target large civilian populations for direct attacks, as it did in the Japanese war, the Americans did not hesitate.

The two central elements in most understandings of jus in bello are proportionality (that the damage the war creates not be out of proportion with the good to be achieved by successful prosecution of the war) and non-combatant immunity (that war is to be focused on soldiers fighting soldiers; those who are not fighting the war should not be targets of military aggression). These are the principles that would lead to self-limiting a nation’s war-making activities.

As we do moral reflection on the tactics used in World War II, these two elements provide our basic framework. How do the various tactics cohere (or not) with these two general criteria? We may recognize that states at war do not let these elements, as moral criteria, shape their policy decisions. Given the centrality of these elements in the Western moral tradition, however, such recognition should be part of our questioning the “goodness” of this war. Again, the Western moral tradition provided most of the content for the moral appeal that Allied leaders used to gather support. Was such support appropriate given the failure to operate within the moral tradition in actually fighting the war people were asked to support?

I should mention a further complication in this process of moral discernment. Many writers who advocate for various versions of just war philosophy have recognized the difficulties in applying the principles of proportionality and especially noncombatant immunity to modern wars. Modern wars have decisively broken away from the traditional practice of war that generally did simply involve soldiers directly fighting against soldiers. The advent of air power and numerous other elements of warfare by the time of World War II seemed necessarily to make the distinction between combatants and non-combatants difficult to discern in many cases.

Part of the debate within the just war tradition is how best to apply the noncombatant immunity principle. Some say that any tactic that hurts a significant number of noncombatants violates this principle. Others say that at times the harm caused to noncombatants is inadvertent. Only when belligerents have good reasons to expect that their tactic will harm significant numbers of noncombatants do they become unjust. Yet others, probably the majority, say the key difference lies between deliberately targeting noncombatants as the focus of the tactic vs. focusing on targeting militarily significant targets (even if in this latter case one does expect many noncombatants also to be harmed—this rationale was given for the just-ness of the American bombing of Hiroshima).

In all of these cases, we must recognize that the practical applicability of jus in bello criteria in the midst of war lies pretty exclusively in the hands of the belligerents. It is basically an issue of self-policing.

For my purposes in this book, I examine questions about conduct in light of just war thought not in order to try to evaluate whether the War actually meets the criteria of a proverbial “just war.” I do think that such an evaluation, contrary to the assumptions of those who would say the only issue for drawing conclusions is whether the war was “necessary” or not,[10] to be taken seriously would have to consider jus in bello issues along with jus ad bellum issues.

However, my concern is with our present in the 21st century. It is crucial to consider some of these questions of conduct in order to assess the moral legacy of World War II and our evaluation of the role it has played in our society in the years since the War. If we conclude that the conduct of the War so violates the standards of justice so as to render its moral legacy highly problematic, we must then struggle with the question of whether we need to find other means to address the legitimate problems the War allegedly sought to address (problems of Nazi tyranny and Japanese militarism) and to achieve the legitimate goals articulated in the “Four Freedoms” speech and Atlantic Charter (the principles of self-determination and disarmament).

That is, I argue that Americans had good reasons for supporting going to war in 1941. The critique of the Axis Powers and the articulation of ideals in the Allies “purpose statements” were to important degrees truthful. However, total war, the war we actually fought, and maybe the institution of war in general, simply were not capable of successfully overcoming the problems and of achieving the stated purposes. The War itself provides at best mixed evidence—its execution and immediate impact did overwhelmingly violate the criteria of proportionality and noncombatant immunity. At the same time, the War achieved some good things—most centrally the defeat of Nazism and Japanese imperialism. It is the aftermath of the War in the United States, and in the United States’ role on the postwar world, that make it clear that the moral legacy of World War II is a problem to overcome, not an accomplishment to celebrate (or so I will argue in Part Two below).

Area bombing in the European war

Probably only the debate over the American use of atomic weapons on Japan in August 1945 (to be discussed below) has been more intense in the years since World War II than the debate about the morality (and tactical value) of the bombing strategy followed by the Allies in the European war. To frame the debate in traditional just war terms, this is the question that has been at the center: Did the intentional targeting of major civilian populations in Germany for bombing raids violate the core jus in bello criterion on noncombatant immunity? And, then, how much should that matter? Do the self-apparent evils of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan justify whatever tactics were deemed necessary to subdue the beasts?

Clearly, this question is not simply a post-World War II armchair moralist’s after-the-fact debate. It was stated explicitly as the war began. The precise day that Germany invaded Poland and the European War began, September 1, 1939, President Roosevelt took to the airwaves with an internationally broadcast speech to call upon the belligerents not to target civilians. He feared that “hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities” would be killed. Let the belligerents “affirm [a] determination that [their] armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”[11]

We are challenged today in knowing precisely how to understand Roosevelt’s agenda in uttering these words, given the policies toward Japan that he oversaw. These policies culminated in the greatest violation imaginable of this call “under no circumstances [to bomb civilian populations] from the air” when the atomic bombs obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Almost certainly Roosevelt directed his words in 1939 toward the Nazis as they invaded Poland. He most likely sought to establish a base from which to condemn Nazi atrocities when they inevitably occurred. Regardless, this direct statement by the President of the United States, widely broadcast and stated without qualification, certainly made it clear that in the minds of the leaders of the Allies the taboo against directly targeting “innocent human beings” remained powerfully in their consciousness—and that “bombardment from the air of civilian populations” was seen as a clear example of such a forbidden act.

When Roosevelt gave this call to respect noncombatant immunity, the Royal Air Force (RAF) of Great Britain had been planning ever since World War I to make such “bombardments” a central part of their strategy. Nonetheless, Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister in September, 1939, did seem to have agreed with Roosevelt. He stated to the House of Commons on September 14, “His Majesty’s Government will never resort to the deliberate attack on women and children and other civilians for the purpose of mere terrorism.”[12] However, Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, had no such scruples—as would be reflected in the policies and practices of the RAF throughout the War.

