Blackadder has about as good a set of posts as I've ever seen addressing the moral question of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from a contrarian position. (And Part II.)
This is a debate into which I generally refrain from inserting myself, in that there are three overall reactions that I have to the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan: I am glad that they successfully ended the war without the immense bloodshed (American and Japanese) that an invasion of the home islands would unquestionably have involved; I am deeply shocked and saddened at the incredible destruction that was wrecked upon a primarily civilian city (just as in the massive firebombings of both German and Japanese cities); and I am tremendously grateful not to be in the position having to make the decision that President Truman was confronted with.
There a certainly disturbing things which can be noted about the decision to drop the bomb on the particular targets that we did. Most especially of those that I have read, the desire of the targetting committee on the scientific side to pick a fairly untouched (thus, necessarily, militarily non-central) target in order to see clearly the effects of the bomb on a city.
There are also a number of other paths that were clearly considered, which might have been better than that which we eventually took. Blackadder links to primary source material about General Marshall's advocacy for using the bombs first against more exclusively military targets. And according to Truman's own diary, it was the intention to issue a warning to the civilian populace of the target city before dropping the bomb -- something which did not happen.
However at the same time, the very thing which makes alternative paths beguiling is that since they were not taken, we do not know what their results would have been. Thus, we can always allow ourselves to imagine that some alternative course would have had results as good as or better than what actually happened -- but we can never know.
While when I was younger I was a fairly vociferous defender of Truman's decision in regards to dropping the atomic bombs, I think I have lapsed into a position more of being willing neither to strongly endorse nor to condemn the decision.
Living, as we do, in a democracy, we rightly consider it our duty to consider the past and potential actions of our leaders and weigh their morality. And yet to the extent that we are a representative democracy, we still have leaders whose final duty it is to make certain decisions. Among those was Truman's decision to use atomic bombs against Japan.
Had I been in Truman's place, I might have chosen differently than he did -- though without being in Truman's place and knowing what he did and did not know at the time, it's hard to say. Or perhaps, I would have acted as Truman said he did in his diaries -- which either because he was not fully informed of what was going on or because his wishes were not fully carried out do not fully match what did in the end happen. (See Blackadder's first post for quotes from Truman's diaries.) But more than anything else I'm simply glad that I do not have the burden of making the decision Truman was faced with -- knowing that hundreds of thousands of people would die in horrible ways whichever way he chose. To be a leader in time of crisis is a truly great burden, and if anything it has become more so as the size of nations has swelled into the hundreds of millions of souls and our technology has put more destruction in the hands of fewer people.
This is not to say that we can never judge the actions of our leaders. Some of their actions are clearly right or clearly wrong. But there are other choices, and this was one, which I in no way envy them.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds in Ante-Purgatory a valley full of famous rulers who are not yet ready to enter the active purgation of Mt. Purgatory itself. Their obstacle to holiness is that they have for too long focused on their energies on securing earthly safety and prosperity for their countries. It was, in Dante's view, a responsibility which was ordered to the good, but not the highest good. And so they waited in the outskirts of Purgatory until they were sufficiently recentered on the ultimate good to begin their journey upwards.