Countervalue Nuclear Warfare:

The Limit Case of Noncombatant Immunity


by Lieutenant Colonel John Mark Mattox, US Army

Headquarters, United States European Command

Imagine a weapon of such destructive power that, in one instant, it totally devastates five square miles, kills 70 thousand people, and injures 70 thousand others.  Imagine that, five months later, an additional 70 thousand have died from the weapon’s effects and that five years later, an additional 60 thousand have died—200 thousand in all[1]—virtually all of whom are noncombatants.

What you have just imagined is not imaginary; it is the actual result of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.  That bombing is instructive to students of moral philosophy for many reasons, not the least of which is that it serves as a limit case study of the issue of noncombatant immunity.  As such, it raises some important questions:

·         What reasons can be offered to justify a countervalue bombing strategy of the kind employed at Hiroshima?


·         How satisfactory are those reasons?


Finally, and more generally,


·         Is it possible in human affairs for circumstances to become so bad that the wholesale killing of noncombatants becomes morally justifiable?


In the remarks that follow, I propose to consider these questions.

Countervalue versus Counterforce

            Before continuing, however, it is worth pausing to distinguish between the two general bombing strategies of the 20th century:  countervalue and counterforce.  A “counterforce” strategy is one that targets enemy military forces; whereas, a “countervalue” strategy is one that targets things upon which the enemy is likely to place a high “value.”  As a practical matter, countervalue targets could include, among other things, enemy civilian population centers, or at least places with high concentrations of noncombatants. 

From a strictly military standpoint, planners prefer counterforce strategies over countervalue ones because counterforce strategies focus upon those targets that can inflict the greatest harm upon friendly military forces.  Moreover, from both the moral-philosophical and legal standpoint, counterforce strategies are desirable because they minimize problems associated with noncombatant immunity.  However, the bombing of Hiroshima affords, some would say, an example par excellence of a case in which a countervalue strategy was preferable on moral as well as military grounds.


            President Truman makes this claim in unmistakably clear terms in his ex post-facto justification of the attack: “It [the dropping of the atomic bomb] was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the American side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did.  It probably also saved a half million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life. . . . I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war that would have killed a half million youngsters on both sides if those bombs had not been dropped.  I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again.”[2] 

Now, many have expended endless energy over the years quibbling with the President’s math.[3]  However, as moral philosophers, we have the luxury of accepting the President’s numbers at face value and merely following the logical trail to see where it leads.  Basically, the President presents a constructive dilemma: 

P1. Either invade the Japanese mainland,


P2. Or drop the bomb.


Then, in classic utilitarian manner (i.e., selecting which horn of the dilemma will yield the greatest happiness to the greatest number—greatest happiness being understood as the greatest balance of pleasure and the least balance of pain for all involved, each person counting as one and not more than one), the argument continues:

            P3. Invading the Japanese mainland will not yield the result required by the

Greatest Happiness Principle.


Thus, by Truman’s logic, the inescapable conclusion obtains:


C.     Therefore, drop the bomb.


However, the astute student of elementary logic will recognize that we are not done, for the argument begs a critical question:  “Is President Truman’s dilemma a false dilemma”?  That is to say, are there other reasonable alternatives to invading the Japanese mainland that could have obviated the supposed logical necessity to drop the bomb?  This, incidentally, is a question of more than mere historical value, because the first question that every nuclear policy planner has been called upon to answer since 1945 is, “What are the alternatives to using a nuclear weapon”?  Let us, therefore, consider this question as it pertains specifically to President Truman’s argument.[4] 


Alternatives to the Countervalue Strategy

The historical record suggests at least four alternatives in addition to the one mentioned in Truman’s dilemma—each of which Truman appears to have ruled out.  They were:

1.      to pursue Japanese “peace feelers” sent through intermediaries,


2.      to await Soviet entry into the war, a Soviet declaration of war, or at least a public declaration by the Soviets of their intent to enter the war;


3.      to redefine “unconditional surrender” to mean that the Allies would guarantee the continuation of the Japanese Imperial institution;


4.      to provide a “warning” or “non-combat” demonstration of the bomb;


and then a fifth alternative which appears not to have been considered at length at the


time, but which we shall add for the sake of completeness:


5.      to rely on the efficacy of continued conventional warfare without actually invading the Japanese mainland.


Let us consider each alternative in turn, keeping in mind the concern for noncombatant casualties.

