The A-Bombs and the Downside of Scientific Progress

The A-Bombs and the Downside of Scientific Progress August 6, 2018

If we’re going to praise scientific progress for its contributions to civilization, we should recognize the downside too.

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. In 1945, tens of thousands of Japanese died from the blast of the uranium device, deployed by the Allies against the last holdout of the Axis powers in World War Two. The development and use of the atomic bomb provide a lot of lessons on the status of science as a social institution, technology as a tool of the powerful, and ethics in an age when decision making can have staggering consequences.

Who Put the Bomb

Myth surrounds the development and use of atomic weapons by the Allies. The Manhattan Project was a secret government program that was meant to beat the Germans to the creation of atomic weapons. However, by the summer of 1945 the Germans had already surrendered and only the Japanese archipelago remained in the control of the Axis powers. Faced with the prospect of a staggering invasion of the Japanese mainland and the refusal of the Japanese government to acknowledge the terms of unconditional surrender in the Potsdam Declaration, President Truman decided to use the new superweapons as a prelude to invasion. The atom bomb that exploded over Hiroshima destroyed the headquarters of the Japanese Second Army in Hiroshima as well as most of the city. An estimated 75,000 people died instantly.

Fade Away and Radiate

Doubts remain among historians as to the effect of the A-bombs on the endgame of WWII. Emperor Hirohito ordered the Japanese government to surrender a week later, after a second bomb was detonated over Nagasaki and the USSR declared war on Japan. It’s said that Hirohito expected better treatment from MacArthur’s occupying army than from the Soviets, who had invaded Japanese-held Manchuria and were making their way quickly toward Japan. The surrender came as a surprise to the Americans, who had expected to wage a protracted invasion of the Japanese mainland while the Japanese government tried to negotiate better surrender terms. After the horrific effects of the A-bombs came to light, there was a lot of memory editing in the US government; the idea that the A-bombs were used in lieu of an invasion became dogma.

The Ethics of Progress

At this late date, it’s difficult to interpret the use of atomic weapons on the Japanese as anything other than atomic testing on an all-but-defeated population. Should committing the mass murder of Japanese civilians have been regarded as preferable to offering better surrender terms to the Japanese government? When scientific applications become a substitute for statecraft and diplomacy, what are the consequences?

Is scientific progress always an inexorable and positive proposition, or does Hiroshima demonstrate its downside? Should there be limits to the invention and deployment of more and more destructive weapons?

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  • Points for addressing the myths around the US nuclear attack on Japan.

    Powerful tools can be powerfully misused.

    The more powerful something is, generally the more dangerous it will be when used foolishly.

    Scientific inquiry is an incredibly powerful tool.

    Nuclear fission is an incredibly powerful tool.

    Dangerous in the hands of fools. Like politicians.

  • Kevin K

    1. Why is it that the only example of “science gone bad” that people can come up with is the atom bomb? This really is tacky.

    2. That’s some revisionist history you’re engaged in there. My father was in the European theater — earned a Bronze Star, so a genuine war hero. He was stuck over there after VE Day because the Army thought it might need him for Japan. Even though he had 9 months on the front lines already.

    Estimates were that a million people would lose their lives in a full-scale invasion of Japan, which given its culture of not surrendering was seen as the only way to win the war — absent some dramatic gesture. Without the success of the A-bomb program, it’s more than a little likely that I would not be here typing this, because my father would have been killed in that invasion.

    3. Nobody knew whether the A bomb would work. They’d only tried it once; only had enough fissionable material for 2 more — the 2 they used. Truman was bluffing his ass off when he declared the US would use more bombs against Japan. There weren’t any.

    4.135,000 people died in the firebombing attacks on Dresden and nobody blinked an eye. This was an era of total war. Say what you will about the morality of that — but it wasn’t the scientists who decided to wage it.

    5. It’s only in hindsight that we can appreciate the power of atomic bombs. Up until they were actually used; just another big bang. No different from any other payload stuffed up a B-29.

  • Tawreos

    “At this late date, it’s difficult to interpret the use of atomic weapons on the Japanese as anything other than atomic testing on an all-but-defeated population.”

    On paper the Japanese were defeated, but the Japanese were not looking at the paper. The high cost of taking the islands on the way to the home islands coupled with the reaction of civilians, committing suicide rather than suffer the indignity of being occupied, while taking those islands meant that there was not a lot of eagerness to invade the home islands. Also, the bomb drops were not pure testing, though they were not entirely certain they would work which is why they were not announced ahead of time.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’ll take a go at this.

