Next month is the 75th anniversary of the USA atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Here’s my conversation with two distinguished Christian scholars on this topic. Father Wilson Miscamble of Notre Dame University is author of The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs, and the Defeat of Japan. My colleague Marc LiVecche, a just war expert, is completing his own book on the ethics of the atomic blasts.

Both Miscamble and LiVecche defy current fashion in both Catholicism and Protestantism by defending the atomic blasts as horribly tragic but moral necessities given the alternatives. Critics decry their arguments as “consequentialist,” to which they respond.

Next week LiVecche will debate this topic with a Catholic ethicist who critiques the atomic strikes, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll be edified by this ecumenical conversation about tragedy and morality in history with important implications for today.

Rough Transcript of the Conversation:

TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. And today we have a very special conversation regarding the upcoming 75th anniversary of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And my two conversation partners are two very distinguished scholars with special expertise on this topic, the first of whom is father Wilson Miscamble, distinguished historian professor at the University at Notre Dame, who wrote an incredible book some years ago called The Most Controversial Decision. Joining us as well is my Providence colleague, editor Marc LiVecche, who is himself writing what will certainly be a fascinating and impressive book on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki decision. So, I’m looking forward to what will be a power packed and insightful conversation. Thank you both gentlemen.

LIVECCHE: Thank you.

MISCAMBLE: Thank you Mark, good to be with you both.

TOOLEY: Well in deference to seniority, if we could start with you first, Father Bill. Tell us a little bit about the findings of your book, your scholarship, and your overall perspective on what happened in August of 1945.

MISCAMBLE: Okay Mark, thanks very much. I should explain at the outset that my own training is as a diplomatic historian and that’s how I came to write about the atomic bomb, not out of a specific interest in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but out of a broader interest in the United States and the origins of the Cold War. So I had done a book—I’ll do a little book promotion here—a book called From Roosevelt to Truman, and I was looking at the transition from FDR to Harry Truman, etc., and its implications for American foreign policy. And of course, I had to engage, in doing that book, an argument that had been made by a group of historians, the so-called atomic diplomacy school. The foremost member, a historian named Gar Alperovitz, wrote a book called Atomic Diplomacy, now a book written many years ago. And he said look, “Truman reversed a successful policy that Roosevelt was pursuing with the Soviets, because he got access to the atomic bomb.” And the way Alperovitz presented it, the atomic bomb was used against a Japan that was on the verge of surrender, and it was really the opening shot of the Cold War, rather than a needed exercise to end World War II.

Anyway, that’s what drew me to the topic. I began to investigate it primarily as a historian trying to get at the facts of the matter. And of course, in my research, I discovered that Truman and his advisers utilized the atomic bomb to defeat Japan. They wanted to avoid what they saw would be an enormously costly invasion of the Japanese home islands, and the Japanese were preparing themselves to make it an enormously costly invasion. In the process of writing that book on the diplomacy, the foreign relations, etc., I did engage in some reflection on the morality of the decision. I know we’ll come to that, Marc is more expert—but my conclusion was, there was no good way, there was no easy way to conclude the war against Japan if one was going to bring about the defeat of the Japanese empire, which I might add, was still occupying two-thirds of Asia, had large numbers of subject peoples, they were brutalizing them, etc., etc. So, I concluded that Henry Stimson was right when he called the use of the atomic bomb the “least abhorrent” of the awful options.

So that’s how I came to it. I came to it out of my diplomatic history background, but also tried to wrestle with the moral questions, which have been disputed by a significant number. I’m more familiar with Catholic theologians who have criticized my perspective on this matter, but my reply to them is, “You give me a better way to have ended this awful conflict which had taken so many millions of lives and I’ll shift my position.” I’m yet to hear one.

TOOLEY: Thank you Father Bill. Marc, what’s the overall thesis of your upcoming book?

