Thinkers at War – John Rawls

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‘To each according to his threat advantage does not count as a principle of justice.’
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971

John Rawls

Born: 21 February 1921
Nationality: American
Profession: Academic philosopher
University: Harvard and Oxford
Died: 24 November 2002

Enthusiastic and patriotic, John Rawls enlisted in the US Army in the middle of World War Two as soon as he had finished his BA degree. It was February 1943 and, after some basic training, he was assigned to the Pacific theatre.

His first experience of combat was in New Guinea – a country which saw fighting for almost the whole duration of the Pacific campaign – where he won a Bronze Star.

He was then redeployed to the Philippines, and served in the trenches under constant fire for many days. The experience seemed particularly terrible to Rawls and his fellow servicemen, the philosopher confided many years later, because they knew the Japanese would neither surrender nor take prisoners. That meant that unless he and his comrades killed all the enemy, some Americans would inevitably die.

One soldier in a dugout close to Rawls stood up and deliberately removed his helmet to take a bullet to the head, choosing to die rather than endure the constant barrage.

But Rawls survived unscathed and was later deployed to Japan, where he became part of the 350,000-strong US military force which occupied the country after the surrender of August 1945.

It was a curious time: the Japanese surrender had signed away legal authority to General Douglas MacArthur’s Supreme Allied Command, and Americans were designing new institutions for the country. But Rawls was too junior to have much decision-making authority himself: as a sergeant, he spent most of his time dealing with other US servicemen.


A capable infantryman, Rawls seems to have impressed his superiors. He had already been promoted from a private, and would have gone on to become an officer were it not for two events in late 1945 – events which turned the future theorist against the military for good.

The first came in the autumn of 1945, when Rawls passed through Hiroshima after it had been destroyed by an atomic bomb. The total obliteration of physical infrastructure, and the even more horrific human toll, affected him deeply. The scale of the tragedy, and the fact that the destruction had been deliberately inflicted by his own side, was profoundly unsettling. He wrote that the scenes still haunted him 50 years later.

The second incident was more personal. Sergeant Rawls was instructed by a first lieutenant to discipline a fellow soldier. Rawls refused, believing no punishment was justified. This act of insubordination resulted in Rawls being demoted back to a private.

By January 1946, Rawls was as disenchanted with the Army as it was with him, and they parted ways. Rawls was soon back in Ivy League academia, where he would spend rest of his working life.


The two incidents illustrate Rawls’ ideas succinctly. The desolation of post-atomic Hiroshima was not only horrific; it was also a city where the rich fabric of social institutions, laid down over many generations, had been wiped out. The challenge was to ensure that a better society emerged in its place.

Deciding what this new society should look like was the task of the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers, and Rawls took this question – what should the rules of a society be – back to the US. But only in 1971 did he come up with a comprehensive answer. His theory starts by imagining away all that had gone before, just as the past had been erased in Hiroshima.

The disciplinary incident is even more revealing. Sergeants are required to uphold military rules – it is one of their principal functions – and their failure to do so can undermine the cohesion on which armies rely. Yet

Rawls put aside this large-scale consideration to ensure that justice was applied to a single individual. His action foreshadows Rawls’ main intellectual battle – against the philosophy of Utilitarianism.

Utilitarians argued that the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ should direct policy, but Rawls contended that this permitted the individual’s concerns to be overridden by the mass. ‘The integrity of each person had to be protected,’ he said. This principle became the basis for his whole philosophy.


Before the war, Rawls had been a committed Episcopalian. His undergraduate thesis had been about ‘Sin and Faith’, and the young Rawls had even considered joining the priesthood. But his experiences in the Pacific and in post-war Japan shattered his cosy certainties.

As an old man, he mused that if ever he needed evidence that God was not enough, he remembered the words of a military chaplain who had told the American soldiers that God would ‘shield them’ but not the Japanese (Rawls later wrote that he ‘upbraided’ the pastor for distorting the Bible).

Then he would recall what he had seen in Hiroshima, the news he had heard about Auschwitz while travelling on a train in 1945, and the arbitrariness with which several of his fellow soldiers had been killed, one of the them dying in his arms. God, it seemed, had been absent.