    1. Can you give an example of science producing a more violent or destructive invention than the atom bomb? I think most people use it because at this point it seems that if science did produce something worse, it would only take a single use to eradicate humanity; and therefore its consideration could only be hypothetical, which isn’t as relevant as a technology that has actually been used.

    2. Your argument that you wouldn’t be here without the a-bomb’s use is muted a little given that no decedents of Hiroshima’s or Nagasaki’s casualties are here to offer their counterexample. I’m personally glad that you are happy to be alive, but your point is pretty self-centered and tacky.

    3. They had successfully tested the bomb, which was a perfectly valid proof-of-concept for its use. Sure, there could have been any number of technical failures in the two remaining warheads, but they did know that critical-mass fission explosion worked. As for Truman bluffing, yes he was; and him lying about having more mass-destruction weapons is only better than him actually having them when you know he didn’t actually have them, like we do now looking back (you know, in hindsight).

    4. I don’t think anybody here is trying to blame scientists for anything. What seems to be asked here is whether scientific invention represents progress for society, or whether science should take a back seat to social progress instead.

    5. It’s only in hindsight that we justify the use of atomic bombs. At the time, the invasion of Japan would have been cooperated between America and the USSR, who had been preparing to invade Japan as well. Even if Japan had refused to surrender until well after invasion began, the losses and efforts would have been split between the two attackers. If anything, the use of atomic bombs was actually the first political strike of the Cold War; Truman used the a-bombs as a means of preventing Stalin from having any say in Japan’s surrender, even though Japan was probably just as concerned by a Soviet invasion as it was from America (if not more so).

  • Kevin K

    It’s only in hindsight that we condemn the use of atomic bombs.

    Without scientific progress, social progress is … mud huts and shitting in the stream.

  • Easy now. I realize there’s a lot of historical and political context here, and I don’t mind you pointing that out. I wasn’t trying to say that the conventional firebombing of Japanese targets throughout the war was nice and humane. And I wasn’t trying to characterize the use of atomic weapons against the Japanese as some sort of random, senseless attack rather than the final atrocity in a war that was a long string of atrocities.

    All I’m trying to point out is that science cheerleaders aren’t good at recognizing that there are moral, environmental, and sociopolitical downsides to scientific progress.

  • Without scientific progress, social progress is … mud huts and shitting in the stream.

    And what’s a hundred thousand or so people vaporized in a microsecond when we’ve got all these shiny gadgets?

  • There were big battles going on in the Imperial Japanese government at that time, with those in the Big Six pushing for surrender trying to convince the likes of War Minister Anami to face the music rather than fight on. But in vote after vote, the hawks won. They knew that the losses incurred during a protracted invasion would make the Allies more likely to offer better surrender terms. However, I’ve never read anything that suggests the hawks denied that it was pretty much all over after Okinawa.

    What I really wanted to get at is the way we idealize science and technological progress, while de-emphasizing the evidence that scientific research takes place in a political and economic context that makes it a tool of the powerful.

  • Hey, why don’t you try that again?

    And this time, try.

  • Powerful tools can be powerfully misused.

    Very true.

    And the ways we conceptualize these tools and the ethical context of their use are relevant to how we define progress and measure the success of the scientific program.

  • amen, brother.

  • The Binding of Mike

    Uncle Ben Parker said it best.

  • Anthrotheist

    “It’s only in hindsight that we condemn the use of atomic bombs.”
    Oh, hell no. Its also in foresight that we condemn the use of atomic bombs, and hopefully if such a weapon is ever used again it will be be condemned by everyone in plain sight.

    “Without scientific progress, social progress is … mud huts and shitting in the stream.”
    Right, because living conditions that allowed humanity to live and thrive for thousands of years is obviously a far worse choice than a single technology that could literally decimate all life on the entire planet Earth. I take it also that the ancient Greeks were “scientific” thousands of years ago, given that they originated the ideas that define democracy. Also, not for nothing, but it’s my understanding that adobe huts are actually fairly comfortable and quite effective, not to mention perfectly environmentally sustainable.

    I’m honestly trying not to be condescending toward what you are asserting here, but it’s getting difficult.

  • Anthrotheist

    As far as I can tell, we (being American, personally) seem to generally define progress as being more powerful, more complex, and larger in scope. While these traits may often be genuine progress for many physical technologies, I can’t help but feel like we use those same standards for nearly everything from politics and economics to medicine and art, and I’m unconvinced that those standards are appropriate in those areas.

