Not Just War: How Hiroshima Became a War Crime


Fritz Bilfinger spent the Second World War as a liaison of the International Committee of the Red Cross. His job was prevailing upon the Japanese government in Tokyo to respect the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of Allied prisoners of war (POWs). On August 29, 1945, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent him on a fact-finding mission to Hiroshima, where he found a no man’s land “filled with the stench of corpses.” Where a bustling downtown had once straddled the Ota River now stretched a zone of total destruction two kilometers wide, with structures 10 kilometers further out battered, broken, and burnt out. Three weeks after “Little Boy” exploded above the now-skeletal dome of Sea Hospital, a MASH unit and the Red Cross hospital were the only medical facilities left standing. In conditions “beyond description,” available doctors and nurses fought to save more than 100,000 who were suffering from the bomb’s “mysterious” effects. They watched those seemingly en route to recovery experienced “fatal relapses” as acute radiation (to which they had also unwittingly exposed themselves) devastated their patients’ white blood cells, bringing on multi-organ failure and eventual death.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima at the G-7 meeting in Japan this week is an occasion to mourn the “ghosts of Hiroshima” and, with luck, to revive an arms control effort that has fallen short of his pledge seven years ago in Prague to work toward nuclear abolition. Rather than dwell on the past, Obama wants “a forward-looking signal.” He should do more than rehash comatose schemes like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, successes like the Nuclear Security Summits and the Iran nuclear deal, or the faraway idyll of “a world without nuclear weapons.” With global nuclear forces entering a new phase of uneven reductions and modernization even as the United States works to move disarmament forward, Obama should detail how the laws of war restrain U.S. nuclear strategy today and how universal observance of these restrictions would reduce the risks of civilians falling victim once more to the scourge of atomic warfare.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which was bombed three days later, bequeathed contradictory legacies to the world as the last act of World War II and the first of the Nuclear Age. The language of just war can encompass both its necessity and its tragedy. In the best of all worlds, the international community would make real strides toward putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle. But when many nuclear powers are availing themselves of increasingly risky strategies and grotesque weapons, the best international humanitarian law can do is set out clear limits on when and how these weapons can be employed.

The tension between nuclear power and humanitarian ethics has a long pedigree. Just one week after Bilfinger’s visit, the Red Cross issued an appeal characterizing the atom bomb as a weapon of last resort whose purposes were to avert war. When the superpowers negotiated the placement of atomic energy under international control and the eventual destruction of America’s arsenal after the war, the Red Cross backed a blanket prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons in Stockholm in 1948. But because the Red Cross charter bars it from taking sides in political quarrels, the organization grew more reticent after the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949 jumpstarted the nuclear arms race.

As the United States and the Soviet Union contemplated total war, strategy began to supplant ethics. Fearing his country’s transformation into a garrison state and skeptical that thermonuclear war was winnable, President Dwight D. Eisenhower augmented U.S. nuclear forces and authorized a doctrine of threatening massive retaliation whereby U.S. Strategic Air Command would respond to even minor aggressions with nuclear strikes on urban centers in tacit violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949, which sought to minimize non-combatant deaths and shield hospitals in wartime without exception.

With mutual destruction assured by the mid-1960s, leaders on both sides of the Iron Curtain and beyond reexamined the case for ethical limits of nuclear war-fighting. The U.N. General Assembly resolved in 1961 that the use of nuclear or thermonuclear weapons constituted “a crime against mankind and civilization.” In the United States, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced a no-cities doctrine, favoring “counterforce” strikes against military targets with “counter-value” strikes against civilian populations held in reserve to discourage the Soviets from targeting New York or Los Angeles. Still, nuclear war plans remained genocidal. In 1973, Richard Nixon told Henry Kissinger the Single Integrated Operating Plan (the U.S. plan for all-out nuclear war) was “the height of immorality” because it would kill an estimated 80 million people. He demanded more credible and less monstrous options. In response to the widespread use of carpet-bombing in the Vietnam War, the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions established the first legal constraints on strategic bombing, whether conventional or nuclear, against non-military targets

Although members of the hawkish D.C.-based interest group called the Committee on the Present Danger later called for preparing to “fight and win a nuclear war,” the trend was toward ethical and legal clarity. At their first summit meeting in Geneva in 1985, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan agreed a “nuclear war must never be fought, and cannot be won.” One year later in Reykjavik, they came close to agreeing to eliminate nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles and briefly discussed total nuclear disarmament.