The RAF had been established as an autonomous part of Britain’s military in 1918, near the end of World War I. The leader of the RAF’s bombers at that time and for years following, Hugh Trenchard, believed strongly in bombing civilian targets and sought to implement that policy during World War I. He stated, “The effect of bombing civilian targets would be that the German government would be forced to face very considerable and constantly increasing civil pressure which might result in political disintegration.”[13] The war ended before this policy could be implemented, but the pursuit of such a policy based on Trenchard’s convictions about its likely effectiveness became central for the RAF.

The British had opportunity to test Trenchard’s doctrines in several places in their empire in the interwar years. For example, the RAF bombed Iraqi and Afghani tribes people on several occasions—and met with success in repressing uprisings in those colonies. Significantly, a commander of a bomber force in one of those bombing episodes, Arthur Harris, became the person in charge of RAF bombing of Germany during World War II.[14]

In his discussion of the history of the development of doctrines for the use of air power in warfare for the United States and for Great Britain during the interwar years, philosopher A.J. Grayling demonstrates that the moral considerations seen to be central for just war philosophy simply did not enter into the picture. The differences between the philosophies of the Britons and the Americans lay in understandings of effectiveness, not moral scruples.

The British focused more on civilian bombardment as a tactic because they believed it would lead to military success through demoralizing the enemy’s general population. The American doctrine placed priority on causing enemy collapse by focusing on military targets, especially those having most to do with supplying the enemy’s armies.

The American priority had the same goal as the Brit’s focus on civilian bombing: “To destroy the will of the people at home.” But the best way to “destroy the will of the people” is indirect, disrupting the economy that feeds the war machine. The American strategists argued that a focus on “carefully selected targets,” requiring relatively few bombs, “would snap vital threads in the enemy’s ‘industrial web,’ and as a result secure a quick victor.” These targets may include networks for electricity, transport and oil.[15]

That the focus on precision targeting rather than “area bombing” focused on large population centers was tactical rather than moral for the United States became clear in the war with Japan. Beginning in early 1945, the Americans did not hesitate to bomb Japanese civilian centers, inflicting as much damage on cities there in nine months as the British did in five years of bombing on Germany.

The main weapons Britain had that could be used effectively in war with Germany were its navy and its air force. In the months between the declaration of war in September, 1939, and the actual direct fighting between Britain and Germany that began when the Germans invaded France in May, 1940, the British military chiefs of staffs drew up a strategy for how to defeat Germany. This strategy would focus on three central elements: (1) a naval blockade and other tactics that would greatly reduce access in Germany and the occupied countries to food (as well as other raw materials) that would lead to massive starvation in the general population and hence to demoralization and resistance to their government; (2) use of the bombing of civilian populations to demoralize the population further; and (3) working to encourage subversion against the German government wherever possible.[16]

So, from the very start, the British strategy for defeating Germany relied at its core on strategies that would directly target noncombatants, seeking victory through killing, terrorizing, and dispossessing countless millions.

After France surrendered to Germany in June 1940, the central arena of the war became the air battle between the German Luftwaffe and the RAF known as the “Battle of Britain.” In its “greatest hour,” the RAF staved off the German attack. By September 1940, Hitler decided to turn his focus eastward. Germany abandon its quest to invade Britain and instead took on what Hitler had from the start seen as his ultimate agenda: to crush the Soviet Union. Nobody else knew this at the time, of course, until the Germans sprang their surprise attack on their supposed Soviet ally in June 1941. But the air struggle between September 1940 and June 1941 was essentially a holding action. After June 1941, the Luftwaffe turned its main focus eastward.

At this point, the British faced a dilemma. Though they could stop the Germans from invading them, they did not have the ability to invade the continent in force. Their naval blockade could do some damage (though the main people who suffered directly were non-Germans in occupied territories[17]) and the “Battle of the Atlantic” (the naval conflict between the British and eventually the American navies versus the German navy) raged on but was not central to the viability of the Nazi state and its war-making capabilities. The only real direct way Britain could hit at Germany itself was through the air.

Two major factors limited what the RAF was able to do. One was the inefficiencies of bombing technology at that point in the war. The planes simply were unable to hit their targets with any accuracy. Already in the summer of 1941, Britain’s military studied the efficiency of the bombing. The report, published in August, concluded: “The bombing campaign was a massively wasteful and futile effort….Many bomber aircraft never found their targets at all; even in good weather on moonlit nights, only two-fifths of bombers found their targets, but in hazy or raining weather only one in ten did so. On moonless nights the proportion fell to a helpless one in fifteen. In all circumstances, of those that reached their designated target only a third of them place their bombs within five miles of it.”[18]

The second problem, made more clear during the course of the war, was the RAF’s doctrine that focused on demoralizing enemy civilian populations over targeting specific targets that would undermine the military capabilities of the enemy. After the United States Air Force (USAF) joined the war in 1942, the American strategy focused more on precision bombing, centering especially on oil supplies. Britain, though, continued to attack cities and terrorize the general population. The efforts at demoralization largely failed, especially when considered in light of the costs to the RAF in aircraft shot down and in the expense of making the flights. On the other hand, with greatly improved targeting capabilities by 1944-45, the USAF efforts met with extraordinary success and actually played a major role in severely undermining German war-fighting capability in the final months of the War.[19]

After Germany pulled back on its efforts to defeat the RAF in the summer of 1941, and with Britain’s inability to do much else militarily, even with the knowledge that their bombing attacks were inefficient and ineffective, the RAF embarked on an extraordinary campaign of aerial terrorism. Maybe mostly this campaign emerged simply so that the British military could feel like it was doing something. In taking a moral accounting of these policies, though, we cannot avoid asking whether such a feeling was worth the immense damage done to people who, in Roosevelt’s terms, were “innocent human beings.”

Up until the summer of 1941, though certainly most of Britain’s air attacks had largely hit civilian targets (as had Germany’s), the stated policy was not to target civilian populations. This officially changed on July 9. On that day, Britain’s War Cabinet approved a directive to Bomber Command that switched its focus from oil and navel targets to “destroying the morale of the civil population as a whole and of the industrial workers in particular.” At this point, intentional bombing of civilians became official British practice.[20]

For the next several years, especially after Arthur Harris (a true believer in the victory-through-demoralizing-civilians doctrine) became the head of Bomber Command, the RAF bombed as many German cities as they could. As the bombing continued, its effectiveness gradually improved. By 1944, the tide of the War had clearly turned against the Germans, and the Luftwaffe became less and less effective. With the greatly lessened defense capabilities in Germany, and ever increasing production of bombing materials in Britain and the United States, the RAF greatly expanded its attack on German cities.

