by David Albert Jones. In “Truman’s Terrible Choice, 75 Years Ago”, George Weigel has defended the use of the atomic bomb against the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the basis that it “saved millions, even tens of millions, of lives.” He acknowledges that this kind of utilitarian ethical calculus was rejected by Saint Pope John Paul II in Veritatis splendor but maintains that President Truman made the “correct choice.”
Professor John Keown and Professor Edward Feser have pointed out that Weigel here stands in direct contradiction to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. However, a feature that has not been highlighted in these exchanges, neither by Weigel nor his critics, is that, while many Catholics in the United States supported these actions at the time, by attacking Nagasaki they were targeting the most important center of Catholic life in Japan. It was a massacre of Christians and on the very site of a previous act of mass Christian martyrdom. This does not change the moral character of the atrocity but it shows this act was also a wound inflicted on the body of Christ.
Weigel’s claim that using the atomic bomb saved millions of lives is impossible to demonstrate. We do not know, for example, the potential effect of the Soviet Union declaring war on Japan on 8 August 1945. We do not know what would have happened had the allies not insisted on unconditional surrender, for example had the allies given some assurance in advance that the Emperor could remain in place. It was the Emperor’s decisive intervention that brought the war to an end and we do not know if or when this may have happened in an alternative history. Nevertheless, even on the supposition that the deliberate massacre of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did shorten the war, these actions do not for that reason cease to be massacres.
The atomic bombs destroyed and were intended to destroy entire areas together with their populations with the aim of, in Weigel’s words, “shocking Japan into surrender.” The dropping of two bombs demonstrated both the destructive force of this new weapon and, crucially, the willingness of the President to use this weapon, repeatedly, against centers of population in Japan. The aim of these attacks, as Weigel acknowledges, was not to degrade Japanese military capability prior to an American invasion but was “to stun Japanese politicians into recognizing that the entire nation would be destroyed if they did not . . . capitulate.” They were acts of awe and terror.
The destruction of centers of population as a means to put pressure on politicians falls squarely within the definition of a war crime and would easily be recognized as a war crime had the actions been taken by Nazi Germany against the population of cities in France or Poland. These actions would not have been seen simply as aggressive military actions and as wrong because the war itself was wrong. The use of a weapon of mass destruction against an entire city, with its schools and hospitals and children and sick, is always indiscriminate but where the aim is terror the deaths of the civilians are not collateral damage. The death toll is part of what makes the weapon terrifying and the threat credible. Had such terrible actions been taken by the losing side they would, without doubt, have been added to the list of crimes against humanity for which those responsible were put on trial. In the words of Gaudium et spes:
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.
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