            Alternative 1.  Prima facie, to pursue “peace feelers” is an alternative that accords with most western sensibilities concerning the just conduct of war.  Despite Augustine’s warning that, although all men want peace, they all want it on their own terms,[5] the pursuit of peace is ostensibly a good thing.  However, reasons for rejecting this alternative appear to have included the fact that many of the “peace feelers” were diplomatic messages sent through the Soviets, whose regime hardly was one whose mediation could be looked upon with other than a jaundiced eye.  Of equal concern was that the Japanese peace feelers were conditional and vague—seeking a peace that (with no surprise to Augustine) would maintain Japan’s “honor and existence.”[6]

            Alternative 2.  The logic of international politics seems to hold that the more nations that assent to a military action, the more morally justifiable the action must be.  Thus, in addition to sending a strong political signal to the Japanese, having the Soviets along side in the fight against Japan might have been perceived by some as a boost to claims of moral legitimacy.  However, from the U.S. perspective in 1945, it hardly was the case that additional moral justification was required for waging war on the Japanese mainland.  Moreover, directly asking the Soviets to engage themselves in the Far East would likely have created a large political debt (e.g., post-conflict territorial claims on Japan, etc.).  Thus, to wait for the Soviets seemed imprudent on both political and pragmatic grounds. 

            Alternative 3.  Merely dropping the demand for an “unconditional surrender” by conceding the right of the Japanese imperial institution to continue (which is, of course, what actually happened after the bombing) has a seductively elegant quality to it.  After all, just war theory generally eschews the idea of surrenders being “unconditional.”[7]  It seems plausible that accepting conditions could have brought the conflict to a speedy and negotiated conclusion.  However, there is also the political reality that a belated change in surrender terms may have sounded like doublespeak to the voters and veterans who had sacrificed much to achieve an unconditional surrender.  Moreover, it always must be borne in mind that political symbols are specific to culture and context and may not transfer readily across those boundaries.  Thus, while American negotiators may have considered proffers of peace to be magnanimous, the Japanese warlords might just as easily have interpreted those proffers as a sign of weakening Allied resolve and invigorated them to fight harder.

            Alternative 4.  Successful pursuit of this alternative would have meant that noncombatant casualties could have been avoided altogether.  However, it is an alternative fraught with practical problems of the kind that philosophers might not wish to deal with, but which were of critical importance in 1945:  the device may not have worked; the United States had only enough nuclear materials for a very limited number of bombs; and a suitable demonstration site may have been too remote to impress the adversary.  Moreover, we should note that an advertised demonstration—as this would have to have been—would have invited the Japanese to move Allied prisoners of war into the demonstration area as human shields.

            Alternative 5.  Continuing the status quo—that is, continuing to prosecute a conventional war in the Pacific—would have, by definition, resolved the problems associated with nuclear weapons use.  However, it would have highlighted other issues (i.e., the open-ended continuation of the war, continued loss of American lives, etc.), the concerns over which were, in the first instance, among the very reasons for considering a nuclear alternative.  Indeed, in addition to the political problems associated with continued conventional action, it is not clear that this alternative either would have curtailed the length of the war or lessened the overall loss of human lives—combatant and noncombatant. True, the theory of just war leads one to conclude that, all things being equal, the sacrifice of a combatant’s life is to be preferred to the sacrifice of a noncombatant’s life.  However, what if the sacrifice of one noncombatant life could result in saving two, or three or five, combatant lives?  After all, the Greatest Happiness Principle upon which Truman’s reasoning appears to be founded does not distinguish between combatants and noncombatants.  Rather, it accords all human beings equal weight in the calculation.

We also might profitably consider now why the other horn of Truman’s dilemma—namely, a conventional invasion of the Japanese mainland—might have been unsatisfactory in the present context.  An invasion also would have resolved the problems associated with nuclear weapons use.  However, it would not necessarily have resolved the problems associated with noncombatancy.  The view was widely held that an attack on the Japanese mainland would not merely have demoralized the civilian population but, rather, would have transformed the entire population into de facto combatants.[8]   The claim is not so far fetched; who cannot imagine that if, for example, Iowa were attacked by infantry and armored divisions fighting under the Al Quaida banner, threats to Al Quaida would include not only the United States Armed Forces, but also hordes of extremely mad Iowa farmers armed with pitchforks and shotguns!

