Today marks the 75th anniversary of the atomic devastation of the Japanese city of Hiroshima, which helped bring about the end of the Second World War. In this episode, Daniel Strand interviews Marc LiVecche about his new book project defending the bombing. Offering a moral defense rooted in just war casuistry, they discuss such issues as sovereign responsibility, the nature of the Japanese regime, consequentialism, and much else. LiVecche defends the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, argues that the bombing met the requirements for proportionality and discrimination, and interrogates proposed alternatives to the bombing. Through it all, they maintain that while the atomic attack was a horror, it was, all things considered, morally right.

Rough Transcript:

STRAND: Hello, welcome to the second episode of “True North.” I am here with my co-host, Marc LiVecche. My name is Daniel Strand, I am a contributing editor at Providence Magazine and an assistant professor of ethics at the Air War College. And I’m joined, as always, with my good friend, colleague, and co-host, Marc LiVecche. Marc?


STRAND: How are you doing?

LIVECCHE: I am well!


LIVECCHE: I am moving into Annapolis, Maryland. I am surrounded by boxes, which I have, through the magic of television, edited out of the frame. So, it looks like I’m in an organized place—far from it—but I’m [inaudible].

STRAND: Great. He is stateside; he’s been overseas for two years, so we’re glad to have him back. He is sadly leaving Oxford University, where he was a fellow for two years working on primarily questions of ethics and warfare. So, he is chock full and ready to go with at least one project we’re going to be talking about today, which he worked on while over across the pond, which is a book on the bombing of Hiroshima, lest you think that that topic has been exhausted. In fact, it hasn’t. And I think for the 75th anniversary here, both Marc and I have been spending a good amount of time thinking, writing, reflecting on particularly the Pacific War, the war that often is much less known in the United States. The common knowledge of it [is less], as opposed to Europe and the war against fascism in Europe, [which] is much better known. There are certain events in the Pacific War that stick out in our minds but it’s much less known. And so, Marc is really delving into an issue that has been discussed for a while, but Marc you’re going to take it in a new direction. You’re going to take an old question up but you’re going to make a [new] argument. So why don’t you just give us your thesis in a brief form and also a little bit of context—what’s the state of play, what’s going on—and then we’ll go from there.

LIVECCHE: Yeah, very good. Thanks for doing this Dan. It’s a grim subject, but I think as Christians we ought to be committed to delving into the grim. I’m calling the book Moral Horror. Various subtitles [are] flittering through my mind—a just war defense of the bombing of Hiroshima, a moral argument for the bombing of Hiroshima—but in essence, it is a moral defense of the bombing of Hiroshima through a just war or Christian realist perspective. The title is important. Moral Horror. I mean both bits of that literally. It was a moral horror. What happened was horrific, and that can’t be lost, and I don’t want to lose that. It ought never to have happened. But my argument is that it was both necessary, but also right. And so, I also mean the moral horror bit of that. It was a horror, but it was a moral one. I’m going to make a distinction between it being a good thing and a right thing. It’s not something that we would ever celebrate having gotten to do, like you would celebrate other intrinsic goods like marriage, or childbirth, or rightly ordered love. But it was the right thing to do. Much as chopping the leg off a gangrene child is not a good thing, but it is the right thing to do, because it’s aimed at saving the child’s life. So, I think that distinction can be made.

You’ve gestured to this not being a settled question. It’s been going for 75 years. Probably, the tables have turned. Some of the people who will be speaking against what we’re going to argue for today will probably say that they are in the minority view by arguing against the bombing. I think that’s no longer the case. I should be more specific. Certainly, back in 1945, after World War II, I think most Americans would say, and I think the Pew Research that I’ve read on it, has something like 85 percent approval rating of the dropping of the bomb. Elizabeth Anscombe, who we’ll probably talk about today, famously took a very minority view when she pushed against the proposal of one of the Oxford colleges awarding Harry Truman an honorary degree. She argued against the bombing, and she was in a pretty small minority at that point. Those numbers have, probably not completely, but have largely, flipped. And I think it’s a bare majority of Americans nowadays who approve of the bombing or say that it was the right thing. But I think if you took an even tighter demographic and you went into the academy, I think most intellectuals, most academics, a strong majority [of them] would be against it. I think that would also be true within Christian academics.