Harris developed a list of German cities to be destroyed and set about systematically doing so. The most notorious example was the devastating bombing of the defenseless city of Dresden in February 1945. Dresden had become a magnet for refugees because of its presumed safety given that it had little military significance. As reported by an American prisoner of war, William Spanos, who witnessed the bombing, two sets of British bombers descended on Dresden, dropping an immense tonnage of incendiary bombs during the night followed in the morning by American planes dropping explosive devices.[21] No reliable account of direct deaths caused by the bombing has been universally accepted; estimates range to over 100,000.

Finally the War ended in May 1945, and the bombing stopped. Interestingly, the British government, in the immediate aftermath of the War and in the years to come, did not honor the RAF or Bomber Command for its campaign. When Churchill went on the BBC on May 13, 1945, six days after the German surrender, to address the nation and the world with his victory speech and to name those to whom Britain owed gratitude for the successful war effort, he probably consciously did not mention Bomber Command. When campaign medals were passed out to leaders in the war effort, Bomber Command was passed over. Arthur Harris was denied permission to publish his final report that summarized Bomber Command’s war work.[22]

The alliance with the Soviet Union

One theme that lies at the heart of the issue of “just conduct” in relation to World War II, certainly, is the use of particular tactics that seem to violate the principles of proportionality and the immunity of noncombatants—such as the just discussed use of direct bombing of civilian population centers as a self-conscious act of terrorism meant to undermine the morale of the enemy’s general population. At the end of this chapter on Jus in bello we will return to particular tactics, namely the civilian-focused bombings on Japan that culminated in the destruction of an entire city, Nagasaki, with virtually no direct military significance.

Another theme, that to some extent lay behind the civilian-focused bombings of Japan, is the more general commitment the Allies made to insist on “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers. This commitment to unconditional surrender almost by definition was a commitment to violate Jus in bello concerns. These concerns follow from the premise that the destruction of war should never go beyond the minimum necessary to achieve the requirements of justice. This premise rules out requiring unconditional surrender, instead requiring the belligerents to seek a just peace as soon as possible. I will reflect more on this theme shortly.

However, right now, I will consider another, more general, theme important to our overall concern of assessing the moral legacy of World War II. This assessment is based on taking quite seriously the moral values that were stated by the Allies as the basis for going to war, the values that provided the main rationale for recruitment to the War and for asking for total support for the war effort.

One element of taking these values seriously is to ask how the conduct of the war itself served (or violated) those values. Part of this question has to relate to a huge element of the Allied war effort: the alliance we established with the Soviet Union. Because of our alliance with Soviets, when we consider the conduct that was associated with defeating Germany, we must also keep in mind the conduct of the Soviets—and the values that were served by playing a major role in what turned out to be a victory for the Soviet Union.

This is how historian Michael Bess summarizes the issue in his book examining the “moral dimensions of World War II”: “Great Britain and the United States only succeeded in beating down the evils of Nazism through an alliance, shoulder to shoulder, with a regime that was in many ways equally as vicious as Hitler’s. This simple fact often gets lost, somehow, amid the celebration of the great triumph over the Germans and Japanese. Here, for example, is the way the historian Stephen Ambrose closes his best-selling book Citizen Soldiers: ‘At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which the wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.’ The impression one gets here is that because the citizen soldiers (good guys) best the bad guys (Nazis), then wrong (general badness) did not prevail.

“This is misleading in two ways. First, the overwhelming bulk of the killing of Nazis was not done by citizen soldiers at all, but rather by the soldiers of the Red Army: the ratio is about four German soldiers killed by the Russians for every one killed by the British and Americans. And second, the triumphant powers at the end of World War II included one of the most ruthless, pathologically murderous regimes in the history of humankind: our Soviet allies. Badness was actually having a very good day on May 8, 1945.”[23]

Bess concludes his treatment of the moral conundrum with this comment: “The great victory on the Eastern Front presents an awe-inspiring, and simultaneously horrifying, spectacle: a complex picture rather far from the straightforwardly ticker-tape jubilation that we usually associate with V-E Day. Soviet bravery, Soviet resourcefulness, Soviet ruthlessness, Soviet mass murder; the suffering of the Russian people, a suffering unlike anything else in this war except perhaps that of the Chinese and the Jews;[24] a will to survive, a will to revenge; a war machine that absorbed the frightful impact of German power and then struck back, smashing its enemy; a nightmare state, led by a cunning and remorseless man, looming over world politics in 1945, casing shadow where there might have been hope.”[25]

That the Allies entrance into an alliance with the Soviet Union was morally problematic seems clear on several levels. The Soviets shared virtually nothing of the stated values of the United States and Great Britain. Roosevelt clearly meant his “Four Freedoms” speech to establish an absolute contrast between American values and those affirmed by Nazi Germany, and his speech was intended to bolster support for furthering the struggle against Germany. Likewise with the stated values that lay at the heart of the Atlantic Charter. Yet, the Soviet Union stood as an antithesis to those stated values just as much as did the Nazis.

Many of the details of the mass killings in the Soviet Union—the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, for example, and the terrible purges that led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands[26]—were not widely known in 1941. However, enough surely was known to make it clear that Joseph Stalin and his police state embodied an utter disregard for human life. If the true enemy in the War was the spirit of Nazism—the tyranny, the threatened obliteration of Western civilization, the implacable threat to democracy—how would this “enemy” be defeated should, through alliance, we actually serve to empower a parallel spirit, the spirit of Stalinism?

