Dropping the Atomic Bomb Was Wrong. Period.


There you are, beer in hand, watching the pig turn on its spit at the parish picnic. (If there is no beer or roast pig at your parish picnic, you need to find a new parish.) The conversation lags for a moment, but because you enjoy some good verbal sparring you know just how to get it going: You ask a question. “What about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945?”

The reaction from the group is mixed.

“It ended the war,” a lady says.

“My Great-Uncle Henry was on a troop ship bound for the land invasion of Japan,” a man argues.

“We owed ’em for Pearl Harbor.”

“Do you know what the Japanese did in Nanking?”

You do find fellow Catholics opposed to the bombing, but perhaps as many as half of U.S. Catholics today approve of President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet every pope since the event, the Second Vatican Council, hundreds of bishops, and scores of distinguished theologians, apologists, and preachers have condemned it, and the Catechism is clear about the matter. Why are Catholics divided?

The underlying reasons for American support of the atomic bomb are surely varied, but two reasons merit consideration because of their power to obscure our moral reasoning. The first is the problem of distance, and the second is Americanism.

So Far Away

In his thought-provoking 1995 work, On Killing, retired Army Ranger Lt. Col. Dave Grossman examines the extent to which physical distance creates emotional distance from the act of taking a human life. He shows with numbers what we know intuitively: A soldier is more likely to resist driving his knife into an enemy soldier’s abdomen than a bomber pilot is to resist dropping a bomb on a civilian neighborhood. He reports that despite all of the historical evidence of soldiers’ unwillingness to kill in hand-to-hand combat or with their rifles from within a line-of-sight range, he did not find a single incident in which a soldier refused to fire a long-range weapon such as an artillery piece or missile launcher—nor did he find a pilot or bombardier unwilling to drop his bombs.

More unsettling, while psychological trauma is not uncommon among infantrymen who have been in close combat, Col. Grossman did not find “a single instance of psychiatric trauma” associated with long-range killing. That includes the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Super Fortress that dropped “Little Boy” on the people of Hiroshima. Indeed, Enola Gay’s pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, went to his death claiming that he never felt guilt or lost sleep over having dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Indeed, he flew reenactments of the event at air shows.

Grossman provides eerily antiseptic testimony given by Allied bomber pilots and crews who firebombed Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. These campaigns together claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 noncombatants, mostly women, children, and elderly (because men of fighting age were off fighting). The bombers reported feeling “fascination” and “satisfaction” but not guilt or regret.

Grossman’s argument should provoke us to ask if many people’s comfort with the bomb does not derive, at least in part, from a condition of distance from the event. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 180,000 civilians. Would supporters of the bombings be as sanguine if a battalion of Marines had been sent into the same cities to bayonet an equal number of women, children, and elderly?

The killers’ distance from the event is not the only distance that impairs our judgment: We now have the distance not just of an ocean, but also of almost seven decades. A 2009 Quinnipiac University poll reports that only one in five Americans feel certain that Truman’s action was wrong.

My Country, Right or Wrong

Americans have another blind spot when it comes to evaluating our country’s political actions—perhaps especially our military adventures, because these are seen as patriotic events. The blind spot is nationalism. Patriotism, love of one’s native land, is a genuine virtue, to be sure. But when it becomes nationalism—an excessive veneration of one’s country and its government—it becomes a vice.

This vice is nothing less than a heresy condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 as “Americanism.” Americanism, no less virulent in our day than it was in Leo’s, combines a collective sense of Christian exceptionalism (America as the “Shining City on a Hill”) with the hubristic conviction that America can draw up her own moral code. The American myth of a Shining City on a Hill has grown more powerful since John Winthrop fired the hearts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 with the idea that they were building something ordained by Scripture. Herman Melville, who penned the novel Moby Dick, in 1850 wrote:

Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. . . . God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. . . . Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us. (White-Jacket, ch. 36)

The myth was used to justify our government’s treatment of the aboriginal population. When America began her westward expansion, John Dix, senator from New York, explained Manifest Destiny in religious terms, “It is the behest of Providence that idleness, and ignorance, and barbarism, shall give way to industry, and knowledge, and civilization” (Congressional Globe, 1848).

Later, Abraham Lincoln would justify a war that claimed 600,000 lives by describing America as “the last best, hope of earth” (Annual Message to Congress, 1862) and Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (regrettably sung in Catholic Churches today) invokes apocalyptic imagery casting America herself in the last battle.

Americanism was no less in evidence in the 20th century in the political rhetoric of John F. Kennedy and of Ronald Reagan, who used to great effect Winthrop’s Shining City image. It was in the fervor of the Reagan era that the Catholic founder of Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly, declared: “The atomic bomb is a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God” (The New York Times, July 9, 1982). In 1995 she defended the atomic bomb in her newsletter as a “lifesaver bomb” that saved the lives of “thousands of our best and brightest young men” (Eagle Forum, Aug. 10, 1995). (It also took the lives of 12 U.S. Navy pilots who were prisoners of war in Hiroshima.)