LIVECCHE: So, I don’t think what we’re stating is any longer the majority view, or at least not a super majority view. Which is neither here nor there in one sense, but it does indicate how sentiment has changed. And so, I think you will find, even within those who approve of the bombing, a second nuance. And this is where I hope my project makes a contribution. So, there’s others out there, most famously William Miscamble. Bill Miscamble’s book argues that the bomb was absolutely necessary and therefore the right thing to do. There’s another by Francis Winters, [which] argues a similar thing. They mostly argue from the point of view of necessity. Miscamble makes an argument that it was ultimately the moral thing to do as well, but I think there’s almost a Niebuhrian—what I’ve called a Niebuhrian—turn there, where you’re doing something that is wrong, but it’s the responsible thing to do. And you can’t do both what is morally right and morally responsible, so responsibility sort of supersedes. I’m going to push against that.

STRAND: Marc, I’m just going to interrupt for a second. So, when Marc uses the terms ‘Christian realism’ and ‘Niebuhrian’ we should just make clear we’re referring to Reinhold Niebuhr. He is a famous protestant intellectual, public intellectual, theologian, ethicist, extremely influential in the thirties and forties, someone who Marc and I both admire and criticize. So, when he uses the word Niebuhrian, that means this idea of willing to do the necessary thing even if it’s immoral.


STRAND: And Marc you’re pushing against that.

LIVECCHE: I’m pushing against it. I’m not going to argue that Hiroshima was a positive good—that’s not my argument—but I am saying it was morally right. It would have been morally wrong not to have done it.

STRAND: And the Niebuhrian defense, which a lot of people will make, which Niebuhr makes, and those who fall in his footsteps make, is similar to what Miscamble argues, which is, you enter into evil in order to do this necessary deed which had to be done. The Japanese had to be defeated; the bomb was the best way to do it. And so, you do the deed, you dirty your hands, ask for forgiveness afterwards knowing full well that what you’ve done is taken guilt upon yourself. So why do you think—to go back to the context here and then we’ll get into the nitty gritty—what’s shifted? What shifted—we don’t have to talk about the public because I think the public perspective is probably indicative of a shift in more of the academic and elite perspective, which is a sort of souring on something, or at least partially; I don’t want to say that’s the only explanation—what do you think has changed both in the academy and within Christian circles? Can you point at any reasons?

LIVECCHE: Yeah, everything I say is going to be anecdotal. I’ve not done quantitative research into this. But I suspect – [inaudible] give this to the other view right away. After 1945, of course a majority of Americans are going to be in favor of the bombing of Hiroshima. It ended the war. Their sons came home. Their husbands came home. Their dads came back. If you were an American marine in Okinawa getting ready to storm the island of Japan and you heard that they had dropped a bomb and now you don’t have to storm the island of Japan, you’re happy about that. So, some of that you can bracket and say, “Well, that’s emotional exhaustion, that’s war weariness, anything that prevents the invasion of Japan is a good thing.” That’s not unreasonable, but that’s not a great way to do moral argumentation. We know that. So you bracket that, and we’ve got a distance now, and we could be a little bit more morally sober and we can look back and we can say, “Okay, it might be a little bit more complicated than they made it out to be.” So, there is that; that has shifted.

