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Hiroshima Bomb Dropping Time Again

It seems that every year 'round this time, the Catholic commentariate drops bombs on one another discussing whether dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the right thing to do.

In coverage of this annual discussion, James Todd, who runs the valuable Catholic news aggregator Pewsitter.com linked to a site defending Truman's decision. For this crime, my colleague Mark Shea to branded James Todd a Republican shill.

How, exactly, linking to an article supporting a 68 year old decision by a Democrat President makes you a Republican shill I have no idea unless you adhere to the absurd notion that Republicans are generally in favor of dropping atomic bombs on people for the greater good. And for sure, Republicans have not cornered the market on the error of consequentialism. I suppose Mark thinks it is ok to drop such rhetorical bombs if greater good can come of it?

For the record, Pewsitter.com also links to Mark's criticism as well as this video from Fr. Miscamble of Notre Dame also defending the decision. In the video, Fr. Miscamble states that dropping the bombs:

Assuming that all these things are true, does that in and of itself justify the bombing? I don't see how.

Analogies by definition are faulty but sometimes they can help make clear certain principles at work here.

Say for instance I am a General engaged in war against another General. We have battled town by town and the results have bloody and horrific. I have now been ordered to take the town that he now occupies and he has been ordered to defend the town at all costs even to the last man. History and reason tell me that taking the town will cost many lives on my side and probably most on his side and many lives of townfolk too. These townfolk, supply food and support to the army there, some voluntarily and some not.

Now I know that the attack on the town will be very costly, but I have an idea. Rather than engage in yet another direct and costly attack, I come up with another plan. I discover the names and addresses of the key command officers up to and including the general. I send my agents to capture their wives and children and bring them to the battlefield. I then send a message to to the opposing general and his staff that I will systematically execute their families unless they surrender.

Even though they have been warned, the general does not surrender. So I systematically begin to carry out my threat by executing the wife and four children of one of the general's lieutenants. Still they do not surrender. So I then execute the family of his top aide including his wife and three children including his infant daughter.

This shocking  tactic finally causes the general to surrender, avoiding the costly battle.  My actions"
  • Shortened the battle.
  • Averted the need to invade the town.
  • Saved countless lives on both sides
  • And ended the brutalization of non-compliant townsolk.
Would I be justified in using the tactic of targeting and killing non-combatants as a way to compel the enemy to surrender? Or is my brutality sinful in and of itself, regardless of any perceived or real positive outcome?

I have a hard time imagining that many Catholic thinkers would hold me justified.

Again, analogies are imperfect by definition and perhaps my analogy is more defective than most, but I think some of the principles are the same.

*subhead*Dropping bombs.*subhead*

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Seamus said...

The morality of the atomic bombings of Japan should not be done simply in a vacuum. It was entirely consistent with (but not thereby justified by) Gen. Curtis LeMay's fire-bombing of Japanese civilian populations using incendiary bombs deliberately intended to create firestorms in Japanese cities. Thus, Japanese civilians were already targeted deliberately with conventional weapons and as many as 2,000,000 civilians were killed before the atomic bombs were dropped. Any moral analysis of the dropping of the atomic bombs must also include the American firebombing of Japanese cities and the deliberate British targeting of German civilian populations with their strategic bombing campaign. It seems to me that civilian deaths by conventional weapons is morally indistinguishable from death by nuclear weapons especially since they were 'justified' by similar rationales.

Wine in the Water said...


That it was already being done with less deadly weapons is not a moral argument. The existence of a similar act does not establish the morality of an act.

The problem with the atomic bombings was not that they were atomic, it was that they deliberately targeted civilians. So, rather than a moral analysis of the atomic bombings in light of fire storming practices justifying atomic bombings, a moral analysis of the atomic bombings in light of fire storming reveals the immorality of fire storming when it is used to target civilians.

sparrow said...

I think Seamus has it right - there were plenty of cases where civilians were targeted as part of a total war theory. The type of weapon only matters in that a nuclear bomb can't be as precisely limited in it's scope as well as other bombs. War once under way loosens the normal social and legal constraints on murder such that in the heat of battle temptations are powerful. It's not exonerating, but it is mitigating just like we make a distinction between first degree and second degree murder. It's also beyond presumptuous for us 68 years later to judge the men who under tremendous pressure were making exceptionally difficult extremely consequential grave decisions. Here in the quiet of the current day I can leisurely think through the possibilities in the abstract. If I actually was there, I do not trust myself enough to believe I could withstand all the temptations. I think that we need to keep that in mind even as we decide better choices were possible. I think the annual picking at the scab is unhealthy. I especially detest using the occasion to beat each other up rhetorically. It's just so much moral preening.

elm said...



