On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States of America dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing approximately 110,000-210,000 people. The detonations left behind colossal damage in their wake, exposing the two cities and their surroundings to dangerous radiation levels, making the survivors’ lives miserable.
Temperatures near ground zero at the time of detonation soared over 2,982 degrees Celsius, with birds bursting into flames in the air while people crumbled to ash. Some walked around with raw flesh hanging in flaps from their bones. Desperate to deliver themselves from the burning heat, they hurled themselves into nearby canals while women with their jaws torn apart by the blast “screamed incoherently for help.”
Today, Washington condemns several countries with a tone of self-righteousness over what it considers to be ‘war crimes’ and ‘human rights violations.’ However, many of the acts committed by countries condemned by the United States pale in comparison to the atrocities the U.S. committed during World War 2 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki via atomic weapons and in Japan at large via firebombing raids—signature acts of state terrorism.
Memories of the American-inflicted death and desolation in these two cities linger in the world’s collective memory as the possibility of nuclear escalation looms over the war in Ukraine.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the world is the closest it has ever been to global catastrophe, a “moment of unprecedented danger.” U.S. President Joe Biden said in October 2022 that the risk of the world facing an atomic “Armageddon” was at its highest in 60 years.
The president also warned Russia that month, saying that should Russia deploy a “tactical nuclear weapon” in Ukraine, it would be “making an incredibly serious mistake.” U.S. officials privately warned their Russian counterparts about the consequences Russia would face should it launch nuclear weapons at Ukraine, according to reporting from the Washington Post.
Some analysts, notably former CIA director David Petraeus and the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig, called on the U.S. to deploy nuclear weapons against Russia and destroy its troops in such an event.
U.S. warnings to Russia about the risks of using atomic weapons, Washington’s doubling down on its non-proliferation regime vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea, and chatter among prominent experts about militarily responding to a possible Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine all indicate the U.S.’ desperation to overturn the precedent it set by dropping atomic bombs on Japan during the Second World War––a venture it is bound to fail in.
What is the Hiroshima-Nagasaki precedent?
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke about the existence and creation of the U.S.-established precedent during a September 2022 address. However, he did not elaborate further on the details.
The Hiroshima-Nagasaki precedent is a bipartite unwritten rule the U.S. established through its decision to use atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The first postulate of the unwritten two-part rule stipulates that when a country is at war with another, stuck in a situation where the enemy is unwilling to surrender despite suffering massive casualties, and a decisive victory through an invasion or landing could result in greater losses to one’s own troops, then an atomic weapon can be used despite the human cost to force surrender.
The second postulate–a corollary–stipulates that it reasonably follows that because any other methods of forcing the enemy to surrender could, according to the invoker of the precedent, result in more civilian deaths than the casualties of a nuclear detonation, the guilty parties for any civilian deaths in an atomic bombing would be the enemy leadership that is unwilling to surrender and abandon a hopeless war.
The two prongs of the precedent resemble utilitarian justifications former U.S. President Harry S. Truman and many U.S. leaders and thinkers have given for the use of nuclear weapons in Japan—that the detonations were supposedly a justified necessary evil, the most humane of all options, because the alternative could have, according to these proponents of the bombings, resulted in massive American casualties.
Simply put, the precedent stipulates that it is okay for a belligerent to prize military expedience over the moral good when the use of a weapon that violates the moral good reduces military casualties and time to achieve strategic and tactical goals.
The existence of the precedent is frightening as both belligerents in the Ukraine war are locked in a grinding stalemate with limited gains.
Russia has suffered substantial casualties. Ukraine, for its part, despite suffering heavy losses and regular bombardment by Russian forces, has refused to capitulate. The U.S. and Ukraine’s European backers have given Ukraine cluster munitions, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, ammunition, armored vehicles, drones, and even assurances of future fighter jet deliveries to help Ukraine defeat Russia and, if possible, seize Crimea and Russia’s recently annexed regions in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhe.
The West’s objective appears to be making holding territory in Ukraine costly for Russia and battlefield progress deadly, alongside the broader strategic aim of weakening Russia to maximize Western hegemony, chiefly American neo-imperialism, and relative power through diminishing Russia’s role as a potential check and balance capable of challenging the excesses of American power.
Even though scholars like Dr. John J. Mearsheimer have long warned about it, many in the West do not appreciate how their governments’ attempts to help Ukrainian inflict more casualties on Russian forces and the West’s failure to push Ukraine to the negotiating table for a negotiated settlement—one mutually accepted by both parties, with concessions wherever necessary—set the conditions right for Russia to invoke the Hiroshima-Nagasaki precedent reasonably.
By the first postulate of the precedent Russia can reasonably say that if the Ukrainians continue to fight stubbornly, refusing to capitulate, and Russia is likely to incur unbearable casualties in fully conquering Ukraine, then Russian troops can use nuclear weapons to force Ukrainian surrender.
By the second postulate, Russia can say that it reasonably follows that because any other methods of forcing Ukraine to surrender could result in more civilian deaths than the casualties of a nuclear detonation, alongside excessive Russian military casualties, the guilty parties for any civilian deaths in an atomic bombing would be the Ukrainian government that is unwilling to surrender.