LIVECCHE: It dovetails nicely with Father Bill’s. In fact, in many ways, Father Bill’s [book] was a partial inspiration for it. One of the things that I appreciate with what he’s just been saying, is over and over again, he uses terms like “abhorrent,” and “awful,” and “terrible.” There’s no rejoicing, in our perspective, on the fact that the atomic bomb was necessary and right. There’s grief in that. But there’s also a realistic, and realist, expectation, or recognition, that it was necessary. My book tries to take the moral argument, strictly speaking, a step further than I’ve typically seen it done. I think between Bill’s book and other books out there by Winters and others, the historic job has been done. They’ve done an outstanding job of proving the necessity of the bomb and proving the inviolability of any other options.

What I’ve wanted to do is to continue with kind of a long-standing gripe I have with Providence Magazine’s patron saint, Reinhold Niebuhr. For Reinhold Niebuhr will say that there are times where the Christian responsibility to love and the Christian responsibility to be responsible sometimes conflict, and you can’t do in all occasions both the law of love and the law of responsibility. And he takes this lesser evil option sometimes, saying that you can only do the best you can, and that sometimes you have to do things that incur moral guilt, if you want to be responsible in the world. Now I want to push against that a little bit and suggest that not only was the dropping of the bomb the least abhorrent, I want to say, and be able to say it meaningfully, that given the alternatives, and given the available options, it was the greatest good we could do. That the dropping of the bomb was not an exception to the law of love, it was an example of it. Which seems grim and bizarre, but I think possible. It wasn’t an exception to just war principles; it was an example of just war principles. So that’s the direction that I want to take my book. I will beg the history in chapter one; I will refer extensively to Bill’s work and the work that he refers to. And then I will take a just war view. I will talk about the responsibilities of sovereignty. I will talk about the just cause. I will talk about the end of peace, and under that rubric, why the unconditional surrender was appropriate. And then I will look at discrimination and proportionality, which I think is probably the heart of the complaint against our stance, in that the opposite view is very clear and very simple: One must never target innocent human beings. And so, I will address that in the context of Hiroshima.

TOOLEY: The most common objection among Christian thinkers to the Hiroshima Nagasaki decision is of course, as you just referenced Marc, and as they would phrase it, the targeting of non-combatants in both cities. And they would say that the argument that so many lives were saved—not just American and Japanese, but also, as Father Bill referenced, throughout Asia, especially Chinese lives saved by ending the war when it did—they would label that argument as simply consequentialist and that this consequentialist perspective does not override the core Christian teaching of avoiding the deliberate killing of non-combatants. Father Bill, what do you say to that objection?

MISCAMBLE: This this is a case of course that has been well made in sort of Catholic circles, going back to Elizabeth Anscombe’s critique of Truman, her opposition to Truman, receiving an honorary degree at Oxford in the 1950s, and then that argument being taken all the way through to contemporary times.

I’ve been engaged in some back and forth with Catholic ethicists about this. My response is, there’s a sort of effort made to focus only on Truman and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki decisions. The Second World War had devolved into an occasion of terrible brutality and violence. And from the British Air Force’s initial decisions to respond to Nazi attacks on Britain by responding with nighttime bombing, etc., etc., the moral Rubicon, if you will, had been crossed, where civilians were seen as, if you will, collateral in these conflicts. Civilian housing built around industrial complexes, etc., etc., were going to be subject to bombing. So, in the circumstances of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I see them not as some sort of distinctive case where everyone has to focus on them, but we see World War II as involved in indiscriminate killing.

Most of the ethicists who engage—Marc will be a great exception when his book comes out—many of the ethicists who engage in this matter know very little about the circumstances of the war, Mark, very little about circumstances of the war. So, for example, they have no idea, that as the United States retook Manila and engaged in furious artillery bombing of the city to dislodge a Japanese core defense, numerous civilians were lost. I wish there was more focus on Okinawa, where enormous numbers of civilians are killed in conventional fighting as the United States makes this effort to move up to defeat a Japan that had cost 17 million lives throughout its rampage through Asia.

So, my argument is, look. Look. This was a tragic case, where Truman’s resort to this attack on what I maintain was not a civilian target. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both military, industrial targets. Civilian people lived in those cities for sure, but both were important, industrial targets. They were legitimate targets for war. In those circumstances, Truman was legitimate to pursue an attack on those targets. Civilians had been warned to evacuate those cities. The United States had been warning Japanese surveillance, “Get out, get out.” So he was right to proceed ahead and he brought terrible bloodshed to an end by doing so.