Contemporary Alternatives

            It may be easy for us, as it sometimes is for students of moral philosophy residing in the lofty realm of ideas, to find ourselves put off by claims to the effect that some of the alternatives available to Truman had to be rejected on the basis of political concerns, such as:  how the solutions involved would play to the press or public, how much money the solutions would cost, or how they might place the United States at some strategic disadvantage in the international community.  Should moral philosophers be leery of such justifications?  Probably so, especially if one holds that moral considerations trump all others.  On the other hand, fair-minded people surely can conclude that none of the alternatives to a countervalue nuclear strategy at Hiroshima was altogether satisfactory.    Each involved some significant trade-off that could be expected to produce combatant and noncombatant deaths, if not at Hiroshima, then certainly elsewhere. 

Suppose we, in 2004, found ourselves in the shoes of President Truman.  Consider now, in a contemporary context, the five alternatives proposed to Truman’s dilemma:

            Alternative 1.  How does a nation sue for peace with a rogue state or non-state actor that, for example, has weapons of mass destruction (WMD), is able to wreak disproportionately great havoc with those weapons and produce large numbers of noncombatant casualties, may threaten WMD use for ideological reasons, may have few targets that can be held “at risk” such that the traditional theory of deterrence cannot be brought to bear, and that—worst of all—may have no desire to sue for peace?

            Alternative 2.  A nation might seek to marshal public opinion in support of a conventional military strategy through the framework of some existing alliance (like NATO) or under the auspices of the United Nations.  However, as is not infrequently the case, some nations may not consider military action to be the preferred solution.  Indeed, as we have witnessed recently, the best collective action possible may be a “coalition of the willing.”  One might ask, “What’s wrong with coalitions of the willing”?   In principle, nothing is wrong with them, but making them work is by no means a simple task.   In any case, the point may be moot:  it is not clear that the moral status of an action is affected by whether the action is taken unilaterally or multilaterally.

            Alternative 3.  The same problems apply today as applied in 1945: one nation’s attempts at magnanimity may be interpreted by another nation—particularly one led by a non-democratic regime—as sure evidence of weakening resolve.  By choosing this alternative, whatever value the theory of nuclear deterrence would have held against that regime might be lost, because deterrence requires that an adversary perceive the deterring nation to possess unquestionably the resolve to act.

            Alternative 4.  For better or for worse, the United States no longer is confronted by the technical problems of 1945:  its nuclear weapons are highly reliable, nuclear materials are in abundant supply, and CNN could ensure that no site is too remote to make an effective demonstration.  However, as one surveys the regimes against which the United States might consider using a nuclear weapon and the lack of value that such regimes typically ascribe to human life, might not the advertisement of a demonstration prompt the regime to place noncombatants in the target area?  Finally, one wonders exactly what a demonstration might be expected to achieve.  The fact that the United States possesses nuclear weapons is well known, and the destructive force of those weapons is well known, so there is nothing to demonstrate on these accounts..  Besides, the fact that the United States might be willing to detonate a nuclear device in a remote area does not of itself prove that that the United States would have the political will to detonate a device on an actual counterforce or countervalue target. 

            Alternative 5.  A strictly conventional response to a contemporary crisis of the magnitude of World War II in the Pacific would, of course, solve the problem of whether to employ a countervalue nuclear strategy.  However, a unilateral decision not to use nuclear weapons does not imply any guarantee that an adversary, seeking to wreak disproportionate damage, would not, for example, use WMD on the United States.  Moreover, conventional weapons may not be adequate to destroy essential targets.  While nuclear weapons are no panacea, neither are conventional weapons; and in any case, warfare—nuclear or conventional—is nasty, dirty business that produces combatant and noncombatant casualties on both sides

What if an ideologically motivated adversary could be deterred in no other way than by threat of the countervalue use of nuclear weapons?  One is reminded of the words of an irritated President Truman to the Federal Council of Churches a scant five days after the bombing of Hiroshima and two days after the bombing of Nagasaki:  “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war.  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.  It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”[9] 


            What does all of this imply for President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima?  First, it must be conceded that he was not, as we are not, omniscient; human beings only can make moral judgments on the basis of the facts at their disposal.  Indeed, the idea of countervalue targeting did not originate with Truman, nor did it have its genesis at Hiroshima.  The Japanese, Italians, Germans, and the British had applied this strategy even before the Second World War, and during that conflagration, cities were bombed particularly by the Luftwaffe, the RAF and the US Air Force.”[10]  Moreover, Americans embroiled in World War II seem not to have been bothered nearly so much by the countervalue conventional bombing of Tokyo as they since have been bothered by the countervalue nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, even though more lives were lost from initial effects in the former than in the latter. .[11]

As pertaining to President Truman, we can conclude that:

1.      either Truman considered neither the concern for noncombatant casualties nor any of the alternatives we have reviewed to afford sufficiently compelling arguments to reject a countervalue nuclear strategy,


2.      or else he elected, in the face of some better alternative, to opt for a countervalue nuclear strategy and thus made what his own utilitarian logic would reveal to be a deeply flawed moral choice.


