Friday, August 19, 2005


The A-Bomb Drops on Japan: Is There Room In the Catholic Conscience to Support Truman's Decision?

The 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and V-J Day marking the end of World War II came and went. And again, the impression painted by certain popular Catholic aplogists is that there is no way that the bomb drops can be justified in light of Catholic moral principles.

Is this assessment correct? Or is there a legitimate diversity of opinion as to whether or not Truman acted within the parameters of Catholic moral teaching regarding conduct in war (ius in bello)?

Well, if a Catholic can in no way approve of the bombings, then why did Pope Pius XII never unequivocally condemn the bombings in any fashion, much less with a magisterial voice? It would have been his pastoral duty to do so when we consider that fact that many American Catholics (as well as many Catholics in other allied countries) believed Truman was morally justified in doing what he did. When I did a Google search for any statements of Pius XII and asked those making the claim that Pius XII did in fact condemn the bombings to provide some proof and the best we were able to come up with were secondary sources that are way too ambiguous to add up to a condemnation such as the New York Times' front page of 8 August 1945 headlines: "Vatican Deplores Use of Atom Bomb" and a 1946 l'Osservatore Romano editorial that states:

"While we repeat the condemnation, the unavoidable condemnation, of this ordnance ofdeath... we cannot however forget how this was nothing but the finalendpoint of so many horrors, far too prolonged, which had brought theallied forces to propel themselves in the just enterprise ofdestroying the forces of evil."

Heck, JPII was more harsh in his opposition to the death penalty. And a Catholic is free to disagree with the Holy Father on the death penalty, as Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) made clear in an official CDF comm unique to the USCCB last year.

When one looks at the statements above in the overall context of how the political Vaticanese toward war issues had developed over at least the last fifty years prior to the time of Pius XII (especially during the time of Benedict XV), you will see that are relatively mild in their tone. Again, the tone of Vatican officials toward the Iraq war was more "condemning" and Catholics are free to disagree on whether or not the conditions justified the U.S. led invasion.

Imagine if Truman had a private audience with Pope Pius XII to seek his moral guidance on the matter before making his decision. I know that secrecy and security concerns would made such a meeting impossible, but work with me here.

Truman lays the matter before the Holy Father thus, "Your Holiness, I am faced with a extremely difficult decision. To end this dreadful war with Japan, I have to decide between an invasion of the mainland or drop a couple of atomic bombs on mainland military targets. The former will cost in upwards of over one million American troops casualties, deaths accounting for almost half of those along with about three times that amount of Japanese casualties and deaths, most of those being civilians. We also have good reason to believe that Japanese civilians, including women and children, are being trained and encouraged to fight invading troops with everything from small arms to sharpened bamboo sticks. Although the thought of using an atomic weapon saddens me greatly and will cost about 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, most of them being civilians, it seems to be the least destructive of options that I have available to me. Your thoughts, Holy Father." Pius would respond with something like this," I would beg of you, Mr. President, to please find some other way. But given the scenario you have presented, and it is within your, not my, competence to evaluate what the least catastrophic course of action to take, I cannot, in my official capacity as Supreme Pontiff, condemn such action as being intrinsically evil because it seems clear that such action could be {1} justifiable under the principle of double effect ."

CCC 2314 and Gaudium et Spes #80 are not damning evidence making the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings intrinsically evil. Note what they both actually say: "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. (Emphasis Added)" As the bold italics suggests, "indiscriminate" is the operative word. The U.S. atom bomb drops were not indiscriminate destruction of cities. They were ostensible military targets, as the decision making process in favor of the bomb drops over an invasion make clear. Truman's diary entry of July 25, 1945 also makes this clear:

"This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old Capitol or the new."

Nor do the use of nukes, in and of themselves, make the bomb drops intrinsically evil. John Paul II acknowledged the moral licitness of nuclear weapons build-up as a means of deterrence. Now, if it is licit to have nukes as a means of deterrence, it is, by default, also licit to actually use them, should circumstances require it. And it is my contention that the bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki constituted such licit use viz. the circumstance.

However, I acknowledge that a Catholic can believe otherwise, that such action was not justifiable. But it is the responsibility of Catholics who engage in apologetics, especially those who have far-reaching influence and those who are ordained pastors of souls to not present their opinions, legitimate though they may be, as though they bind the Catholic conscience when they in fact do not.

Regardless of what side of the opinion divide we find ourselves on regarding this issue, we can stand together in gratitude to Almighty God in His goodness that he used this fateful event to restore Japan to its proper place among the family of nations.

{1} Update 8/29/05- I have changed the wording here because the previouswording I used gave the impression that I was implying that Pius XII would have given blanket approval to Truman's decision. This, of course, would be inaccurate and was not what I intended to convey. GAM


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