August 1945: Let’s Talk About Terrorism

Nagasaki, Japan. September 24, 1945, 6 weeks a...
Nagasaki, Japan. September 24, 1945, 6 weeks after the atomic bomb attack on that city, the second atomic blast in history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 6, 1945, the United States of America became the first — and, to this day, the only — nation to use atomic or nuclear weapons in actual hostilities (as opposed to testing). The unconditional surrender of Japan quickly followed, bringing an end to World War II.

For 70 years now, the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings have occasioned debate on whether or not those bombings were necessary, and whether or not they were justifiable.

Many World War II veterans  — and others — stand on simple necessity to justify the bombings. A US invasion of Japan’s home islands, they argue, would have entailed a million or more US military casualties, and even more Japanese civilian casualties than are attributed to the atomic attacks.

The argument is facially persuasive.  As of August 1945, my grandfather and my wife’s father were both serving in the US Navy in the Pacific.  There certainly existed a non-trivial likelihood that either or both of them would have died in subsequent battles had the war not ended. For obvious reasons, we’re grateful they came home alive.

The persuasiveness of the argument fades when we consider the facts: Conditional surrender had been on offer since late 1944, the condition being that Emperor Hirohito remain on the throne. The US fought two of the war’s bloodiest battles — Iwo Jima and Okinawa, at a cost of tens of thousands of Americans killed — then unleashed Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan’s civilian population, rather than accept that condition. But once the war was over, Hirohito was allowed to remain Emperor.

That aside, words mean things, and neither our happiness at our ancestors’ survival nor any military argument for insisting on unconditional surrender and dropping atomic bombs to get it changes the character of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Terrorism, per WordNet, is “the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature.” The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings meet that definition in spades.

US president Harry S. Truman  ordered, consciously and with premeditation, the murder of somewhere between 100,000 and 250,000 civilians in pursuit of his political goal of unconditional  Japanese surrender.

Whether or not an act constitutes terrorism doesn’t depend on whether or not its goals are laudable. Every terrorist and supporter of terrorism in history, save a handful of thorough nihilists, has justified his or her atrocities on the basis of the desired outcomes, claiming that a few innocent lives sacrificed now means more innocent lives saved later.

But innocent lives are not ours to sacrifice. Murder is murder and terrorism is terrorism, no matter what nationalist or patriotic colors we wrap them up in and no matter what ribbon of “necessity” we stick atop them.

Even if we accept the “necessity” argument for the murders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they remain something to regret and to mourn, not something to justify or to celebrate.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.




  • Dave

    Don’t forget that the Allies had long practiced “strategic bombing” for years prior to the atomic bombs. Terrorism is part and parcel of how the US govt rolls.

    • Dave,

      True, although some of that strategic bombing was aimed at military targets, with civilian casualties as “collateral damage” rather than as the intended outcome.

      That doesn’t make the civilians any less dead, of course, nor does it make the attackers any less responsible for their deaths.

      But like I said, words mean things: Terrorism involves intentionally attacking civilians for the purpose of creating terror. Not all war crimes are terrorism.

  • stankohls

    We have the transcripts of the meetings between the Japanese Imperial Staff, the military and political leaders, and the Emperor following the firebomb attack which destroyed most of Tokyo in ’45, leaving millions homeless, and over 100,000 dead. The ONLY thing they were concerned about was where to store the medieval armor and weapons that were symbols of Imperial dynastic legitimacy, to keep them safe from destruction. This at the time they were training Japanese women and children to resist the American invaders with sharpened bamboo spears, and to commit hari-kari in the name of the Emperor, rather than surrender.
    The death of so many Japanese civilians was certainly a terrible tragedy, but the responsibility lies at the feet of the Japanese leadership, which refused to consider unconditional surrender, in the name of a medieval god-king, whose main interest was the sex life of the Coronado squid.

    • Who’s this “we” you’re talking about? I certainly have no such transcripts.

      The death of any given person may lie at the feet of many other people in various ways. But it ALWAYS lies at the feet of the person or people who actually carried out the killing. I’m responsible for what I do, as are you. There’s no escaping that.