If the latter is true, there is no vexing moral problem; Truman simply made the wrong choice and there is nothing to discuss.  However, if the former is true, and Truman was right, then our examination of what we have called the “limit case” of noncombatant immunity presents us with some challenging conclusions that go right to the heart of our present inquiry:

1.      It may be that the concern over noncombatant immunity does not trump all other considerations.  That is to say, it may not necessarily be the case that the deliberate taking of noncombatant lives is always to be avoided at all costs.  On the contrary, assuming the historical accuracy of the various alternatives we have reviewed, there may be imaginable circumstances in which countervalue targeting (nuclear or otherwise) is the most morally appropriate of available alternatives.


2.      Having so said, still it is the case that, if the concern for noncombatant immunity can be overridden, the threshold at which it can be overridden is not altogether clear.  At least one can say that the burden of proof in support of the proposition that countervalue targeting is circumstantially the most morally appropriate alternative is substantial indeed.  For example, would the burden be met with the assertion that a countervalue strategy will shorten a war and thereby diminish casualties on both sides?  


3.      Finally, it could be argued that although Truman was justified on utilitarian grounds, there may be other, more appropriate grounds on which to explore questions of noncombatant immunity. Indeed, it may be that no consequentialist moral framework ever will capture adequately such considerations as the sanctity of human life.


As much as we may wish to relegate to the past the discussion of things nuclear, we do not enjoy the luxury to do so.  Alternatives not unlike the ones President Truman faced might be presented again to us and to those to whom we are called upon to offer sound military advice informed with a clear sense of moral conviction.  In the meantime, we would do well to recognize what is—thankfully—one of only two cases of actual nuclear weapons use for its value as a limit case study of the always perplexing problem of noncombatant immunity.



[1] F. G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project:  Making the Atomic Bomb (Oak Ridge:  United States Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information, 1994):  51.


[2] Harry S. Truman, unsent letter dated August 5, 1963 to Irv Kupcinet, Chicago Times columnists, in Monte M. Poen, ed. Strictly Personal and Confidential:  The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed (Boston:  Little, Brown, and Company, 1982): 35, 36.


[3] See, for example, Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (New York:  Vintage Books, 1996):  515-521.

[4] Let us observe that a fruitful field of inquiry for 20th century historiographers involves questions not only about Truman’s math, but also about precisely what he and his associates knew at the time, how accurate or honest the projected casualty figures were for an American invasion of Japan, etc.  Here again we can invoke philosophical privilege and consider an array of plausible alternatives without bogging down into questions of the precise historical role that those alternatives played in the President’s decision-making process, and the relative weight that he accorded to each.  In that way, we might hope to discover something of importance relative to the larger question of how one justifies a countervalue nuclear strategy that inevitably produces a significant number of noncombatant deaths.


[5] Augustine, City of God (Book XIX, Chapter 12), trans. John O’Meara (London:  Penguin Books, 1984): 866-870.


[6] “For Immediate Release to the Press, Radio and Television,” (Harry S Truman to Tsukasa Nitoguri; Hiroshima File, Box 12, Post-Presidential Secretary’s Office Files, Harry S Truman Library, quoted in Alperovitz 1996: 565.


[7] As the notion of “unconditional surrender” applies to the present case, see, for example Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 2d ed. (Basic Books, 1977):  266, 267.

[8] See, for example, Walzer, 266, and United States Strategic Bombing Summary Report (Pacific War) (Washington:  GPO, 1 July 1946):  21.  Available online at  Accessed 15 January 2004.


[9] Harry S Truman to Samuel McCrea Cavert, August 11, 1945, 692-A, Official File, Harry S Truman Library, quoted in Alperovitz 1996: 563.  Whether or not one agrees with Truman’s assessment, is should be remembered that this is the same man who, in ensuing months and years, presided over the expenditure of billions of dollars to rehabilitate this adversary into what became the world economic powerhouse of the 1980s.  On the other hand, such an apology for Truman sounds reminiscent of the highly problematic position that it is permissible to do evil if so doing produces good.


[10] Beatrice Heuser, The Bomb:  Nuclear Weapons in their Historical, Strategic and Ethical Context (London:  Longman, 2000):  64.


[11] United States Strategic Bombing Summary Report (Pacific War), 20.