Obama and the Bomb: Hiroshima Revisited

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky (bio - articles - email) | May 20, 2016

It’s hard to accept President Obama’s motives at face value. I'm inclined to think of his upcoming visit on May 27 to Hiroshima as pure political posturing, and not as endeavors toward true reconciliation. If he is playing his signature radical “community organizing” game plan, the visit will be designed to further divide the country into interest grievance groups for exploitation. Nevertheless his visit may re-open a long-neglected conversation among Catholics and others of goodwill. Whatever his intention, Catholics can use the visit to help clarify our understanding of questions of war and weapons of mass destruction.

There are important parallels to the question of abortion as well. Years ago the renowned Catholic theologian Joseph Pieper privately observed (to a friend of mine) that Americans need to come to terms with the immorality of the World War II atomic bombings before real progress can be made in stigmatizing abortion as truly evil. The moral arguments justifying abortion and the bombings are remarkably similar: The actions are said to be necessary as “a lesser evil” or to “prevent a greater evil.”

In my formative years I developed a conservative temperament. Among the tenets of mainstream political conservatism was the conviction that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “necessary to win the war and save lives.” It was better, the reasoning went, to kill thousands of innocents in an effort to spare hundreds of thousands or millions. In short, the argument used “situation ethics” or “the ends justify the means” as a moral justification. When it comes to the horrors of war, such arguments are common, not only among practical men of war, but among otherwise principled conservatives.

During the Passion in the Gospel, Caiaphas justified the crucifixion of the most innocent man. Caiaphas was a practical man who worked the casualty numbers: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Just as Pilate's "What is truth" cynicism has become the trademark for modern thinking, the "Caiaphas principle" has become the moral compass of secularism. But as a matter of Christian moral principle, the ends don't justify the means.

In Catholic moral theology the Caiaphas reasoning is called consequentialism. It is the moral system that denies the intrinsic evil of certain human actions, and attempts to measure the moral goodness of a particular action by its effects. So for example, direct abortion and deliberate contraception may be immoral in general, but not always-- depending upon context and circumstances. (See Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor for an authoritative discussion on these questions of moral theology, and a powerful rebuttal of consequentialist reasoning.)

When politicians say that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” they are echoing the arguments of these dissident Catholic moral theologians. (Of course, an abortion is never “safe” for the unborn baby.) Many politically conservative commentators and politicians would say something similar about attacking the civilian population of entire cities. Deliberately incinerating entire cities may not be “safe,” but should be legal when circumstances demand, and certainly it should be rare.

The arguments justifying that attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs are well known. The Japanese, it was said, would never give up. The kamikaze attacks and the suicides of civilians during the American invasion of Okinawa provided evidence of Japanese extremism. Only the Bomb and the demand for unconditional surrender could be the solution. Even the Bomb might not work to force surrender, some feared, in view of the apparent futility of the firebombing of Tokyo.

(The firebombing of Tokyo was planned by General Curtis LeMay, ably assisted by a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel, Robert McNamara, who would become Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy. During the Cold War he was the author of the US nuclear strategy popularly known as “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD), the mutual nuclear targeting of population centers to discourage one side or the other from pushing the nuclear button. President Richard Nixon recognized the immorality of this strategy and made moves to change the policy, in part by introducing “smart” bombs that limited “collateral damage.”)

Another argument was that the people of Hiroshima were informed by leaflets that the city would soon be destroyed. It is argued they were warned to evacuate before the attack (although some commentators say this really didn’t happen), but failed to heed reasonable warnings. A final argument was that all the Japanese– men, women and children-- were enemy combatants, so the cities themselves were truly military targets. This is the same argument used by Palestinian terrorists when they bomb Tel Aviv discotheques. And it's the argument Osama bin Laden used to justify the attack on the World Trade Center.

The counter arguments (mainly utilitarian) are that Japan could have been brought to submission by an embargo or a quarantine of the island nation; that the demand for unconditional surrender was unreasonable and that a negotiated surrender should have been considered; that the Japanese were hardly monolithic: the Japanese army officers were extremist, but the navy officers tended to be much more moderate (Admiral Yamamoto, the reluctant architect of the Japanese navy’s raid on Pearl Harbor was killed by the Americans during the war when his plane was shot down. Curiously he studied in America and was a Catholic convert). Ironically, Nagasaki had a large population of Catholics and was a center of war resistance.

The most compelling moral argument is, however is that regardless of consequences, deliberately, directly and indiscriminately attacking population centers-- even within the context of a just war-- is immoral and offends God.

Constant Church teaching against the deliberate indiscriminate attack on population centers was reiterated by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes 80). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2314) reiterates this conciliar teaching.

After studying moral theology in the seminary I returned home, excited to explain my change in view on targeting population centers with atomic bombs. My own father was not impressed; he became, instead, very agitated. Dad was in the South Pacific in WWII, and that attack may have saved his life. When he heard of the bombing of Japan and the end of the war, he was elated; he would live to marry and bring up a family. I don't doubt his conviction. And I don't doubt that I would have felt the same.

