Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When an article by such a respected, learned, and orthodox Catholic commentator as George Weigel (whose many publications include a substantial book on war and peace) concludes that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “the correct choice,” it merits a considered response. A key problem with Mr. Weigel’s conclusion is one that he himself fairly identifies: “it seems difficult, if not impossible, to vindicate Hiroshima and Nagasaki on classic just war grounds without relativizing moral norms in the kind of ethical calculus John Paul II rejected in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.” Impossible indeed: The just war tradition has long prohibited the intentional killing of non-combatants. The nuclear bombs were intended to kill non-combatants, and did so by the scores of thousands. Their use was, therefore, not only immoral but gravely so. 

Why, then, does Mr. Weigel conclude that President Truman’s decision to order their use was “the correct choice”? (It is of course possible that by “the correct choice” he means correct in some other sense than morally correct, but if so, he is being unusually ambiguous.) The answer, it appears, is that the alternative choices would have involved an even greater loss of life. He posits that Truman had three options: to step up the fire-bombing of Japanese cities, which had already killed hundreds of thousands; a naval blockade, that might result in millions of deaths from starvation; and the use of nuclear weapons to persuade the Japanese politicians to surrender. By adopting the last option, he concludes, Truman saved millions, possibly tens of millions, of lives, American and Japanese.

Whether or not these were Truman’s only three options (what, for example, of dropping a nuclear bomb on an unpopulated location to demonstrate its awful power?), whether the estimated death tolls of alternative courses were accurate, whether Truman’s intention was to influence the Russians, and whether it was the bombings or the entry of Russia into the war against Japan that prompted surrender, are questions that have provoked reasonable disagreement. One commentator, for example, reports that top U.S. commanders—including Nimitz, Halsey, and Eisenhower—questioned the military necessity of the bombings. He quotes Fleet Admiral Leahy, Chief of Staff to Roosevelt and Truman, who wrote in 1950: “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”

But here is not the place to play armchair admirals or pretend to be presidents or adjudicate between historians, for our present concern is not tactics but ethics. And sound ethics, accepted by many religious believers and non-believers alike, has long ruled out the intentional killing of non-combatants, whatever the costs of observing that moral prohibition. The above quotation from Leahy aptly continued: “In being the first to use it, we . . . adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

The Japanese, like their German allies, plumbed depths of human depravity. But that scarcely justified following their example, whether by nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fire-bombing Tokyo, or flattening Hamburg, all of which were intended to kill non-combatants. (Anyone tempted to think that German and Japanese civilians were all contributing to the war effort and therefore forfeited their status as non-combatants should stand corrected by the classic 1944 paper by Fr. John Ford, S.J.)

Sound morality may not identify which option of several is the best option, whether in wartime or in peacetime. There may be more than one morally permissible option and discerning how best to proceed calls for the exercise of prudential judgment, which may sometimes involve considerable challenges. But sound morality will at least identify which options are impermissible. And one clearly impermissible option is the intentional killing of non-combatants. 

The debate about Hiroshima is, moreover, not simply a debate about the ethics of warfare, important though that is. It is a debate with much wider ramifications. For if one accepts that good consequences (such as shortening a war) can justify the intentional killing of innocent civilians, then one is buying into a consequentialist ethic in which the ends can justify any means. That school of ethics has no truck with the notion, central to the tradition of common morality, reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and forcefully affirmed by Pope St. John Paul II, that certain acts are intrinsically wrong; that certain ways of treating other people are always and everywhere impermissible, whatever good consequences they may produce. Hence the blanket moral prohibitions on targeting civilians and on torture. 

If we were to think it right to incinerate children and the elderly in wartime, because so doing produced net benefits, how could we, using the same calculus, oppose their destruction in peacetime, whether by abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia? Has history not repeatedly shown us the grim consequences of consequentialist calculation? And not only history: Our contemporary world does not lack examples of human beings being discriminated against because they count for so little in the utilitarian balance pan, not least the embryo, the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, and people with dementia. Such are the fruits of “relativizing moral norms” of the kind warned against by Pope St. John Paul.

Another powerful critic of consequentialism was one of the twentieth century’s most eminent philosophers: Professor Elizabeth Anscombe. In her famous paper “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” she argued against Oxford University’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Truman. Today we should echo her brave condemnation of his decision to incinerate the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

George Weigel has commendably been an outspoken opponent of both abortion and euthanasia, which is what makes his defense of Truman’s decision so puzzling. He is, however, not alone: There are many people of goodwill who think it consistent to oppose abortion and euthanasia and yet defend Truman’s actions. In so doing they are trying to square the circle. Intentional killing of the innocent remains just that, whether in wartime or in peacetime, whether in Japan or in the U.S., and however good the consequences one hopes it will produce. The title of Mr. Weigel’s article is “Truman’s terrible choice.” Terrible indeed.

John Keown is the Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at Georgetown University.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles