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Was it Wrong to Drop the Atom Bomb on Japan?


This piece by Fr. Miscamble is, first of all, a piece of historical analysis not a piece of abstract moral philosophy. I will remind us, however, of the difference between the objective morality of an act and the subjective culpability of the moral agent.

When I interviewed Fr. Miscamble last year he explained how he backed into this discussion as a historian not as an ethicist. He knew the consensus of the popes, the bishops and most Catholic moral theologians. For this reason, he wasn’t championing an ethical conclusion. In his task as a professional historian, as well as in his vocation as a priest, Fr. Miscamble thought a better grasp of the historical circumstances was important. Today we have the luxury of knowing outcomes that were unavailable to Truman but were not wholly irrelevant to his decisiomaking. Do we properly grasp the historical situation given the reams of speculation over the last seventy years? Are we making ethical decisions in the absence of a proper understanding of the ethical situation? Fr. Miscamble mentions the conclusion of the “Atomic Diplomacy” school of thought: Truman was motivated to drop the bomb in order to teach the Soviet Union how they had better not mess with us or Europe after the war. I disagree with that reading of President Truman’s motivations. He may well have considered such consequences but it was hardly his motivation.

Consider the call to be a peacemaker in the midst of war. If you just stop fighting and surrender, will that lead to peace? If not, then what are your ethical choices?

Once war has begun, the participants have already decided that peace is impossible without decisive victory. The Japanese remained implacably opposed to peace even in the face of certain defeat. What do you do to bring about peace? Did Truman think of the atomic bomb as just a bigger conventional weapon? I am not at all sure that he grasped the human cost because he didn’t understand the severity of the bomb. Civilian deaths can be foreseen as a consequence of one’s actions without intending those deaths. Is the doctrine of double effect applicable? Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to Fr. Miscamble’s analysis, were military-industrial targets.

The Church’s places great moral weight on the difference between combatants and noncombatants. This is a grave matter. This moral distinction is part of the world’s debt to the Catholic Church. Even principles of warfare have been changed by the Incarnation and Pentecost. A sacred boundary was drawn between combatants and noncombatants. In my reading of history, however, this begins changing, sadly, with the American Civil War. The sacred distinction becomes less clear and less appreciated in WWI and certainly by WWII is entirely lost. Even Churchill, who claims he is fighting for the protection of Christian civilization, admits that he was forced to adopt the barbaric standards of Hitler in carrying out the war.

He commanded the indiscriminate bombing of cities just like Hitler had bombed London. He wrote to his Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook: “When I look round to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path. We have no Continental army which can defeat the German military power. The blockade is broken and Hitler has Asia and probably Africa to draw from. Should he be repulsed here or not try invasion, he will recoil eastward, and we have nothing to stop him. But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”

Was Churchill required to fight the war on Hitler’s terms?  I would like to say no although God himself will be the ultimate judge. It is easy to pose as morally superior when we are above the historical fray.

Let me give one example of a morally significant circumstance that might change the definition of combatant. A close friend, who served in Vietnam, told me that children were sometimes employed as combatants by the Viet Cong. He lost a brother in arms who was handing chocolates out to a small gang of youngsters. One of the youngsters tossed an explosive device into the truck in which he was riding. Were children now legitimate targets for my friend? Had that child been deputized as a combatant? Does that change in circumstance, alter the moral decisionmaking?  Is modern war invariably total war? Is the entire citizenry deputized as combatants? The Japanese military leadership, Fr. Miscamble claimed in my interview, although not in this accompanying video, that Japanese leadership had turned the entire population of Japan into an army. What becomes of a combatant/noncombatant distinction in such a total war situation?

Truman’s actions had overwhelming public support. However, after the dropping of the bomb, many significant American voices regarded the bombing as “barbaric”, “lacking any military justification whatsoever”, “seriously undermines America’s international moral standing”.  Gar Alperovitz, in his The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, quotes General Eisenhower, Admiral Leahy, former president Herbert Hoover as hostile to the bomb’s use. Norman Cousins, in his Pathology to Power, claims that even General Douglas MacArthur, was not consulted, and would have rejected its use. I have not confirmed those references but take them at face value.

The Church teaches that just war principles are applied both in deciding to enter war and in the conduct of our behavior within war. These need to be applied in particular circumstances with sometimes surprising shifts in definition. In this situation, the two questions that I believe have moral significance and which may cloud the issue are:

  1. In total war, i.e., where national leadership essentially deputizes the entire civilian population, what becomes of the classic distinction between combatant and non-combatant? This was something of the defense put forth by William Calley after the My Lai massacre.
  2. What do you do when faced with an opponent whose intention is, for ideological or religious reasons, to never surrender because to do so would be a shameful dishonor, more grievous that death itself? How does one live as a peacemaker in that environment?

Remember that this fine video by Fr. Miscamble is not laying out the Church’s teaching on just war principles. He is functioning as a historian reviewing the historical circumstances surrounding the Truman decision and concluding that it was an awful decision- but the least awful available.


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