Demobilised from the Pacific in 1946 to start a doctorate in moral philosophy back at Princeton, Rawls was a very different person to the God-fearing optimist who had volunteered for service. Religion and the Army had failed him. In their place, he had developed a thirst for justice – or, more accurately, a thirst to discover what justice was.

His worldview had been shaped by a collection of vivid, shocking, and deeply personal experiences, all of them from his wartime service. The course of the rest of his life was set.

Rawls: political philosopher

John Rawls is commonly described as the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. In the succinct words of former President Bill Clinton, Rawls ‘almost singlehandedly … revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate helped the least fortunate is not only a moral society, but a logical one’.

The work of this reclusive Harvard academic has become a mainstay of undergraduate courses, and his ideas have influenced western and international institutions, most notably the European Union and the United Nations.

Rawls’ defining idea was an argument in favour of helping the least well-off. To eliminate the bias of self-interest, he imagined forcing people to choose how society should be governed without letting them know where in society they would be. People in this hypothetical scenario, he said, would act to protect the weakest in society, just in case it was them. Hence, he concluded, helping the least well-off person was the right thing to do.

He offered an idealised account of founding fathers establishing a New World, improving on the work of America’s own founding fathers. It is no coincidence that Rawls became famous during the Vietnam War – a conflict that rocked American society, as news footage propelled front-line horrors into the sitting rooms of a TV-viewing public, and body bags brought back more than 50,000 US soldiers, many of them conscripts.

Rawls’ arguments presented a uniquely American account of why US military involvement in South East Asia was un-American. When his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, was published in 1971, he became a hero of the liberal left.

Rawls’ fame and influence, and the strength of his argument, was sufficient to rejuvenate the whole topic of ethics. Ever since Wittgenstein’s clever arguments in the 1920s, the field had been left barren. Many wondered whether concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ really meant anything.

Rawls put Wittgenstein in his place: logic was only part of the answer; our instincts mattered, too, he said. Right and wrong were important because each person was important.

It was a heartfelt argument from a quiet man who was determined to save humanity from another battlefield hell.

Rawls and the Pacific War

US engagement in the Pacific War began following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 – famously described by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as ‘a date that will live in infamy’.

Japan had invaded Manchuria a decade earlier, and, less successfully, pushed into Soviet Russia in 1939. But it was American involvement which transformed the conflict. Once Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy confirmed their support for Japanese aggression, the Pacific theatre became part of World War Two – with action across an even greater area than the war in Europe.

Japan followed their Hawaii attack by sinking two British warships, forcing the surrender of Thailand and capturing Hong Kong, Guam, and Wake Island – all within a single month. Then, at the start of 1942, they invaded Burma and drove south in a rapid advance, taking vast swathes of territory and thousands of Allied prisoners, reaching as far as the Philippines by May. They even bombed the Australian mainland.

But fateful Japanese miscalculations in the Battle of Midway of June 1942 left their carrier fleet crippled; and from then until their surrender, three years later, the story was the same – fierce attrition, hard-won Allied victories, an ever diminishing Japanese domain, and ever-more desperate Japanese defence.

The first successful Allied counter-offensive was in New Guinea, followed by a very bloody victory in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands early in 1943. From there, the Americans adopted an ‘island hopping’ strategy, using each new territorial gain to launch an assault on the next. This approach took them to Saipan, Tarawa, the Phillippines, Iwo Jima, and eventually Okinawa.

Meanwhile, Japanese forces were pushed back from India and Burma, while the US Navy – in particular their submarines – backed up by USAAF flying fortress bombers, deprived Japan of the resources needed to sustain an industrial war.

Anticipating the bloodiest battle of all on the Japanese home islands, President Truman ordered the use of atomic bombs – a decision which may have saved the lives of many thousands of US servicemen, but at the cost of approximately a quarter of a million Japanese civilians.

The Soviets re-entered the war on the same day as the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki, and less than 24 hours later, on 10 August 1945, the Japanese Cabinet decided to surrender.

This article featured in issue 46 of Military History Monthly.


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