What legal accountability, if any, was available regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki around that time?

Who could request an investigation into the incident? Could people who weren't US citizens request that the US government or other body investigate the incident? Would those investigating the incident be free to investigate it without being forbidden by their superiors? Would the POTUS be immune from prosecution unless he were impeached by congress? And what about those following orders given directly or indirectly by the POTUS?

I know that attitudes towards the bombing are different between then and now, and that attitudes towards the US being held accountable for war crimes or crimes against humanity are also very different between then and now. But I want to know if there was a process that could have been taken if it were so desired.

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    Worry less about the atomic bombs, and more about the Fire Bombing of Tokyo. Guess which one had more casualties? Commented May 4, 2017 at 5:12
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    @DrunkCynic You may be interested in the question history.stackexchange.com/questions/24312/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 5:23
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    Well there you go. The legality of the atomic bombings has been examined ad nauseum since Truman made the decision. His library in Missouri makes much of the choice. Commented May 4, 2017 at 5:32
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    This question could use a bit of tidying up. Legal accountability exists within legal systems. And while the post-WW2 Nuremberg trials established that there is such a thing as international law, that built upon the existing notion of war crimes. Is this question implying that atomic bombs were to be considered a war crime? Using chemical weapons constituted a war crime, since those were banned, but nuclear weapons were not publicly known and by extension not banned.
    – MSalters
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 14:56
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    @MSalters not atomic bombs, but the way in which they were used.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 22:25

3 Answers 3


Here's my best shot at answering your question:

Since the bombing was a military act carried out during wartime, it's highly unlikely that any legal action could have been taken. Nuclear bombs were a brand new weapon, and thus there were no existing rules regarding their use.

But legal hypotheticals aside, the reality is that public opinion was firmly behind the President. After being at war since 1941 and suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties, the U.S. populace was ready for the war to end.

However, ending the war in the Pacific required complete surrender from the Japanese. Since they were intent on fighting to the last man, this would have necessitated an invasion of mainland Japan - a bloody endeavor that military planners estimated could result in up to 1,000,000 American casualities.

The atomic bombs changed everything. Yes, they were destructive and caused immense casualities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but their use forced the Japanese to surrender far earlier than they otherwise would have - thus saving countless American (and Japanese) lives in the long run.

So, even if there had been a clear avenue for legal recourse, it's doubtful there would have been any public support for it.

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    .... and during an actual, formal, declared war, at that. I'd certainly offer, as well, that even if Japan was going to collapse and not cause anywhere near those casualties estimates, the USSR grabbing as much territory as possible in the vacuum left by the failing Japanese war efforts, as they did in Europe, probably played into the sense of urgency to get the surrender immediately, as well. Commented May 5, 2017 at 15:49
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    It takes a mind reader to be able to say that Japanese were intent on fighting to the last man. Admiral Nimitz said "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war." Eisenhower said "It wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing".
    – H2ONaCl
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 23:44

What legal accountability, if any, was available regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki around that time?


Who could request an investigation into the incident? Could people who weren't US citizens request that the US government or other body investigate the incident? Would those investigating the incident be free to investigate it without being forbidden by their superiors? . . . And what about those following orders given directly or indirectly by the POTUS?

This was a very well documented incident whose details were not hidden from the public for very long. The U.S. itself publicized the details out of sentiments that first were basically civic pride, and later were out of a desire for historical accuracy of a historically important event. Thus, it was "investigated".

But, it was also entirely legal at the time. This was not a war crime as defined by any international law binding on the United States, or domestic law of the United States during World War II.

There was a declared war between the United States and Japan and that justified the use of any level of military force deemed appropriate by the U.S. against Japan under the law of that time period, even if many innocent civilians were killed as collateral damage.

The treaties that made it a war crime to use nuclear bombs on civilians, and other arguably applicable modern treaties governing the conduct of war that are designed to protect innocent civilians, did not exist during World War II.

For example, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which provides protection to civilians in times of war, was not adopted until 1949.

