By: Phillip Hadden, Holy Apostles College
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A recent article by George Weigel on First Things titled “Truman’s Terrible Choice, 75 years ago,” rehashes the ‘consensus’ school of historiography view just after World War II. In this particular article, Weigel tries to justify the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Weigel writes, “Original American estimates of Japanese homeland casualties during Operation Olympic (the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1945) and Operation Coronet (the invasion of the Tokyo Plain in March 1946) ranged from five to 10 million; some later estimates put the anticipated death toll at 20 million, including perhaps 10 million who would die of starvation as food supplies evaporated during the fighting.” Naturally, after reading the article, I was struck by the fact that Weigel didn’t apply the teaching formulated by St. Augustine of Just War Theory.
Weigel’s assessment of this issue begs the question of whether or not evaluating this issue in terms of Just War Theory would elicit a different conclusion. It is an important question to ask because, as a historian myself, I simply detect that Weigel is writing this piece not as a Catholic Theologian, but rather someone who has assented to the ‘consensus’ school of historiography that promotes Americanism as its highest good, typical of Neo-Conservatism. I want to be clear, so readers do not misconstrue by thoughts, “consensus” history does not equate a lack of truth in its historical assessments, but rather paints an incomplete picture of said events.
Again, I suspect that Weigel doesn’t take The Catholic doctrine of Just War Theory approach because his conclusion on the justification of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan would not hold against the conditions of this particular Catholic doctrine. In particular, since the war was already ongoing, the doctrine of Just War Theory falls under the category called Jus in Bello, which deals with specific actions in the conflict. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists these conditions:
2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.
Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
2314 “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.”110 A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes.
The estimates that Weigel cites are merely predictive forecasts dealing with the future decisions of the Japanese leaders and the complicit behavior of the Japanese both conditioned on the projection that the will of all parties would not be affected during any point of the conflict. Since Truman, Weigel, and other ‘consensus’ historians cannot predict how the dominoes precisely would fall in the continuation of the war, this cannot be used as means to justify the single act of dropping the atomics bombs. The single decision of that particular action cannot be justified on estimated casualties because the information deals with something that is both unknown, and perhaps may not have ever occurred.
Weigel’s overall assessment of the justification of the dropping of the atomic bombs is flawed due to his reluctance to apply Catholic teaching to the issue and his reliance on using predictive forecasts that cannot really be known. When assessing this particular event, both the historian and theologian, can only use the available information of what actually occurred 75 years ago. Therefore, applying those particular facts to the Jus in Bello formula, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were relatively non-military targets whose bombing primarily targeted civilians and resulted in unnecessary casualties. The act of dropping the atomic bombs with what historians actually know is simply not justified. The atomic bombs were neither upright due to their destruction on civilian lives and they were not proportional due to the fallout caused by that modern weapon.
 Weigel, G., 2020. Truman’s Terrible Choice, 75 Years Ago | George Weigel. [online] First Things. Available at: <https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/09/trumans-terrible-choice-75-years-ago> [Accessed 1 October 2020].
 Vatican.va. 2020. Catechism Of The Catholic Church – The Fifth Commandment. [online] Available at: <https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm> [Accessed 1 October 2020].
Professor John Keown of Christian Ethics at Georgetown responded to Weigel’s article with his own article on “First Things.” I wanted to mention a couple of points which he mentions in his article to further develop the idea that there is no way the bomb is justified even on grounds outside of Just War Theory.
Keown writes, “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.”
So, this begs the question, if the Japanese were defeated what was the purpose of dropping the bombs? I wished I had remembered this in my original article here, bu Keown mentions in his article, “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.” I remember from taking a history course on The Soviet Union during my undergraduate that the Russians and Japanese were enemies with each other prior to the Bolshevik revolution and fought each other in war called the Russo-Japanese war in which Russia tried to establish a naval port in Japan. Naturally, what Keown is hinting toward is that one possible motive for dropping the bomb by the United States on an already defeated Japan was simply to send a message to the Russian who had just entered the war on the Pacific front in World War II–the message was stay out of Japan.
If the motive of intimidating the Russian true then the dropping of the atomic bomb would be more heinous–if possible.
How easy it is to play Monday morning quarterback for these difficult historical cases. A few quick points
Japan was not “defeated,” because they still refused to surrender. The “about to surrender” meme is hotly debated, to say the least. To act as it is a settled matter among historians is not at all accurate. Now, maybe they would have surrendered in a week and maybe they would not have ever surrendered. Remember that we demanded an unconditional surrender, and the Japanese leaders knew that meant they would be tried and executed as war criminals; they could, after all, see what was happening in Germany to the Nazi leadership.
So for Japan to have surrendered before the bombs were dropped, one of three things would have needed to happen:
1) The Japanese leaders took compassion on their people and accept the unconditional surrender, knowing what their own fate would be. Hardly realistic.
2) A coup. Possible, but no way to say when, of ever, one would occur.
3) Truman switched from demanding unconditional surrender to a conditional one in which there were guarantees of immunity for the top leadership. Possible, but the anger of the American people would have certainly led to his impeachment and removal from office.
It is not at all proven that the main, or even major, purpose of using the bombs was to scare the Soviet Union. The best evidence that I have seen is that it may have been a secondary consideration, but by itself not definitive.
What, then, were our choices?
1) Go home and leave Japan to itself. Theoretically, yes, we could have just called it a day and brought all of our forces home. After which Truman would have been impeached and eventually the Japanese would have (most likely) rearmed and come out again. Not, then, a realistic option.
2) Continue the status quo of blockade, bombing, and naval shelling and air attacks, and hope that they saw the light and surrendered. Possible but no way to know if it would have taken a week, a year, or longer. Otherwise known as the “starve ’em out” option. Hardly humanitarian.
3) Execute Operations Coronet and Olympic; full scale invasions of the Japanese home islands. This would have resulted in millions of casualties on the Japanese side alone, and hundreds of thousands on the American side. It would also have meant massive physical destruction. And with no guarantee that at some point in the process the Japanese leadership would have seen the writing on the wall and surrendered. And after all was said and done, the American people would have eventually learned that we had the bomb and neglected to use it, and would be furious at our leaders for not having used it.
4) One or two demonstration explosions in remote areas or off shore. No guarantee they would have convinced the Japanese leaders to surrender, but I with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is my preferred option.
Keep in mind the the Japanese people had been thoroughly propagandized into absolute obedience to their leadership and in fighting to the death themselves.
Considering our options, American leaders had seen what had happened on the various islands we had taken back from Japan; Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, etc. On each one the Japanese had fought to the bitter end, never surrendering, and most of their troops fought to the death, committing suicide, and only being captured when too wounded to resist. Given, all this, why in the world would American leaders think that the Japanese leadership would suddenly change it’s mind about fighting to the end?
I also dispute that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were some sort of “pure” civilian targets devoid of military significance; the former was a major logistics and supply base for their army, and the latter a major seaport. Both were thus very important to their war effort (Wikipedia has some good info here).
In the end, to call it the “Great American War Crime” is simply outrageous and unacceptable. It was a tough decision made during difficult circumstances, and you have failed to seriously address the realistic options available to President Truman.