Stephen said...

I think that the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong - clearly so under Catholic moral teaching.

I don't necessarily presume to judge the men who made the decision to do so - they were under enormous pressure, war-weary, etc. So perhaps given circumstances God will not judge them harshly, much as (we presume) God judges a poor man who steals a pair of shoes for his daughter less harshly than a well-off man who steals a diamond necklace for sport, even though stealing, as such, is always wrong.

That said, I wonder why we always take it as a given that the unconditional surrender of Japan was a moral imperative. By the end of the war, japan's ability to project force outside of its home islands was effectively neutered. We could have simply built a large air base in Okinawa, staged a bunch of bombers there, and dropped bombs on Japan every time they started to build a ship longer than 50 feet long.

Nik J. said...

On the other hand, there were no noncombatants. The civilians supplied the soldiers wtih food and ammo, and were themselves trained to violently resist any attempted invasion.

puerandpaper said...

Nik J: true, but you are aware that school children and infants and unborn babies died in the bombing. Women and old men, too. All sorts of people who we generally consider not ok to kill were vaporized, melted, burned, deformed, and/or poisoned with radiation. This is of course not even counting those who had already died in the firebombings or of malnutrition.

Additionally, even if we could justify bombing Hiroshima (I submit that we cannot), the bombing of Nagasaki a mere three days later (not really enough time to let Japan figure out what to do one way or the other in terms of surrender) was out right murder done just to prove a point that had already been made.

Cathy D said...

I've seen this debate over the last couple of Augusts. I guess I'm confused over the point of it all. Why are we debating whether it was right or not? It happened. No amount of debate will change it. The mom in me just wants to know, can't you all find something constructive to do instead?

Sophia's Favorite said...

@Nik J: the same is true of all freemen in the history of the Western world. Does that mean Vikings slaughtering plowmen, women, and children was no different from open battle against other mail-clad warriors? Because they sure seemed to think the former was bad, if excusable in the frenzy of a raid. Are you going to admit that you have less moral sense than a Viking?

The nature of Japanese manufacturing did probably make Hiroshima and Nagasaki military targets, in a sense, but the same is true of any base with housing for the families of soldiers. If, however, the only major achievement of an action is to slaughter people who are not combat personnel, even if they're on a military base, then it is not a justified act.

Dymphna said...

Fat Man and Little Boy did something else for the Japanese that most people don't mention: it let them off the hook. We are still talking about Nazis, calling people we don't like Nazis and looking for them under the bed but nobody outside of Korea or China talks about what the incredible brutality Japanese soldiers meted out to civilians and POWs, both male and female. In many people's minds Hiroshima and Nagasaki made forgiving and forgetting possible.

Mack Hall, HSG said...

Perhaps the Catholic commentariate (an excellent neologism) could also spare a moment of reflection for the many Japanese death camps from Wake Island to Manchuria.

Harry Seldon said...

While the question of the atomic bombing goes on decade to decade, Mark Shea is on a trajectory which will take him into a facility where the dress code is straightjacket required before too much longer.

I remember when Mark was a relatively new Catholic, and how we all enjoyed "By What Authority" which is still a great book. Now, however, he comes off as an angry, raving, nearly-post-Catholic. I think living in the Northwest brought him into contact with so much liberalism that he thinks the weird place he is in now is the "center".

Oh well. At least he didn't go full Matatics on us.

Stephen said...

Cathy D: the debate is relevant because several modern states retain the power to destroy hundreds of thousands of civilians at a single stroke and it is clear that many people - likely a majority, see nothing wrong with this. The teachings of the Church on this matter are every bit as clear as are the teachings of the Church on the issue of abortion. It is a great evil to intentionally target civilians in a war or to wage at in such a way as to have a gross disregard for the lives of civilians. The mom in you may want to move on. But lots of moms in Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw their tiny, innocent children die horrible, pain-filled deaths.

Fr Bill Peckman said...

It is an interesting fact of history that the bombs were dropped on the two cities with the largest catholic populations. That said, that humanity has used its scientific wisdom and knowledge to more effectively and efficiently wipe out entire populations in a single stroke does not speak to our dignity as those created in the image and likeness of God. It speaks of unspeakable evil and a moral depravity of great depth; such things should be beneath us to desire, to utilize, and to execute. If the blood of Abel cried out to God, I wonder what the blood of millions slaughtered in war, genocide, and abortion sounds like. It is out of line with Catholic doctrine to want to add to that mighty roar.