We saw in the previous section that the tactics of our British allies at times crossed the line and overtly violated the criteria for the just conduct of war. Much, much worse were the tactics of the Soviets in the War. Certainly, in a fundamental sense, the Soviet war against the Nazis satisfied “just cause” criteria. The Soviet Union was attacked, viciously and unjustifiably, in an overt war of conquest. The Soviets had a far stronger case for “just cause” than the British and the Americans. And, whereas Hitler always expressed an element of respect for Anglo-American culture and a desire to co-exist, he had made it clear from the start that he viewed the Russian and other Slavic peoples as lesser humans, that he had utter hatred for Communism, and he went to war to conquer and dominate the Soviet Union. The people of the Soviet Union were literally fighting for their very existence (which made the German task much more difficult—enough Soviet people hated Stalin that with an approach more accommodating to the people of the Soviet Union the Nazis surely would have had many of those people join their efforts).

Nonetheless, the tactics of the Soviets utterly violated the jus in bello criteria—partly, of course, because the tone set by the Nazi invaders was one of utter brutality. However, even before the Nazis turned on the Soviets, in the early months following the defeat of Poland, Stalin had ordered the cold-blooded murder of around 4,000 Polish military officers and around 10,000 Polish intellectuals and societal leaders.[27]

After the Soviets turned back the Nazi onslaught (an incredible feat of perseverance and courage), they began an inexorable march toward Berlin. This campaign was carried out without restraint or moral compunction.[28] Rape and pillage, terror and retribution were the order of the day. Those of us who recoil with horror at the atrocities of the Nazis may find a bit of grim pleasure in learning about the payback. However, the Soviet conduct in the campaign to drive the Nazis back to Berlin in utter defeat stands as a paradigmatic case of unjust conduct in warfare.

We must agree, of course, that the United States and Britain do not bear responsibility for the Soviet conduct. That this conduct was reprehensible and undermines any claims that the Soviets fought a “just war” is not a direct indictment of all those in alliance with the Soviets. Nonetheless, there is still a sense in which we Americans are stained by the Soviet behavior as we did directly benefit from their defeat of the Nazis. More importantly, for the purposes of my overall argument in this book, that the major (by far) element of defeating Germany involved the egregious violations of the values for which we claimed to fight, leaves us with questions about the “goodness” of this war. The role of the Soviets in “our” victory gives us more cause to question whether the moral legacy of this war might be as positive as our nation’s mythology portrays it (and, again, let’s note the near invisibility of the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis in many popular American and British accounts of the War).

There is another important point to note that underscores the problematic element of our alliance with the Soviets. The Allies’ stated agenda for the War was to defeat tyranny and further democracy (“self-determination” in the Atlantic Charter) and disarmament. However, the victory by the tyrannical Soviet Union and the resultant dominance granted the Soviets over hundreds of millions in Central and Eastern Europe hardly furthered that agenda. In fact, one could even argue that the outcome of the War for that region direct defeated the Allies’ agenda.

We may use Poland as an example. The Poles were under threat from the Nazis in 1939. Britain and France committed themselves to go to war with Germany should Poland be violently aggressed upon. Germany attacked and war was declared—and Britain and France did little to stop Germany’s conquest. Poland then became a major scene of battle after battle and the object of incredible atrocities, both toward ethnic Poles and millions of Polish Jews. When the War ended, six years later, Poland’s population was decimated twice over—one-fifth of the people in Poland had been killed, countless others wounded, dispossessed, and deprived of livelihoods.[29] Then, in the end, even though the powers who had gone to war on Poland’s behalf defeated the Nazis, Poland ended up forcibly annexed into the Soviet Empire.

So, if we were to take Poland’s fate as our basis for evaluating this war, we would have to say that the War was an utter failure. It was not a “Good War,” but a bad war, the worst imaginable war. In the same of “self-determination,” tens of millions of Poles were killed, the country was devastated—and Poland found itself in 1946 with anything but “self-determination.”

As we reflect on the American/British/Soviet alliance and its relevance to our concern with the moral legacy of World War II, we turn back to the purpose statements (Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech and the Atlantic Charter). These statements serve as our basis for evaluating the War. We would all agree that war is a terrible thing, that it must accomplish some high good in order to be worth its enormous costs. These purpose statements give us one set of “goods” that we can use to measure where this need for a greater good was in reality achieved. And as we do this measuring, we must be willing to face the hard questions, the pieces of evidence that challenge whether the goals have been achieved.

If we are honest, we will admit that the war versus the tyrannical Nazis was mostly won by the equally tyrannical Soviet Unions (remember Bess’s point above that for every German soldier killed by the British and American forces, four German soldiers were killed by the Soviets). And, we will also admit—because this follows directly from the point I just made—that probably the largest beneficiaries of this victory verses the tyrannical Nazis were the equally tyrannical Soviets. Certainly, we will find it difficult to see much benefit that Great Britain gained from the War—the Britons basically bankrupted themselves, set themselves up to lose their empire, and became essentially a junior partner to the American Empire.

Another irony from this outcome, that I will develop more fully in Part Two below, may be seen in the way the Soviet/American alliance evolved into the Soviet/American “Cold War.” American policy makers made the terrible mistake of interpreting the Soviet Union more in terms of Marxist ideology than in terms of Russian Czarist history and of an understanding of actual Soviet intentions and practices.[30] So Americans mistakenly understood the Soviets to be bent on world conquest (a direct projection onto the Soviets of Nazi characteristics). This projection by American policymakers then underwrote the disastrous Cold War.

Unconditional surrender

Surely, the amount of persuasion required to get a nation to support an all-out war shapes the type of conduct that the nation will practice during the war. Given the reluctance of the American people and many Congressional representatives to get behind Roosevelt in his push for military intervention in the conflicts with Germany and Japan, it was inevitable that the supporters of intervention would pull out all stops in their efforts to win the public relations battle. So, the rhetoric emphasizing the extreme evils of the Axis powers powerfully shaped the perceptions of the policy-makers, the warriors, and the general public.

As we have seen, even with the intense propaganda campaign, Roosevelt only felt free openly to pursue war policies following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech on December 8, 1941, set the tone for the prosecution of the War: “The United States of American was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with the government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific….Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again….I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”[31]

We are in the right, Roosevelt states. Our enemy’s attack was unprovoked and dastardly. We are committed to absolute victory and to making certain that such treachery shall never again threaten us. These sentiments certainly, from the start of the war with Germany a few days later, characterized American rhetoric in relation to the war in Europe.