I’m not saying that there weren’t some innocent folks, some innocent Japanese civilians killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that was not Truman’s principal intention. His intention was to do damage to the Japanese military, industrial targets there and to have an impact on the Japanese leadership structure. And thank god it did have an impact. Those bombs convinced Hirohito to go against his military and to force a surrender. Not to have surrendered—just conceiving of the alternate courses of action makes one realize that it would have been indiscriminate killing of civilians on a vastly broader scale. And I think that has to be taken into some calculation.

TOOLEY: Marc, if you could at first explain to us for those who aren’t familiar with the term, what is consequentialism, and why would you reject the allegation that you’re resorting to consequentialist arguments?

LIVECCHE: I think in a nutshell, consequentialism is the idea that moral norms or moral absolutes are set aside and what determines the moral validity of an action is the consequence. And a consequentialist, hopefully, is going to be aiming at the greatest possible good that can come from a particular moral act. So it doesn’t matter what you do so much; it matters what results from what you do. A focus on consequences that lead to the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, a form of utilitarianism.

A part of the reason I would reject it is—there’s a couple. First of all, not all attention to consequence is consequentialism. Hopefully, Christian ethicists and moralists are concerned about consequence; consequences matter. These aren’t abstract consequences, when we talk about whether or not to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, as Father Bill has pointed out, these consequences are really individual lives, millions of times over, both in Japan, and in China, and in American lives. So, I think it’s not consequentialism, because you’re not focused solely on consequence.

A part of what I think is strong in Bill’s argument, is this idea that in in consequentialism, you can’t necessarily compare like things to like things, because you’re only focused on consequence. Here, I think we can compare like things to like things. I think it’s true that innocent lives are of incomparable worth. Except that you can compare innocent lives to innocent lives. And when you look at the case of Hiroshima, we are not only talking about innocent lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think there’s several strata of innocent lives that need to be brought into the equation. First you look at American Marine lives, the Allied lives. It’s true, according to the just war tradition, that discrimination means you target combatants and you don’t target non-combatants. That’s true. It’s not always quite so simple. Look at the American Marines, many of whom were conscripts, and many of whom who weren’t conscripts were post-Pearl Harbor volunteers. That means they are combatants, but before they were combatants, they were sons and brothers, they were fathers and husbands, they were shopkeepers, and clerks, and policemen, and firefighters. They were people who led civilian lives prior to an act of Japanese aggression completely unprovoked against America. And so, they enter into combat. So, it seems strange to me to immediately insist that simply because they are in uniform, they are targetable, and other people necessarily are not. It’s more complicated than that  I think Truman, as a sovereign of a political state, had a sovereign’s responsibility to care for the welfare of his political constituency. So he has an obligation to American Marines, not simply to send them into harm’s way arbitrarily. So I think there’s an innocence in the American Marine that needs to be taken into account. That’s the first.

But also, as Father Bill has gestured to, this isn’t as if we can choose whether or not we’re going to kill innocent lives or not. If you dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, you’re going to kill some innocent lives. That’s a given. But if you invade Japan, you’re going to kill innocent lives. Now some people will say, “Well wait a minute, we can only be responsible for the evils that are certain, not the evils that are possible.” But that’s to simply ignore history. Bill does a great job in his book of demonstrating how the Japanese taught us what fighting the Japanese was going to look like: From island, to island, to island, to island. After Iwo Jima and Okinawa, there should have been no question what the human toll would have been in a land invasion of the Japanese home islands. Bracket the American and Allied lives; just the Japanese lives alone would have been a horrendous loss. Their commitment to go to universal conscription and radical defense—they were not going to roll over their battle plan. They knew—from certainly January 1945 onward—they knew the war was lost. They didn’t expect to win the war, they expected simply to make the cost of our winning it so bloody that we would sue for terms rather than fight for an all-out victory. So you compare Japanese innocent lives to other Japanese innocent lives. Whether the land invasion, the naval blockade, the continuation of conventional bombing, any other alternative would have cost additional innocent lives. That seems to me, as a matter of historic record, incontrovertible.

