A reader writes:

I know you weren’t directly taking this position in your blog, but no revisionist misinterpretation of a historical topic gets me madder than this one. To refer to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a war crime is to utterly divorce those actions from the context in which they were taken. Lawrence Frank’s Downfall is the seminal work regarding the last days of World War II in the Pacific theater, and conclusively shoots down a lot of the counter-arguments against the usage of the bombs. Consider that  the bombs killed somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people (high-end estimates).

The Japanese government and high command categorically refused to discuss realistic surrender terms (i.e., something akin to the unconditional surrender position that had been made public years earlier by the Allies and which was thought absolutely necessary to avoid revisiting the “stab in the back” myth that arose after WWI) until after both bombs were dropped. Even the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which began between the two bomb drops, did not have this impact upon Japan; dropping the bombs allowed the Japanese to save face and claim that these new weapons had irrevocably changed the balance of the military equation.

To defeat Japan without dropping the bombs would have required either an amphibious invasion or a prolonged blockade of Japan. Both of these alternatives would have cost MANY more lives than the A-bombs did. Given the invasion plans that were drawn up for the initial invasion of Kyushu and the Japanese defenses against it (Japan had correctly surmised that Kyushu would be the Americans’ first target, and the bulk of their ground forces and literally thousands of kamikaze planes were lined up in response), it is almost certain that American estimates of 250,000+ US casualties were hugely optimistic, to say nothing of the millions of Japanese that would have perished. As for the blockade option, even assuming it had succeeded in breaking the will of the Japanese military and ending the war, literally millions of Japanese would have died from starvation as a result of it. The US had just concluded a survey of strategic bombing against Germany and had begun targeting transportation hubs, inter-island ferries and the like in Japan, and as soon as Japan had lost the ability to transport rice and other foodstuffs within the empire, civilians in urban areas would have begun to starve in unimaginable numbers. As it was, there was a severe famine in the winter of 1945-46, but the Japanese people were very lucky that the war ended as soon as it did.

In addition to these arguments, I would suggest that there’s a counterfactual argument to be made that if the US hadn’t used atomic weapons against Japan, someone would have eventually used them somewhere else – it’s the nature of warfare to use weaponry, not keep it bottled up in a laboratory. It’s highly likely that the A-bomb would have been used during the Korean War, or somewhere else in a situation where the power devastated by them would have been able to fight back; in that context, humanity is probably quite lucky that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit when and how they were hit.

I think an argument can be made that the bombing of Dresden is a war crime – I’m not sure I would agree with that either, but certainly it didn’t have a significant impact upon the course of World War II. However, that cannot be said of the A-bombs, and any modern interpretation to that effect flat-out ignores the signifcantly more ghastly alternatives to their usage. All deaths in war are tragic, but the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were by far the lesser of many evils, given the mindset of the Japanese government and the other options available to the US at the time.

Another reader counters:

As an aspiring American political history PhD candidate I like to think I know something about this topic.  Historically the description of American action as "war crime" has been one of our greatest taboos.  Any prominent figure who dares to acknowledge thist truth is immediately marginalized, and accused of being anti-American.  The reality is, the "greatest generation" is also the generation that commited the most war crimes of any American generation before or since.  That's a powerful and troubling statement, but I think a true one. 

Robert McNamara said in his interviews for The Fog of War (a remarkable film) that he thought that had the war gone the other way, and the Japanese had been victorious, he and everyone else who worked for Curtis LeMay would have been tried and he believes rightly convicted of crimes against humanity.  That was for the decision to firebomb Japanese cities, which totally devestated most of the urban areas.

The issue, I suppose, is context.  When torture advocates appeal to our fear of the "ticking time bomb scenario" they are apealing to the same fear that we beleive justifies our taking of life in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, that the very existence of the United States was at risk.  The taking of life on this massive scale was a lesser of two evils.

There are differing perspectives in Japan as well, some historians going so far as believing the dropping of the bombs was actually a good thing for Japan.  That's a radical view there, the first time I heard it voiced was at a dinner with several prominent Japanese and American scholars, and it had the effect of totally silencing the room save for the dropping of chopsticks as some of the men were so utterly shocked that a Japanese man could believe this. 

Anyways, it's an interesting topic, and I think that it's touching on something that is deeply problematic with American's understanding of their past actions.  Maybe we were on the "right side" of things in the Second World War, but our desperation led us to commit morally reprehensible actions.  Maybe we can make a case that those actions were less-bad than the alternatives, but that's a discussion America has really never had.

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