Year later, as a newly ordained deacon, chirping the faith to anyone who would listen, I mentioned the same to a parishioner, a WWII Army Air Corp navigator. His response stunned me. He had taken part in the infamous Dresden air raid. The German city, alas, was mainly a cultural center, with little or no strategic military value. Its non-combatant civilian occupants were deliberately attacked and incinerated in the firebombing. He remembered the very day when he finally came to terms with the evil of the attack, his participation in it, and his final acceptance of Church teaching.

A hypothetical example might help. Suppose, back before the Iraq invasion, intelligence reports revealed that Saddam Hussein loved a couple of little grandchildren more than his own life. Suppose we knew we could convince Saddam to surrender if we threatened the life of the kids. Suppose we sent into Iraq special-forces troops with a mission to kidnap the kids and bring them back to America and use them as bargaining chips. Now imagine that after that mission, Saddam Hussein balked. Should we, in this hypothetical situation, take the next step? Would you cut off the fingers of one of the children and send them to Saddam as a warning? If that didn't work, would you personally slit the throat of one of the children? If not, ask yourself what is the moral difference between using defenseless children as hostages and using atomic bombs with the same intention and the same effect-- only from an aircraft at 20,000 feet?

Prudence is the virtue that identifies all options, dismisses those that are evil, and selects the best of the options that remain. If faith means anything, it means trusting in God's providence when we do the right thing according to his will. My understanding is that in American war colleges it is commonly taught that a significant number of decisions made in war involve “choosing the lesser evil.” So there is a pronounced tendency to hold that most actions in combat are “evil.” Not so. Killing in combat is not “murder.” It is justifiable killing (in defense of a nation).

But the purposeful killing of innocent human beings-- even within a just war-- is murder, comparable to the killing of innocents in the womb. Mother Teresa famously said, “Abortion is nuclear war.” We have lost 60 million unborn babies to abortion in America since 1973 when abortion was legalized without launching a single nuclear missile. The abortion rate in China is astronomical and dwarfs Mao’s mass murders. And abortion is arguably a moral stepdaughter (with equivalent consequentialist justifications) of Hiroshima, where we convinced ourselves that the ends can justify the means.

If we can nuke population centers as the price we pay to “end the war,” we can justify any evil act in war as long as our purpose is equally noble: “to end the war.” But with the development of “smart bombs” designed for precision attacks on military targets, with the intention of minimizing civilian casualties, I think our nation has come to terms with the evil of indiscriminate killing in war. And it doesn't hurt to say so. We cannot change history. But we can learn from the past, recognize evil for what it is, and inform our consciences with the steel of good morality for the future.

The closing statement by the presiding judge at the Nuremburg trials (from the movie Judgment at Nuremburg) is not only eloquent and morally profound, it applies to us today:

[Convicted Nazi] Judge Dan Haywood Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he ‘loathed’ the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts-- if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs-- these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men-- even able and extraordinary men-- can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. No one who has sat through this trial can ever forget. The sterilization of men because of their political beliefs... The murder of children... How ‘easily’ that can happen! There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the "protection" of the country; of "survival." The answer to that is: ‘survival as what’? A country isn't a rock. And it isn't an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world-- let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what ‘we’ stand for: ‘justice, truth... and the value of a single human being.

If President Obama apologizes for the atomic attack on the innocent civilians of Hiroshima, it would be a good time for him to also apologize for the attack on the innocent unborn babies in our day. Whether liberal or conservative in our prudential judgments, we should all agree on a foundational principle of Catholic morality: The ends don't justify the means.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. Father Pokorsky also serves as a director and treasurer of Human Life International.
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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 23, 2016 3:09 PM ET USA

    The quote from Judgment at Nuremberg is confusing. The fictional judge Ernst Janning (defendant in the trial) was tried by fictional judge Dan Haywood. It's ironic that Hollywood did a 180 within a little more than a decade on the value of the individual human being.

  • Posted by: garedawg - May. 21, 2016 12:13 PM ET USA

    I agree that a very strong Catholic case can be made that those bombs should not have been dropped on Japan. Like the author, I, too, may owe my existence to the Bomb; my Dad was on a ship actually headed for Japan.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - May. 21, 2016 10:17 AM ET USA

    Humans live in time, and time affects morality. Claiming moral equivalence btwn acts that start a war & responses by the defender that end a war is pushing the logic envelope a mite. Perspective is also important. People forget the Japanese thot Hiroshima was just business as usual;it took Nagasaki to reach them.When the morally right side wins a vicious, bloody, unwanted war, then that might be a good time for the Church to say nothing other than leading prayers of thanks for a job well done.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 21, 2016 9:38 AM ET USA

    Fr. Pokorsky brings up the other moral theory denounced in "Veritatis splendor" (VS) as a scourge in modern thinking: proportionalism. VS n. 75 defines proportionalism in this way: "The latter [proportionalism], by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the 'greater good' or 'lesser evil' actually possible in a particular situation." Both teleologisms are interrelated.