The Hague Conventions (II) and (IV) of 1899, which were restated in the Hague Conventions (IV) of 1907 with the same article numbers for the most part Hague Convention of 1899 (II), arguably applied (in particular, parts of Annex Articles 22 to 28), but had no enforcement mechanism and didn't adopt a stance of personal liability of governmental leaders for war crimes.

Basically, the Hague Conventions contemplated a regime in which one sovereign would sue another sovereign for alleged war crimes in an international court of arbitration, or would retaliate against violators militarily, rather than one in which individuals would have standing to enforce violations of these treaties. But, the court of arbitration was never established or used in any case of consequence.

The relevant articles (omitting irrelevant articles and irrelevant subparagraphs of articles quoted below) stated that:

Art. 22.

The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.

Art. 23.

In addition to the prohibitions provided by special Conventions, it is especially forbidden -

To employ poison or poisoned weapons;

To kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army;

To declare that no quarter will be given;

To employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering;

To destroy or seize the enemy's property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war;

Art. 25.

The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended is prohibited.

Art. 26.

The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authorities.

Art. 27.

In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.

It is the duty of the besieged to indicate the presence of such buildings or places by distinctive and visible signs, which shall be notified to the enemy beforehand.

Art. 28.

The pillage of a town or place, even when taken by assault, is prohibited.

As indicated with emphasis above, even many of these provisions arguably had limitations that would prevent them from applying by their own terms.

Realistically, the emphasized weasel words above, as understood at the time, would have relieved the U.S. of liability under all of the applicable Articles, even if there was any means for legally enforcing the Hague Convention (IV) of 1907 which superseded the Hague Convention (II) of 1899.

The United States was never a party to Hague Convention of 1899 (IV), which expired in 1904 anyway and banned aerial bombing from balloons and analogous devices. The U.S. was a party to parallel provisions of the Hague Convention of 1907, but Japan was not a party to those. And, the Hague Conventions only applied when all states involved in a conflict were signatories of the treaty in question.

The legal effect of the Hague Conventions had also been severely degraded by WWII, due to the fact that they were widely disregarded with impunity in World War I.

Also, any remedy of Japan as a sovereign nation, or of individuals in Japan harmed by the bombings, against the United States or any of its leaders, would have probably been waived by the terms of the treaty of surrender that ended the war in the Pacific in 1945.

And, any remedy of Japan as a sovereign nation would have been setoff for alleged warcrimes of Japan against the United States, for example, for Pearl Harbor and violations of maritime provisions of the Hague Convention of 1907 adopted by both nations.

Furthermore, one of the recognized remedies for a violation of a law of war is a proportional violation of a law of war in retaliation by another combatant who is also otherwise bound by that law of war (not necessarily the combatant who was the victim of the original war crime). So, to the extent that Japan was guilty of serious war crimes itself, the law of war would have recognized the atomic bombing of two medium sized Japanese cities by the United States as a legal tit for tat retaliation for Japan's violations.

Furthermore, it is important to note an usual feature of the way that United States law treats treaties. In most countries, a domestic law cannot override a treaty with another country. But, under the United States Constitution, a domestic law passed after a treaty overrides a treaty where the two conflict, and a treaty passed after a domestic law overrides a domestic law when the two conflict. Thus, under U.S. law, the declaration of war on Japan in World War II would have prevailed legally over any conflicting provision of the Hague Convention of 1907.

Would the POTUS be immune from prosecution unless he were impeached by congress?

The President has absolute immunity from civil and criminal liability for his official conduct under United States law (and under the law of many other countries which afford immunity to heads of state generally for their official conduct), and dropping these bombs would absolutely constitute official conduct.

If the President is impeached by Congress the only legal effect of that impeachment is that the President ceases to be President. It does not strip the President of legal immunity for conduct while the President was the President.


The empire of Japan would not allow surrender and Roosevelt knew he could never invade Japan without an unacceptable number of US casualties. After the first bomb japan still refused surrender until after the second bomb when coming to the realization Tokyo was likely next. Hold the Japanese powers that be at that time accountable if you want to place blame.

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    I'm not asking about moral accountability, but legal accountability.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 8:15

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