The American people, as a whole, thus received a powerful message, insistently argued and continually reinforced, that their enemies needed to be crushed. Interspersed with the calls to work for absolute victory that would forever eliminate the Nazi and imperial Japanese threats, though, Americans also continually were reminded the of righteousness of their own nation, often linked with America’s moral and spiritual values. So, while we are engaged in a battle to the death, it is not simply a battle for power and domination. We are fighting on behalf of values, moral imperatives—the types of ideals expressed in the “Four Freedoms” and Atlantic Charter.

In short steps, we moved from the rhetoric calling for Americans to join the battle to save Western Civilization to the need to fight all out for an absolute victory and finally to the insistence that this war must conclude with the unconditional surrender of our enemies. However, at the heart of the insistence on unconditional surrender—and the means that would be required to achieve that outcome—lay serious tensions with the general sensibility of the just war tradition and, specifically, the jus in bello criteria. As such, the demand for unconditional surrender stood in tension with the stated moral values the War was based upon.

In fact, just war thought opposes the insistence on unconditional surrender. At its core, the just war view assumes that requirement to wage war in ways that limit the damage as much as possible, that always make the outcome of peace possible, and that allow the belligerents to stop their fighting as soon as they can after they achieve their purposes—and those purposes cannot be the complete annihilation of the enemy.[32] The jus in bello criteria assume the goal to achieve peace with as little damage as is required to do so, not to crush the enemy.

One of the reasons why requiring unconditional surrender is morally problematic is that to achieve that extreme outcome requires inflicting immense damage on the enemies to bring them to the point of utter obeisance—and such immense damage surely violates the criterion of proportionality and almost surely violate the criterion of noncombatant immunity. As well, should the requirement for unconditional surrender be communicated to the enemy (as it would have to be in order to have any influence over the situation), such a demand actually diminishes the enemy’s incentive to find ways to accommodate and establish a peace prior to their obliteration. If we will have no voice in the terms to be established should we surrender, what motivation would we have to find ways to end the fighting sooner?

Roosevelt made his insistence on unconditional surrender official early in 1943 when British and American leaders held a summit conference in Casablanca, Morocco. This was how Roosevelt stated it in the press conference at the end of the meeting: “Peace can come to the world only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power. Some of you Britishers know the old story—we had a general called U.S. Grant. His name was Ulysses Simpson Grant, but in my, and Prime Minister Churchill’s, early days he was called ‘Unconditional Surrender’ Grant. The elimination of German, Japanese, and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan. That means a reasonable assurance of future world peace. It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy, or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other peoples.”[33]

As it turned out, the insistence on unconditional surrender, especially in the war with Japan, did directly “mean the destruction of the population” of that country—as it did with Germany to only a somewhat lesser degree. In both cases, by the end of 1944 that the Allies were going to defeat the two Axis powers had become clear. For example, both Germany and Japan had by this time lost the ability to defend their countries from Allied aerial attacks. Yet both Germany and Japan fought on—surely in part because they had no incentive to surrender at that point in order to seek better terms. The “unconditional surrender” commitment precluded that possibility (though apparently at least the Japanese did nonetheless put peace feelers out to the U.S. through the Soviet Union—which had not yet joined the war against Japan—that were rebuffed by the Americans).

The British RAF in Europe greatly intensified its air attacks on German cities during the final few months of the war—with virtually no resistance from the German Luftwaffe.[34] The USAF only began bombing Japan’s cities at the end of 1944. In the nine months remaining in the war, the Americans dropped roughly the same number of tons on Japan as did the Britons and the Americans combined drop on Germany during the entire course of the War. I will say more about the destruction of Japan in relation to the jus in bello criteria in the next section.

The main rationale for the grotesque destruction visited on these defenseless civilian populations after the outcome of the War had been decided stemmed from the “need” for unconditional surrender. This was the basic idea: “We must bomb them, kill their people, show their utter helplessness before our onslaught so they will finally simply stop and surrender, without conditions.”

Roosevelt’s announcement of the “unconditional surrender” policy at the Casablanca Conference actually went against the instincts of Churchill and caught the latter by surprise. Roosevelt harkened back to the ending of World War I. That war ended without a decisive crushing of Germany’s ability to recover its war-making capacities. So when Roosevelt insisted on unconditional surrender as the Allies’ policy, he intended to make sure that history would not repeat itself. If Germany was utterly defeated (and likewise Japan), that would leave no bases whatsoever for a new version of the stab-in-the-back claims that sustained Germans in their beliefs that they had not truly lost World War I.

Roosevelt’s statement about unconditional surrender also pre-empted controversy in Congress over the goals of the war. He settled that debate before it ever started. Roosevelt also seemingly hoped to use this statement as a means of giving Stalin some satisfaction in light of Stalin’s constant requests for the western Allies to open a second front against the Germans and thereby take some of the pressure off the eastern front. By expressing his commitment to harsh, even brutal, treatment of the Axis, Roosevelt hoped to pre-empt temptations Stalin might have entertained to seek a separate peace with the Germans. With this commitment to staying with the War until the utter defeat of the Axis, the western Allies assured Stalin that they would not be tempted themselves to seek a separate peace.

Roosevelt’s declaration had a huge impact on the direction the War would henceforth take. Churchill’s reluctance to agree with Roosevelt’s position did not come from any differences concerning the desire to avoid a new stab-in-the-back myth among the Axis or the value in mollifying Stalin—and certainly not because Churchill was more reluctant than Roosevelt to countenance brutality. Rather, Churchill recognized seemingly more than Roosevelt that by insisting on unconditional surrender, the Allies would greatly increase the likelihood of the Axis fighting to the bitter end with attendant enormous costs for everyone leading to a level of devastation that could serve to foster future conflicts.