But more despairingly, I think and suspect that there is a greater distrust of power, the exertion of coercive power. I think people, especially Christians, no longer know what to do with that, if they ever really did, as a majority. I think we’ve gotten love wrong. We know we’re supposed to love our neighbor; we know that includes loving our enemy. We no longer have any real confidence what loving our enemy means. Can we love them even as we kill them? I argue one can, as the tradition has always argued. But I think there’s a loss of confidence in that. There’s probably a little bit of anti-Americanism mixed in with that. Some of our excesses since World War II have probably made us jaundiced against that type of thing. There’s certainly something bitter about America. For all the good that we have done in the world, there must be something bitter about the fact that we’re the only people ever to have nuked anybody else. And that must rub people the wrong way, as it, to some degree, should. So, I think those are all bits of it.

STRAND: So, let’s get into the argument here. So, you’ve already touched on this, but why don’t you just give to us again. Distinguish for our audience how what you’re saying is—what the contrary position is. That would be helpful to hear. And I suspect it’s mostly Catholic. I was just rereading today John C. Ford’s article on obliteration bombing, which he wrote in 1944, which was a seminal article. And it seems like—and then Anscombe you referenced, Elizabeth Anscombe, famous catholic philosopher at Oxford, really laid down the early criticisms, probably when it was still, at least a publicly, a popular position to end the war that way. But why don’t you lay down your argument and then the counter argument, as you see it.

LIVECCHE: Sure. I mean maybe in some ways I’m going to reverse that, because in some ways I am responding to some of the counter arguments. So, Elizabeth Anscombe for instance. I think she ably lays the groundwork for what I take to be the prevailing view. She says, first of all, that Hiroshima was the intentional killing of the innocent, which is, by definition, murder. So, Hiroshima was an act of murder. Murder is wrong, always and everywhere, and never to be done, no matter what the circumstances are. That’s sort of placeholder one.

Placeholder two might be any argument that what you would call the murder of Hiroshima’s people that suggested that was necessary is predicated on the Allied insistence on the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, and that had we not demanded the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, and instead signaled that the emperor would be preserved and the dynasty, the imperial rule, would be preserved, that the Japanese were ready to stand down. And so therefore, the demand for unconditional surrender was itself immoral. So, we made an immoral demand for unconditional surrender. They reasonably refused it (because who wouldn’t?) and therefore, we murdered Hiroshima’s people, and later the people of Nagasaki, in order to end the war.

I think in a nutshell, that’s sort of the opposing argument. They get into some specifics by arguing instead that the claim that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war is wrong. They will say, “Oh, they weren’t necessary at all,” and in fact they didn’t end the war, some will say. The entry of the Soviets, that ended the war. The bombing had nothing to do with it. So not only was it immoral and unnecessary, it was purely gratuitous. These types of things.

I want to push against sort of all of that. I suppose, making a historic and an ethical claim. The historic claim doesn’t really need to be made by me because it’s been made very ably by Miscamble, and Winters, and Hastings, and Frank, in Downfall. The historic argument, it seems to me, is very clear. It’s wrong to insist, in any way, history does not bear out, that the Japanese were ready to surrender if only we would have signaled our willingness to preserve the emperor. History doesn’t bear that out. The Japanese knew they were done by the summer of 1944, certainly the January of 1945. The Japanese themselves knew the war was lost. They had no hopes of victory. The best they could hope for, and what they were aiming at, was to so exhaust us with lost lives that we would sue for terms more acceptable to the Japanese, and those terms were never solely the preservation of the emperor. They had to do with maintaining territorial acquisitions, maintaining a standing army, no war crime trials unless they were proctored by the Japanese—terms that no Allied army would have found remotely acceptable. So, I’m going to make a push against that argument, that we shouldn’t have insisted on unconditional surrender, because I think I have to do that. If the Japanese were ready to surrender, then we should have probably given them acceptable terms to do so. They weren’t ready to surrender. I think Versailles taught us that it’s a grace to help an enemy know when they’ve been defeated. In order to help them know they’ve been defeated, you’ve got to defeat them. So, I think it was right to fight the war to be won. So that’s part of the first historic argument.