And then you get to, as Father Bill said, the civilian lives. Every day that that war continued, innocent human lives under Japanese occupation were being lost. And the numbers are astronomical. They’re a little bit all over the board, but you get anything from 250,000 civilian lives in occupied lands per month to even more aggressive numbers than that. So, if the land invasion of Japan was going to take place in November, that’s two or three additional months since Hiroshima. That’s potentially half a million to three quarters of a million additional civilian lives, just in in occupied lands, let alone the final invasion taking place in the spring. It would have been a horrendous human toll. My position is simple. If you wanted to save innocent lives, you dropped that bomb.

MISCAMBLE: Yeah, I think Marc’s point—if I could just follow up on it. It’s rare in the ethical reflection about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that those innocent lives throughout the rest of Asia, that Marc has just referred to—let’s say from the dropping of the bombs in August to the invasion of Kyushu in November, three to four months—so 200, 250,000 innocent civilian lives every month. I would like to see them drawn into the moral calculus of those who so readily criticize Truman’s decision. He is aware of the loss of life. Of course, he’s most concerned, as Marc points out, about saving American lives, but of course, he once said he wanted to avoid an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other. And Okinawa meant Japanese troops fighting to the death and enormous, enormous civilian casualties. So these are lives that must be drawn, I think, into the moral calculus. And when you do, you find it’s a tragic circumstance. There’s no “easy” moral option—although Marc may make the case for that—it’s the least awful, the least abhorrent action that Truman takes.

LIVECCHE: You gestured to the civilians in Okinawa. It’s worth remembering I think the numbers—maybe you quote them—are about 150,000 Okinawan civilians, which is at least twice the number of Japanese militants that were killed in Okinawa. The civilians always pay a higher cost. But of those 150,000 civilians, some forty thousand were conscripted by the Japanese. So, this question of whether or not Japanese civilians would have fought on the home islands, can be tentatively answered by pointing out that they did indeed fight on Okinawa.


TOOLEY: And many of those deaths on Okinawa were suicides, weren’t they? By Japanese civilians? By the thousands?

MISCAMBLE: Yes, there was a sizable number of thousands jumping over the cliffs. This has received, of course, publicity. The fear that the Japanese military instilled in the populations as to what would be—there we use the word consequences—if they were captured by the Americans. These poor folks preferred to take their own lives rather than become prisoners of the United States. And of course, that was the similar thinking that operated for the Japanese military as well. It’s so noted that it was a cause of shame for them to surrender. Folks must appreciate the awful nature of the war in the Pacific, the brutality of the conflict. It was terrible.

TOOLEY: The British military historian says that “More Indo-Chinese died under four years of Japanese occupation than would die under 20 years of the Vietnam war.” There again, whoever thinks about Indochina during World War II, that was a small sideshow, yet a remarkable fact.

MISCAMBLE: And Marc has mentioned a couple of times the number, the millions, of Chinese losses under the Japanese occupation. Horrendous numbers.

TOOLEY: Those numbers were 13, 18 million wasn’t it? I recall a ceremony commemorating Hiroshima and Nagasaki some years ago. It was a Christian ceremony involving, as I recall, some Japanese Christian clergy, including an Anglican priest who was Japanese, who stated that the dropping of the atomic bombs had both been a divine judgment on Japan for its crimes of occupation throughout the war, but also the bombs had been a liberation for the Japanese people from their militarist and repressive regime. Two remarkable assertions you would not expect from a Christian clergyman, but I thought they were pretty profound.

MISCAMBLE: There’s no doubt that the bombs caused the Japanese occupation, the occupation of Japan, to develop in a quite different way than I think it would have, had there been land invasions, and vicious fighting, and so forth. With Hirohito’s intervention, his request for surrender, there was something of a docility about the occupation of Japan and a willingness—I don’t want to overstate the changes in the Japanese system, but Douglas Macarthur oversaw an occupation that improved the position of women in Japanese society, etc., etc., and I think it has to be seen, just as in the occupation of West Germany, as an enormous success that brought forth a nation that has lived, by and large, in peace, for seventy five years since the ending of the war. So it’s hard to speak in terms of the beneficial effects of the a-bomb, but it did have, not simply an ending of the war, but bringing about I think a more peaceful occupation of Japan than would otherwise have been the case.