Judgment by Effects

Schlafly’s defense of the bomb’s alleged moral merits on the grounds that it saved American lives illustrates the kind of American exceptionalism that can cloud our judgment when evaluating the bomb. Her argument also goes to the heart of all the arguments that are made in the bomb’s defense, which could be summarized this way: It was good that we dropped the bomb because dropping it produced good effects. Among these good effects are:

-- It ended the war by inspiring the Japanese to surrender.
-- It saved lives (American and Japanese) that would have been lost in a land invasion of Japan.

How many lives is a point of fierce debate, but extraordinary numbers are commonly presented with no substantiation and abundant hyperbole. A recent (March 2011) letter to the editor in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, for example, adopts a utilitarian tone by declaring that dropping the bomb was a better choice than “risk[ing] millions of casualties in a prolonged war that would [have] kill[ed] many more of those ‘innocent Japanese civilians’ . . . Dropping the bombs stopped the war, saved many more Japanese lives than they [sic] destroyed, and possibly preserved Japan from annihilation.” Another letter in the same issue declared, based on the testimony of a single Japanese man, that “every Japanese man, woman, and child was preparing to fight to the death against the expected land invaders.”

The U.S. government’s estimate of American casualties was closer to 50,000.

Others support the bombings because they potentially saved the lives of their ancestors. Every August, when the bomb debate is revived, op-eds and letters to the editor describe how Grandfather was on a troop ship bound for Japan when the news of the surrender came. Had Truman not ordered the dropping of the bomb, the writer contends, he might never have been born.

While efforts to uncover the motives or the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may make fascinating political and military history, they are of little use in helping us discern the morality or immorality of the act. What is more to the point, judging the morality of an act based on its consequences or ends can lead to dangerous moral reasoning.

Consequences or Truth

In 1958 English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who was a convert to Catholicism and an influence on C.S. Lewis and Alasdair MacIntyre, named this defective form of moral reasoning, “consequentialism.”

Briefly, it is a system of moral reasoning that determines, in Anscombe’s words “that ‘the right action’ is the action which produces the best possible consequences” (“Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, v. 33, 1958).

Sometimes making a case for a course of action from consequences can serve the good. For example, marriage and family advocates (Phyllis Schlafly among them) have for several decades been compiling evidence enough to choke an elephant that lifelong marriage is good for society. Children of divorce and children born out of wedlock are much more likely to suffer pathologies of mental and physical health than are those raised in intact families. Children from broken homes are more likely to make bad moral decisions (fornication, drug use, suicide) than are children raised in two-parent families.

It does not take long, however, for consequentialism to come up short, because it does not speak to the nature of the matter at hand. Divorce is wrong, not because of its ill effects (which, divorce defenders will argue, can be addressed through therapy) but because it is a sin against the nature of marriage, which is a permanent bond.

Political conservatives will argue that women should not serve in combat-arms specialties in the Armed Forces because they are often not suited to the physical demands; for example, they cannot throw a hand grenade beyond the blast radius. The response is easy enough: more physical training. If conservatives would begin by saying it is a violation of the nature of women—which is to give and nurture life—to bear arms, they would make more progress.
The problems with consequentialism are altogether exposed when we see an evil act defended because of the alleged good it produces. Defenders of abortion often make such arguments, saying that abortion spares a child who would be born into trying circumstances (poverty, a broken home) from a life of misery. Catholics should sense the absurdity of sparing someone a life of misery by taking his life, whether at the beginning or near the end. The moral principle, manifest in both natural law and in Scripture, that refutes the pro-abortion argument is this: A good end does not justify an evil means. Or, as Paul writes in Romans 3:8: We cannot “do evil so that good may come.”

We must apply this moral principle whenever we decide to evaluate a course of action based on its outcomes. This is not to say that we can never do this; in fact we do it every day. A mother decides to prepare dinner for her family so they are nourished and spend time together in conversation at the end of the day. A father regularly changes the oil in the family minivan so his family’s transportation is kept in good running order and available when needed. A couple contemplating divorce might decide that the strain of staying together is outweighed by the benefit to their children of coming from a two-parent home. Nonetheless, the real reason not to divorce is because divorce is an evil morally opposed to the law of God.

The Act Itself

The difficulty arises when we are faced with a moral decision that appears wrong but seems to have good effects, as in the case of the atomic bomb, where the deliberate killing of 180,000 Japanese civilians, “saved lives,” as Phyllis Schlafly argued, or “ended the war,” as Truman argued. We need to evaluate the morality of the act in and of itself.