I’m going to make another argument, in which I will entertain the idea that we ought to have preserved and signaled the preservation of the emperor. I’m going to push against that. I’m going to ask us, “Why on God’s green earth we would have signaled to the Japanese that we were going to preserve the emperor?” We might have done so, as we obviously did, but I see no grounds for proclaiming that from the beginning. We needed to understand answers to certain questions about the emperor. What did he know about Japanese atrocities in places like China? What was his role in in prompting a war of aggression? People forget that the war was popularly supported, that at no point prior to August of 1945 did the emperor, in any way, with any kind of conviction, oppose the war or demand peace. We would never have allowed the Germans to retain the Reich prior to surrender. So why would we allow the Japanese, out of hand?

STRAND: Let me stop you right there. So, I think that’s an important point you just raised. So, the just war tradition would say something like—well this gets the question of the moral equality of soldiers—but also, in regular warfare, we assume both sides, in a way, believe they’re fighting for a just cause. So, that is why, when we fight, we fight according to jus in bello rules. Which is, we use proportionality, discrimination, and so forth. It seems to me that—and this sounds like what you’re saying here—that there is something to the character of the Japanese that required the nature of the regime itself—and we’re not talking about the people here; we’re talking about the moral evil that was embodied in the Japanese empire, something that we don’t talk about a whole lot. It’s easy to talk about Hitler and the Nazis, but the Japanese seem to be viewed as sort of, “Well, they’re authoritarian, but they weren’t like the Nazis or anything.” How does that change the argument, because that’s an important point I think, touching on it.

LIVECCHE: It’s a good question and Anscombe does exactly what you suggest. She says at some point—this isn’t a verbatim quote—but she says something like, “It’s not as if the Japanese are the Nazis.” Now, I don’t know how you say that in Mandarin, but it would not sound good, because the Chinese don’t believe that.

STRAND: No, they don’t.

LIVECCHE: Yeah, the nature of the regime matters. It would have been wrong for England to have nuked Argentina during the Falklands War. The stakes weren’t that high. The Argentinians weren’t fighting in the way that the Japanese fought across the Pacific. Certain regimes need to be defeated. They need to be crushed. They need the life kicked out of them, both for the sake of those they are oppressing, and for their own sake.

There’s this stirring story—I’m going to butcher the name again and Nigel Biggar will have to forgive me—but Nigel Biggar, our friend, the just war ethicist in Oxford, has a hero from Germany named Moltke, and Moltke hosted the groups that talked about the overthrow and the assassination of Adolf Hitler. He hosted Bonhoeffer in his home. But he always refused to join the attempted assassination of Hitler. And the reason he gave, is he didn’t want Hitler simply killed and for the Germans to be able to simply stand down. He believed that what had happened to the German people was so God-awful, and it was poisonous to them—because we can’t forget, Hitler was voted in—that they needed it crushed out of them. The Germans needed to know that what they had done was so morally abhorrent that they needed it crushed out of them. They needed to feel the weight of what they had done. I think the same thing needs to be said about the Japanese regime. The war against China in the early 1930s was popularly supported. The Japanese people celebrated the attack on Pearl Harbor—not to a person, and of course the baby in Hiroshima didn’t celebrate it, on and on, we know that. But the nature of the regime matters. And one of the just war tenets is the importance of sovereignty. And sovereignty matters. And the decisions of sovereigns rain down upon their people, for good and for ill. And that has to be factored in. The Japanese regime needed to be ended. It needed to be crushed. It would have been immoral to allow them to have kept any of the territory they acquired. So yeah, regime matters.