  • I have nothing to add to this fine post of yours, but it may be relevant to one of the points you’re making that there were in fact four devices manufactured during the course of the Manhattan Project. Two were uranium and two plutonium. The Trinity test in the New Mexico desert was a plutonium bomb, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima used uranium, and Nagasaki got it with plutonium.

    The fourth device was dismantled after the Japanese surrender.


  • Kevin K

    Sorry, but no. AT THE TIME, there was no such concern about the use of nuclear weapons.

    It’s the Trolley Problem.

    The trolley is out of control. You have the switch in your hand. Your choice is:
    1. ACT and kill a stranger.
    2. DO NOT ACT and kill 3 strangers and 2 friends.

    Which is the moral decision?

  • Forgive me, because this is totally off topic of me – but lacking an appropriate out-of-band messaging system on disqus, I’m stuck with this hamfisted method.

    Have you and I ever discussed Plato’s Cave allegory at any length?

    We haven’t that I recall, but I feel like it’s a discussion that should have happened. LOL

    At any rate, I think it maybe cuts to a lot of the meat of the philosophical differences you and i tend to have with with more strict/rote adherents to straightforward and (i guess we both might say reductive) systems of belief (be it a certain kind of atheist thinker, or many of the western christian thinkers)

    anyway, it would be an interesting discussion to have. maybe we already did last year or something? it seems like such a natural progression of the conversations here and over at Anti-Science, that maybe it already happened and i forgot.

  • You’re right, that seems like a glaring omission. I’ll put it on my list of topics to discuss here, and I’ll have to dig out a copy of The Republic to review the original thought experiment. If you want to post something over at Anti-Science, be my guest.

  • You write much more eloquently than I do. I’ll let you lead the discussion here if and when it seems appropriate. =)

  • Sorry, but no. AT THE TIME, there was no such concern about the use of nuclear weapons.

    That depends. The average US citizen, who may have had a relative in the Pacific Theater, probably welcomed the opportunity to break down Imperial Japan’s final defenses and might not have had many qualms about paying the Emperor back for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

    However, plenty of academics and even some military folks were disgusted by the prospect of using nuclear weapons against the all-but-defeated Japanese. This is from Jacobin’s review of Daniel Ellsberg’s new book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner:

    “Polish physicist Joseph Rotblat resigned from the Manhattan Project in 1944 when he learned the Germans had halted their program, a testament to how closely some scientists associated the crash effort with the fight against Nazism. Threatened with deportation by the powers-that-be — who feared a mass exodus from the project — Rotblat kept quiet about his discovery. The work went on, and ultimately the bomb would be dropped — gratuitously, horrifically — on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Physicist Leo] Szilard tried in vain to prevent the attack.”

    It’s the Trolley Problem.

    Well, no it isn’t. You’re making a purely quantitative judgment without considering any of the moral or political context. The point is that the technology did away with any need for statecraft or diplomacy.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’m not terribly astute at history, rarely finding it to engage my curiosity, but didn’t Leo Szilard circulate a petition among his fellow Manhattan Project scientists, and succeed in accumulating over 150 signatures? That doesn’t strike me as no concern; and it’s not like the public could have any opinion on the matter, since the public was completely unaware of the bomb’s existence.

    As for the trolley problem, it’s an interesting mental exercise, but it is necessarily dependent on a false dilemma: there are only the two choices. Trying to refer to any real-life situation by reference of the trolley problem reveals erroneous binary thinking: i.e, “Either America drops two atomic bombs on Japan, or millions of Americans die trying to invade Japan.” We can’t know that those were the only possibilities; for all we know, Japan could have surrendered shortly into the invasion, when they deemed that American and Soviet casualties were sufficient to give them better bargaining power (and enough backlash had arisen against even worse Japanese losses). America could have blockaded Japan and its navy, preventing them from launching any military aggression and relying on economic and social attrition to end Japan’s war effort. America could have allowed the Soviet Union to spearhead the invasion; millions of Soviets had already died holding off Germany for years, surely Stalin wouldn’t have balked at throwing a couple million more into controlling Japan. Again, we will never know whether any of these (or others) were a possibility because Truman chose to drop the bombs.

    And for the record, I do not believe that choosing not to act is the same as killing someone. If you did not produce the circumstances which cause the person or people to die, you did not kill them. By that standard, the only way not to kill anyone in the trolley problem is to do nothing; by pulling the lever you change the circumstances that result in the one stranger dying. Your interpretation of the trolley problem is like saying that every American that puts money in a savings account is killing children in Africa because they aren’t donating that money to provide aid.

