“A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions, taken simply on the assumptions of worldly wisdom.” – Russell Kirk
In the current climate, any critical commentary regarding U.S. employment of atomic weapons during World War II—on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 6 and 9, 1945—runs the risk of devolving into mere America-bashing. Under enormous pressures of political-correctness, it is all too easy for even the tradition-minded 21st-century Catholic in the U.S. to go with the flow, waxing noisily self-righteous about crises which we never had to face and which happened long ago and far away.
Rather than beat our breasts with false repentance over what “we” did to the Japanese, let us admit that most of us did not live through the Second World War, and that by “we” what is very often meant is “they”. In reality, we do not remember where we were when we first heard the breaking news about Pearl Harbor, we have never had to worry about the outcome of the most catastrophic conflict the world has ever seen, and for the most part we post-nationals today have little connection with those American sailors, soldiers, and airmen who were killed or maimed fighting against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific.
With that in mind, let me emphasize that Christian moral philosophy is not about loudly and uncharitably condemning others who made mistakes in the past. It is, rather, about learning from said past, so as to avoid repeating the same mistakes ourselves.
Certainly no serious Catholic can help but find the destruction of Nagasaki poignant, as the city was the site of famous martyrdoms during the close of Japan’s “Christian Century,” and had by 1945 become a key outpost of Christendom in the Orient. Indeed, that the bomb was dropped very nearly directly upon the Urakami Cathedral poses a disturbing thought: quite aside from the tens of thousands of residents killed by the bombing and ensuing radiation sickness, thousands of whom were our co-religionists, the Eucharist was presumably present in the cathedral’s tabernacle at the time. Did the United States government drop a nuclear bomb on Christ Himself?
For the English analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe the bomb represented an utter repudiation of just war doctrine, according to which a state must not only have just reasons for going to war (ius ad bellum) but must also prosecute the war in a just fashion (ius in bello). If it was such an outrage when the Germans practiced unrestricted submarine warfare during the First World War, how then had it become justifiable for the United States to practice unrestricted bombing during the Second? Such are the kinds of questions we might ask after reading “Mr. Truman’s Degree”, which was Anscombe’s protest on the occasion of Oxford University awarding an honorary degree to Harry Truman in 1956.
As Truman’s main claim to fame was the fact that he was the president who had ordered the bombs dropped, Anscombe found the honorary degree unconscionable. To those who praised the decision for having saved American lives, she replied that it was clear even at the time that the the Japanese would have surrendered had there been some guarantee that their emperor would not be executed as a war criminal. “It was the insistence on unconditional surrender that was the root of all evil,” Anscombe contended. “The connection between such a demand and the need to use the most ferocious methods of warfare will be obvious. And in itself the proposal of an unlimited objective in war is stupid and barbarous.”
Moreover, continues Anscombe, any argument on behalf of the bombings must sooner or later point toward utilitarianism:
For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensbury Rules: Its force does not depend on its promulgation as part of positive law, written down, agreed upon, and adhered to by the parties concerned. When I say that to choose to kill the innocent as a means to one’s ends is murder, I am saying what would generally be accepted as correct. But I shall be asked for my definition of “the innocent.” I will give it, but later. Here, it is not necessary; for with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we are not confronted with a borderline case. In the bombing of these cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.
It may be worth mentioning that Anscombe would become one of the earliest and most fervent opponents of legalized abortion, on one occasion being forcibly dragged away by police during a sit-in protest outside a new abortion clinic in Britain.
On that note, we find Archbishop Fulton Sheen explicitly linking the use of atomic weapons to other, more politically fashionable wrongs of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century:
When, I wonder, did we in America ever get into this idea that freedom means having no boundaries and no limits? You know, I think it began on the 6th of August 1945 at 8:15 am when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That blotted out boundaries. The boundary of America that was the aid of nations, and the nations that were helped. It blotted out the boundary between life and death for the victims of nuclear incineration. Among them even the living were dead. It blotted out the boundary between the civilian and the military. And somehow or other, from that day on in our American life, we say we want no limits and no boundaries.
Sheen’s remarks touch upon what seems to me a metaphysical truth about our contemporary situation. As the world has become more and more democratized, the modern mind has increasingly found boundaries, limits, and borders intolerably hateful, insofar as such restraints force man to recognize that he is not a god enjoying the unqualified freedom to go wherever and do whatever he wishes. Moreover, this hostility towards restraints seems so ubiquitous as to transcend conventional understandings of “left” and “right”.
It could simply be that those conventional understandings are in fact misunderstandings, and that contempt for traditional restraints is left-wing by definition. After all, if the military is inherently right-wing, and support for the use of atomic weapons is right-wing, then what do we make of military officers of the era – from Admirals Leahy and Halsey to Dwight Eisenhower – who asserted that the Japanese had already been effectively beaten? For such officers, the bomb was not only an act of terrorism, but a pointless one at that.
In his memoirs published in 1950, for instance, Leahy plainly condemned the destruction:
Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons […] My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.
Leahy’s common prejudice against “the Dark Ages” notwithstanding, the opinion of a veteran of the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, and the Boxer rebellion can hardly be dismissed as that of a politically-correct bleeding-heart with no experience of war’s grim reality.
Again, none of the preceding is meant to join in Anscombe’s full-throated attack on Harry Truman, much less to breezily condemn the crews of the Enola Gay or Bockscar, who were probably too absorbed in the practical side of their mission – navigating over the ocean, avoiding anti-aircraft fire, and so forth – to reflect much upon its moral dimension. It is not horrifying that imperfect men should make wrong choices under the extraordinary pressures of a world war; it is reprehensible that so many would, even with the benefit of hindsight, still dismiss the spiritual issues at stake with flippant sophistry. It is as if such people would rewrite the ending to Lord of the Rings such that Aragorn seizes the Ring and uses it to zap Mordor from afar, thereby allowing everyone to live happily ever after. Tolkien was wiser, and understood war much better.