STRAND: So, let’s take up the strongest objection to any sort of defense of the bombing, which is going to be the lack of discrimination. So, in just war, you have two primary principles in what’s called jus in bello. When you’re engaging in warfare, war is just, it’s sanctioned, it’s right cause, right intention, proper authority. But when you’re engaged in war, there’s two primary guidelines, which are that one should use proportion, both at a big strategic level and in actual war fighting, and the shooting, and the actual operations, and that one ought to use discrimination, and that’s between guilty and non-guilty. And so, the big criticism that you hear over and over again—let me pose two things. How is this not just lack of discrimination of just targeting civilians? And then let me also allow you to then also—because this is tied to the objection which is that this argument is basically just about defeating the Japanese by any means necessary. So, it’s also tied to this criticism that this is consequentialist thinking. For those who don’t know, consequentialism is just ends justify means. The end of defeating this—okay let’s grant the position the Japanese were on par with the Nazis. And both you and I would argue that. People might disagree, but that would be our position. That any ends to defeat that regime should be acceptable. And the argument is that that’s just thinking about consequences, and so you’re stepping outside of the just war tradition which has norms, which has rules that are going to constrain your active warfare. So why don’t you hit both of those on the head for us.

LIVECCHE: Right. And again, turning to the Anscombe article that she wrote opposing the awarding of the honorary degree to Truman, she says exactly that. She’s says if Hiroshima, then why not the prospect of, “If we just boil a baby, and some enormous good for a great number of people will occur, then you just boil the baby, right?” Because she thinks that’s equivalent thinking. For the record, no matter what enormous good might somehow magically emerge from the boiling of a baby, we shouldn’t boil babies, period. Ever. So, it’s not like thinking. Consequentialism is rightly disdained when the consequentialists would argue that the boiling of a baby, if it yields a great good, is worth doing. Of course, it’s not. But just because consequentialism of that kind is wrong, it doesn’t mean that we ignore consequences completely. And when you can compare like things with like things, it seems to me reasonable to be able to stand back and to say okay, if by a general comparison of like things we can promote a greater good versus a greater amount of evil, well probably in most circumstances we should pursue the greater good. So, you look at this question of discrimination. Elizabeth Anscombe insists that one should not intentionally kill the innocent. Now in the book, I’m going to take on almost every component of that phrase. I’m going to challenge the notion that we intentionally killed the innocent there. We may have directly killed them. We recognized that by dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, innocent people would die. That’s a given. But to suggest that we intentionally killed them, I think adds in—and this is drawing on some of Nigel Biggar’s work from In Defense of War, his book—intention, in the way that Elizabeth Anscombe means it, means an act of desire for the thing itself. I think it’s untrue that we actively desired the slaughter of those innocent people as an end in and of itself. I’m not even quite sure I’d push against a strong assertion that we even used them as a means to an end. Hiroshima wasn’t targeted because it had a large number of innocent people. In fact, the targeting list had a number of cities with a higher population than Hiroshima. We could have hit those if we were really after the slaughter of the innocent. We didn’t. Hiroshima was targeted because the infrastructure of the city was largely intact. It had been left off most or all bombing runs; it had never been touched. And so, in terms of being able to demonstrate to the Japanese authorities the power of the nuclear bomb, they wanted a city that was largely intact. Now, such a city is inevitably going to be full of innocent people. But that wasn’t the specific intent. That’s part one.

And then part two. Yes, we should avoid the killing of innocent people all that we can. Now you have to ask yourself, which innocent people? There are innocent people in Hiroshima, that’s true. But those US Marines that are getting ready to storm the island—I push against the assertion that they are simply targetable in ways that the people in Hiroshima are not targetable. They’re not simply US Marines. They’re shopkeepers, they’re fathers, they’re sons, they’re brothers, they’re husbands. The vast majority of them, if they’re conscripts, they were never Marines prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. If they’re volunteers post Pearl Harbor, the only reason they volunteered was a war of aggression was visited against our nation unjustly. This over-easy insistence that Anscombe makes between, as you put it, the innocent and the guilty, and the way that she recasts that, is to say combatants and non-combatants, those who mean harm and those who don’t mean harm, I think that’s an over-easy distinction. I think it’s more complicated than that. American conscripts and post-Pearl Harbor volunteers are not simply targetable combatants. At the same time, one forgets the Japanese conscripts themselves. They’re not simply targetable combatants in a way that other Japanese aren’t, just to be killed whole cloth. The dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima saved Japanese conscripts who would have been killed in the hundreds of thousands in a land invasion.