Cassandra said...

Mark Shea is repugnant and unqualified to be attempting to teach publicly. He ought to take another look at the title of his book and ask "by what authority" he as a layman teaches publicly. Even when he's right, he arrives there through sloppy language and faulty logic--that is, accidentally.

Patrick's analogy fails in that the wives and children are outside the contested town. He needs to do better.

That said, the bombing in Japan was a fait accompli after the decision over German skies to bomb civilians indiscriminately earlier in the war. There was no moral fiber left to contest it.

What is really annoying in these discussions is that the premise of a land invasion is even tolerated. Last time I looked Japan was an island nation with few natural resources and dependent on ocean fishing to feed the population. A blockade was a possible route. If the Japanese fleet gets there first or arrives to defend, the atomic bomb could be legitimately used offshore on the fleet. But a blockade doesn't give Truman a nice tidy end to the war and creates problems in the 1948 elections. But hey, we all need to make sacrifices in the war effort--even political parties.

Seamus said...

Wine in the Water,

You missed my point completely. I in no way implied that previous conventional bombing targeting civilian populations justified the atomic bombings. My point is that we never talk about the morality of the Tokyo or Dresden fire bombings that killed similar numbers of civilians as if the splitting of chemical bonds is an acceptable way to kill noncombatants but splitting atoms is not. Wait until the February 13th anniversary to see if anyone questions the morality of the Dresden raid (perhaps 25-35,000 killed) or the March 10th anniversary to see if anyone wrings their hands over the 100,000 civilians killed in just one of several firebombings of Tokyo.


How is starving a whole nation through a blockade any more morally acceptable than bombing civilians? The first casualties in a siege or blockade are children, next the elderly, next women, and last the combatants themselves. As for the land invasion, this was indeed the American plan for subduing Japan and we were earnestly preparing for such an invasion. At least in the invasion scenario, there would be a strong tendency for combatants to be killed and any civilian deaths would tend to be unintended or collateral.

Nik J. said...

The Allied generals had intelligence that the women and older children would fight too, if invaded. This would therefore put them under the category of combat personnel, it would seem to me.

Sophia's Favorite said...

@Seamus: You are entirely correct, except for one thing—subduing the Japanese by a land invasion was pretty much going to involve scorched-earth tactics by both sides. Not only had the Japanese populace been fed propaganda that surrender to the Americans would entail many "fates worse than death", but Japanese tradition entailed that those who surrendered forfeited all rights.

The Americans, meanwhile, leaving to one side their racist propaganda about the Japanese (which precisely paralleled Japanese propaganda about the Koreans and Chinese), were going to have to deal with civilians, including women and children, fighting them literally to the last breath in their bodies.

An invasion would've been very, very costly in terms of loss of life, and every form of ugliness that accompanies it. That doesn't make either the nukes or the fire-bombings right...it just makes this a cosmos where doing the most moral thing doesn't always lead to the optimum result.

Cassandra said...


How can you allow the population to starve? Because the impact on the civilians is not done directly by the US. It is done by the Japanese civil leaders who refuse to surrender, AND it is done by the civilians themselves that continue to support that government. Look at 1989 East Germany to what happens when the populace just says NO.

Furthermore, the US doesn't have to allow the civilians to utterly starve. Dropping subsistence food into the countryside for the peasants with pictures of Kansas wheat fields and Texas cattle ranches becomes very effective means once the populace is hungry enough to depend on the US to drop food to them. Once they see that THEIR leaders can't feed them, but the US CAN, hungry parents with hungry children figure it out. PLUS, you encourage the peasants to escape to the blockade and treat them well. Just like the Vietnamese boat refugees.

I'm not disputing that a land invasion was the American plan. What I'm saying is that plan was a choice made by our leaders that did NOT need to be made. They could have chosen blockade.

Seamus said...

Sophia, Nik,

Never said that the invasion of Japan would not have been extremely costly. It is possible, but not certain, that millions would have died on both sides. However, the vast majority of deaths would have been from combat if the civilians took up arms against our troops. Morally, there is a huge difference between killing an enemy combatant and killing civilians. Morally, there is a huge difference between deliberately killing civilians and inadvertently killing them.