LIVECCHE: That’s certainly right. I’ve written before, Mark, on decisiveness being an implication of the just war tradition, where if the end of war is peace, peace very often comes about when one side knows that they’ve been licked. And the Japanese were able to save face, somewhat counterintuitively, and be able to say, “We’ve lost this war, not so much on the battlefield, but because of American scientific technological prowess.” Which isn’t entirely true, but you can give that a pass. The bomb was seen by some Japanese historians as a gift from heaven, which is again a grim assertion. And we haven’t even touched on the fact that by shortening the war, we prevented the Soviet invasion of the Japanese home islands, which prevented Soviet occupation of Japan, which if you ask my Eastern European friends, is no small thing. So, yeah.

TOOLEY: There’s almost a consensus, at least among Christian thinkers who address the topic of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the bombings were morally incorrect from a Christian ethical and theological perspective. And often they will cite the just war tradition, but to me it often seems somewhat disingenuous and that many of these thinkers and critics are not themselves exactly ardent in their commitment to the just war tradition. So, do you think it’s fair to say that so much of this critique of the atomic decisions is a little bit premised on, at least, a soft underlying pacifism overall? And is there also an anti-Americanism there that influences these perspectives? Marc?

LIVECCHE: Yeah, you know me, I’m always going to see those two specters behind an awful lot of this. I think that plays into it for sure, for some. I think in some ways, theologically speaking, ethically speaking, those are the least interesting aspects to this. Those are sort of old hat. I think some of the fellow Catholics that have taken Bill on, I don’t lie, I don’t know whether or not there’s a pacifist tendency. I suspect there’s not an anti-American tendency. But in some of them, it’s just a resolute belief that Christians must strive toward moral perfection. And so, it’s a very, I think, sincere decision to pursue what I would call personal piety, over what I would then say is a sense of duty and obligation to the conditions of history. So, I sometimes posit it as, I think, an unfortunate choice being made between piety over shalom, if shalom is comprehensive welfare running in all directions, I think Christians have a tendency in some of these moments of hard moral conflict to choose, “What is right for me to do?” rather than “What right circumstances come out of this.” “How can I move present circumstances closer to the way things ought to be, in terms of God’s designs for the world, rather than further away from the way things ought to be?” I think Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr certainly felt this tension. For them, they would say you can’t go through history without guilt if you want to be responsible. I move a little bit away from that. I think one can do evil without necessarily being complicit in moral evil. There is moral and non-moral evil and all of that. So I think sometimes the motivation is a pious Christian one. I still think it’s unfortunate.

MISCAMBLE: I think, Marc, that you were onto something with—I call it as a kind of a functional pacifism—that many of the critics of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come out of, emerge from. Because they never are able to provide a course of action that they would pursue as the alternate course, because all the other alternate courses are even far worse, more awful, than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But they resort back—now this is from my Catholic tradition—folks have quoted to me a number of times Pope John Paul II—a hero of mine—they quote Encyclical Veritatis Splendor about it: “It’s never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it.” And yet even in that encyclical, I think John Paul said, “Sometimes you can tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil.” And that’s where I see my position being lodged.

I’m not pretending that this was a moral—Marc is maybe making a stronger case for a moral good, but I am saying it was the least worst of the terrible options. And I think those critics of Truman—some people go to extremes and say, “Should Truman be put retrospectively on trial for war crimes?” And outrageous accusations like that. Those critics should be obliged to come up with their alternate course of action that would have been preferable to what Truman undertook.

LIVECCHE: I think that’s right. If I can splice my hair a little bit thinner. I hesitate—and some of this is I hope is more than semantics—I don’t want to suggest that Hiroshima was a moral good.

MISCAMBLE: Oh, sorry.

