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Did Japan's Actions During World War II Constitute a Supreme Emergency Triggering the Need for an Atomic Response?

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On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands of people – many instantly, others from the effects of radiation. Death estimates range from 66,000 to 150,000. Declining Support in Both the U.S. and Japan for America's Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This first use of a nuclear weapon by any nation has long divided Americans and Japanese. Americans have consistently approved of this attack and have said it was justified.

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Few issues in American history - perhaps only slavery itself - are as charged as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Was it necessary? Merely posing the question provokes indignation, even rage. Witness the hysterical shouting down of the 1995 Smithsonian exhibit that simply dared discuss the question fifty years after the act. Today, anothe r eleven years on, Americans still have trouble coming to terms with the truth about the bombs.But anger is not argument. Hysteria is not history. The decision to drop the bomb has been laundered through the American myth-making machine into everything from self-preservation by the Americans to concern for the Japanese themselves-as if incinerating two hundred thousand human beings in a second was somehow an act of moral largesse. Yet the question will not die, nor should it: was dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a military necessity? Was the decision justified by the imperative of saving lives or were there other motives involved? The question of military necessity can be quickly put to rest. "Japan was already defeated and dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary." Those are not the words of a latter-day revisionist historian or a leftist writer. They are certainly not the words of an America-hater. They are the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and future president of the United States. Eisenhower knew, as did the entire senior U.S. officer corps, that by mid 1945 Japan was defenseless. After the Japanese fleet was destroyed at Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the U.S. was able to carry out uncontested bombing of Japan's cities, including the hellish firebombings of Tokyo and Osaka. This is what Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, meant when he observed, "The Japanese position was hopeless even before the first atomic bomb fell because the Japanese had lost control of their own air." Also, without a navy, the resource-poor Japanese had lost the ability to import the food, oil, and industrial supplies needed to carry on a World War As a result of the naked futility of their position, the Japanese had approached the Russians, seeking their help in brokering a peace to end the War. The U.S. had long before broken the Japanese codes and knew that these negotiations were under way, knew that the Japanese had for months been trying to find a way to surrender. Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, reflected this reality when he wrote, "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace.the atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan." Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman, said the same thing: "The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender."

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Should political leaders violate the deepest constraints of morality in order to achieve great goods or avoid disasters for their communities? This question poses what has become known amongst philosophers as the problem of dirty hands. There are many different strands to the philosophical debate about this topic, and they echo many of the complexities in more popular thinking about politics and morality. All, however, involve the idea that correct political action must sometimes conflict with profound moral norms. This entry seeks to unravel these strands and clarify the central normative issues about politics that the cry of ‘dirty hands’ evokes. Beginning with an illustrative passage from a renowned 19th century English novel, the essay traces the dirty hands tradition back to Machiavelli, though its present vogue is owed mostly to the writings of the distinguished American political theorist, Michael Walzer (Beiner, Ronald, 2000). Walzer’s views are explored in the light of earlier theorists such as Machiavelli and Max Weber and certain vacillations in his intellectual posture are briefly discussed. This leads to the posing of five issues with which the entry is principally concerned. First, is the dirty hands problem simply confused and its formulation the merest contradiction? Second, does the overriding of moral constraints take place within morality or somehow beyond it? Third, can the cry of dirty hands be restricted wholly or principally to politics or does it speak equally to other areas of life, and, where politics is concerned, do only the principal agents get dirty hands or do their citizens share in the taint? This is the problem of scope. Fourth, how are the circumstances that call for dirty hands best described? Fifth, the dirty hands problem has affinities with the problem raised by moral dilemmas, but the question is: should those similarities be allowed to obscure significant differences? In the course of addressing these issues, the dirty hands challenge is also distinguished from that of political realism, with which it has some affinities, and the resort to role morality to render dirty hands coherent is discussed, as is the issue of the desirability of shaming or punishing dirty hands agents (Aristotle, 1981). The relevance of “threshold deontology” is explored, and it is suggested that much of the point of invoking dirty hands comes from an ambiguous attitude to absolute moral prohibitions, combining a rejection of them with a certain wistful attachment to their flavour.

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Ordinarily, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended the World War II on the Asian continent. More than a power demonstration to Japan, the scenario served as a demonstration of power to the entire world. With it, the United States sent a message of might and martial dominance to all other nations. It also sent the message that having control over atomic power could guarantee the control of a nation over another. This naturally led to a military race between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop bigger and more destructive weapons. Alongside those two countries, all the other major nations also wanted to reach the status of a nuclear nation.

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Archard, David, 2013, “Dirty Hands and the Complicity of the Democratic Public”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 16: 777–790.

Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T.A. Sinclair, revised T.J. Saunders, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Beiner, Ronald, 2000, “Missionaries and Mercenaries”, in Paul Rynard and David P. Shugarman (eds.), Cruelty and Deception: The Controversy over
Dirty Hands in Politics, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press; Australia: Pluto Press, pp. 43–49.

Bradshaw, Leah, 2000, “Principles and Politics”, in Paul Rynard and David P. Shugarman (eds.), Cruelty and Deception: The Controversy over Dirty Hands in Politics, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press; Australia: Pluto Press, pp. 87–99.

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Did Japan's Actions During World War II Constitute a Supreme Emergency Triggering the Need for an Atomic Response?
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