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Was Truman a war criminal?
The philosophy of decision
In 1956 the faculty of the University of Oxford voted to award Harry Truman an honorary degree for his leadership during the crucial period at the end of World War II. The vote was recorded as unanimous, but in fact one Oxford don had objected. Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, a philosopher, asserted that Truman had committed mass murder by ordering the use of atom bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She allowed that his decision had shortened the war and on net saved lives. But this didn’t change the fact that he had been responsible for the killing of innocent noncombatants. Anscombe didn’t admire Truman at all. He was a “fool” and a “knave,” she told her fellow faculty members; he was “a quite mediocre person" who did “spectacularly wicked things.” She went on, “You cannot be or do any good where you are stupid.” Rewarding Truman would irreparably sully Oxford. “If you do give this honour, what Nero, what Genghis Khan, what Hitler or what Stalin will not be honoured in the future?”
Oxford went ahead with the honorary degree, but Anscombe's basic question was not so easily dismissed. Philosophers had long debated the nature of the good. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill equated the good with that which best served the interests of the greatest number of people. Actions were judged by their consequences. By this definition, Truman’s use of the bomb was a good action, because it shortened the war and thereby saved more lives than it cost.
The problem with this approach is that consequences are known only after the fact, and they are shaped by influences beyond the actor’s control. What if Japan had refused to surrender even after the two atom bombs, and the war had gone on until the Japanese home islands were invaded and subdued by conventional means? Would that have made Truman’s decision a bad—that is, immoral—one?
An alternative standard for judging actions focuses on intent. What does the actor intend to do? This standard has the advantage of being known—by the actor—ahead of time, and it doesn’t depend on the actions of others. Elizabeth Anscombe looked to Truman’s intent in ordering the use of the bomb. What did he intend? To kill scores thousands of Japanese civilians. This was what made him a war criminal.
To be sure, Truman’s purpose in killing all those people was to persuade the Japanese government to surrender. But he couldn’t know that it would. In his uncertainty he committed mass murder. That his ghoulish gamble paid off didn’t absolve him of his sin.
One could do a thought experiment. Suppose American forces had landed on Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands, and established control over the population there. And suppose Truman had ordered Japanese civilians to be executed, a thousand at a time, until the Japanese government surrendered the rest of the country. Almost everyone would have condemned such a policy as atrociously criminal. Yet Truman’s use of the bomb was essentially the same policy, except that the killings were done by the scores of thousands.
Anscombe’s complaint against Truman drew on thinking that gave rise to her 1957 book Intention, which became a landmark in the philosophy of decision-making. Her academic colleagues were quite taken with her arguments. The general public was more skeptical. And Truman was wholly dismissive. “I made the decision on the facts as they existed at that time, and if I had to do it again I would do it all over again,” he said.
Which raises another philosophical chestnut about the good—to wit, what is philosophy good for? If Anscombe’s theory can’t distinguish between Truman and Hitler, it doesn’t seem very useful, on either moral or practical grounds.
But maybe it’s not supposed to be useful in the ordinary sense. Perhaps it simply holds up a mirror to actions with a caution like that on the side mirrors of cars. There the warning is that objects are closer than they appear. The philosophical counterpart might be that actions are often more fraught than they seem. The mirror warning doesn’t prevent us from changing lanes, but it prompts us to be careful in doing so. Likewise the philosophical warning needn’t keep us from taking needed action, but we should weigh our options carefully, and the more carefully the higher the stakes.
Truman gave the impression of never having lost sleep over his decision to use the bomb. Perhaps he really didn’t lose any. But some of us might wish he had. A little insomnia is a small price for such a momentous decision.