Churchill feared that the Axis would interpret Roosevelt’s statement as a commitment by the Allies not only to destroy the Axis armies but also their very societies. In fact, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels did seek to exploit Roosevelt’s statement in warning Germans of the Allies’ intent to conquer and then enslave them. As James Carroll states, “‘Unconditional surrender’ meant that the enemy would no reason to mitigate the ferocity of its resistance. It was an invitation to the Germans and the Japanese, as their likely defeat came closer, to fight back without restraint, preferring to take their chances even with the brutally immoral tactics of a last stand rather than to accept defeat at the hands of an enemy refusing to offer any terms whatsoever.”[35]

Another effect of Roosevelt’s demand for unconditional surrender was to undermine Hitler’s internal opponents who had been scheming for some time how to overthrow their Fuhrer. They could no longer hope for concessions from the Allies should they take such a step. A number of these opponents proceeded anyhow with an ill-fated attempt to assassinate Hitler. But the potential of their movement to gain wider support was severely weakened. In Carroll’s words: “The Casablanca declaration helped protect the Führer from the rational and pragmatic element among his own staff. It reinforced the fanatics.”[36] As part of this reinforcement, the forces within Germany committed to the Final Solution with regard to the mass murder of Jews probably were empowered.

Carroll suggests, “even if Roosevelt and Churchill at that point did not know the full horror of the genocide, they knew by the time of Casablanca that the systematic and industrialized murder of Jews was underway. They knew, in other words, that Germany, under Hitler, was embarked on an extraordinary barbarity. For the remainder of the war, Roosevelt and other leaders insisted that the best rescue of Jews as the quick and complete defeat of the German military, but from ‘unconditional surrender’ forward, that was, in fact, the only real option the Allies had.”[37] That is, Roosevelt’s policy made any attempt to negotiate a cessation of the mass murdering much less possible.

Even it we may agree that it was unlikely that the Germans would have been capable of negotiating such a cessation, we still should note that certainly the unconditional surrender policy did serve to extend the War many months. “The extremities of the war’s denouement and the delay of the war’s end enabled the Nazi death machine to do its worst. The policy of unconditional surrender, that is, guaranteed that the war would last long enough for the genocide nearly to succeed. The last savage months of war in Europe saw the deaths of millions of people, not merely the defeat of the Nazi war machine.”[38]

As it turned out, one of the likely motivations Roosevelt had in making this declaration turned out to be ill founded. Stalin had been unable to attend the Casablanca conference. Perhaps had he been there, Roosevelt would not have taken the step he did, because Stalin turned out to be opposed to the unconditional surrender policy. Stalin told Roosevelt ten months later at the summit meeting in Tehran that it would have been better to allow for some conditions. Even the harshest conditions would have made shortening the war more possible. Tragically, by working under the constraints of Roosevelt’s policy, the Soviet Union lost about one million soldiers in the final months of their conquest of Germany.[39]

By insisting on unconditional surrender at what turned out to be about halfway into the War, Roosevelt increased the intensity of the violence. He insured that from now on the violence would not be limited by any restraint from the Allies but only by the eventual full defeat of the Axis powers. Part of the tragedy of this turn toward more extreme violence is that Roosevelt likely was not truly aware of the impending extraordinary increase of death-dealing capabilities that were on the near horizon due to exponential growth in Allied military technology.

As Carroll describes it: “Technological revolutions were even then redefining the meaning of ‘totality.’ This time, because of those technologies, the momentum of war unleashed by both the rhetoric and the decisions of Casablanca would be accelerated in ways no one could have imagined. The point is that Roosevelt’s declaration, whether or not it marked an unconscious shift toward the pure, vengeful violence of a latent victor, prepared the way for such total violence, wreaked as always by war’s own impersonal logic, but also by diabolical human inventiveness as never before.”[40] The most destructive of these innovations was the creation of the atomic bomb—still in its very early stages at the time of Casablanca.

The conclusion, in the context of World War II, of the combination of Roosevelt’s declaration and the technological revolutions came in August, 1945.

The destruction of Japan

Japan’s surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (an American colony at the time; Hawaii did not become a state until 1959) was a remarkable success at the time. The Americans were taken totally by surprise and suffered extraordinary damage to their Pacific fleet, which they had relocated to Pearl Harbor in the late 1930s, a move the Japanese felt was intentionally provocative.

The Japanese matched the attack on Pearl Harbor with several other aggressive acts that indeed staggered the American forces. Japanese leaders knew their only hope in military conflict with the massively more powerful forces of the United States lay in striking early and decisively, and hoping that by doing so they would hurt the Americans badly enough that the Americans would quickly choose to make a peace that would be suitable for Japan’s interests.

As it turned out, brilliant as this first strike was for Japan, it ended up being an utter disaster, leading to the worst of possible outcomes. The Japanese war leaders badly misread the Americans. Instead of collapsing in the face of the horrendous blow of Pearl Harbor, that act of aggression galvanized American sentiment and energy and focused American energies on crushing the Japanese upstarts. Once the United States gained its equilibrium and unleashed the overwhelming war industry, the defeat of Japan became inevitable.

It took awhile, though, for the tide to turn. The first several months following the December 7, 1941, attacks saw the Japanese pushing the Americans ever further out of the Pacific combat arena—most notably driving American troops led by General Douglas MacArthur out of their occupation of the Philippines. Partly the American setbacks were the result of the extreme damage the Japanese had done to the American naval forces. However, it was also the case that the Roosevelt administration all along had its sights more focused on the war in Europe. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had done Roosevelt the favor of utterly transforming American public opinion and the sentiment of Congress. Whereas non-interventionists had continually stymied Roosevelt’s desires to get American more involved in combating the Nazis, after Pearl Harbor virtually all opposition to intervention instantly evaporated. From December 1941 on, Americans’ support for their nation’s full commitment to fighting in World War II scarcely flagged.

However, the administration’s focus of this commitment first of all centered on the war in Europe. While the naval forces were being rebuilt, the American military began a fairly gradual process of turning the tide against the Japanese, a process that gathered steam as the resource base strengthened and as the tide in the European war turned against the Nazis.

The American strategy to defeat the Japanese centered on driving the Japanese forces eastward, island by island, culminating in attacks on the Japanese homeland. Roosevelt made clear with his “unconditional surrender” doctrine that these attacks would have as their goal the utter defeat of the Japanese war effort and the elimination of the Japanese war party from its role in leading the country.