  • Kevin K

    The Trolley Problem is the one presented to Truman at the time. He didn’t have a third option … the plans for the invasion of Japan were well under-way. My father was part of those plans (in his own small way as one of the million pawns who would have been cannon fodder).

    You’re basically moving the goalposts, trying to impose today’s understanding of the issues on Truman’s decision-making. He had no such luxury of hindsight.

    The Szilard petition never reached Truman. So, you’re imposing an addition burden of special knowledge on him as well.

  • Anthrotheist

    The U.S. wasn’t planning on invading Japan until November, while the Soviet Union had mobilized and was planning to invade in August. Truman told Stalin about the bomb in July, and when Stalin asked Truman to permit the Soviet invasion Truman flat out told him ‘no.’ The U.S. still had allies that were willing to aid in Japan’s defeat, but the bomb allowed Truman to make a power play and try for a unilateral win.

    Truman did not have a trolley problem-style binary choice before him. If he approached it as such, then that was due to his preference or limitation, not because of the circumstances.

  • Benjamin Muller

    Did the atomic bomb alter anything about how we view war? After WWII, has anything changed about the frequency of global conflicts and the death tolls in war? The death tolls from Nagasaki and Hiroshima are only notable because of the time frame within which they occurred, their numbers were dwarfed in other battles of WWII, the most notable being the battles of Moscow, Berlin, and Stalingrad all logging a million or more casualties each with conventional warfare.

    There is evidence that the net effect of the existence of atomic bombs has, *SO FAR*, reduced global conflicts, and reduced casualties in conflicts since then. Because that could change in a moment, I’m not saying I think atomic bombs are good things, but so far the evidence to me suggests that we’ve likely avoided probably at least 2 major global conflicts since WWII, if the past trends held, because of the fear of nuclear weapons being used.

    We can argue the ethics of whether using the atomic bomb was good or bad(well you folks can, war is hell, I’m not interested in that argument), but in the context of the large picture of being a fan of science over the alternatives, like religion, I would not choose to go back to the pre-scientific era because of atomic bombs. They just haven’t, to date, done enough to outweigh the benefits of science IMO.

  • I’m not disputing that the horrors of the atomic bombs contributed to a general reluctance to use them among civilized agents. Let’s not forget, though, that not long after the end of WWII the USA was already considering using nuclear weapons in the Korean conflict.

    being a fan of science over the alternatives, like religion, I would not choose to go back to the pre-scientific era because of atomic bombs. They just haven’t, to date, done enough to outweigh the benefits of science IMO.

    You’re making it sound like we either have to get rid of science completely, or go full speed ahead with technological progress regardless of the downside. Shouldn’t there be some way we could decide whether progress is good on a case by case basis, rather than just using anything goes as the guiding principle for technological advancement?

  • In my opinion, science is not good or bad. It’s neutral and are the uses given to it what are that.

    That said, I’m of the the opinion nuking Japan was the only available option, the alternative being a much bloodier invasion and even if Hirohito planned to surrender hardliners wanted to continue the fight

  • “Can you give an example of science producing a more violent or destructive invention than the atom bomb?”

    I’m not sure it would be considered more violent, but in terms of horrible means to kill large numbers of people I think VX and binary weapons are pretty awful:

  • Anthrotheist

    I cannot disagree with you that chemical weapons like VX are monstrous.

    I’m still going to stick with nuclear weapons as worse, though. As I understand it, the vast majority of deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were from burns, from both the thermal blast and from the secondary radiation. Others (particularly in Hiroshima) died as a result of the collapse of buildings and structures. Even those who survived the initial event often died of infections and other secondary effects of massive burns, of acute radiation poisoning, or later from some form of cancer (all of which are slow and agonizing ways to go).

    Poisoning from VX is quick, reducing the chance to treat it, but it does have treatments that can be effective (such as antidotes like atropine). There is no treatment for radiation exposure, and treatments for skin burns still risk infection and as I understand it can be torturous (e.g., debridement). In the end, this is kind of like debating whether it is worse to be hit on the head or stabbed in the gut, but I’ve come this far so I’ll make my final point. 🙂 Nuclear detonation can make large areas uninhabitable due to background radiation, while even VX, the most toxic nerve agent, disperses in less than a month (still horribly long, but better than decades or centuries of radioactivity).