Twenty-five years later, the Obama administration’s first Nuclear Posture Review declared the United States would resort to nuclear weapons only in the face of existential threats to itself or its allies, which brought U.S. nuclear doctrine into line with principles of jus ad bellum (when to fight) and jus in bello (how to fight), including distinction (protections for non-combatants), necessity (only for clear military ends), proportion (just enough to do the job), humanity (avoidance of suffering), and last resort (only when all else fails).

Obama’s challenge in Hiroshima is to champion these principles without conveying remorse. When it announced his visit, the White House ruled out an apology for strategic and political reasons. For as long as these weapons exist, America’s nuclear threats must be whole-hearted to deter adversaries and assure allies. No Japanese prime minister has ever requested an apology because the country has sheltered under America’s protective nuclear umbrella since 1964.

An apology would also invite domestic blowback. Most Americans do not feel guilty about the bombings. Although more of those polled now feel remorse, that trend is offset by evidence of a weakening taboo against nuclear-weapon use in general. When the Smithsonian exhibited the Enola Gay — the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped Little Boy — on Hiroshima’s 50th anniversary in 1995, the exhibit’s critical historical commentary was so unpopular that public support for the attacks jumped by four percentage points. An apology would infuriate older voters for whom World War II remains the “good war” and who tend to vote Republican, jeopardizing the quiet bipartisan consensus that paved the way for the New START Treaty with Russia and the nuclear deal with Iran.

When facing a similar dilemma in 2009, Obama turned to just war theory. At his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he observed the awkwardness of receiving the award while presiding over two wars in the Middle East. To reconcile the “two seemingly irreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly,” he invoked just war theory while vowing to bury the archipelago of black sites and military prisons that ran amok under George W. Bush. Although he has failed to close Guantanamo, President Obama can lament Hiroshima’s human toll even as he defends America’s lawful deterrent and criticizes others’ roguish behavior by offering a legal accounting of U.S. nuclear policy.

The administration has made strides already. Whereas early on the Bush administration cited the lack of outright prohibitions on nuclear-weapon use to promote fission-based “bunker busters” and reportedly planned their use against Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz, Obama has referenced international humanitarian law with the aim of reducing the role these weapons play in U.S national security, with the 2013 Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy confirming targeting must henceforth “be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.”

Yet the 2010 Posture Review, which aligned nuclear strategy with grand strategy, ignored the laws of war altogether. There are concerns that the laws of war might bar a first strike against North Korea’s small arsenal, hamper reductions, weaken deterrence, or subject America’s military to foreign courts. Preemptive strikes have a long history in just war thinking, but adversaries and allies lend more credence to law-abiding deterrents and the blending of political and military locations in populous capitals blurs the line between counterforce and countervalue, the latter of which theoretically needs fewer weapons to work. Lastly, the International Court of Justice issued an opinion in 1996 which found that nuclear weapons are lawful for retaliatory and deterrent purposes against military targets, which is already the declared policy of the United States. And as these rulings are merely advisory, the United States could never be forced to jettison its arsenal.

The nuclear challenges that await the United States are increasingly about quality rather than quantity. As U.S. and Russian arsenals grew smaller and more restrained, others have moved in the opposite direction. North Korea threatens to strike Washington and Seoul. Pakistan’s posture of asymmetric escalation threatens early nuclear use if hostilities erupt in Kashmir. Russia plans to escalate to limited nuclear strikes in a conflict against NATO. Like the United States, it restricted itself in 2010 to scenarios where “the very existence of the state [was] under threat,” a testament to the humanitarian tide against nuclear war-fighting, but its reliance on tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe suggests a liberal interpretation of the word “threat.” The Russian military also let blueprints slip out for a device straight out of Dr. Strangelove that could turn a major port city into a radioactive ruin. Obama should denounce such barbaric threats.

Seven decades after approximately 140,000 souls perished in Hiroshima, the memory of their suffering still resonates. President Obama should acknowledge that today such an act would constitute a war crime and promote American nuclear forces that are safe, secure, reliable, and lawful as his administration works toward reducing the country’s arsenal. International humanitarian law, which is under unprecedented pressure, could use the public recognition after Obama skipped the World Humanitarian Summit earlier this week. It can also supply the language needed to condemn risky or inhumane strategies. Obama should urge nuclear-armed states to limit themselves to nuclear postures of assured retaliation against targets of high military significance. It is too late to atone for the dead that lie round Hiroshima, but not too late for their memory to light the way toward a just and lasting peace in the 21st century.


Jonathan Hunt is a lecturer in modern global history at the University of Southampton. He received his doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin and held fellowships at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, RAND Corporation, and the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. He is currently writing an international history of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Image: DoD Photo by Kevin O’Brien