Though the Japanese fought tenaciously, they simply did not have the firepower and resources successfully to resist the ever-expanding American war machine. It took just about three years of struggle, though, before the Americans were ready to begin a serious assault on the Japan homeland itself. November 1944 was when long-range attacks commenced, but they did not reach full operation until March 1945—by which point the Japanese ability to resist air attacks was virtually nil. The Americans were free mostly to attack as much as they wanted and wherever they wanted.

By this time, the United States had reached the point of inevitable victory in the war. The issues at stake in the attacks on Japan itself were not about deciding the winner of the War; the issues were rather about the nature of the American victory. With the commitment to unconditional surrender, coupled with a strong emotional conviction about avenging the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American forces sought to sustain heavy air attacks and either achieve unconditional surrender without the need of a ground invasion of Japan or, if failing that, at least severely weaken Japan’s “will to resist” the invasion when it came.[41]

With this commitment to full-scale bombing of Japan, the 1939 comments of Roosevelt opposing the targeting of civilian populations were long forgotten. Roosevelt had stated then, in a radio address broadcast in Europe, he was afraid “hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities would be killed. [The world’s nations should determine] that their armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities.”[42]

A more accurate public statement reflecting Roosevelt’s true sentiments came early in 1944 (after several years of RAF bombing of civilian targets in Germany and with the American bombing of civilian targets in Japan being planned). A small furor had erupted in the United States with the publication of British pacifist Vera Brittain’s sharp condemnation the RAF practices. Numerous American political leaders rebuked Brittain’s essay. Under-Secretary of State for War Robert Patterson condemned her for “giving encouragement to the enemy.” Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, labeled Brittain a purveyor of “sentimental nonsense.” Then a statement from Roosevelt himself acknowledged his “distress and horror” at the “destruction of life,” but insisted that only by compelling the enemy to back down through the bombing could lives truly be saved.[43]

The centerpiece in the American strategy once the way was cleared to begin aerial assault on Japan was precisely the tactics Roosevelt had spoken against in 1939: “bombardment from the air of civilian populations [and] unfortified cities.” The actual orders given to the USAF commanders stated that their mission was “disruption of railroad and transportation system by daylight attacks, coupled with destruction of cities by night and bad-weather attacks.” In the actual event, the focus from the start was on attacking the civilian population. The actual bombing of railroads had only just begun when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.[44]

The campaign that began in March focused on cities. The first major step came in March with nighttime bombing of four major Japanese cities—Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. These cities each were made up mainly of wooden structures, and the bombings had the expressed purpose of creating overwhelming firestorms with incendiary bombs. The defenselessness of these cities may be seen in the American ability to fly at extraordinarily low altitudes and the decision to strip the planes of their guns in order to allow them to carry more bombs—they had nothing to fear from counterattacks.

On March 9, 1945, the first of these attacks was unleashed on Tokyo. The Japanese capital had 1,667 tons of incendiary bombs dropped on its most densely populated areas. The bombs created a ferocious firestorm that left over 85,000 people dead. The other three major cities then received among them over 9,000 tons of incendiary bombs and experienced death and destruction parallel to Tokyo’s.

This campaign continued from March until the end of the War in August. Grayling reports: “In all, according to the US Strategic Bombing survey for the Pacific theater, nearly half of the built-up areas of sixty-six Japanese cities was destroyed. Adding the casualties from the atom-bomb attacks, a total of 330,000 people were killed and a further 460,000 injured. ‘The principal cause of civilian deaths,’ says the US Survey, ‘was burns.’”[45]

After several months of massive bombing of these essentially defenseless cities, the Japanese leaders had still not acquiesced to the demands for unconditional surrender. Probably the main factor preventing surrender was that many in Japan did strongly desire one condition—that their emperor, Hirohito, not be removed from his position. As events proved, when Japan did finally offer their unconditional surrender, the Americans actually allowed Hirohito to remain emperor (and avoid punishment as a war criminal)—but only after the war ended; the Americans were not willing to relent on their principled demand for unconditional surrender.

The tactic that the United States war leaders settled on finally to crush Japanese resistance was to use their new mega-weapon: two atomic bombs, dropped without warning on cities of Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 8). Some people around the world, including presumably Japan’s military leaders, were aware of rumors that some kind of super weapon may have been in the works. The Americans involved in the “Manhattan Project,” the effort to create these new weapons, had managed to a remarkable degree to keep their work secret. No one else knew for sure that the bombs had been created and were ready for deployment. U.S. President Harry Truman, who had come into the office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945, himself did not know about the impending usability of these bombs until after becoming president.

The first bomb, on Hiroshima, shocked the world in its instant and massive destruction. Unlike with previous bombings excursions that destroyed so many Japanese cities—incredibly deadly and destructive though they were, here there was no warning at all for the population of Hiroshima until the bomb hit because it came from just one small plane, not a legion of bombers that delivered the massive bombings of conventional incendiaries and explosives. Hiroshima did, arguably, have military significance. It was the location of various arms manufacturers. The second bomb, on Nagasaki, came as a bigger shock in some ways, because Nagasaki had no military significance. With this attack, clearly, the bombing had the direct intent of killing tens of thousands of noncombatants and destroying a major and beautiful Japanese city.

When the Japanese leadership did accept the American demands for unconditional surrender on August 10, 1945, many Americans and other supporters of the Allied war effort rejoiced at the use of these new weapons. The nuclear weapons effectively brought Japanese resistance to an end, short of a ground invasion that seemed like the next step to gain the required unconditional surrender.

American dissenters voiced concern right from the beginning, however. Certainly anyone who would have opposed crossing the line into overt, direct mass killing of noncombatants in the RAF’s area bombing of Germany and USAF’s area bombing of Japan, would have seen the bombing of Hiroshima and especially Nagasaki as simply carrying an inherently immoral tactic to an ever greater extreme.

There were some as well, who recognized that even if these bombs directly killed about the same number of people as the fire-bombing of Tokyo, they opened the door to an entirely new set of problems. I will reflect more on that set of problems and the long-term impact of entering and immediately militarizing the atomic age in Part Two of this book. For now, it is enough simply to note the direct connection between the American participation in World War II and the opening of the nuclear Pandora’s box. We cannot reflect morally on the nuclear age over the past 65 years without including such reflection under the rubric of reflection on the moral legacy of World War II.