LIVECCHE: Well no, no, I come very close to saying that, so again I’m playing a tight game. You say somewhere, I think in one of your public discourse essays—which if people don’t know the back and forth between you and Christopher Tollefson, they should find it, because on public discourse, it’s a great series of exchanges—but somewhere you say something to the effect of, or he quotes you as saying, that in isolation, the bombing of Hiroshima is morally abhorrent—I don’t know the exact language—but that’s exactly right. That in isolation, this is something we would never ever do. Just like we would never ever in isolation cut the leg off a child. But, if circumstances so arrange themselves, if the child’s leg is gangrene, and it has to be removed in order to save the life, etc., etc., what is in isolation morally abhorrent might become morally right. And I want to say it’s morally right, not morally good. I would suggest the morally good is always safe for those things that are intrinsically good. This was simply—which was not simple—this was simply morally right, all things considered, which I think is a little bit of a nuance.

TOOLEY: Well, moving toward conclusion, I have to ask you, Father Bill, what were the primary Catholic responses in August 1945 to the dropping of the bombs? And could you also, in conclusion, reflect on what the implications of this anniversary are for us today as Christians in the year 2020?

MISCAMBLE: In 1945, there was even at the initial stage and in the midst of these celebrations for the ending of the war in which most Catholics joined in—so they were glad that the bombs had been used and that the war was coming to an end and that their sons and brothers and husbands would be coming home—but in the midst of all that celebration, there were in fact voices raised. A great Jesuit theologian raised concerns. He’d already been raising concerns about obliteration bombing in Europe. So there were ethical concerns being raised about it. And then Vatican II certainly picked up with that. Gaudium et Spes has a particular paragraph that raises enormous concerns about attacking cities, bombing of cities, etc. So, within the Catholic community, I’d say there has been a bit of separation. The broader community celebrated the end of the war, some voices had concerns about it, and good folk like Chris Thompson are still obviously raising deep concerns about this. So a sort of mixed response I guess would be the case.

Subsequent to Vatican II, most papal documents and statements have moved very much in a more pacifist direction. There’s still some genuflection to just war teaching, but it’s increasingly moving to a kind of functional pacifism position. That’s the reality that I think someone like George Weigel has pointed out recently.

Now as to the implications for the seventy fifth anniversary, I would hope that people might learn more about the circumstances that caused Truman to make this decision, and rather than engaging in just a kind of somewhat moralistic criticism, that people might come to think more carefully about why Hiroshima happened, know more about the awfulness of World War II, and maybe have some sympathy for Truman, who, as American presidents go, was a person of faith and a decent man, and I think he made the best decision that he could, and I would hope that folks would appreciate that reality and that the event is not something to be celebrated, as Marc and I talked at the outset. It’s something to be regretted that the bombs had to be used, but we should appreciate the benefits of their being used and the lives saved because of them.

TOOLEY: And Marc LiVecche, in conclusion, what moral and theological lessons do we have today from this commemoration?

LIVECCHE: I mean for me—Bill has touched on this a number of times—to me the good news has to have something to say to the way that life is lived. We can’t think Christianly if we’re thinking only in the abstract. And I know that several of Bill’s interlocutors would deny speaking in the abstract, but when they don’t consider the alternatives to the dropping of the bomb and they simply condemn the dropping of the bomb out of hand and pose no alternatives, I think they are speaking abstractly. They’ll claim that they don’t have the responsibility to posit alternatives. They’ll claim that they don’t have the military expertise. But none of that is necessary. Bill and numerous other people have laid out the alternatives and explained some of the costs of those alternatives. So, they don’t have to do a lot of research to know this. They have the alternatives; they can line them up. And I would like them to apply their moral reflection on those alternatives, just as they’ve applied it to the dropping of the bomb themselves. Because if our theologians ought to be doing anything, they ought to be helping Christians live life according to the way God wants them to live. Christian ethics is lived where life is lived. That’s the job of the ethicist. Moral reflection is practical thinking.

TOOLEY: Father Wilson Miscamble and Marc LiVecche, thank you for this very insightful, informative, and ecumenical conversation about this fast approaching 75th anniversary in a few weeks regarding the end of World War II. Bye-bye!

MISCAMBLE: Thank you so much Mark. Take care.