When someone takes up a weapon or wears a military uniform, they become a combatant. Until a civilian makes that *choice* to enter combat, he remains a civilian. We can't kill indiscriminately on the basis that someone *might* actively join combat. Your argument justifies Lt Calley's actions in the My Lai massacre. Those villagers were all potential combatants, even the babies. Surely some of those babies would grow up one day to join the Vietcong.

Let's take your argument that they would or might become combatants as justification for treating them as combatants prior to their actually taking up arms. Are we then justified in arresting people from one socioeconomic group or another based solely on the likelihood of their committing future criminal acts? Are we justified in sterilizing women or forcibly aborting their babies because those kids might one day grow up to be criminals?

Now, propaganda is one thing, but don't you think bombing the civilians of Japan pretty much gave credence to the propaganda? Were we not living up to the image portrayed by the propagandists?

Now, the question remains as to why they surrendered in the first place. Was it because of the horrors of nuclear war over and above conventional war? Or was it because the emperor chose to surrender realizing that the war was lost? If the people of Japan were going to die to the last man, woman, and child, why didn't they? They chose to obey their emperor. But can you say with moral certitude that he would not have concluded that the war was over when American troops landed on the home islands?

As for the "optimum result", isn't that the very idea of morality? Isn't God's moral law our very basis for understanding what He determines to be the "optimum result"?

Steve Dalton said...

I'm a little sick and tried of this annual "Bawl For The Twins Cities" nonsense. There are sooooo many bleeding hearts whining every year about this, I'm surprised we haven't drowned in a sea of blood by now.
The Japs were waging a brutal, sadistic, war to conquer Asia. They made the horrible mistake of picking on the wrong country,(USA) and payed the price for it. The Japanese government refused to surrender, they turned all civilians into combatants, and made the a-bomb drop the only way we could end the war, without the even more horrific casualties a land invasion would have brought to both sides.

Okiepapist said...

Bill Whittle makes a very good case for it.


Subvet said...

What confuses me about these discussions is the almost knee jerk reflex of casting the actions of the USA in a racist light. Our Pacific allies included the Phillipines, the Chinese, the Koreans, just to name a few. The allies of the Japanese in the Pacific were......?

Sophia's Favorite said...

The argument that it ended the war and saved lives is contemptible utilitarianism.

Also? The Japanese were not unacquainted with that thinking. That's why they did what they did in Nanking. Did you think that was an accident? Did you think they did that for fun? Those men were ordered to do what they did. Some of them refused, and were slaughtered along with the townspeople.

The thinking was, see, that cowing the Chinese would break their will to fight, and ultimately shorten the war and save lives.

Now who does that sound like?

Sophia's Favorite said...

As for whether or not the Japanese deserved it, yeah, they probably did. But whether or no a person deserves an evil is a different question from whether you have the right to inflict it on them.

Guess what? You know the stuff the Serbs did to the Bosnians? Yeah well the Bosnians helped the Turks do the same stuff to the Serbs, and the Croats, for four or five centuries before that. Well, actually, I don't recall the Serbs ever stuffing Bosnian corpses and using them for decoration, the Turks sometimes went in for that. That doesn't affect the question of whether the Serbs had the right to do it.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

This moronic debate -- and its counterpart surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- is a major reason (among many) why I lost respect for Catholicism. It combines the worst of both Monday-morning quarterbacking and esoteric, academic, tut-tutting self-righteousness. I say that because those who oppose the bombing never offer an alternative for getting the Japanese to surrender and ending one of the worst bloodlettings in human history!

Why is it that these opponents, such as Mark Shea, never hold the Japanese government nor Emperor Hirohito accountable for its refusal to surrender after Hiroshima?

Furthermore, since the Roman Catholic Church is not the state religion of the United States -- and since President Truman was not Catholic -- neither he nor any other non-Catholic President was or is under any moral obligation to make decisions based on Catholic social teaching. Assuming so is the height of intellectual and ecclesistical arrogance.

Most importantly, President Truman, as commander-in-chief, had the moral imperative not to put American soldiers in any greater danger than necessary. In that context, using nuclear weapons accomplished the task.

As far as Mark Shea goes, he is a raving fanatic who routinely gives aid and comfort to the enemies of decency, let alone this nation, and uses his "Catholic" identity as a shield to do so.

Don't believe me? Then read the following:



Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Fr. Peckerman, if the United States was such a bloodthirsty nation, then how do you account for the humane occupation of Japan under Gen. MacArthur, whom the Japanese revered as a hero when he left once the occupation ended?