[1] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 21.

[2] These criteria are listed by John Howard Yoder in his outline, “Criteria of the Just-War Tradition,” in When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996), 151.

[3] See John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1987).

[4] Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Knopf, 2006).

[5] Eric Bergerud, “Critique of Choices Under Fire,” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society 9.4 (March/April 2008), 41.

[6] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 18-19.

[7] Michael Burleigh’s Moral Combat: A History of World War II (London: Harper Collins, 2010), purports to be working on the level of moral analysis, but in reality its approach echoes Bergerud’s and hence the book is not an example of honest moral reflection. Burleigh’s agenda is apologetics—to show that the Allies were “moral”—not genuine moral reflection that treats moral values as stable notions that we seek to apply equally to all sides (as suggested by Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 [Penguin Books, 2006], 63-64).

[8] On the general philosophy of air war as it shaped policies for Great Britain and the United States, see A. J. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan (New York: Walker and Company, 2006). For the American run up to bombing Hiroshima and Nagaski, see James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

[9] Grayling, Among, 109.

[10] I should note here, though, that I don’t think the issue of “necessary” is open and shut. See chapter two above. For an interesting case that indeed World War II was not necessary, see Patrick J. Buchanan, Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).

[11] Quoted in A. J. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII  Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan (New York: Walker & Company, 2006), 148-49.

[12] Quoted in Grayling, Among, 149.

[13] Quoted in Grayling, Among, 131.

[14] Grayling, Among, 132.

[15] Grayling, Among, 136.

[16] J.R.M. Butler, Grand Strategy: September 1939–June 1941 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1957), 209-15. Cited in Nicolson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 188.

[17] Former President Herbert Hoover led relief efforts to save the lives of starving people in Europe. He harshly condemned the blockade in October 1941 in a radio address: “There were about forty million children in the German-invaded democracies, he said, and the blockade was killing them. Their pleas for food ascend hourly to the free democracies of the west. America was now, by failing to compel England to change its policy, a moral participant in the blockade. Is the Allied cause any further advanced today as a consequence of this starvation of children? Are Hitler’s armies any less victorious than if these children had been saved? Are Britain’s children better fed today because these millions of former allied children have been hungry or died? Can you point to one benefit that has been gained from this holocaust?” (Quoted in Baker, Human, 411).

[18] Grayling, Among, 46.

[19] “Before bombing attacks on the oil infrastructure began in May 1944, Germany was producing an average of 316,000 tons a month. Bombing caused production to fall to 107,000 tons in June, 1944, and 17,000 tons in the following September. Aviation fuel from synthetic-oil plants fell from 175,000 tons in April 1944 to 30,000 in June and then to 5,000 tons in September.” (Grayling, Among, 109).

[20] Quoted in Grayling, Among, 47.

[21] William V. Spanos, In the Neighborhood of Zero: A World War II Memior (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 90-125.

[22] Grayling, Among, 176.

[23] Bess, Choices, 167-68. Another popular example of the lack of attention to the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis and the glorifying of the victory as a vindication of the American way of life is Ken Burns’ film series, The War. An important virtue of Norman Davies’ one-volume history of the defeat of the Nazis, No Simple Victory, is that seeks to give the Soviet role its proper weight.

[24] Bess should have included the Poles here as well, especially in light of a number of references he has to the several atrocities Poles suffered at the hands of the Soviets (and Nazis) during the War. Fully 20% of the Polish population of 1939 was killed by 1945—Judt, Postwar, 18.

[25] Bess, Choices, 178.

[26] See Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[27] Bess, Choices, 175.

[28] For a concise account see “Red Storm in the East: Survival and Revenge,” in William I. Hitchcock, The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (New York: Free Press, 2008), 131-69.

[29] Another terrible irony of this series of events is that while the Poles lost one in five of their population, the imperial power that had “guaranteed” their security versus the Nazis, Great Britain, lost only one in 125 of its population—Judt, Postwar, 18.

[30] For an account of the utter failure of American intelligence to gather reliable information about the actual Soviet Union, a failure that left American policy to be based upon the paranoid fantasies of our leaders, see Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (New York: Anchor Books, 2008).

[31] Quoted in H. W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 472.

[32] “Destruction of enemy regimes [is] not in [itself a] valid end,” Yoder, When War is Unjust, 152.

[33] Quoted in H. W. Brands, Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 526.

[34] In 1943, Britain dropped 180,000 tons of bombs on Germany; in 1944 it was 474,000 tons; in the first several months of 1945, it was at a rate that would have totalled 724,000 over the course of a year.—Grayling, Among, 104.

[35] James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 8.

[36] Carroll, House, 9.

[37] Carroll, House, 10.

[38] Carroll, House, 11.

[39] Carroll, House, 12. These Soviet losses in this short time were two and a half times more deaths than suffered by the American military in the entire War, both with German and Japan—David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 856.

[40] Carroll. House, 12.

[41] Grayling, Among, 76.

[42] Quotes in Grayling, Among, 148-49.

[43] Grayling, Among, 203.

[44] Grayling, Among, 76.

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1 Comment

Filed under Just War thought, Militarism, Pacifism, U. S. foreign policy, World War II

One response to “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (3. Jus in bello)

  1. I am confused by your choice of criteria for “moral” war. You stated in the introduction your belief in “one” kingdom. I assume you mean that Jesus is Lord of all, believers and non-believers. Why then do not the teachings of Jesus define “moral”?
    I do however agree with your attention to the huge changes in American national goals that were occasioned by the war, and the conduct of the war. You rightly emphasize the turn toward American Empire, business and political reasons coated in a layer of American righteousness, and the hope of “salvation/democracy” for those oppressed by tyranny.
    I look forward to see your “one kingdom” alternative and how it relates to Christ’s Body today. I wonder where you put such initiatives as CPT, the New Monastic movement, and other movements that see Jesus continuing redemption related to the Body of Jesus today, and Body life today? How do we pray and act: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven”?

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