One might say Russia cannot invoke such a precedent, citing morality. One could say that there is no precedent at all, claiming that the U.S. had a special privilege to use the nuclear weapons’ morally’ on Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to exceptional circumstances, but other countries like Russia and China cannot use nuclear weapons because they would not make the decisions on moral grounds.
Such assumptions err in that they presume the U.S.’s decision to drop atomic bombs to be ethical and misunderstand how precedents are created in international security.
For an act with collateral damage to be deemed moral, it must adhere to the doctrine of double effect, which regulates military action that risks unintended harm. This doctrine is a valuable tool to evaluate the morality of military action, finding its roots in Catholic social thought—notably Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.
Philosopher Joseph Mangan elaborates this doctrine by laying down four conditions in which an act incurring collateral damage is justified: the act is intrinsically good or indifferent towards civilian casualties—meaning it is not committed with the intent to harm, “the good effect” and not the “evil” side-effect is intended, the “good effect” is not produced through the “evil effect,” and proportionality.
For the act to be justified, all conditions need to be met.
The strategic “good” in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was Japan’s surrender. The evil effect is the devastation and loss of human life wrought by the atomic weapons. Former President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the bombs violates three of the four conditions.
The act was not indifferent to civilian casualties. Truman acted with knowledge of the bomb’s potential. One of the many options the U.S. had and debated on when Truman formed a committee in May 1945 to discuss nuclear weapons was deploying the weapon on an unpopulated area to frighten Japan. Such a decision could have terrified Japan and saved lives. However, the committee found it militarily not expedient, for if the bomb failed, the goal would not be met. Hence, they chose a direct military response, knowing fully the risk of civilian casualties arising from deploying such a powerful weapon, and therefore they were not “indifferent” about the evil effect.
The act also sought to produce the “good effect” through the “evil effect.” This is evidenced by Truman’s response to protestant clergyman Samuel McCrea Cavert, who pleaded with him not to attack Japan again with atomic weapons after Hiroshima: “The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast.”
Truman not only dehumanized the Japanese as a “beast” in this statement but also gave away the fact that he intended to achieve the strategic good by the evil effects of bombarding Japan with nukes, an act he considered to be speaking in the “only language they seem to understand.”
Lastly, the proportion of evil outweighs the strategic good—a violation of the proportionality criterion. The U.S. knew that Japanese leaders were considering surrender before the bombing in light of the U.S.’s ruthless firebombing campaign. In fact, the talk of surrender came as the Soviets also mounted an invasion campaign into Manchuria. Yet, the U.S. desired to prize military expedience over saving lives by disproportionately massacring people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hasten surrender—an act it still refuses to apologize for to this day.
This is not to say morality is valued by states in such security concerns—for, as Dr. Mearsheimer writes in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, when moral concerns conflict with strategic considerations, states would be inclined to pursue the strategic concern and put on an idealist façade to justify their neglect of the moral good. Such has been the U.S.’s modus operandi in the Iraq War, drone strikes, and Vietnam.
As for whether the atomic bombing created a precedent, critics of the idea that the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings established a precedent argue that there is no such legitimate precedent because countries worldwide have denounced the idea of using nuclear weapons. Such a view erroneously assumes that in international security, norms are established by declarations, resolutions, and rhetoric when, in reality, precedents in the security domain are set by the actions of great powers than their words.
Many countries have denounced nuclear weapons, but their condemnation did not stop France, Britain, China, India, and Pakistan from pursuing their own nuclear weapons. Why did they pursue their military nuclear programs? Because the U.S.—through its actions, not words—set a precedent that nuclear weapons are necessary for national security. One might have moral disagreements with atomic weapons, but moral concerns have less sway in national security, where states prize survival over ethical concerns.
By dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, the U.S. set a precedent through its actions. Paradoxically, the U.S.’ attempts to curb the invocation of this precedent through sanctions intended to stop proliferation, and threats over the use of nuclear weapons can inadvertently encourage countries to challenge those attempts, seeing them as they are—attempts to cement the relative power of a dominant hegemon while denying other states attempts to secure asymmetrical power capable of threatening the dominant hegemon’s high relative power.
By harassing and bullying other nations, to stop them following the U.S.-trodden path to developing and fielding atomic bombs, the U.S. indirectly raises serious questions about the uneven playing field of international politics, most importantly why the U.S. was allowed to employ nuclear weapons when it deemed necessary, yet other states are discouraged from doing so when it is in their perceived interests. Is it because the U.S. genuinely cares about peace that it wants to limit nuclear weapons access and use, or does it do so because it wants to entrench its position in the nuclear power monopoly so that it can continue to dominate others, infringe on their interests if needed, and prevent them from retaliation and deploying counter hegemony measures.
The U.S. can attempt to delay the invocation of the precedent. But it cannot permanently prevent it.
The Hiroshima-Nagasaki precedent cannot be unrolled—make no mistake. It may not be invoked in the current Russia-Ukraine war, but that does not mean it would not be invoked in a future conflict. It is only a matter of time before the U.S. witnesses the consequences of the deadly invention it brought to life and deployed in August 1945.