Further, and often unstated—and Miscamble brings this up poignantly—are the innocent lives throughout Japanese occupied lands who are dying by the hundreds of thousands, even in the late summer of 1945. And some of the numbers there are macabre. So, you’ve got innocent civilians throughout Japanese occupied lands dying of starvation, in the waning years, months, or days of the war. You’ve got innocent Japanese civilians who would have been killed in a land invasion. There was this universal conscription of every able-bodied Japanese to fight and resist the American invasion. And if we think that they wouldn’t have done this as civilians then we need to look at Saipan and we need to look at Okinawa. And we need to remember that a lot of the civilian deaths on both those islands were civilian conscripts. They died fighting, conscripted by the Japanese military. So, my position is very simple: If you want to save innocent lives, you drop the bomb on Hiroshima. And I don’t think that’s consequentialism.

STRAND: Yeah. Well that’s a lot for us to think about. And we will return to these questions in our next episode. We’re not going to move on. This episode was designed really for Marc to lay out his moral argument for us to at least raise some objections, and then next time we’ll get into more of a back and forth. So, Marc, is there anything in closing that you want to add?

LIVECCHE: There is one thing. And this is the thing that’s the sort of the thorn in both our sides when we have these kinds of conversations. We’ve acknowledged—I’ve been at pains to acknowledge, and I should have acknowledged it even more strenuously, because it’s true, that the dropping of that bomb was a God awful, horrible thing. That’s true. Every alternative to the dropping of that bomb was equally, and we would argue more, God-awful and abhorrent. And for those who argue against the dropping of the bomb, they need to accept the duty, which many of them will explicitly refuse the duty, to name the acceptable alternative. Innocent people were going to die. The question is which ones and how many? The naval blockade, the land invasion, the continuation of the obliteration bombing. Pick your alternative. Every single one of them would have resulted in far more deaths of the innocent than the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we have to take that into account.

The push against this is going to be that we can only be responsible for the evil that we do, not for the evil that we somehow allow to be done. I think that is a moral dodge. I just do. And this gestures to the need for proportionality. We can look at what the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are going to result in, in terms of death, but we can also project, with reason, the numbers of deaths in any of the alternatives. And when the evils that we can foresee as being highly likely are disproportionately vaster than the evils that we know might happen and what we’re going to do, then I think an argument for proportionality can be made as well. I think the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were proportionate and discriminate.

STRAND: Yeah, I think just in closing I’ll add—thanks Marc, this is a great conversation. I think Marc and I are both, we could say broadly, Christian realists, in the sense that what he touched on here in his closing remarks really I think is a conviction we both hold, and I think that many Christian realists hold, which is the failure to enunciate a policy outside of you critiquing the bombing, to me is just an utter failure. You have to say what you should do otherwise. And like you said, it’s a dodge. But you’ve got to put yourself in the position, in the politician’s shoes, in the military planner’s shoes, and the admiral’s shoes. And if you’re the just warrior, you have to say, “Don’t do this; do this.” And so, I think that’s also a powerful point that you’re making there.

LIVECCHE: And we don’t have to be military experts. The alternatives have already been laid out by the historians. They’re all there. We can critique them just as surely as we can critique the bombings.

STRAND: All right, that is as a wrap on our second episode. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you Marc for…

LIVECCHE: Thank you Dan.

STRAND: …your eloquence and your insight. And we will see you again in our next episode, where we will pick this question up again and probe it further. We got into the weeds a little bit today, but we hopefully will bring home the importance and sort of bring out the moral disagreements here in a way that’s constructive. So, thank you for joining us, and we will see you next time.

LIVECCHE: Take care.