A Debate Among Catholics Over America’s Use of the Atom Bomb

Last week Josh Mercer reminded us of the tension (to put it mildly) between the traditional Catholic understanding of just warfare and America’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan during WWII.  This prompted me to revisit some of the various statements made on this question by various Catholic authors.  Here are some of the more interesting brief ones that I know about, for those who wish to think about this matter further.

Back in the 1950s the English Catholic philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe wrote against the use of nuclear weapons in WWII and condemned the allied policy of unconditional surrender, which she thought contributed to the ferocity of the warfare that was waged.  Her article is available online here.


Recently, Fr. Wilson Miscamble has written a book in defense of Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Philosopher Christopher Tollefsen wrote a critical review of it (available here), arguing that the bombings were violations of the absolute moral prohibition on deliberately killing the innocent.

Here is a positive review of Fr. Miscamble’s book by Fr. Michael Orsi, in which he defends Miscamble’s defense of Truman.  And here is Fr. Miscamble’s response to Tollefsen’s critique.

Finally, here is Christopher Tollefsen’s rejoinder.



Categories:Culture Pro-Life

  • Everett

    There’s no such thing as “not used to kill innocent people although many innocent people were killed” in this case. The PRIMARY, direct, immediate effect of the bomb was the killing of many innocent people. The SECONDARY, indirect, delayed effect was the ending of the war. If the primary effect/result of any action is evil, then the whole action is evil. This isn’t like bombing a military base, and then unfortunately killing a few civilians, or like removing a portion of the fallopian tube in an ectopic pregnancy, which unfortunately results in the death of the child.

    The death of those civilians was not some unfortunate side effect of dropping the bomb, it was the actual effect of dropping the bomb.

    • Ron

      The effect of using the bomb was the killing of many innocent people. The cause (reason) of using the bomb was to end a war that would have killed many millions of people: and it did end that war. You keep ignoring the reasoning that caused those bombs to be used.

      • Everett

        That’s my entire point, using the “reasoning” as the sole factor of determining morality is called consequentialism, and its a terrible moral philosophy. It focuses only on the intent, and not on the act. If the act is evil, it doesn’t matter if the intent was good.

        This is straight out of the catechism: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a4.htm

        “1759 “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means. “

        • Ron

          If the intent is ethical, the action can never be evil. You’re using the consequence of an ethical action to determine if the ethical action is evil. An ethical action is never evil. An ethical action can have very negative results but that never makes the ethical action immoral or evil. Ethical is ethical. Look up its definition.

          • Ron

            Everett: definition of ethical: “The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice. If, for example, there is the threat of physical conflict and one has no other solution, it is acceptable to cause the necessary extent of injury, out of self-defence. Thus ethics does not provide rules like morals but it can be used as a means to determine moral values.”

          • Everett

            Hadn’t noticed the response, but hopefully this is still being read. You’re using a definition of ethical that is contrary to the definition of morality used by the Church. I’m not sure where you’re quoting from, but I’m quoting from the Catechism and St. Thomas Aquinas, which makes it very clear that morality involves both intent AND action, and that you don’t get to choose only the part that is convenient while leaving out the other part.

  • Ron

    After reviewing all of the readings you mentioned, and I thank you for doing so, I still believe the use of atomic bombs against the Japanese was a heroic and humanitarian action. The intent of the use of the bombs was to end a war against a terrorist military and was not used to kill innocent people although many innocent people were killed. It was not a “might is right” action and it was not an “eye for an eye” action. I believe Catholic doctrine supports the decision.

  • Medical Student

    Miscamble is a historian, not a philosopher. When his work goes from history to philosophy (ie defending Truman rather than simply describing what he did) he becomes misguided.



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