Was it Necessary to use the Atomic Bomb?

In a recent post I suggested that we should perhaps pray for the conversion of America, in part as a way of reminding ourselves that being Catholic and being American are not exactly the same thing.  Nor, for that matter, are they equal things.  That is, for a faithful Catholic, Catholic identity must be more fundamental than national identity, even though the claims of patriotism are real and should be given their due.  As Josh Mercer’s thought-provoking post shows, the tension between being a Catholic and being an American shows itself with special force in relation to the question whether it was morally justifiable for America to use the atomic bomb against Japan in World War II.  On the one hand, such an action looks pretty questionable on traditional Catholic standards governing just warfare.  On the other hand, if doing it was wrong, it was not just wrong but very egregious, so patriotic Americans (even serious Catholics) resist the view that it was wrong.

Defenses of the American use of the bomb usually take the form of an appeal to necessity.  It was necessary to use the bomb, defenders of that action say, because it saved more lives than it took.  The alternative was to invade the Japanese home islands, which American military planners thought would cost huge numbers of both American and Japanese lives–losses that would dwarf those caused by the atomic bombings.


But in what sense does this argument appeal to necessity?  Or, was the necessity actually a genuine one?  Using the bomb is said to be necessary to prevent the deaths that would come from invading the home islands.  But this just moves us to the question: why was it necessary to invade the home islands?  This became a “necessity”–in, it must be admitted, a rather loose sense–because of the allied powers’ decision to demand the unconditional surrender of Japan as a condition of peace.  In other words, the allies decided not just to defeat Japan but to make it submit absolutely.  But was such an aim a necessity?

If we want to think about that question with some objectivity, in a way that rises above mere patriotic self-justification, we would need to ask if we would think it a necessity in different context, perhaps where the roles were reversed.  For example, in the 19th century the United States got into a war with Mexico.  Suppose that instead of emerging victorious, the war had gone badly for the United States.  Suppose the Mexicans succeeded in driving out the American Army, but also decided that that was not sufficient.  Suppose they made it their policy to seek the unconditional surrender of the United States, and were willing to invade it to implement that policy.  Would we regard such a conquest as a necessity of war?  And if the Mexicans thought they could make us submit with less bloodshed by burning to the ground whole cities in Texas, with their populations, would we accept that as an act of necessity?  I don’t think so.

This analogy is admittedly imperfect.  The American government of the early 19th century was flawed, but the Japanese government of the 1930s and 1940s was far worse.  It was authoritarian, militaristic, aggressive, and had shown itself brutally indifferent to human life.  Maybe in light of its egregiousness the allied leaders thought it was important to not just defeat but to destroy and replace such a regime.  Hence the decision to adopt a policy of unconditional surrender.

But we are under an obligation to think carefully and critically about these matters–about whether such a policy was morally defensible, especially if it required either a bloody extension of the war, or the indiscriminate killing associated with atomic warfare as the supposedly humane and moderate alternative–because such thinking is essential to our ability to make reasoned and ethical judgments about similar matters in future wars that may come.


Categories:Politics Pro-Life

  • Caleb

    Would love to hear Kengor’s thoughts!

  • Everett

    Everyone who thinks that the use of the atomic bomb was moral clearly doesn’t understand the Church’s teachings on just war or on the principle of double effect.

    In Catholic teaching it is NEVER permissible to intentionally do evil, even if good might come out of it. The intentional killing of innocent human beings is ALWAYS evil.

    Collateral damage is an unfortunate reality of war, and in such cases it’s possible to debate whether more good was gained. However, collateral damage means that the damage to the innocent was unintentional. This wasn’t unintentional, this was intentional.

    This was the most evil single act the United States Government has committed in its entire history. (Yes, there are lots of other evil things the US has participated in, but they tend to be over time, such as abortion, etc)

    • Ron

      Perhaps the Church’s teachings, at least as you understand those teachings, are not accurate. Many people, very ethical people, consider the use of atomic weapons against Japan as one of the most humanitarian actions ever taken. Those weapons were used not with the intent of killing civilians but rather to end a very destructive war. Perhaps it’s time to think outside of the box.

      • Everett

        That’s straight up principle of double effect, which comes right out of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is never permissible to perform an action that is directly evil (the killing of innocent lives). Good may not be done out of something that is evil in and of of itself. It doesn’t matter if dropping the bomb saved more lives than it cost, as that’s besides the point. There are no circumstances in Catholic teaching where one may intentionally do something that is evil and have it be good. Just because God can bring good out of evil, like the ending of the war, doesn’t mean that the action was good itself.

        The idea that the US didn’t “intend” to kill the civilians, but just accidentally killed them as a side effect doesn’t work. Civilians dying wasn’t a side effect of the atom bombs, it was the direct effect, with ending the war the side effect.

        • Ron

          You have cause and effect backwards.

  • Panda Rosa

    It’s still a question of what will end the war. Atomic weaponry may have been barbaric, but dragging out the battles, with casualties entering the millions, is no better. It’s a devil’s choice.

  • Ron

    In my opinion, the decision to use atomic bombs against Japan was a courageous humanitarian act and must have been one of the most diffcult decisions ever made by ethical human beings. Millions of lives were saved and a savage military was ended.

  • Luke

    To be fair, the Allies decided early in 1942 (early enough that defeat was a serious possibility) to accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of Germany and her allies. The conditions surrounding the use of the a-bomb are pretty complex, more so than many might realize.

    One good thing did come from it, though. Of the many “never agains” that came from WWII was the realization that the power wielded behind atomic, and then nuclear, weapons was far too great to unleash. Its conceivable that w/o Hiroshima, the Korean War goes atomic. Quite scary

    • Ron

      Luke, great points. It’s also possible that the Cuban Missile Crisis might have gone atomic if not for Hiroshima. Sometimes very ethical people must make very heroic and profound decisions that ultimately lead to saving the human race from destroying itself.

  • Ron

    What makes you think that we, as Americans, do not think these things through and why is your post even relevant? Josh Mercer’s post brought out some very interesting responses. Did you read them?



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