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Finally, Patrick, I applaud you for this:

How, exactly, linking to an article supporting a 68 year old decision by a Democrat President makes you a Republican shill I have no idea unless you adhere to the absurd notion that Republicans are generally in favor of dropping atomic bombs on people for the greater good. And for sure, Republicans have not cornered the market on the error of consequentialism. I suppose Mark thinks it is ok to drop such rhetorical bombs if greater good can come of it?

Now I offer you this challenge:

Convince your "colleague" either to get professional counseling or spiritual direction. Convince EWTN that until he does so, this "colleague" has no business representing the organization in his current capacity, regardless of whether he is an independent contractor.

Sophia's Favorite said...

Joe the Amazon Queen just thought you needed to be reminded that he objects that the Catholic Church is not a Patriotic Christian Association, and doesn't automatically make every act of the Dear Leader grounds for sainthood.

He also thought you needed to know he's unacquainted with the axiom "You may not do evil that good may come of it." Then again, "fitting spiritual concepts to the needs of the state", which is basically his entire argument against Catholicism, was the stance of those who poisoned the guy who came up with that axiom.

thebodyguardtob said...

I would recommend people read Takashi Nagai's "The Bells of Nagasaki" and Paul Glynn's "A Song for Nagasaki" for some eminently Catholic understanding of how a revered Catholic figure like Nagai both survived and understood the dropping of the bomb.

As it is, we armchair quarterbacks must remember: 1) like the "just war" decision, this decision is one that can only be made by the leaders of state responsible for the common good, exercising their prudential judgment (CCC 2309); 2) this was but one example from WWII involving mass civilian casualties as a result of bombing, meaning that the moral question actually goes beyond the "nuclear" circumstances; 3) these were industrial targets due to the admixture of industry and urban activity, something intentionally done by Japan to safeguard the war industry; 4) The US sought to target not "civilian" targets but industrial targets with the nukes and elsewhere, and leafleted Nagasaki, for example, as warning for the civilians to evacuate the area before the bombing; 5) The Japanese government apparently did not permit the evacuation of the area because of the civilian population's involvement in the industry of war, although they did permit young children to leave the area. 6) apparently some Japanese survivors actually sought to sue *their* government as a result of these restrictions on the civilian population.

The bottom line--this is *way* more complicated than most folks like to consider. As such, there is a clear possibility that a leader of state *might* in good conscience make a choice to use a nuclear weapon in the manner done by the US in WWII. We have to leave that moral calculus to God, while acknowledging the horrific consequences that accompanied the great blessing of an end to war.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Sophia's Favorite just thought you needed to be reminded that he has no intellectual ammunition other than snark, sarcasm and personal attacks. He cannot craft a coherent argument to save his soul. He's still bitter that "Sophia" dropped him as her "favorite," and it really shows. ;)

thebodyguardtob, you've said the most intelligent thing on this thread. Thank you so much.

Wine in the Water said...


Whether or not the president is Catholic has absolutely no bearing on whether or not he is obligated to do what is right. His not being Catholic might go to his culpability (just as the actions of the Japanese government, the seriousness of the situation, the dearth of alternatives, the risk of doing nothing impact his culpability. Something is either right or wrong. It is either immoral to pursue evil means to achieve your good ends or it is not.

And as Consequentialism is such a pernicious and pervasive heresy these days, it is important to discuss these things. The greater the good people seek through their evil means, the more steadfastly we must remind them that their good ends do not justify their evil means. You may have left Catholicism or lost respect for it, but unless you have left Christianity entirely (or are one of those who think Paul shouldn't be in the Bible) then there are simply no grounds to justify evil with good in the Christian tradition.

You can deride Mark Shea all you want - although I find it interesting how much attention he has gotten in the comments despite never being mentioned in the post - and disagree with his polemic and tone all you want, but you can't refute the essential point - that is not just his, but Catholicism's and Paul's - that you cannot justify evil means with good ends.

Until Christians give up this heresy, we will have to talk about it.


I'm sorry I misunderstood you. You are quite correct. The differences between the atomic bomb and the firebombing are mostly nuances, not difference in kind. However, silence about one evil does not obligate us to be silent about another. We can decry the atomic bombing of Japan without decrying the firebombing of Dresden in the same breath.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

So, Wine in the Water, what would you have done if you were President Truman?

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Besides, Wine in the Water, how would you define "consequentialism"?

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