Seventy-seven years ago, the United States unleashed the power of the atom against two population centers in Japan. Since then, virtually all the typical American has heard about the morality of these acts was how necessary it was to end the war and prevent even more killing. Contrary voices, including those of religious figures (see this article), scientists, generals, and other military advisers were missing from the story that I and most Americans learned about in school. It was an “end justifies the means” morality that we absorbed. The next post will condemn, in accordance with Catholic teaching, this “consequentialist” thinking on the morality of the bomb. It will also challenge the deterrence strategy that is supposed to prevent such weapons from being used again. This article will show the flaws in the thinking that tried to justify the bomb from a purely pragmatic rather than ethical point of view.
Second in a series of articles on “Nuclear Weapons, the World and the Church”.
The stories we have been told versus the facts – First story
On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman addresses the American people. Aware of the extraordinary destructive power of the atomic bomb, he also knew that Americans would need a way to justify the bomb. Perhaps it was morally acceptable to use an atomic weapon in wartime. In this first story, as I will call it, Truman claimed that the bomb had destroyed a military target:
The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. This is because we wanted in this first attack to avoid, as far as possible, the massacre of civilians. (Excerpted from “70 years later, we still haven’t apologized for the bombing of Japan” in The Nation. This article is my source for the details of this article, unless otherwise noted.)
The facts don’t quite match what Truman claimed. Hiroshima indeed contained facilities for the manufacture of weapons of war. But above all, it housed ordinary citizens. Truman knew innocent lives were being snuffed out – closer to 100,000 than zero. The Nation article opines: “…if Hiroshima was a ‘military base,’ then so was Seattle.”
By the time Truman spoke, a second bomb had been dropped in the city of Nagasaki. (Truman may not know.) Credible estimates of the number of civilians killed in the two bombings range from 110,000 dead to 210,000. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) These figures do not include subsequent deaths ( but predictable) due to radiation sickness.
Saving civilians was not the raison d’être of the cities chosen. In the month before the bombings, Secretary of War Henry Stimson expressed a desire for this atomic weapon to “show its strength.” For that, he needed a city that had not already been devastated by the bombardments. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the few that remained. Non-nuclear incendiary bombs destroyed 67 Japanese cities.
The Stories and the Facts – Second Way We Try to Justify the Bomb
Truman gave us another story in that August 9 speech, reports The Nation article. The Japanese attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, he said. They starved, beat and executed American prisoners of war. They “have abandoned all pretense of obeying the international law of war”. Conveniently, Truman does not apply the “law of war” to the annihilation of cities. But he continues with the story that has become a clear justification, in American eyes, for the sole use of nuclear weapons in wartime:
We used [the atomic bomb] …to cut short the agony of war, to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.
This number of American lives “saved” by the bomb has increased over time. After his initial “thousands and thousands”, Truman wrote in 1955 that the invasion of Japan would have cost half a million Americans and at least as many Japanese. In 1991, President George HW Bush praised Truman’s “tough, calculating decision,” which saved millions of Americans.
It’s the story I learned in school in the 1950s. It’s the inescapable story that, for most Americans, is still used to justify the bomb.
The facts of the case belie the story. Prior to the bombing, military experts estimated the number of American lives that would be lost in a possible invasion: 40,000. Several World War II military commanders opposed the use of the atomic bomb. The Nation reports:
Six of the seven five-star generals and admirals at the time believed…the Japanese were already defeated, knew it, and were likely to surrender before an American invasion could be launched.
Admiral William Leahy called the bomb “barbaric” and against “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and every known law of war”. General Dwight D. Eisenhower also had moral objections.
Unspoken History and the Smithsonian Gag Order
Some advisers told Truman that a way to end the war quickly would be to drop the demand for unconditional surrender and let Japan keep the Emperor. “Truman rejected this advice, only to grant the same concession after nuclear attacks,” says The Nation.
One honest and unspoken reason Truman decided as he did is to worry about the Soviet Union. The USSR was about to go to war against Japan. Delaying the end of the war, Truman believed, would give our potential Cold War enemy a greater claim to East Asian territory.
All of these facts were in the hands of the Smithsonian’ National Air and Space Museum in 1996. The museum planned to mark the 50e anniversary of the end of World War II with an exhibit that would provoke unusual serious thought. Postings would have included:
- the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the plane used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima,
- debates and disagreements over the use of the bomb,
- the long-term consequences,
- “heartbreaking objects” – “a schoolgirl’s burnt lunchbox, a watch face frozen at the moment of the bomb explosion, a molten rosary, photographs of the dead and dying”.
The Nation reports:
Nothing of the sort [program] past. The exhibition was canceled after a storm of protests. When the Air Force Association leaked a copy of the initial script to the media, critics denounced the Smithsonian for its “politically correct” and “un-American” “revision” of the story. The exhibit, they claimed, would be an insult to American veterans and fundamentally unpatriotic.
The US Senate unanimously condemned the exhibit. Such is the misguided spirit which today also bears the name of “patriotism.” Just as then, it’s hard for some to tell the truth — about racism, the last election, or America’s role on the international stage. Republicans, who accept the truth about the 2020 election, earn the label of “traitor” if they say so.
The next article will be on Nuclear Weapons Today: The Moral Issues