Is it ever right deliberately to take an innocent life? We know from the natural law and from the Decalogue that the answer is no, that this is the sin of murder, which is why Anscombe in 1956 opposed with a pamphlet Oxford University’s decision to grant Truman an honorary degree. “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,” wrote Anscombe.

The pamphlet, “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” is readily available online and well worth reading for, among other reasons, its careful treatment of the question, “Who is innocent in times of war?” Defenders of the bomb will argue that the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not innocent because these industrial centers were central to the Japanese war effort. The previously cited letter to the editor argued that Japanese civilians were “willingly supplying their troops with the arms used against our military forces.” The extent to which they were is debated by the same scholars who wonder if the bomb really precipitated the end of the war, but it should be noted that ground zero of Hiroshima was the city center, and that many of Hiroshima’s suburban factories suffered little damage from the bomb.

Moreover, neither city endured conventional bombing during the air campaign against Japan because they were not even among the Bomber Command’s top 30 cities. Truman’s words when confronted with the possibility of dropping a third bomb reveal his knowledge of his action: “The thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible” (quoted by Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace).

Modernity and Just War

Modern warfare has made it increasingly difficult for moralists to distinguish innocent civilians from combatants. Enemy soldiers in a just war are legitimate targets; civilian women packaging field rations or sewing uniforms are not. Nor are Japanese children no matter how many bamboo sticks they sharpened in preparation for an American land invasion (an oft-repeated justification for dropping the bomb).

Pope Benedict says the widespread devastation caused by modern weapons requires more caution, not less, in prosecuting a war. As Cardinal Ratzinger, in a 2003 interview with 30 Days, he said: “[W]e must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a just war might exist.”

The Holy Father’s words are consistent with a centuries-old tradition of just war that begins with the assumption that a people should avoid going to war—“a human failure,” as Bl. John Paul II put it—except as a last resort. To determine if that last resort is justified, the Church requires certain conditions of just-war doctrine to exist. The doctrine has developed since the time of St. Augustine (who drew inspiration from Marcus Tullius Cicero), but today the Catechism requires four conditions to be met before going to war (jus ad bellum):

-- The damage caused by the aggressor nation must be grave;
-- all other efforts at peace must be shown unworkable;
-- there must be a real prospect of success;
-- and “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” (CCC 2309)

Once a decision to go to war has been made, the Church also requires that it be prosecuted justly (jus in bello). The point cannot be overstressed. It is a common belief that once the shooting starts all means to win a war are licit. The term for that is “total war,” and the Church condemns it. Non-combatants may never be targeted, and the force used while fighting a war must be governed by proportionality. In the decision to use the atom bomb, neither of these terms was met. The Catechism, citing Vatican II, renders a specific judgment on such events:

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. [Cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 80 §3] A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes. (CCC 2314)

Amazingly, Catholic defenders of the atomic bomb, when faced with this clear condemnation, argue that the paragraph does not specifically name Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It also does not name the genocide of Catholics in the Vendée during the French Revolution, nor General Sherman’s March to the Sea during our War Between the States, nor the Tokyo, Hamburg, or Dresden air campaigns of the Second World War—but all of these were deliberate acts of war against civilians, meant to incite terror, and waged against vast civilian populations.

Some Catholics have looked for wiggle room in the word “indiscriminate,” arguing that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were deliberately chosen military targets. Yet the vast majority of the victims were civilians. Why were the city centers chosen as ground zero, where civilian populations were most dense, rather than the industrial suburbs or the ports?

The bombings also violated the condition of proportionality. Necessarily tied to the question of proportionality is the insistence on “unconditional surrender,” which inevitably inspires both sides to resort to desperate means. Once an aggressor has been rendered neutral, to drive him to accept humiliating terms does not meet the Church’s requirement to seek peace by every possible means. A negotiated peace with Japan would have prevented the dropping of the bomb just as a negotiated peace with Germany after the First World War likely would have prevented the outbreak of the Second.

In the face of so much teaching on the use of nuclear weapons, it seems impossible to believe that a serious Catholic would defend the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the great joys of being a Catholic is the freedom to accept the teaching of the Church, which claims a 2,000-year theological tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It falls to Catholics to submit to its teaching in love and humility even when we cannot make our way through the moral reasoning behind it. A majority of Catholics today reject the Church’s teachings on, among other things, contraception and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but that rejection does not alter, nor will it ever, the truths that the Church speaks.

Where the use of atomic bombs is concerned, we might pray that a wider acceptance on the part of Catholics of the authority of the Church would call down from heaven the grace to inspire a world of peace in which there would be no consideration of such weapons at all.


Christopher Check is Director of Development at Catholic Answers. A graduate of Rice University, for nearly two decades he served as vice president of The Rockford Institute. Before that he served for seven years as a field artillery officer in the Marine Corps, attaining the grade of captain....

This article appeared in Volume 22 Number 4.